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Travel-Writing, Chestertonian Style

I’ve never been much for travel reading–nonfiction travel reading, that is. (The travels of fictional characters are another matter.) Even this year, when I read two travel memoirs, my motives weren’t exactly pure. Winter Notes on Summer Impressions was written by Fyodor Dostoevsky. What I Saw in America was written by G.K. Chesterton. Yes. Clearly I read these books because of their intrinsic excellence and not because they are by two of my favorite authors.

Accurate travel writing is apparently difficult. Chesterton’s book was good overall, but little governmental tidbits that an Englishman wouldn’t know weakened some of his points. (For instance, in his treatment of the Civil War, he neglects to deal with the legal aspects of secession–which both sides would probably agree are more important than whether the South was a second Ireland.) Dostoevsky’s book told far more about his mindset than it did about the countries he visited. Chesterton could be accused of the same crime, but as his mindset was much more positive (as usual), he remained mostly accurate.

Dostoevsky: Catholics do lots of manipulative missionary work. Anglicans are pompous and won’t do anything at all. Englishmen are stuck up, in general: the French are irrational hypocrites. (Basically, if it’s not Russian, it stinks.)

On the bright side, some critics think that Winter Notes eventually morphed into Notes from Underground–another of Dostoevsky’s very happy books. (Actually, I thought the first half was darkly funny, but I have since been condemned for heartlessness. At any rate, Notes does not end very happily.)

Chesterton was much more generous. Americans don’t mean to be annoying; it’s just that their national spirit is on a permanent high. The English, apparently, have mood swings, and woe betide the American who shows up during one. Also, saying “It’s up to you” brands you as an American right away–or, at least, it did back in 1922. As does exaggerating.

One of the things I found most interesting was Chesterton’s attitude toward the presidency. This was Warren G. Harding’s era, in which the best thing about the president was his middle name. (Gamaliel, in case you’re wondering.) Yet Chesterton considered the American president to have the power of a medieval monarch. Medieval monarchs might have their powers somewhat curtailed, but nowhere near as curtailed as the power of the “king” of England in 1922–let alone today. Chesterton seemed to have little concern about the “imperial” behavior of the president. Most Americans would have an entirely different reaction to that sort of charge.

The real reason to read this book? Chesterton’s writing is punctuated with his characteristic flashes of  insight. “Generally speaking,” he wrote, “men are never so mean and false and hypocritical as when they are occupied in being impartial. They are performing the first and most typical of all the actions of the devil; they are claiming the throne of God.”

This, before the postmodernists deconstructed supposed modernist objectivity. Take that, Jaques Derrida. Chesterton wins.

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Posted by on July 31, 2014 in Nonfiction

 

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God of Brook and Brush

My high school experiences with nature poetry were less than ideal. After being subjected to William Wordsworth’s more didactic poetry, I concluded that Wordsworth was dry and boring. (My other reading didn’t help matters. Chesterton’s analysis of how the old poets sang of the “gods of the brook and brush” rather than the brook and brush themselves left me considerably biased against the romantics.)

My freshman year of college, I expounded those opinions to my English professor, who quickly told me that the romantic naturalists were anything but boring. Still, it took several more years for Wordsworth and I to heal our quarrel. Even the healing was an accident; I was bored and picked up my mother’s old Norton Anthology. I found some of Wordsworth’s better poetry and changed my mind. Even so, Wordsworth is not my favorite nature poet. That role goes to Gerard Manly Hopkins. Hopkins’ poetry is, admittedly, more difficult to decipher than Wordsworth’s, and it reminds me more of T.S. Eliot than of any 19th-century romantic. Hopkins comes across as a very modern poet. Yet Hopkins reminds me more of the old poets Chesterton spoke of–though, not being a pagan, he sings of the God of brook and brush. From his poem “God’s Grandeur”:

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs–
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

 

Hopkins’ poem “The Starlit Night” contains what is currently my favorite description of the natural world.

Look at the stars! look, look up at the skies!
O look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air!
The bright boroughs, the circle-citadels there!
Down in dim woods the diamond delves! the elves’-eyes!
The grey lawns cold where gold, where quickgold lies!

I realize that my Tolkien obsession is showing, but “fire-folk” and “elves’ eyes” are phrases too wonderful not to love. Hopkins brings to my attention something that was pointed out yet again to me in Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes. In the modern West, we have a temptation to ignore anything with a scientific explanation. Know how colds can be cured? Don’t pray about them. Know all the scientific “laws”? Forget that things didn’t have to work that way. Understand that a star is a flaming ball of gas? Tell yourself that every time you’re tempted to wonder at the night sky.

Or you could remember that science only explains what exists. It does not, however, infuse those things with meaning. People do that, and poets like Hopkins do it especially well.

 
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Posted by on February 7, 2014 in poetry

 

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Looking Backward (at Socialism)

Some years after Edward Bellamy published his utopian socialist novel, Looking Backward, G. K. Chesterton made a comment that might summarize that book. “A good novel,” Chesterton argued, “tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author.” I have read no other utopian novels and have no idea how Looking Backward compares in terms of literary merit. That being said, the only reason I can think of to read the novel is to understand the mind of Edward Bellamy—and, more than that, of his age.

Edward Bellamy was a 19th century Christian Socialist. He and his book have been mostly forgotten, although his cousin Francis Bellamy has been better remembered (sort of).  Francis wrote the Pledge of Allegiance. What people don’t remember about Francis was that he, like Edward, was a Christian Socialist. Once a Baptist minister, Francis was defrocked for preaching socialism from the pulpit. That detail didn’t keep Francis’s Pledge of Allegiance from becoming popular, however, which goes to show just how mainstream socialism (then indistinguishable from communism) was becoming. We often think of socialism in relation to 20th century totalitarian governments, but its roots go far deeper into the American past.

Some of Bellamy’s ideas come off as decidedly grim to modern readers. One of the characters in Looking Backward remarks, “The demand for ‘panem et circenses’ preferred by the Roman populace is recognized nowadays as a wholly reasonable one. If bread is the first necessity of life, recreation is a close second, and the nation caters for both.” Hunger Games readers, please stand up.

Bellamy’s all-powerful “nation” was mere speculation in the 1870s. Since that time, we have seen totalitarian states rise and fall, while other governments borrow aspects of socialism and find that it creates as many problems as it solves. Typically, Bellamy believed that the evil side of man’s nature was a product of his circumstances:

Soon [it] was fully revealed…that human nature in its essential qualities is good, not bad…[that humans are] images of God indeed, not the travesties upon Him they had seemed. The constant pressure, through numberless generations, of conditions of life which might have perverted angels, had not been able to essentially alter the natural nobility of the stock, and these conditions once removed, like a bent tree, it had sprung back to its normal uprightness.

Human history is ugly, asserts Bellamy—and so far we agree with him. But he argues that improved living conditions will fix humanity’s problems. A character casually observes, “All this merely shows, my dear fellow, how much easier it is to do things the right way than the wrong.” Christianity—of the sort that doesn’t preach socialism from the pulpit—holds to the opposite position. If recent history shows us nothing else, it is much easier to do things the wrong way than the right.

Bellamy also suggests the belief in eternal progress common to progressives both of his era and our own. The one sermon in Looking Backward consists mostly of self-congratulation on how much more enlightened the utopians were compared to their ancestors:  “The betterment of mankind from generation to generation, physically, mentally, morally, is recognized as the one great object supremely worthy of effort and of sacrifice. We believe the race for the first time to have entered on the realization of God’s ideal of it, and each generation must now be a step upward.”

Upward to what? demanded Chesterton. Heaven, suggests Bellamy. He doesn’t argue that humans can create heaven, but he seems to believe that they can create a prelude to it. Bellamy’s society is nominally Christian, but it is not mass religious conversion that so drastically improves it. Rather, efficient economic systems and a benevolent government are the source of the solution. Interestingly, in Bellamy’s utopian world, the huge companies of the 19th century paved the way for the omnipotent government of the 20th. I’ve heard arguments that big business and big government go hand in hand; but I didn’t expect them to be accidentally corroborated by a 19th century socialist.

Although incredibly popular in its own time, Looking Backward won’t win any prizes for plot or characterization. Still, it offers an intimate look at the innocence that once characterized socialism. Edward Bellamy thought it was high time to build a society around men’s better impulses, rather than their worse ones. With a few safeguards in place, the perfect society could be achieved. Now—for good or ill—we know better.

 
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Posted by on December 16, 2013 in Science Fiction

 

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When Depressing Stories Aren’t

A folk musician once remarked that no celebration of British traditional music is complete without a song of tragedy in which everybody dies. If you suffered through “Sir Patrick Spens” (or, worse, “The Twa Corbies”) during your high school days, then you know exactly what I mean. G. K. Chesterton once remarked that there were only two kinds of ballads: “sad ballads about broken hearts and cheerful ballads about broken heads.” He was basically right.

I have a reputation, at least within my family, of listening to depressing music. It’s rather odd, since I don’t consider myself a particularly angsty person. I test as an INTJ on the Myers-Briggs indicator and have been accused (falsely) of lacking emotions altogether. But most of my favorite folk songs are the sad ones. Why is it that some people, myself included, feel almost uplifted by music that should be depressing.

Aristotle’s theory of catharsis might be a partial explanation. In Poetics, he argued that tragedies were beneficial because they produced a cleansing effect in those who watched them. To put it another way, sad songs or stories or dramas allow us to get in touch with emotions that we cannot safely express much of the time. We don’t have to be genuinely angsty to experience those emotions, because we feel them in direct relation to what we are listening to, reading, or watching. No need to start dressing like a goth and writing poems about your death. You feel the emotions—then comes the climax—the problems resolve—and you relax.

Aristotle’s theory of catharsis isn’t the greatest justification for the existence of tragedy, as C. S. Lewis pointed out. But it does explain why some of us listen to depressing things and don’t end up depressed. Still, it’s more an effect than a cause. (Who goes to a bookshelf saying, “I feel like having some catharsis today”?)

TheHappyPrinceOscar Wilde, I suspect, had less interest in catharsis than in beauty. Most of his fairy stories end with at least one death. Probably his most famous fairy story is “The Selfish Giant,” which has been made into a children’s book. Yes, Wilde meant his stories, sad endings and all, for children. His sons, specifically, when Wilde grew tired of playing with them. But Wilde put his own hunger for beauty into the stories to the extent that he once cried when telling “The Selfish Giant” to his sons Cyril and Vyvyan. When Cyril wanted to know why, his father said that truly beautiful things always made him cry.

Sometimes Wilde’s love of beauty can carry him away—in his collection The Happy Prince and Other Stories, the descriptions are always beautiful but sometimes become too long. Generally speaking, I think that adults will probably get more out of Wilde’s fairy stories than many children will, although my ten-year-old brother enjoyed having the book read to him.

Happy_princeMy favorite of the stories is probably the one for which the volume was titled. “The Happy Prince” is such a good story that any single theme I might assign it falls short. Self-sacrifice? Loss of innocence? The need for compassion? The Happy Prince was once a great noble who lived a life without sorrow. But after his death, his spirit resides in a golden statue made to resemble him, from which he sees all the sorrows of the city he once ruled. He begs a swallow who is traveling south to begin removing some of the gems and precious metals from his statue of a body in order to alleviate some of the suffering. The swallow complies, and many of the townsfolk find relief from their poverty. But in the mean time the Happy Prince is rendered blind and ugly, and the swallow dies from the approaching winter. The Mayor orders the stripped statue to be melted down and has the swallow thrown into a dust heap. The heart of the Happy Prince, which broke when the bird died, will not melt, so the Mayor has it, too, thrown away. The story ends with these two paragraphs:

“Bring me the two most precious things in the city,” said God to one of His Angels; and the Angel brought Him the leaden heart and the dead bird.

“You have rightly chosen,” said God, “for in my garden of Paradise this little bird shall sing for evermore, and in my city of gold the Happy Prince shall praise me.”

The wonderful thing about fairy stories is that they might be tragic, but only on rare occasions are they tragedies. The Happy Prince chooses sorrow and finds joy. And maybe that’s the point of a lot of fairy stories. They’re about finding wholeness in brokenness—the moment when the young Fisherman’s lost soul reenters his shattered heart.

Whatever might be said about depressing art in general, I think there’s a good deal to be said for art that, in the same stroke, can help us understand both sadness and joy.

 
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Posted by on November 1, 2013 in Children's Literature

 

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When Book Trails Lead to Chesterton

Book trails can be interesting. Toward the end of the summer, I semi-innocently read the His Dark Materials series—to see what all the fuss had been about. Well, I found out what the fuss had been about. The series drove me nuts. But it also made me curious about Philip Pullman’s background. So I did a little research.

Gilbert_ChestertonWhich led me to more Pullman. Which led me to William Blake. Which led me to G.K. Chesterton. Whom Pullman doesn’t like.

I had read some of Blake’s poetry before, mostly some of his Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. His Marriage of Heaven and Hell was a pretty different experience. That is where Blake makes the claim that John Milton turned the Devil into the hero of Paradise Lost. I’m still not sure how seriously to take that claim, since Blake wrote his work as a satire of the Swedenborgians—one of those slightly odd nineteenth-century sects that have been mostly forgotten, and for good reason.

So, at a friend’s suggestion, I turned to Chesterton for enlightenment. Chesterton’s biography of Blake doesn’t put any intense focus on Blake’s literary works, but it does offer a critique of his personality and thought. As a poet himself, Chesterton greatly admired Blake while strongly opposing some of his beliefs.

Chesterton’s biographies are not biographies in the traditional sense. (Chesterton—traditionalist though he was—did very little in the “traditional sense.”) The biography is less about the events Blake’s life than it is about an effort to understand him. But understanding him was what I wanted to do anyway.

Chesterton left me with a lot of thoughts about William Blake. But—in typical Chestertonian fashion—he left me with more thoughts about life. About education, even.

“People say that specialists are inhuman,” wrote Chesterton, “but that is unjust…. The trouble with the expert is never that he is not a man; it is always that wherever he is not an expert he is too much of an ordinary man.” Supporters of a liberal arts education, please stand up.

You know the stereotypes…the university professor who knows everything to know about his subject but doesn’t care two bits for his students. The medical student whose rudeness grows in proportion to his knowledge. The increasingly ruthless businessman. Chesterton says that the stereotypes are all bunk. The real problem isn’t intelligent people who turn into machines. The problem is intelligent people whose learning makes them so narrow that they can’t function outside of their specialty.

A professor of mine sometimes told a story about a stellar English student in Britain. She went to Oxford, if I recall correctly, and a group of visiting American students invited her to a meal because they had heard about her and thought she would be interesting to talk to.

She wasn’t. And not because she was rude or socially awkward. She simply didn’t know how to participate in the conversation. The Americans might not have her raw intelligence, but they had enough general knowledge to talk about a wide range of subjects. She could talk intelligently about English and very little else. So she sat through the evening in near-silence, the product of an overly specialized education.

“Wherever [the specialist] is not exceptionally learned,” Chesterton argues, “he is quite casually ignorant.” Chesterton mainly applied his contention to scientists, but, as my professor’s story shows, the problem is not confined to scientists. And I’m fairly sure it isn’t only confined to Europe. American support for the liberal arts is waning. We would do well to listen to Chesterton’s warnings:

In short, the danger of the mere technical artist or expert is that of becoming a snob or average silly man in all things not affecting his peculiar topic of study; wherever he is not an extraordinary man he is a particularly stupid ordinary man. The very fact that he has studied machine guns to fight the French proves that he has not studied the French. Therefore he will probably say that they eat frogs. The very fact that he has learnt to paint the light on medieval armour proves that he has not studied the medieval philosophy. Therefore he will probably suppose that medieval barons did nothing but order vassals into the dungeons beneath the castle moat….People talk about something pedantic in the knowledge of the expert; but what ruins mankind is the ignorance of the expert.

 
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Posted by on October 22, 2013 in Nonfiction, poetry

 

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Ted Dekker: Rejecting Religion?

Some months ago I read a Goodreads interview with author Ted Dekker. It answered some questions left in my mind after reading other interviews (such as, how can you write about some of the things you do without suffering spiritual damage). It also repeated something that Dekker has alluded to in other interviews I have read—namely, his distaste for conventional Christianity. He told Goodreads that he is surprised people classify him as a Christian author, since much of what he writes is “against religion.”

In one sense, Dekker reminds me of a typical youngish postmodernist who prefers spirituality to “religion,” except that Dekker is more specific about what constitutes genuine “spirituality.” (His definition: searching for the true God, not simply feeling emotional about spiritual issues.) In another sense, he is a typical exponent of the “not a religion, a relationship” mantra—albeit that he takes that idea farther than most evangelicals.

Individualism is not an entirely bad thing. In The Everlasting Man, G. K. Chesterton traces increased emphasis on the individual back to the first Christmas, when Christ was born as an outcast. “There is in that alone the touch of a revolution, as of the world turned upside down…. Individuals became important, in a sense in which no instruments can be important. A man could not be a means to an end, at any rate to any other man’s end.” Christianity certainly upholds the importance of the individual.

But the individualism of Christianity is quite different from the individualism (sometimes better termed “self-centeredness,” and in fact quite destructive of the older individualism) that now permeates American culture.  While Dekker’s books (I’ve read something like eleven) do not espouse that sort of individualism, his conception of religion is extremely individualistic—in the American sense of the word. The individualism isn’t so much a matter of the individual being free to choose between Christian religious traditions as that of being free to follow Christ while simultaneously ignoring all Christian religious traditions.

But what if religion is the problem? We have all known Christians who were self-absorbed, or lied often, or spread gossip, or wielded their faith (which they misunderstood) like a sword. Is breaking free from them the solution?

In one sense, Dekker is quite right—Christ did not come to earth to found a religion. At least, the word appears nowhere in the New Testament. What Christ did found set Christianity apart from every other system of belief. Christ founded a church—the Church. And the Church’s existence marks Christianity as distinct from other belief systems. It may be called a religion for the sake of convenience, but, more fundamentally, it is a Church. No other belief system of my acquaintance so emphasizes unity for its own sake. We are Christ’s body—“organs of one another.” We are Christ’s building, “fitly framed together.” We are His bride. I do not believe that Dekker would necessarily deny any of the Biblical doctrines about the Church. But I believe he undervalues them.

Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor was the one who really brought my attention to exactly what it means for the Church to be Christ’s Body. The Church was not exactly a comfortable place for her, since she was, as she said, “peculiarly possessed of the modern consciousness.” (I sympathize, although I suffer more from “pre-modern consciousness.”) O’Connor at any rate did not dump “religion” in favor of an isolated spirituality.  She wrote to a friend, “I think that the Church is the only thing that is going to make the terrible world we are coming to endurable; the only thing that makes the Church endurable is that it is somehow the body of Christ and that on this we are fed.”

In a country where self-centeredness runs rampant, disguised as individualism or success, we cannot afford to sidestep the Church in our desire to be authentically Christian. According to the New Testament, it is impossible to find the authenticity we seek without the Church. As C. S. Lewis wrote in his essay “Membership”:

The Christian is not called to individualism but to membership in the mystical body….. We are all constantly teaching and learning, forgiving and being forgiven, representing Christ to man when we intercede, and man to Christ when others intercede for us. The sacrifice of selfish privacy which is daily demanded of us is daily repaid a hundredfold in the true growth of personality which the life of the Body encourages. Those who are members of one another become as diverse as the hand and the ear. That is why the worldlings are so monotonously alike compared with the almost fantastic variety of the saints. Obedience is the road to freedom, humility the road to pleasure, unity the road to personality.

That isn’t to say that if your local church situation is toxic, that you should stay—although leaving, even when necessary, should be a matter for serious prayer. You aren’t switching hairdressers, after all. And the Church isn’t a beauty parlor. It’s more like a building under construction. Sometimes the insulation sticks out, and the loose electrical wires can be dangerous. But the builder tells us that it will be finished some day. And I’ve heard a rumor that it may become a temple.

 
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Posted by on September 16, 2013 in Young Adult Fiction

 

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Relativism and 1984

The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command. His heart sank as he thought of the enormous power arrayed against him, the ease with which any Party intellectual would overthrow him in debate, the subtle arguments which he would not be able to understand, much less answer. And yet he was in the right! They were wrong and he was right. The obvious, the silly, and the true had got to be defended. Truisms are true, hold on to that! The solid world exists, its laws do not change. Stones are hard, water is wet, objects unsupported fall toward the earth’s center. With the feeling that he was speaking to O’Brien, and also that he was setting forth an important axiom, he wrote: Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.

I recently finished George Orwell’s 1984, and, having read Brave New World earlier this year, couldn’t help comparing them. Orwell shows a government who manages to preserve absolute rule by torturing its enemies until they come to “love” it. Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World, seems to suggest the opposite—that the “brave new world” will last because it is so convenient. Orwell’s book is more of a reflection on the Soviet Union; Huxley’s, on the capitalistic West.

But one element of 1984 seemed strangely pertinent. The difference between the views of Big Brother and those of protagonist Winston Smith, before his torture at least, is this—to Big Brother, truth is whatever is convenient. Winston believes that truth does not change, that history is fact, that falsely claiming his country has always been at war with another is wrong.

George Orwell's press photo.

George Orwell’s press photo.

George Orwell, though he never left the Anglican Church, was in his personal life a religious skeptic. A socialist himself, he was frustrated that Russian socialists had so warped the democratic socialism he supported into totalitarianism. But, despite Orwell’s lack of belief in many parts of Christianity, he retained belief in many of the moral values taught by the church. In fact, 1984 might in one sense be viewed as an argument in favor of absolute truth. Of course, today’s relativists hold that position for reasons quite opposite to Big Brother’s. G. K. Chesterton attributed relativism to a sort of misguided humility.

Still, the coincidence is striking. And it begs the question—where is the line between well-intentioned relativism and self-serving relativism? And doesn’t the Party believe itself to be well-intentioned?

I remember a recent discussion on education in which relativism came up. “Students go to college without knowing basic math,” someone said. Another person mentioned seeing an education seminar in which the speaker said that if a student got a basic multiplication fact wrong, but could explain his reasoning, his answer should be treated as correct.

Should students be encouraged to reason? Of course. But reason is a means, not an end. Chesterton held that the hallmark of a lunatic is the inability to make decisions based on anything but reason. In other words, if you try arguing with a paranoiac, you’ll lose. You can say the rest of the world isn’t conspiring against him, but he’ll argue that of course you would say that, since you’re a part of the conspiracy. In other words, reason is important, but truth is vital.

Simply saying that everyone has is own truth is an attempt to respond to the unfortunate fact that people view truth differently. But to say that they are all right—to themselves—merely sidesteps the real question. Which of these views on truth ought society to be built on? They may all be “equal,” but if a devout Muslim wants his children to be taught in their public school that Allah created man from clots of blood, atheists are bound to object. Someone’s viewpoint is going to be the one to influence government, whatever nice sentiments relativists may have about the other views in the meantime.

Winston becomes a committed relativist after his torture. (Not a completely consistent one—everything must be according to Big Brother’s wishes—though there is no such thing as a consistent relativist, because a relativistic attitude toward relativism would be fatal.) In Orwell’s words:

He accepted everything. The past was alterable…. Anything could be true. The so-called laws of nature were nonsense. The law of gravity was nonsense. The fallacy was obvious. It presupposed that somewhere or other, outside oneself, there was a “real” world where “real” things happened. But how could there be such a world? What knowledge have we of anything, save through our own minds? All happenings are in the mind. Whatever happens in the mind, truly happens.

Or does it? Is the most important thing what we think inwardly, or what is real outside us? Are we really prepared to sentence ourselves to a moral solipsism?

 
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Posted by on August 20, 2013 in Science Fiction

 

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