Filed under: Book Reviews, FiftyFiftyMe Books | Tags: fiftyfifty.me, fiftyfiftybooks, g.k. chesterton, religion, the ball and the cross
For my eighth book I read G.K. Gesterton’s The Ball and the Cross. It’s a slim volume at only 178 pages. The basic story centers around two would-be dualists, one ardent Catholic and one stern Atheist, and according to the preface is based on Chesterton’s real life debate with an atheist. The story begins when the Catholic busts the glass out of the atheists shop after being offended by an article the Atheist has posted in the window. The two are arrested, but are shortly released. Not yet sufficiently satisfied that he has made his point, the Catholic challenges the Atheist to a duel. The rest of the book is basically the two searching for a peaceful place to duel uninterrupted by those who find their quarrel uncivilized. What is most objectionable isn’t that they want to fight it out, but rather that they are openly engaged in debate about topics of God, faith, the meaning of life, and the sort. There just isn’t a place for such nonsense in the civilized world. Indeed, one might have to be mentally unfit to do such a thing (an idea that plays a big part in the last few chapters of the book).
It’s really interesting the Chesterton was writing about the public’s fear of discussing religion in public in early 1900s Britain as it could easily have been a story about 2012 America, in my opinion. Read from a 21st Century American perspective, some interesting themes emerge. First, the face that so many people for so long had just ignored the Atheists writings, never giving him the satisfaction of an argument. This parallels what appears to be a general apathy towards religion that is developing in the United States. People now, as in the book, don’t seem to grasp the importance of debating words and thoughts. As Chesterton puts it:
What is the good of words if they aren’t important enough to quarrel over? Why do we choose one word more than another if there isn’t any difference between them? If you called a woman a chimpanzee instead of an angel, wouldn’t there be a quarrel about a word? If you’re not going to argue about words, what are you going to argue about? Are you going to convey your meaning to me by moving your ears? The Church and the heresies always used to fight about words, because they are the only thing worth fighting about.
Second, once the Atheist finds some one to engage in debate, the public is outraged, particularly governmental officials. It is, after all, impolite to discuss politics and religion, right?
Third, is Gesterton’s general mistrust and disapproval of the media, for all the same reasons the media is criticized today. Probably my favorite scene in the book is Chesterton’s discriptoin of the problem with major news outlets:
It is the one great weakness of journalism as a picture of our modern existence, that it must be a picture made up entirely of exceptions. We announce on flaring posters that a man has fallen off a scaffolding. We do not announce on flaring posters that a man has not fallen off a scaffolding. Yet this latter fact is fundamentally more exciting, as indicating that that moving tower of terror and mystery, a man, is still abroad upon the earth. That the man has not fallen off a scaffolding is really more sensational; and it is also some thousand times more common. But journalism cannot reasonably be expected thus to insist upon the permanent miracles. Busy editors cannot be expected to put on their posters, “Mr. Wilkinson Still Safe,” or “Mr. Jones, of Worthing, Not Dead Yet.” They cannot announce the happiness of mankind at all. They cannot describe all the forks that are not stolen, or all the marriages that are not judiciously dissolved. Hence the complete picture they give of life is of necessity fallacious; they can only represent what is unusual. However democratic they may be, they are only concerned with the minority. [emphasis added]
But the biggest parallel comes at the end, as the state, acting under the direction of a figure who appears to be either Lucifer himself or, perhaps, the Anti-Christ (in skimming a few sites about this book there appears to be some debate in the literary world as to which of these figures Chesterton was aiming to depict) stepping in to control every aspect of life. The government’s role in the end of the book is to decide whether you are mentally fit to live out in the world. Everyone is presumed crazy. The burden of proof is on the citizen to demonstrate sanity, not on the state to demonstrate mental unfitness. Naturally, engaging in such behavior as the Catholic and the Atheist is tantamount to being crazy as a loon.
The book is interesting, and it’s a quick read. Certainly I can’t pretend that I understand everything Chesterton said, or did not say, and I have not scratched the surface of the analysis a book like this is due, but there are lots of websites out there that do offer more analysis, so if this post has peaked your interested, I suggest you head to Google and do a little more reading.
But first, buy a copy of the book and read it. It’s worth the 3 or 4 hours it will take you. Good luck!
Up next, we’re back to history with Warren Hofstra’s The Planting of New Virginia.
Filed under: FiftyFifty.Me Movies, Funnies | Tags: fiftyfifty.me, fiftyfiftyme movies
My movie watching is really lacking. With the NHL playoffs in full swing, who cares about movies?
That said, I did watch one with Courtney this week. I’m not proud of it, but my third movie was Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Big Happy Family.
No review, but here’s the trailer:
Like I said, I’m not proud, but I did laugh pretty hard.
Filed under: Book Reviews, FiftyFiftyMe Books | Tags: fiftyfifty.me, fiftyfiftybooks, georgewashington, history
Weighing in at a hefty 904 pages, Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow falls squarely into the 2-book category under the fiftyfifty.me rules. In it, Chernow meticulously lays out what seems to be every facet of Washington’s life. From his troubled family medical history, to his strained relations with his (suspected) Tory mother, to what seems like every decision he made during the Revolutionary War, to his time in the White House, Chernow carefully documents the life of the Father of our nation.
Why a new biography of Washington, who is easily one of the most written about ‘characters’ in American history? As one review notes:
His thoroughness in “Washington: A Life” is prompted by the Papers of George Washington, a research project that has been under way at the University of Virginia since 1968, has passed the 60-volume mark and is nowhere near complete. Mr. Chernow argues that this project has unearthed enough new material to warrant “a large-scale, one-volume, cradle-to-grave narrative” about Washington, despite the excellent work of biographers including Joseph J. Ellis and James T. Flexner and the reading public’s impression that the story of Washington’s life is already well known.
The sheer volume of new research easily validates Mr. Chernow’s effort. But “Washington” also has a simpler raison d’être. It means to dust off Washington’s image, penetrate the opacity that can most generously be called “sphinxlike” and replace readers’ “frosty respect” for Washington with “visceral appreciation.” In other words, Mr. Chernow, who made a similar effort to inject excitement into the Alexander Hamilton story, has taken on an even greater challenge this time.
In reading this, it seems to me that Chernow is really trying rescue Washington’s “Great Man” image and to show that he was the greatest of the Founding Fathers, that his ascendency was no dumb-luck or accidental rise, and that he is worthy of America’s undying love and respect. Given how new(er) treatments of some of the Founders has shown them to be a divided, bickering group of school girls (see anything discussing Jefferson v. Adams, Jefferson v. Washington, Jefferson v. Hamilton, etc.) as well as books that have shown the Founders as less than perfect (see The Hemingses of Monticello, for example), Chernow seems to want to avoid casting questions over Washington’s legacy. That isn’t, though, to say that he doesn’t point out areas of weakness or vulnerability for the American Cincinnatus. Still, when it comes right down to it, this is a Great Man history, no doubt about it.
My own view of Washington has been, I’ll admit, impacted by Chernow’s biography. I had a solid working knowledge of Washington despite having never read a biography of him. The thing that stuck with me, though, was just how fine a line Washington walked between being a republican (notice the small ‘r’, please) and an aristocratic near monarchist. Washington is seen frequently as worried over keeping up appearances that John Adams or Thomas Jefferson would not have been concerned about. I also think, though this is not an area that I am particularly well versed in, that Chernow tries awfully hard to continually remind his readers that Washington was not Hamilton’s dupe. Jeffersonians at that time, and some historians ever since, have portrayed Washington, especially during his presidency, as always having one ear attached to the whisperings of Alexander Hamilton. Chernow’s common refrain disputing this would suggest, to me anyway, that perhaps there is something to this claim. If Washington’s independence from Hamilton is self-evident, as Chernow claims, why should he have to point it out again and again?
At any rate, the book is long, tedious at times, and sometimes a bit dry. I thought we’d never reach the end of the American Revolution or see a conclusion to Mary Washington’s, George’s mother, squalling about how abusive her son was towards her. Still, it is worth the read. It certainly gives a fuller picture (though honestly, considering his collected papers now encompass 60 volumes and counting, how full can anyone really be?) of Washington than probably any other widely read biography to date. It also shows Martha Washington, I think perhaps even more than George, as being a true pillar of republican ideology.