The Dreary Pursuit of Pleasure and the Joyful Pursuit of Truth
Chesterton, along with C.S. Lewis, is of course one of the more enduringly popular Christian apologists. Back in 2007 we devoted a long-forgotten series of posts to his Orthodoxy (1908), which was actually written prior to his being received into the Church. The Everlasting Man (1925) is a post-conversion meditation on some of the same themes.
I find that Chesterton's style of writing takes some getting used to. He is definitely not the most organized thinker, let alone systematic, nor is he concise.
The word "sprawling" comes to mind. Undisciplined. At times we see a kind of back-and-forth between insipid intellectual laziness and inspired poetic energy that sends sparks flying from the page. It almost reads as if it were dictated during a manic episode and then not edited.
A typical paragraph fills a whole page, and he throws in all sorts of then-contemporary references that make no sense to us now, often as targets of good-natured opprobrium. He easily veers into irrelevant tangents, nor can he resist the most formulaic wordplay and cringe-making puns. Furthermore, being that he is essentially a journalist, he has no particular qualifications to bloviate on matters that are best left to highly trained philosophers, theologians, scientists, and metaphysicians.
In short, this man is a Raccoon!
I immediately thought of him this morning when reading this awful story about some goofy kids in Iran being whipped and imprisoned for being goofy kids and having fun. Can you imagine?
No, you cannot. Why? Because you have been Christianized in a civilization that has been slowly leavened by Christian joy for the past two millennia. Indeed, the joylessness of the mullahs resembles nothing so much as the dreadful joylessness of the spiritual gulag of leftism. Neither permits real joy. Where the left differs from Islam is that it not only permits but encourages the joyless pursuit of pleasure, i.e., the daily grind of the hedonic treadmill.
Also, the left won't whip you (yet) for being politically incorrect, just ruin your reputation and career: "Authorities arrested the group for contravening Iran’s strict vulgarity laws, which prohibit public displays of dancing.... The Islamic Republic condemned the video as a 'vulgar clip which hurt public chastity,'" and "the whole group was told they would receive 91 lashes each."
I checked out the video, and it is interesting how their dancing is so charmingly awkward and stiff -- as if they have just been incarnated and are getting used to having bodies. It reminds me of a story I read about 15 years ago, about special classes in Japan where they teach people how to smile.
Now, the music to which they are dancing is African American, and such music could only have arisen in America. The song is quite overtly retro, and sounds like an unreleased Curtis Mayfield tune from the early '70s (Prof. Wiki agrees), back when black music was still joyously liberating instead of angry, repulsive, and animalistic.
The reason why their music was joyous was because it was again leavened with Christian joy. After all, a hundred years ago blacks had much more reason to be miserable than they do today, and yet, that is when gospel music emerged and thrived. You'd think they would have been be as morose as the mullahs, but gospel is the very sound of joy, and virtually all the classic soul singers of the 1960s and '70s were trained in the church (not to mention all of the early fathers of rock, e.g., Elvis, Jerry Lee, Johnny Cash; rock only starts becoming palpably dark in the late 1960s, after being hijacked as the primary means of expression for the cultural left).
After all, Christianity (we're going to leave Judaism to the side, because it is a special case) is quite literally the original liberalism -- liberality of mind, of heart, and of body. This is precisely what set it apart in the ancient world: what in the name of Zeus are these people so damn happy about?
Now, this is not to say that the history of Christianity doesn't reveal the gradual encrustation and suppression of this primordial joy -- after all, we're talking about humans here -- but the joy always breaks through and returns, because that is what Christianity is, essentially. Good news, right? Few writers more effectively convey the sober silliness of this truth than Chesterton.
St. Thomas was, for example, "one of the great liberators of the human intellect." This cannot be emphasized enough, because virtually all the competing philosophies of modernity are enslaving, not liberating. Starting with Descartes and Kant on down, most modern philosophies condemn us to a prison of neurology, or linguistics, or economics, or race, or power, or the unconscious, or what have you. We descend from "the truth sets you free" to "there is no truth, and you're not free to discover it anyway."
Thomas says NO: that you are -- at least potentially -- liberated into the real world, which is both beautiful and intelligible, the very ladder with which we may reascend to the Creator. He brings the good intellectual news that "the senses [are] the windows of the soul and that the reason [has] a divine right to feed upon facts..." It is Thomas who teaches "that Reason can be trusted," whereas "it was the very life of Lutheran teaching that Reason is utterly untrustworthy."
Thus we see a hidden and unappreciated link between this latter tradition and any other modern or postmodern philosophy which denies man the intrinsic right to know What the Hell is Basically Going On. Not the details per se, but just the possibility.
As we have rhetorically asked in the past, why on earth are the people who so denigrate humans called humanists? Thomas and his ilk are the ultimate humanists, in that they insist "on the immense importance of the human being in the theological scheme of things." And when we say "human being," we again mean in all dimensions, body, soul, and intellect. You might say that the body is entitled to joy for the same reason the intellect is entitled to truth and the soul to beauty. God did not create us to starve in a prison of matter or a desert of quantity.
Indeed, "a Christian means a man who believes that deity or sanctity has attached to matter or entered the world of the senses." Thus, the Christian Raccoon is literally the most materialistic of all, just as he is the most humanistic. If Christ is "the miraculous medium between heaven and earth," then matter is infused with the highest principle. Every good scientist knows this, and yet, places an arbitrary limit on his own mind, or sets up a roadblock at the outskirts of logic.
Chesterton's pal Belloc says much the same thing, that "delight in existence itself" is "the highest mark of sanity and and reality." The ephemeral is always bisected by the permanent, and our task is to recognize this perpetual crossroads and know that I AM. It's why we call it The Vertical Church of What's Happening Now.