Tag Archives: G. K. Chesterton

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: True North and the Moral Compass

Gorgias
Gorgias of Leontini

Moral relativism is not new. It has been around since Gorgias of Leontini (in Sicily) arrived in Athens in 427 BC, and really even before that. In his Protagoras, Plato interpreted the teacher of the same name’s dictum, “Man is the measure of all things,” to be an advocacy of moral relativism, i.e., that any human being is capable of determining what truth is from a personal vantage point. In other words, from the mid-fifth century B.C. on, Protagoras’ view competing with the notion of a moral absolute was established, an early form of phenomenalism that suggests that a single individual deems true what is true for that person. It would quickly devolve into an essentially nihilistic view expressed by the Sicilian sophist Gorgias in his now lost (but preserved piecemeal in two other sources) treatise entitled On Non-Existence which suggests that nothing exists (i.e., being has no existence) or, if it were to exist, what it consists of would be impossible to know, explain or be understood.[1] (Coincidentally, these are the very opinions most of my agnostic friends advance about God).

Protagoras
Protagoras

The most important aspect of Gorgias’ argument—what he has successfully transmitted to the modern age—is that there is no such thing as an objective point of view, for each individual’s point of view is precisely that—individual. And that is where his argument dovetails with Protagoras, and it is on that confluence that I want to focus this blog, for I met a man in Italy who happened to be advancing essentially the same argument as that of Gorgias and Protagoras.

Now a disclaimer: normally these kinds of conversations happen to me on an aircraft but this time it was at a bar. Still, the argument, which I am paraphrasing here, was worthy of any aircraft: it was stated in very anti-platonic terms (but of course, as it is essentially a sophistic argument) that since there is no objective vantage point, all moral codes are constructs. No one can say whether any is better than another or, for that matter, which is good at all, since even the notion of good is a construct. Put metaphorically, there is no “north”; there is only an agreed upon direction that many folks say is north, but if even one person should say that north is not north, then there can’t be a true north. Or, even if there is a true north, it is not knowable, as each person interprets the direction “north” in his or her own way.

compassOn this view, the question of what north is ultimately becomes a preference—do I find north preferable or not? I may have my own ideas about north, but those are just my ideas, constructed for me, most likely, out of the worldview that I inherited. So, even if I say I prefer my interpretation of north I cannot discount another person’s interpretation of north, which might really be east, or south, or west, or some other direction. I cannot say to that person, “No, if you go west when you’re intending to go north it will be quite dangerous for you. I really want to dissuade you from taking the wrong direction.”

And the reason one should not do that, according to the view of the man at the bar, is because we ourselves actually can’t possibly “know,” however certain we may feel about it, where north really is; we only know what we prefer about what is called north and we may like (or simply be habituated to) our own “north” but we have to recognize that someone else’s west might serve just as well as a north as our own north does.

This sounds clever, and at first blush, even generous. Let’s start with the positive: it is generous and very “non-judgmental”—so much so, though, that even when it sees someone going the wrong way, it doesn’t intervene on the principle that true north is not a knowable concept. To press the north analogy just a bit, one might say, “AftWrong wayer all, true north is not precisely magnetic north, which itself differs from grid north. So, who is to say what ‘north’ really is anyway?” And thus it is that the person who has thoroughly adopted this mindset can’t intervene when someone is going the wrong way on the principle that he or she should not presume to know that his own way is the right way. He prefers his direction, but it is only a preference.

The only comfort I can find in this argument really is that it is an old one; as Solomon wrote (though obviously not in Latin), nihil novum sub sole, and he was right, there is nothing new under the sun. The relativistic argument has been recycled nowadays and fobbed off as new, sc. post-modern. But really it is very un-modern, a bit humdrum, and in any case very old. And it is also countered not only by the obvious—that we do exist and that there is a such a thing as life, liberty and happiness, honor, dignity and worth—but by the fact that north itself does exist, entirely independent of us, our point of view, or even whether or not our compass should be working properly. While what we call “north” may vary both in terms of precisely where it is (as magnetic north does move a bit) and by what it is called—the Chinese (Mandarin) word for north is Bei, Japanese is Kita (though the symbol [北] for both is virtually the same, since the Japanese calligraphic kanji is based on Chinese Hanji), Hebrew is tzafon, Hungarian is északi; yet despite all these differences, north is, in the end, indeed northward, however tautological that may sound. Since that is true, it is especially important to call attention to the direction in which north lies when we find a person heading west but thinking that he is going north, who we know is clearly sailing into dangerous waters.

Thus it is not ethnocentric cultural superiority to say to the cannibal that it is simply wrong to kill and eat one’s fellow human being. Nor is it a matter of going too far to say that if one sees a woman being beaten by a man, it is good, even necessary to intervene. It is not wrong to tackle a bad guy who is running from the police, not wrong to prevent a terrorist from being successful in his attack (if it should fall to one’s lot to be in a position to do so), not wrong to stop any act of sheer evil. It is not the case that we should say to ourselves, “But I can’t know what the precise motives of that person happen to be, nor can I say that this or that person’s version of right and wrong are the same as my own, so I can’t and shouldn’t intervene.” We are not hardwired to conform to the non-interventionist “prime directive” of the old Star Trek series—the consistent failure to do which, by the way, made Captain Kirk the admirable hero of the series; indeed, do we not innately wish to do precisely what Kirk does?

Mother Theresa
Mother Teresa

Thus, we are born with an internal compass that suggests to everyone from every culture a sense of right and wrong and those of us who can recognize true north, actually have a kind of moral obligation—for we ultimately believe in morality, that morality is something given to us by a higher power, by God himself—to direct lovingly, wherever possible, those who are so far off track, whose moral compass is so broken, that they are likely to render harm to themselves or others. Is that ethnocentric cultural superiority? Someone might try to make that argument, but the moral code I am referring to as “north” has been transmitted by the votes of what G. K. Chesterton calls the “Democracy of the Dead,”[2] handed down in many cases by wise teachers like Socrates, Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and, most recently, Mother Teresa of Calcutta.  All of those individuals had a pretty good idea of the direction in which north lies.  And what has been demonstrated for us by their example is instilled in us, ultimately, by God.

In closing, what can we learn from my friend at the bar? Well, first, we should recall that his ideas are not new: they are very old. They devolve from Protagoras and Gorgias. Second, we can learn that while being empathetic and seeking to understand as best as one can, the point of view of another is certainly a good thing—love your neighbor as yourself is an unqualified command—that does not mean that to do so we must deny our God-given internal compass. (And one should be very careful here, for if we deny it long enough, we may corrupt it or simply lose it, as so many of those who have joined the ranks of ISIS clearly have.) Rather, let us gage our journey by the North Star which means, from time to time, if we are following the internal compass aright, we may even have to direct others trying to find their way on the same path on which we are going. I am heading north; please feel free to join me.

[1] This treatise, by the way, enjoys the highly ironic title Περὶ τοῦ μὴ ὄντος ἢ Περὶ φύσεως, which, when translated, means “‘On Not Being’ or ‘On Nature’,” the latter of which the former clearly undermines.

[2] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (1908), p. 85.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Miracles

I have a friend who has a beloved uncle whom I also know quite well—he might as well be my own uncle. Indeed, he allows me to call him by that familiar title. Yet he does not believe in miracles. I would like to say that it isn’t the case that he doesn’t believe they can happen as much as it is simply that he has never seen one. But, in fact, it is the case that he does not believe they can happen at all.

Now I myself am as skeptical as he is about faith healers on television who ask you to send money for a prayer cloth that they have anointed with some kind of healing oil. I am not sure whether this is just an American phenomenon; perhaps some of you who might be reading this in another country are not familiar with this phenomenon—I mean televised miracle workers, not miracles per se. Yet for those of you who may not know, I can tell you this much: at certain times of the evening in the States you might just flip to a certain television channel and find a certain man (for usually it is a male) who will touch some certain person in a crowd and (likely by some prearranged agreement) that person will throw their crutches aside and begin leaping about on the stage (for usually it is a stage) and declare that they have been healed.

Yet I don’t count such a spectacle as a miracle. Rather, it is precisely a spectacle, something that the (possibly well intentioned, possibly not) Rachel as a babytelevangelist has put together (whether to entertain or, more likely, to obtain donations). This is not a miracle. Instead, I count as a miracle a baby.

I write this on the very date, twenty-three years ago to the day, that a friend of mine had to deliver his own child because the doctor had gone out to have a smoke—I say nothing here about doctors ought knowing better—at the very moment that the child was appearing. My friend told me that he had the unique opportunity of receiving nearly half of his daughter’s body before the nurses came charging in to help. The doctor, in the meantime, was enjoying an unsanctioned rendezvous with the Marlboro man. That, to me, is a miracle—not the smoking doctor, but the daughter, choking, gurgling, gasping for her first breath as she entered rapidly into this world.MARLBORO CIGARETTES POSTER ADVERT, MARLBORO MAN, COWBOY SMOKING

To look closely at a newborn baby is a startling act, for it is to behold a miracle. It is amazing to think that the child has grown so rapidly in the mother’s womb. Indeed, it is more amazing to think that it has grown in another person at all. If you are lucky enough to behold it immediately after birth lying upon its mother’s chest, with tiny grasping hands, its look of new life, and the image of its mother’s love, you will witness perhaps an even greater miracle than the child’s birth. G.K. Chesterton once wrote “… we cannot say why an egg can turn into a chicken any more than we can say why a bear could turn into a fairy prince. baby grasping handAs IDEAS, the egg and the chicken are further off from each other than the bear and the prince; for no egg in itself suggests a chicken, whereas some princes do suggest bears.”[1] In short, like that of the egg producing a chick, the idea of a human being, a mother, producing a baby is rather fantastic, at least if we suppose for a moment that we had never known how babies came into being. If we are not amazed by this, it is only because we take it for granted.

Now this is not the only kind of miracle that I believe exists, but I do believe that it is particularly miraculous. My friend has never quite gotten over his catching that child as she came into the world; he still talks about it, especially when he waxes nostalgic over a glass of wine and a bite of Swiss cheese, whose holes themselves, too, might just be particularly miraculous; else why would there be at least two theories about the holes in the cheese?).[2]

But beyond the particularly miraculous, the “that’s-amazing-when-you-think-about-it” type of miracle, there are also miracles that are peculiarly miraculous. It is that type that the charlatan televangelist tries but fails to emulate with his smoke and mirrors on television every week. That type is the kind that people all too often crave, about which someone might say, “now if I saw that kind of (peculiar) miracle, I would believe that miracles can happen.” But of course those miracles, indeed any miracles, particular or peculiar, hardly ever appear to those folks. There are two reasons, I suppose, for that.

Stockton Pres ChurchFirst, miracles are, by definition, miraculous. They don’t happen often or they wouldn’t be so. Second, the people about whom I am speaking can’t see the miracles when they’re right in front of them. They miss the particular miracles because they don’t recognize in the face of a baby a mind-boggling sight, a fantasy come alive. Nor would they see, of course, peculiar miracles, nor accept another’s account of them, such as Elaine Jakes catching the scent of cheese in a church in Stockton, NJ, and beginning to go to that church regularly soon after that.[3] Nor would they accept a story, even from a known source, about someone encountering an angel.[4] They may even believe that love is merely a chemical reaction of the brain and that forgiveness is something unachievable, especially in certain egregious circumstances. They might even say there are no such things as truth or justice. And they certainly don’t believe in Superman, or at least the archetype that he represents in the comics.

Holocaust
Surpassing tragic picture from the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. Photo by Jorge Láscar

And my dear uncle might say, “Well, for every ‘miracle,’ you produce, I’ll show you ten non-miracles, and worse yet. How do you explain the Holocaust alongside your so-called miracles?” And he would be spot-on right. This is the most vexing question. What he is essentially asking is why children die, why genocide happens, why there is human suffering, why there is such sadness in the world.

I cannot answer these questions. Rather, I can only revert to miracles. I start with the Italian adverb-adjective combination, molto particolare. I learned this expression from a dear friend who studies art. He uses it to describe the finest workmanship. It is a kind of Italian code word for “very beautiful, very well made.” Now, perhaps I am but stating the obvious, but I believe particular (i.e. the Italian particolare) miracles are often overlooked simply because they are the rule.

Lake near Lac Blanc
Mt. Blanc

One takes the beach for granted if one lives by the shore. One takes the Alps for granted if one lives on Mont Blanc. Babies are born every moment, colorful flowers bloom in green fields, peaches are succulent, and a true friend…—well you’ll know that when you find one. I made such a friend a long time ago at Dickinson College; his name is Tim, and he is a lawyer now in

Tim and me in college
Tim and H.R. at Dickinson

Harrisburg. I spoke of him to a dear colleague just yesterday; even after all these years I described him as closer than a brother. Such friendship is a particular miracle, too.

I am not so far off topic as you might imagine. If human suffering somehow mars particular miracles—certainly it does for my dear uncle and I believe for many others with whom I’ve spoken about the possibility of life having meaning—peculiar miracles, if not quite offering an answer, nevertheless somehow offer a response to the problem of human suffering. Such miracles are no less beautiful than the particular, everyday miracles, but they are strange in a different way than a chicken coming from an egg is strange. They are peculiar precisely because they defy natural laws. I take one (click here) or two (click here for another) recent examples from the news. If you look at these clips, you’ll see that they both record children coming back to life when they were dead. Not near death; dead. Now one could say that that kind of thing happens somewhere in the world everyday. But, first of all, it does not. Secondly, it does not happen to you every day. It does not happen to your neighbor or friend every day. And when it does happen to you, there’s a chance then that you’ll recognize that you were party to a peculiar miracle.

If particular (i.e. beautiful) miracles are tarnished by humankind’s inhumanity and the grief engendered by natural disasters, peculiar miracles are not so much a response as perhaps an antidote to the vexing question of human suffering. This would be especially true if peculiar miracles should be construed as messages from another world. If that were to be the case, the adjective peculiar would indeed be a good descriptive term for them. But that is the stuff of another blog, a blog about life—and wine and cheese, of course. And now that I think about it, perhaps the holes in Swiss cheese are a peculiar miracle after all.swiss cheese

[1] Orthodoxy, p. 290.

[2] See http://brightmags.com/why-does-swiss-cheese-have-holes/.

[3] The Curious Autobiography, p. 185.

[4] The Curious Autobiography, p. 206.

 

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman

 

Over one hundred years ago, the great British writer G.K. Chesterton suggested that the human experience is, like that of Robinson Crusoe, one of collecting soggy broken pieces of life, and trying to survive on a deserted island after a shipwreck; as he puts it, “all things have had this hair-breadth escape: everything has been saved from a wreck” (Orthodoxy [New York, 1908] p. 64). LucyHJonesTrunkFortunately, my family made it to America in 1869, and with them they brought, miraculously “a teapot, tea leaves … and a cheese plate, … a frightful one at that, … transported from Wales to Pennsylvania … in a trunk that served as the family’s covenantal ark … the objects of this story, but not the object of this story” (Curious Autobiography, p. 9f.). We were the family of “Great Might-Not-Have-Beens,” to use another expression from the same page of Chesterton’s enlightening book. We might not have been if the boat did not make it; we might not have been if Lucy Hughes Jones had died when delivering her child, Elizabeth Ann (for both of them nearly died at the moment of Lizzie’s birth in 1871). And we might not have been who we became without the journey itself, which, as Elaine notes in her autobiography, is the object of the story.

And who are we to say that we, this small band of Welsh men and women, mostly the latter and yes–we were primarily a matriarchy—became anything at all? This question is ultimately the central focus of The Curious Autobiography of Elaine Jakes and will be the central focus of this blog. Put another way, does an ordinary life, the lives of Welsh immigrants, have any meaning? Is there such a thing as destiny or fate? Put perhaps a bit more positively, is there a purpose for our lives? For life?

Good heavens, we’re waxing philosophical and lest we get bogged down in a blog that is meant to be fun to read, let’s tell a story, as story that may or may not illustrate what we mean. (Before I go further, I should say that I will shift back and forth from the first person singular to the first person plural, as Elaine’s voice still echoes in my head, and she now writes, in a sense, through me—nothing too mystical, just a fact.)

That story is an aspect of one that we tell in the Curious Autobiography, but there remains an important part of that story that we did not include in the book. It has to do with the packing of Lucy Hughes Jones’ trunk for the voyage to America, for which trip she was, for the first and only time, leaving Llanelli (not at all pronounced like it is spelled). Now I should add that, though the Welsh take packing very seriously, in my experience, they mostly hate to travel. That is possibly because the Welsh are said to be descended from hobs, or elfin hobs, to be precise about it. Now we might call these elfin hobs merely elves, but we would be mistaken.

The facts are these. Hobs are quite close cousins of elves, closer even than elves are to leprechauns, to whom they are related on their father’s side—never through the maternal line. A not very precise analogy might be the way the Welsh are related to the Scots, and the Scots to the Irish. Yet, while leprechauns are strictly Irish, hobs are not exclusively (though they are mostly) Welsh, and elves, of course, are not exclusive to Scotland, though everyone knows that they are found there quite often.   Of the three, leprachauns, elves and hobs, the last group most dislikes travel.

But let us return to the admittedly ironic idea that even hobian descendants hate to travel, albeit the Welsh are good packers. It is no small piece of information for our family’s history that into that trunk, that ugly black trunk with the name Lucy Jones clearly painted in what was theAngleCheesePlaten much more distinctly visible paint, went the things that would serve to remind our family in America of our Welsh heritage and, more than that, of our significance. Among these objects were the family cheese platLucyJonesTeapote (whose face always frightened the small children), several Welsh warming sweaters, two quilts, a Welsh serving platter, a Welsh flag, and a tea service, if a quite limited one, the centerpiece of which was Lucy Hughes Jones’ favorite teapot that features brown undulating swirls not so much like the tide of Mumbles by the Sea as that of the inlet that touches upon Llanelli itself.

Those fragile objects might well have tumbled one on the other in the trunk and broken had not an especially curious hob (and thus less afraid of travel than most) named Gwilym[04] Gwilym the elf, at the last moment, just before the trunk was closed, jumped inside. It is said that he used the teapot for his pillow, the platter for his bed, and the cheese plate for his footrest during the journey, thus keeping the most important objects from breaking. Gwilym, by the way, would eventually come to live in the family’s piano, where he stored nuts stolen from dishes put out when company came.  He seems to have enjoyed gathering and hiding his nuts as much as eating them. These objects, not icons or totems or idols, but mere objects, would prove to be symbols that we were not “Might-Not-Have-Beens” but demonstrably “Have-Beens,” which if it has a less than glorious ring to it, nevertheless begs the question of significance, even if, perhaps especially if, you happen to be descended from an elfin hob.

What is the significance, then, of these objects and the lives that they represented, or any family’s significance, any human being’s significance? The answer to that question is one that, even if it is intended for all, seems to present itself only to some, and it does so in most cases only over a good deal of time, often a lifetime.  And so it is our belief that it is tightly bound to the journey, not simply a journey, such as ours was, from Wales to America but bound to the journey that is each person’s life.