A blog dedicated to providing quotes by and posts relating to one of the most influential (and quotable!) authors of the twentieth century, G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936). If you do not know much about GKC, I suggest visiting the webpage of the American Chesterton Society as well as this wonderful Chesterton Facebook Page by a fellow Chestertonian

I also have created a list detailing examples of the influence of Chesterton if you are interested, that I work on from time to time.

(Moreover, for a list of short GKC quotes, I have created one here, citing the sources)

"...Stevenson had found that the secret of life lies in laughter and humility."

-Heretics (1905)

Monday, January 13, 2014

"...this is only one example out of many of the fallacy I mean- that an argument is supposed to become grotesque merely because it comes to grips with its subject."

December 4, 1920, Illustrated London News

There is a funny little fallacy on the subject of being funny. A man is supposed to be making a fool of himself when he is rather making a fool of his opponent upon his opponent's own principles. Those of us who have learned geometry in the old textbook of Euclid are familiar with the idea of a reductio ad absurdum; but many of us are quite surprised to find it is absurd. And we often do not seem to realise that what is absurd is the absurdity, and not the argument that points out the absurdity.

Suppose a man says solemnly that our enlightened age must give an equal freedom to the practice of all religions. And suppose another man replies by mentioning a form of religious thought, which he has encountered in his travels, which consists of throwing babies to a divine crocodile. It is often said that the first man is serious, which he may be in one sense. But it is also said that the second man is frivolous, which he is not in any sense. To begin with, of course, feeding a crocodile on babies is not a completely or exclusively frivolous occupation; least of all for the babies. Nor, indeed, is it generally very frivolous for anyone concerned; for such religions are generally full of seriousness, which can sometimes be the wickedest thing in the world. Such barbaric faiths are generally full of pessimism, like the advanced philosophies and realistic novels which they closely resemble. The priests at such a religious service generally wail or moan in a very depressing manner; the mothers of the babies may be imagined as giving some indication of regret; and even the crocodile is proverbially supposed to weep.

But in such a case the fallacy does not only lie in the fact that what sounds very grotesque may really be very grim. It lies also in not seeing that what there is of the grotesque is inherent in the statement that sounds exceedingly grave. When Professor Jones makes that grave statement, the newspaper reports are content to say: "Mr. Brown said he had seen babies thrown to crocodiles (loud laughter)." And many suppose that Mr. Brown merely made a flippant remark to add to the hilarity of the evening, and all went merry as a marriage bell. They do not realise that it is the earnest Jones and not the flippant Brown who is really responsible for the absurd image, by announcing the thesis that all religions are equally tolerable. It is the Professor, so to speak, who has brought forth a crocodile unaware. It is the Professor who embraces crocodiles in embracing a theory that embraces crocodiles. It is he who introduces a crocodile into polite society, in a long procession which includes black goats, blue monkeys, missing links, supermen, strong men, souls of the hive, herd instincts, nine-headed elephants, materialist theories of history, lumps of rock, images made of mud, and all the wonderful variety of the gods that men have worshipped. The man who points out that the baby-eating crocodile is included in this generalisation is supposed to be only out for laughter, but he may be only out for logic. Brown and his crocodile are a perfectly consistent comment on Jones and his creed; and it is the business of Jones, as the modern theologians say, to restate his creed. What Jones means is really quite different from what Jones says: that all men must be equally free to practise their religion. What he means is something like this: that given a society with a common morality about most important things, anyone must be allowed to promulgate, by the ordinary activities of that society, his own version of the origin or sanction of that morality. So long as he agrees not to throw babies to crocodiles he may explain his reluctance to do so by various ingenious theories. He may say that enlightened self-interest prevents him from throwing a baby to a crocodile, lest some fine day a baby should throw him to a crocodile. Or he may say that all life is evolving upwards; and that the babies, if left alive, will soon evolve a super-baby. Or he may say he is concerned for the greatest happiness of the greatest number; and that there is a triumphant majority of babies and a defeated minority of crocodiles. Or he may merely say it is a matter of aesthetic and hedonistic taste; and that he is fond of playing with a baby and not so fond of playing with a crocodile. Nay, it is conceivable, among so many fantastic forms of faith, that he may even maintain that it is murder to kill a baby, and not necessarily murder to kill a crocodile; alleging obscure mythological reasons, into which we need not inquire, concerning the brotherhood of men and the image of God. But it is clear that what the tolerationist does take for granted is the agreement upon practical ethics, however arrived at; and that is not at all the same thing as tolerating the practice of all religions. Yet it is certainly the fact that the serious analysis of this serious distinction of ideas will often have all the appearance of being a joke.

In several current controversies this simple truth especially needs our notice. We are not so very far off even the sacrifice of babies- if not to a crocodile, at least to a creed. I have seen versions of eugenics that come very near to infanticide. I had recently a discussion with so distinguished a cleric as the Dean of St. Paul's in which he expressed a general sympathy with the eugenists, probably in entire innocence of what some of the eugenists say. In the course of the same discussion Dean Inge denounced the interference with the capitalist, and said we were killing the goose that laid the golden eggs. What struck me as quaint about the figure of speech was this- it seemed to me that a man who expressed such horror of killing a goose, even in metaphor, might well feel a little horror of certain wild theorists who would come very near to killing a child in reality. If they do not propose to kill children, some at least propose to prevent them being born; and that negation may surely be a tragedy. But this is only one example out of many of the fallacy I mean- that an argument is supposed to become grotesque merely because it comes to grips with its subject. It is sometimes true that to put a theory into plain words is to put it into ugly words. But though the ugly version may be a grotesque, it is not a caricature.

The same criticism applies, for example, to the sweeping proposals for the hygienic control of the commonwealth. When officials undertake "the care of the health of the citizen," or some such phrase, it is only by being left as a vague phrase that it can be saved from being an entirely nonsensical phrase. It is self-evident, to anyone who will consider it even for a moment, that the health of the citizen is being affected for good or ill by every single thing, great or small, that the citizen does, day or night. It is of the very nature of a thing so personal to be a thing exceedingly private. Yet we should probably be thought frivolous, and even fanciful, if we pointed out in plain words the logical consequences of treating that private question as a public question. We should be thought lamentably flippant if we said that a policeman would have to sit by a gentleman's bed to see that he did not snore. But this and various other equally absurd things follow quite rationally from the generalisation laid down; and it is the business of the generaliser to amend his generalisation and make it rational, not to accuse us of ragging him because we have pointed out its irrationality. Generally speaking, indeed, things are supposed to be discussed seriously, simply because they are not discussed at all. They are not stated in terms of the realities into which they would ultimately resolve themselves. It is considered a joke thus to imagine them as practical, as something all the more vulgar for being a practical joke. It is considered the act of a clown, and not of a good citizen, to point out that the smooth path of progress will actually end in a butterslide.

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