YIMC Book Club, “Orthodoxy,” Chapter 4

Posted by Webster 
Earlier today, I posted the current membership roll. All are welcome to join the discussion, and if new readers leave a comment, they will be added to next week’s roll. (Late breaking news: Turgonian, a student from the Netherlands with an exceptional blog, “Epigone’s Eloquence,” has joined the YIMCBC. Welcome, Turgo!)

I think we’re all finding Chesterton pretty heavy going, but I think you’ll agree that that’s more a function of his style than of his content. In each chapter, there seem to be two or three central ideas. The rest of it—the alliteration, the analogies, the endless word play—adds up to trimmings on the Chesterton family tree. That said, let me lay out a couple of basic ideas in the next chapter to get the discussion started.

Chapter 4, “The Ethics of Elfland”
It’s tempting, living in 2009, to think we know more than those who lived in 209. From this side of the Enlightenment, everything prior seems like the Dark Ages, doesn’t it?

That’s one of the thoughts inspired by Chesterton’s preamble to this chapter, in which he refers to tradition as “democracy extended through time” and as “the democracy of the dead.” This is the thing that has struck me most forcibly about Catholicism, that as a member of the Catholic Church, I join ranks with the entire communion of saints. For two thousand years, women and men have been living by these principles, modeling Christ, saying the same prayers, participating in the same Eucharistic Mystery, yes, even going to confession, as my fourth-graders did yesterday. It worked for them. Why wouldn’t it work for me? Why wouldn’t the truths that have stood the test of two millennia not still be true? As I have written in another context, how did we think we were so smart all of a sudden—replacing the democracy of the dead with the aristocracy of the assinine? (I think the only way to meet Chesterton is to fight alliteration with alliteration!)

Chesterton’s ode to tradition takes up the first 15 percent, or so, of the chapter. (And in writing this, wasn’t he saying yes to the Catholic Church, founded on tradition, years before he became a Catholic himself? I think he was.) The rest of the chapter is given over to Elfland. I think others will have better comments here. I frankly got a bit lost.

I did find this passage especially good:

Every man has forgotten who he is. One may understand the cosmos, but never the ego; the self is more distant than any star. Thou shalt love the Lord thy God; but thou shalt not know thyself. We are all under the same mental calamity; we have all forgotten our names. We have all forgotten what we really are. All that we call common sense and rationality and practicality and positivism only means that for certain dead levels of our life we forget that we have forgotten. All that we call spirit and art and ecstacy only means that for one awful instant we remember that we forget. 

Like many in Chesterton, this passage gives me something to think about for a long time—at least as long as it will take others to comment on “The Ethics of Elfland.” . . .

  • Anonymous

    I enjoyed this chapter because I could follow GKC's train of thought. At least I believe I understood him.Although, he states at the end, he did not have Christianity in mind while writing this, I could see a description of heaven and our relationship. "Fairyland is nothing but the sunny country of common sense. It is not earth that judges heaven, but heaven that judges earth; so for me at least it was not earth that criticized elfland, but elfland that criticized earth." Here he is very clear in what his analogy means; that heaven is the source of morality and has the right to judge our actions. In the next paragraph he deals with ethics in elfland, "that a thing must be loved before it is lovable" and , "the humble shall be exalted" . All themes found in fairytales, themes that may or may not be found in today's TV shows and movies. My understanding of the section you liked Webster, is that we have forgotten the meaning of life, our reason for being – to be in a relationship with God. We test and measure the cosmos. We investigate spiritualities. All this in an attempt to answer, "Why are we here?" Later in the chapter GKC talks about the Doctrine of Conditional Joy. "You may have this 'if' you do not do that." For man, there are certain limitations (commandments of God) that must be obeyed in order for man to truly experience joy. Love God with your whole heart, body, strength, mind and soul. Secondly, love your neighbor. And going back to your favorite section, "spirit and art and ecstasy" where we remember what we have forgotten, our moments of joy is in the relationship with God.Sincerely,Mary R

  • Webster Bull

    Thanks, Mary. This helps me understand better, and I'm looking forward to other comments about the notion of Elfland in particular. I think one of my problems is that I keep mentally associating the notion of Elfland with books I read back in my "wilderness years" by psychologists James Hillman and his lesser brother Thomas Moore (two o's). I still think Hillman is probably the most interesting psychologist in the lay 20th-century line stemming from Freud and Jung. Moore has a book "The Reenchantment of Everyday Life," the title of which summarizes one of his points and Hillman's: that we have lost contact with (call it) "magic" in our perception of the world. Hillman and Moore wrote from primarily a Jungian perspective, not a Christian one particularly. Theirs is still an important perspective for me but I think it gets in my way of appreciating Chesterton more fully as the chapter wanders through Elfland.

  • EPG

    A couple of things on the Ethics of Elfland, in addition to, and not in any way contradicting, the post above. Chesterton is also reminding us that in faeri stories, something amazing may always be in store, and suggesting to us that we must remember that the world as it is is in fact amazing. He attacks the mechanistic determinism by which we infer "laws" of nature that explain everything, and argues, that, in so doing, we may be missing the boat.In attacking the notion that we have discovered natural laws by observing correlations of events, he actually echoes David Hume's philosophy. But while Hume seems to settle for a bemused indifference (my memory may be faulty, it's been 25 years since I've read him), Chesterton argues for wonder and amazement. (It might be interesting to compare this part of the chapter to C.S. Lewis's book, "Miracles.")As the chapter continues, it also appears that this sense of wonder should also prompt in us a respect for the boundaries inherent in our ability to enjoy creation.I recently had a conversation on a plane with a man who asserted a militant atheism. He was from Kentucky, and many of his family members were literalists/fundamentalists. He articulated an objection to the doctrine of the fall. He questioned whether a good and loving God would give us so much in the Garden, and place that one thing off limits, which, if taken in disobedience to God’s command, brings it all crashing down. Chesterton provides an answer. Why rail about the fences in the Garden? Why should there be a Garden at all? Why should you exist at all? Why not be grateful that sex within marriage exists, instead of railing about the proper limits and scope of human sexuality? Why should Cinderella complain that she must leave the ball at midnight, when she might never have been at the ball at all?I do like Chesterton’s sentiments about the relationship between happiness and gratitude. The sentiment expressed by Chesterton in this chapter finds an echo in this prayer from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, in the order for Holy Baptism. After the candidate is baptized, a prayer is offered, which includes a petition, asking God to “give them an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works.” In this chapter, GKC is reminding us of the power of that joy and wonder, and that the ability to experience joy and wonder is indeed a gift.Webster — I think that Chesterton's conception of Elfland may have much in common with the writings of George MacDonald, who wrote a number of faerie stories, which I know had a profound influence on C.S. Lewis (as Chesterton also did). MacDonald's work is suffused with Christian thought (and he is definitely pre-Jungian).(BTW, I am glad to say that the trial in which I was to be involved did not go forward, as we were not able to secure a jury — I now get to enjoy the lead up to Christmas, and rejoin the book club earlier than planned)

  • Webster Bull

    EPG, Welcome back and thanks for your erudite comments. It all leads me to think that as the book club moves forward beyond Chesterton we ought to have others leading the discussion. (I have a candidate in mind!)It's good for me to be reminded of the beauty of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, written by Englishmen for an English speaking church. The revised Catholic liturgy down on us right now is of concern to many people: too Latin in its leanings, with phrasings strange or strained to the English/American ear. I just read the latest outcry yesterday in America magazine. It concerns me. As it does every time I hear the 23rd psalm read in my church, and we come to "Fresh and green are the pastures where he gives me repose. . . " Henry VIII can burn in hell, Elizabeth I too, for all I care, but give me King James, give me his Bible!! I will look up George MacDonald.

  • EPG

    Thank you WebsterI wish I could claim to be erudite [grin]. I am afraid I that I have read widely, but not deeply, and know a little bit about a lot of different things. However, the best thing about my education was that I graduated realizing that I did not know a thing. I try (as time allows) to fill in the gaps.As for the King James Bible, well, without it and Shakespeare, the English language would not be what it is today, and the BCP is only slightly less important in that regard . . . I would hope that English speaking Catholics, Anglicans, Orthodox and Protestants could all agree on that (grin) . . .

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01819831282677092730 Frank

    Why I love Chesterton…"It is quite easy to see why a legend is treated, and ought to be treated, more respectfully than a book of history.The legend is generally made by the majority of people in the village, who are sane.The book is generally written by the one man in the village who is mad(whether GKC means angry or insane, this still works).Those who urge against tradition that men in the past were ignorant may go and urge it at the Carlton Club, along with the statement that voters in the slums are ignorant.It will not do for us."Break his paragraphs down by sentence sometimes helps.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01819831282677092730 Frank

    And this: "Tradition may be defined as an extension of the franchise."GKC means the "right to vote", not a Taco Bell franchise. But you all probably know that. ;-)