(printed with permission of Angelico Press: from the second, revised edition of The Universe and Mr. Chesterton )
Shortly after World War II, and the atomic trauma of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, an American author published a short book addressed to the public at large; it was entitled: The Universe and Dr. Einstein. Lincoln Barnett’s slim volume is still considered one of the best short presentations of Einstein’s mind-bending theory. That title inspired my own book’s title, for reasons it may be worth explaining. The first component of Einstein’s theory (“Special Relativity”) was promulgated in the opening decade of the 20th century, contemporary with Max Planck’s analogous re-reading of nature—this time in the opposite order of magnitude—with the beginnings of Quantum Mechanics. Each theory radically revised the meaning we give to the word “universe.” In the vastness of galaxies and light-years, time and space began to look weird, and the solid matter under our feet seemed to start quaking with the buzzing world of atoms. Einstein and Planck went both far beyond and daringly beneath the world of everyday appearances, claiming to find new ways of accounting for what we experience on the deceptive surface of things.
In the same decade that saw Relativity and Quantum theories assail our senses with doubts, at least one contrasting theoretician was also at work. In the face of those two theories’ apparently more comprehensive and deeper takes on the world around us—astronomically transcending and abysmally underpinning the surfaces, we were told—this other student of the cosmos had penned a small book of his own. In it, he suggested we turn our attention in the other direction: back to those surfaces. A vista more far-reaching and fundamental than the celebrated disclosures of the new physics was awaiting us there, he proposed. Still, he was writing about the selfsame universe analyzed by Einstein and Planck. Or was he?
His discovery was simple enough: if instead of looking beyond or beneath the world, you returned to your childhood instincts and simply looked at it, you might notice once again what every two-year-old still knows, namely: what the world really and truly looks like. Greeting it face-to-face with your naked quintet of senses, could it be that instead of being deceived by “appearances,” you are in fact being positioned to see the world as it truly is, with its deepest meaning and most seminal message on unmistakable display? Could that meaning and message turn out to reveal something far more intimate than quarks and pions, and far more exalted than pulsars and quasars?
For the author I’m referring to, this natural view of things is the proportioned view, the one which only displays its marvels to our senses in their original constellation. A huge optical telescope and a high-resolution microscope may reveal distant grandeurs and infinitesimal mini-structures respectively, but both instruments will have eyepieces of roughly the same size, proportioned to the sovereign human eye, still stationed anatomically in our head. Even the high sophistication of radio telescopes and electron microscopes will only deliver their findings when our eyes of flesh turn to them to scrutinize their readouts. As interesting as the new scientific dimensions undoubtedly are, the world we encounter with our unaided senses, explore by walking about on our two legs, and ponder with a mind custom-made to order images and peer into archetypes—that world is the realest world of all for this third author. And the “right view” of that world (the orthos doxa in Greek) was the title he thus gave to his little book about eloquent surfaces: Orthodoxy. The author, G.K. Chesterton, not only recaptured and defended the common view of the cosmos; he also plumbed its rootedness in metaphysical and moral principles. Never having studied this in technical philosophical literature, he somehow caught sight of it in all literature and indeed all experience. Unlike Nietzsche, whose abyss famously looked back at him as he peered into it, Chesterton suggested that it is the “superficial” universe itself that is looking back at us, and bidding us to return the gaze.
Like Einstein’s theory, though, Chesterton’s short book (some 150 pages) is not always an easy read. Many will be puzzled by the itinerary of the man’s unique style and perhaps dazed by the impact of his steadily unloaded insights. Thus, just as Barnett’s book provided Relativity with a sort of primer, the present book renders a similar service in approaching what is probably the most brilliant and seminal of Chesterton’s books. It also requires that we approach his thought by taking a philosophical detour. We will need to spend some time pondering the modern philosophers who first fashioned this new, “scientific” approach to the world with which Chesterton wrestled. Often enough, its promoters claimed legitimacy precisely by appealing to the new physics.
Although the insights of Chesterton do not negate or question those of Einstein or Planck, they do keep them at bay, and vigorously deny them the prerogative of robbing us of a prior and more fundamental perspective. This is no small service, for it is this perspective that makes us human. And there is more. The Christian faith he had earlier rejected turned out to be in holy collusion with this proportioned perspective, and in a way that surprised no one more than Chesterton himself. The purpose of the present book—and then, I propose, of Orthodoxy itself—is to help us reset our cognitive software and take a new look at the world. We will discover that new look to be an old look, as we gaze again like children at the grandiose spread of reality before us, courtesy of the universe and Mr. Chesterton.
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This second edition has been only slightly revised in order to accommodate a partial change in perspective in my own thinking since penning this text now some thirty years ago. One matter regards the relation between Chesterton’s thought and Eastern philosophies. Chesterton died in 1936 and his exposure to the “wisdom of the East” was minimal and even sketchy. It could hardly allow for a proper evaluation of the vast philosophical contributions of India and China. He himself says as much, as I mention in the concluding pages of the second chapter of Part 1. Thus, the contrast of his basically Thomistic metaphysical point of view with “Oriental” thought—often enough highlighted in my study—needs to be further nuanced. It has only been since the middle of the last century, well after his death, that more adequate translations of Eastern philosophical texts have become available. Late 19th and early 20th century popular versions—a better word may be “pop”—of Yoga, Vedanta, Buddhism and related schools (the sorts that Chesterton encountered), often seemed to suspiciously resonate with certain philosophical trends of the times. Skepticism, relativism, pragmatism, pantheism and especially atheism and evolutionism were typically chaperoned into hastily arranged marriages with the philosophies from beyond the Indus. It was against these hybrid heresies, above all, that Chesterton directed his critiques. Eastern thought, at its best, is anything but unsubtle. Nonetheless, Chesterton’s suspicions are well heeded today, since survivals of the superficial theosophies of his time are still very much with us, however much serious scholarship has left them behind.
On another front, some readers of the first edition thought I was unfair to the three modern masters I single out as engineers of the post-classical approach to philosophy. This applies especially to Husserl. I will only point out here—as I clearly did in the text—that I never proposed to engage with their entire philosophical work, or even major parts of it. My intent was only to address their initial choice not to begin philosophizing with a prior, uncritical acceptance of the ontological evidence of cosmic existence. What concerned me was how this initial choice impacted where their philosophy ended up.
Of course, there is much to learn from all of them, including Descartes. Certainly Kant will continue to be reread and discussed for the foreseeable future. Husserl in particular has been vastly influential in redirecting many contemporary thinkers “to go back to things themselves.” Their tutorship under his guidance, however, has borne fruit only insofar as they accepted his initial method of careful attention to phenomena as they are given, and not by following up in his latter obsession with reducing all knowledge to what he calls “strict science.” Thinkers such as Edith Stein, the Lublin school of phenomenology, along with the students of Dietrich von Hildebrand, for instance, all have shown how realist employment of Husserl’s early methodology can be fruitfully developed.
For the most part, the original text stands as it was in the first edition. Several typographical errors have been corrected, and occasionally slight stylistic adjustments have been made in the interest of readability.
I am pleased that Angelico Press has judged The Universe and Mr. Chesterton worthy of a new edition, and, notwithstanding the qualifications mentioned above, I am happy to say that after three decades, my mind still assents and my heart still responds to the arguments presented.
Scott Randall Paine
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To have a right view of things is to be orthodox. To be universal is to be catholic. Those, at least, were the meanings these Greek words were born with. And in the Western tradition, a person who endeavored to put the orthodox, catholic view of things into rational, articulate form was designated by another Greek word: philosopher. The fact that Orthodoxy has come to signify the Eastern half of Christendom, and Catholicism, the greater part of the Western half, is surely no accident. Philosophy and Christianity are akin in their deepest resources. Both are about the Logos (the Word)—the first considers the Logos by Whom the world was made; the second believes in a Logos by Whom the world was saved.
It is no secret, however, that the collaboration one would expect between philosophy and Christianity has been rare and troubled in the modern world. As Christendom has been halved, quartered and decimated in denominations with the progress of the centuries, philosophy too has broken off into “sects” of warring schools. Both seem to grow less catholic and less orthodox as time goes on. As a result, Christianity makes less and less sense to the modern philosopher and the modern philosopher’s view of the world typically falls out of step with the everyday assumptions of the man in the street.
The Aristotelian philosopher’s view was once considered right and universal, at least by many. Aristotle was considered to be a man quite literally in touch with the universe he viewed. In the main he trusted both his senses and his reason to be reliable registers of the real, and encouraged by this confidence, philosophically vindicated the canons of common sense. What moved early Christians to call their faith orthodox and catholic was precisely the way in which the universe with which the common, everyday man was in contact turned out to be touched and transfused with new meaning by Christ. Christ was in touch with man and his world in a way no other religious figure had ever claimed to be. In more ways than one, His Gospel made sense.
Now our first sense-contact with the world around us, together with our intellect’s reaction to it, constitute what Aristotle and Aquinas hold to be the foundation of all human knowledge: the grasp of being. In contrast, most influential modern philosophers have attempted to pursue wisdom without taking that first touch as their point of departure. And not only do they usually end up out of touch with everyone’s common experience, but characteristically articulate world-views quite out of reach of supernatural revelation.
These were the conclusions to which G. K. Chesterton came in a small volume published in England in 1908. He quite deliberately entitled the book “Orthodoxy,” and it is far from insignificant that fourteen years later he became a Catholic. In the book, he tells the story of how he had discovered an astonishing and radical affinity between common-sense philosophy and the common man’s Christianity. The right view of the universe, to which his own philosophical quest had led him, turned out to be uncannily connected with the doctrine taught by Christianity for 2,000 years. And the righter the view became, and the more philosophical its articulation, the more catholic it grew.
The greater part of Chesterton’s writings can be understood as so many attempts to recapture a lost common wisdom that once linked in spiritual brotherhood the sage with the saint. But it was in the book Orthodoxy that this link was first fully profiled and unambiguously affirmed.
Unfortunately, the man’s work has seldom been consulted for these lessons in remedial metaphysics. It is in the service of such a disclosure that the present book is offered. It is only a beginning, but it is precisely the beginnings of thought that are so befuddled today. And Chesterton’s message about those beginnings brings us back to that sovereign touchstone of all philosophical reflection: the universe. Chesterton was a spokesman for the common man and his common universe. He came to believe that in God’s plan, it is only by touching and viewing that universe that a man becomes orthodox and catholic—both in the original senses of those words, and, for Chesterton, in the ultimate, upper-case sense as well. In the pages that follow, I hope it will become evident how deeply and how surprisingly true this is.
In order to philosophically explore the way first principles are secured, and the epistemological and moral consequences of their betrayal, we shall begin with Chesterton’s intellectual crisis as a youth. His eloquent description of how he recovered those principles—and how that recovery saved him from madness—will form a vivid test-case in the matter of principles. In Part I, we shall look at that crisis itself and its issue. In Part II, we shall examine the way three modern philosophers have attempted to avert such crises by forging new principles of their own. In Part III, the philosophical content of Chesterton’s Orthodoxy will be analyzed as a speculative challenge to any such attempt at originality in first principles. Part IV, finally, will highlight three inalienable features of any philosophy which is true to the first salute of the universe.