Chesterton and The Will: The Suicide of Thought

A portrait of Chesterton


I don’t intend a book review, but Chesterton has been on my mind lately. Take this as an attempt at digesting some of his work, while leaving room for the possibility that in my comments I am, in fact, completely wrong.

Hopefully that is not the case.

In Orthodoxy, Chesterton writes:

The artist loves his limitations: they constitute the thing he is doing. The painter is glad that the canvas is flat. The sculptor is glad that the clay is colorless.

Popular conception considers the ideas of liberty and freedom those realities where human civilization is free to exist unrestricted from the choke hold of public and private agencies. One in which we are free to choose whatever path for our lives is best, provided that path not recklessly interfere with another’s. While our definition of reckless may vary, we agree that individuals should be free to choose whatever situation is personally best for them, while not harming others. While this ideology seems to make intuitive sense, lengthy consideration of the proposition may reveal something of a contradiction.

It is the caustic and paradoxical wit of Chesterton that makes the contradiction lucid to us. When one decides that freedom to act is freedom to choose anything, that person effectively chooses nothing. Liberty is necessarily defined within a set of limitations, otherwise what is it defined as? Liberty from what, and to what end? The antecedent frames the historical, the effect is the future and the result  of forethought of the end. At least, the essence of any action is taken within these two parameters. Because of this, our will is immediately limited by nature and must move forward within that frame.

Chesterton uses the example of the French Revolution, saying:

The French Revolution was really an heroic and decisive thing. The Jacobins willed something definite and limited. They desired the freedoms of democracy, but also the vetoes of democracy. They wished to have votes and not to have titles…Therefore, they have created something with a solid substance and shape, the square social equality and peasant wealth of France.

It is only human to consider ends, but such a consideration automatically assumes means. By choosing democracy, the Jacobins did not choose all other forms of government and limited themselves to only one. It would have been impossible for them to have a democracy, monarchy and anarchy. In fact, the point illustrates the only outcome of a society defined by limitlessness: chaos.

We might intellectually agree with Chesterton, it does perhaps constitute a great deal of our world-view to choose something. We are consumers after all – an action defined as consumption of material, of making a choice. We would align more with the materialists, than with the nihilists of Chesterton’s day. This is an irony, however, since much of our actions and world-view approves of Nietzsche’s Will to Anything. Chesterton describes the conundrum thus:

Every act of will is an act of self-limitation. To desire action is to desire limitation. In that sense every act is an act of self-sacrifice. When you choose anything, you reject everything else. That objection, which men of this school used to make to the act of marriage, is really on objection to every act. Every act is an irrevocable selection and exclusion. Just as when you marry one woman you give up all the others, so when you take one course of action you give up all the other courses.

Our nature is encased within the limitations of time, our choices are likewise limited inherently. Every choice approved is to the negation of everything else, even if that choice lasts only a moment. Our choices come with consequences, environmental, but also biological. As choices are made, our cognition adapts to the stimuli that is a result of those choices. Neuron activity increases and the brain begins to search for patterns. The resulting neural activity is itself a limitation of our psyche and condition. Sights, sounds and especially smells are associated with events, the results of choices made and we consciously or unconsciously react, but we have no power over what is called to mind and what is not, or what thoughts bring about behavioral patterns, which can be deviant or accepted by cultural standards.

As such, Chesterton’s argument rings true on many levels. Neural patterns are limited and a result of experience and biology, they result in behavior that is limited based on what we are predisposed to, those behaviors result in choices that are also limited, those choices are approved of or criticized by culture, culture is limited because of laws, and laws are limited because of government. As soon as we hear talk of “limitless growth” or “growth economies” or the “limitless potential of our minds” we should immediately divert our attention elsewhere. Such arguments simply cannot stand the test of logic, much less reality.

By nature, growth must be defined within a goal, otherwise what is it we are growing to? This questioning brings up a host of other questions, such as the value of the stated goal. Perhaps growth should not be a priority, maybe it is not the best thing. Maybe boundless progress isn’t what is needed, but progress towards another end: not being boundless. The Jacobins of the French Revolution had to decide that the violence necessary was worth the goal of attaining freedom. Conversely, if citizens of a nation are supportive of their governments initiatives, or even complacent, they are approving those initiatives as worthy of their non-opposition. Approval of a lifestyle does not need to be explicit, but implicit in the lack of action (approval) for that action’s antagonist. If we fail to move towards something, we are implicitly acknowledging the present situation as satisfactory.

The classic concept of liberty was framed within an understanding of the human condition: that man is chained by his sinful desires and all worthy endeavors of man are efforts to liberate him from that condition. Therefore, the idea of liberation is rooted in the first principle that man is sinful and cannot extricate himself from such a condition without the spiritual life, and the exercise of intellect in the sciences and the arts. Even going back to Aristotle we see the ideas of temperance and virtue emerging – an implicit recognition of the condition of man and the need to transcend it. However, it is not transcendence in the post-modern sense – i.e. that transcendence means liberation from virtue, temperance and cultural mores; that all things are permitted based on the whims of the individual, provided they do not infringe on the law (until that law can be vetoed by the masses). The liberal arts, humanities and sciences were approached from the perspective that in these disciplines we might find the means to overcome the sinful self by regulating it and understanding it, not by efforts to simply remove all restraints.

 Chesterton rightly calls Nietzsche to task on this point and shows how the mountain the philosopher scales in an effort to free the will only ends up further hindering it. The outworking of Nietzsche’s philosophy begins and ends with stagnation, indecision and finally, insanity. In the closing comments of this chapter, Chesterton contrasts both Nietzsche and Tolstoy with Joan of Arc, and with Christ. The former two were paralyzed by there philosophies and could only intellectualize their desires, the latter two lived, fought and died by their faith. Where Nietzsche could only want for war, Joan of Arc fought. Where Tolstoy could only pity the poor, Christ became poor. Nietzsche and Tolstoy were incapable of action, because action is inherently limited. Joan of Arc and Christ lived within their limitations, and ultimately accomplished more then the pontificating minds of those modern philosophers could ever dream.

 In America, making choices is who we are. When was the last time we heard a commentator on television refer to the “American citizen”? Most of the time, it is the “American consumer”. We no longer think of ourselves in terms of what Jefferson would have thought of as the informed electorate, but instead as the informed consumer. Chesterton’s arguments would make sense to us, because our lives are defined by the choices we make. And yet, there is an irony staring us in the face: the economic crisis was not brought on by our frugality, but by our unwarranted lavishness. It was the result of a people who desired to live beyond their means, live beyond the limits nature has imposed, and an economic and political environment that encourages such licentiousness. As such, it might be said that our lives represent a great contradiction: we choose to live as if we are beyond rightly choosing. Usury has run amok in our day because we have allowed ourselves to become accustomed to dessert – a dessert which is prepared for us, served on a silver platter, but comes with a hefty bill that we have put on a tab. Now the holder of the tab has come back to demand payment, and we can’t pay. Nature abhors a vacuum…

 Chesterton’s response to the emerging post-moderns of his day attacks these contradictions and the foundational absurdities they are built on. In his next chapter, The Ethics of Elf Land, Chesterton describes the result of purely logical thinking and how such a world view leads to the death of imagination, and ultimately, the death of the mind. In an age of “post-post-modernism” and of emerging scientific realism, it would do well for us to revisit Chesterton’s comments on the holistic intellect, rooted in imagination. Certainly, a curious assertion, but one that Chesterton does well in articulating.

Those comments and excerpts forthcoming…

3 Responses to “Chesterton and The Will: The Suicide of Thought”
  1. gregw89 says:

    Chesterton sounds like an interesting man. I enjoyed your analogy of the American consumer wanting dessert, though we don’t currently have the means to pay for it. I also liked your line that “we choose to live as if we are beyond rightly choosing.” I wish that weren’t true.

    I’d like to invite you to my blog

    • Justin says:

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Chesterton is certainly one of the most interesting minds of the last century, on par with C.S. Lewis and Dorothy Sayers. If nothing else, Orthodoxy is worth the read.

      I’ll happily check out your blog. Thanks!


    • Cherry says:

      That\’s raelly thinking out of the box. Thanks!


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