Orthodoxy by G. K. Chesterton


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Page 42

This, therefore, is our first requirement about the ideal towards
which progress is directed; it must be fixed. Whistler used to make
many rapid studies of a sitter; it did not matter if he tore up
twenty portraits. But it would matter if he looked up twenty times,
and each time saw a new person sitting placidly for his portrait.
So it does not matter (comparatively speaking) how often humanity fails
to imitate its ideal; for then all its old failures are fruitful.
But it does frightfully matter how often humanity changes its ideal;
for then all its old failures are fruitless. The question therefore
becomes this: How can we keep the artist discontented with his pictures
while preventing him from being vitally discontented with his art?
How can we make a man always dissatisfied with his work, yet always
satisfied with working? How can we make sure that the portrait
painter will throw the portrait out of window instead of taking
the natural and more human course of throwing the sitter out
of window?

A strict rule is not only necessary for ruling; it is also necessary
for rebelling. This fixed and familiar ideal is necessary to any
sort of revolution. Man will sometimes act slowly upon new ideas;
but he will only act swiftly upon old ideas. If I am merely
to float or fade or evolve, it may be towards something anarchic;
but if I am to riot, it must be for something respectable. This is
the whole weakness of certain schools of progress and moral evolution.
They suggest that there has been a slow movement towards morality,
with an imperceptible ethical change in every year or at every instant.
There is only one great disadvantage in this theory. It talks of a slow
movement towards justice; but it does not permit a swift movement.
A man is not allowed to leap up and declare a certain state of things
to be intrinsically intolerable. To make the matter clear, it is better
to take a specific example. Certain of the idealistic vegetarians,
such as Mr. Salt, say that the time has now come for eating no meat;
by implication they assume that at one time it was right to eat meat,
and they suggest (in words that could be quoted) that some day
it may be wrong to eat milk and eggs. I do not discuss here the
question of what is justice to animals. I only say that whatever
is justice ought, under given conditions, to be prompt justice.
If an animal is wronged, we ought to be able to rush to his rescue.
But how can we rush if we are, perhaps, in advance of our time? How can
we rush to catch a train which may not arrive for a few centuries?
How can I denounce a man for skinning cats, if he is only now what I
may possibly become in drinking a glass of milk? A splendid and insane
Russian sect ran about taking all the cattle out of all the carts.
How can I pluck up courage to take the horse out of my hansom-cab,
when I do not know whether my evolutionary watch is only a little
fast or the cabman's a little slow? Suppose I say to a sweater,
"Slavery suited one stage of evolution." And suppose he answers,
"And sweating suits this stage of evolution." How can I answer if there
is no eternal test? If sweaters can be behind the current morality,
why should not philanthropists be in front of it? What on earth
is the current morality, except in its literal sense--the morality
that is always running away?

Thus we may say that a permanent ideal is as necessary to the
innovator as to the conservative; it is necessary whether we wish
the king's orders to be promptly executed or whether we only wish
the king to be promptly executed. The guillotine has many sins,
but to do it justice there is nothing evolutionary about it.
The favourite evolutionary argument finds its best answer in
the axe. The Evolutionist says, "Where do you draw the line?"
the Revolutionist answers, "I draw it HERE: exactly between your
head and body." There must at any given moment be an abstract
right and wrong if any blow is to be struck; there must be something
eternal if there is to be anything sudden. Therefore for all
intelligible human purposes, for altering things or for keeping
things as they are, for founding a system for ever, as in China,
or for altering it every month as in the early French Revolution,
it is equally necessary that the vision should be a fixed vision.
This is our first requirement.

When I had written this down, I felt once again the presence
of something else in the discussion: as a man hears a church bell
above the sound of the street. Something seemed to be saying,
"My ideal at least is fixed; for it was fixed before the foundations
of the world. My vision of perfection assuredly cannot be altered;
for it is called Eden. You may alter the place to which you
are going; but you cannot alter the place from which you have come.
To the orthodox there must always be a case for revolution;
for in the hearts of men God has been put under the feet of Satan.
In the upper world hell once rebelled against heaven. But in this
world heaven is rebelling against hell. For the orthodox there
can always be a revolution; for a revolution is a restoration.
At any instant you may strike a blow for the perfection which
no man has seen since Adam. No unchanging custom, no changing
evolution can make the original good any thing but good.
Man may have had concubines as long as cows have had horns:
still they are not a part of him if they are sinful. Men may
have been under oppression ever since fish were under water;
still they ought not to be, if oppression is sinful. The chain may
seem as natural to the slave, or the paint to the harlot, as does
the plume to the bird or the burrow to the fox; still they are not,
if they are sinful. I lift my prehistoric legend to defy all
your history. Your vision is not merely a fixture: it is a fact."
I paused to note the new coincidence of Christianity: but I
passed on.

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Books | Photos | Paul Mutton | Wed 22nd Nov 2017, 12:55