Chesterton has now set the stage for his positive assertions, which begin in chapter four. He has shown how materialists hold to very inconsistent ideals and philosophies about the world. Their epistemology is lacking. They are cornered into an insanity characterized by utter confidence in self, and myopic, hyper-focused reasoning. While he will continue tearing down materialism, he now finally starts to build up the merits of Christian orthodoxy.
Chesterton moves on to set up the importance of democracy and tradition. He goes on a fantastic exploration of democracy and politics, which I highly recommend to anyone. However, that deviates from his main ideas, so I won’t get into that here. What he intends to point out most in this excursion is that tradition is very important to both society and democracy - which are in essence, idealistic. Believing that all men have a voice and can/should influence the course of the world, and believing that the voice of all - even those in our past - are important, are idealistic. Though at heart we all only believe that our voices matter because we are right, upholding the ideal that all voices matter is important to a functioning society and a fostering of humility. This keeps us in check. As Chesterton says,
“…tradition is only democracy extended through time… Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of their birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of their death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.”
Tradition is going to be very important for Chesterton, as he explains that this chapter will rely heavily upon it. He explains that he is going to pull out a number of major lessons that he has learned in life, and then explain how Christianity had discovered them and predicted them before anyone else, and to the surprise of almost everyone.
Lesson 1: Fairytales express philosophical reality more accurately than science
“[Fairy tales] seem to me to be the entirely reasonable things. They are not fantasies: compared with them other things are fantastic. Compared with them religion and rationalism are both abnormal, though religion is abnormally right and rationalism is abnormally wrong. Fairyland is nothing but the sunny country of common sense. It is not earth that judges heaven, but heaven that judges earth; so for me at least it was not earth that criticized elfland, but elfland that criticized the earth. I knew the magic beanstalk before I had tasted beans; I was sure of the Man in the Moon before I was certain of the moon. This was at one with all popular tradition. Modern minor poets are naturalists, and talk about the bush or the brook; but the singers of the old epics and fables were supernaturalists, and talked about the gods of brook and bush. That is what moderns mean when they say that the ancients did not ‘appreciate Nature,’ because they said that Nature was divine. Old nurses do not tell children about the grass, but about the fairies that dance on the grass; and the old Greeks could not see the trees for the dryads.”
While this notion sounds absurd – that fairyland is most reasonable – Chesterton goes on to explain many of the true, deep lessons we learn from fairytales (e.g. from “Beauty and the Beast” we learn that often something must be loved before it becomes lovely). But while most would understand Chesterton’s point there, he goes on to explain a much deeper reason for fairyland’s rationality, as he compares it to modern hyper-rationality. He says,
“There are certain sequences or developments…which are, in the true sense of the word, reasonable. They are, in the true sense of the word, necessary. Such are mathematical and merely logical sequences. We in fairyland admit that reason and that necessity. For instance, if the Ugly Sisters are older than Cinderella, it is (in an iron and awful sense) NECESSARY that Cinderella is younger than the Ugly Sisters. There is no getting out of it…Cold reason decrees it from her awful throne: and we in fairyland submit. If the three brothers all ride horses, there are six animals and eighteen legs involved: that is true rationalism, and fairyland is full of it.
But as I put my head over the hedge of the elves and began to take notice of the natural world, I observed an extraordinary thing. I observed that learned men in spectacles were talking of the actual things that happened – dawn and death and so on – as if THEY were rational and inevitable. They talked as if the fact that trees bear fruit were just as NECESSARY as the fact that two and one trees make three. But it is not. There is an enormous difference by the test of fairyland; which is the test of the imagination. You cannot IMAGINE two and one not making three. But you can easily imagine trees not growing fruit… We have always in our fairytales kept this sharp distinction between the science of mental relations, in which there really are laws, and the science of physical facts, in which there are no laws, but only weird repetitions. We believe in bodily miracles, but not in mental impossibilities. We believe that a Bean-stalk climbed up to Heaven; but that does not at all confuse our convictions on the philosophical question of how many beans make five…
The man of science says, ‘Cut the stalk, and the apple will fall’; but he says it calmly, as if the one idea really led up to the other. The witch in the fairy tale says, ‘Blow the horn, and the ogre’s castle will fall’; but she does not say it as if it were something in which the effect obviously arose out of the cause. Doubtless she has given the advice to many champions, and has seen many castles fall, but she does not lose either her wonder or her reason. She does not muddle her head until it imagines a necessary mental connection between a horn and a falling tower. But the scientific men do muddle their heads, until they imagine a necessary mental connection between an apple leaving a tree and an apple reaching the ground. They do really talk as if they had found not only a set of marvelous facts, but a truth connecting those facts. They do talk as if the connection of two strange things physically connected them philosophically. They feel that because one incomprehensible thing constantly follows another incomprehensible thing the two together somehow make up a comprehensible thing…
We do not count on [the ordinary]; we bet on it. We risk the remote possibility of a miracle as we do that of a poisoned pancake or a world-destroying comet. We leave it out of account, not because it is a miracle, and therefore an impossibility, but because it is a miracle, and therefore an exception. All the terms used in the science books, ‘law,’ ‘necessity,’ ‘order,’ ‘tendency,’ and so on, are really unintellectual, because they assume an inner synthesis, which we do not possess. The only words that ever satisfied me as describing Nature are the terms used in the fairy books, ‘charm,’ ‘spell,’ ‘enchantment.’ They express the arbitrariness of the fact and its mystery. A tree grows fruit because it is a MAGIC tree. Water runs downhill because it is bewitched.”
According to Chesterton, fairyland provides rationality, for it accurately distinguishes between logical necessities and repetitive coincidences. Two plus two must always equal four, but there is no reason that the “law” of gravity has always been or will always stand as it has – and therefore apples aren’t required to fall when they are dislodged from a tree – though that is what we have always experienced. This is a key distinction between deductive and inductive reasoning, of which science is the latter. Science is a series of observations that lead to a generalization. Whereas a deductive argument with true premises will always lead one to a certainly correct answer, an inductive reason can never lead you to absolute certainty.
Unfortunately, the age of scientism has us living in a society where science is touted as absolute, logical truth. All humility and wonder is gone. Nature is absolutely defined and knowledge is certain, though as Chesterton points out, it really isn’t. It is in this way that fairy tales are more accurate than science books. Fairytales don’t typically deviate from logical necessity, and they avoid making claims of necessity where it is unwarranted. There is always an air of wonder in the way that fairyland works itself out, as the magic of coincidence and the unknown are acknowledged.
Chesterton predicts that his thinking so far will draw some pushback that he is just being mystical, so he continues on to explain how this wonder that he is speaking of is a reality that finds expression in fairytales rather than fairytales making up fictitious elements.
“It is the man who talks about a ‘law’ he has never seen who is the mystic. Nay, the ordinary scientific man is strictly a sentimentalist…he is soaked and swept away by mere associations. He has so often seen birds fly and lay eggs that he feels as if there must be some dreamy, tender connection between the two ideas, whereas there is none. A forlorn lover might be unable to dissociate the moon from lost love; so the materialist is unable to dissociate the moon from the tide. In both cases there is no connection, except that one has seen them together. A sentimentalist might shed tears at the smell of apple-blossom, because, by a dark association of his own, it reminded him of his boyhood. So the materialist professor (though he conceals his tears) is yet a sentimentalist, because, by a dark association of his own, apple-blossoms remind him of apples. But the cool rationalist from fairyland does not see why, in the abstract, the apple tree should not grow crimson tulips; it sometimes does in his country.
This elementary wonder, however, is not a mere fancy derived from the fairy tales…This is proved by the fact that when we are very young children we do not need fairy tales: we only need tales. Mere life is interesting enough. A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door. Boys like romantic tales; but babies like realistic tales – because they find them romantic…This proves that even nursery tales only echo an almost pre-natal leap of interest and amazement. These tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water...
We are all under the same mental calamity; we have all forgotten our names. We have all forgotten what we really are. All that we call common sense and rationality and practicality and positivism only means that for certain dead levels of our life we forget that we have forgotten. All that we call spirit and art and ecstasy only means that for one awful instant we remember that we forgot.”
Fairytales express what we all know, but have forgotten – the world is a mysterious and wonderful place. We have forgotten that what we call laws don’t have to be, and the coincidences of cause and effect could be otherwise. We have overrationalized cause and effect, and have therefore lost out on much wonder, and much explanation. The fairytales bring us back to reality, as we recognize that our world doesn’t have to be the way it is.
Lesson 2: Joy is conditional (The Fairy Godmother Philosophy)
Chesterton goes on to describe a very common experience in fairy tales. All of the good things depend on something else – often seemingly unrelated. He says that unlike modern man, “the true citizen of fairyland is obeying something that he does not understand at all. In the fairy tale an incomprehensible happiness rests upon an incomprehensible condition. A box is opened, and all evils fly out. A word is forgotten, and cities perish. A lamp is lit, and love flies away. A flower is plucked, and human lives are forfeited. An apple is eaten, and the hope of God is gone.” This condition is what Chesterton describes as “conditional joy.”
This notion of conditional joy resonated with Chesterton. He points out that in many fairytales, glass is a common theme. There are glass slippers, glass mirrors, and glass castles. It is a reminder that happiness is shiny and beautiful – but also brittle. He says, “this fairy-tale sentiment also sank into me and became my sentiment towards the whole world. I felt and feel that life itself is as bright as the diamond, but as brittle as the window-pane; and when the heavens were compared to the terrible crystal I can remember a shudder. I was afraid that God would drop the cosmos with a crash.” But whereas most moderns recoiled at such notions of condition – and condition upon an unreasonable condition – Chesterton felt otherwise.
“…to be breakable is not the same as to be perishable. Strike a glass, and it will not endure an instant; simply do not strike it, and it will endure a thousand years. Such, it seemed, was the joy of man, either in elfland or on earth; the happiness depended on NOT DOING SOMETHING which you could at any moment do, and which very often, it was not obvious why you should not do.
Now the point here is that to ME this did not seem unjust…If Cinderella says, ‘How is it that I must leave the ball at twelve?’ her godmother might answer, ‘How is it that you are going there till twelve?’ If I leave a man in my will ten talking elephants and a hundred winged horses, he cannot complain if the conditions partake of the slight eccentricity of the gift. He must not look a winged horse in the mouth. And it seemed to me that existence was itself so very eccentric a legacy that I could not complain of not understanding the limitations of the vision when I did not understand the vision they limited. The frame was no stranger than the picture. The veto might well be as wild as the vision… Estates are sometimes held by foolish forms, the breaking of a stick or the payment of a peppercorn: I was willing to hold the huge estate of earth and heaven by any such feudal fantasy. It could not well be wilder than the fact that I was allowed to hold it at all.”
Chesterton goes on to provide a specific example that plays out in the real world. For those who are familiar with Lewis’s work, it resembles his comments on sexual morality and deviation. Chesterton says,
“I could never mix in the common murmur of that rising generation against monogamy, because no restriction on sex seemed so odd and unexpected as sex itself. To be allowed, like Endymion, to make love to the moon and then complain that Jupiter kept his own moons in a harem seemed to me a vulgar anti-climax. Keeping to one woman is a small price to pay for so much as seeing one woman. To complain that I could only be married once was like complaining that I had only been born once. It was incommensurate with the terrible excitement of which one was talking. It showed, not an exaggerated sensibility to sex, but a curious insensibility to it. A man is a fool who complains that he cannot enter Eden by five gates at once. Polygamy is a lack of the realization of sex; it is like a man plucking five pears in mere absence of mind… Surely one might pay for extraordinary joy in ordinary morals.”
Lesson 3: Miracles of a passionate mind
The third major lesson Chesterton learned is that materialism and the moderns failed to address his intuition about the personal nature of the universe. Materialism rests on a false assumption – that the repetition of the world is due to its material rather than personal nature. Its unwavering predictability is a charge in the favor of materialism. But Chesterton pushes back against this charge.
“People feel that if the universe was personal, it would vary; if the sun were alive it would dance. This is a fallacy even in relation to known fact. For the variation in human affairs is generally brought into them, not by life, but by death; by the dying down or breaking off of their strength or desire. A man varies his movements because of some slight element of failure or fatigue. He gets into an omnibus because he is tired of walking; or he walks because he is tired of sitting still. But if his life and joy were so gigantic that he never tired of going [somewhere], he might go [there] as regularly as the Thames goes to Sheerness. The very speed and ecstasy of his life would have the stillness of death. The sun rises every morning. I do not rise every morning; but the variation is due not to my activity, but to my inaction.
Now, to put the matter in a popular phrase, it might be true that the sun rises regularly because he never gets tired of rising. His routine might be due not to lifelessness, but to a rush of life. The thing I mean can be seen, for instance, in children, when they find some game or joke that they specially enjoy. A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, ‘Do it again’; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, ‘Do it again’ to the sun; and every evening, ‘Do it again’ to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we. The repetition in Nature may not be a mere recurrence; it may be a theatrical ENCORE.”
So if we do live in a personal world, and this world that was originally designed good, we would expect an all-powerful, unchanging God to maintain continuity in many ways due to the pleasure he takes in it. The unchanging nature of certain aspects does not at all implicate that there is not a personal creator.
Lesson 4: The vastness of the universe and continuing discovery only extended the materialist’s problem
At the same time Chesterton was beginning to realize certain truths – or intuitions about the world, he was also beginning to realize that materialism had some major issues. All around him, Chesterton saw materialists amazed by the vastness and complexity of the immense universe, yet he realized this did nothing for their cause. For all the baggage that came with materialism was only amplified if you expanded their domain.
“It is quite futile to argue that man is small compared to the cosmos; for man was always small compared to the nearest tree…I have remarked that the materialist, like the madman, is in prison; in the prison of one thought. These people seemed to think it singularly inspiring to keep on saying that the prison was very large. The size of this scientific universe gave one no novelty, no relief. The cosmos went on forever, but not in its wildest constellation could there be anything really interesting; anything, for instance, such as forgiveness or free will. The grandeur or infinity of the secret of its cosmos added nothing to it. It was like telling a prisoner in Reading gaol that he would be glad to hear that the gaol now covered half the country. The warder would have nothing to show the man except more and more long corridors of stone lit by ghastly lights and empty of all that is human. So these expanders of the universe had nothing to show us except more and more infinite corridors of space lit by ghastly suns and empty of all that is divine…The machinery of this cosmic prison was something that could not be broken; for we ourselves were only part of its machinery. We were either unable to do things or destined to do them…[Now] one can neither have the firmness of keeping laws nor the fun of breaking them.
Lesson 5: Cosmic coziness – the universe seems just right
The last major lesson Chesterton addresses is the intuition he had that the universe was just right. Whereas the materialists feigned wonder at a universe that couldn’t be any other way, Chesterton stared in wonder as he realized it could have been every other way. Yet this universe was precise. Chesterton illustrates this so well with a few analogies.
“The greatest of poems is an inventory. Every kitchen tool becomes ideal because Crusoe might have dropped it in the sea. It is a good exercise, in empty or ugly hours of the day, to look at anything, the coal-scuttle or the book-case, and think how happy one could be to have brought it out of the sinking ship on to the solitary island. But it is a better exercise still to remember how all things have had this hair-breadth escape: everything has been saved from a wreck. Every man has had one horrible adventure: as a hidden untimely birth he had not been, as infants that never see the light. Men spoke much in my boyhood of restricted or ruined men of genius: and it was common to say that many a man was a Great Might-Have-Been. To me it is a more solid and startling fact that any man in the street is a Great Might-Not-Have-Been.
But I really felt as if all the order and number of things were the romantic remnant of Crusoe’s ship. That there are two sexes and one sun, was like the fact that there were two guns and one axe. It was poignantly urgent that none should be lost; but somehow, it was rather fun that none could be added. The trees and the planets seemed like things saved from the wreck: and when I saw the Matterhorn I was glad that it had not been overlooked in the confusion. I felt economical about the stars as if they were sapphires: I hoarded the hills. For the universe is a single jewel, and while it is a natural cant to talk of a jewel as peerless and priceless, of this jewel it is literally true.”
These lessons end Chesterton’s early story of conversion. These were the intuitions and truths he realized that spurred him on to search for answers. He recognized that there was a dissonance between what was being proclaimed by modernity and materialism, and what truly was. In chapter five, Chesterton will delve a little more into the emotional aspect that pushed him into moving towards Christianity