Chesterton: The Well and the Shallows

February 3, 2009

The Well and the Shallows (1935)
G.K. Chesterton (Ignatius Press, 1990)
198 p.  First reading.

The Well and the Shallows was, if not the last, then certainly nearly the last book Chesterton published before his death in 1936.  It is a collection of essays on points of controversy arising between Chesterton and the modern world.  This was nothing new for Chesterton; his early book Heretics had been written with much the same purpose in mind.  The differences here are at least twofold: first, these essays show less evidence of having been written as a unity, for they cover a bewildering variety of subjects, and, second, the foe of modernity here is not Chesterton simple, but specifically Chesterton the Catholic.

The Catholic focus is made explicit in the opening series of essays, grouped together under the title “My Six Conversions”.  If, says Chesterton, he had not already been a Catholic (which he had been since 1922), here are six reasons why he would have converted.  They are variable: he points to the apparent aimlessness and rootlessness of the Church of England, to the collapse of the modernist theory of progress in light of contemporary political developments, to the growing social acceptability of birth control, to state interference in English religion, to the irrationality of materialist philosophy, and, in an opaque final essay, to something pertaining to Spanish politics — the Spanish Civil War? At any rate, together these six short pieces set the stage for what follows.  Chesterton means to defend “all that balance of subtlety and sanity which is meant by a Christian civilization” against the simplifications and impoverishments that are the currency of modern intellectual life:

I could not abandon the faith, without falling back on something more shallow than the faith. I could not cease to be a Catholic, except by becoming something more narrow than a Catholic. A man must narrow his mind in order to lose the universal philosophy; everything that has happened up to this very day has confirmed this conviction; and whatever happens to-morrow will confirm it anew. We have come out of the shallows and the dry places to the one deep well; and the Truth is at the bottom of it.

The cultural changes Chesterton opposed were and are felt everywhere, and, in his jolly way, he opposed them everywhere.  Thus the range of his subjects is as wide as the world: hermits; Spiritualism; intellectual fashions; the capacity for appreciation of the world; Communism; alliteration and puns; historical memory; divorce and the meaning of marriage; birth control and the meaning of sexuality; children; threats against the family (from capitalism, communism, and “Hitlerism”); the unwillingness of modern society to take religion seriously; Catholicism; Protestantism; blasphemy; education; socialism.  It goes on and on.

Not all of these pieces, written in the heat of controversy in another time and place, still stand up well.  Some are burdened with passing cultural references that have lost their resonance, but many have borne up remarkably well. I was particularly impressed with the essays “Mary and the Convert”, “The Church and Agoraphobia”, “Levity — or Levitation”, and “St. Thomas More”.

Rather than blather on at length about this or that, why don’t I clear out of the way and let Chesterton speak for a few moments?

…at the moment when Religion lost touch with Rome, it changed instantly and internally, from top to bottom, in its very substance and the stuff of which it was made. It changed in substance; it did not necessarily change in form or features or externals. It might do the same things; but it could not be the same thing. It might go on saying the same things; but it was not the same thing that was saying them. At the very beginning, indeed, the situation was almost exactly like that. Henry VIII was a Catholic in everything except that he was not a Catholic. He observed everything down to the last bead and candle; he accepted everything down to the last deduction from a definition; he accepted everything except Rome. And in that instant of refusal, his religion became a different religion; a different sort of religion; a different sort of thing. In that instant it began to change; and it has not stopped changing yet.

Those who leave the tradition of truth do not escape into something we call Freedom.  They only escape into something else, which we call Fashion… The little group of Atheists, who still run their paper in Fleet Street and frequently honour me with hearty but somewhat hasty denunciation, began their agitation in the old Victorian days, and selected for themselves a terribly appropriate title. They did not call themselves Atheists, they called themselves Secularists. Never was a more bitter and blighting confession made in the form of a boast. For the word “secular” does not mean anything so sensible as “worldly.” It does not even mean anything so spirited as “irreligious.” To be secular simply means to be of the age; that is, of the age which is passing; of the age which, in their case, is already passed. There is one tolerably correct translation of the Latin word which they have chosen as their motto. There is one adequate equivalent of the word “secular”; and it is the word “dated.”

Now a child is the very sign and sacrament of personal freedom. He is a fresh free will added to the wills of the world; he is something that his parents have freely chosen to produce and which they freely agree to protect. They can feel that any amusement he gives (which is often considerable) really comes from him and from them, and from nobody else. He has been born without the intervention of any master or lord. He is a creation and a contribution; he is their own creative contribution to creation. He is also a much more beautiful, wonderful, amusing and astonishing thing than any of the stale stories or jingling jazz tunes turned out by the machines. When men no longer feel that he is so, they have lost the appreciation of primary things, and therefore all sense of proportion about the world. People who prefer the mechanical pleasures, to such a miracle, are jaded and enslaved. They are preferring the very dregs of life to the first fountains of life. They are preferring the last, crooked, indirect, borrowed, repeated and exhausted things of our dying Capitalist civilisation, to the reality which is the only rejuvenation of all civilisation. It is they who are hugging the chains of their old slavery; it is the child who is ready for the new world.

[Religion and secularism]
The organic thing called religion has in fact the organs that take hold on life. It can feed where the fastidious doubter finds no food; it can reproduce where the solitary sceptic boasts of being barren. It may be accepting a miracle to believe in free will; but it is accepting madness, sooner or later, to disbelieve in it. It may be a wild risk to make a vow; but it is a quiet, crawling and inevitable ruin to refuse to make a vow. It may be incredible that one creed is the truth and the others are relatively false; but it is not only incredible, but also intolerable, that there is no truth either in or out of creeds, and all are equally false. For nobody can ever set anything right, if everybody is equally wrong.

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