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March 17, 2008


Joyless Moralist

Was this intended to goad me back into commenting on the blog? I don't know that I can really write a rejoinder to so many absurd claims at once, but this much at least I must observe: reading this review by itself, I would come away with the distinct impression that the author is a kind of existentialist, prizing curiosity and daring but not caring how these are applied. So, for example, Martin Luther is admirable (even Christlike, apparently!) because he risked his life for his convictions... no reason to bother about whether his claims were true. But of course, lots of people have risked or sacrificed their lives for convictions. The Bolsheviks. The September 11 bombers. John Wilkes Booth. Are all these people heroes? Perhaps on some level we do have a certain admiration for anyone who displays that kind of "grit", but generally we demand that it be applied to something *good* before we lionize them.

And while I haven't read "The Dumb Ox", I really don't think Chesterton would take book-burning per se to be Luther's main crime. It is the attack on *truth*, not the destruction of words, that marks the heretic and the servant of Satan.

Nathan Smith

No, I was genuinely a bit indignant with Chesterton, and with the murderers of Jan Hus. That, and Chesterton's own feistiness probably rubbed off on me... And I'm not saying Luther was like Christ in an essential way; it was the Catholic Church's emulation of Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin that created a formal similarity where the substance was quite different. I'm inclined to agree with Chesterton's critical attitude towards Luther in large part. But it's a historical fact that he *was* admired by a large part of Europe and he and others like him set off a frenzy of feeling that a rebirth of Christianity was underway. Why did this happen if Luther's philosophy was so unappealing? Because the Catholic Church had changed from being the church of martyrs to the church that martyred others.

The problem with the Bolsheviks, the September 11 bomers, and John Wilkes Booth, of course, is not that they sacrificed their lives for what they believed in, which is admirable as far as it goes, but that they *killed* for what they believed in. So did Martin Luther eventually, though mostly in the course of normal wars. I don't admire the man!

No doubt Chesterton would have sophistical dodges ready if he were confronted with the criticisms made in this post. But it's perfectly clear at the end of *The Dumb Ox* that he's appealing to the liberalism of his readers, and their horror at the burning of books. Written in 1933, the passage seems to be a deliberate allusion to the Nazis' book-burnings. I won't necessarily dispute the idea that Martin Luther was a forerunner of Adolf Hitler: vicious anti-Semitism was another evil in which Luther anticipated the future German leader. But to appeal to liberal sentiments to invoke his audience's indignation against Luther, while remaining silent about the blood that was on the hands of Luther's enemies, is worse than unfair.

The one defense that might possibly be made is that most of Chesterton's target audience were Protestants who knew all too well the crimes of the medieval Catholic church and didn't need reminding. Still, the just objections ought to have been acknowledged and perhaps addressed. Only they can't be addressed.

re: "It is the attack on *truth*, not the destruction of words, that marks the heretic and the servant of Satan."

What is one to say to this statement? It is almost as if Joyless Moralist is assuming that Luther knew what he was preaching was false, and/or that the Aquinas books he was burning were true. In that case, his attack on truth would be wilful; but if he believed that what he was preaching was true and what he was burning was false, then, as far as he knew, he was promoting, and not attacking, the truth.

One can take an externalist epistemology, and say that he was *really* attacking the truth, even if he did not know it and could not, merely through, say, better reasoning, discover what the truth was. In that case, Luther would, merely through a sort of luck of the draw, historical accident, be a servant of Satan, attacking the truth. The folk expression "you can't blame him though, he didn't know better" comes to mind, but perhaps the externalist epistemology comes with an externalist ethics attached, and we can and must blame him, even though he didn't know better. This whole point of view strikes me as completely amoral, utterly alien to everything that I regard as ethical thinking.

I would say, rather, that Luther was attacking a mix of truth and falsehood with a mix of truth and falsehood; that his failure to have a truer understanding than he did was partly a result of his environment and especially of the great corruption and repressiveness of the late medieval Catholic Church which had obscured and to some extent falsified what truth they did have, but that Luther's own hang-ups and angry temperament seem to have led him astray as well. I am not inclined to blame him very harshly for coming to the conclusion that Thomas Aquinas was badly wrong, even if I probably have more sympathy for Aquinas's thought than Luther did (or than for Luther's). I *AM* inclined to condemn Luther unreservedly for burning Thomas Aquinas's books, but rather on the grounds of epistemological ethics.

Why is it wrong to burn books? First of all, it is a breach of intellectual humility: we shouldn't necessarily be forever wondering whether we're wrong, but of course we all think that many people in the past were quite wrong, and it would be provincial, irrational, and arrogant to dismiss the possibility that we, too, are wrong, at least partly, and that we might have something to learn in the future from books that now seem useless. Second, it is akin to coercion, to robbing our fellow men of the opportunity to read books that we may regard as false, but that others may regard as true. Third, even books that are completely wrong may be useful as cautionary tales; we can keep them around in order to refute them as a warning to others not to make the same mistakes. The last consideration is sufficient reason that someone who thought they knew the truth and could persuade others of it would never desire to burn a book, which makes me think that the motive for book burning would be either one's own doubts, or a desire to coerce others.

Of course, one might burn a book of pornography because it was a temptation for oneself or others, not for its intellectual content. That seems a different case. And obviously if books are burnt because they're not worth the cost of storage, or for warmth, that's a different case. Finally, here's a case I'm not sure about: is it acceptable for an author to try destroy *his own* books, after he has become disillusioned with them? One reason for the intuition that book-burning is wrong is that it seems like violence to the author, an attempt to muzzle him by force, but if the author is oneself, one presumably consents to the violation of one's authorial right to be heard. Nonetheless one robs others of the right to hear one's past views, which they may regard as of value.

Suppose, for example, that Joyless Moralist convinced me that this post is an abomination. Would I do wrong to delete it? I think it has become, how I cannot tell, part of my personal ethics never to delete anything I write, even if I should wish to. Whether I'm right about this I don't know. I know that better people than myself have tried to destroy past works of which they have later become ashamed. I would feel somehow dishonest if I did that. It's funny how one sometimes comes by a scruple without intention and without remembering why, yet one feels bound by it.

Nathan Smith

By the way, I really did enjoy the book! Don't get me wrong! Chesterton is brilliant, a fine writer. Maybe C.S. Lewis to have had the right attitude towards him. One feels the influence of Chesterton throughout Lewis, but rather toned down. Lewis seems to just ignore Chesterton's Catholic antics to focus on the mere Christianity which comprises what is really admirable in Chesterton.

Joyless Moralist

"Still, the just objections ought to have been acknowledged and perhaps addressed. Only they can't be addressed."

Oh, come now. Of course they can. Not everything done by anyone connected with Rome can be said to be promulgated by the Magisterium. In the case of Jan Hus: the Council of Constance declared him a formal heretic, which, I might say, from a Catholic perspective seems pretty clearly to have been right. But it's certainly not a de fide truth that burning him was the right way to handle the situation. That wasn't even decided by the Council, who handed him over to the secular authorities for punishment. (It was also the Emperor, by the way, who had guaranteed him safe conduct -- it wasn't the Council per se.)

Whether or not it's okay to burn heretics has never been dogmatically settled. Obviously some notable people have been for it; on the other hand, Leo X declared it to be "against the will of the spirit" in the Bull "Exsurge Domine" in 1520. So. More recently, Pope John Paul II seems to have gone around apologizing for every possible mean thing that the Church ever did. So there's room for different positions on the correct way to handle heretics, but to say that the uglier historical episodes "can't be addressed" seems a bit much. The Church never hung her authority on the claim that every single thing the Vatican ever did was right.

But as for holding people morally accountable for their beliefs -- surely we can do *that*. I won't deny deny that there are occasions (how many might be debated) where people aren't culpable (or aren't *fully* culpable) for their erroneous beliefs. But when a view is really morally defective, sincerity doesn't necessarily excuse all wrong. Even if we can't exactly change our beliefs at will, we have some choice over the belief-forming processes that we adopt. So, for example, we tend to blame people who hold racist views. Maybe in some cases we think people's responsibility for this defect is mitigated, due to certain sorts of conditioning or indoctrination to which they've been subjected. Still, it is a defect, and I think most of us believe that the faculties for realizing the worth of other souls are inherent in all of us.

Sinful behavior and erroneous beliefs are not as distinctly separated as you seem to suppose. Sin clouds the mind, as well as weakening the body, and it has long been a central belief or Catholic and Orthodox alike that there is a firm connection between orthodoxy and orthopraxy.

Joyless Moralist

Well, actually, though I like Chesterton too, I've never felt the urge to pick up *The Dumb Ox.* It seems somehow strange for someone so unsystematic as Chesterton to appoint himself biographer to someone so spectacularly systematic as St. Thomas. I have a feeling the haphazard style would irk me when applied to the Angelic Doctor. But I'm glad you enjoyed it!

Nathan Smith

The point about John Paul II's apology is interesting. The thing is, while that would certainly be part of the defense that any *contemporary* Catholic who wanted to be persuasive to liberals would use, it wasn't available to Chesterton, who was writing well before John Paul II. The fact that the burning of Jan Hus was "outsourced" to the secular authorities doesn't do much to exonerate the Council of Constance. A council that had anything like an appropriate attitude to the moral necessity of human freedom would have exerted all its influence to ensure that Hus did not suffer violence, and if it could not do so would probably have avoided pronouncing him a heretic until they were confident they could do so without inducing someone to murder him. I'm inclined to regard the Council as an accessory to murder... but I don't know the details of the historical episode, so I guess I ought to reserve judgment. If it's possible to condemn the Crusades and every inquisition ever instituted to the extent that it resulted in violence against heretics, and still remain a loyal Catholic, that certainly makes me more favorable to at least the contemporary Catholic Church.


I have to say, I like JM's style. I've said it before and it remains true.

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