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Thursday, January 05, 2006


Posted by John Holbo on 01/05/06 at 05:40 AM

Nothing more strangely indicates an enormous and silent evil of modern society than the extraordinary use which is made nowadays of the word “orthodox.” In former days the heretic was proud of not being a heretic. It was the kingdoms of the world and the police and the judges who were heretics. He was orthodox. He had no pride in having rebelled against them; they had rebelled against him. The armies with their cruel security, the kings with their cold faces, the decorous processes of State, the reasonable processes of law - all these like sheep had gone astray. The man was proud of being orthodox, was proud of being right. If he stood alone in a howling wilderness he was more than a man; he was a church. He was the centre of the universe; it was round him that the stars swung. All the tortures torn out of forgotten hells could not make him admit that he was heretical. But a few modern phrases have made him boast of it. He says, with a conscious laugh, “I suppose I am very heretical,” and looks round for applause. The word “heresy” not only means no longer being wrong; it practically means being clear-headed and courageous. The word “orthodoxy” not only no longer means being right; it practically means being wrong. All this can mean one thing, and one thing only. It means that people care less for whether they are philosophically right. For obviously a man ought to confess himself crazy before he confesses himself heretical. The Bohemian, with a red tie, ought to pique himself on his orthodoxy. The dynamiter, laying a bomb, ought to feel that, whatever else he is, at least he is orthodox.


It is a fallacy to suppose one, rather than the other, way of taking one’s cue from the neighbors, is an index of interest in being right. Apart from that, what do we think? It depends what one means by ‘modern society’, I suppose.


Examples are scarcely needed of this total levity on the subject of cosmic philosophy.  Examples are scarcely needed to show that, whatever else we think of as affecting practical affairs, we do not think it matters whether a man is a pessimist or an optimist, a Cartesian or a Hegelian, a materialist or a spiritualist. Let me, however, take a random instance.  At any innocent tea-table we may easily hear a man say, “Life is not worth living.“ We regard it as we regard the statement that it is a fine day; nobody thinks that it can possibly have any serious effect on the man or on the world.  And yet if that utterance were really believed, the world would stand on its head.  Murderers would be given medals for saving men from life; firemen would be denounced for keeping men from death; poisons would be used as medicines; doctors would be called in when people were well; the Royal Humane Society would be rooted out like a horde of assassins. Yet we never speculate as to whether the conversational pessimist will strengthen or disorganize society; for we are convinced that theories do not matter.

By nnyhav on 01/05/06 at 10:27 AM | Permanent link to this comment

John Brockman’s The Edge has a symposium in which 100 mostly-scientists tell the world what their “dangerous idea” is. It’s a specimen case of what Chesterton was talking about. Over at Hitler’s and Stalin’s ideas were more dangerous than, for example, Einstein’s, and that history of science tends to zero in on controversy at the expense of important ideas which aren’t controversial. (This is true to the extent that almost no one can name even one of the foudners of organic chemistry, which developed without much controversy).

The dangerous ideas tend to be things that most of us have heard before, though few sink as low as Ridley’s “Government is the problem, not the solution.”

I think that scientists, who tend to be Protestant-ethic straight-arrow types, feel that they’re missing out on the fun and have to dress up punk occasionaly. Sort of like libertarians trying to shake the boring Republican stigma.

Brockman intended his edge to be a third culture of humanistic scientists or something like that, and his yearlong organization does often work that way, but this year-end thing tends to be gaseous. A lot of standard positivism-materialism-reductionism, the selfish gene, evolutionary psychology, etc.

The most interesting idea I saw was Kosco’s “Most bell curves have thick tails”.

By John Emerson on 01/05/06 at 10:47 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The most interesting idea I saw was Kosco’s “Most bell curves have thick tails”.

JE: Symmetric alpha-stable statistics have been around for some time, though elaborating the underpinnings is more recent; Paul Embrechts has been flogging Extreme Value Theory about as long. But amid all the noise, Cosma has commented upon abuse of power laws; their provenance might also be thought nominally suspect. Though there’s a language element relevant to upcoming events.

By nnyhav on 01/05/06 at 12:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

He was the centre of the universe; it was round him that the stars swung. This is terribly terribly English (Chesterton was the most English Englishman in the history of Englishmanliness).  It’s the famous and doubtless apochryphal English newspaper headline from last century: Fog in Channel, Continent Isolated.

What Chesterton’s mind could not have countenanced is Rock and Roll, and its myriad ethical offshoots, the whole point of which is to be heretical, to fight orthodoxy, to identify with the outcasts, not reorient reality so that the Establishment are the outcast ones.  Orthodoxy is The Man.  We got to <a href= “http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Public_Enemy” target="new"> fight the power, fight the powers that be.</a> Or, to put it in terms of Ches’s own era, it’s Rimbaud’s Systematic Disarrangement of the Senses.

In terms of the serious question John poses about the relative index of rightness, and at the risk of sounding like a stuck record, it’s exactly an anti-ethics: it’s Ubu-morality.  It’s what are you rebelling against? [shrug, sneer] What have you got? Very beguiling stuff.  [I’m a middle-class white anglo; of course I love Public Enemy].

PS: I had a row once with a friend [I say row; it wasn’t, like, Rich/Adam K level rowing or anything] about automatic opposition to the government as the default position of the healthy citizen.  My friend called this ‘a pretty adolescent political philosophy’.  I snapped back, ‘what, adolescent like ... Martin Luther King?  Adolescent like Gandhi?’ But, ironically, I snapped this back in a whiny teenage voice, and added ‘that’s so unfair’ and stormed up to my room to listen to thrash metal.  Not literally those last things, but in effect.  The point: maybe my friend, from his inadvertently Chestertonian argumentative position, has a point.

By Adam Roberts on 01/05/06 at 01:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

There is heresy authentic, and heresy juvenile-- that of the adolescent, the punk, or the opportunist. Percy Bysshe Shelley, or Darwin, might be said to be the former, any number of pop-sneerers or scorners the latter.  And much of academic marxism and “radicalism” tends to the pop-sneer as well.

The heresy of a Shelley, tho’, appears like heresy only to those who have already defined the terms--to a Chesterson, yes, Shelley is heresy; but from another perspective it’s eloquent dissent, and the voice of Reason.  There’s a rather superficial element of relativism in CHesterson’s epistle, if not that tone of “heritage” which Tory literatteurs from Chaucer to TS Eliot typically have invoked when the mob begins to seethe. 

From the materialist position there are simply beaucoup primates fighting for food and mating priviledges, and attempting to secure their bio-economic niche, however much that might offend dialecticians or theists.

By X. on 01/05/06 at 04:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Nnyhav, I work at a pretty basic level. I’m just used to seeing people use a symmetrical, normal bell curve to prove their point, as if it were an inevitable, universal law of nature.

I recently asked someone to define a bell curve according to which 10% only of HS students were normal. the rest being abnormal and defective (which 90% are, in the vicious HS world).

By John Emerson on 01/05/06 at 05:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

What’s interesting about Chesterton is that he talked a good game, but he himself was no more immune to the lure of heterodoxy than anyone else.  In _The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare_, for instance, the one “honest” anarchist who shows up to confront the God-figure at the end is pretty clearly heroic.  (Or am I thinking of Milton?) Chesterton actually wrote a one-page afterword to that book in which he tries to make the reader follow his supposed authorial intent, in which he says that no, he didn’t mean his God-figure to stand for God really, and says that too many people don’t read the “A Nightmare” part of the title, which shows that it’s all a dream.  And it’s completely unconvincing, and the book is good in spite of itself.

By on 01/05/06 at 08:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Having brought up power laws, I must pass along Re-Inventing Willis, though I think I’ve seen this somewhere before. Twice.

By nnyhav on 01/30/06 at 04:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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