Lecture 130: A Primer in Paradox – Society of Gilbert Keith Chesterton
The Apostolate of Common Sense

Lecture 130: A Primer in Paradox

Essays from Black and White, 1903-1904 

Black and White, 1903-1904
 

As a rising young journalist, looking to find reasons to submit anything anywhere, G.K. Chesterton was reading a copy of a weekly review, when he was struck by the title of the publication: Black and White. He wondered vaguely what would happen if he “could succeed in proving that black was white.” 

I should, I suppose, be hurled from the office, have a brief career of glory, and die by the hand of a subscriber. But this question has often been brought before me, because I have been accused, by seven different persons, of wishing to prove that black is white—a thing I have never desired, but which I now feel inclined to attempt. At any rate, a few remarks on the nature of paradox (as it is called), on the general philosophical theory that black is white, I may be permitted to make.  

The simplest and commonest of all the causes which lead to the charge of “mere paradox” being slung about as it is, is one fundamental assumption. Everybody takes it for granted that universal and ordinary arrangements, historic institutions, daily habits are reasonable. They are good, they are sensible, they are holy and splendid often enough, but they are not reasonable. They are themselves paradoxes; paradox is built into the very foundations of human affairs. 

Then began a series of articles under the general heading “That Black is White.” The titles of the essays were: 

That Black Is, in a General Sense, White 

That Respectable People Are More Interesting Than Bohemians 

That Bigoted People Have No Beliefs 

That the Simple Life Is an Artificial Nuisance 

That Humour Is an Overrated Quality  

That series was followed by another series under the heading, “The Creed of a Credulous Person” in which he gives an account “of the funny things I believe” such as fairies, Santa Claus, talking animals, and the idea “that all things called inanimate are really animate.” He argues that it is better to be credulous than to be a skeptic, because to refuse to be “taken in” is to refuse to see the inside of anything. The skeptic “would rather be outside everything than inside Heaven.” 

It is held that to believe in fairies, griffins, vampires and such things has a disquieting effect. Nothing could be more mistaken. It is the people who believe in these things who are sane and ordinary and eat large breakfasts and sleep like logs. Who are the people who believe in the fairies? Rustics, six feet high, as calm as cows; mountaineers, who hang to precipices laughing; hunters, who slay gigantic beasts; kings and warriors, whose hands and heads are steady in the topsy-turvydom of battle; and above all, children. Children, who of most people have most power of throwing off morbidity and of laughing through tears. Rustics, fighting men and babies do not go mad; they are kept from that by their belief in the supernatural. Professors go mad, ingenious inquirers go mad, philosophers go mad, psychologists go mad, young and earnest suburban agnostics go mad and take laudanum. 

It is likely that these essays established the young Chesterton’s reputation as a purveyor of paradox. It was thought that he was being paradoxical merely for effect. No one, surely, could actually believe that Chesterton actually believed the things he was saying.  

But there is a point to his paradoxes. He claims he is “pointing out an element of mere blunder and blank mistake in many of the current assertions,” that he is contradicting people and raising difficulties to show that many of our accepted ideas are nonsense. 

One of them, to take a random example, is the perpetual modern nonsense whether we are egoists or altruists; the only answer to which question is to fell the inquirer to the earth. It is assumed, in the face of patent common-sense, that there is some kind of interior and natural opposition between enjoying yourself and enjoying other people. The pert and ethical modern altruist says, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour rather than thyself.” Of course, it is perfectly obvious that upon any one particular occasion a man might be distracted as to whether he should please himself or please his fellow-creatures, just as he might be distracted about whether he should be in time for the first act of an opera, or see out the tail-end of a sunset. But this is a merely accidental opposition, it is not an integral one; there is no intrinsic inconsistency between happiness for others and for oneself any more than there is between operas and sunsets. 

We see in these essays a foreshadowing of the arguments that will appear four years later in Orthodoxy: that poetry and imagination are sane, and that isolated logic can be maddening. The main theme? “The age needs, first and foremost, to be startled; to be taught the nature of wonder.”  

There was a final series of essays in Black and White, exploring the decline of the amateur, from “The Decline of the Amateur Dancer” to that of the amateur actor, critic, educator, politician, and soldier. These presage the great dictum which would appear in 1910 in What’s Wrong with the World: “A thing worth doing is worth doing badly.” 

This essay first appeared in the March/April 2018 issue of Gilbert! magazine.

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