Friday, July 21, 2006
Chesterton vs. Gasset: the battle for Joy part 2
My journey, in the battle for Joy was typical, you know, from the Catholic Church to the Marx Brothers to Ionesco and the absurdists to Sartre and the existentialists then to metaphysics to phenomenology all with a generous sprinkling of Zen and finally home to the Catholic Church. I knew Joy was out there and my job was to find it and then hold on to it in the face of monstrous opposition. It is a battle worth fighting for the rewards are great and to lose is to go insane. What follows is a battle story, not mine, but of two intellectual giants.
Philosophy is the handmaiden of Theology. A handmaid serves the master and brings others to Him, (Luke 1:38). To go no farther than the handmaid is loss. GKC went farther and found the Joy we all seek – Ortega y Gasset wooed only the handmaid and found desperation.
Gasset was a contemporary of Chesterton and among the philosophers influencing modern culture none has been so widely acclaimed by Spanish speaking people as Ortega y Gasset. However outside that world few have heard of this prolific writer. On many web sites dedicated to him the familiar phrase “Who is this guy and why haven’t I heard of him?” pops up.
Unlike GKC, Gasset began as a Catholic and ended up where GKC began. Gasset found a truth in Nietzche where as Chesterton found only folly. Both battled for the Joy in the truth: GKC found it - Gasset did not.
I came across Gasset through my study in aesthetics. His book Some Lessons on Metaphysics, transcribed from his lectures, is wonderful. He also wrote extensively on aesthetics based on metaphysics and phenomenology many of which are right on the mark. His writing style is poetic, lines like “The deep black sky filled it self with yellow, restless stars quivering like the heartbeats of an infant.” appealed to me as an artist and writer. I believe it is a turn of phrase that GKC would appreciate.
The problem of Truth.
GKC came to realize that the ultimate reality is God and man’s relation to Him through the Cross. It is what keeps us sane it is the balance of Courage, Joy and Suffering. A working definition of insanity is someone who is out of touch with reality. A denial of God (reality) is insane. GKC mentions how this insanity finally overcame Nietzche (Furor outlines that here) it is unfortunately the same insanity that overcame Gasset.
Both GKC and Gasset struggled with the three big questions; Where does man come from?, Where is he going?, and What is the meaning of life?. GKC wrote about part of this journey in Orthodoxy. He finds the Church has the answers to these questions and has had for 2,000 years. He found it to be true through faith and reason – two wings on the same bird.
Gasset turned from the Church to Kant, Kierkequard, Husserl, Heidegger and heeded Nietzche’s antinationalistic message: ‘Loyalty to the earth. Life the highest value. Desire for heroic and terrifying experience. Super charging of trivial and bourgeois activity by living dangerously. Faith in force and instinct.’ In other words Gasset became an existentialist.
The problem of existential analysis is it cannot of itself judge values. It is unable afford a solid base for ethics. The existential theory about the nature of being revolves around two poles: The Ego – The World, one reality: human existence. GKC and Lewis more than once mention the insanity of “the self made man” or the “he knows himself” syndrome. “The men who really believe in themselves are all in lunatic asylums.” (GKC)
Rather than raise his eyes to the transcendent heights like Chesterton, Gasset and the existentialists suicidally cast themselves into the arms of nothingness. “We are given birth a straddle a grave.” (J.P.Sartre). Nothingness was to be preferred to God! Also in the words of Landsberg, “ Paradoxical mystery of extreme cruelty.” In other words the existentialists could not get their heads around the mystery of suffering and the idea of redemptive suffering was beyond the pale to them.
This thought process lead to today’s relativism. Gasset says “Matter itself is an idea.” There exists no immutable and unique reality. “There are as many realities as there are points of view.” This phrase contains the germ of the relativistic doctrine, which will be found completely developed in Gasset’s Modern Theme, and this relativism manifests itself as the inevitable product of decadent idealism. This concept is what Chesterton fought against then and it is still what Pope Benedict XVI is fighting today.
Gasset rejects religion in the name of clarity where as GKC embraced religion in the name of clarity. Mystery to Gasset is, “The luxury of mental obscurity.” To GKC mystery is Joy. To be consistent Gasset would also have to renounce scientific and philosophical speculation as well. But the insane work from an interior logic devoid of truth and joy. ”To the insane man his insanity is quite prosaic, because it is quite true. A man who thinks himself a chicken is to himself as ordinary as a chicken…Oddities do not strike odd people. This is why ordinary people have a much more exciting time; while odd people are always complaining of the dullness of life.” (GKC). Gasset says, “The enigma of life is insoluble.” That reality is an undecipherable enigma. GKC believes that the mystery of life is not to be solved but embraced with love and joy and that reality is the Cross. Jump in, the water is fine.
This is the battle for Joy; the choice between the blessing and the curse. Gasset and Chesterton both came to the same cross road. GKC choose the blessing Gasset did not. From this absence of God all of Gasset’s errors spring as from a fountain. Separated from the absolute Being, man is submerged in subjective immanence. Pride incites him to establish himself as God, autonomous and creative. Gasset’s metaphysics yields to the enslaving supremacy of the sensible and instinctive. Morality, once split from religion, loses its force and degenerates into elegant conventionalism, behind which immorality is concealed.
Gasset’s writings are similar to GKC’s just in that they are original; show delicate erudition, talent and elegant grace. Only the transcendental question, the decisive and most necessary subject for man, finds Gasset uncomprehending and without interest. This absence of God constitutes the unconfessed and ultimate tragedy of Ortega y Gasset. In one of his last essays he demonstrates this pathetic eloquence.
The involved Ortegaian thought is revealed as a sort of desperate compensation for his lost faith. Where as Chesterton continued his life adventure securing more and more Joy and Courage. It is why he uses phrases like “of course”, “practical as potatoes” and “just plain common sense after all.” Sorry Merton, GKC never had to hide behind smoke and mirrors. He stood in the light and the darkness hates the light, fights the light and fears the light.
As though obsessed, Gasset re-echoes the theme of modern man, who, having lost his faith in God and in reason, finds nothing else on which to hold in his shipwreck except disillusioned living. “For philosophy to be born,” says Gasset, “it is necessary that existence, in the form of pure tradition, evaporate, that man cease to belive in the faith of his fathers…As pure tradition was a substitute for the instincts lost by civilization, so philosophy is a substitute for shattered tradtion.” What awful tragedy is glimpsed behind the apparent serenity of Gasset’s words. By his own admission philosophy for Gasset is a balm which lessons the pain of the frightful wound opened by his incredulity, an impassioned attempt to console himself for his loss of God and a wordy covoluted and ultimately ineffective screen to hide suffering. Even to this extent it is impossible for man to precind from that absolute reality! “The insane explanation is quite as complete as the sane one, but it is not so large.” (GKC)
To see about one who knows about courage and suffering and won the battle of joy see the story about Immaculée Ilibagiza
To read a beautiful eulogy of someone who lost the battle go here