G.K. Chesterton on “the New Sort of Cynic”

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                               18 December 2018

The Expectation of Mary

G.K. Chesterton on “the New Sort of Cynic”

Epigraphs

“All this [fastidiousness] has ended in a sort of Manichean madness against the fundamental facts of life.” (G.K. Chesterton, Avowals and Denials (1934), p.171)

***

“People are positively nervous about mentioning duty or [informed] conscience or religion [hence sacred tradition and irreformable dogma], because of the high-strung and delicately poised sanity of the new sort of cynic….This is something more than a perversity; it is an inversion, and an inversion which amounts to a sort of mental malformation….The real and reasonable question of morality and immorality awaits discussion; and it will not be best discussed by [“the new type of sensitive”] epileptics, even if they are also cynics.” (G.K. Chesterton, Avowals and Denials, p. 171—my emphasis added)

***

“Those who are now called Pagans actually do what they themselves have chiefly blamed in the Puritans: they despise the body and all the affections that lie nearest to the body. Their aestheticism, more than any asceticism, has produced a repugnance for the real facts of life [like the birth and nurturing of children]….This is a new and curious philosophical phase. It may not yet be conscious. But for many it will be the final phase of that fury of fastidiousness which already rages in them against the mere mention of common affections or even natural habits….being unsatisfied even with the most harmless natural affections. (G.K. Chesterton, Avowals and Denials, p. 173-174—my emphasis added)

***

In his published 1934 essay—two years before his death—entitled “On the Touchy Realist,”i G.K. Chesterton, amidst some verbal antics, imparts to us a few unexpected insights about cynicism, and they may well shed light, as well, on some contemporary manifestations of soft mercy and sensitive forms of diversity and purportedly pastoral tenderness.

Chesterton begins his essay with a compact summary of his main thesis:

Not very long ago, men complained of the cynic, saying that he was hard and had no human feelings. Now they [the faithful, too?] are asked rather to respect the cynic, because his feelings are so soft and sensitive. (170)

About this new kind of sentimentalism, Chesterton then modestly adds:

This [phenomenon] is a curious change, but a real one, and one that has not been adequately noticed. There is a type of modern youth [or modern pastor?] which is cynical not because it is thick-skinned, but because it is thin-skinned [and “touchy”]. It has…the…tendency to shudder at anything conventional [or especially traditional?]….Indeed, the cynical youth [or a promiscuous libidinous prelate?] is in many ways very like the [sensitive] Victorian spinster, only not so self-controlled. (170—my emphasis added)

Attempting to understand this potential vulnerability and provocative weakness, Chesterton goes on to comment upon this arguably new kind of irrational cynicism:

It [this type of cynicism] has exactly the same tendency to shudder at anything conventional [much less traditional] as the Victorian spinster had to shudder at anything unconventional….There is, however, in his [the cynical youth’s] world of culture exactly the same fundamental weakness that really weakened the worst parts of the old world of convention. I mean, there is the horror of certain phrases as such, [a constricted ideological horror] of certain allusions and associations, without any real effort to reduce them to any system recognized by reason. The new type of sensitive [sic] is sickened by anything that he would call sentimental [e.g., a happy traditional family, the love of a mother, the protection of innocent children], just as the [touchy Victorian] spinster was [sickened] by anything she would call cynical. In both cases it is a matter of associations and not of analysis; and it matters more what words are used than what thought is presented. (170-171—my emphasis added)

Such a new cynicism thereby shows itself to be a form of sentimentalism, as well as a form of ideological irrationality. We probably already know that cramped ideological mentation is often “touchy,” if not fundamentally irrational. Unwilling to consider rational objections to its claims and “armed new doctrine,” an ideologue is often himself paradoxically “more discontented if he is not discontented.” (He is understandably agitated when he is uprooted—or when he is unrooted.)

With his artful tones of irony, Chesterton now proceeds to give some illustrative examples:

The truly refined [cynical] youth will turn pale at the mention of a mother’s love or be seriously unwell on hearing of a happy marriage….I know a distinguished lady who can hardly even hear the words “woman and children”…without being carried fainting from the room. People are positively nervous about mentioning [one’s] duty or conscience or religion, because of the high-strung and delicately poised sanity of the new sort of cynic [and decadent? or barbarian?]….If our [Victorian] aunts ought to have been able to hear about immorality without fainting, surely our [currently surviving, seemingly soft, if not decadent] nephews might brace themselves to hear about morality without throwing an epileptic fit. (171—my emphasis added)

After noting, by way of further example, that “there are…husbands who are too selfish or unsociable” and even saying that that fact is “so obvious that it has been satirized by all the satirists of human history,” (172) Chesterton makes some important distinctions and a contrast:

But the [new] modern thing that I mean carries with it quite a different [cynical] implication. It implies not that the fruit is sometimes rotten, but that the root is always rotten; and the further that feeling goes, the more it works backwards to the rottenness in the very roots of the tree of life. It rather resembles a sort of rage of amputation in a mad surgeon who has forgotten the difference between the malady and the man. There is nothing that needs a sense of proportion so much as amputation; and in this [mad] inhuman philosophy it [amputation] has gone far beyond the cutting off of the hand [as in the amputated right hand of the courageous Scaevola, circa 500 B.C.], or the plucking out of the eye, which symbolize the extremes of asceticism….Meanwhile the general stampede against nature goes on [as with the natural moral law]….(172-173—my emphasis added)

Chesterton will now take us to an even deeper consideration of these matters of the natural and the unnatural and the fact of evil:

The serpent always bites its own tail; and the whirlwind always turns upon itself; and all emanations of evil in history have always described this strange curve [turning upon itself] and [have] ended up by contradicting themselves. (174—my emphasis added)

To bolster his thoughtful and humane opinion that disproportionate and excessive fastidiousness and cynicism have grave and near incorrigible effects, Chesterton now has us consider other historical manifestations of excess:

The excess of Private Judgment [in Luther and other Protestants] ended in Prussianism; the excess of Prohibitionism and Puritanism [as in the U.S.A.] ended in a government of bootleggers and gangsters; the excess of cut-throat competition, born of the [British and Ricardo] Manchester School, ended in the universal tyranny of the Monopoly and the Trust. This is not the first time in history that the excess of Paganism has led to mere Pessimism, and its name now, like its name two thousand years ago, is, or ought to be, Manicheanism [as well as Gnosticism, a dark and chosen “escapist” religion, as well]….That was the frame of mind in which many men, in the age of St. Augustine, for instance, passed from a Greek glorification of nature to an Oriental glorification of nothing [i.e., an acknowledgement of final Nothingness]; because nature herself demanded sacrifice and life itself imposes limits. By ignoring limits, they lost all sense even of the limit that divides life and death, and finally [in despair?] found in death the only unlimited liberty [hence voluntary and permissible suicide]. That ancient and tragic transformation from the Pagan to the Manichee is passing through many minds [at least as of 1934], and fulfilling itself before our very eyes to-day; and whether there be any cure for it, deeper than the destruction [or self-destruction] itself, this is no place to inquire. (174-175—my emphasis added)

Have we, perhaps, now come to such a point where “we can tolerate neither our vices nor their remedies”? The historian Livy once thought this to be the case in Rome around 19 B.C. (in his Latin, he incisively said “nec vitia nostra nec remedia pati possumus”).

In a partial response, Chesterton himself has resolutely said: “But we can [and we should] protest against history and human experience being distorted by these fleeting fads and fashions.” (175—my emphasis added)

On the prior page of his essay, Chesterton had already given to us a well-rooted and memorable illustration of the recurrent historical excess displayed by “the Pessimism of Manicheanism” (and its closely related Gnosticism, which also essentially rejected the divine Creation of material Nature):

It [this “frame of mind,” this destructive phenomenon] appears at a point when men no longer distinguish between the leprosy that is devouring the life and the life which it devours; when their rage against the weeds that choke the flowers passes into a wild feeling that all flowers are weeds; when the tares and the wheat seem so hopelessly entangled that the demented farmer is more angry with the wheat than with the tares. (174—my emphasis added)

As it is with the cultivation of the soil, so is it with the cultivation of the soul. (Does not Christ’s own “Parable of the Sower” try to teach us that? It is His longest parable, as well: Matthew 13:1-23; Mark 4:1-20; Luke 8: 4-15.) By way of her stern rebuke, Dante’s beloved Beatrice—near the end of the Purgatorio—also tried to teach her yearning Pilgrim that a richer soil like loam needs to be more frequently and more attentively weeded (and pruned), so too with a richly gifted and endowed soul—for instance, like G.K. Chesterton’s!

CODA:

Chesterton himself knew the dangers of tepidity and limpness and the inordinately soft corruptions of putative mercy. He also knew of the corrosive effects of cynicism and its selective slothful evasiveness of fundamental facts and purposes of life. Moreover, if he had been alive and active during the Second Vatican Council and its too often-deliquescent aftermath, he would have lucidly warned us—with characteristic and polite charity—about how certain excessive forms of sentimentalism are also an unmanly form of cynicism inattentive to the risks and results of our grace-extinguishing sins which lead us finally to “the corrosion of hopelessness.” Such presumption and despair—the two sins against hope—do not, however, display much softness or sensitivity or tenderness and diversity.

The robust former Jesuit priest, Father Vincent P. (“Pete”) Miceli, used to say to me (in his memorable New York accent): “We are to be the Church Militant, not the Church Milquetoast.”

The excesses of fastidiousness” and often “petulant undisciplined softness” shown by “the new sort of cynic” that our Chesterton has detected will only be exacerbated by subtle new (but still subversive) claims of “historical and cultural relativism” and of its closely related “nominalism.” Furthermore, they will also be aggravated by certain high-dialectical proposals for a developmental evolution of the Church’s once-irreformable dogma (as well as of broader doctrine), to include the Church’s longstanding traditional moral doctrine. That is to say, the sophistry and infidelity will advance by way of appeals for a “creative” and often Grace-Free “Integra Humana Progressio” and All That. As it now appears, this new orientation will also call for a new tenderness and a special sensitivity toward sustained turpitude and perversion and intrinsic acts of evil. The corruption of mercy is surely “a terrible thing to think upon” (in the robust sixteenth-century words of Father François Rabelais). “Touchy” feelings “so soft and sensitive” (170) also conduce to the effeminate.

We are indeed grateful to G.K. Chesterton for his helpful foresight and for his cautionary essay about “excess” concerning “corrosive cynicism” and other matters of moment to man. With his keen intellect and sincere heart—his “cor sincerum”—G.K. Chesterton vividly saw so much ahead of time.

–Finis–

© 2018 Robert D. Hickson

iG.K. Chesterton, “On the Touchy Realist,” in his anthology, entitled Avowals and Denials (London: Methuen & Co. LTD., 1934), pages 170-175 (Chapter XXIX). All references to this brief essay will henceforth be placed in parentheses above, in the main body of this text. The emphases that are added to Chesterton’s original pages will also be noted in the parentheses above. Italics are usually made by Chesterton, and will be so indicated.

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