Friday, May 29, 2009

For GKC's Birthday: Jaki on Chesterton

To our members and to all interested students of science and philosophy:

Today is the 135th birthday of G. K. Chesterton - and it is right and just for our Society to mark this important day with special festivals, luncheons, and symposia, for Jaki himself has honoured GKC with the title "Champion of the Universe". (If you wish to know why, read SLJ's Chesterton a Seer of Science, where it forms the title of the concluding chapter.)

You already know I am a Chestertonian and have busied myself with work on this great philosopher and Scholar-of-the-Common-Man, and by now you know that Jaki studied his work to the extent of a book and five or more essays, and many references, attributed and unattributed, to his work. But perhaps - having read SLJ's Science and Creation and other such texts, you wonder about the origin of the connection.

Herewith, Father Jaki's own explanation of his intellectual connection with GKC.

--Dr. Thursday.

[My book] Miracles and Physics begins with a quotation of Chesterton's dictum: "The most incredible thing about miracles is that they happen." [This is from GKC's short story "The Blue Cross" in The Innocence of Father Brown] This dictum is worth quoting not only on account of its paradoxical strength, but also because it is part and parcel of the vast and ever fresh outflow of the thought of a truly Christian philosopher. I did not put it this way either in my book, Chesterton: A Seer of Science, or in my essay, "G. K. C. as R. C.", [which appears in SLJ's Catholic Essays] and much less in my first publication on Chesterton, a study of his criticism of Blatchford, a prominent British atheist of the turn of the century, whose books sold at that time by the millions. That they are now totally forgotten may suggest that atheism may not be the best assurance for a book to be kept in print. Atheism has to be reinvented again and again. Only the unadvised see in it originality as it finds ever new spokesmen for some antiquated arguments. My original encounter with Chesterton goes back to the mid-1950s, when I read through his Orthodoxy, though I hardly plumbed its depth. One phrase in it, however, became engraved in my memory, and I found it very effective in disarming young atheists, increasingly numerous among Catholic college students. In that phrase, Chesterton exposed the rationalist, who tries to put heaven in his head and finds his skull split in the effort. [See Orthodoxy CW1:220] Years later, when I took a more sustained look at Chesterton's major works, my interest in him was certainly aroused on seeing his remarkable battling of scientism, my bête noire. But since I had already flayed that dead horse more than it deserved, I doubt that I would have been prompted to delve into Chesterton's thought for that reason alone. Two further promptings had to come so that in the back of my mind there should slowly emerge the plan of Chesterton: A Seer of Science. One of the two was the falling into my hands of an unpretentious volume in the Pocket Books series, Great Essays in Science, put together by Martin Gardner. Most of the essays reprinted there were familiar to me. But I was utterly surprised to find among them "The Logic of Elfland," a chapter from Chesterton's Orthodoxy. When I first read it sometime in 1956 I was utterly blind to the extraordinary grasp which Chesterton displayed there of what science was truly about. The other prompting came when I read, about ten years later, Chesterton's St. Thomas Aquinas and Gilson's astonished comment on it. Gilson had just delivered his famed Gifford Lectures, The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, but on reading Chesterton's book he became convinced that Chesterton seized the gist of Thomas' thought in a way that could not be improved upon. As I did my research on Chesterton: A Seer of Science I found that this was not Gilson's first encounter with Chesterton. He had already heard, around 1927, Chesterton lecture at the University of Notre Dame. Gilson felt that he was in the presence of a first-class philosopher who in addition had a facility with phrases that philosophers usually cannot match. Forty or so years later Gilson emphatically repeated this erstwhile evaluation of Chesterton, the philosopher. Chesterton was, of course, a Christian who philosophized without trying to become a philosopher. Like Gilson, Chesterton came to Christian philosophy rather unintentionally. By battling solipsism as a deadly enemy, Chesterton could find life and sanity only in that realism which dogmatic, orthodox Christianity alone could assure. Chesterton soon saw that Catholicism was the only form of Christianity that consistently and firmly stood for facts and reality. The evidence is already in Heretics where Chesterton gives his reasons why Christ chose Peter, the fumbler, to be the rock foundation of His Church. [See Heretics CW1:70; also see SLJ's two texts on the Papacy.] One of the greatest challenges of Chesterton's biographers is to explain why it took a dozen years before Chesterton formally joined the Church. They must, of course, take into account the inscrutable workings of God's sovereign grace. In my book on Chesterton I dealt strictly with the richness of his reflections on science, which would have done credit to any accomplished philosopher and historian of science. The chapters of that book came from lectures delivered at the University of Notre Dame, to the dismay of some professors there who found it intolerable that so many "conservatives" came to hear me. Liberals once more displayed their illiberality as well as their shallowness of mind, which resorts to easy categorizations instead of serious appraisals of the matter on hand. One of those professors dismissed Chesterton as a "mere journalist." He did not take note when I personally called his attention to Gilson's testimony about Chesterton's greatness as a philosopher. Chesterton was also a Catholic who never tried to conceal that he was a Catholic. He knew that concealment in that respect is its most counterproductive form. For it is an ageless truth that man is a religious being and those prove this best who use philosophy to show that they are not. Man is a being who lives by religion whether he admits this or not. By trying to live without religion man can all too readily succeed in turning into an animal, a fact which philosophers have the primary duty to consider, unless they care only for their own ideas. Increasingly they do not care for matters that weigh most heavily on men's minds.
[Jaki, A Mind's Matter: An Intellectual Autobiography 196-8; the notes are mine.]

[Note: the essays comprising the "Blatchford Controversies" have been printed in Chesterton's CW1, the first volume of his collected works published by Ignatius Press, also available through the American Chesterton Society.]

1 comment:

Makarios said...

135 years!!! That's incredible. He must be just about the oldest man in the world, except for some guys in Tibet. Well, I’ll raise a glass and smoke a cigar in the fat guy's honour . . . Oh, no, that’s Churchill I'm thinking of, sorry. Anyway, have a good one!