Slick

There is something mysterious about reading, like how there can be no inroads to certain books one may wish to read; they may languish on the shelves for years, occasionally removed, always replaced barely dented. One such book for me is Chesterton's Orthodoxy. For all his criticism of Shaw on similar counts, Chesterton's prose can be just as dense in aphorisms.
What I did not expect to find was that the book is a mystical echo to my recent thoughts, picking them up, containing the answers I hadn't quite been able to formulate on my own. For example, in my last post, I wondered about ethics, as if sensitivity to the world has become scarce, but Chesterton sees the heart as present as always - rather, it's just in the wrong place. "The modern world is full of ... virtues gone mad ... because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone. Thus some scientists care for truth; and their truth is pitiless. Thus some humanitarians care only for pity; and their pity (I am sorry to say) is often untruthful."
He continues, "The eternity of materialist fatalists ... is a degraded animal who destroys himself." In that phrase are echoes of Matthew Arnold's beseeching that man be his best possible self. And now I know why I had no access to this book before: it had been too abstract for me because I lacked the knowledge that situates words like "materialist" in a very concrete context: that of, say, Tyndall's Belfast Address. It is not possible, and it is perhaps irrelevant, to be conclusive about Tyndall's beliefs (materialist, pantheist, agnostic), but in arguing that science become separated from religion, man's access to a way of knowing shifted. Is the heart in the wrong place...
When I write "religion" I am also thinking of the kind in Platonic dialogue which progresses towards the Divine through higher levels of generalisation. This can be called poetic, in terms of the symbolism that moves from the specific and particular to ever greater, and more potent, abstractions. Chesterton writes of poetry that it is "sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite." Reason, he proceeds to demonstrate, leads to madness, not poetry.
So let us consider a well-reasoned thought: Lachmann's method of textual criticism, which places ancient manuscripts in a tree, to distinguish which were the poorer copies, with mistakes. It is said that Darwin was inspired by this method in his Origin. At which point I return to Chesterton: "You may explain the order in the universe by saying that all things, even the souls of men, are leaves inevitably unfolding on an utterly unconscious tree ... the blind destiny of matter" and so shrink life to "something much more grey, narrow, and trivial than many separate aspects of it".
There is much to be said about the movement from the specific/concrete to the general/abstract. The poetic urge is the Porsche of the mind; language and symbols can slick the roads.


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