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CHESTERTON, ELIOT, AND MODERNIST HERESY.

G.K. CHESTERTON and T. S. Eliot both employed the concepts of orthodoxy and heresy to evaluate the work and influence of some of the most prominent writers of their day. One of Chesterton's best-known and most frequently-reprinted books is titled Orthodoxy (1908), and one of his earliest works of literary criticism was a collection of articles first written for the Daily News and later published under the title Heretics (1905). In these articles, Chesterton takes on a number of prominent writers and artists, including some he greatly admired (and who were close friends of his, such as G. B. Shaw and H. G. Wells) along with some whose beliefs or influence he deplored, such as Kipling (for his jingoism) and Whistler (for his aestheticism). As Chesterton writes in his introduction,
I am not concerned with Mr. Rudyard Kipling as a vivid artist or a
vigorous personality; I am concerned with him as a Heretic--that is to
say, a man whose view of things has the hardihood to differ from mine.
I am not concerned with Mr. Bernard Shaw as one of the most brilliant
and one of the most honest men alive; I am concerned with him as a
Heretic--that is to say, a man whose philosophy is quite solid, quite
coherent, and quite wrong. (46)


T. S. Eliot delivered a series of lectures at the University of Virginia in 1933 that were later collected and published as After Strange Gods: A Primer of Modern Heresy. In these lectures, Eliot, like Chesterton in his newspaper columns, is "concerned with illustrating the limiting and crippling effect of a separation from tradition and orthodoxy upon certain writers whom I nevertheless hold up for admiration for what they have attempted against great obstacles" (56). Among these writers are the poets Ezra Pound and W. B. Yeats; the novelists George Eliot, D. H. Lawrence, James Joyce, and Thomas Hardy; and the critic (and Eliot's teacher) Irving Babbitt. Eliot's principal purpose, also like Chesterton's, is to warn against the deleterious cultural effect such writers of prominence may exert when divorced from any coherent tradition:
It is characteristic of the more interesting heretics... that they
have an exceptionally acute perception, or profound insight, of some
part of the truth.... So far as we are able to redress the balance,
effect the compensation ourselves, we may find such authors of the
greatest value. If we value them as they value themselves we shall go
astray. (24-25)


In Heretics and After Strange Gods, Chesterton and Eliot set out to "redress the balance" and "effect the compensation" for readers by setting the partial truths highlighted by these heretics against the full truth of orthodoxy, though in both works orthodoxy is defined primarily by its absence from the works of modernist writers.

It was the climates of fin de siecle aestheticism and 1920s literary modernism that engendered Chesterton's and Eliot's pronouncements against heresy and defenses of orthodoxy. The contemporary climate of postmodernism has occasioned a revisiting of their legacy--both writers and their works continue to be invoked by current writers and critics who call for, as in the title of a recent book on Chesterton, Eliot, and Tolkien, A Return to Christian Humanism (2007), as well as vilified as rearguard reactionaries (as in a 1996 book titled The Poetics of Fascism in which Eliot is included with Pound and Paul De Man as fascist writers). For Chesterton, with his Roman Catholic inclinations, literary modernism would have been linked with the Modernist movement in the Catholic church. This movement, inspired by the German "higher criticism" of the late nineteenth century, questioned the authority and infallibility of the Church and the Bible and as a result was pronounced heretical by the Vatican in 1907. Though Chesterton generally reserves the term "modernism" for religious innovation, his literary criticism, particularly in Heretics, is peppered with such phrases as "modern literature," "modern writers and thinkers," "modern novels," "modern realists," "the modern artistic temperament," and "ultra-modern aesthetes." Like the "higher criticism" that challenged traditional Catholic doctrine, the aestheticism championed by Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde posed for Chesterton a similar challenge to received traditions that for him gave meaning and purpose to human life and literature. As he tells us in his Autobiography (1936), "... when I did begin to write, I was full of a new and fiery resolution to write against the Decadents and the Pessimists who ruled the culture of the age" (97). Aestheticism, decadence, and pessimism were for Chesterton the salient features of modern literature, constituting an assault on tradition and orthodoxy equal to that posed by the Modernist movement in the Catholic church.

Eliot's relationship to modernism is more complicated, since he is himself often regarded as one of its high priests. But, by the time he delivered the lectures that would become After Strange Gods, Eliot had famously identified his point of view as "classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic in religion" (Preface to "For Lancelot Andrewes" ix). Though the literary period Chesterton identifies as "modern" in Heretics (primarily the 1890s) precedes by a generation the period of High Modernism in which Eliot produced his work, Eliot, like Chesterton, sees and deplores in the literature of his period an erosion of traditions and beliefs essential to the preservation of culture: "In an age of unsettled beliefs and enfeebled tradition the man of letters, the poet, and the novelist, are in a situation dangerous for themselves and for their readers" (After 62). In the works to be examined here, both men invoke the concepts of orthodoxy to identify these threatened traditions and of heresy and heretic to identify the forces and figures that constitute the principal threats.

Although the essays collected in Heretics were written well before Chesterton was received into the Roman Catholic church, as William Oddie observes in Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy, "If Chesterton's revolt against the fin de siecle in 1894 was still far from being consistently Christian, by 1903 (and probably sooner), the connection had been made: 'orthodoxy' now meant the Catholic tradition as it was understood from within a particular Anglican perspective" (289-90). Oddie notes that in a 1907 essay called "The Diabolist" Chesterton represents himself as saying 15 years earlier, "I am becoming orthodox," and comments, "Whatever 'orthodoxy' had meant for him in the early 1890s, it could scarcely be the same as it came to mean by the time he used the word, over a decade and a half later, as the title for one of his key works" (121). But even during this period, when Chesterton was at the Slade School of Art and struggling against what he later came to see as the malign influences of decadent art and literature, "he almost certainly saw himself as being in some way part of the Christian tradition, and understood that tradition as being part of what defined his growing notions of 'orthodoxy' as against the 'heresy' of views... which were inconsistent with it" (122).

Chesterton begins Heretics with the pronouncement, "The word 'heresy' not only means no longer being wrong; it practically means being clear-headed and courageous. The word "orthodoxy" not only no longer means being right; it practically means being wrong" (39). Indeed, the classical scholar Jane Harrison, who inaugurated the Cambridge Heretics Society in 1909, declared that "to be a heretic today is almost a human obligation" (qtd. in Franke 25). Chesterton, who would debate Shaw and other leading literary figures before the Society, (1) retorted in a letter to its president, "I should like to ask them why they are so weak-minded... as to admit that they are Heretics. You never really think your own opinion right until you can call it Orthodox" (qtd. in Franke 20). As Bishop Warburton is reported to have put it, "Orthodoxy is my doxy, heterodoxy is another man's doxy." (2) In the introduction to Heretics, Chesterton continues, "a man ought to confess himself crazy before he confesses himself heretical.... The dynamiter, laying a bomb, ought to feel that, whatever else he is, at least he is orthodox" (39). Chesterton scorns heretics of the Cambridge variety as merely playing at heresy, lacking the firm convictions of the modern anarchist or the medieval heretic. But Chesterton then attempts to put some distance between medieval attitudes toward heresy and his own:
It is foolish, generally speaking, for a philosopher to set fire to
another philosopher in Smithfield market because they do not agree in
their theory of the universe. That was done very frequently in the
last decadence of the Middle Ages, and it failed altogether in its
object. But there is one thing that is infinitely more absurd and
impractical than burning a man for his philosophy. That is the habit
of saying that his philosophy does not matter, and this is done
universally in the twentieth century, in the decadence of the great
revolutionary period. (40)


The heretics Chesterton engages in his book are those who do have firm convictions--firm but wrongheaded. In the final chapter of Heretics, "Concluding Remarks on the Importance of Orthodoxy," Chesterton reiterates that each of the writers discussed in the book has a "constructive and affirmative view" that he takes seriously and asks us to take seriously, and thus they are all dogmatists. Chesterton cites Matthew Arnold's quip that his dogmatism differed from Carlyle's in that "I am dogmatic and right, and Carlyle is dogmatic and wrong." But this is true of every serious writer, says Chesterton: "No man ought to write at all, or even speak at all, unless he thinks that he is in truth and the other man in error" (197). And "the fiercest dogmatists make the best artists.... The best short stories were written by a man trying to preach Imperialism. The best plays were written by a man trying to preach socialism" (199). Even the most firmly aestheticist critic, Chesterton avers, would have to admit that the greatest literary works produced in 1895--Kipling's Soldiers Three, Shaw's Arms and the Man, and Wells's The Time Machine--were the work of didactic writers, and therefore any assessment of that work requires an assessment of the principles they preached.

As with the other writers and artists profiled in Heretics, Chesterton praises Kipling, Shaw, and Wells for the strength of their convictions, but in chapters devoted to each writer also points out wherein lies their heresy. Kipling recovered the "lost provinces of poetry" with his perception of the "significance and philosophy of steam and slang" (56). He had above all something definite to say, and his message is the only thing that matters in him or any man. But his heresy lies not in the militarism for which Kipling was often criticized, since what is actually extolled in his work is not militarism but discipline. Rather, the flaw lies in his cosmopolitanism--he is not deeply rooted in any one place (a flaw Eliot will also address in After Strange Gods): "the great gap in his mind is what may roughly be called the lack of patriotism--that is to say, he lacks altogether the faculty of attaching himself to any cause or community finally and tragically, for all finality must be tragic" (59). (3) Shaw is praised for truthfulness: his claim to "see things as they are" is often correct, including some things that the rest of society does not see at all. "But in Mr. Shaw's realism there is something lacking" says Chesterton, "and that thing which is lacking is serious" (67)--and contradictory. Although Shaw criticized conservative ideals and moral generalizations as oppressive of individuals, he then "set up the most impossible of ideals" in the figure of the Superman. And Wells, Chesterton tells us, is a man of genius, an artist and a scientist, though one of uncharacteristic scientific humility. However, he is still afflicted with the "great scientific fallacy" of beginning with the physical rather than the spiritual. Wells says that in a new Utopia one of the chief characteristics would be a disbelief in original sin. If he had begun with the human soul, however, he would have recognized that "a permanent possibility of selfishness arises from the mere fact of having a self, and not from any accidents of education or ill-treatment"(77). Notwithstanding Chesterton's great admiration for Kipling, Wells, and Shaw as literary artists, their cosmopolitanism, Nietszcheanism, and materialism place them firmly in the camp of heretics--all the more dangerous because of the power of their literary gifts to lead their followers away from tradition and orthodoxy.

Early critics of Heretics objected that the book never established a definition of orthodoxy against which allegedly heretical departures might be measured. Chesterton freely acknowledged the flaw, and indeed cited this criticism as the impetus for his later work Orthodoxy (1908): "When some time ago I published a series of hasty but sincere papers, under the name of 'Heretics,' several critics for whose intellect I have a warm respect... said that it was all very well for me to tell everybody to affirm his cosmic theory, but that I had carefully avoided supporting my precepts with example" (211). In response to such criticism, says Chesterton, he wrote Orthodoxy "in an attempt to state the theory in which I have come to believe," which he eventually identifies as the Apostles Creed (215). In Heretics, however, Chesterton's intent is not to establish doctrinal orthodoxy, but to argue for a "permanent substance of morality" and an "enduring ethic under every code" (167). But though Chesterton's efforts were obscured with the triumph of modernism, Eliot continued his crusade.

Chesterton and Eliot might seem an odd coupling: the proudly Liberal Chesterton and the distinctly Tory Eliot, the populist journalist and the modernist mandarin. In his early writing, Eliot was caustically dismissive of Chesterton as a writer and thinker--indeed, he once quipped, "Mr. Chesterton's brain swarms with ideas; I see no evidence that it thinks" ("In Memory of Henry James" 2). Referring to Chesterton's literary criticism, Eliot commented, "I have always found Mr. Chesterton's style exasperating to the last point of endurance.... He appears less like a saint radiating spiritual vision than like a 'busman slapping himself on a frosty day'" ("Mr. Chesterton and Stevenson"). And in response to Chesterton's popular ballad-style narrative poem "The White Horse," Eliot wrote, "I have seen the forces of death with Mr. Chesterton at their head upon a white horse. Mr. Pound, Mr. Joyce, write living language. One does not realize the awfulness of death until one meets with living language" ("Observations"). Eliot's attitude toward Chesterton's thought, if not toward his literature, would alter following his conversion to Anglo-Catholicism, however; in his obituary for Chesterton, Eliot wrote that in matters other than literature, Chesterton was "importantly and consistently on the side of the angels.... He did more, I think, than any man of his time... to maintain the existence of the important minority in the modern world" ("Obituary" 536). That would be the orthodox Christian minority, which like Chesterton Eliot saw beleaguered by modernist heresy.

Chesterton also leveled critical barbs at Eliot, abhorring Eliot's radical disruption of traditional poetic form as an affront to the very nature of poetry. As Chesterton wrote in "The Romance of Rhyme,"
But "vers libre," or nine-tenths of it, is not a new metre any more
than sleeping in a ditch is a new school of architecture. It is no
more a revolution in literary form than eating meat raw is an
innovation in cookery. It is not even original, because it is not
creative; the artist does not invent anything, but only abolishes
something. But the only point about it that is to my present purpose
is expressed in the word "pride." It is not merely proud in the sense
of being exultant, but proud in the sense of being disdainful. Such
outlaws are more exclusive than aristocrats; and their anarchical
arrogance goes far beyond the pride of Milton and the aristocrats of
the New Learning. And this final refinement has completed the work
which the saner aristocrats began, the work now most evident in the
world: the separation of art from the people. I need not insist on the
sensational and self-evident character of that separation. I need not
recommend the modern poet to attempt to sing his "vers libres" in a
public-house. I need not even urge the young Imagist to read out a
number of his disconnected Images to a public meeting. The thing is
not only admitted but admired. The old artist remained proud in spite
of his unpopularity; the new artist is proud because of his
unpopularity; perhaps it is his chief ground for pride. (17-18)


Chesterton deplored any artistic movement that created a division between the tastes of the artist and the people and saw modernism's conscious rejection of established traditions and artistic forms such as rhyme as a betrayal of the purpose of literature: "Literature, classic and enduring literature, does its best work... in balancing other and older ideas against the ideas to which we might for a moment be prone" ("On Reading" 22).

Unlike Eliot, Chesterton did not attack his adversary by name, but the target of his poetic parodies was unmistakable, as in his retort to the concluding lines of "The Hollow Men"--"Some sneer; some snigger; some simper; / In the youth where we laughed and sang. / And they may end with a whimper / But we will end with a bang" (qtd. in Pearce, Wisdom 356)--and in his response to "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" titled "To A Modern Poet":
 Now you mention it,
  Of course, the sky
   is like a large mouth
    shown to a dentist,
  and I never noticed
    a little thing
     like that.
 But I can't help wishing
 You got more fun out of it;
  you seem to have taken
   quite a dislike
    to things.
They seem to make you jump
And double up unexpectedly--
 And when you write
  like other poets,
   on subjects
   not entirely
    novel,
  such as, for instance,
   the Sea,
  it is mostly about
   Sea-sickness.
  As you say--
 It is the New Movement,
  The Emetic Ecstasy.


But following Eliot's conversion, Chesterton came to see the modernist poet as a fellow defender of orthodoxy, and in his introductory note to The Well and the Shallows (1935), Chesterton writes, "I should be proud to dedicate this book to T. S. Eliot, and the return of true logic and a luminous tradition to the world" (vii). While the poetic practice of the two writers would remain sharply distinct (though they admired each other's work in other genres (4)), their literary-critical aims increasingly converged.

Chesterton's book Heretics may have directly influenced Eliot's After Strange Gods. Lee Oser, in his The Return of Christian Humanism, suggests that "Eliot took the scheme of orthodoxy and heresy from Chesterton.... It may be replied that the terms have wide currency... But... the branding of living authors as heretics has... no precedent in recent criticism" (41). However, in "'First-Rate Blasphemy': Baudelaire and the Revised Christian Idiom of T. S. Eliot's Moral Criticism," Ronald Schuchard points out that Eliot first used the terms orthodoxy and heresy in July 1916 (5) and posits that Eliot "quite likely got the ecclesiastical terminology from [T. E.] Hulme," whose "association of orthodoxy and heresy with the religious and humanist attitudes and with the philosophical, political, and literary ramifications of each is precisely the sense behind Eliot's adoption of the terms... in After Strange Gods" (278). In a footnote, though, Schuchard acknowledges that "[b]oth Hulme and Eliot may have been familiar with" Chesterton's Heretics and Orthodoxy, and that "[t]hough Chesterton's use of the terms is somewhat more doctrinal, it is in the same spirit as Hulme's and Eliot's in that he sees contemporary 'heresies' as springing from a belief in the Inner Light, a disbelief in original sin, a denial of absolute values, the fancy of the Superman, and correspondingly a mistaken view of man and his place in the world" (293).

Eliot does refer explicitly to Chesterton's economic theory of distributism as an attractive model in After Strange Gods, (21, fn) and at other places in the lectures seems to echo Chesterton's writings on heresy, either consciously or subconsciously. In an essay on John Ruskin, Chesterton writes, "To the medieval thinker the 'man with a message' was simply a heretic, that is a nuisance because he only told part of the truth" (156). In After Strange Gods, Eliot observes that "the more interesting heretics... have an exceptionally acute perception, or profound insight, of some part of the truth" (25). And Eliot's characterization of Pound as "attracted to the Middle Ages, apparently, by everything except that which gives them their significance" (41), is illuminated by Chesterton's comment in The Victorian Age in Literature (1913) that "it is not quite unfair to say of [Ruskin] that he seemed to want all parts of the Cathedral except the altar" (448). Also, Eliot's pronouncement that he is "reproaching a world in which blasphemy is impossible" because "no one can possibly blaspheme unless he profoundly believes in that which he profanes" (52), seems a direct echo of Chesterton's words in Heretics: "Blasphemy depends on belief, and is fading with it. If anyone doubts this, let him sit down seriously and try to think blasphemous thoughts about Thor" (44).

While Chesterton and Eliot agree that the chief contemporary threat to orthodoxy is not blasphemy but heresy, they differ dramatically in their definition and use of the term "tradition." For Chesterton, tradition is firmly rooted in the culture of the common man; as he writes in Orthodoxy:
I have never been able to understand where people got the idea that
democracy was in some way opposed to tradition. It is obvious that
tradition is only democracy extended through time. It is trusting to a
consensus of common human voices rather than to some isolated or
arbitrary record. The man who quotes some German historian against the
tradition of the Catholic Church, for example, is strictly appealing
to aristocracy. He is appealing to the superiority of one expert
against the awful authority of a mob. (250-51)


Eliot, however, in "The Idea of a Christian Society" (1940), calls for the preservation of Christian tradition and culture through a "clerisy" of "thoughtfully practising Christians, especially those of intellectual and spiritual superiority.... The Community of Christians--a body of very nebulous outline--would contain both clergy and laity of superior intellectual and/or spiritual gifts. And it would include some of those who are ordinarily spoken of, not always with flattering intention, as intellectuals" (28). Whether or not intended as such, this last seems a direct riposte to Chesterton's comment, "if I have a bias, it was always a bias in favour of tradition, and therefore democracy.... I have always been more inclined to believe the ruck of hard-working people than to believe that special and troublesome literary class to which I belong" (Orthodoxy 251).

Though Eliot's elitist and Chesterton's populist views of tradition could not be more diametrically opposed, both ultimately associate that tradition with religious orthodoxy. We have already seen how Chesterton in Heretics calls for a return to "the doctrinal methods of the thirteenth century," and in After Strange Gods Eliot, though he in places attempts to distinguish literary and religious orthodoxy--"the sense in which I am using the terms tradition and orthodoxy is to be kept distinctly in mind as not identical with the use of the same terms in theology" (41)--elsewhere blurs the distinction between the two with pronouncements such as "orthodoxy in general means Christian orthodoxy" (21), "an acceptance of the validity of the two terms as I use them should lead one to dogmatic theology" (31), and "it is... the Church itself, in which orthodoxy resides" (32). But in their literary-critical application, Eliot uses the terms "to cover much in our lives that is accounted for by habit, breeding and environment" and in the lectures wishes "to consider the denial or neglect of tradition in my mundane sense, and see what that leads to. The general effect in literature of the lack of any strong tradition is twofold: extreme individualism in views, and no accepted rules or opinions as to the limitations of the literary job" (32). To illustrate the kind of criticism he calls for, one that would "apply to authors critical standards which are almost in desuetude" (35), Eliot makes use of three contemporary short stories--Katherine Mansfield's "Bliss," D. H. Lawrence's "The Shadow in the Rose Garden," and James Joyce's "The Dead."

All three stories, Eliot observes, share the theme of disillusionment, but what interests him is "the differences of moral implication" (35). In Mansfield's story, says Eliot, "the moral implication is negligible... and within the setting this is quite right. The story is limited to [the wife's] sudden change of feeling, and the social and moral ramifications are outside the terms of reference" (36). But in Lawrence's story, not only has the author "detached himself from any moral attitude toward his characters," but also "the characters themselves... betray no respect for, or even awareness of, moral obligations" (37). By contrast, Eliot sees the author and characters of Joyce's story as expressing recognition of moral obligations in passages such as "Generous tears filled Gabriel's eyes. He had never felt like that himself towards any woman, but he knew that such a feeling must be love.... His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead" (37). And it is in this recognition of moral obligation to both the living and the dead that, for Eliot, James Joyce is among the most orthodox of modern writers, while D. H. Lawrence is the heresiarch: "We are not concerned with an author's beliefs, but with orthodoxy of sensibility and with the sense of tradition, our degree of approaching 'that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead.' And Lawrence is for my purposes, an almost perfect example of the heretic. And the most ethically orthodox of the more eminent writers of my time is Mr. Joyce" (37). Although Joyce had early on abandoned the Roman Catholic belief system in which he was raised, he continued to draw on that tradition throughout his writing. "A trained mind like that of Mr. Joyce," says Eliot, "is always aware of what master it is serving; an untrained mind, and a soul destitute of humility and filled with self-righteousness [read Lawrence] is a blind servant and a fatal leader" (59).

Eliot concludes his lectures by summing up their purpose: "All I have been able to do here is to suggest that there are standards of criticism, not ordinarily in use, which we may apply to whatever is offered to us as works of philosophy or art, which might help to render them safer or more profitable for us" (63). Like Chesterton, then, Eliot sees orthodoxy as maintaining a connection with a tradition of moral criticism that extends from Plato to the present day, and those heretical writers and critics who would sever that connection as not only wrong-headed but ultimately dangerous. Three of the most prominent of these heretical critics were the modernist, New Humanist, and New Critical icons Ezra Pound, Irving Babbitt, and I. A. Richards. In his 1933 essay "The Modern Mind," T. S. Eliot observed in a footnote that the three shared an interest in Confucius and suggested, "An investigation of an interest common to three apparently quite different thinkers would... repay the labour" (542). All three critics were interested in the reform of social and cultural institutions, including language, for humanistic ends, and however differently they might have conceived of those ends, they found in the writings of Confucius and his followers a model of relations between the individual mind and the external world, along with a model of language and education, that they believed instructive for poets and critics of their own day.

Although Eliot suggested that "the thought of these three men seems to me to have an interesting similarity" (542), I submit that while the thought of Pound and Babbitt may have shared certain similarities, Richards's politics and his purposes in examining Confucian texts were actually quite distinct from those of his two contemporaries. Eliot's misguided assumption seems to result from his suspicion that, to quote again from the same footnote, this common interest in Confucius "seems to indicate, at least, a deracination from the Christian tradition." (6)

Eliot would elsewhere develop this argument at length in essays directed against Pound, Babbitt, and Richards, as well as in After Strange Gods, wherein Eliot asserts that "Confucius has become the philosopher of the rebellious Protestant," a category in which he includes the names of "Irving Babbitt,... Ezra Pound (his peer in cosmopolitanism), and that of I. A. Richards--it would seem that Confucius is the spiritual advisor of the highly educated and fastidious" (49).

While the highly educated and fastidious Eliot blamed Confucianism and similar "deracinations" from Christian tradition for a good deal of what he saw as modernist heresy, the well-educated but unfastidious Chesterton does not draw such a direct connection, at least not in Heretics, though in Orthodoxy he does associate the theosophy of Annie Besant with Buddhism: "According to Mrs. Besant this universal Church is simply the universal self.... But upon Mrs. Besant's principle the whole cosmos is only one enormously selfish person. It is just here that Buddhism is on the side of modern pantheism" (336-37). And in his biography of St. Thomas Aquinas (1923), after suggesting that what he calls the "sublime despair" of Buddhism "offers the only alternative to that divine audacity" of orthodox Christianity--"and he who will not climb the mountain of Christ does indeed fall into the abyss of Buddha" (106)--Chesterton proceeds to equate Buddhist and Nietzschean despair:
The same is true, in a less lucid and dignified fashion, of most of
the other alternatives of heathen humanity; nearly all are sucked back
into that whirlpool of recurrence which all the ancients knew.... This
is what Buddha described so darkly as the Sorrowing Wheel. It is true
that the sort of recurrence which Buddha described as the Sorrowful
Wheel, poor Nietzsche actually managed to describe as the joyful
wisdom.


Nietzsche serves as a bete noir in much of Chesterton's criticism, and in Heretics he blames Nietzsche for introducing to Shaw the idea of the Superman: "[Shaw] has even been infected to some extent with the primary intellectual weakness of his new master, Nietzsche, the strange notion that the greater and stronger a man was, the more he would despise other things" (68). To Chesterton, the tireless champion of the "other things" created by God for the enjoyment of human beings in this world, Buddhist, Nietzschean, and Shavian renunciation of the mundane are merely recurring forms of existential despair that reappear from age to age in various forms of heresy, and that only Christian orthodoxy is equipped to combat:
Alone upon the earth, and lifted and liberated from all the wheels and
whirlpools of the Earth, stands up the faith of St. Thomas, weighted
and balanced indeed with more than Oriental metaphysics and more than
Pagan pomp and pageantry, but vitally alone in declaring that life is
a living story, with a great beginning and a great close; rooted in
the primeval joy of God and finding its fruition in the final
happiness of humanity (St. Thomas Aquinas 107).


In this passage Chesterton provides the balance and compensation called for by Eliot in After Strange Gods but imperfectly developed in Heretics. In St. Thomas Aquinas, written in a different context and for a different audience, not for the readers of the newspapers in which the essays to be collected in Heretics first appeared, but for those who were seeking orthodoxy in its traditional home of the Roman Catholic church, the definition of orthodoxy only adumbrated in Heretics (perhaps in part because Chesterton had not yet joined the Roman Catholic communion) is clearly identified as the faith of St. Thomas, one of the most instrumental figures in shaping Roman Catholic doctrine.

At the close of his discussion of the pernicious influence of non-western traditions in After Strange Gods, Eliot likewise directs his readers toward Christian orthodoxy: "What I have wished to illustrate, by reference to the authors whom I have mentioned in this lecture, has been the crippling effect upon men of letters, of not having been born and brought up in the environment of a living and central tradition" (53). The "living and central tradition" extolled by both Chesterton and Eliot is of course the Catholic tradition (be it Roman or Anglican), but it might well be argued that the Confucian and Buddhist traditions are equally central to over one half of the world's population, and equally living, judging from the recent resurgence of popular practice of and scholarly interest in these traditions. In response to Eliot's charge, I invoke a caution from I. A. Richards on the need for comparative criticism (from the foreword to Mencius on the Mind):
As to the effects of an increased knowledge of Chinese thought on the
West, it is interesting to note that a writer so unlikely to be
thought either ignorant or careless as M. Etienne Gilson can yet, in
the English Preface of his The Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, speak
of Thomistic philosophy as "accepting and gathering up the whole of
human tradition." This is how we all think, to us the Western world is
still the World, but an impartial observer would perhaps say that such
provincialism is dangerous. And we are not yet so happy in the West
that we can be sure we are not suffering from its effects. (xiv) (7)


Richards here encapsulates the central problem inherent in using terms such as "orthodoxy" and "heresy" to categorize one's fellow writers and critics: that such terminology discourages the pursuit of truth outside of one's own tradition. Chesterton recognizes this danger: in his literary biography of Robert Browning, he writes that Browning "held that it is necessary to listen to all sides of a question to discover the truth of it. But he held that there was a truth to discover" (91). Likewise, Eliot, in "Notes towards the Definition of Culture" (1949), somewhat qualifies the objections to "deracination from Christian tradition" set forth in After Strange Gods:
I do not want to give the impression that I regard European culture as
something cut off from every other. The frontiers of culture are not,
and should not be, closed. But history makes a difference. Those
countries which share the most history, are the most important to each
other, with respect to their future literature. We have our common
classics, of Greece and Rome; we have a common classic even in our
several translations of the Bible. (191)


Eliot and Chesterton thus both acknowledge the necessity of openness to rival traditions, but hold to the necessity of maintaining shared tradition within a community, in order to allow its members to evaluate competing claims to truth.

PERHAPS then Alasdair MacIntyre's formulation in Three Rival Versions of Moral Inquiry of what he calls "confessional interrogation" provides a model for responding to Chesterton's and Eliot's calls for orthodoxy, while at the same time maintaining the necessity of critiquing one's own tradition:
It is only insofar as someone satisfies the conditions for rendering
him or herself vulnerable to dialectical refutation that the person
can come to know whether and what he or she knows. It is only by
belonging to a community systematically engaged in a dialectical
enterprise in which the standards are sovereign over the contending
parties that one can begin to learn the truth, by first learning the
truth about one's error, not error from this or that point of view but
error as such, the shadow cast by truth as such: contradiction in
respect of utterance about the virtues. (200)


Orthodoxy from this perspective then provides a community of shared values that allows for critical inquiry into those values. Loss of such a community is what both Eliot and Chesterton decry as the result of modernist heresy, but perhaps its restoration need not imply a doctrinal orthodoxy, but a community based on the concept of rational self-completion (MacIntyre's telos) (8), such as might be found in the Greece of Plato and Aristotle; the China of Confucius and Mencius; the Church of Augustine, Aquinas, and Andrewes; or the dialogic community envisioned by MacIntyre.

NOTES

(1) Another prominent modernist writer who addressed the Cambridge Heretics Society was E. M. Forster. It is intriguing to compare the lecture titled "Anonymity: An Enquiry," which Forster delivered before the Society in 1925, with Chesterton's "Introduction to the Book of Job," published in 1907, in the authors' comments on the anonymity of the Homeric epics, the Bible, and medieval Cathedrals.

Chesterton: "The book of Job may have grown gradually just as Westminster Abbey grew gradually. But the people who made the old folk poetry, like the people who made Westminster Abbey, did not attach that importance to the actual date and the actual author, that importance which is entirely the creation of the almost insane individualism of modern times. We may put aside the case of Job, as one complicated with religious difficulties, and take any other, say the case of the Iliad. Many people have maintained the characteristic formula of modern skepticism, that Homer was not written by Homer, but by another person of the same name. Just in the same way many have maintained that Moses was not Moses but another person called Moses. But the thing really to be remembered in the matter of the Iliad is that if other people did interpolate the passages, the thing did not create the same sense of shock as would be created by such proceedings in these individualistic times. The creation of the tribal epic was to some extent regarded as a tribal work, like the building of the tribal temple."

Forster: "[I]n the past neither writers nor readers attached the high importance to personality that they do to-day. It did not trouble Homer or the various people who were Homer.... It did not trouble the medieval balladists, who, like the Cathedral builders, left their works unsigned. It troubled neither the composers nor the translators of the Bible."

Both men also wrote essays on "true liberalism" in The Independent Review (see Crews 32-34) and published appreciations and criticisms of Cambridge don and classical scholar Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson (see Forster's biography by that title and Chesterton's "Paganism and Mr. Lowes Dickinson" in Heretics.)

(2) I have heard frequent use," said the late Lord Sandwich, in a debate on the Test Laws, "of the words 'orthodoxy' and 'heterodoxy'; but I confess myself at a loss to know precisely what they mean." "Orthodoxy, my Lord," said Bishop Warburton, in a whisper,--"orthodoxy is my doxy; heterodoxy is another man's doxy."--Priestley: Memoirs, Vol. 1 (1807), 572.

(3) That Chesterton here charges Kipling with lack of patriotism is paradoxical indeed, as he also accuses him with aiding and abetting English jingoism, especially in Kipling's support for the Boer War, which the Liberal Chesterton stoutly opposed, seeing nobility in the Boers' commitment to their ultimately tragic cause.

(4) See Pearce, "Friends or Enemies?"

(5) Eliot wrote that Clement Webb's Group Theories of Religion and Religion of the Individual "represents the resistance of orthodoxy, the brains, and the scholarship of Oxford to a new heresy in religion" (qtd. in Schuchard 278).

(6) Warnings against deracinations from Christian tradition might seem surprising coming from a poet who draws significantly on Hindu and Buddhist tradition in works such as The Waste Land. It might be noted, however, that The Waste Land was written before Eliot's conversion, and though his subsequent poetry also relies on the assemblage of a variety of apparently randomly selected sources--as in Four Quartets--they are now drawn primarily from Christian or English tradition (Dante, Julian of Norwich, Lancelot Andrewes, to name a few). In "The Dry Salvages" Part Three, Eliot does reference Krishna ("I sometimes wonder if that is what Krishna meant"), but that inconclusive allusion is immediately followed (answered?) in Part Four with a petition to the Lady "whose shrine stands on the promontory" to "Pray for all those who are in ships.... Figlia del tuo figlio, / Queen of Heaven."

(7) Richards's warning about the dangers of provincialism is daily borne out in today's newspapers, with accounts of members of particular religious groups being targeted for terrorist attacks and calls for immigrants belonging to other religious groups to be singled out for exclusion.

(8) In his essay on "Paganism and Mr. Lowes Dickinson," Chesterton comments, "If we do revive and pursue the pagan ideal of rational self-completion we shall end--where Paganism ended.... I mean that we shall end in Christianity" (131). For more on Chesterton's appropriation of the Aristotelian idea of telos, see Chapter 9 of my The Rhetoric of Redemption.

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Date:Jun 22, 2018
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