Saturday 1 January 2000

The Need of a Philosophy (1923)

From The Philosopher Autumn edition, 1923


By G. K. Chesterton

2000 - the Editor adds:

In this early paper from the Journal, delivered orally, as was the early fashion, the sometimes lightly described 'Philosopher of fun', produces a powerful attack on two modern 'isms' that he accuses of being profoundly un-philosophical. If utilitarianism, ('brutalitrianism',) and relativism are allowed to become the modern way, "It means full steam in the darkness with lights out." 

Report of a lecture , given at the Lyceum Club, March 7th 1923 

The Lecturer prefaced his subject by an excuse for speaking to a philosophical society on Philosophy and described himself as "a little more of a charlatan than usual" yet, he went on to say, he did not intend to use the word in its academic sense, that is as it stands for a definite class of studies concerned with the relation of ideas to each other and the ultimate abstractions behind nature of things.

Mr. Chesterton illustrated his meaning with an example. There existed at one time at Oxford a man who was so impressed by the sound of the word qua that he proposed writing a book which should be called qua, qua, qua," in other words it might be termed the "As such in relation to the as suchness." Here we have a true illustration of pure philosophy. The lecturer repudiated for himself any such sort of quackery.

"I will not now speak of the word in its metaphysical sense," he said, "but will rather take it as a working philosophy - a practical view of life. There was a famous American who said that England had no weather, only samples. That is true today of modern views about life. They are scrappy. Now what is excellent as regards weather is not excellent as regards the things of the mind. Modern England has no thinking, only thoughts. Thoughts can be brilliant and suggestive - journalism, literature and fiction are full of random thoughts on human life - but thinking is something different and it is extraordinarily rare. Some people, especially those who do not think, imagine that thinking is a painful process, but to my mind it is the best game in the world, and connected thinking of some kind - knowing what you mean and not following catchwords - is necessary for us all.

"To summarise," continued the lecturer, "what began as free thought has now developed into freedom from thought. All through history, there have been broad conceptions of the aims of life, tests of morality which masses of men have held and applied with certainty; but in the modern,world these various systems have been abandoned and what is left of them is nothing but debris - a collection of broken bits, the ruins of past philosophies. There are some, like myself, who hold a mystical philosophy, a belief that behind human experience there are realities, powers of good and evil, and the final test for things is their influence for good or evil. The good power intends us to be happy and we are justified in being happy, but the real question is not whether we are happy, but whether, behind the things wherein we seek our happiness lies the, power of good. Are they parts of the good or of the evil?

"To take a typical case: that of Nero. It is possible to condemn him on merely social and practical grounds, burning people is a disintegrating element. Here is a good case for an utilitarian test. Nero was a nuisance. But there is the other point of view which holds that he was possessed with a positive passion for hurting people and that was not only an evil on account of what it produced, but was an evil in itself. It was not relative, not negative, but a positive poisonous thing in the soul of man that was in itself wholly evil. You may insist, in the Language of modern popular science that Nero was mad - what some of us would rather call possessed with a devil- but to say that such a state of mind is madness does not decide the issue. The ego in man in that condition,is evil in itself. It is akin to demonology. It is incidentally bad because it corrupts society but the harm done from that point of view is only a symbol, for it is really bad because it is related to evil realities that exist behind our life. It is not true to say that cruelty is bad because it destroys a community, it is rather true to say that it destroys because it is bad.

"Fragments of this philosophy remain in our minds and will not be expelled. We are surprised to find we do believe in the devil and that this is one of those philosophies that still lurks within us and has not yet been thrust out.

"For a while. in the 18th century. after the eclipse of the mystical Philosophy in the Western world, minds tended towards utilitarian views. Broadly speaking things were to be judged by their utility. 1. myself, think that this test fails. Yet it has produced two ideas which have remained tangled up with modern thought and have done little good. Some extreme utilitarians have maintained t theory that self-interest is identical with the interest of the community, contending that what is best for the individual is best for society at large. They have set themselves to prove this.

"But the thesis breaks down when a man's happiness is supposed to the good of the community. A man who is to be hanged for the good of society, if offered a chance to escape, will not argue that it is for his own advantage to be hanged because it is good for the rest of the world. Even apart from the powerful motive of self-interest in such a case, the only morality this philosophy has to offer is of a mean and timid nature. The argument is operative against generous and heroic action. The overthrow of some social convention for an ideal would, does not come within the scope of its doctrine and therefore the theory that every man benefits himself most as he helps his fellows falls to pieces. Yet the theory still hangs in the air.

"The second point in the utilitarian theory considered as 'the greatest happiness of the greatest number', would have much to be said for it, if it could be regarded as a clear-headed statement. But the question remains - Are you free to produce an intense amount of happiness for the few rather than a moderate happiness for the greatest number? The test fails philosophically although it still remains with us as a fragment from the past, for the theory has been invaded by the doctrine of evolution and of universalism, and these would make us ask -happiness for what? Fleas, cats, dogs, elephants?

"The utilitarians did assume that man had a special duty to man but the modern view is different - modern duties must now be equally guided by our relations to animals. The rights of animals is the subject of much controversy and discussion on the point is undetermined. Some people'' will eat fish and not meat. There was a man who would eat lobster sauce because it was at the cost of only one life, while he would not eat shrimp sauce because that was a holocaust. In any case it has been well put, that if animals have no rights man has duties to them.

The theory which corresponds with the Darwinian epoch, greatly upset the utilitarian philosophy, for it brought a greater unity between man and the animals. It did more than produce humanitarianism, it produced brutalitarianism. One of the popular results of the Darwinian epoch was to bring in a new theory of aristocracy; of the few above the many as a victory of the best. But, in the general inconsistency, this theory exists along's side with the others. It is not sorted out. The utilitarian might be asked with regard to the greatest happiness not only of what, but when? Is the sacrifice of the present,. good to be made for the sake of unborn millions in the future?

"Further the influence of evolution has produced all the nonsense talked about the superman. It was taken quite seriously some time ago. This theory became a cult. Nero was actually regarded as the forerunner of a race of giants - one man had his hair cut to imitate Nero. Man was to regard himself, not as a monkey to become in time a man, but as mud out of which a glorious idol was in be shaped. This was mere sophistry. It is not a true social utilitarian test but something impossible to apply. The question being: not is Nero serving hell or being a danger to society, but is he behaving as if he were the great-great-great-grand-father of the superman? Yet the philosophy hovers in our minds - 'Yes,' we say, 'it may be bad now, but a new generation brought up differently may judge otherwise.'

"Broadly speaking, the series of ideas - the old Christian idea of good and evil outside man, the utilitarian idea and the evolutionary idea of growth have none of them been definitely repudiated and abandoned, but neither have they been made into a definite philosophy. If you like you can take from each and form your own theory but they are not co-ordinated into a clear scheme of thought. There is a hubbub among them but no consistent view of the aim of life for ordinary purposes -[how?] education for instance - can be gained from them.

"I think the philosophy of growth is a sham. Bernard Shaw in 'Man and Superman' and Wells in 'Food for the gods' have put the extreme view forward. A race of giants is to be developed who, when it comes, will have a thin time, but will be able to comfort itself with the thought that it does not exist for happiness but for the growth of the future -for the yet greater giants who will follow.

"Men are weary of these views and presently a new philosophy will arise with some new test of right and wrong - fat things versus thin or some other way of dividing light from darkness. But it will still be a hotch-potch philosophy, it will not help the world for so far as modern society is moral it is living on the momentum of the past. Do not think that a purely evolutionary philosophy can be produced that will have men as large as churches in substitution for a church.

"it is necessary therefore for each of us to arrange an order in our thinking" and if you decide to accept these beliefs you must be able to explain why you believe them and how, and within what limitations. Without some such consecutive philosophy, society will become a monster without a brain. It means full steam in the darkness with lights out."

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