Wednesday, June 2, 2010

More on Chesterton and Disappointment

Having read Orthodoxy, and being most of the way through Heretics, I find myself more and more puzzled why Chesterton is believed by some at least to be a profound thinker.  He was certainly clever and could be witty, but if these particular books are any indication his was not a rigorous mind, and his treatment of positions he opposed seems breezy and even careless. 

His sentences are almost all declarative.  He states; he neither argues nor explains.  Rhetorically, he seems to have been something of a one-trick-pony.  He sets forth an idea or makes a statement, and then, thoughtfully, repeats it--at least three times, in my experience--for our benefit but in different ways.  This becomes grating.  Reading him is somewhat like listening to a speech by the Reverend Jesse Jackson.

I find myself sympathizing with his view that ancient paganism was misunderstood and romaticized by many.  I think he is correct in maintaining that the pagans of the west were not the joyous, care-free exponents of life they were made out to be by some, and that they were in certain respects more sensible than we are today.  His belief that we are unable to be as sensible as they were, though, stikes me as odd, and his claim that we cannot be because of Christianity seems even odder.  He appears to maintain that there was no real joy in life until Christianity arrived on the scene, and that since its arrival and because of it we can now, finally, be joyous; in fact, we are or at least should be so joyous that we cannot be sensible.  As usual, he doesn't bother to explain this view in anything resembling detail.  An example or two would be useful.  In all honesty, the Church I grew up in was not particularly fun-loving.  And, Christ as portrayed in the Gospels can be described in many different ways, but "jolly" isn't one of them.  When the Church began to preach Happy Jesus, as it were, in the 1960s instead of fiendishly-tortured-and-killed-because-of-our-sins Jesus, it was hard not to think that it was engaged in some kind of involved practical joke. 

I know monks and priests were often described by some authors in the past as being roguish and delighting in drink and women, but I suspect this isn't the sort of thing Chesteron intends to reference in his claim that Christians are a much happier group generally than non-Christians.  Just what he intends is unclear.  He contrasts what he claims are pagan virtues, such as justice, with what he claims are Christian virtues which turn out to be, unsurprisingly, faith, hope and charity.  His description of these Christian virtues, however, is rather extreme.  Christian hope is a hope which exists only when things are hopeless; Christian charity is foregiveness of that which cannot be foregiven.  Pagans, apparently, were too sensible to go to such extremes.  I think I must be as well.

Reading him, I can't help but get the feeling that he felt he was writing only for other Chestertons, or at least for those he believed would know already what he sought to convey.  It's difficult to otherwise understand such a cavalier approach to disputation.  This doesn't make much sense, though, in one who felt he was engaged in a contest with the increasing popularity of materialistic modernism, and one expects more from him--at least, I do.

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