G.K. and the Active Purification of the Intellect
For me, the attractiveness of G.K. is not only in the profound truth of what he says, but in the very qualities of his mind which is the source of his reflections. Loving St.Thomas as he did, he wouldn't mind if I refer to him, in thomistic terms, as someone in whom the Holy Spirit had achieved, to a rare degree, the active purification of the intellect through the gift of wisdom. G.K. was able to see with his mind, not only think thoughts. It's not the same thing. He was able to see creation from the perspective of faith, which is the ultimate purification of the mind.
Since original sin (the only doctrine, G.K. remarks, which needs no proof), our intellect is wounded. The most comprehensive name for this particular wound is ignorance. With the help of G.Lagrange, (quotes from The Three Ages of the Interior Life unless otherwise noted), let me first list the various aspects of this ignorance, and then briefly comment on G.K.'s exemplification of the remedies, both in the qualities of his mind and in his practical use of the mind.
Such are the defects of the mind which exist in us in various degrees: curiosity, rash haste to learn what is useless, indifference, negligence in regard to the one thing necessary (i.e., God and our salvation); spiritual pride, blindness, and spiritual folly, which ends in judging everything by what is lowest and most petty, whereas wisdom judges everything by the supreme cause and the last end. 359
Original sin has not destroyed our ability to know the truth. The questions are: "What is the truth? Do I want to know it? How do my passions obscure it?" How many people attain to the truth in any comprehensive way? And wouldn't it require an extraordinary person to be able to accomplish this? We lack time. We are curious about so many other things. Our minds are darkened by passions and pride. G.K. travelled very far down the road of wisdom and the purification of the mind.
Let us begin with the sin of curiosity, "which inclines us with eagerness and precipitation toward the consideration and study of less useful subjects, making us neglect the things of God and our salvation." (354)
I've never seen G.K.'s personal library; I'd like to. I imagine he read books on almost every conceivable subject. (I recall the incident when he was looking for his shoe under the bed, found a book there, and remained for an hour or so reading in that quite comfortable and private place.) Isn't this "curiosity"?
I think not. One gets the impression he was precisely reading everything in order to harmonize all of creation and everything of human culture into the faith vision. (Something like Albert the Great who, in order to glorify God, acquired an encyclopedic knowledge of the world of his day.)
G.K.'s breadth of knowledge did not retard his vision of the faith, or make him slothful in reading more sublime topics. The sin of curiosity stores "useless knowledge which does not at all form the judgment." It is a "mania for collecting, an accumulation of knowledge mechanically arranged and unorganized, somewhat as if it were in a dictionary." It is "a jumble of accumulated knowledge, [unable] to see the light of the first principles." (355) When G.K., in the bath tub, read a stack of books on a certain topic prior to his own unique creation, what emerged from this immersion (sorry!) was not a compendium of all he had read, but a distillation related to the highest principles in a most poetic way. He was precisely devouring knowledge in order to relate it to the "one thing necessary."
St. Thomas' commentary on Paul's "knowledge puffeth up," fits our hero:
Here the Apostle does not approve of much knowledge, if the mode of knowing is ignored. Moreover, the mode of knowing is that you should know in what order, with what eagerness,to what end each thing must be known: in what order, that you should know first that which is more proper for salvation; with what eagerness, that you should seek with greater ardor that which is more efficacious to inflame love; to what end, that you should not wish to know anything for vainglory and curiosity, but for your own and your neighbour's edification. 355
"Vainglory" brings us to spiritual pride.
Spiritual pride is a more serious disorder than curiosity. It gives us such confidence in our own reason and judgment that we are not very willing to ... enlighten ourselves by the benevolent and attentive examination of reasons or facts which may be urged against us. It leads also to asperity in discussion, to stubbornness in judgment, to disparagement which excludes in a cutting tone all that does not fit in with our manner of seeing things. This pride may lead a person to refuse to others the liberty he claims for his own opinions.... 356
There are so many things about G.K. which delight me, but the near top of my list is this intellectual graciousness with which he approaches his intellectual foes, a graciousness which witnesses to his intellectual humility as well as to his charity for the misguided and deluded.
I don't have quotes handy, and I will not attempt to quote from memory as G.K. mostly did, and as a more intelligent son of his might attempt to do. I will not presume to quote, but audaciously compose a very typical opening salvo which G.K. might have used towards his adversaries. (We could learn much from him here in our often acrimonious Catholic debates these days.)
"I have just finished reading a very stimulating and far-ranging article on the origin of homo sapiens by the distinguished author Mr. Cornelius McGillicuddy. I certainly defend his right to expose his mind to public view. My only comment would be that if the contents of his mind are further poured forth upon us, the results would truly be most disastrous for the future of homo sapiens." Or that famous passage where Mr. So and So is decrying the fact that the early Christians allowed themselves to be eaten by the lions. They only needed to make some kind of mental reservation to spare themselves from such an ordeal. G.K. comments that Mr. So and so is the only Christian, in his opinion, that really ought to be fed to the lions!
You can't help but really believe that each of these opponents would not have minded going out afterwards with G.K. to a pub to continue the discussion. He was open to the opinions of others, and respected them as persons; loved them as persons. (Must we not first love, like Jesus, whatever or whomever we wish to change?) He often thought, however, that their ideas were disastrous.
Spiritual pride can lead to spiritual blindness, where knowledge blocks out the voice of God. "Blind guides," Jesus called some of the learned of his day.
We may say of [spiritual blindness] what St. Thomas says of spiritual folly (stultitia), that it is opposed to the precepts of the contemplation of truth...a tendency that is, so to speak, anti-contemplative, permitting them to see the life of the Church only from without, as if they were looking at the exterior of the windows of a cathedral, instead of seeing them from within under the soft light which should illumine them." 357-58 (This last passage reminds us of G.K.s similar comments in The Catholic Church and Conversion: you must finally enter the Church, like sticking your head through an (open) stained glass window, to see that soft glow of the truth.)
Chesterton had a charitable mind, subject to faith, distinguishing between the person and his ideas. Great medievalist that he was, he was an outstanding example of what the greatest contemplative of the Middle Ages, St. Bernard, said:
There are those who wish to know for the purpose of knowing a great deal, and this is curiosity; some that they may know, and this is vanity; some that they may sell their knowledge, and this is base gain; some that they may be edified, and this is prudence; some that they may edify, and this is charity. quoted, 362
. . . o o o . . .