Saturday, July 5, 2008

More on Gopnik, Chesterton, and St. Thomas Aquinas

Here I commented on Adam Gopnik's article on G.K. Chesterton in the July 7 edition of the New Yorker. In this post, I will say something more about materialism, Chesterton and St. Thomas.

It is very difficult for the modern materialist to get a grip on what Chesterton/St. Thomas are getting at. Back at the beginning of the modern era, philosophers effected a split in being that has been with us ever since, one that has become so familiar and close, so apparently self-evident, that it is difficult for the materialist to see it for what it is. This is the split in being into material and intellectual components, with the material component granted ontological priority. The truly "real" is matter; the intelligibility we find in the universe is a secondary existent, perhaps only read onto the universe by our minds. In effect, modern materialists are inverse Platonists. Plato also saw being as split between material and intellectual components, but he gave the intelligible component priority rather than the material. The truly "real" for Plato was the intelligible; matter was a secondary, shadowy sort of existent, just what we see as the intelligible today.

Chesterton/St. Thomas disagree with both Plato and the modern materialist. They deny the primary split in being effected by both parties. Being is one, matter and intelligibility being but aspects of unified being. Our nature as embodied knowers makes the Platonic and materialist mistakes an ever-present temptation, one that we must always guard against. An embodied knower knows being materially through the senses and intelligibly through the mind; depending on which aspect captures his imagination, he will be led to give priority to one rather than other. But the mistake is more than this; it is the mistake in even thinking that the intelligible and material aspects of being are somehow in a competition for priority. Neither is ultimately prior to the other; what has priority is the being of which they are both aspects.

The yield sign down the street is made of steel and conforms to geometric laws. Materially, it can be bent out of shape or shot full of holes. Intelligibly, it is a triangle, and so its angles add to 180 degrees. But the yield sign is not primarily steel nor primarily geometric laws; it is primarily itself, the steel and the geometry merely aspects of primary being. The materialist/Platonic mistake consists of mistaking an aspect of being for primary being itself. Chesterton/St. Thomas are not in the debate between the materialist and the Platonist; they transcend the debate entirely.

Because the materialist takes the split in being for granted, as virtually self-evident, he sees the debate between the materialist and the Platonist to be a primary philosophical question, perhaps the primary philosophical question. He instinctively places every philosopher on one side or the other of the question. Since Chesterton/St. Thomas are obviously not materialists, he concludes that they must be Platonists, these being the only categories he knows. Thus Adam Gopnik can only understand Chesterton's philosophy in terms of "fact" (material reality) and "illusion" (intelligible reality), his understanding embodying the very split in being Chesterton spent his career denying. Gopnik, reading Platonism into Chesterton, states the alternatives like this:

We can take the belief in that puppet to be a delusion, as the rationalists did. Or we can take it to be an intimation, as Chesterton did, of the existence of another world, in which the things that we sense as shadows will become real, and we will see ourselves as puppets that have come alive in the hand of God.
Talk of "another world", of "shadows will become real", ourselves as puppets who are not really alive now but will "come alive" when we finally exist in the real world, is pure Plato-talk. Gopnik's charge may hold some water against C.S. Lewis, who was much more a Platonist than Chesterton ever was (one reason I am a Chesterton rather than a Lewis fan), but it is certainly not appropriate to Chesterton. It is just Chesterton's point that the insights of childhood are not illusions, for the child, in his unconscious and innocent manner, takes being as it comes to him, in its fullness. It is only later, when the child has been educated into the falsehoods of materialism or Platonism, that the split in being becomes a problem for him, that he is faced with the false either/or between the material puppet and its mystical interpretation.

Chesterton talks so much about childhood because he understands that, once the split in being is made, there is no repairing it. Humpty-Dumpty cannot be put back together again no matter how many of the King's philosophers are set the task. The philosophical answer to both materialism and Platonism, then, is to attack the split in being in its origin; it is to bring the reader back to childhood, if not in reality then in imagination, and make him see the original mistake of modern philosophy. Chesterton describes the primary encounter with being this way (from Ch. 7 of St. Thomas Aquinas):

Without pretending to span within such limits the essential Thomist idea, I may be allowed to throw out a sort of rough version of the fundamental question, which I think I have known myself, consciously or unconsciously since my childhood. When a child looks out of the nursery window and sees anything, say the green lawn of the garden, what does he actually know; or does he know anything? There are all sorts of nursery games of negative philosophy played round this question. A brilliant Victorian scientist delighted in declaring that the child does not see any grass at all; but only a sort of green mist reflected in a tiny mirror of the human eye. This pieces of rationalism has always struck me as almost insanely irrational. If he is not sure of the existence of the grass, which he sees through the glass of a window, how on earth can he be sure of the existence of the retina, which he sees through the glass of a microscope? If sight deceives, why can it not go on deceiving? Men of another school answer that grass is a mere green impression on the mind; and that he can be sure of nothing except the mind. They declare that he can only be conscious of his own consciousness; which happens to be the one thing that we know the child is not conscious of at all. In that sense, it would be far truer to say that there is grass and no child, than to say that there is a conscious child but no grass. St. Thomas Aquinas, suddenly intervening in this nursery quarrel [the quarrel between the materialist and the idealist - D.T.], says emphatically that the child is aware of Ens [being - D.T.]. Long before he knows that grass is grass, or self is self, he knows that something is something. Perhaps it would be best to say very emphatically (with a blow on the table), "There is an Is." That is as much monkish credulity as St. Thomas asks us at the start. Very few unbelievers start by asking us to believe so little.... Thus, Aquinas insists very profoundly, but very practically, that there instantly enters, with this idea of affirmation, the idea of contradiction... Aquinas has affirmed that our first sense of fact is a fact; and he cannot go back on it without falsehood.
Chesterton was no mystical advocate of "another world;" he was always an advocate of the mystery of this world. He wished to have us re-experience that original encounter with the fullness of being that we experienced as children, before we had it educated out of us. For someone who manages to retain the wonder of primary being, ordinary reality is fascinating enough and no alternate world is necessary. Both the materialist and the Platonist yearn for that alternate world, the materialist thinking he has the advantage through his hard-headed "realism" that denies its reality, even if he appreciates its appeal. Since the ordinary world is no more mysterious for the materialist than it is the Platonist, the materialist thinks the comparison of something to a mundane, ordinary reality to be a devastating criticism. Thus Gopnik thinks he has devastated Chesterton's Catholic apologetics by comparing Chesterton to someone who has just learned of the post office:

A Frenchman or an Italian, even a devout one, can see the Catholic Church as a normally bureaucratic human institution, the way patriotic Americans see the post office, recognizing the frailty and even the occasional psychosis of its employees without doubting its necessity or its ability to deliver the message. Chesterton writing about the Church is like someone who has must made his first trip to the post office. Look, it delivers letters for the tiny price of a stamp! You write an address on a label, and they will send it anywhere, literally anywhere you like, across a continent and an ocean, in any weather! The fact that the post office attracts timeservers, or has produced an occasional gun massacre, is only proof of the mystical enthusiasm that only the post office provides! Glorifying the postman beyond what the postman can bear is what you do only if you're new to the mail.
Chesterton, of course, would entirely agree with the comparison of the Church to the post office. Only he would find it a compliment rather than a criticism. For Chesterton, the post office was not evacuated of mystery and romance with repeated visits, as it apparently has been for Gopnik. Gopnik doesn't think the postman can bear much glorifying because the postman is mechanical, dull and boring. Chesterton found the postman mysterious and romantic, the mystery increasing rather dispersing with repeated visits to the pillar box. For the post office is a dramatic instance of being, of matter and form, mechanics and intelligibility, manifesting themselves in a wonderfully dynamic interplay. The details of paper and ink, vehicular transport, and the ordinariness of postal workers did not dispel the mystery for Chesterton because Chesterton did not see the material and intelligible aspects of the post office as at war with each other; they complement each other, just as the material and divine aspects of the Catholic Church complement each other.

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