Review, G.K. Chesterton, Theologian (Part 3)

Chapter 3 of Nichols’ study of Chesterton is titled “The Discovery of Metaphysical Realism.” Now, if we were speaking of “realism” alone, we would mean an “interest in or concern for the actual or real, as distinguished from the abstract or speculative,” or “the tendency to view or represent things as they really are” and not how we would like to think they should be. But when we speak of “metaphysical realism” then two related philosophical ideas are implicated: first, the idea that objects of sense-perception (what we see, hear, taste, etc.) have an existence independent of whether we perceive them or not. The second philosophical doctrine of realism is a medieval one which, I think, includes the first philosophical doctrine, because it says that the things we perceive are related to the universal reality. Now how they are related is very difficult to say in a few words, but the point is this: contrary to the error gaining ground in modern times that there is no objective reality independent of ourselves, the medieval realist knows that there is.

This means, of course, that human nature is given to us and is not infinitely plastic. Incidentally, for a sustained and accessible treatment of realism in both religion and science, I can think of no better introduction than Fr Paul Robinson’s The Realist Guide to Religion and Science (2018). I should also point out that Chesterton also gives full weight to the great gift of the human imagination whereby we find the wonder in the creation: Christian realism is not matter-of-fact materialism, it is a return to the glory of the first miraculous morning. (pp.66-68)

Returning to “universals,” Chesterton, writing of William Blake’s poetic use of the image of the “Lamb” that: “There really is behind the universe an eternal image called the Lamb, of which all living lambs are merely the copies or the approximation.” (p.84) This is, in one happy sentence, the philosophical side of the ancient Semitic doctrine, perfected in the New Testament, called typology. But I shall not dwell on that here. Nichols, for all his virtues, is not a Semitic typologist, so he does not treat of creation as a Syriac thinker would, but he quite rightly points out that realism in its philosophical senses is closely related to the divine creation of the universe, for all creation was “intelligibly planned by the divine mind who called them ‘good’.” (p.57) The human mind can grasp the real, at least to some extent, precisely because it is inherently intelligible. (p.64) Neither are we at the mercy of individual impressions: our minds can find the larger truth behind them. (p.83) Although no one finds it easy to read St Thomas Aquinas, unless you are one of the fortunate few who have had the opportunity to be guided through him, in many hours of classes, by experts. But Chesterton’s powerful insight has penetrated to the meaning of the saint’s work, and he saw the “positive position of his mind, which is filled and soaked as with sunshine, with the warmth of the wonder of created things …” (p.76)

Now, the fact that Christians understand that the world was created by God, that it has an objective reality, and that that reality has been designed by the divine mind, gives us a confidence in our abilities to know something of the world while retaining a reverence for the mystery at the heart of it. It also means that we share the world with our brethren. If we have the possibility of approaching objective reality, so do they, because reality is infinitely greater than any of us, and is the common gift of God. Hence, the “all-consuming dream of self” in which the faddists of contemporary society indulge, is, quite literally, a form of “madness.” (pp.60-61) They are lunatics in the tradition of Nietzsche, who imagine themselves to be “Supermen,” and are vainly “looking for him in the looking glass”. (p.61) Hence the foolishness that we must always be affirming other people’s delusions. As Chesterton says, brilliantly, in Orthodoxy: “The man who cannot believe his senses and the man who cannot believe anything else are both insane, but their insanity is proved not by any error in their argument, but by the manifest mistake of their whole lives”. (p.61)

If the materialist is correct, then why should any logic at all, whether good or bad, be persuasive? After all, thoughts and thinking are merely “movements in the brain of a bewildered ape”. (p.62) And this leads, naturally I would suggest, to totalitarianism – the exaltation of the will of the strongest. [Although Nichols is wrong to think that this was Nietzsche’s teaching, it is not far removed from it.]

I believe that footnotes have a particular value: to give references for the author’s assertions, and to suggest further reading. They can also be used, although with much discretion, to indicate how one might deal with questions which would disturb the text, either because they were tangential to the main flow, or because they are indelicate. But Nichols has not, I think, done well, in placing these important quotes in a footnote on p.79:

… St Thomas recognised instantly … that a man must either answer that question in the affirmative [whether the primary act of recognition of reality is real], or else never answer any question; never ask any question; never even exist intellectually, to answer or to ask.

 … The mind is neither merely receptive nor merely creative: “the essence of the Thomist common sense is that two agencies are at work: reality and the recognition of reality; and their meeting in a sort of marriage.”

Perhaps we can sum up what Chesterton had to say on the forbidding topic of “metaphysical realism” with this invitation to the mystery: “As compared with a Jew, a Moslem, a Buddhist, a Deist, or most obvious alternatives, a Christian meansa man who believes that deity or sanctity has attached to matter or entered the world of the senses.” (pp.75-76)


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