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GK Chesterton on Doubting Reason

GK ChestertonIllustrated London News, (August 14, 1926).

The BBC has broadcast any number of speeches on any number of subjects, on which it is quite impossible for anyone to speak without expressing opinions that are widely controverted. But the case grows worse and worse every day, as more and more principles come in practice to be controverted. For the secular society of to-day is sceptical not merely about spiritual assumptions, but about its own secular assumptions. It has not merely broken the church window or besieged the tower of tradition; it has also kicked away the ladder of progress by which it had climbed. The Declaration of Independence, once the charter of democracy, begins by saying that certain things are self-evident. If we were to trace the history of the American mind from Thomas Jefferson to William James, we should find that fewer and fewer things were self-evident, until at last hardly anything is self-evident. So far from it being self-evident to the modern that men are created equal, it is not self-evident that men are created, or even that men are men. They are sometimes supposed to be monkeys muddling through a transition stage before the Superman.

But there is not only doubt about mystical things; not even only about moral things. There is most doubt of all about rational things. I do not mean that I feel these doubts, either rational or mystical; but I mean that a sufficient number of modern people feel them to make unanimity an absurd assumption. Reason was self-evident before Pragmatism. Mathematics were self-evident before Einstein. But this scepticism is throwing thousands into a condition of doubt, not about occult but about obvious things. We shall soon be in a world in which a man may be howled down for saying that two and two make four, in which furious party cries will be raised against anybody who says that cows have horns, in which people will persecute the heresy of calling a triangle a three-sided figure, and hang a man for maddening a mob with the news that grass is green.