Pascal: ridicule is necessary and godly...

There are many things which deserve to be held up in this way to ridicule and mockery, lest, by a serious refutation, we should attach a weight to them which they do not deserve. (I)t is the Truth properly that has a right to laugh, because she is cheerful, and to make sport of her enemies, because she is sure of the victory. (K)eeping this in view, when ridicule may be employed with effect, it is a duty to avail ourselves of it. -Pascal quoting Tertullian

About eight years ago, Mary Lee and I pulled our eldest son, Joseph, out of Bloomington South High School. He'd completed his freshman year there, taking honors courses, getting As, and being bored. We thought, "Enough of that!" Why should we make him spend four years learning education is boring? So the next three years Joseph got a patchwork education. The good home schooling moms in our church worried we'd give home schooling a bad name. And they were right to worry--our approach was, at best, eclectic: some things Joseph studied on his own here at home; for Latin and math he had two superb tutors; and the rest fell to classes he took at Indiana University. When he graduated three years later, Joseph had a year and a half worth of college credit and had no problem getting into college.

My fondest memory from those years was the day I was reading G. K. Chesterton's The Everlasting Man up in my bedroom. Finding it one of the laugh-out-loud, drop-dead funniest things I'd ever read, it occurred to me Joseph was downstairs at the dining room table studying and I could go down and share Chesterton with him. So downstairs I went and sat down at the table with Joseph, who was probably fourteen at the time. Together, we laughed our way through a full chapter of The Everlasting Man.

Now it's eight years later and we've pulled another son out of school. Ironically, this time it wasn't a public school but a private Christian school my wife, Mary Lee, and I joined with a number of other Christian parents to start fourteen years ago. It's a long story... Anyhow, today our home-schooled son, Taylor, was downstairs while I was upstairs in the bedroom reading another piece of laugh-out-loud Christian writing, this time by Blaise Pascal. So I called downstairs, asking Taylor to come up, and I read it out loud to him. He was sitting behind me so I can't say whether he laughed; and Pascal caused me to laugh in a much different way than Chesterton, likely for reasons a teenage son wouldn't as easily share with his father. Maybe you won't laugh when you read it, either?

Anyhow, here's Blaise Pascal's August 18, 1656 Letter to the Reverend Fathers, The Jesuits in which Pascal makes an extended argument for the godly necessity of the use of ridicule in opposing theological error. You're sceptical?

Check it out. Pascal shows that ridicule is used by many church fathers, including Tertullian, Cyril, Jerome, Chrysostom, and Augustine; also that it's used in Scripture by Isaiah, Daniel, and Job; that it's employed by our Lord Jesus Christ; and finally, that God Himself ridicules the wicked. Still sceptical?

Read on.


The Provincial Letters (Letter XI)


To the Reverend Fathers, the Jesuits

August 18, 1656

Reverend Fathers,

I have seen the letters which you are circulating in opposition to those which I wrote to one of my friends on your morality; and I perceive that one of the principal points of your defence is that I have not spoken of your maxims with sufficient seriousness. This charge you repeat in all your productions, and carry it so far as to allege, that I have been "guilty of turning sacred things into ridicule."

Such a charge, fathers, is no less surprising than it is unfounded. Where do you find that I have turned sacred things into ridicule? You specify "the Mohatra contract, and the story of John d'Alba." But are these what you call "sacred things?" Does it really appear to you that the Mohatra is something so venerable that it would be blasphemy not to speak of it with respect? And the lessons of Father Bauny on larceny, which led John d'Alba to practise it at your expense, are they so sacred as to entitle you to stigmatize all who laugh at them as profane people?

What, fathers! must the vagaries of your doctors pass for the verities of the Christian faith, and no man be allowed to ridicule Escobar, or the fantastical and unchristian dogmas of your authors, without being stigmatized as jesting at religion? Is it possible you can have ventured to reiterate so often an idea so utterly unreasonable? Have you no fears that, in blaming me for laughing at your absurdities, you may only afford me fresh subject of merriment; that you may make the charge recoil on yourselves, by showing that I have really selected nothing from your writings as the matter of raillery but what was truly ridiculous; and that thus, in making a jest of your morality, I have been as far from jeering at holy things, as the doctrine of your casuists is far from being the holy doctrine of the Gospel?

Indeed, reverend sirs, there is a vast difference between laughing at religion and laughing at those who profane it by their extravagant opinions. It were impiety to be wanting in respect for the verities which the Spirit of God has revealed; but it were no less impiety of another sort to be wanting in contempt for the falsities which the spirit of man opposes to them.

For, fathers (since you will force me into this argument), I beseech you to consider that, just in proportion as Christian truths are worthy of love and respect, the contrary errors must deserve hatred and contempt; there being two things in the truths of our religion: a divine beauty that renders them lovely, and a sacred majesty that renders them venerable; and two things also about errors: an impiety, that makes them horrible, and an impertinence that renders them ridiculous. For these reasons, while the saints have ever cherished towards the truth the twofold sentiment of love and fear--the whole of their wisdom being comprised between fear, which is its beginning, and love, which is its end--they have, at the same time, entertained towards error the twofold feeling of hatred and contempt, and their zeal has been at once employed to repel, by force of reasoning, the malice of the wicked, and to chastise, by the aid of ridicule, their extravagance and folly.

Do not then expect, fathers, to make people believe that it is unworthy of a Christian to treat error with derision. Nothing is easier than to convince all who were not aware of it before that this practice is perfectly just--that it is common with the fathers of the Church, and that it is sanctioned by Scripture, by the example of the best of saints, and even by that of God himself.

Do we not find God at once hates and despises sinners; so that even at the hour of death, when their condition is most sad and deplorable, Divine Wisdom adds mockery to the vengeance which consigns them to eternal punishment? "In interitu vestro ridebo et subsannabo--I will laugh at your calamity." The saints, too, influenced by the same feeling, will join in the derision; for, according to David, when they witness the punishment of the wicked, "they shall fear, and yet laugh at it--videbunt justi et timebunt, et super eum ridebunt." And Job says: "Innocens subsannabit eos--The innocent shall laugh at them."

It is worthy of remark here that the very first words which God addressed to man after his fall contain, in the opinion of the fathers, "bitter irony" and mockery. After Adam had disobeyed his Maker, in the hope, suggested by the devil, of being like God, it appears from Scripture that God, as a punishment, subjected him to death; and after having reduced him to this miserable condition, which was due to his sin, He taunted him in that state with the following terms of derision: "Behold, the man has become as one of us!--Ecce Adam quasi unus ex nobis!"--which, according to St. Jerome and the interpreters, is "a grievous and cutting piece of irony," with which God "stung him to the quick." "Adam," says Rupert, "deserved to be taunted in this manner, and he would be naturally made to feel his folly more acutely by this ironical expression than by a more serious one." St. Victor, after making the same remark, adds, "that this irony was due to his sottish credulity, and that this species of rainery is an act of justice, merited by him against whom it was directed."

Thus you see, fathers, that ridicule is, in some cases, a very appropriate means of reclaiming men from their errors, and that it is accordingly an act of justice, because, as Jeremiah says, "the actions of those that err are worthy of derision, because of their vanity--vana sunt es risu digna." And so far from its being impious to laugh at them, St. Augustine holds it to be the effect of divine wisdom: "The wise laugh at the foolish, because they are wise, not after their own wisdom, but after that divine wisdom which shall laugh at the death of the wicked."

The prophets, accordingly, filled with the Spirit of God, have availed themselves of ridicule, as we find from the examples of Daniel and Elias. In short, examples of it are not wanting in the discourses of Jesus Christ himself. St. Augustine remarks that, when he would humble Nicodemus, who deemed himself so expert in his knowledge of the law, "perceiving him to be pulled up with pride, from his rank as doctor of the Jews, he first beats down his presumption by the magnitude of his demands, and, having reduced him so low that he was unable to answer, What! says he, you a master in Israel, and not know these things!--as if he had said, Proud ruler, confess that thou knowest nothing." St. Chrysostom and St. Cyril likewise observe upon this that "he deserved to be ridiculed in this manner."

You may learn from this, fathers, that should it so happen, in our day that persons who enact the part of "masters" among Christians, as Nicodemus and the Pharisees did among the Jews, show themselves so ignorant of the first principles of religion as to maintain, for example, that "a man may be saved who never loved God all his life," we only follow the example of Jesus Christ when we laugh at such a combination of ignorance and conceit.

I am sure, fathers, these sacred examples are sufficient to convince you that to deride the errors and extravagances of man is not inconsistent with the practice of the saints; otherwise we must blame that of the greatest doctors of the Church, who have been guilty of it--such as St. Jerome, in his letters and writings against Jovinian, Vigilantius, and the Pelagians; Tertullian, in his Apology against the follies of idolaters; St. Augustine against the monks of Africa, whom he styles "the hairy men"; St. Irenaeus the Gnostics; St. Bernard and the other fathers of the Church, who, having been the imitators of the apostles, ought to be imitated by the faithful in all time coming; for, say what we will, they are the true models for Christians, even of the present day.

In following such examples, I conceived that I could not go far wrong; and, as I think I have sufficiently established this position, I shall only add, in the admirable words of Tertullian, which give the true explanation of the whole of my proceeding in this matter: "What I have now done is only a little sport before the real combat. I have rather indicated the wounds that might be given you than inflicted any. If the reader has met with passages which have excited his risibility, he must ascribe this to the subjects themselves. There are many things which deserve to be held up in this way to ridicule and mockery, lest, by a serious refutation, we should attach a weight to them which they do not deserve. Nothing is more due to vanity than laughter; and it is the Truth properly that has a right to laugh, because she is cheerful, and to make sport of her enemies, because she is sure of the victory. Care must be taken, indeed, that the raillery is not too low, and unworthy of the truth; but, keeping this in view, when ridicule may be employed with effect, it is a duty to avail ourselves of it." Do you not think fathers, that this passage is singularly applicable to our subject? The letters which I have hitherto written are "merely a little sport before a real combat." As yet, I have been only playing with the foils and "rather indicating the wounds that might be given you than inflicting any." I have merely exposed your passages to the light, without making scarcely a reflection on them. "If the reader has met with any that have excited his risibility, he must ascribe this to the subjects themselves." And, indeed, what is more fitted to raise a laugh than to see a matter so grave as that of Christian morality decked out with fancies so grotesque as those in which you have exhibited it? One is apt to form such high anticipations of these maxims, from being told that "Jesus Christ himself has revealed them to the fathers of the Society," that when one discovers among them such absurdities as "that a priest, receiving money to say a mass, may take additional sums from other persons by giving up to them his own share in the sacrifice"; "that a monk is not to be excommunicated for putting off his habit, provided it is to dance, swindle, or go incognito into infamous houses"; and "that the duty of hearing mass may be fulfilled by listening to four quarters of a mass at once from different priests"--when, I say, one listens to such decisions as these, the surprise is such that it is impossible to refrain from laughing; for nothing is more calculated to produce that emotion than a startling contrast between the thing looked for and the thing looked at. And why should the greater part of these maxims be treated in any other way? As Tertullian says, "To treat them seriously would be to sanction them."

What! is it necessary to bring up all the forces of Scripture and tradition, in order to prove that running a sword through a man's body, covertly and behind his back, is to murder him in treachery? or, that to give one money as a motive to resign a benefice, is to purchase the benefice? Yes, there are things which it is duty to despise, and which "deserve only to be laughed at." In short, the remark of that ancient author, "that nothing is more due to vanity than derision, with what follows, applies to the case before us so justly and so convincingly, as to put it beyond all question that we may laugh at errors without violating propriety.

And let me add, fathers, that this may be done without any breach of charity either, though this is another of the charges you bring against me in your publications. For, according to St. Augustine, "charity may sometimes oblige us to ridicule the errors of men, that they may be induced to laugh at them in their turn, and renounce them--Haec tu misericorditer irride, ut eis ridenda ac fugienda commendes." And the same charity may also, at other times, bind us to repel them with indignation, according to that other saying of St. Gregory of Nazianzen: "The spirit of meekness and charity hath its emotions and its heats." Indeed, as St. Augustine observes, "who would venture to say that truth ought to stand disarmed against falsehood, or that the enemies of the faith shall be at liberty to frighten the faithful with hard words, and jeer at them with lively sallies of wit; while the Catholics ought never to write except with a coldness of style enough to set the reader asleep?"

Is it not obvious that, by following such a course, a wide door would be opened for the introduction of the most extravagant and pernicious dogmas into the Church; while none would be allowed to treat them with contempt, through fear of being charged with violating propriety, or to confute them with indignation, from the dread of being taxed with want of charity?

Indeed, fathers! shall you be allowed to maintain, "that it is lawful to kill a man to avoid a box on the ear or an affront," and must nobody be permitted publicly to expose a public error of such consequence? Shall you be at liberty to say, "that a judge may in conscience retain a fee received for an act of injustice," and shall no one be at liberty to contradict you? Shall you print, with the privilege and approbation of your doctors, "that a man may be saved without ever having loved God"; and will you shut the mouth of those who defend the true faith, by telling them that they would violate brotherly love by attacking you, and Christian modesty by laughing at your maxims? I doubt, fathers, if there be any persons whom you could make believe this; if however, there be any such, who are really persuaded that, by denouncing your morality, I have been deficient in the charity which I owe to you, I would have them examine, with great jealousy, whence this feeling takes its rise within them. They may imagine that it proceeds from a holy zeal, which will not allow them to see their neighbour impeached without being scandalized at it; but I would entreat them to consider that it is not impossible that it may flow from another source, and that it is even extremely likely that it may spring from that secret, and often self-concealed dissatisfaction, which the unhappy corruption within us seldom fails to stir up against those who oppose the relaxation of morals. And, to furnish them with a rule which may enable them to ascertain the real principle from which it proceeds, I will ask them if, while they lament the way in which the religious have been treated, they lament still more the manner in which these religious have treated the truth; if they are incensed, not only against the letters, but still more against the maxims quoted in them. I shall grant it to be barely possible that their resentment proceeds from some zeal, though not of the most enlightened kind; and, in this case, the passages I have just cited from the fathers will serve to enlighten them. But if they are merely angry at the reprehension, and not at the things reprehended, truly, fathers, I shall never scruple to tell them that they are grossly mistaken, and that their zeal is miserably blind.

Strange zeal, indeed! which gets angry at those that censure public faults, and not at those that commit them! Novel charity this, which groans at seeing error confuted, but feels no grief at seeing morality subverted by that error. If these persons were in danger of being assassinated, pray, would they be offended at one advertising them of the stratagem that had been laid for them; and instead of turning out of their way to avoid it, would they trifle away their time in whining about the little charity manifested in discovering to them the criminal design of the assassins? Do they get waspish when one tells them not to eat such an article of food, because it is poisoned? or not to enter such a city, because it has the plague?

Whence comes it, then, that the same persons who set down a man as wanting in charity, for exposing maxims hurtful to religion, would, on the contrary, think him equally deficient in that grace were he not to disclose matters hurtful to health and life, unless it be from this, that their fondness for life induces them to take in good part every hint that contributes to its preservation, while their indifference to truth leads them, not only to take no share in its defence, but even to view with pain the efforts made for the extirpation of falsehood?

Let them seriously ponder, as in the sight of God, how shameful, and how prejudicial to the Church, is the morality which your casuists are in the habit of propagating; the scandalous and unmeasured license which they are introducing into public manners; the obstinate and violent hardihood with which you support them. And if they do not think it full time to rise against such disorders, their blindness is as much to be pitied as yours, fathers; and you and they have equal reason to dread that saying of St. Augustine, founded on the words of Jesus Christ, in the Gospel: "Woe to the blind leaders! woe to the blind followers!--Vae caecis ducentibus! vae caecis sequentibus!"

But, to leave you no room in future, either to create such impressions on the minds of others, or to harbour them in your own, I shall tell you, fathers (and I am ashamed I should have to teach you what I should have rather learnt from you), the marks which the fathers of the Church have given for judging when our animadversions flow from a principle of piety and charity, and when from a spirit of malice and impiety.

The first of these rules is that the spirit of piety always prompts us to speak with sincerity and truthfulness; whereas malice and envy make use of falsehood and calumny. "Splendentia et vehementia, sed rebus veris--Splendid and vehement in words, but true in things," as St. Augustine says. The dealer in falsehood is an agent of the devil. No direction of the intention can sanctify slander; and though the conversion of the whole earth should depend on it, no man may warrantably calumniate the innocent: because none may do the least evil, in order to accomplish the greatest good; and, as the Scripture says, "the truth of God stands in no need of our lie." St. Hilary observes that "it is the bounden duty of the advocates of truth, to advance nothing in its support but true things." Now, fathers, I can declare before God that there is nothing that I detest more than the slightest possible deviation from the truth, and that I have ever taken the greatest care, not only not to falsify (which would be horrible), but not to alter or wrest, in the slightest possible degree, the sense of a single passage. So closely have I adhered to this rule that, if I may presume to apply them to the present case, I may safely say, in the words of the same St. Hilary: "If we advance things that are false, let our statements be branded with infamy; but if we can show that they are public and notorious, it is no breach of apostolic modesty or liberty to expose them."

It is not enough, however, to tell nothing but the truth; we must not always tell everything that is true; we should publish only those things which it is useful to disclose, and not those which can only hurt, without doing any good. And, therefore, as the first rule is to speak with truth, the second is to speak with discretion. "The wicked," says St. Augustine, "in persecuting the good, blindly follow the dictates of their passion; but the good, in their prosecution of the wicked, are guided by a wise discretion, even as the surgeon warily considers where he is cutting, while the murderer cares not where he strikes." You must be sensible, fathers, that in selecting from the maxims of your authors, I have refrained from quoting those which would have galled you most, though I might have done it, and that without sinning against discretion, as others who were both learned and Catholic writers, have done before me. All who have read your authors know how far I have spared you in this respect. Besides, I have taken no notice whatever of what might be brought against individual characters among you; and I would have been extremely sorry to have said a word about secret and personal failings, whatever evidence I might have of them, being persuaded that this is the distinguishing property of malice, and a practice which ought never to be resorted to, unless where it is urgently demanded for the good of the Church. It is obvious, therefore, that, in what I have been compelled to advance against your moral maxims, I have been by no means wanting in due consideration: and that you have more reason to congratulate yourself on my moderation than to complain of my indiscretion.

The third rule, fathers, is: That when there is need to employ a little raillery, the spirit of piety will take care to employ it against error only, and not against things holy; whereas the spirit of buffoonery, impiety, and heresy, mocks at all that is most sacred. I have already vindicated myself on that score; and indeed there is no great danger of falling into that vice so long as I confine my remarks to the opinions which I have quoted from your authors.

In short, fathers, to abridge these rules, I shall only mention another, which is the essence and the end of all the rest: That the spirit of charity prompts us to cherish in the heart a desire for the salvation of those against whom we dispute, and to address our prayers to God while we direct our accusations to men. "We ought ever," says St. Augustine, "to preserve charity in the heart, even while we are obliged to pursue a line of external conduct which to man has the appearance of harshness; we ought to smite them with a sharpness, severe but kindly, remembering that their advantage is more to be studied than their gratification." I am sure, fathers, that there is nothing in my letters from which it can be inferred that I have not cherished such a desire towards you; and as you can find nothing to the contrary in them, charity obliges you to believe that I have been really actuated by it. It appears, then, that you cannot prove that I have offended against this rule, or against any of the other rules which charity inculcates; and you have no right to say, therefore, that I have violated it.

But, fathers, if you should now like to have the pleasure of seeing, within a short compass, a course of conduct directly at variance with each of these rules, and bearing the genuine stamp of the spirit of buffoonery, envy, and hatred, I shall give you a few examples of it; and, that they may be of the sort best known and most familiar to you, I shall extract them from your own writings.

To begin, then, with the unworthy manner in which your authors speak of holy things, whether in their sportive and gallant effusions, or in their more serious pieces, do you think that the parcel of ridiculous stories, which your father Binet has introduced into his Consolation to the Sick, are exactly suitable to his professed object, which is that of imparting Christian consolation to those whom God has chastened with affliction? Will you pretend to say that the profane, foppish style in which your Father Le Moine has talked of piety in his Devotion made Easy is more fitted to inspire respect than contempt for the picture that he draws of Christian virtues? What else does his whole book of Moral Pictures breathe, both in its prose and poetry, but a spirit full of vanity, and the follies of this world? Take, for example, that ode in his seventh book, entitled, "Eulogy on Bashfulness, showing that all beautiful things are red, or inclined to redden." Call you that a production worthy of a priest? The ode is intended to comfort a lady, called Delphina, who was sadly addicted to blushing. Each stanza is devoted to show that certain red things are the best of things, such as roses, pomegranates, the mouth, the tongue; and it is in the midst of this badinage, so disgraceful in a clergyman, that he has the effrontery to introduce those blessed spirits that minister before God, and of whom no Christian should speak without reverence:

"The cherubim--those glorious choirs- Composed of head and plumes, Whom God with His own Spirit inspires, And with His eyes illumes. These splendid faces, as they fly, Are ever red and burning high, With fire angelic or divine; And while their mutual flames combine, The waving of their wings supplies A fan to cool their ecstasies! But redness shines with better grace, Delphina, on thy beauteous face, Where modesty sits revelling- Arrayed in purple, like a king," &c.

What think you of this, fathers? Does this preference of the blushes of Delphina to the ardour of those spirits, which is neither more nor less than the ardour of divine love, and this simile of the fan applied to their mysterious wings, strike you as being very Christian-like in the lips which consecrate the adorable body of Jesus Christ? I am quite aware that he speaks only in the character of a gallant and to raise a smile; but this is precisely what is called laughing at things holy. And is it not certain, that, were he to get full justice, he could not save himself from incurring a censure? although, to shield himself from this, he pleads an excuse which is hardly less censurable than the offence, "that the Sorbonne has no jurisdiction over Parnassus, and that the errors of that land are subject neither to censure nor the Inquisition"; as if one could act the blasphemer and profane fellow only in prose! There is another passage, however, in the preface, where even this excuse fails him, when he says, "that the water of the river, on whose banks he composes his verses, is so apt to make poets, that, though it were converted into holy water, it would not chase away the demon of poesy." To match this, I may add the following flight of your Father Garasse, in his Summary of the Capital Truths in Religion, where, speaking of the sacred mystery of the incarnation, he mixes up blasphemy and heresy in this fashion: "The human personality was grafted, as it were, or set on horseback, upon the personality of the Word!" And omitting many others, I might mention another passage from the same author, who, speaking on the subject of the name of Jesus, ordinarily written thus,

+
I.H.S.

observes that "some have taken away the cross from the top of it, leaving the characters barely thus, I.H.S.--which," says he, "is a stripped Jesus!"

Such is the indecency with which you treat the truths of religion, in the face of the inviolable law which binds us always to speak of them with reverence. But you have sinned no less flagrantly against the rule which obliges us to speak of them with truth and discretion. What is more common in your writings than calumny? Can those of Father Brisacier be called sincere? Does he speak with truth when he says that "the nuns of Port-Royal do not pray to the saints, and have no images in their church?" Are not these most outrageous falsehoods, when the contrary appears before the eyes of all Paris? And can he be said to speak with discretion when he stabs the fair reputation of these virgins, who lead a life so pure and austere, representing them as "impenitent, unsacramentalists, uncommunicants, foolish virgins, visionaries, Calagans, desperate creatures, and anything you please," loading them with many other slanders, which have justly incurred the censure of the late Archbishop of Paris? Or when he calumniates priests of the most irreproachable morals, by asserting "that they practise novelties in confession, to entrap handsome innocent females, and that he would be horrified to tell the abominable crimes which they commit." Is it not a piece of intolerable assurance to advance slanders so black and base, not merely without proof, but without the slightest shadow, or the most distant semblance of truth? I shall not enlarge on this topic, but defer it to a future occasion, for I have something more to say to you about it; but what I have now produced is enough to show that you have sinned at once against truth and discretion.

But it may be said, perhaps, that you have not offended against the last rule at least, which binds you to desire the salvation of those whom you denounce, and that none can charge you with this, except by unlocking the secrets of your breasts, which are only known to God. It is strange, fathers, but true, nevertheless, that we can convict you even of this offence; that while your hatred to your opponents has carried you so far as to wish their eternal perdition, your infatuation has driven you to discover the abominable wish that, so far from cherishing in secret desires for their salvation, you have offered up prayers in public for their damnation; and that, after having given utterance to that hideous vow in the city of Caen, to the scandal of the whole Church, you have since then ventured, in Paris, to vindicate, in your printed books, the diabolical transaction. After such gross offences against piety, first ridiculing and speaking lightly of things the most sacred; next falsely and scandalously calumniating priests and virgins; and lastly, forming desires and prayers for their damnation, it would be difficult to add anything worse. I cannot conceive, fathers, how you can fail to be ashamed of yourselves, or how you could have thought for an instant of charging me with a want of charity, who have acted all along with so much truth and moderation, without reflecting on your own horrid violations of charity, manifested in those deplorable exhibitions, which make the charge recoil against yourselves.

In fine, fathers, to conclude with another charge which you bring against me, I see you complain that among the vast number of your maxims which I quote, there are some which have been objected to already, and that I "say over again, what others have said before me." To this I reply that it is just because you have not profited by what has been said before that I say it over again. Tell me now what fruit has appeared from all the castigations you have received in all the books written by learned doctors and even the whole University? What more have your Fathers Annat, Caussin, Pintereau, and Le Moine done, in the replies they have put forth, except loading with reproaches those who had given them salutary admonitions? Have you suppressed the books in which these nefarious maxims are taught? Have you restrained the authors of these maxims? Have you become more circumspect in regard to them? On the contrary, is it not the fact that since that time Escobar has been repeatedly reprinted in France and in the Low Countries, and that your fathers Cellot, Bagot, Bauny, Lamy, Le Moine, and others, persist in publishing daily the same maxims over again, or new ones as licentious as ever? Let us hear no more complaints, then, fathers, either because I have charged you with maxims which you have not disavowed, or because I have objected to some new ones against you, or because I have laughed equally at them all. You have only to sit down and look at them, to see at once your own confusion and my defence. Who can look without laughing at the decision of Bauny, respecting the person who employs another to set fire to his neighbour's barn; that of Cellot on restitution; the rule of Sanchez in favour of sorcerers; the plan of Hurtado for avoiding the sin of duelling by taking a walk through a field and waiting for a man; the compliments of Bauny for escaping usury; the way of avoiding simony by a detour of the intention, and keeping clear of falsehood by speaking high and low; and such other opinions of your most grave and reverend doctors? Is there anything more necessary, fathers, for my vindication? And, as Tertullian says, "can anything be more justly due to the vanity and weakness of these opinions than laughter?" But, fathers, the corruption of manners, to which your maxims lead, deserves another sort of consideration; and it becomes us to ask, with the same ancient writer: "Whether ought we to laugh at their folly, or deplore their blindness?--Rideam vanitatem, an exprobrem caecitatem?" My humble opinion is that one may either laugh at them or weep over them, as one is in the humour. "Haec tolerabilius vel ridentur, vel flentur, " as St. Augustine says. The Scripture tells us that "there is a time to laugh, and a time to weep"; and my hope is, fathers, that I may not find verified, in your case, these words in the Proverbs: "If a wise man contendeth with a foolish man, whether he rage or laugh, there is no rest."

P.S.--On finishing this letter, there was put in my hands one of your publications, in which you accuse me of falsification, in the case of six of your maxims quoted by me, and also with being in correspondence with heretics. You will shortly receive, I trust, a suitable reply; after which, fathers, I rather think you will not feel very anxious to continue this species of warfare.

Comments

In my experience with Chesterton, his greatest weapon is not only that he can make his opponents appear like complete doofuses, but more importantly that he can make you see and savor the utter joy that is at the center of the Trinity. The first time I read Chesterton I felt that I had walked from a cramped one-room apartment with a low ceiling into an awe-inspiring Gothic cathedral. Indeed, I became a different person due to Chesterton.

Some of my fondest memories in the high schooling of my eldest daughter were two-hour round-trip drives to a piano teacher with a specialty in jazz (she was in the high school's jazz band). I gave her a moth-eaten copy of Chesterton's _Orthodoxy_ and asked her to read it out loud as we drove.

Reading Chesterton out loud does things for you that reading him silently will never accomplish. You really must learn to "punctuate" properly with inflection, pacing, and the like, else it will sound confusing and garbled. Those hours turned out to be -- among other things -- lessons in elocution.

But, the other things! What fun to help her get her head around his arguments, his penetrating analyses of foolishness, his magnificent pillorying of folderol and flummery. Thinking someone else's thoughts after him taught her to think those thoughts, and in later years to reproduce thoughts shaped, honed, and delivered as any budding artist copies the Masters.

Y'know, I've always had a difficult time following Chesterton, greatly to my dismay. I've never considered myself a nitwit, either. Perhaps if I had been homeschooled... (chuckling) Now I'm definitely going to try reading it out loud.

Dear Dan:

Tim is well aware of Chesterton's anti-Calvinism. It is fairly evident in the first chapter of "Orthodoxy." Those aren't some of his best moments.

But there is gold in them thar hills, to be mined and enjoyed.

David and others,

Regarding Chesterton's anti-Calvinism, it's hard not to notice it, of course, but the more I read in Chesterton, the more I began to suspect that what he was objecting to was the Calvinism he knew and encountered in his own milieu, namely popularly published Calvinists in Great Britain in the early 20th Century.

I could be all wet here, of course. What gives me this hunch is that Chesterton was primarily a journalist, engaging ideas spinning through the public square. He was not closeted in academe, writing to other academics. Leaving aside for the moment what "true Calivinism" actually is, it's possible that "true Calvinism" is NOT what Chesterton opposed so much as it was the hot-dog Calvinists he encountered in the public square.

To evaluate this idea, one would need to be familiar with that strata of public discourse in Great Britain during the time Chesterton was taking pot shots at Calvinism in his own journalistic profession. I am not familiar with this.

But, insofar as he objects to some things which those who have styled themselves Calvinists have espoused, things which make other Calvinists wince, ... well, it's a thought to consider.

Otherwise, I'd say Chesterton's apologetics and polemics operate via dynamics which are probably very contrary to what I find in committed Calvinists. The latter approach some form of baptized Cartesian rationalism. But, Chesterton, ever the lover of paradox and lexical whimsy, would not be all that sympatico with the way crypto-Cartesian Calvinists would want to pursue a controversy.

Dear Bill:

You could be right.

I read "Orthodoxy" over fifteen years ago in grad school and I was having to defend Calvinism on every front, so I was maybe a bit over-sensitive on the topic.

My copy is back in Zambia so I can't re-read it just now.

"My copy is back in Zambia so I can't re-read it just now."

A lot of Chesterton's fiction and non-fiction (Including Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man and other goodies) are now available on the web at the following URL which the spam filters here think is suspect, but which I assure you is not.

So, to find all the Chesterton you could want for free simply turn all the asterisks [*] into periods [.] in the URL below, then cut/paste into your browser:

http://www*cse*dmu*ac*uk/~mward/gkc/books/index*html

Enjoy!

David: Tim has it in his library at the office. It's too good to wait until you get back to Zambia. Read it to the kids, too. :)

I think Fr. Bill's is advocating a "New Perspective on Chesterton" (NPC).

My take on Chesterton's Anti-Calvinism is that he never took the time or was never told what Calvinism actually was. He interacted with its most base criticisms and misconceptions, but not actually with its true exposition. Given the fact that Chesterton was raised in an irreligious home and was an Anglo-Catholic until his reception into the RCC, it's no wonder he didn't understand Calvinism. However, I still think that a dose of Chesterton is good for everybody, especially dyed-in-the-wool Reformed gents. [Such as yourself, Brandon?]

In chapter XIII of his book, A Short History of England, Chesterton makes the following argument for the necessity of understanding Calvinism:

---
We should be very much bored if we had to read an account of the most exciting argument or string of adventures in which unmeaning words such as "snark" or "boojum" were systematically substituted for the names of the chief characters or objects in dispute; if we were told that a king was given the alternative of becoming a snark or finally surrendering the boojum, or that a mob was roused to fury by the public exhibition of a boojum, which was inevitably regarded as a gross reflection on the snark.

Yet something very like this situation is created by most modern attempts to tell the tale of the theological troubles of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, while deferring to the fashionable distaste for theology in this generation--or rather in the last generation. Thus the Puritans, as their name implies, were primarily enthusiastic for what they thought was pure religion; frequently they wanted to impose it on others; sometimes they only wanted to be free to practise it themselves; but in no case can justice be done to what was finest in their characters, as well as first in their thoughts, if we never by any chance ask what "it" was that they wanted to impose or to practise.

Now, there was a great deal that was very fine about many of the Puritans, which is almost entirely missed by the modern admirers of the Puritans. They are praised for things which they either regarded with indifference or more often detested with frenzy--such as religious liberty. And yet they are quite insufficiently understood, and are even undervalued, in their logical case for the things they really did care about -- such as Calvinism. We make the Puritans picturesque in a way they would violently repudiate, in novels and plays they would have publicly burnt. We are interested in everything about them, except the only thing in which they were interested at all.
---

As you can see, Chesterton was not without admiration for Calvinists. He writes later in the same chapter:

---
For there are now few Christians or non-Christians who can look back at the Calvinism which nearly captured Canterbury and even Rome by the genius and heroism of Pascal or Milton, without crying out, like the lady in Mr. Bernard Shaw's play, "How splendid! How glorious! ...and oh what an escape!"
---

The rest of the chapter (and the book) can be found at the site Fr. Bill points to above.

In Christ,
John

Please allow me to put in a plug for the Chesterton Society:

www.chesterton.org

You can download/print out some of Chesterton's works and many of Dale's articles, too. They also produce a half-hour weekly television show available on a Catholic television station, EWTN.

Kamilla

What do you recommend for someone who's reading Chesterton for the first time?

I dunno - I'm just getting started myself. The website has a "who is this guy" (Chesterton)page as well as a "bibliography for beginners" and "quotations".

Truthfully, I'm not reading much right now as I'm deep into a new little Peter Kreeft book and working on my own projects. But I do cruise around the site from time to time and pick up a few nuggets each time.

Kamilla

I guess I should issue two disclaimers:

I am sure other posters on this blog can give you better direction in where to start than I can.

I plugged the site, in part, because Dale Ahlquist is a childhood friend.

Kamilla

C. A. Patrides' introduction to Milton's Selected Prose refers to Pascal's letter in describing the use of ridicule generally in the 17th century.

"Milton's abusive vocabulary and devastating scorn was common to any number of his contemporaries... The justification was apparently Biblical... Equally, however, the justification was broadly traditional--witness in particular Pascal's lengthy exposition of the way in which 'mockery is sometimes the best way to bring men to their senses, and in that case is a righteous action.' Milton's view is not unlike Pascal's:

"'although in the serious uncasing of a grand imposture (for to deale plainly with you Readers, Prelatry is no better) there be mixt here and there such a grim laughter, as may appeare at the same time in an austere visage, it cannot be taxt of levity or insolence: for even this vaine of laughing (as I could produce out of grave Authors) hath oft-times a strong and sinewy force in teaching and confuting: nor can there be a more proper object of indignation and scorne together then a false Prophet taken in the greatest dearest and most dangerous cheat, the cheat of soules.'"
(Preface to "Animadversions," 1641)

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