Chesterton on the Problem with Modern Ethics and Why Dante Matters

Heretics/Orthodoxy by Gilbert K. Chesterton (2000, Thomas Nelson)

G. K. Chesterton (1874–1936) is one of my favourite thinkers. I’m yet to find a livelier, wittier writer. Chesterton wrote about just everything—literary and visual art, history, religion, politics, economics, science, ethics, the differences between worldviews and their logical outworking. He was also playfully snobbish, which makes him all the more entertaining. While engaging with (and attacking) his opponents he turned their arguments inside out. I love him because he was passionate about what he believed in, and made an effort to explain why he believed in it with clarity and beauty. Whenever I read his work I feel that he’s alive and well—not dead and gone—sitting right before me and giving a talk.

I haven’t posted much about Chesterton on this blog (just an excerpt from his essay “In Defence of Humility”). This is because I have been having a tough time deciding on where exactly to begin. I have read way too many of his works and been impacted by them on many different levels—intellectual, spiritual, emotional, aesthetic. His corpus is so vast and so rich, it’s hard to select paragraphs and curate them here.

G. K. Chesterton, by Ernest Herbert Mills (1909), National Portrait Gallery, Wikipedia [Public Domain]
Anyway, today I’d like to focus on a chapter called “On the Negative Spirit” from one of Chesterton’s famous books Hereticsa collection of 20 essays published in 1905. Heretics is usually read with the companion volume Orthodoxya collection of 9 essays published in 1908. Together these books make up a spiritual autobiography and apologetics for the writer’s religious position, where he articulates and defends his vision of the cosmos and society by measuring it against competing proposals. If you want to read the two books, I would suggest the 2000 Thomas Nelson combined edition Heretics/Orthodoxy.

I have chosen “On the Negative Spirit” because the concerns raised by the author in there appear to be especially relevant to our time. In the literature of his period, Chesterton noticed a trend that seemed to him a veritable flaw in need of correction. Whenever they took up the issue of ethics and morality, maintained Chesterton, modern writings could:

only point with absolute conviction to the horrors that follow breaches of law; its only certainty is a certainty of ill. It can only point to imperfection. It has no perfection to point to. But the monk meditating upon Christ or Buddha has in his mind an image of perfect health, a thing of clear colours and clean air. He may contemplate this ideal wholeness and happiness far more than he ought; he may contemplate it to the neglect of exclusion of essential THINGS he may contemplate it until he has become a dreamer or a driveller; but still it is wholeness and happiness that he is contemplating. He may even go mad; but he is going mad for the love of sanity. But the modern student of ethics, even if he remains sane, remains sane from an insane dread of insanity.

 

“…its only certainty is a certainty of ill. It can only point to imperfection.” (Photo: Pixabay)

 

Simply put, if one chose to be discipline oneself, it was more due to an awareness of the dangers of immorality than for a love of  morality. This was the “morbidity of modern ethics”. A young man was supposed to keep himself from vice by continually thinking of infection and affliction (bad livers, sexually transmitted diseases) not really by pursuing virtue (temperance in drinking alcohol, chastity and fidelity in relationships). Now, of course, this method of saving oneself by focussing on the ill effects of excesses and improper practices wasn’t all that useless—it did work. But was it healthy? “There may be question about which method is the more reasonable,” the writer continued, “or even about which is the more efficient. But surely there can be no question about which is the more wholesome.”

For Chesterton, the literature of his era revealed a great gap in modern ethics: the lack of “vivid pictures of purity and spiritual triumph”. The problem with it was not the presence of a clear realism rather the absence of a clear idealism. It showed you how things could go wrong but failed to provide a code of right conduct, directives that could prevent things from going wrong in the first place.

Chesterton goes on to give an example of “modern morbid ethics”: the works of Henrik Ibsen (1828–1906), the Norwegian playwright, theatre director and poet who is known as the “father of realism”. He then contrasts Ibsen’s Ghosts with Dante’s Divine Comedy:

The thing which is resented, and, as I think, rightly resented, in that great modern literature of which Ibsen is typical, is that while the eye that can perceive what are the wrong things increases in an uncanny and devouring clarity, the eye which sees what things are right is growing mistier and mistier every moment, till it goes almost blind with doubt. If we compare, let us say, the morality of the DIVINE COMEDY with the morality of Ibsen’s GHOSTS, we shall see all that modern ethics have really done. No one, I imagine, will accuse the author of the INFERNO of an Early Victorian prudishness or a Podsnapian [“Podsnapian” means “of, relating to, or characteristic of Dickens’s Mr Podsnap from his novel ‘Our Mutual Friend’ (1864-65); complacent, self-satisfied, blinkered”] optimism.

 

“The thing which is resented, and, as I think, rightly resented, in that great modern literature of which Ibsen is typical, is that while the eye that can perceive what are the wrong things increases in an uncanny and devouring clarity, the eye which sees what things are right is growing mistier and mistier every moment, till it goes almost blind with doubt.” [Photo: Henrik Ibsen by Gustav Borgen, Wikipedia (Public Domain)]

“But Dante describes three moral instruments—Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell, the vision of perfection, the vision of improvement, and the vision of failure. Ibsen has only one—Hell.” (Photo: Portrait of Dante, Wikipedia)

But Dante describes three moral instruments—Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell, the vision of perfection, the vision of improvement, and the vision of failure. Ibsen has only one—Hell. It is often said, and with perfect truth, that no one could read a play like GHOSTS and remain indifferent to the necessity of an ethical self-command. That is quite true, and the same is to be said of the most monstrous and material descriptions of the eternal fire. It is quite certain the realists like Zola do in one sense promote morality—they promote it in the sense in which the hangman promotes it, in the sense in which the devil promotes it. But they only affect that small minority which will accept any virtue of courage. Most healthy people dismiss these moral dangers as they dismiss the possibility of bombs or microbes. Modern realists are indeed Terrorists, like the dynamiters; and they fail just as much in their effort to create a thrill. Both realists and dynamiters are well-meaning people engaged in the task, so obviously ultimately hopeless, of using science to promote morality.

When I look around, I see the problem Chesterton is pointing at all the time. The “vision of failure” is everywhere and the sad part is it is hardly balanced by a “vision of perfection”. Take the case of pornography—you will find a deluge of warnings and cautionary tales on mainstream media. Men are encouraged to refrain from porn or check their usage of it only because it can lead to erectile dysfunction: “A Few Hard Truths about Porn and Erectile Dysfunction” (VICE), “All About Porn-Induced Erectile Dysfunction” (Huffington Post), “Porn causing erectile dysfunction in young men” (Global News), “Study sees link between porn, sexual dysfunction in men” (Chicago Tribune), “Porn and the Threat to Virility” (TIME).

All this is fine but are we given the other side of the story? When it comes to the conversation around this issue, do we find men stepping up and saying “I do not watch porn not because I am afraid it will damage my mind and body but because I simply have a high view of commitment and want to give myself fully to my wife”? I’m sure they are still out there but I wonder if our newspapers and magazines would want to give such men space, so habituated are these outlets, in general, to broadcasting everything that’s inappropriate about ourselves and the world. It’s not that stories of triumph, fidelity, goodness, virtue, discipline aren’t communicated at all—they just aren’t afforded room equal to the stories of failure. That’s what I have noticed at least.

May the medieval Italian poet mentioned above inspire us to dwell upon the full range of human acts. As we continue to expose what’s base about us, may we also learn to confidently celebrate what’s sublime in us.

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