I am continuing my journey through G.K. Chesterton’s Heretics.
One of the biggest heresies of the early church was Gnosticism. This was where people believed like the Greeks that the body was degrading and evil but the soul was divine. Paul wrote to Timothy to warn him about his in 1st Timothy 4: 1-5:
But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, 2 by means of the hypocrisy of liars seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron, 3 men who forbid marriage and advocate abstaining from foods which God has created to be gratefully shared in by those who believe and know the truth. 4 For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with gratitude; 5 for it is sanctified by means of the word of God and prayer.
Like any good heresy, it does not disappear but come back for each new generation.
Heresy exposed: “Plain living and high thinking”
Summary of Chapter:
Of the many things to be proud of, the modern error of “making people simple in things that do not matter (diet, costume, etiquette, economic system), but make people complex in things that do matter (philosophy, loyalty, spiritual acceptance, spiritual rejection)” is foolish as Chesterton would say. To make something simple that should be complex is to destroy it by rendering it unimportant, and to make something complex that should be simple is to obfuscate it.
It does not so very much matter whether a man eats a grilled tomato or a plain tomato; it does very much matter whether he eats a plain tomato with a grilled mind. The only kind of simplicity worth preserving is the simplicity of the heart, the simplicity which accepts and enjoys. There may be a reasonable doubt as to what system preserves this; there can surely be no doubt that a system of simplicity destroys it. There is more simplicity in the man who eats caviar on impulse than in the man who eats grape-nuts on principle.
What is the problem with making “making people simple in things that do not matter, but make things complex of things that do matter”? It is the opposite of what is good for us.
The chief error of these people is to be found in the very phrase to which they are most attached–“plain living and high thinking.” These people do not stand in need of, will not be improved by, plain living and high thinking. They stand in need of the contrary. They would be improved by high living and plain thinking. A little high living (I say, having a full sense of responsibility, a little high living) would teach them the force and meaning of the human festivities, of the banquet that has gone on from the beginning of the world. It would teach them the historic fact that the artificial is, if anything, older than the natural. It would teach them that the loving-cup is as old as any hunger. It would teach them that ritualism is older than any religion. And a little plain thinking would teach them how harsh and fanciful are the mass of their own ethics, how very civilized and very complicated must be the brain of the Tolstoyan who really believes it to be evil to love one’s country and wicked to strike a blow. A man approaches, wearing sandals and simple raiment, a raw tomato held firmly in his right hand, and says, “The affections of family and country alike are hindrances to the fuller development of human love;” but the plain thinker will only answer him, with a wonder not untinged with admiration, “What a great deal of trouble you must have taken in order to feel like that.” High living will reject the tomato. Plain thinking will equally decisively reject the idea of the invariable sinfulness of war. High living will convince us that nothing is more materialistic than to despise a pleasure as purely material. And plain thinking will convince us that nothing is more materialistic than to reserve our horror chiefly for material wounds. The only simplicity that matters is the simplicity of the heart. If that be gone, it can be brought back by no turnips or cellular clothing; but only by tears and terror and the fires that are not quenched
People who seem to have simple and complex things swapped say we should do things that are absurd. As always we should look to those who have more wonder to see what we should make simple and what things complex.
The child is, indeed, in these, and many other matters, the best guide. And in nothing is the child so righteously childlike, in nothing does he exhibit more accurately the sounder order of simplicity, than in the fact that he sees everything with a simple pleasure, even the complex things. The false type of naturalness harps always on the distinction between the natural and the artificial. The higher kind of naturalness ignores that distinction. To the child the tree and the lamp-post are as natural and as artificial as each other; or rather, neither of them are natural but both supernatural. For both are splendid and unexplained. The flower with which God crowns the one, and the flame with which Sam the lamplighter crowns the other, are equally of the gold of fairy-tales.
To have this sense of wonder (High-living) is to enjoy the world. If we make simple the things that do not matter we lose the wonder of those things and when we make things complex in things that do matter we cannot enjoy them.
The evil is that the childish poetry of clockwork does not remain. The wrong is not that engines are too much admired, but that they are not admired enough. The sin is not that engines are mechanical, but that men are mechanical.
The core of this issue is a major heresy: that a change in habit or social routine are the keys to change. This is what people like Marx would say but in fact the most important things are the abstract things because those are the things that drive our sense of wonder.
In this matter, then, as in all the other matters treated in this book, our main conclusion is that it is a fundamental point of view, a philosophy or religion which is needed, and not any change in habit or social routine. The things we need most for immediate practical purposes are all abstractions. We need a right view of the human lot, a right view of the human society; and if we were living eagerly and angrily in the enthusiasm of those things, we should, ipso facto, be living simply in the genuine and spiritual sense. Desire and danger make every one simple.
We should not worry about what we eat or drink but instead think about other things.
To those who talk to us with interfering eloquence about Jaeger and the pores of the skin, and about Plasmon and the coats of the stomach, at them shall only be hurled the words that are hurled at fops and gluttons, “Take no thought what ye shall eat or what ye shall drink, or wherewithal ye shall be clothed. For after all these things do the Gentiles seek. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.” Those amazing words are not only extraordinarily good, practical politics; they are also superlatively good hygiene. The one supreme way of making all those processes go right, the processes of health, and strength, and grace, and beauty, the one and only way of making certain of their accuracy, is to think about something else.
There is nothing new under the sun. In Chesterton’s day people were telling others what they should eat or drink (while making preposterous claims about minds and souls) and today we have people who tell us how to live to save the planet by what we eat, drink, or release but then say that the “science is settled”. It could also be in the stopping of certain drink sizes or in the banning of weapons to avoid evil acts without dealing with the real cause which is fatherlessness.
A good example (besides political) of this is when people in a narrative sense remove the wonder of the truth to feel intellectually safe.
The world often focuses on the wrong things and tries to change the things that really do not affect us while ‘meh’ing away the abstractions that define us as humans. It is the great problem of today: confusing the problem. Christianity follows a simple idea: we are sinners and God gives us salvation. In the distant past people had issues with the salvation part. Today, people instead have issues with the sin part. It is the return of gnostic, that some part of us is considered pure. That is the part the world makes ‘complex’ and then simplifies the part they want to fix because that is the bad part. A change in diet of habit will never change a bad idea into a good idea but a change to a correct worldview will aid in health.
Instead of making the great things in life ‘simple’ and making the clear things ‘complex’ we should think simply/well and enjoy life.