Heretics – Chapter 4: Mr. Bernard Shaw

I am continuing my journey through G.K. Chesterton’s Heretics.

In the movie ‘Stranger than Fiction’ the main character finds his life is being narrated in his mind. This narration leads to his “imminent death” and as he tries to live life to the fullest he comes to the realization that this death is his purpose (you will have to watch the movie to see what happens).  Just as in the movie we are faced with our own personal part in a greater story – written not by an obsessed and troubled writer but by the Creator of the Universe.  Just as God has written our part (warts and all) in his grand and eternal story, He has also written the laws of the universe.

Heresy exposed:

Not accepting man as he is – but trying to make him into a Nietzsche Superman

Summary of Chapter:

The interesting thing about speakers is that they shy purposely away from their occupation.  This is the sophist way of doing things – say what you are not to gain credibility.  These liars shift their purpose to fit an audience, but there is a stronger type of man: a man who is consistent.

“It is the whole difference between the aim of the orator and the aim of any other artist, such as the poet or the sculptor. The aim of the sculptor is to convince us that he is a sculptor; the aim of the orator, is to convince us that he is not an orator. Once let Mr. Chamberlain be mistaken for a practical man, and his game is won. He has only to compose a theme on empire, and people will say that these plain men say great things on great occasions. He has only to drift in the large loose notions common to all artists of the second rank, and people will say that business men have the biggest ideals after all. […] There is another man in the modern world who might be called the antithesis of Mr. Chamberlain in every point, who is also a standing monument of the advantage of being misunderstood. Mr. Bernard Shaw is always represented by those who disagree with him, and, I fear, also (if such exist) by those who agree with him, as a capering humorist, a dazzling acrobat, a quick-change artist. It is said that he cannot be taken seriously, that he will defend anything or attack anything, that he will do anything to startle and amuse. All this is not only untrue, but it is, glaringly, the opposite of the truth; it is as wild as to say that Dickens had not the boisterous masculinity of Jane Austen. The whole force and triumph of Mr. Bernard Shaw lie in the fact that he is a thoroughly consistent man.”

Bernard Shaw and Chesterton were friends (who disagreed on almost everything), and rivals (to challenge each other to believe in what the other believed).  The greatest compliment that one man can give to another is that he stands firm – unmoved by all the fads and fancy of the world.

“A man with a definite belief always appears bizarre, because he does not change with the world; he has climbed into a fixed star, and the earth whizzes below him like a zoetrope. Millions of mild black-coated men call themselves sane and sensible merely because they always catch the fashionable insanity, because they are hurried into madness after madness by the maelstrom of the world. […] He appears eccentric and grotesque because he will not accept the general belief that white is yellow. He has based all his brilliancy and solidity upon the hackneyed, but yet forgotten, fact that truth is stranger than fiction. Truth, of course, must of necessity be stranger than fiction, for we have made fiction to suit ourselves.”

Nonetheless one can be firm and still wrong.  If one clings to the belief that there are no beliefs or defends the thought that no thought is worth defends or even protects the ideal that all ideals are wrong then there is no anchor to stand firm on.  The consistency undermines itself.   Yet, even today the wishy-washy belief that there are no morals, that everything is subjective is a mask people where to make themselves greater than they actually are.

“Mr. Shaw’s old and recognized philosophy was that powerfully presented in “The Quintessence of Ibsenism.” It was, in brief, that conservative ideals were bad, not because They were conservative, but because they were ideals. Every ideal prevented men from judging justly the particular case; every moral generalization oppressed the individual; the golden rule was there was no golden rule. And the objection to this is simply that it pretends to free men, but really restrains them from doing the only thing that men want to do. What is the good of telling a community that it has every liberty except the liberty to make laws? The liberty to make laws is what constitutes a free people. And what is the good of telling a man (or a philosopher) that he has every liberty except the liberty to make generalizations. Making generalizations is what makes him a man. In short, when Mr. Shaw forbids men to have strict moral ideals, he is acting like one who should forbid them to have children. The saying that “the golden rule is that there is no golden rule,” can, indeed, be simply answered by being turned round. That there is no golden rule is itself a golden rule, or rather it is much worse than a golden rule. It is an iron rule; a fetter on the first movement of a man. […] For the truth is that Mr. Shaw has never seen things as they really are. If he had he would have fallen on his knees before them. He has always had a secret ideal that has withered all the things of this world. He has all the time been silently comparing humanity with something that was not human, with a monster from Mars, with the Wise Man of the Stoics, with the Economic Man of the Fabians, with Julius Caesar, with Siegfried, with the Superman.”

There are two things people can do with a faulty philosophy: (1) change the philosophy or (2) change the world to fit the philosophy. In this world the latter is chosen because it is easier to blame the world instead of changing an ingrained opinion.

“Mr. Shaw, not being easily pleased, decides to throw over humanity with all its limitations and go in for progress for its own sake. If man, as we know him, is incapable of the philosophy of progress, Mr. Shaw asks, not for a new kind of philosophy, but for a new kind of man. It is rather as if a nurse had tried a rather bitter food for some years on a baby, and on discovering that it was not suitable, should not throw away the food and ask for a new food, but throw the baby out of window, and ask for a new baby. Mr. Shaw cannot understand that the thing which is valuable and lovable in our eyes is man–the old beer-drinking, creed-making, fighting, failing, sensual, respectable man. And the things that have been founded on this creature immortally remain; the things that have been founded on the fancy of the Superman have died with the dying civilizations which alone have given them birth. When Christ at a symbolic moment was establishing His great society, He chose for its comer-stone neither the brilliant Paul nor the mystic John, but a shuffler, a snob a coward–in a word, a man. And upon this rock He has built His Church, and the gates of Hell have not prevailed against it. All the empires and the kingdoms have failed, because of this inherent and continual weakness, that they were founded by strong men and upon strong men. But this one thing, the historic Christian Church, was founded on a weak man, and for that reason it is indestructible. For no chain is stronger than its weakest link.”

Thoughts:

The meek (not the Superman) have inherited the Earth.  It was the poor who established the United States – those looking for freedom (the ones who came for money never really had the staying power).  It is the natural inclination of man to make creeds, to say who they are, and to be who they are.  The meek monk inherited the world (the knowledge of) during the medieval period, and it is the meek today who rule the world (through democracy even in spite of the sophists who think that they are in charge).   One cannot change the power of the meek by making them less human – by removing their creeds, beliefs, their meekness.

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