I am concluding my journey through G.K. Chesterton’s Heretics. It has been a good journey, but this is the last chapter of this collection of Chesterton essays. This last chapter sums up the major ideas of the book: heretics abound when there is no orthodoxy/dogmas because the true heretics would be the ones who hold orthodoxy/dogmas.
Heresy exposed: Not coming to conclusions.
Summary of Chapter:
The question Chesterton starts with is a question that has plagued mankind and will continue to plague mankind until its end: what is progress? One group thinks it is the tearing down of the old, and the other thinks it is the going back to the old. When we think of the human mind then it can only progress with it comes to conclusions. It can only come to conclusions if it holds convictions.
The vice of the modern notion of mental progress is that it is always something concerned with the breaking of bonds, the effacing of boundaries, the casting away of dogmas. But if there be such a thing as mental growth, it must mean the growth into more and more definite convictions, into more and more dogmas. The human brain is a machine for coming to conclusions; if it cannot come to conclusions it is rusty.
Plato defined knowledge as ‘justified true belief’ and this definition has stuck and there has not been a better one. Justification is the action that proves it to be true such as logic, experience, or other factors. To be true is that it matches up with reality (the correspondence theory of truth). A belief is something that we hold dear. All three are needed to gain knowledge. Without any of them there cannot be any knowledge or even progress.
Man can hardly be defined, after the fashion of Carlyle, as an animal who makes tools; ants and beavers and many other animals make tools, in the sense that they make an apparatus. Man can be defined as an animal that makes dogmas. As he piles doctrine on doctrine and conclusion on conclusion in the formation of some tremendous scheme of philosophy and religion, he is, in the only legitimate sense of which the expression is capable, becoming more and more human. When he drops one doctrine after another in a refined scepticism, when he declines to tie himself to a system, when he says that he has outgrown definitions, when he says that he disbelieves in finality, when, in his own imagination, he sits as God, holding no form of creed but contemplating all, then he is by that very process sinking slowly backwards into the vagueness of the vagrant animals and the unconsciousness of the grass. Trees have no dogmas. Turnips are singularly broad-minded.
The issue then as it is today is that people are scared by Truth. If there is such a thing as truth that means that only it can be true. To some that is offensive, restricting, and triggering. In reality, there are things that are obviously true. Things like I cannot fly under my own power so I should not jump off a sky scraper thinking I can fly or thinking the person I am going to meet next does not exist so I should punch them as hard as I can. These beliefs when tested (and they never will be because they never have to be) will lead to disastrous effects.
Unfortunately, the philosopher who talks about aspects of truth generally also asks, “What is truth?” Frequently even he denies the existence of truth, or says it is inconceivable by the human intelligence. How, then, can he recognize its aspects? I should not like to be an artist who brought an architectural sketch to a builder, saying, “This is the south aspect of Sea-View Cottage. Sea-View Cottage, of course, does not exist.” I should not even like very much to have to explain, under such circumstances, that Sea-View Cottage might exist, but was unthinkable by the human mind. Nor should I like any better to be the bungling and absurd metaphysician who professed to be able to see everywhere the aspects of a truth that is not there. Of course, it is perfectly obvious that there are truths in Kipling, that there are truths in Shaw or Wells. But the degree to which we can perceive them depends strictly upon how far we have a definite conception inside us of what is truth. It is ludicrous to suppose that the more sceptical we are the more we see good in everything. It is clear that the more we are certain what good is, the more we shall see good in everything.
The more we are sure of what truth is then we shall see it everywhere, if there is no truth then it cannot exists nor should we be able to see it. Some may say that the concept of truth is a noble lie that binds societies together, but what then would make it noble or even good? How sure are we that truth does not exist when we have the idea of truth being discussed?
A common hesitation in our day touching the use of extreme convictions is a sort of notion that extreme convictions specially upon cosmic matters, have been responsible in the past for the thing which is called bigotry
Bigotry may be roughly defined as the anger of men who have no opinions. It is the resistance offered to definite ideas by that vague bulk of people whose ideas are indefinite to excess. Bigotry may be called the appalling frenzy of the indifferent. This frenzy of the indifferent is in truth a terrible thing; it has made all monstrous and widely pervading persecutions. In this degree it was not the people who cared who ever persecuted; the people who cared were not sufficiently numerous. It was the people who did not care who filled the world with fire and oppression. It was the hands of the indifferent that lit the faggots; it was the hands of the indifferent that turned the rack. There have come some persecutions out of the pain of a passionate certainty; but these produced, not bigotry, but fanaticism–a very different and a somewhat admirable thing. Bigotry in the main has always been the pervading omnipotence of those who do not care crushing out those who care in darkness and blood.
Here the issue comes afresh, the ones with beliefs are not the true bigots. Instead we should beware the ones who do not care for they care too much. The ones who think truth is malleable are the ones who live above even the laws they create, they are the ones who destroy the people who speak against them, and they are the ones who deny the true law that bind up those who are religious.
Religious and philosophical beliefs are, indeed, as dangerous as fire, and nothing can take from them that beauty of danger. But there is only one way of really guarding ourselves against the excessive danger of them, and that is to be steeped in philosophy and soaked in religion.
People have said (especially after 9/11) that religion in general is dangerous. To which Chesterton has already replied: of course they are. They only way to guard ourselves is not to retreat into the cold darkness of secularism but to jump into (head-first using the intellect) philosophy and religion.
Briefly, then, we dismiss the two opposite dangers of bigotry and fanaticism, bigotry which is a too great vagueness and fanaticism which is a too great concentration. We say that the cure for the bigot is belief; we say that the cure for the idealist is ideas. To know the best theories of existence and to choose the best from them (that is, to the best of our own strong conviction) appears to us the proper way to be neither bigot nor fanatic, but something more firm than a bigot and more terrible than a fanatic, a man with a definite opinion. But that definite opinion must in this view begin with the basic matters of human thought, and these must not be dismissed as irrelevant, as religion, for instance, is too often in our days dismissed as irrelevant. Even if we think religion insoluble, we cannot think it irrelevant. Even if we ourselves have no view of the ultimate verities, we must feel that wherever such a view exists in a man it must be more important than anything else in him. The instant that the thing ceases to be the unknowable, it becomes the indispensable.
Religion is exactly the thing which cannot be left out–because it includes everything. The most absent-minded person cannot well pack his Gladstone-bag and leave out the bag. We have a general view of existence, whether we like it or not; it alters or, to speak more accurately, it creates and involves everything we say or do, whether we like it or not. If we regard the Cosmos as a dream, we regard the Fiscal Question as a dream. If we regard the Cosmos as a joke, we regard St. Paul’s Cathedral as a joke. If everything is bad, then we must believe (if it be possible) that beer is bad; if everything be good, we are forced to the rather fantastic conclusion that scientific philanthropy is good. Every man in the street must hold a metaphysical system, and hold it firmly. The possibility is that he may have held it so firmly and so long as to have forgotten all about its existence.
Good or bad religion must be understood as a worldview, never to be discounted. It must be addressed as good or bad. The destruction of society happens when people say ‘what is good for you may not be good for me and what is bad for you may not be bad for me’ as if saying that medicine will not help anyone and that poison will not hurt anyone. When that is the case we become like the Cyclops in the Odyssey being blinded by trickery and no one will come to our aid.
The great march of mental destruction will go on. Everything will be denied. Everything will become a creed. It is a reasonable position to deny the stones in the street; it will be a religious dogma to assert them. It is a rational thesis that we are all in a dream; it will be a mystical sanity to say that we are all awake. Fires will be kindled to testify that two and two make four. Swords will be drawn to prove that leaves are green in summer. We shall be left defending, not only the incredible virtues and sanities of human life, but something more incredible still, this huge impossible universe which stares us in the face. We shall fight for visible prodigies as if they were invisible. We shall look on the impossible grass and the skies with a strange courage. We shall be of those who have seen and yet have believed.
We do not just live in a post-modern society, we live in a post-conclusion society. We live in a world that thinks logic is a societal construction but then uses math to construct a building safely. We live in a world that votes to kill the unborn but then gets upset once they are born that they live without certain needs or are in poverty. We demand equality to the point of saying that men and women are interchangeable, but then demand that the military have different standards of training or that women should have access to ‘meternity’ time (a maternity leave for those who choose not to have kids because “women are bad at putting themselves first”.
When the world does not ground it’s values into what is real we do not and cannot live consistency. Those who hold to truth beliefs will be the ones fighting for what is real while the rest of the world tries to justify things that it can never do.
Someday the real heretics will be the ones who say there is Truth.
For now it is only offensive to say we follow the truth because that states that truth exists and is knowable. Beware the day when that becomes no longer merely offensive but absurd.