Oftentimes called the Prince of Paradox, G.K. Chesterton was a sharp writer, philosopher, theologian, and critic. We don't agree over many points, but his intellect and insights have added to the quality of my life.
The following story, in particular, reminds the need to understand, rather than just look at the superficial characteristics.
Suppose that a great commotion arises in the street about something, let us say a lamp-post, which many influential persons desire to pull down. A grey-clad monk, who is the spirit of the Middle Ages, is approached upon the matter, and begins to say, in the arid manner of the Schoolmen, "Let us first of all consider, my brethren, the value of Light. If Light be in itself good—" At this point he is somewhat excusably knocked down. All the people make a rush for the lamp-post, the lamp-post is down in ten minutes, and they go about congratulating each other on their unmediaeval practicality. But as things go on they do not work out so easily. Some people have pulled the lamp-post down because they wanted the electric light; some because they wanted old iron; some because they wanted darkness, because their deeds were evil. Some thought it not enough of a lamp-post, some too much; some acted because they wanted to smash municipal machinery; some because they wanted to smash something. And there is war in the night, no man knowing whom he strikes. So, gradually and inevitably, to-day, to-morrow, or the next day, there comes back the conviction that the monk was right after all, and that all depends on what is the philosophy of Light. Only what we might have discussed under the gas-lamp, we now must discuss in the dark.
This echoes the advice the physicist Richard Feynman received from his father Melville on their long walks through woods and forests.
“See that bird? It’s a brown-throated thrush, but in Germany it’s called a halzenfugel, and in Chinese they call it a chung ling and even if you know all those names for it, you still know nothing about the bird, absolutely nothing about the bird. You only know something about people — what they call the bird.”
Chesterton was a lover of inversion, of paradox, of another way of thinking, and that's evident in the cheeky, even underhand commentary of his times.
He has pleased all the bohemians by saying that women are equal to men; but he has infuriated them by suggesting that men are equal to women.
The aim of the sculptor is to convince us that he is a sculptor; the aim of the orator, is to convince us that he is not an orator.
One of my favourite thoughts on stories and storytelling.
If we have sufficient intellect, we can finish a philosophical and exact deduction, and be certain that we are finishing it right. With the adequate brain-power we could finish any scientific discovery, and be certain that we were finishing it right. But not with the most gigantic intellect could we finish the simplest or silliest story, and be certain that we were finishing it right.
In an age of endless distraction, Netflix, and the cravings for enterntainment, Chesterton's admonitions still ring true.
Never has there been so little discussion about the nature of men as now, when, for the first time, any one can discuss it.