Last week, New York Encounter held a conference on the theme of Freedom. One of the presenters was Dr. Dermot Quinn of the GK Chesterton Institute for Faith & Culture at Seton Hall University – who spoke on Chesterton & Freedom. Suzanne Lewis writes a nice little summary of Dr. Quinn’s talk, with my own reflection below. Excerpt, emphasis mine:
“Chesterton knew freedom’s power and its limits, its creative and destructive capacity, [how] it could make or break us. The task of our life, all our lives, is [to discover] when to embrace freedom and when to leave it alone.”
Quinn went on to sketch out these two faces of freedom, as found in Chesterton’s work. He quoted Chesterton’s remark: “I did not understand what was meant by liberty until I heard it called by the new name of human dignity.” For G.K. Chesterton, then, liberty is an altogether mystical thing, a divine spark, and way for human beings to participate in the life of God. Quinn went on to quote from Chesterton’s essay, Babies and Distributism: “A child is the very sign and sacrament of human freedom… he is something his parents have freely chosen to produce and protect.”
Do read the whole thing here… (there appear to be a few other interesting essays on Chesterton as well).
The topic calls to mind conversations we’ve had in ACS. Just the other day I was talking with Nathan about freedom/limitation – you may recall that great quote of GK’s about ‘the frame being the most interesting part of the painting’…
One analogy I like to use is that of the RULES of a basketball game, and the sidelines and endlines… without them, we would never have witnessed the artistry of Michael Jordan. Or – the scales and strict musical education endured by Mozart- without them, he never would have been cultivated to later produce his body of work which stunned the music world. Or – on any of the great writers – they needed first a MASTERY of the grammar of their language before they could play with language creatively. You cannot write (at least not excellently) in metaphors, with playfulness, without having a full grasp of the rules of the language you are writing in.
You can’t BREAK the rules until you KNOW the rules – thereby acquiring a sense of when and where they can be broken or stretched without totally deconstructing the genre or FORM of the thing you are creating.
Otherwise you end up with nothing but Jackson Pollock paint splatter… the cheating-bully-ball-hog on your playground basketball team… the kid banging on the piano in discordant cacophony. These are not the starting points of beauty – not, to extend the idea, the true aim of liberty, and not the full expression of the dignity of man. These are, rather, stunted and dead-end outcomes of disordered freedom.
Which is why I particularly relish the GKC quote Dr. Quinn cited in his talk:
“Every one of the popular modern phrases and ideals is a dodge in order to shirk the problem of what is good.”
He does have a knack for getting to the heart of it, doesn’t he? WHAT IS GOOD? Without a properly ordered vision of the good, individually and collectively, man is bound to sow and reap confusion. Even presumed virtues such as “freedom” become distorted, run rampant, or are perceived outside their proper place as ends in themselves.