Facts Agleam with Wonder: On “The Ethics of Elfland” and the Primacy of Love

A dear and respected friend recently caused me to engage seriously with chapter 4 of Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, “The Ethics of Elfland,” and was indispensable in helping me work through an impasse.

Meditating on this chapter fanned a little flame that’s been rising within, a tentative return of the joie de vivre that had been so characteristic of me before collapsing in this nighttime. Chesterton helps me see again the magic that’s everywhere.

But he offers more than personal renewal. Chesterton’s simultaneous defense of democratic liberalism and of tradition clearly sank into my bones at some point. What a glorious vision, with far too small a constituency! And that political sensibility is exactly what we need right now in America.

It’s also the vision necessary for our culture if we’re going to make sense of moral norms: “Keeping to one woman is a small price for so much as seeing one woman. To complain that I could only be married once was like complaining that I had only been born once. It was incommensurate with the terrible excitement of which one was talking. It showed, not an exaggerated sensibility to sex, but a curious insensibility to it.” Brilliant. And true. A fairytale sensibility is the way out of moralism without collapsing into relativism.

That has to do with the “Doctrine of Conditional Joy,” his second principle of fairy philosophy. As to his first principle, wonder and gratitude: Chesterton’s recovery of the wonder behind facticity really does restore the aura of divine glory to the world. He compares the things that are all round us to what Robinson Crusoe saves from his wrecked ship. What a powerful spiritual discipline this is: “It is a good exercise, in empty or ugly hours of the day, to look at anything, the coal-scuttle or the book-case, and think how happy one could be to have brought it out of the sinking ship on to the solitary island.”

We thus get the world back again after, as it were, having lost it. I think something like this is what Kierkegaard describes in Fear and Trembling.

In fact, Chesterton does this remarkable thing that gives me access to Nietzsche's doctrine of eternal recurrence for the first time: “But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, ‘Do it again’ to the sun; and every evening, ‘Do it again’ to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we. The repetition in Nature may not be a mere recurrence; it may be a theatrical encore. Heaven may encore the bird who laid an egg.”

This is the way to look at the world. I am convinced of it. But one thing niggled. The philosopher in me was troubled by something in Chesterton’s first principle.

In order to secure his magical vision, he veers into Humean country: “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. There is an enormous difference by the test of fairyland; which is the test of the imagination. You cannot imagine two and one not making three. But you can easily imagine trees not growing fruit; you can imagine them growing golden candlesticks or tigers hanging on by the tail.”

Okay. On the one hand, there’s all the good stuff. Chesterton flirts with occasionalism to give us the full-on Thomistic metaphysics of the primacy of divine causality, which shows deistic clockmaker mechanistics philosophically incoherent, besides robbing the world of wonder. Every single good thing and every single perfective action, from the spinning of quarks to the winging of angels, is first done by God. Yes, yes, yes.

And there certainly is a distinction to be made between intrinsically necessary realities (2+1=3), which God “can’t” change (as He is coincident with them), and facts that follow from His free choice: would there be 10 to the eleventh or 10 the fourteenth galaxies?

But whether apple trees put out candlesticks? The philosopher in me can be scrupulous. Chesterton indicates that dawn isn’t inevitable. That, of course, was exhibit A in Hume’s attack on the necessity of causality under the banner of “constant conjunction.” I can see a romantic and a certain kind of conservative finding it plausible to side with that odd conservative Hume (who wanted to replace rationalism with custom and instinct), in the name of putting modern scientism in its place. Fine.

Well, not really. Hume’s attack lands just as powerfully, except more so, on Aristotelian metaphysics. The etiolated causality still operative in scientism (of the four causes, only efficient is left, and a denuded version of that, at that) is still a thread going back to the Philosopher. Hume severs that. His version of causality is even more metaphysically blind than modern science’s, even more divorced from substance and natures, even more superficial than superficial Baconianism! His is just another nominalist/voluntarist halfway house on the way to transgender bathrooms.

So, I get a little antsy when I hear Humean language from a romantic, being one myself. I want to affirm everything Chesterton provides through his joyous voluntarism. I do think such a thing profoundly true, at a place where Saint Thomas and Saint Francis touch. Without the will of God, there can be no magic. But is the cost of magic, acceptance of divine caprice?

Struggling with this, given the manifest truth of Chesterton’s sensibility, I choose to ignore the Humean garb, to see something shining through, what one might call a higher voluntarism, which allows access to the fact that God is Light because God is Love.

To think this through, Balthasar is required. He has a tag for his Franciscan avowal of the primacy of love that in no way reneges on the Dominican point that knowing must precede loving, as a matter of facultative logic, and that in no way countenances nominalism: “love cannot be anticipated by thought.” He uses it to describe the ultimate mystery, the mystery of the Father, but this mystery has everything to do with the ultimate in God, Who is the Holy Spirit. The Third in God, the One Who proceeds according to the mode of willing, cannot simply be reduced to the, quite true, logic of the processions of spirit. There is something like a “Trinitarian inversion” even in the immanent Trinity, because love is not only to be understood on the analogy of the operation of a faculty; there is love that is the whole existential disposition of the person:

“But the Father’s always already giving Himself away, which thought can neither go behind nor exhaust, is the ultimate ground for God’s being incomprehensibly more than any finite concept can comprehend: love, posited in its absoluteness, is absolutely groundless, and it communicates this groundlessness to everything that, qualifying its plenitude more closely, can be called a ‘property’ of God. Everything inside and outside God proceeds ‘a secreto Patris arcanoque’ [from the secret and mystery of the Father] (DS 491)” (Theo-Logic, II, p. 137).

THIS is what Chesterton captures. Everything we see drips with the wondrous glory of love.

This is not nominalism or voluntarism, as normally meant. Balthasar again: “Now, the first thing that we must say about this groundless, all-grounding love is that it is anything but blind. Rather, it is supremely wise and is thus the ultimate sense of all knowing and all reason; it is supreme rectitude and thus orients all that looks for direction and guidance. Although, in the worldly echo, man seeks to apprehend and to know in order to direct his steps to some end, what sets him on his way is still the good, which he desires to love and, through understanding, can love. And, in attaining the end toward which his love-inspired knowledge is directed, he learns that the gratuity of love reigns beyond every utilitarian calculation. Only in this experience does his knowledge become the sort of wisdom ascribed to God, does the self-confident, finite wisdom of the world fall down before the wisdom of God that reveals itself in the form of His crucified love. ‘For the folly of God is wiser than the wisdom of men’ (I Cor 1:25) precisely because it is the wisdom of gratuitous love” (Theo-Logic, II, pp. 140-141).

This, not Hume, must be the ultimate horizon of Chesterton’s fairytale sensorium: he feels in every thing, in every fact, the gratuitous wisdom of God.

Before we can know, and therefore love, as the operations of our intellect and will, there is a more primal existential stance: wonder, a desire to know. That’s just Aristotle, of course. And Saint Augustine at the conclusion of Book 9 of De Trinitate identifies this appetitus inveniendi (desire to discover) as a kind of love, “amor,” that is not the operation of a faculty, but something prior to that. Balthasar writes of “love-inspired knowledge.” To use Balthasar’s terminology, what Augustine gestures towards at the end of Book 9 is a Trinitarian inversion in God, in which the Holy Spirit of Love has something to do with the procession of the Word.

The world glows because love is the ultimate. Only with the fairytale vision of Chesterton can love’s wildest abandon, on the Cross, be recognized as the deepest wisdom. The Eucharist is the secret center of fairyland.