Lecture 42: Superstitions of the Sceptic

This small book, which is extremely hard to find, begins with a verbatim transcription of a lecture that Chesterton gave at Cambridge in 1925. One of the things confirmed in this transcript is that Chesterton talks exactly the way he writes: clearly, correctly, and generously.

In the lecture, he argues that when skeptics break away from a religious and social system, what happens is not freedom, but just the opposite: constraint and servitude. “One of the immediate results of cutting loose is… that you chain yourself up again and chain yourself much more completely. In other words, whatever the old system of Christendom may have been and whatever we think of it, it is historically true that when people broke away from it they showed a most mysterious disposition for rushing, apparently of their own free will, into prisons and lunatic asylums…It was their religious liberty that created their social slavery.”

The 16th century Protestants who broke away from the Catholic Church became gloomy Puritans stuck in the prison of predestination. The 17th century intellectuals who broke away from Puritanism were largely comfortable aristocrats who “lived in considerable ignorance of the rest of the world.” They represented the earliest stages Utilitarianism, which afterwards came to be called the Manchester School, a cast-iron creed based on the last discovery of economic science. It was “very, very hard in its dogmas indeed.” As they built an industrial society, they “repressed all kinds of impulses that they would naturally have, such as the impulse of pity, not to mention the impulse of social indignation.” The reaction against the factory system was fierce and seemed at first to be a breaking free, but it was based on an even more rigid dogma, that of Karl Marx, with the most fixed and inhumane ideas of any social system.

Chesterton’s point is that there has rarely been an independent skepticism; the skeptics always “turned something else into a sacred object, into a superstition, and when that thing was examined it was always found to be far narrower than the older traditions that had been rejected.” Whatever traditions remain are so cut off from their origins, that people can no longer explain why they keep them. They cannot explain why nudism and cannibalism are bad. The skeptics start to argue that nudism is natural and therefore good, and that a slice of missionary is merely a matter of taste. They have forgotten the foundations of their civilization, all the discarded doctrines such as Original Sin that are rooted in the Catholic faith.

Following the lecture are several pages of correspondence between Chesterton and G.G. Coulton, a professor of medieval history, which were originally published as letters to the editor in the Cambridge Review. There are some scholars who speculate that it was Coulton who incurred Belloc’s wrath as the “don who dared attack my Chesterton.” But Coulton’s correspondence here is quite gentlemanly. He does not attack Chesterton. However, he does something that to Chesterton is much worse: he is a medievalist who sneers at medievalism.

Though Chesterton makes it clear in his lecture that he has no intention of going into it in any detail about his general points, Coulton immediately dives deeply into details. He claims that Chesterton is wrong because the medieval and Puritan attitudes toward dancing are quite the same, and he quotes several Catholic writers, medieval and older who condemn dancing.

Chesterton responds by trying to point again to the main point: the increasing narrowness of those who break away from the older religious traditions. He admits that Coulton knows more medieval history, but “the obscure things, the details and disputed points, the great scholar can always see and note better than we can. It is the obvious things that he cannot see… It is the truth in the traditional picture of the absent-minded professor, who remains gazing at a fossil or a Roman coin and fails to observe external objects, such as a house on fire, a revolution, an escaped elephant putting its head through the skylight.” It is the privilege, he says, to point out the elephant that the professor is not noticing.

Then another writer named John Lopes jumps into the correspondence, quoting a passage from St. Thomas Aquinas about dancing that completely supports Chesterton’s argument. Coulton’s response is to dismiss Aquinas as a minor writer! If the facts are inconvenient, they must be disposed of.

Chesterton, who by now has already won the debate, then tries to explain to Coulton the difference between medieval asceticism and the Puritanism which followed it, the difference between a sin and an occasion to sin, and the difference between denunciation and damnation. It all comes down to the problem that Coulton does not understand Catholicism, and “there are inconveniences in writing the most learned book about five centuries of religion without knowing what the religion was.” This was Chesterton’s first published debate after his conversion, and he expresses a bit of the frustration of an insider who cannot find any way to connect with the outsider.

There are a few more wasted shots back and forth as Coulton continues completely to miss Chesterton’s main point, as so many intellectuals tend to do with Chesterton because they get obsessed with details.

Eleven years later, Chesterton and Coulton began another written debate regarding the Catholic faith, and their exchanges were scheduled to become another book. The debate, however, was interrupted by Chesterton’s death. I imagine that the two men have since resolved their differences perfectly.

This book is currently out of print.