Saturday 1 January 2000

Inaugural Address of the Philosophical Society (1926)

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXVIII No. 1 Special History Issue

Inaugural Address of the Philosophical Society, 1926

by Mr. G. K. Chesterton

Originally printed in The Philosopher,Volume. IV No. 3 .July-September 1927.

Account of the GENERAL MEETING on June 2nd, 1926, of the Philosophical Society, at the Lyceum Club, 138, Piccadilly.

The Rev. Elphinstone Rivers opened the meeting. Following a brief summary of the Annual Report and after alluding with satisfaction to the Society's progress during 1925, he mentioned 'one special cause for congratulation' - the election of Mr. G. K. Chesterton to the Presidentship. The inaugural address of the new President was reproduced in the Journal as below, inline with the convention of those early issues. (1999) The Editor adds: We may note the distinctive blend of spirituality, 'common sense' and good humour that the Society has continued to endorse for over three quarters of a century.

Mr. Chesterton began his remarks with an apology for being nearly an hour late owing to the disorganisation of the train service in his neighbourhood. I do not know with what philosophical sports you have entertained yourselves in the interval, said Mr. Chesterton, but I do know very well that at this time of day, it should be my duty ,s President rather to wind up than to open the meeting. I am somewhat in the position of the 'idiot' or, having regard to my present abode, I would say 'the village idiot,' unless you prefer the Greek word with its very different meaning, the [Mr Chesterton uses some impressive looking Greek Squiggles here - 'idiwthz' - that do not reproduce well these days] that ordinary, everyday private person who did not pretend to be a philosopher, at least, not in the really technical sense. I am that sort of person, and I share with the idiot the great quality of impartiality.

This afternoon I had to wait for the train for nearly three-quarters of an hour. While waiting, I looked around me at the others who were likewise waiting, and I need not emphasise that it was an occasion for philosophy. I do not know if the comments of my fellow travellers could be defined in terms of philosophy, but some of their language partook somewhat of the nature of theology, though it was mainly, I regret to say, referring to the lower rather than to the higher gods.

It set me thinking of the popular use of the term 'philosophy' which, in this case, was keeping one's temper when the train was late. It would not be an uninteresting subject for discussion - that of the philosophy of the large mass of the people in facing the various problems of life.

It is not the same as our own, that is, of members of such societies as ours. (Here I hasten to say that I am not condemning or contemptuous). I also was waiting far a train. I may claim also that I was following a philosophic train of thought. I love waiting for trains. Such philosophies as I have, I have often evolved while waiting at 'Clapham Junction'. I am one of those shameless beings who enjoy having nothing to do, but, unfortunately, it must be poor sport to have to wait for a train to those persons, and they seem to be in the majority, who have a positive dislike of having nothing to do.

I wish to acquit myself of the charge of contemptuousness. All my life I have endeavoured to explain that my sympathies are entirely with the mass of people in their ordinary instincts. I am not a highbrow. I realise that it i' this mass of normal people which keeps the world straight and that, without them, the world would soon qualify for a lunatic asylum.

For instance, when the German philosophic theory was expounded that God had committed suicide and the debris is ourselves flowing through space, I know very well that no great number of haberdashers, grocers or crossing sweepers would adopt that philosophy and I am certain that that scepticism and the refusal to accept such monstrous theories have been the preservation of civilisation.

So I am not speaking today at all contemptuously of my fellow-idiots, but I am, on this occasion, considering them in the light of their needs and how we can best render them assistance.

First of all, I would like to point out that most people who are interested in philosophical things are under some illusion as to what ordinary folk believe. We are inclined to think that people are a great deal more inspired by ideas, such as that the world grows better by continual social effort, that all men and nations, when they come to understand each other, will be as brothers. All such ideals are a sort of atmosphere which we philosophers take for granted. They are the air we breathe - sunlight, gaslight, moonshine, what you will.

But you will find that the greater part of human beings have an attitude of mistrust of the Universe and Humanity, their thinking is certainly not that of the 'hilarious highbrow.' If you talk to keepers of shops, to travellers, women who have to work very hard all their lives, you find that, though many of them are strong believers in orthodox religion, it is not too much to say that the majority have a melancholy and sad view of life, quite pagan in its fatalism. The general condition of stoical philosophy is chequered with other curious elements. There is generally a tinge of sadness. The belief in luck, for instance, generally bad luck. A man would probably not say 'I am a favourite of the gods,' but much more probably 'just like my luck.' It is the belief of the old heathen world as expressed in the great heathen religions through the ages. In all rude and simple tribes, the people do not feel safe with their gods: they will sometimes do you a good turn, but they are not to be trusted. Behind the gods there is something fixed, and immutable, Fate itself. This is not perhaps how the ordinary man of today waiting at Clapham Junction would put it.

If we are to popularise philosophy, which is one of the aims of this Society, it is important to know what the attitude of the mass of the people really is. We are not a propagandist Society (although I am personally always a propagandist), but it would be a great gain if we could show such people where these nebulous ideas would lead them, and if we could ask them, does the outcome satisfy them? You know, there is still a mystery about the religion of the ancient heathen world. It produced some of the greatest men that ever lived, who devoted themselves with a glorious and painstaking exactitude to the study of Philosophy, which has never been equalled, but it is very difficult for modern people to understand their attitude towards their gods. Far it is a peculiarity of the ancient world that religion and philosophy had nothing to do with each other. They moved in quite different spheres of thought. Their Philosophy was wonderfully clear - there is nothing in the least obscure about Plato and Aristotle. indeed what they taught seems at times astonishingly modern. Plato even sounds occasionally something like Bernard Shaw.

But when we consider what these old pagans thought about religion it is all wrapped in impenetrable mystery. How the old philosophers felt about their gods; how far some primitive truths and principles of piety and virtues clung round the altars to the very last; how far people were afraid of the gods, is I think extraordinarily difficult to understand. It is all utterly confused, and, although I am the last person to call myself a scholar, a true scholar would be reluctant to claim that he was able to solve such a problem.

For the vast mass of the people, religion was resignation, not joy; and that was combined with a sort of half-flippant, half superstitious belief in the notions of luck, or omens, of tricks and symbols.

Then came that great event, about which no man can impartial. It altered the entire realm of thought. Then, first in Christian tradition, philosophy and religion went hand in hand. In the pre-Christian era, there were believers who refused to study philosophy because of its complete severance from religion. The modern man equally refuses to study philosophy as it existed during that long period that stretches from Anno Domini up to the fall of mediaeval ideals, a period when philosophy and religion were interdependent studies. Thus, if you attempt to follow the history of ideas, about which the old Greeks would have discoursed for hours, you will inevitably fall into some mediaeval definition, yet to the modern mind, the opinions of thinkers and philosophers during this great period before the upheaval were only the hair-splittings of sectarians.

At the beginning of our era there were those who said 'We have now a sure theology, why bother about philosophy? Get rid of it. It is simply hair-splitting.' But these philosophies were never really killed, and it was their continual revival which was one of the causes of the conflicts and heresies of the Middle Ages. Because of the violent quarrels at the time of the Reformation, and because of the subsequent revolt against the whole of religion itself in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, there has fallen a great indifference and silence concerning these historical facts. It has been very difficult to find out the story of human progress during the last two thousand years, when such facts have been dismissed as mere sectarian problems. All philosophy down to Voltaire was relegated to theological discussion.

In modern times we have Mr. H. G. Wells asking whether there is anything which is actually a thing, if it is not only in the act of becoming. Aristotle discussed the same question. The question would make a good parlour game and, incidentally, you would find yourself in the midst of the company of the mediaeval schoolmen and students. When I say, '1 saw an elephant,' I saw an elephant. When I say 'Give me an elephant, I want no other,' I take it that the actual thing has a nature of its own, is really an elephant, possessing body, not in the act of becoming one. Wells would maintain that there was no such thing as an elephant. 1, on the other hand, am a strong champion of the existence of the elephant. All human thinking in the main depends on the consciousness that we have of the thing in the mind. The tact that the form of an elephant exists in the mind is a proof of its existence. That is how the unbiased man in the street would put it, although the question is a game for philosophers.

If you would discuss fate or free will; if you would really learn about the history of thought, and how the human intellect has dealt with such problems in the past you will find yourself back in the turmoil of the middle ages, siding sooner or later with St. Augustine, or perhaps even in the company of Calvin. The religious history of the world during this great past must enter into any attempt at the popularisation of philosophy. In that great epoch before the upheaval, thought was not unintelligible, it was not a mass of superstition, its history has been covered by a cloud. Systematic popular study of its system and its teaching will oblige the modern man to be less prejudiced towards what is termed the squabbles of persons. He goes step by step through Greek history up to this immensely important age, and then stops dead until the seventeenth century, because he believes the interval is merely sectarian. But reason which refuses to cut off from the proper investigation of human thinking beyond a prescribed limit will acquire a wider outlook into the history of Christendom. The mass of our fellow citizens should not be robbed of knowledge by a kind of stale and vulgar secularism. There was something more in it than the history of Crusades and the terrors of the inquisition.

You will not popularise good abstract thinking by merely discussing concrete events, the personalities of sages and saints, and the quarrels of kings. I suggest to you that something should be done on the lines of Wells' 'Outlines of History' (only more correct). We should have a real outline of philosophy, but, in order to make it complete, we must not suppress the whole philosophic history of mediaevalism, one of the most intense and interesting epochs of civilisation in the history of mankind.

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