Firm Opinions and Strong Decisions
Today, I wanted to share something from G. K. Chesterton’s Heretics. In our pursuit of objectivity, we examine the facts and try to see what jumps out of them without our attempt to interpret them; in our pursuit of objectivity, we survey data to see what unbiased analysis proves. As we try to be open-minded, we will find our minds closing when we make conclusions. This might be distressing to those who want to be free and fair-minded; indeed, I place myself within the ranks of the “sensitive,” which means that I am very slow to come to any conclusions because I try to evaluate all relevant factors. That which I formerly held as dogma I now ignore, and that which I thought unthinkable I whimsically flirt with. I want to consider everything! However, convictions harden through time, says Chesterton:
Whether the human mind can advance or not, is a question too little discussed, for nothing can be more dangerous than to found our social philosophy on any theory which is debatable but has not been debated. But if we assume, for the sake of argument, that there has been in the past, or will be in the future, such a thing as a growth or improvement of the human mind itself, there still remains a very sharp objection to be raised against the modern version of that improvement. The vice of the modern notion of mental progress is that it is always something c with the breaking of bonds, the effacing of boundaries, the casting away of dogmas. But if there is to be such a thing as mental growth, it must mean the growth into more and more dogmas. The human brain is a machine for coming to conclusions; if it cannot come to conclusions it is rusty. When we hear of a man too clever to believe, we are hearing of something having almost the character of a contradiction in terms. It is like hearing of a nail that was too good to hold down a carpet; or a bolt that was too strong to keep a door shut. . . . Man can be defined as an animal that makes dogmas. . . .When he drops one doctrine after another in a refined scepticism, when he declines to tie himself to a system, when he says that he has outgrown definitions, when he says that he disbelieves in finality, when, in his own imagination, he sits as God, holding no form of creed but contemplating all, then he is by that very process sinking slowly backwards into the vagueness of the vagrant animals and the unconsciousness of the grass. Trees have no dogmas. Turnips are singularly broad-minded.
According to Chesterton, we will become more dogmatic as we age and have more rigid opinions about everything. Of course, a sense of our own fallibility pushes us away from being improperly doctrinaire, but we somehow have to come to firmer conclusions with the passage of time. Neither you nor I want to be termed “set in his ways,” because that implies a sort of unthinking adherence to disproven principles; in this day and age, we want to demonstrate our flexibility concerning the revelation of new truths. Nobody wants to be a bigot. Regarding this, Chesterton says:
A common hesitation in our day touching the use of extreme convictions is a sort of notion that extreme convictions, specially upon cosmic matters, have been responsible in the past for the thing which is called bigotry. But a very small amount of direct experience will dissipate this view. In real life the people who are most bigoted are the people who have no convictions at all. . . . Bigotry may be roughly defined as the anger of men who have no opinions. It is the resistance offered to definite ideas by that vague bulk of people whose ideas are indefinite to excess.
Later, he discusses the danger presented by ideas:
Ideas are dangerous, but to the man to whom they are most dangerous is the man of no ideas. The man of no ideas will find the first idea fly to his head like wine to the head of a teetotaller.
All of this is from the concluding chapter of Heretics, “Concluding Remarks on the Importance of Orthodoxy.” Through the whole book, Chesterton cleverly hammers other viewpoints and opinions, declaring them to be wrong. It stings to be called wrong, and it smarts to be exposed as undecided on something presented as clear. I hate people who show up with strong opinions on subjects I do not care about because they want me to commit to something I know nothing about; they want me to judge a matter about which I am uneducated. It takes me a long time to formulate positions, so I hate them for running circles around me while I make elementary mistakes in a subject I only recently discovered.
What is there to do? For matters of life and death, potential prosperity or famine, or even eternal salvation, momentary decisions can be critical. The only thing I can do is to recommend commitment to maintaining a healthy life of the heart and mind so that all our faculties will be sharp for critical moments in decision making. Our opinions should grow firmer and firmer and we must guard against the drunkenness of immoderate skepticism, but we have to keep out hearts and minds in practice so that we can find our way home when the world turns upside down.