Externality in Lewis, Chesterton, and Tolkien

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G. K. Chesterton was enchanted with a great many things, perhaps with everything. It might even be true to say that Chesterton was enchanted with the Principle of Externality because he was enchanted with everything external (and was aware of the fact). In treating Manicheeism in his biography of St. Thomas Aquinas, Chesterton emphasizes the statement from the Genesis story of the Creation, “God looked on all things and saw that they were good.”24 This is the basis for the sort of “optimism” which he attributes to St. Thomas—and obviously shares with St. Thomas. In praise of the Angelic Doctor, he writes, “…I have a very peculiar and powerful impression analogous to poetry.”25 His explanation of this impression (insofar as it does explain, and he thought it does not do so very far):

It is the intense rightness of his sense of the relation between the mind and the real thing outside the mind. That strangeness of things, which is the light in all poetry, and indeed in all art, is really connected with their otherness, or what is called their objectivity. What is subjective must be stale; it is exactly what is objective that is in this imaginative manner strange. In this great contemplative is the complete contrary of that false contemplative, the mystic who looks only into his own soul, the selfish artist who shrinks from the world and lives only in his own mind…In the Thomist, the energy of the mind forces the imagination outwards, but because the images it seeks are real things. All their romance and glamour, so to speak, lies in the fact that they are real things; things not to be found by staring inwards at the mind.26

The inwardness of the false contemplative Chesterton finds typified in Buddhist religious art; the outwardness of the Thomist he finds in the Christian icons of the cathedrals. “The Buddhist saint has a sleek and harmonious body, but his eyes are heavy and sealed with sleep. The mediaeval saint’s body is wasted to its crazy bones, but his eyes are frightfully alive…The Buddhist is looking with a peculiar intentness inwards. The Christian is staring with a frantic intentness outwards.”27 This is not for Chesterton simply an interesting fact of comparative religion; he takes the Christian posture to be normative: “The Christian saint is happy because he has verily been cut off from the world; he is separate from things and is staring at them in astonishment…The pantheist cannot wonder, for he cannot praise God or praise anything as really distinct from himself.”28

Chesterton is blistering in his denunciation of the Quaker doctrine of the ‘Inner Light’ and what would now be called ‘New Age’ religions:

Of all horrible religions the most horrible is the worship of the god within…That Jones shall worship the god within him turns out ultimately to mean that Jones shall worship Jones. Let Jones worship the sun or moon, anything rather than the Inner Light; let Jones worship cats or crocodiles, if he can find any in his street, but not the god within. Christianity came into the world firstly in order to assert with violence that a man had not only to look inwards, but to look outwards, to behold with astonishment and enthusiasm a divine company and a divine captain.29

Here we find assertion of the Principle of Externality together with forceful condemnation of its denial. We find justification for these stern warnings in the ninth chapter of Heretics—“The Moods of Mr. George Moore.” “Pride is a weakness in the character; it dries up laughter, it dries up wonder, it dries up chivalry and energy.”30 Even vanity, since it is social, is better than pride. “Self is the gorgon. Vanity sees it in the mirror of other men and lives. Pride studies it for itself and is turned to stone.”31

One qualification should be noted here. Chesterton takes back his offer to let Jones worship cats, crocodiles, and celestial bodies. “Physical nature must not be made the direct object of obedience; it must be enjoyed, not worshipped. Stars and mountains must not be taken seriously.”32 He also adds that nature should not (in all respects) be imitated. Externality is not enough; the outward-facing activity must be of a sort which is appropriate for human beings (as the final clause in the PE indicates). It is good and appropriate for human beings to enjoy cats; it is not appropriate for human beings to worship cats (though most cats will be inclined to disagree).

It remains only to consider Tolkien. We will do well to begin with “On Fairy Stories”; if we were to begin with The Lord of the Rings, some might wonder whether the Principle of Externality that we meet there is not simply a fiction sub-created for that world (along with Ents and Elves and magic Rings). But one quickly learns from “On Fairy Stories” that Tolkien links health and fulfillment with the capacity for externality and the dispositions which are conducive to it. In fact, in Tolkien’s view, an important virtue of fairy stories is their power to restore the capacity for externality. Tolkien writes in explanation:

Recovery (which includes return and renewal of health) is a re-gaining—regaining of a clear view. I do not say ‘seeing things as they are’ and involve myself with the philosophers, though I might venture to say ‘seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them’—as things apart from ourselves. We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity—from possessiveness…This triteness is really the penalty of ‘appropriation’: the things that are trite, or (in a bad sense) familiar, are the things that we have appropriated, legally or mentally.33

The salutary effect of fairy stories is to restore otherness or strangeness to familiar things. Tolkien is quick to point out, though, that “…fairy-stories are not the only means of recovery, or prophylactic against loss. Humility is enough.”34 We must become as little children to receive the kingdom of heaven (or to receive the county of Oxfordshire), and a taste for fairy stories, Tolkien proposes, “may make us, or keep us, childish.”35