‘A Thought That Stops Thought’

Reading G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, I was struck by this passage:

“The peril is that the human intellect is free to destroy itself. Just as one generation could prevent the very existence of the next generation, by all entering a monastery or jumping into the sea, so one set of thinkers can in some degree prevent further thinking by teaching the next generation that there is no validity in any human thought. It is idle to talk always of the alternative of reason and faith. Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all. If you are merely a sceptic, you must sooner or later ask yourself the question, ‘Why should anything go right; even observation and deduction? Why should not good logic be as misleading as bad logic? They are both movements in the brain of a bewildered ape?’ The young sceptic says, ‘I have a right to think for myself.’ But the old sceptic, the complete sceptic, says, ‘I have no right to think for myself. I have no right to think at all.’

There is a thought that stops thought.”

It’s hard to believe that this was written a century ago: Orthodoxy first came out in 1908. The chapter as a whole, entitled “The Suicide of Thought,” anticipates many of the arguments that were advanced in the culture wars of the 90s; and it is not too far from predicting current complaints about the pre-emptive surrender of self-doubting, liberal, uncertain, wavering, tolerant Western intellectuals in the clash of civilizations.

For Chesterton, “free thought” was already no longer a threat to anything but itself, having “exhausted its own freedom” and surrendered the objects of thought as well as the thinker himself to a indeterminate, Heisenbergian “flux.” (The quark, had he lived to know and understand it, would have terrified him.)

It’s worth remarking that if Chesterton was documenting the “ultimate dissolution of free thought,”as he puts it, by now we must have well exceeded the ultimatum. So the real question that this chapter of Orthodoxy raises is about where we are now. Are we living on after the dissolution of free thought? Are we witnesses to nothing less horrible than the survival of our own attempt at intellectual suicide?

Of course we may have moved well beyond feeling threatened by pragmatism or Nietzschean will to power or evolution, H.G. Wells or Bernard Shaw — all of whom filled Chesterton with dread or prompted his derision. But there’s small comfort in that observation: it could simply mean we no longer take the time to comprehend a thinker like Nietzsche or Wells, or that we take for granted the positions and attitudes in these writers that Chesterton found so alarming. We may be incapable of reflecting on the loss of our freedom, because the failure of free thought long ago made us unfree to reflect, or because we have a jingle in our head that tells us we’re free when we are not.

At the same time, it doesn’t make a lot of sense simply to assume that “thought” of the kind that Chesterton is talking about — philosophy, for lack of a better word — proceeds along a linear historical trajectory, making progress, gradually liberalizing and growing more dissolute. That’s one way of telling the story of the West. But the corrosive power of scepticism to undermine all certainty, including the sceptic’s own belief in himself and in his thinking, is hardly a new theme. Western thought is decadent from the very start, displaying at its inception a tendency to collapse in on itself, to deconstruct, to offer no quarter to those who look for objective certainty or refuge in the Absolute, to find stories within explanations, to make other stories of them, to drift in the ebb and flow of language toward, then away from things.

And yet, and yet: even if you want to quarrel with Chesterton about the shape of intellectual history, even if you can’t find a suicide note among the philosophical papers of the late 19th century, it would be foolish to deny that we are as vulnerable as he says we are. It may be that we are intellectually disarmed, as many critics now allege. It may be (as Chesterton would probably assert) that we are insufficient in our faith, without which reason cannot rule.

And it may simply be that we no longer believe there is, or can be, or ought to be such a thing as intellectual freedom, because we no longer believe in the liberty or the autonomy of the thinking individual, the reality of freedom or faith, the reality of reality, or in anything, really, but might. So we can bluster and bomb and beat them, but in our quieter moments we must admit that we have no idea what we are defending or fighting for.

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