‘Man Is a Featherless Biped’

This week I will take up the cudgels in defense of G. K. Chesterton, after reading Austin Bramwell’s acerbic article that dismissed my beloved bard as philosophically unserious and rhetorically annoying. I’m probably not the man to take up the task, since I’m way too attached. Twenty years ago, I teased Robert Spencer, who wages jihad on Bob Dylan’s behalf, about the singer’s nasal twang. In fact, I squawked out every verse of “The Times They Are a Changin'” as if I were singing through a kazoo; verklempt, Spencer dumped a glass of water over my head. So I’m tempted to do it to Bramwell, though I’d probably use what I’m sure is his beverage of choice: cider vinegar.

I’ve been tempted to do this before, when students to whom I assigned The Everlasting Man — which I read once a year through a blur of grateful tears — responded with a shrug and a roll of the eyes. Straining with every scrap of empathy I can muster, I try to understand this kind of person. I wonder if they think beer tastes like spoiled bread, find celibacy tempting because it’s tidier, and keep their family dogs in kennels (instead of the family bed) for reasons of hygiene. I’d be willing to bet that Chesterton-haters prefer low Mass because it is quicker (same graces in half the time!), drink Diet Coke for the taste, and have to be restrained by their pastors from fasting all through Easter.

Here I know that I’m making a serious accusation, blithely accusing those who do not share my taste for a single author of the vice of Insensibility. (The opposing sin to Gluttony, Insensibility is the culpable disdain for the fleshly goods God has given us. It’s between these two deadly poles that the virtue of Temperance shines as the golden mean.)

Yep, that’s what I’m saying. I can smile and differ genially with men who find Art Deco furniture silly, Baroque churches too busy, Mozart’s music too chipper. But there are limits to my sympathy. I am simply stunned into silence by those who can read, dry-eyed, the following passage summing up the Punic Wars — which pitted, Chesterton reminds us, the trivial gods of the Roman pantheon against the gods of Carthage, who demanded infant sacrifice:

And there fell on [Rome] the shadow from a shining and as yet invisible light and the burden of things to be. It is not for us to guess in what manner or moment the mercy of God might in any case have rescued the world; but it is certain that the struggle which established Christendom would have been very different if there had been an empire of Carthage instead of an empire of Rome. We have to thank the patience of the Punic wars if, in after ages, divine things descended at least upon human things and not inhuman . . . . Can any man in his senses compare the great wooden doll, whom the children expected to eat a little bit of the dinner, with the great idol who would have been expected to eat the children? That is the measure of how far the world went astray, compared with how far it might have gone astray. If the Romans were ruthless, it was in a true sense to an enemy, and certainly not merely a rival. They remembered not trade routes and regulations, but the faces of sneering men; and hated the hateful soul of Carthage. And we owe them something if we never needed to cut down the groves of Venus exactly as men cut down the groves of Baal. We owe it partly to their harshness that our thoughts of our human past are not wholly harsh. If the passage from heathenry to Christianity was a bridge as well as a breach we owe it to those who kept that heathenry human. If, after all these ages we are in some sense at peace with paganism, and can think more kindly of our fathers, it is well to remember the things that were, and the things that might have been. For this reason alone we can take lightly the load of antiquity and need not shudder at a nymph on a fountain or a cupid on a valentine.

It isn’t just the style here that wins me; it is Chesterton’s brash attempt to find in the dread events of secular, pagan history a golden thread of divine concern for us. God didn’t simply neglect and forget all my pagan forebears who dwelt outside the tiny patch of light cast by the Menorah. He was looking ahead to the Church He would someday erect on the ruins of the temples — and so He kept those temples unstained by infant blood. The Rome that would become after Constantine, and remain to this day, the earthly locus of heavenly truth, was already close to our Father’s heart, and He would not abandon it wholly to the demons.

Those of us who love the Faith in its incarnate form, Christendom, see the pre-history of the Church not just in Israel but also in Greece and Rome. We teach the works and ways of our forefathers in Reason as lovingly as we do those of our Jewish ancestors in Faith. Together, they form a picture of the embryonic Church that we treasure like the first ultrasound of one’s firstborn baby.


Here Chesterton is emulating, in his own small way, the work of St. Augustine in the City of God and presenting a sane alternative to the wild, secularizing syntheses of history constructed by Hegel and Marx. And here I am tempted to stop. G. K. has been aptly defended by Michael Brendan Dougherty (an underappreciated Catholic essayist) and Ross Douthat (whose columns in the New York Times are bites of elven bread in the midst of Mordor). Essentially, these writers pointed out that Chesterton wasn’t pretending to do formal, syllogistic reasoning of the sort that we read in Aristotle or Aquinas — or rather, that we skim when it is assigned, since normal men do not willingly slog through syllogisms, except when the latter are (a) on the syllabus and (b) on the exam.

The work that Chesterton and Lewis (and, in our day, Peter Kreeft and Patrick Madrid) engage in is certainly philosophical, in the sense that it seeks the truth. When it’s done right, it is informed by the extraordinarily precise, technical work of syllogistic systematizers long dead (some of them canonized). But such writers generally don’t begin with first philosophical principles (e.g., “Man is a rational animal,”) then build, by tiny, carefully argued steps, an unassailable edifice of dialectical reason. Is this a reason to criticize them?

Maybe, except . . . you know who else didn’t argue that way? Our Lord. Whenever I hear Catholics invoke in argument the rules of formal logic, I think about the Gospels — where Christ offered not a single syllogism. If one doesn’t accept His divinity, Jesus’ statements will seem riddled with logical fallacies — principally the argument from authority, His own! That fact alone should give us pause about taking too narrow a view of philosophical reason.

Instead, we should try to reclaim the tarnished good name of rhetoric — an essential element in articulating and making good use of philosophy. That word, rhetoric, which we’ve learned to associate with the empty posturings of politicians, refers to an art important enough that Aristotle wrote a manual on how to use it. While sophists can mislead men by arguing purely to their emotions, one can and must defend the truth (discerned by careful reasoning) through appeals to the whole man — body and soul, heart and mind. As Richard Weaver explained in his impassioned defenses of rhetoric, it is what makes truthful words incarnate; it gives the truth a body, and fists to fight with. We are glad that, when George Washington addressed his troops at Valley Forge, he did not begin with “Man is a featherless biped . . . .”

It was rhetoric, not dialectic, that St. Augustine studied before his conversion. Rhetoric was deemed one of the seven liberal arts all through the brightest ages of Christendom, and it was only under the rubric of rhetoric that schoolmen and later humanists saw fit to teach works of imaginative literature and poetry. It’s how we came to study Dante in school — instead of simply leaving him for students to read for fun. Indeed, the difference between dialectic and rhetoric can be summed up as the gap between the Summa and the Divine Comedy. Certainly, we need men to go back patiently and explore, with dialectical precision, how Descartes’s rejection of Thomism was theoretically flawed, and Kant’s epistemology cannot be reconciled with Revelation. Their books should be used in Catholic colleges, where courses in Catholic philosophy should be required of every graduate. (Or else, why are we bothering?) But we also need men like Chesterton, who will put flesh onto the skeleton, bring the Hound of Heaven to life, and set him hunting.

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John Zmirak is the author, most recently, of The Bad Catholic's Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins (Crossroad). He served from October 2011 to February 2012 as editor of Crisis.

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