Friday, 6 June 2014

The Material World Vs Elfland


Beware the dehumanising materialism of men like Richard Dawkins. That is all.

Yesterday there was a flurry of activity again as he 'came out' against... fairy tales. Yes Richard is now trying to topple beanstalks and rescue fair maidens from dragons. Articles with tag lines like 'reading fairy stories to children is harmful, says Richard Dawkins' flooded social medias. Well it just happened that this morning I came to the next chapter in a book I'm reading that explores the value of fairy stories. The chapter is entitled 'The Ethics of Elfland' and it appears in 'Orthodoxy' by G K Chesterton, an influential writer and thinker in the early part of the 20th Century.

The reason Dawkins has a problem with fairy stories is ultimately because of a belief on his part about what makes us fundamentally human. For him fairy stories and tales of the supernatural are a throw back to an era in human history when we were less evolved and advanced. For him we need to throw off all and any belief in supernatural activity if we are ever going to fully mature as a species.

Here's a few quotes from the chapter:
On the power of fairy stories to teach us valuable lessons more effectively than anything else can
There is the chivalrous lesson of 'Jack the Giant Killer'; that giants should be killed because they are gigantic. It is a manly mutiny against pride as such. For the rebel is older than all kingdoms, and the Jacobin has more tradition than the Jacobite. There is the lesson of 'Cinderella', which is the same as that of the Magnificat-exaltavit humiles. There is the great lesson of 'Beauty & the Beast'; that a thing must be loved before it is loveable. There is the terrible allegory of the 'Sleeping Beauty', which tells how the human creature was blessed with all birthday gifts, yet cursed with death; and how death also may perhaps be softened to a sleep. But I am not concerned with any of the seperate statues of elfland, but with the whole spirit of its law, which I learnt before I could speak, and shall retain when I cannot write. I am concerned with a certain way of looking at life, which was created in me by the fairy tales, but has since been meekly ratified by the mere facts.
He then goes on to say
As I put my head over the hedge of the elves and began to take notice of the natural world, I observed an extraordinary thing. I observed that learned men in spectacles were talking of the actual things that happened - dawn and death and so on - as if they were rational and inevitable. They talked as if the fact that trees bear fruit were just as necessary as the fact that two and one trees make three. But it is not.
Chesterton's point is that there is no required link between what we see and why we see it. Scientists may call it the 'law' of gravity but used in that sense it is no more a law than the 'law' that 'blowing the horn brings down the ogre's castle'. It is simply that we (just as the witch) has seen the one follow the other so many times we can 'count on it'. But that is exactly his point again. We cannot 'count' on it we can only 'bet' on it.

on laws of science
If there is a law that pick-pockets shall go to prison, it implies that there is an imaginable mental connection between the idea of prison and the idea of picking pockets. And we know what the idea is. We can say why we take liberty from a man who takes liberties. But we cannot say why an egg can turn into a chicken any more than we can say why a bear could turn into a fairy prince. As ideas, the egg and the chicken are further off each other than the bear and the prince; for no egg in itself suggests a chicken, whereas some princes do suggest bears.
...it is not a necessity for though we can count on it happening practically, we have no right to say that it must always happen.... we do not count on it, we bet on it.
For me this next bit is where it starts to really hit home as I think he explains more adequately the human condition than a strict materialist reading of things ever could.
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 sentimentalist might shed tears at the smell of apple-blossom, because, by a dark accoiation of his own, it reminded him of his boyhood. So the materialist professor (though he conceals his tears) is yet a sentimentalist, because, by a dark association of his own, apple-blossoms remind him of apples. But the cool rationalist from fairyland does not see why, in the abstract, the apple tree should not grow crimson tulips; it sometimes does in his country
and this is bang on
Just as we all like love tales because there is an instinct of sex, we all like astonishing tales because they touch the nerve of the ancient instinct of astonishment. This is proved by the fact that when we are very young children we do not need fairy tales: we only need tales. Mere life is interesting enough. A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door. Boys like romantic tales; but babies like realistic tales - because they find them romantic...
...nursery tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to makes us remember, for one wile moment, that they run with water.
So take away fairy stories and you won't kill the imagination and astonishment of children or even the belief in super-nature or transcendence. You will however squash our humanity into something that looks more like a machine than a man. A good friend of mine recently spoke on this and pointed out that were you to reduce a human being down only to his scientific components and elements you could buy him in a shop for a matter of pounds. Yet we know, instinctively we do, that human beings are worth far more than that.

To understand our 'worth' we need something more akin to a fairy story than a science book.

I think that one reply article I saw summed it up with the headline: Reading books by Richard Dawkins is harmful for adults.

1 comment:

Ben Parker said...

I love this! Also, from those quotes Chesterton sounds quite fun to read.