I took this while waiting for my mom to roll in. We walked to the Metro and saw the Van Gogh exhibit at the Phillips. At eighty-six, my mom’s steely as ever. When Metro’s machine spat her fully-paid fare card back at her, she simply climbed over the turnstile.
On Liberty and inequality. G.K. Chesterton would have been my kind of Union man had he been an American. While he faulted the English Socialists for denying the poor their humanity in the name of an ideal, he faulted the Tories for dong the same in the name of tradition’s accident.
Chesterton’s Edmund Burke was Lincoln’s John C. Calhoun – an “atheist” – in political theory, at least – who denied that we were all created in the image of God (Chesterton), that we were all created equal (Lincoln). From Part Five (The Home of Man) of Chesterton’s book What’s Wrong with the World:
A cultivated Conservative friend of mine once exhibited great distress because in a gay moment I once called Edmund Burke an atheist. I need scarcely say that the remark lacked something of biographical precision; it was meant to. Burke was certainly not an atheist in his conscious cosmic theory, though he had not a special and flaming faith in God, like Robespierre. Nevertheless, the remark had reference to a truth which it is here relevant to repeat. I mean that in the quarrel over the French Revolution, Burke did stand for the atheistic attitude and mode of argument, as Robespierre stood for the theistic. The Revolution appealed to the idea of an abstract and eternal justice, beyond all local custom or convenience. If there are commands of God, then there must be rights of man. Here Burke made his brilliant diversion; he did not attack the Robespierre doctrine with the old mediaeval doctrine of jus divinum (which, like the Robespierre doctrine, was theistic), he attacked it with the modern argument of scientific relativity; in short, the argument of evolution. He suggested that humanity was everywhere molded by or fitted to its environment and institutions; in fact, that each people practically got, not only the tyrant it deserved, but the tyrant it ought to have. “I know nothing of the rights of men,” he said, “but I know something of the rights of Englishmen.” There you have the essential atheist. His argument is that we have got some protection by natural accident and growth; and why should we profess to think beyond it, for all the world as if we were the images of God! We are born under a House of Lords, as birds under a house of leaves; we live under a monarchy as niggers live under a tropic sun; it is not their fault if they are slaves, and it is not ours if we are snobs. Thus, long before Darwin struck his great blow at democracy, the essential of the Darwinian argument had been already urged against the French Revolution. Man, said Burke in effect, must adapt himself to everything, like an animal; he must not try to alter everything, like an angel. The last weak cry of the pious, pretty, half-artificial optimism and deism of the eighteenth century came in the voice of Sterne, saying, “God tempers the wind to the shorn lamb.” And Burke, the iron evolutionist, essentially answered, “No; God tempers the shorn lamb to the wind.” It is the lamb that has to adapt himself. That is, he either dies or becomes a particular kind of lamb who likes standing in a draught.
I was so glad this morning, reading this. The debate surrounding the equality clause isn’t only an American debate. Chesterton vs. Burke; Lincoln vs. Calhoun and Stevens; Jaffa vs. Rehnquist and Bork. A moderation founded on a theological understanding of the rights of man vs. a conservatism founded on tradition and historicism.
A meadow full of very yellow buttercups, a ditch with iris plants with green leaves and purple blooms, the town in the background, a few gray willows – a strip of blue sky.
If they don’t mow the meadow I’d like to do this study again, for the subject was very beautiful, and I had some trouble finding the composition. A little town surrounded by countryside completely blooming with yellow and purple flowers; you know, it is a beautiful Japanese dream.
– Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh (12 May 1888)
you already have
a farm, a meadow,
ditch green leaves
and purple blooms,
strip blue sky.
don’t mow the meadow:
I’d like to do this again.
trouble the town,
Van Gogh’s Field with Flowers Near Arles, the result of the studies referred to in van Gogh’s letter.
A Bible, a journal, and three short works.
I am well aware that the word “property” has been defied in our time by the corruption of the great capitalists. One would think, to hear people talk, that the Rothchilds and the Rockefellers were on the side of property. But obviously they are the enemies of property because they are enemies of their own limitations. They do not want their own land but other people’s. When they remove their neighbor’s landmark, they also remove their own. A man who loves a little triangular field ought to love it because it is triangular; anyone who destroys the shape, by giving him more land, is a thief who has stolen a triangle. A man with the true poetry of possession wishes to see the wall where his garden meets Smith’s garden, the hedge where his farm touches Brown’s. He cannot see the shape of his own land unless he sees the edges of his neighbor’s. It is the negation of property that the Duke of Sutherland should have all the farms in one estate, just as it would be the negation of marriage if he had all our wives in one harem.
– Chesterton, G. K. (Gilbert Keith). What’s Wrong with the World. 1910. Kindle Edition. Page 48.
think to hear:
the side of
mark their own
who love afield
triangular. Love is
triangular – true poetry
where garden meets garden,
where his touches
cannot see the shape
of his own harem.
My daughter Bethany, while in middle school, was asked to write in response to this prompt: “What would you do if you were president?”
Bethany opened her journal to the first clean page, dated it, and wrote, “Resign.”
That’s Bethany. In my case, it’s precisely my journal that makes me want to be president. I don’t want anyone to read it now, but what if people read it after I left this life, and then they started to think about my favorite books’ passages the way I do?
President Kennedy created the principle of “Chesterton’s fence” in one of his notebooks by referring to a statement by English author G.K. Chesterton. Here’s Wikipedia’s account of it:
Chesterton’s fence is the principle that you should never take a fence down until you know the reason why it was put up. The paraphrased quotation was ascribed to Chesterton by John F. Kennedy in a 1945 notebook. The correct quotation is from Chesterton’s 1929 book, The Thing, in the chapter entitled, “The Drift from Domesticity”: “In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, ‘I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.’ To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: ‘If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.’”
Wikipedia here implies that Kennedy’s account was in some sense incorrect, not because it was a summary, I guess, but because Kennedy’s summary left out something critical. Wikipedia apparently thinks that Kennedy erroneously made G.K. Chesterton’s reasoning-by-analogy into a rule that applied first – or only – to the analogous situation. But I think Kennedy’s error lay in missing this crucial point: the modern reformer, in Chesterton’s version, has not only to know but also to articulate why the fence or gate was built in the first place. If he can do that, perhaps to the original fence-builder’s satisfaction, or at least to the more intelligent reformer’s satisfaction, then he may be allowed to tear the fence down, if he still wants to.
Either way, we forgive Kennedy: the error was only in a journal entry. We hold private journals to lower standards of style and veracity. We believe a person before he’s famous writes in his journal with no notion that anyone else would ever read it.
I don’t know what drives anyone to do what he does.