Home > General > The Daily Logos IX

The Daily Logos IX

“On the whole, I am rather less interested in what people do than in why they do it.  Of course, there are extremes which are exceptions.  I daresay that if somebody suddenly smashed my hat over my eyes, as I walked down the street, I might feel a momentary and confused resentment against the act and even the actor, in spite of the fact that he might have acted from either friendly or unfriendly motives.  He might be a proof-reader of The Illustrated London News, maddened by years of boredom in having to read through my articles, and resolved to be revenged at last.  But he might also be a social sympathizer who, knowing that a steel and concrete Temple of Progress, in the American manner, had been built in that street that morning, was resolved to spare me the shock of beholding it, and had with that object intervened, abruptly indeed, but with no little presence of mind.  Yet even here the principle holds, for it would be much more worth while to have a quiet talk afterwards with either of those two interesting lunatics than to continue in the mere bewildered irritation arising from the thing having happened at all.  Moreover, though the abstract attitude will be called unpractical, the motive does make all the difference to practicality, in the sense of probability.  The man who hits me because I am approaching a Temple of Progress will not hit me when I am not approaching a Temple of Progress.  And, normally speaking, I am happy to say, I am not.  But nothing will turn aside the pursuing vengeance of the proof-reader, who will hit me wherever and whenever he can—and quite right, too.

“In short, the principle is much more reasonable than it sounds; and any number of examples could be given of it.  I might be selfishly vexed to find I had been poisoned with prussic acid; and this apart from the mere detached detective interest of whether it was done by an enthusiastic Darwinian, sworn to kill every Anti-Darwinian, or merely be an enthusiastic Christian Scientist, sworn to prove that poisons do not kill.  But if I retained my logical faculty while writing in my last agonies, I should still contend that there was a difference between the fanatical poisoner and the faith-healer; and I should probably add (with my dying breath) that the faith-healer is much more the dangerous of the two.  For the Darwinian would only murder the small intelligent minority which has sufficient intellectual independence not to be frightened of the name of Darwin; whereas the healer might murder everybody, with every intention of healing everybody.  In short, the real reason of things is every bit as important as the things themselves; and that is what ought to be meant by being a rationalist.  Unfortunately, a man who is in this real sense a rationalist is generally denounced for being a mystic.”

-G.K. Chesterton, “On Fundamental Morality,” The Illustrated London News, December 1st, 1928

In a theme consistent throughout his writing, Chesterton once again points out that the practical man is really not so practical, if he is not in some sense unpractical.  Understanding why people do things, and even more so why someone ought to do something, gives shape and meaning to the things that are done.

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