YIMC Book Club, “Orthodoxy,” Chapter 7

Posted by Webster 
This is my favorite chapter in the book, partly because it highlights two things that are important to me, even if they are often opposed: levity and marriage. Let me begin with levity and end with marriage.

Chapter 7, “The Eternal Revolution”
Anyone who has ever been a stage actor, as I was in my youth and still am in both my dreams and my nightmares, knows that no truer words were ever written:  

Pride is the downward drag of all things into an easy solemnity. One “settles down” into a sort of selfish seriousness; but one has to rise to a gay self-forgetfulness. . . . It is much easier to write a good Times leading article than a good joke in Punch. For solemnity flows out of men naturally; but laughter is a leap. It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light. Satan fell by the force of gravity.

If you ever took part in a dreary high school production of Macbeth or The Death of a Salesman, as I did (I was Malcolm in the Shakespeare, the ironically named Happy in Arthur Miller’s modern tragedy), you know how easy it is to play “serious.” But have you ever tried reading a script by Molière or Neil Simon and making it funny? It’s the hardest thing in the world.

Now, how does Chesterton get here, and what the heck does this have to do with Orthodoxy, Christianity, or our obsession, Catholicism? Good question. I’m not entirely sure I can answer this cogently. So I’ll just offer a few bullet thoughts, then turn over the mic to commenters.

Continuing his tactic of defining a complete and perfect system of values—only to find that Christianity defined the system 2,000 years ago—Chesterton says that true progress or reform, which we all think we want, must be defined by three qualities:

1. There must be a fixed ideal for our final state of perfection, happiness, Utopia. The modern tendency is to change our ideals every five minutes.

2. The ideal state must be “composite,” a state in which things are in the right proportion and not all this or that. We do not want a painting that is all black or all white; we want a harmonious composition.

3. The ideal state can be reached and, especially, safeguarded only through watchfulness, vigilance. Here, two-thirds of the way through the chapter, Chesterton gives the most compelling explanation of original sin, the Fall, that I have ever read.

At the end of the chapter, Chesterton proposes Christian marriage as another element of his Utopia—one that he could have invented himself, except that Christianity already did so. The key Utopian principle defining marriage is, it matters, it’s for keeps. In one of his most beautiful paradoxes, Chesterton writes that marriage is the paramount example of a man, me, exercising “the liberty to bind myself.”

Christian marriage is the great example of a real and irrevocable result; and that is why it is the chief subject and centre of all our romantic writing. And this is my last instance of the things that I should ask, and ask imperatively, of any social paradise; I should ask to be kept to my bargain, to have my oaths and engagements taken seriously; I should ask Utopia to avenge my honour on myself.

I think I’ll go ask Katie if she’d like to go for a walk.

  • EPG

    "For solemnity flows out of men naturally; but laughter is a leap. It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light. Satan fell by the force of gravity."I also loved this passage, and it reminded me of the two quotes C.S. Lewis placed at the beginning of "The Scewtape Letters."The first, admittedly, may not be the most popular guy to quote on a Catholic website: "The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yiedl to texts of Sripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn." Martin Luther.The second, Webster will appreciate: "The devill, the prowde spirite . . . cannot endure to be mocked." Thomas More.These two, and Lewis, and Chesterton, are all reminding us that the foundation of all sins, our pride, weighs us down more than any chain anyone could devise for us. The ability to laugh, without malice, keeps us light on our feet, light in our minds, and open to little flashes of joy with which we are from time to time blessed.Which, somehow, reminds me of the apocryphal story about the great actor who was lying on his deathbed. Asked if dying was hard, he replied, yes, but not as hard as farce.

  • Warren Jewell

    Let us not forget that, like a self-entertaining child, GKC loved the idea of seeing the world upside-down while on his head. The man was full of mirthful notions, and could take nothing earthbound very 'seriously'. He found that he needed the supernatural to round out his smiles with the joy of serious regard for eternal salvation in Christ and religion with His Church.Marriage is an earthly version of the only bondage that matters – life bondage to beloved here that mirrors the eternal bondage to Christ. Even Christ saw Himself as Bridegroom to His Church, His disciples. (And, I suggest, bridemaid ladies, keeping a religious 55-gallon drum of oil available for lighting His way to His beloved. Though, I have to think that this parable incorporated Christ's sense of humor, imagining me in a bridesmaid dress. ["Whatchuguys laughin' at? See, I got my lamp!") Yet, marriage and discipleship are both two-way bonds. They are unities that take both parties come together and assenting to unite. If I in my persistent sins turn my back on Christ, as I have done too many times, He 'can't get there from here' because I chose to attempt to be out of His sight and off His path.(I know, I know – "Is he done yet? Save some com-box space for the rest of us, fella.")

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

    I'm on vacation!!!!! Dang!OK, these lines remind me of something politically in the US now:"Christianity spoke again and said: 'I have always maintained that men were naturally backsliders; that human virtue tended of its own nature to rust or to rot; I have always said that human beings as such go wrong, especially happy human beings, especially proud and prosperous human beings. This eternal revolution, this suspicion sustained through centuries, you (being a vague modern) call the doctrine of progress. If you were a philosopher you would call it, as I do, the doctrine of original sin. You may call it the cosmic advance as much as you like; I call it what it is – the Fall'…And then,"if clean homes and clean air make clean souls, why not give the power (for the present at any rate) to those who undoubtedly have the clean air…the comfortable class must be merely our vanguard in Utopia."And would I be far-off to say that this is "dead-on" for the latest Gilded Age implosion?"For the whole modern world is absolutely based on the assumption, not that the rich are necessary (which is tenable) but that the rich are trustworthy, which (for the Christian) is not tenable.Sheesh!

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

    And we must find the one man who knows he can't rule and crown him. "Nolo episcopari".