Lecture 60: Come to Think of It

Of the several books that were comprised of essays that had previously appeared in the Illustrated London News, Come To Think of It stands apart for two reasons. First, the essays were chosen and arranged by J.P. de Fonseka, the Sri Lankan writer who also compiled GKC as MC (The other collections were done by E.V. Lucas). Secondly, Chesterton wrote an introduction, which he did not do for the other collections. In the introduction he acknowledges that he has been writing for the famous paper for 25 years, and thus, this book is a kind of silver anniversary present, a gift he gives out of gratitude to his editor and proof-readers — and other readers — whom he says “are equipped with nerves of steel.” He admits that his articles have become “more militant” and “more simple.” He explains that this is because there is battle going on, and he is a private soldier who is trying to deliver the orders and reports as clearly as possible. The battle is a religious one, and he is pleased that in his day journalists have discovered that the public can be “tremendously interested in fundamental questions of faith and morals; almost as much as in horse-racing and murders.”

Though we find the usual (though amazing) variety that we would expect in a collection of Chesterton essays, we do note a recurrent theme about the power of words”¦and their loss of power. If Chesterton seems more self-conscious of the militant nature of his writing, it is because part of the battle he is fighting with the modern world is its destructive influence on language and meaning. It is a premonition of the literary deconstructionism that would sweep through academic circles a half-century later.

He first notices it in the literary form that is his own bread and butter: the essay. The essay, he says, is like a serpent, smooth and graceful, but wavering and wandering, elusive and evasive, tempting readers with a “misleading air of irresponsibility.” The essay epitomizes the modern art forms that are indefinite and dangerous: “By its very nature it does not exactly explaining what it is trying to do, and thus escapes a decisive judgment about whether it has really done it.”

Another problem is that words are losing their meaning, which makes constructive discourse increasingly difficult. If a bad idea comes along, we are hampered in our ability to destroy it or even defy it, if we cannot define it. Chesterton suspects that many of these modern terms “were invented after the age of doctrine and definition. They are at best artistic and atmospheric. They have come to stand for strong impressions which are real enough, but to stand for them merely as symbols, sometimes poetical, sometimes arbitrary and accidental.” When we try to put into other words the thing we mean by a particular symbol, we find that we have been using “a very incorrect word for it.” One example is the word “vulgarity,” which once meant what was common but now means what is base and graceless. Another is the word “feminism” which means precisely the opposite of what is feminine. Another is “Education” which now means “to deprive the common people of their common sense.”

Chesterton also takes on the term “Natural selection.” The term is now uncritically accepted, though it makes no logical sense:

The whole Darwinian argument is that it is not a case of Nature selecting, any more than of God selecting, or anyone else selecting, but a case of things falling out in that fashion. We are quite ready to discuss trees and giraffe in their place, without perpetual references to God. Could the materialists not so far control their rhetorical and romantic sentimentalism as to do it without perpetual reference to Nature? Shall we make a bargain; that we will for the moment leave out our theology, if they will leave out their mythology?

Though scientists suffer from the misuse and degradation of words along with everyone else in the modern world, they have inflicted a special form of suffering because of the position of authority in which science finds itself. It portrays itself as objective and unbiased, but it is very biased in favor of materialism and very much subjected to the philosophy of Darwinism. The biases of the hard sciences have in turn affected the soft sciences. Using the idea of endless and inevitable progress, social scientists seem to know more about the future than they do about the past or even the present. Chesterton amusingly notes how one of these prognosticators applies this relentless improvement to everything, including our body parts, all of which will be replaced by new and better models: “We shall have false hair, false teeth, false eyes, false ears, and everything else suitable to our false philosophy.”

When we say that someone is fluent in a language, we imply that language has a fluency to it, like a stream. It means, as Chesterton explains, that it “can curve and wind and return and penetrate the smallest cranny, but always so as to fit.” Language has to be precise, it has to fit exactly because it has to be free to go anywhere and do anything. The writer’s battle is to keep words sharp, but to keep language fluent: to penetrate and dispel the fog of modern thought, or rather modern thoughtlessness.

This book is currently out of print.