Thursday, June 08, 2006

The Man Who Was Thursday - Chap. 1 & 2

Preliminary Remarks

For those from Saint Charles:
We are all philosophy majors, and G.K. Chesterton is certainly a great philosophical mind. This work is, in a sense, allegorical. It is a vehicle for some of the philosophical themes that Chesterton developed more completely in his non-fiction works (and there are quite a few of them.) So, while discussion about the plot and storyline is more than welcome, I think it would be even more beneficial to try to unpack some of these deeper themes running underneath the work. I'll do my best to point them out in my posts, and open up the discussion from there.

A note on commenting:
If there are any questions about place-names or clarifications of that sort that you wish to bring up, I invite you to email them to me. I will then post these on the main blog post, where everyone can more easily benefit from them. Reserve the comment box for the discussion of themes, and general impressions about the book as we read.

Discussion Points - Chapters 1 & 2

Chapter One

1) Comment upon Chesterton's writing style, if you like. Having been a fan of his essays and non-fiction work, I was pleasantly surprised by his skill and scene-painting in the opening pages of the work. His description of Soho in London, and his character introduction of Syme and Gregory, was quite well done in my opinion. So far, I'm finding Chesterton to be a better storyteller than I had given him credit for.

2) The first conversation between Gabriel Syme and Lucian Gregory is rather interesting, and does have philosophical overtones. Syme's defense of order is very reminiscent of Chesterton's Orthodoxy. His conversion to Christianity was very much based upon a natural experience of this, one of Thomas's five ways - he found that there was a definite "plan" behind creation. Comment on the conversation between these two. Would you agree more with Lucian - that poetry is good when it is unfettered - or Gabriel - that it is best when it is strictly ordered?

Chapter Two

1) Consider the conversation in the pub. Gregory comments about how anarchy seeks to "Abolish God." There is a bit of complicated history involved here, and an understanding of some of the social circumstances in which Chesterton was living at the time. Anarchy was a popular theme in fiction back then, and was one of the offshoots of Marxist ideologies that were creeping into the Western World. Feel free to comment upon this mentality, and whether you think that Chesterton's fear was a bit of a zany, conspiracy theory. Or perhaps, is the fear as real today as it was back then? Give special consideration to the fact that Gregory's "front," to avoid detection as a real anarchist, is his very radicality.

2) Chesterton's novel hinges upon a premise that we might not be able to "buy" today. That premise is that men honor oaths when they pledge them. This concept is a bit foreign in our day and age. Thus, the way that chapter two ends, and the progression of the novel, might seem a little incredible to us. Wouldn't Gregory simply turn Gabriel over? Or vice versa? Comment upon the fact that Chesterton apparently considered men's honor a plausible premise for constructing his thriller, and how he might have to change his approach if he were writing today.

Any other topics are more than welcome. Let's keep this fluid. Shall we try to have read through Chapter Four by next Wednesday, the 21st?

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Blogger Friguy said...

Some might be surprised that I am actually able to post a comment on this, the first of our reading deadlines. I certainly am.

Chesteron in this novel is very . . . Chestertonian. The whole flavor of the story in shaped by his inimitable style. It's humorous, it's pointed, it's intellectual--it's British. The words of the week (or the modifiers of the month) must certainly have been "wild" and "sudden" when he penned these first chapters. I can't help but imagine if I were to have handed in these two chapters to my fifth grade English teacher, Mrs. Bender. I probably would have lost points for lacking variety in my word choice. And, yet, in Chesterton, it's allowable (and, to a degree, lovable).

In chapter one, the first conversation between Syme and Gregory uncovers a curious notion with far-reaching philsophical implications. The idea that order is fundamentally poetic stands in stark contrast to certain movements, especially modern (but not all), which would proffer licentious "freedom" as the hallmark of things poetic. Regularity and order, on the contrary, would be poetical properties for Aristotle ("Poetics"), Horace ("Ars Poetica"), St. Thomas (fifth way), and many others. As Archbishop Sheen was fond of reiterating, the beauty of the cosmos is increased and made intelligible to man by its characteristic repetition and regularity. That one daffodil is very much like another is delightful; two unlike things, if they were to be called by the same same and implied to be of the same essence, would be unintelligible and would terminate in cosmological cacophony. Just as a symphony is a synthesis of thematic repetition and variation, multiplicity and repetition are the fibers woven into the universe by the Almighty creative hand. Can anybody express some thoughts on how the conversation relates more specifically to St. Thomas' proof from order?

Joey G.'s point about the trustworthiness of honor is one I had not considered. Upon reflection, though, it truly is remarkable to see how much has changed in our lived experience of honor. I hope that chivalry is not dead, but a similar premise of plot would be rather improbable today. Lord Baden-Powell, a Brit contemporary with Chesterton, said that "the code of the knight is still the code of the gentleman today." Does that apply now, a century later? Or, was that just one, brief-shining moment in Edwardian (or Arthurian) history? I fear the shame of the true answer.

So far, this is a thriller (by my terms). Much more of the text remains, but the first segment shows forth great promise. Who couldn't like a book with two red-haired characters? So Chestertonian...

6/9/06, 8:40 AM  
Anonymous Chris L. said...

I have been a fan of Chesterton for some time. I have enjoyed many of his works, both fiction and non-fiction. I was not suprised at Chesterton scene painting in the opening pages, but did enjoy it immensely. He frequently demonstrated this skill in his Fr. Brown Mysteries.

Poetry as far as I am concerned is at its best when it is ordered and controlled. Meter and rhyme that appear to be natural and without thought are signs of true artistic genius. Chesterton's own epic poems The Ballad of the White Horse is written in 4-6 line stanza using three similiar rhyme schemes. Anyway my point in is control and order is beautiful in poetry, in music, in life, in everything. This is why I have never trully apperciated free verse poetry or abstract art.

Anarchy is a frightening. I do not believe we have to fear political anarchy in our times. But the more frightening type of anarchy of which Gregory speaks in chapter two we still must fear, for it appears all to evident today. He speaks of abolishing God and abolishing right and wrong. This is something many in our modern society seek to do, many without even realizing it. Under the guise of acceptance and equality relativism has crept into our society and is destroying right and wrong and with it God. For relativism makes the individual God and right and wrong nothing more then opinion and prefrance.

While I greatly appreciate order, specially in literature and writing I am sure you can tell that my writing lacks it frequently (along with proper spelling). I apologizes for this, and assure you it is not my subtle form of anarchy.

6/9/06, 8:12 PM  
Blogger Joey G. said...

I'll try and tackle the "fifth way" comparison. It might help to reproduce some segments of Chesterton and Aquinas in whole. To start, for review, here is the entire "fifth way" from the Summa:

The fifth way is taken from the governance of the world. We see that things which lack intelligence, such as natural bodies, act for an end, and this is evident from their acting always, or nearly always, in the same way, so as to obtain the best result. Hence it is plain that not fortuitously, but designedly, do they achieve their end. Now whatever lacks intelligence cannot move towards an end, unless it be directed by some being endowed with knowledge and intelligence; as the arrow is shot to its mark by the archer. Therefore some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end; and this being we call God.

The Intelligent Designer, to be sure, but not necessarily as the modern academy would have Him. This is no well-made clock; but every daisy that buds and finds itself white, not purple, is directed to do so by a competent authority on such matters. God is the denizen of daisies, and He wills them to be white and petalled.

Now, the appropriate place in Chapter One of Thursday bears a resemblance to this argument:

"I tell you," went on Syme with passion, "that every time a train comes in I feel that it has broken past batteries of besiegers, and that man has won a battle against chaos. You say contemptuously that when one has left Sloane Square one must come to Victoria. I say that one might do a thousand things instead, and that whenever I really come there I have the sense of hair-breadth escape. And when I hear the guard shout out the word 'Victoria', it is not an unmeaning word. It is to me the cry of a herald announcing conquest. It is to me indeed 'Victoria'; it is the victory of Adam."

Syme's defense of the beauty of order comes from Chesterton's philosophical base. Chesterton accepted the "higher principle" of order. He had come to Christianity from an understanding that things were made intelligible by their having been ordered. What Syme argues for the poetry of men, Chesterton believed about the poetry of creation. He masks his philosophical/theological conviction here beneath an argument about an artform. A glance at a similar passage in Chesterton's Orthodoxy develops it a bit more clearly:

All the towering materialism which dominates the modern mind rests ultimately upon one assumption; a false assumption. It is supposed that if a thing goes on repeating itself it is probably dead; a piece of clockwork....

The sun rises every morning. I do not rise every morning; but the variation is due not to my activity, but to my inaction. Now, to put the matter in a popular phrase, it might be true that the sun rises regularly because he never gets tired of rising. His routine might be due, not to a lifelessness, but to a rush
of life. The thing I mean can be seen, for instance, in children, when they find some game or joke that they specially enjoy. A child
kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, "Do it again"; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, "Do it again" to the sun; and every evening, "Do it again" to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.

This is, by far, my favorite section in all of Chesterton. It's in Chapter IV, the "Ethics of Elfland" if you want to look it up.

I often think of Chesterton as "Aquinas for Dummies." Of course, Ettiene Gilson famously described Chesterton's biography of St. Thomas as the best ever written, so maybe it's not too much to say that Chesterton is the ideal layman's avenue to the philosophy of the angelic doctor.

So while Syme's argument is not developed, and in a sense only hints at the more systematic approach first in Chesterton and ultimately in Aquinas, I think it has the essential "meat" of the fifth way argument. If a reader has half a mind to unlock the allegory in this work (which allegory becomes much more insistant as the book progresses) I think he will easily read in this brief argument an apologia for the ordered universe, and the Poet's method in composition.

6/13/06, 7:18 PM  
Blogger Joe said...

I really enjoyed these first two chapters. Chesterton's style of writing surprised me. It had never occurred to me that I could enjoy so many sentences in a single page. Perhaps I should start listening to Joe's suggested readings more often.

I myself did find it somewhat strange that a person (Gregory), who didn’t even believe in God cared so much about his promise. For what purpose would he try to maintain his honor? What would he be violating? I guess my issue with this is that I associate all good things (honesty, trustworthiness) with God. I expect a true atheist to be a true anarchist and not be restrained by the "silly idea" of higher and universal goods. I guess I expect them to be a total pragmatist. Why not always do what fits your agenda best if there is nothing greater than yourself to offend?

Also, if he was willing to water down and sell out his anarchist values, which seemed to me a little hypocritical, then why couldn't he have sold out his honor as well or instead?

The funny thing about these two chapters is that it seems in the beginning of the book, Chesterton is speaking well of the expected, but in the end, the chapter ends in a rather unexpected way. -- Just something I found funny.

However, I don't know how much anything can be truly unexpected, anarchist, or unordered. Gregory says trees show the beauty of anarchy, but then Mr. Syme points out that true anarchy would have the tree beaming with light and the lamp next to it wasn't emitting anything. But following that idea, it seems nothing can be truly unexpected. Even if the tree did emit light, that wouldn't be as strange as it could be because it is emitting something we already know exists. If the tree exploded… well we all know what an explosion is, so it would still fit within the possibly expected. Also, all of these things are perceived by our senses… How bland and boring it is to be using the same five senses without suddenly using a new and unexpected one! I can’t think of how one could appreciate something unless it had at least some order to it. Even if my train did not stop at 30th street station and instead it stopped in purgatory, because I forgot I was invited to a pool party, I would still be encountering things that I’ve heard of or can at least perceive in some way.

I hope I make sense and am understandable.

7/16/06, 5:19 PM  
Blogger Friguy said...

Regarding Joe H.'s comments, which are quite good, I'm not sure I agree about the hypocrisy of honor in an atheist.

Certainly, as you point out, the fullness of such goods as honesty, fidelity, and trust derives from God. The highest human level of these virtues will therefore be found in the practice of a quality Christian life. But is it necessary to know whence cometh virtue in order that one might live in it?

I don't believe so. I think, as in the philosophy of the ancients, that we can experience natural components of what are intrinsically supernatural things, like virtue. An unbeliever is not hypocritical to live honestly in his business affairs. Rather, as the institution of law and justice systems testifies, civilization naturally demands certain standards of all men, Christian or godless.

So, is this all just an argument supporting the existence of a natural law? Perhaps. I think the natural law emblazoned on Syme's heart is sufficient to instruct him towards honor without the stain of hypocrisy. But faith would surely do him no harm.

7/17/06, 4:24 PM  
Blogger Joey G. said...

Very Lumen Gentium, David. That's a good thing. As a point of order, though, I'm not sure we're all on the same page. I think that Joe's accusation of hypocrisy was more pointed toward the oath being sworn by Lucius Gregory, not Gabriel Syme. I agree with everything you said, David, and say that there is certaintly in atheism nothing that would seem to make someone incapable of honoring an oath or keeping trust.

So atheism, but anarchy? There I'm not as sure. I think the answer rests in the fact that Gregory was really playing the fool. He was no more a serious anarchist than Syme ends up being. A true anarchist would not, I think, be held by an oath. Isn't even the natural law something of a government? Isn't this law as objectionable to the anarchist as are man-made legistlations?

7/17/06, 4:45 PM  
Blogger Friguy said...

Indeed, I read Joe H.'s comment as though it referred to Syme, not Gregory. I was so excited to find a point of contention for prospective disagreement in these, the final throes of our group reading experiment, that I lost track of character. In a community of generally like-minded people, like ours, it can be difficult to forge a good debate.

Nonetheless, I subscribe wholesale to Joey G.'s distinction between atheist and anarchist. For "anarchist" is the word to signify a rejectionist, and one who rejects governmental authority is quite readily given to rejecting natural (and forget supernatural) authority.

7/17/06, 9:43 PM  

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