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The Universe and Mr. Chesterton. (Book reviews: summaries and comments).

PAINE, Randall. The Universe and Mr. Chesterton. Peru: Sherwood Sugden & Company, 1999. iii + 164 pp. Paper, $12.95--What is a book about the ideas of a self-identified journalist, whose targeted audience was the subscribers to a local newspaper, doing in a scholarly journal of metaphysics? The answer to this question is explained in this very book, in which G. K. Chesterton, the noted novelist, essayist, controversialist, and poet, is defended as a metaphysician as well. For Paine, Chesterton should not only be properly regarded as a philosopher, after the Angelic Doctor himself, but as the philosophical doctor for diseased modern man.

As Paine contends, Chesterton's incomparable blend of erudition, logic, paradox, rhetoric, warmth, and wit is a soothing elixir in which the Philosophia Perrenia can be effectively absorbed by modern man. Chesterton's metaphysical rhetoric is perhaps best characterized as a philosophical tonic for shaping the mind and sensibility of modern man back into conformity with the commonsense evidences of saner times (p. 24).

Can not modern man simply drink at the source, the writings of Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and St. Thomas, to be filled with the perennial wisdom? Yes, but as Paine points out, it is one thing to read a philosopher yet it is another to understand him. St. Thomas, for instance, lived in a rich and palpable Catholic culture, in which his rarefied and severe intellectual arguments were balanced with a heartfelt and visceral faith. Yet we are not Medievals; if anything, our culture is as cold and severe as scholastic arguments.

When we try to read Aquinas today without that background, or some decent approximation of it, we run the risk of knowing much about what he says but nothing about what he is talking about. We will be cutting syllogisms in our intellect against an artificial backdrop of sentimental music, rock and roll rhythms, and television commercials (p. 7). Chesterton's words play the part of the Medieval cultural milieu, combining warmth, humor, and charity with the cold, no-nonsense logic of a first-rate, academic philosopher.

Looking at Chesterton's corpus as a whole through the eyes of a philosopher, one could narrow down his entire teaching to two principles: (1) the world is real and is our first teacher, (2) sin is real and is our first tempter (p. 13). Having as a young man intimated the insanity and horror of denying these principles, Chesterton chose as his writing vocation the defense of them, a defense of philosophical sanity of which his famous Orthodoxy was the main bulwark. Paine notes that the latter was not so much a work defending the supernatural truths of theological orthodoxy as it was an articulation of philosophical orthodoxy in defense of first principles. For Chesterton, the acceptance of the world and sin are analogous to the acceptance of God and redemption; for, though they differ as natural, philosophical from supernatural, theological truths, they are similar in their shared undemonstrability and moral presuppositions: that neither of these truths can be demonstrated, but both can be known and known prior to and better than anything else, and that the acceptance of both the world and God as the fundamental sources of our knowledge of reality presupposes a fundamental disposition of receptivity, humility, and wonder, make the partner doctrines of philosophical realism and Christian salvation enemies of an empirical, idealist, subjectivist, and hubristic modern philosophy.

Paine does a masterful job of presenting the genesis and development of modern philosophy in the seventeenth century as a refusal of the first salute of the universe, meaning the whole scale abandonment of the world as the first tutor of man's mind.

"The new philosophers' chief complaint about the world as pedagogue was that it is so notoriously imprecise and illogical. So they endeavored to find a newer, better, and more precise tutor within a new perspective, thus cleaning up the business of thought once and for all. Chesterton saw this, and his book Orthodoxy, ... is an attempt to restore us to the tutelage of God's universe" (p. 30).

Paine examines in some detail the ideas of Descartes, the universe doubted, Kant, the universe postulated, and Husserl, the universe bracketed, to show the developing stages and permutations of the modern turn away from the world. He then summarizes Chesterton's Orthodoxy, chapter by chapter, presenting it as a turn back to the world, and through the world, to God.

Paine sees the Western, modern philosophic project as akin to the Eastern religious project which rejects the outside world as a reliable and real source of knowledge. The difference is that the West inaugurated this project as a result of abandoning the Christian religion which would have prevented it, while the East had thought this way from the beginning as a result of following its various religions. As Chesterton makes clear, it was only in the Occident that men looked firstly and lastly to the world for the answers to all the questions the world evoked; for, only in the Occident were men taught to believe in the world at all. With the Incarnation of a God into that world, men were given divine assurance that their instincts to trust the world had been right all along.

The Universe and Mr. Chesterton is an excellent introduction to the thought of the most Thomistic journalist ever to pen a paradox. Though slightly repetitive, as one might expect with so simple a theme as the reality of the world, Paine shows us why a man who never made any formal study of the Angelic Doctor could be credited by Gilson with writing the best book about him. Chesterton was certainly a genius, but not in the modern sense of the word. He used his redoubtable wit and immense learning only to reteach us sophisticated moderns the wisdom we had as children.--Thaddeus J. Kozinski, Christendom College.
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Author:Kozinski, Thaddeus J.
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Mar 1, 2001
Words:973
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