As I Was Saying/Essay VIII

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Essay VII As I Was Saying
Essay VIII
written by Gilbert Keith Chesterton
Essay IX



Essay VIII: About Sir James Jeans

PERHAPS the quaint old tradition that the village cobbler is always the village atheist may have had something to do with the equally quaint old proverb that the cobbler should stick to his last. _Ne sutor ultra crepidam_ may have been a pagan proverb; but an atheist was probably as rare among polytheists as he is among monotheists. And it seems rather to suggest a mild complaint among customers that their favourite expert in footwear was rather neglecting their feet in his irrelevant efforts to influence their heads. And whereas their feet might have been shod with the gospel of peace, by a more pious and traditional cobbler, it was found that their heads were turned into watch-towers loud with the tocsins and alarums of war, by the challenges of the atheistic cobbler. It may seem at first a little hard on the cobbler to condemn him to an eternal ritual of repeating that there is nothing like leather. But there is a truly historic half-truth in the idea of such a limitation. And the truth is this: that a really good cobbler might be really interesting about leather, and still be capable of being rather a bore about God; and still more of a bore about Godlessness. And the reason is this: that in the trade that a man really understands he often has ideas that are really his own; he is fresh and inventive and even (in the rare but good sense) up to date.

Whereas, in a theoretical thing like atheism, he is almost certain to have picked up stale ideas that are not his own; that are not even in the vulgar sense up to date; that are generally likely to be all the more ancient because he fancies they are modern. A true craftsman of St. Crispin, a great and glorious cobbler in the best tradition of the Guilds, might mean much more than we imagine in saying that there is nothing like leather. He might be thinking that leather is not one thing but a thousand things; that he himself had a score of schemes for the extension and variation of its use; that the world was only at the beginning of the vast possibilities and scientific applications of leather. He might see in a vision, not only the forest of the fantastic elongations of the late mediaeval shoe, but all the other historic applications that still live in legend; from the Leather Bottel to the complete costume of leather that was worn by the first Quaker. He might see new shapes cut out of leather, new patterns stamped on leather, new ways in which the use of leather might extend from hats to hangings, curtains or carpets, as the use of lead extends from bullets to church windows. If he had these new notions about leather, it would be largely because he had studied leather, and not stuck behind in the first alphabet of his craft. But as an atheist he would be an amateur, and would probably have stuck very stupidly at the first alphabet of atheism; asking how the God who made a fig tree grow could stop it from growing; or whether God was not alone responsible for all a man did, because he had made a man free to do what he liked. Anyhow, he would probably say things we have all heard a thousand times from cosmic theorists, and do not specially want to hear all over again from cobblers.

Certainly no one would compare Sir James Jeans to an atheist; for no man has, in fact, done more to change the tone of the most modern science from atheism to theism. Nor would it be strictly correct, or in accordance with the dull details of biography as given in _Who's Who,_ to describe him as a cobbler. But in one way he does raise some of the same questions as are suggested in the two proverbs about the cobbler, or the faintly implied speculations about the atheist. I was listening recently to conversations which still continue about a recent lecture of Sir James Jeans to the British Association, not to mention the echoes of it that still rumble in the popular Press. And I was struck in both these cases, especially in the case of the newspapers, with the much greater space and attention given to his general peroration about science in relation to ethics and politics and religion (about which studies he is, after all, an amateur like the rest of us), than to the masterly analysis of his own original ideas about matter of the mathematics of energy, about which he is possibly the chief authority of the age. The cosmic cobbler is listened to less respectfully when he talks about leather, about the substance or material of which the cosmos is made, than when he talks about the problem of unemployment or armament, or the need of a new religion, or all the familiar topics well within the range of the village atheist, or at least of the village agnostic. And yet his hypothesis about matter is full of new ideas, which are really his own; while his defence of the morality of modern science is necessarily full of old ideas which would have been much the same in the mouths of the scientific men of sixty years ago.

Nor, indeed, are they altogether satisfactory, and they have become rather less so by mere repetition, in a world that has been revolutionized in the interval. No religious person, unless he is a religious maniac, has any particular reason to resist the advance of physical science; least of all the physical science of the new physicists. But since Sir James goes out of his way to counter or contradict the evil that has accompanied the good, we may fairly point out that the contradiction is not a refutation. The harnessing of science to hellish engines of destruction has not grown better, because a great deal of blood has flown under the bridges since old Huxley idealized the social use of science. And to say that if machinery creates unemployment it also creates new industries and new employment, is simply to be stone blind to the staring and outstanding fact of the hour. That fact is that, even allowing for every effort to make new industries, unemployment has, on the balance, enormously increased. And this particular defence of machinery is so very far from being new that it would have sounded very much more true if it had been made (as it was made) in the middle of the nineteenth century, during the triumph of the Manchester manufacturers. In those Early Victorian days, it really was much more arguable that we were putting as many men into new enterprises as we were throwing out of old ones. To-day it is not true at all, as a matter of the facts and even the statistics. But, anyhow, we do not go to the most brilliant scientist of our own time to hear things that might be excused in an Early Victorian.

Or, again, in a man of so much scientific originality, there is the same strange staleness in the statement that we must make a modern religion to suit modern scientific knowledge. Here he seems to forget, not only all that has been done since the age of dogmatic materialism, but even all that he has done himself. He seems strangely oblivious of the actual nature of that "knowledge" which he has just been revealing in his own lecture. For, according to his own vivid and fascinating description, that knowledge largely consists of a sort of radiant and luminous ignorance. The whole point of his address was that he had come to the conclusion that something, in the very nature of our observance of phenomena, forbids us to feel sure that it is the ultimate fact which we observe. Whether this be true or no, it is surely not the sort of truth of which anybody could make a religion; or on which we could build any system of sacrifice or confidence or obedience. There was at least some sense in Haeckel and the old materialists saying that we must fit our moral philosophy to the facts. But why should we fit it to a fancy-picture of the cosmos, that may have hardly any relation to the facts? If it points to anything, it would seem to point back to the old idea that, if we really want a religion, we must seek it with our own reason, with our moral convictions and our conception of the metaphysics of being. But if men could not find faith among the atoms of which they were sure, they will hardly find it among the electrons of which they are not sure. But my main purpose is merely to protest against the treatment of this great man of science by the world of journalism and gossip, which thinks him so much more important when he happens to use a few familiar phrases from the old freethinkers than when his phraseology is really unfamiliar and his thought is really free.