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Chesterton on Thomism

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In a famous passage, G.K. Chesterton described the philosophy of medieval Catholicism as the common sense of the human race, the philosophy to which we all tend when we aren't poisoned by ... any of the alternatives.

"Since the modern world began in the sixteenth century, nobody's system of philosophy has really corresponded to everybody's sense of reality: to what, if left to themselves, common men would call common sense. Each started with a paradox; a peculiar point of view demanding the sacrifice of what they would call a sane point of view. That is the one thing common to Hobbes and Hegel, to Kant and Bergson, to Berkeley and William James. A man had to believe something that no normal man would believe, if it were suddenly propounded to his simplicity: as that law is above right, or right is outside reason, or things are only as we think them, or everything is relative to a reality that is not there. The modern philosopher claims, like a sort of confidence man, that if once we will grant him this, the rest will be easy: he will straighten out the world, if once he is allowed to give this one twist to the mind."

One of the things that bugs me about this passage is the disparity in the two lists. There is first a list of the six philosophers that Chesterton proposes to use as foils. They are each given as proper names.  Then there is a list of various "abnormal things" that they propound, creating a sense that the latter list is the same as the former: those philosophers propound these abnormal views. 

But that can't be the case, because there are only four abnormal opinions listed, after the list of six proper names. So either the lists aren't as closely related as the organization of the paragraph suggests, or two of the philosophers have been unceremoniously dropped. 

My best guess is that Hegel and Bergson have been implicitly dropped. The "law is above right" sounds like a more-or-less fair reading of Hobbes' view of the social contract. My guess is that the phrase "right is outside reason" is a reference to Kant's distinction between the noumenal and the (rationally comprehensible) phenomenal. 

Here though we've begun to go off the rails, for to no one familiar with Kant will that seem quite right. Indeed, Chesterton seems to be playing on two meanings of the word "right" here. The word can be used in English to mean either "an accurate description of reality" or "what a person ought to do." For Kant, there is a sense in which descriptively right is outside reason, but no sense at all in which prescriptively right is outside reason. 

Meanwhile, as I read the passage, Bergson like Hegel is forgotten when the second list comes along, and the third and fourth terms of the shorter list are fairly common jibes against Berkeley and James respectively.

Why were Hegel and Bergson introduced at all if they were going to be so summarily dropped?  

Separately, there is something peculiar about the list chronologically. Hobbes is the oldest figure there and is he only one cited for a social/political point.  Then comes Berkeley (18th), Kant (late 18th), Hegel (19th). James and Bergson were contemporaries of GKC himself.   

Why is this peculiar? Put together some pieces here: GKC's overall emphasis in this passage is metaphysical/epistemological. He is talking about what the world is and how we know it. The "sense of reality" and -- in a couple more paragraphs-- the simple proposition that an egg is an egg.  Hobbes is the only thinker here who is best known not for such fundamentals but for a social/political argument. and indeed if GKC refers back to him with the phrase "law is above right" then Hobbes got onto this list precisely for that political argument. which makes him rather an odd man out.

Another fact about this puzzling passage, another piece of the puzzle: GKC is saying that a disaster happened to Europe's intellectuals in the 16th century. He is clear about the century. What was that disaster and why did it happen? He [also clearly] wants to say that it was a disaster to that class' "sense of reality," not -- or not in the first instance -- to their political convictions. So Berkeley is the earliest name on the list who seems directly germane. And Berkeley comes rather late to the game to tell us anything about the supposed change two centuries before his day.

A third puzzle piece: GKC knows perfectly well how to make himself clear, making more significant that ambivalence in the phrase "right is outside reason" I mentioned earlier. It isn't ambivalent by accident. Chesterton seems to be using the word "right" as a bridge between metaphysical and ethical philosophy as if to make it more difficult for casual readers to notice that Hobbes, and his one-phrase summary of Hobbes, is the only real instance of the latter here.

It appears that Chesterton has something on his mind here he isn't saying, but is rather finessing.  Some further speculation on what that might be, within the next two weeks.


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