Wednesday, April 06, 2005

On Theses and Essays

Schall on Chesterton
From Midwest Chesterton News, October, 1996.

Just when I thought that I had the importance and delight of the essay pretty well figured out, I ran across an essay of Chesterton that made me doubt the line of thought I have often used to praise Chesterton himself. The occasion for these reflections was a very nice book review of my Idylls and Rambles: Lighter Christian Essays, by Professor James Finn Cotter at Mt. St. Mary's College, in Maryland. Cotter remarked, with much eloquence, that "the personal essay is a most creative form of human expression when it comes to reaching out to the reader. It is natural, authentic, and unique, and it cannot be easily faked, like a poem or a story. When read aloud, an essay touches our emotions directly and makes us think more clearly."

My Idylls and Rambles (Ignatius Press, 1994) itself contained a defense of the essay and argued that it was quite the most delightful of all forms of writing. I rejoiced that Belloc and Chesterton wrote essays with such humor and insight. I even cited Stevenson and Hazlett as favorite essayists. Now, I know that some people prefer poetry or the novel or the solid book to the short essay. There is absolutely no reason why we cannot enjoy every form that comes along, if it is good. I knew that the early essay in French was an "effort", an "attempt" or a "try" at explaining or accounting for something. Its genius is that it is open to every topic and mood, whimsical or solemn.

The day after I read Cotter's review, I decided to do a column for the Midwest Chesterton News. About a year ago, as I mentioned in an earlier column, I bought several volumes of the Collected Works, but I had noticed that I had not read any of Volume XXXV, 1929-31. So I opened up the book rather arbitrarily to the column of March 2, 1929, on "Buddhism and Christianity", a most pertinent topic considering John Paul II's remark on Buddhism in Crossing the Threshold of Hope and his Ut Unum Sint. Just as I was about to begin my essay on Buddhism (hold your breath), however, I thumbed backward to the Chesterton column of February 16, 1929. Its title was, I could hardly believe it, "On the Essay"! I, being only fourteen months old when it was written, had never seen this essay before; it was like discovering gold in your own backyard. I thought maybe Professor Cotter might like a copy of it, so I xeroxed it. I figured I knew exactly what Chesterton would say in his essay.

Then I read Chesterton's essay "On the Essay" only to discover that he did not at all say what I assumed he would say. He did say, much to my consolation, that he himself indulged in the essay all his life and loved it as a form of writing. Chesterton began his essay, however, with this quite upsetting sentence for someone, like me, prepared to exalt the essay at all costs: "There are dark and morbid moods in which I am tempted to feel that Evil re-entered the world in the form of Essays." "Wow!" I thought to myself, that is quite a surprising remark -- evil re-enters the world in the form of essays! Here I had been thinking that the essay could save the world and I discover the Devil as its author!

It has been my experience, as devoted readers of the Midwest Chesterton News well know by now, however, that whenever Chesterton talks about evil, I had better pay attention; something momentous is about to happen. The plot thickens when Chesterton remarked that the essay came into English letters from the French via Francis Bacon. Chesterton added, "I can only believe it. I always thought he (Bacon) was the villain of English history." It was Bacon who taught the English that knowledge is purely positive, purely useful.

So what's up with the essay, the form of literature Schall likes most? Is the truth now out, that, as many of his best friends have darkly hinted for years, Schall himself is a cooperator in the Evil that re-enters history, no small problem as even Schall recognizes?

Chesterton admitted that "I take my greatest literary pleasure in reading them (essays); after such really serious necessities of the intellect as detective stories and tracts written by madmen." Well, you just have to laugh at such a remark. We readers of Father Brown know about Chesterton and detective stories; we readers of Orthodoxy know of Chesterton and madmen; we readers if a hundred of his books know about Chesterton and essays. So here Chesterton is telling us that essays are something of a serious intellectual problem through which evil re-entered the modern world. Why so?

Chesterton maintained that the essay is a modern invention -- though it was known to the Romans, I think, say to Horace and Cicero. Most readers know that I also do a monthly column in Crisis entitled "Sense and Nonsense". Needless to say, I have always understood that this title comes from Chesterton. Let us see how it works into our present plot:

"There is any amount of sense and nonsense talked both for and against what is called medievalism. There is also any amount of sense and nonsense talked for and against what is called modernism. ... But if a man wanted the one real and rational test, which really does distinguish the medieval from the modern mood, it might be stated thus: The medieval man thought in terms of the Thesis, where the modern man thinks in terms of the Essay.
The man who wrote a Thesis, stated what he held and then proceeded to prove it by known, orderly, logical rules. The man who writes the essay holds nothing so definite."

Chesterton said that he enjoys Stevenson, but he worried about the man who preferred, as Stevenson said in a famous essay, the travel to the arrival at the end of the road. Chesterton always preferred the flagons at the Inn at the End of the World. In logic, Chesterton pointed out that if the end of travel were not more important, no one would ever set forth. The travel itself may well be diverting enough, but it cannot be the end or purpose of the journey. The essayist, not the thesis maker, has unfortunately become our moral philosopher. He, like the traveller, has nothing definite in mind when he sets out or when he concludes. "After a certain amount of wandering the mind wants either to get there or to go home," Chesterton observed. "It is one thing to travel hopefully, and say half in jest that that it is better than to arrive. It is another thing to travel hopelessly, because you know you will never arrive." Needless to say, the medievals travelled hopefully, knowing by their theses to where they would arrive, while the moderns travel hopelessly, not having anywhere to go.

Chesterton thus was able to take that which he himself wrote thousands of times, the very essay, and subject it to critical examination about what it did and what he was doing. Chesterton found an element in modern letters that is, because of its inconclusiveness, "indefinite and dangerous." For he understood that it is dangerous for the mind not to do what the mind does of its nature, that is, come to conclusions, on the basis of a thesis, of an open argument. In this sense, Chesterton understood that the "article", the unit of argument in St. Thomas' Summae, was a far different proposition from the essay that only rambled on about one's own feelings.

Now I do not think there is anything particularly wrong with feelings or rambling, but it is not to be done for its own sake. Chesterton saw that evil re-enters in the world when the world is so proposed to us that all there is in it is travel, no goal. The evil is fuzziness, the inability to make a decision or to live by one when made, the certainty of uncertainty that paralyzes the mind and the culture.

In writing an essay, we can deal with theoretical or practical matters. This is the liberty of the essay. But properly to present theoretical matters we must put forth a theory and arrive at a conclusion based on that theory. If we substitute the looseness of the essay for the rigor of the thesis and the argument, we will end up simply roaming and wandering about the intellectual landscape.

After I read this essay of Chesterton on the essay, I asked myself, is Chesterton, in his essays, guilty of the fault that he attributes to the heritage of Bacon, of letting evil into the world because the essayist could not make up his mind about what he was arguing? I thought of the many times in these pages that I have reflected on, analyzed, commented on, one or another Chesterton essay. I realized that what was to me always unique and striking about Chesterton's essays, what made them different, was that his essays, while always revealing a good amount of wonderment and delight, were always theses. He always knew what the mind was for. Even in his playful essays, in his "attempt" to wander about within an experience or an event, Chesterton came to a clear conclusion based on principled argument. Chesterton managed to combine the virtue of the medieval thesis with the modern essay. He was so delightful, so perceptive that he taught the truth, in both sense and nonsense, under the guise of evil re-entering the world.

Reproduced with gracious permission of James V. Schall

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