Letter from the Editor Late Summer 2020: The Philosophy of Fairyland

In Orthodoxy G. K. Chesterton articulates the Christian worldview in a way that will sound odd to the modern ear.

Like later writers he influenced (such as C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien), Chesterton was steeped in the mythology and literature of the West. His wide reading in the old Western literature gave him a vantage point from which he could see all modern philosophies and religions for what they were: the broken and disconnected pieces of an abandoned Christendom.

From this vantage point, wisdom is not to be found in any of the pieces that have since presented themselves to us in the form of modern ideologies. Wisdom is to be found in the nursery:

My first and last philosophy, that which I believe in with unbroken certainty, I learnt in the nursery. I generally learnt it from a nurse; that is, from the solemn and star-appointed priestess at once of democracy and tradition. The things I believed most then, the things I believe most now, are the things called fairy tales.

What is it about fairy tales that warrants such an ostensibly outrageous statement from a great thinker? Do we not, with all of modern science, have a clearer picture of the nature of reality? Have we not solved the riddles of the cosmos and moved beyond our need for fairy tales?

Chesterton does not think so. In fact, he seems to think that we are more confused now about what he once called the “Roots of the World” than ever before. Far from being the outmoded dreams of an ignorant race, fairy tales are the product of a people who were closer to the primordial insight that we are now blind to thanks to our technology, which may facilitate our practical efficiency but which tends to separate us from the world as it really is.

What fairy tales evoke is something Chesterton called the “ancient instinct of astonishment.” We could describe it as an attitude toward existence, one that informs our thought and enriches our lives.

Many of the ideologies that populate and infect our education are based on the idea that nature is like a machine. Because of this, we view the workings of nature like those of a mechanism in which one event follows the other in deterministic necessity. We describe these workings by appealing to the “laws of nature,” which we think of as eternally fixed and immutable.

We think nature, in other words, can be fully explained by science in a way that renders any other explanation irrelevant and unnecessary.

Chesterton agreed that certain mathematical and metaphysical patterns were fixed and eternal:

For instance, if the Ugly Sisters are older than Cinderella, it is (in an iron and awful sense) NECESSARY that Cinderella is younger than the Ugly Sisters. There is no getting out of it…. If Jack is the son of a miller, a miller is the father of Jack. Cold reason decrees it from her awful throne: and we in fairyland submit.

But when it comes to the non-mathematical or non-logical things we witness daily, it is the scientist who becomes the sentimentalist:

He is a sentimentalist in this essential sense, that he is soaked and swept away by mere associations. He has so often seen birds fly and lay eggs that he feels as if there must be some dreamy, tender connection between the two ideas, whereas there is none. A forlorn lover might be unable to dissociate the moon from lost love; so the materialist is unable to dissociate the moon from the tide. In both cases there is no connection, except that one has seen them together.

A natural law does not explain these things, it only describes them—or, more to the point, explains them away. But, although Chesterton rejected the scientific account of these things, they weren’t, he thought, entirely without explanation:

All this I felt and the age gave me no encouragement to feel it. And all this time I had not even thought of Christian theology.

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