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Thread: On American Morals by G.K. Chesterton

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    Post On American Morals by G.K. Chesterton

    On American Morals

    by G.K. Chesterton




    America is sometimes offered to us, even by Americans
    (who ought to know better), as a moral example. There are indeed
    very real American virtues; but this virtuous attitude is hardly
    one of them. And if anyone wants to know what a welter of
    weakness and inconsequence the moral mind of America can
    sometimes be, he may be advised to look, not so much to the
    Crime Wage or the Charleston, as to the serious idealistic
    essays by highbrows and cultural critics, such as one by Miss
    Avis D. Carlson on `Wanted: A Substitute for Righteousness.'
    By righteousness she means, of course, the narrow New England
    taboos; but she does not know it. For the inference she draws
    is that we should recognize frankly that `the standard abstract
    right and wrong is moribund.' This statement will seem less insane
    if we consider, somewhat curiously, what the standard
    abstract right and wrong seems to mean -- at least in her section
    of the States. It is a glimpse of an incredible world.

    She takes the case of a young man brought up `in a home where
    there was an attempt to make dogmatic cleavage of right and
    wrong.' And what was the dogmatic cleavage? Ah, what indeed!
    His elders told him that some things were right and some
    wrong; and for some time he accepted this strange assertion.
    But when he leaves home he finds that, `apparently perfectly nice
    people do the things he has been taught to think evil.' Then
    follows a revelation. `The flowerlike girl he envelops in a mist of
    romantic idealization smokes like an imp from the lower regions
    and pets like a movie vamp. The chum his heart yearns
    towards cultivates a hip-flask, etc.' And this is what the
    writer calls a dogmatic cleavage between right and wrong!

    The standard of abstract right and wrong apparently is this.
    That a girl by smoking a cigarette makes herself one of the
    company of the fiends of hell. That such an action is much the
    same as that of a sexual vampire. That a young man who
    continues to drink fermented liquor must necessarily be `evil'
    and must deny the very existence of any difference between right
    and wrong. That is the `standard of abstract right and wrong'
    that is apparently taught in the American home. And it is perfectly
    obvious, on the face of it, that it is not a standard of abstract
    right or wrong at all. That is exactly what it is not. That is the
    very last thing any clear-headed person would call it. It is not a
    standard; it is not abstract; it has not the vaguest notion of what
    is meant by right and wrong. It is a chaos of social and sentimental
    accidents and associations, some of them snobbish, all of them
    provincial, but, above all, nearly all of them concrete and connected
    with a materialistic prejudice against particular materials.
    To have a horror of tobacco is not to have an abstract standard
    of right; but exactly the opposite. It is to have no
    standard of right whatever; and to make certain local likes and
    dislikes as a substitute. We need not be very surprised if the
    young man repudiates these meaningless vetoes as soon as he can;
    but if he thinks he is repudiating morality, he must be almost
    as muddle-headed as his father. And yet the writer in question
    calmly proposes that we should abolish all ideas of right and
    wrong, and abandon the whole human conception of a standard of
    abstract justice, because a boy in Boston cannot be induced to
    think that a nice girl is a devil when she smokes a cigarette.

    If the rising generation were faced with no worse doubts and
    difficulties than this, it would not be very difficult to reconcile
    them to the traditions of truth and justice. But I think the
    episode is worth mentioning, merely because it throws a ray of
    light on the moral condition of American Culture, in the decay of
    Puritanism. And when next we are told that the idealism of America
    is to set a `standard' by which England must transform herself, it
    will be well to remember what is apparently meant by a standard
    and an ideal; and that the fire of idealism seems both to begin
    and end in smoke.

    Incidentally, I must say I can bear witness to this queer taboo about
    tobacco. Of course numberless Americans smoke numberless cigars; a
    great many others eat cigars, which seems to me a more occult pleasure.
    But there does exist an extraordinary idea that ethics are involved
    in some way; and many who smoke really disapprove of smoking. I
    remember once receiving two American interviewers on the same
    afternoon; there was a box of cigars in front of me and I offered
    one to each in turn. Their reaction (as they would probably call it)
    was very curious to watch. The first journalist stiffened suddenly
    and silently and declined in a very cold voice. He could not have
    conveyed more plainly that I had attempted to corrupt an honorable
    man with a foul and infamous indulgence; as if I were the Old Man
    of the Mountain offering him hashish that would turn him into an
    assassin. The second reaction was even more remarkable. The second
    journalist first looked doubtful; then looked sly; then seemed to
    glance about him nervously, as if wondering whether we were alone,
    and then said with a sort of crestfallen and covert smile:
    `Well, Mr. Chesterton, I'm afraid I have the habit.'

    As I also have the habit, and have never been able to imagine how
    it could be connected with morality or immorality, I confess
    that I plunged with him deeply into an immoral life. In the course
    of our conversation, I found he was otherwise perfectly sane.
    He was quite intelligent about economics or architecture; but his
    moral sense seemed to have entirely disappeared. He really
    thought it rather wicked to smoke. He had no `standard of abstract
    right or wrong'; in him it was not merely moribund; it was
    apparently dead. But anyhow, that is the point and that is the test.
    Nobody who has an abstract standard of right and wrong
    can possibly think it wrong to smoke a cigar. But he had a concrete
    standard of particular cut and dried customs of a particular
    tribe. Those who say Americans are largely descended from the American Indians might certainly make a case out of the
    suggestion that this mystical horror of material things is largely
    a barbaric sentiment. The Red Indian is said to have tried and
    condemned a tomahawk for committing a murder. In this case he was
    certainly the prototype of the white man who curses a
    bottle because too much of it goes into a man. Prohibition is
    sometimes praised for its simplicity; on these lines it may be
    equally condemned for its savagery. But I myself do not say anything
    so absurd as that Americans are savages; nor do I think it
    would matter much if they were descended from savages. It is culture
    that counts and not ethnology; and the culture that is
    concerned here derives indirectly rather from New England than from
    Old America. Whatever it derives from, however, this is
    the thing to be noted about it: that it really does not seem to
    understand what is meant by a standard of right and wrong. It is a
    vague sentimental notion that certain habits were not suitable to
    the old log cabin or the old hometown. It has a vague utilitarian
    notion that certain habits are not directly useful in the new
    amalgamated stores or the new financial gambling-hell. If his aged
    mother or his economic master dislikes to see a young man hanging
    about with a pipe in his mouth, the action becomes a sin;
    or the nearest that such a moral philosophy can come to the idea of
    a sin. A man does not chop wood for the log hut by smoking; and a
    man does not make dividends for the Big Boss by smoking; and
    therefore smoking has a smell as of something sinful. Of what
    the great theologians and moral philosophers have meant by a sin,
    these people have no more idea than a child drinking milk has of a
    great toxicologist analyzing poisons. It may be a credit of their
    virtue to be thus vague about vice. The man who is silly enough to
    say, when offered a cigarette, `I have no vices,' may not always
    deserve the rapier-thrust of the reply given by the Italian
    Cardinal, `It is not a vice, or doubtless you would have it.' But
    at least the Cardinal knows it is not a vice; which assists the
    clarity of his mind. But the lack of clear standards among those
    who vaguely think of it as a vice may yet be the beginning of
    much peril and oppression. My two American journalists, between
    them, may yet succeed in adding the sinfulness of cigars to the
    other curious things now part of the American Constitution.

    I would therefore venture to say to Miss Avis Carlson that the
    quarrel in question does not arise from the Yankee Puritans
    having too much morality, but from their having too little. It
    does not arise from their drawing too hard and fast a line of
    distinction between right and wrong, but from their being much
    to loose and indistinct. They go by associations and not by
    abstractions. Therefore they classify smoking with vamping or
    a flask in the pocket with sin in the soul. I hope at least that
    some of the Fundamentalists will succeed in being a little
    more fundamental than this. The men of Tennessee are supposed to
    be very anxious to draw the line between men and monkeys.
    They are also supposed by some to be rather too anxious to
    draw the line between black men and white men. May I be
    allowed to hope that they will succeed in drawing a rather more
    logical line between bad men and good men? Something of
    the the difference and the difficulty may be seen by comparing the
    old Ku Klux Klan with the new Klu Klux Klan. The old
    secret society may have been justified or not; but it had a definite
    object: it was directed against somebody. The new secret
    society seems to have been directed against anybody; often against
    anybody who drank; in time, for all I know, against
    anybody who smoked. It is this sort of formless fanaticism that
    is the great danger of the American Temperament; and it is well
    to insist that if men must persecute, they will be more
    clear-headed if they persecute for a creed.

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    Post Re: On American Morals by G.K. Chesterton

    I enjoy rambling treatises. Seriously, what is the point for posting such random text?

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    Post Re: On American Morals by G.K. Chesterton

    Quote Originally Posted by Jacobite
    I enjoy rambling treatises. Seriously, what is the point for posting such random text?
    Aha, I forgot that Christians have something called the Gospel(or is it gossiping?) which communicates such things.

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    Post Re: On American Morals by G.K. Chesterton

    Quote Originally Posted by Jacobite
    Aha, I forgot that Christians have something called the Gospel(or is it gossiping?) which communicates such things.
    Eh? Doesn't your profile say "Religion : Episcopalian" or have I misunderstood?

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    Post Re: On American Morals by G.K. Chesterton

    I have a secular affinity to the religion. What it provides to society is alright. I am not a believer in anything higher than what we can discern through secular eyes. My comment was to observe the vast amount of legacy left by strictly Christian times in which such behaviour was commonplace. It is also a memory of my time at Church when I had actually gone.
    Last edited by Rodskarl Dubhgall; Wednesday, September 8th, 2004 at 10:14 AM.

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    Post Re: On American Morals by G.K. Chesterton

    Quote Originally Posted by Jacobite
    I have a secular affinity to the religion. What it provides to society is alright. I am not a believer in anything higher than what we can discern through secular eyes. My comment was to observe the vast amount of legacy left by strictly Christian times in which such behaviour was commonplace. It is also a memory of my time at Church when I had actually gone.
    Ah, so you are a kind of outwardly Pseudo-Episcopalian.
    Do you believe it is something beneficial to society even if you do not believe it's core tenets?

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    Post Re: On American Morals by G.K. Chesterton

    Quote Originally Posted by Milesian
    Ah, so you are a kind of outwardly Pseudo-Episcopalian.
    Do you believe it is something beneficial to society even if you do not believe it's core tenets?
    Yes, because I have more objective understanding of its potentials for the good of England and her people, on a basic level. I am not one for the observation to laud the imagery of Medish things such as the characters in the Bible, yet I do generally admire the works of art by those in Nordish areas. I prefer the higher esteem to Nordish saints and the social work undertaken by them often to help advance filling the needs of the peasantry. Without the Church, we would not have social services and hospitals today.

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    Post Re: On American Morals by G.K. Chesterton

    Thanks for explaining, those are fair comments
    Those "Nordic" Saints can't really be seperated from the rest of the "Medish" parts of the religion as they are part and parcel of the same thing.
    But from an athiestic point of view I can see where you are coming from.
    My own father has a similar outlook, athiestic but insightful enough to understand that our society only suffers from the destruction of Christianity and Christian morality.

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    Post Re: On American Morals by G.K. Chesterton

    Quote Originally Posted by Milesian
    Thanks for explaining, those are fair comments
    Those "Nordic" Saints can't really be seperated from the rest of the "Medish" parts of the religion as they are part and parcel of the same thing.
    But from an athiestic point of view I can see where you are coming from.
    My own father has a similar outlook, athiestic but insightful enough to understand that our society only suffers from the destruction of Christianity and Christian morality.
    Well, the more heathenistic relation to the Northern saints is more of a pleasant feeling than perpetual observation of the Apostles, etc. Yes, I have long been atheist, yet I have come to appreciate the secular achievements of Christianity. I will defend the faith in such a way as to allow it's good to flourish. Of course, there are always rabble to deal with. This is the case with any organisation, secular or religious. I just got done telling my father last night that I forgave him for bringing me to Church and that I do appreciate it on this day. I was raised Methodist, yet I felt it was too distant from Anglican, so I am sure to appreciate Episcopal here in America for our English character.

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