Sense and Nonsense: Extraordinary Enough To Be Exciting

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In his Autobiography, G.K. Chesterton, who as he tells us was in despair as a young man, decided finally that he had had enough of this pessimistic thought and had decided to revolt against it. He found very little help from the standard sources, he recalled:

But as I was still thinking the thing out by myself, with little help from philosophy and no real help from religion, I invented a rudimentary and makeshift mystical theory of my own. It was substantially this: that even mere existence, reduced to its most primary limits, was extraordinary enough to be exciting . Anything was magnificent as compared with nothing.

These are remarkable lines. We have not arrived at thought, I think, until we have wondered whether what exists, including ourselves, might not exist. Or, as Eric Voegelin put it in his Conversations, there are two fundamental questions that precede all others:

Why is there something rather than nothing? And, why this thing as it is and not that thing?

Years ago, when I happened to be in a summer school in France- -trying to square the circle, that is, pronounce French the way Frenchmen do — I ran into a young German student whom I rather liked. But he had a problem. He was quite annoyed over the fact that no one ever consulted him over the question of his own existence and birth. That is, he seemed to have wanted to decide, ahead of time, whether he ought to exist or not. While this position is utterly contradictory as a proposition, it is quite revealing as an attitude to reality. Thus, on this view, if we are not first consulted about whether we want to exist, we are then justified in not blaming ourselves if we turn out badly.

The truth is, however, we are first given existence, our own and that of everything else. Then we are asked, more or less, what we are going to do about it and ourselves within everything else. What we “do” about it, furthermore, reveals what we decide to do with ourselves, what we decide to make ourselves to be. We do not decide “who” we are, for we are given this, our status in reality as human beings, not toads or some sort of fir tree. We are seen by others in this light as beings who act. They will praise or blame us on the basis of what we do with the reality, including our own, given to us through no instrumentality of our own.

Certain advantages accrue to us from the fact that since we did not “make” or create ourselves, we can assume that others are in the same position. That is, the world is full of people who somehow find them-selves given existence through no reason whatsoever, apparently, other than the fact that there they are. This means, I think, that if there is a plot to the world, we may be in it, but we did not construct it. We do not know how things will turn out on the last page, though we are inevitably in the story somehow.

In a very good book, really an extended conversation with John Paul II (“Be Not Afraid,” Ignatius Press), the French journalist Andre Frossard remarked to the Holy Father, “even the most convinced Christians seem today to take from the Gospel only what can contribute to social change or to the expression of their individual freedom.” In his comments, John Paul II referred to a famous incident, during his visit to Paris. At a rally of some 90,000 students a young man asked the Pope about his own faith. “The young man in the Parc des Princes asked me [John Paul II recalled]: ‘Holy Father, in whom do you believe? Why do you believe? What is it that is worth the gift of our life and what manner of being is this God that you adore?'” I sometimes think that this Holy Father, who has probably talked to more young students than any other man in the history of mankind, is today the only public figure whom young people might have the courage to ask such questions with the expectation of getting an answer that conforms to reality. Most people, I think, have at some time read The Lord of the Rings. In some note he made on W.H. Auden’s review of his book, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote, “in The Lord of the Rings the conflict is not basically about ‘freedom,’ although that is naturally involved. It is about God, and His sole right to divine honor.” I have often wondered if there is any relationship between this remark of Tolkien and that of Chesterton about the excitement of existence as such. That is, what constitutes the source of this ever varied existence we experience but which we did not make ourselves? This is really the question the young man in Paris asked John Paul II. The real question is not about freedom or social change, but about the manner of being of God and or our relation to it. Tolkien understood this directly, and this constitutes the wonder of his tales.

In Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, there is a scene in which Fanny is taken into the chapel of the Rushworth Mansion, a disappointingly plain chapel, “a mere, spacious, oblong room fitted up for devotion.” Fanny reacted with some disappointment: “This is not my idea of a chapel. There is nothing awful here, nothing melancholy, nothing grand. Here are no aisles, no arches, no inscriptions, no banners. No banners, cousin, to be ‘blown by the night wind of Heaven.’ No sign that a ‘Scottish monarch sleeps below.'” Chesterton said that anything was magnificent compared with nothing.

This sanity of the race reacts to this magnificence, in ourselves, in our origins, as though we were aware that here something awful, something grand, is present. But we can do this only if we understand that though we do not have to be, we are. But if there is something which simply is, then, as Tolkien wrote in his tales, there is a source wherein we place our honor, in the manner of the being of God.


The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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