Sunday, October 18, 2015

Episode 29: Worth Fighting For

We discuss The Two Towers, two big Pilgrim's Podcast Family revelations (one of which we reveal), the Progeny describes an identity crisis in Chinese, 1970s music, the true identity of Episode 12's Tacitus, and more in this episode of The Pilgrim's Podcast.


  1. Thank you for the mention. You do me an undeserved honor.

    The entire film, by the way, was subtitled in Greece, but I hardly needed the subtitles for the English parts, and I think the greater distinction is having seen the fictional language of a fictional race translated into Greek.

    I suppose I was warned over on the Twitter about the Chesterton, but not warned enough. With my warmest apologies, he is quite wrong to compare suicide and martyrdom as he does. Your commentary on martyrdom here, by the way, is quite nice, and perhaps Chesterton's understanding of martyrdom alone has merit, but his juxtaposition against suicide is, forgive me, atrocious. The sin of sins, he says, the "ultimate and absolute evil." "Of course there may be pathetic emotional excuses for the act," he facetiously allows and then goes on to compare this to excuses for rape and terroristic violence. Balderdash. The motives of martyrdom may be clear—witnessing for one's faith with one's life—but suicide is far more varied and complex. In a great many, perhaps the vast majority, of suicides the motives are not the perfect opposite of martyrdom. Not every suicide is Judas Iscariot. Many are quite conflicted and deranged and, if we properly understand them in hamartiological terms, governed by involuntary sin. Your remarks about the fallacies of utilitarianism are quite insightful in this podcast, and now if only the venerable Chesterton could apply such an understanding to his view of suicide: that is, if only he had understood that for many suicides it is not some dry, utilitarian decision, but is in fact a much more complex and tormented ordeal.

    I realize that is but a fragment of the man's words you embedded in your otherwise thoughtful commentary, but Chesterton is, again, quite foolish and simplistic in his discourse on suicide.

    Excellent dramaturgical insights on the flashback at the beginning of the movie. Thank you again for the delightful mention of me. An honor I don't deserve.

    1. Mr. V.T. Morant, Chesterton said and wrote a lot of things, usually with a specific purpose and often at multiple times. I suggest you read

      while being aware that they may be others. It may (or may not) clear things up for you. The relevant material begins after the tenth paragraph or so (he was just warming up his pen), so be patient.

    2. Thank you, Darrell (and please call me Virgil). As it happens, that was precisely the Web page I consulted in order easily to copy and past a quote or two from Chesterton. I am no stranger to his work. A friend of mine over on the Twitter had another defense of Chesterton, in reply to my posting of this tweet (an intelligent enough defense concerning details of the suicides in the dramas of Ibsen), but I remain unconvinced that Chesterton was especially insightful into the phenomenon of suicide or so narrowly limited as to be criticizing only some form of philosophical suicide akin to, say, something that also Albert Camus contemplated.

      Nevertheless, as I noted above, it is but a fragment of the podcast, which overall was quite good. I must confess, though, no one is likely to win me over to Chesterton. As I said to my friend over on the Twitter, the man has his merits, but he is highly overrated. And I am no virgin to his work. He just can't work for this old Eastern Orthodox boy.

    3. I'm not going to try and convince you to become a Chesterton fan - I like him a lot, but I'm aware that his flaws are more obnoxious to some than to others. And you're right, suicide is a whole lot more complicated than a simple philosophical rejection of the world. But Chesterton's never been Mr. Practical; he is what he is. He talks about most things through a philosophical lens, and this is no different. (Glancing back over that chapter of Orthodoxy, I had forgotten how arch he seemed on this particular topic.)

      I think it's important to talk about a purely philosophical suicide because I've heard several people say that suicide and martyrdom are the same thing. Many would argue that martyrdom is a sort of philosophical suicide. But suicide as a whole is wrong because at a basic level, it's a rejection of God's gift of life. Martyrdom isn't about that. I think that's an important distinction to draw.

      Of course, in reality it's not that simple - I have a lot of sympathy for suicides and sometimes martyrs are motivated by ignoble motives. But I think many people accept those two facts, while the point that martyrdom isn't suicide (and why) is neglected.

    4. I've been privileged to tweet with Virgil about this over the last few days. "Flag of the World" is a chapter I've taught almost every semester for the last 8 years: upon each rereading Chesterton gets a bit clearer, and also more cloudy. I think that was his point, though. The "suicide/martyr" dichotomy cannot be read outside of his remarks earlier about the "optimist/pessimist": the whole chapter, in fact, is one long line of setting up apparent similarities or dichotomies and then saying, "Well, the problem is that the real answer isn't even connected to these ways of being." Take the aforementioned "optimist/pessimist": his problem with these (after rather confusingly talking about "looking after feet" -- a metaphor I still don't quite grasp) is that both assume the Enlightenment understanding of the will. We *get* to choose whether or not we like the world and so will dwell in it (just like apartment hunters). The problem with this, according to GKC, is that our relationship to the world isn't one of volition; it is one of birth and loyalty. We are born into the world, quite apart from any willing (on our part, anyway), so we have a deep connection that must be assumed in any subsequent willing. He likens it, later, to being in a family: no one chooses to be in this specific family, but the ties of blood bind us tight. (His description of a mother/son, wife/husband relationship never fails to elicit laughter from me.) The problem with the suicide, by which he means the philosophical suicide (referencing Ibsen and the penny-suicide machines), is that they have rejected this "cosmic patriotism," whereas the martyr has fully embraced it. I think an argument can be made that more categories of suicide fall in his description (and his language is ambiguous enough to allow it), but he is talking about the rather strange bourgeois nihilism that characterized many of his day.

      My two cents. Personally, I love GKC's writing style, which is probably why I'm drawn to him.

    5. Thank you, Russ, for accepting my invitation to comment here. And thank you, Hannah, for your reply before Russ's. Let me start, before I lay into Chesterton, by noting that we do agree on a few crucial things. We agree that suicide is a sin (and we seem to all allow some room for the involuntary quality it has in the cases of many deranged minds). We agree that martyrdom, properly understood, is a virtue and indeed, as the word means, a witness to the Christian faith. So now let me say a a few things about our beloved Chesterton.

      I'll begin by noting that I had a fascinating and unsurprising conversation about him with my friend David Dickens in my sharing of this post over on the Google Plus. << David is, like every other Orthodox Christian I know on the Internet, a convert, and Chesterton played a crucial role in clearing his head of certain notions and making him feel ready to join the Orthodox Church (that's the unsurprising part). David also confessed in that conversation that Chesterton was more of a signpost saying where not to go than one saying where to go. I myself have been Orthodox all my life, and I have never met a native Orthodox who was terribly moved or even seriously acquainted with Chesterton. His work is of no import to my own faith either. For what that is worth. He may be helpful to some handful of converts to my beloved Orthodox Church, but I suspect, as I told David, that that has more to do with the inclinations of the individual reading him and moving towards Orthodoxy and more with God's providential use of mundane materials than with Mr. Chesterton himself.

      I know too that our hosts here at The Pilgrim's Podcast are not Orthodox, so let me step away from that and get to my main commentary suitable for all denominations.

      While we may argue that Chesterton really meant this or meant that, what does he really say in this chapter? Ibsen is the primary (indeed only) reference he makes to set up his discourse on suicide. Does this really guide us to think that he was merely contemplating (as three of us here in the comments have now speculated) the "philosophical suicide," by which, of course, I anyway mean to say the suicide that is predicated on the absurdity of this life and decided upon reflection? Is that how suicide transpires in Ibsen's dramas?

      In fact, if we were to look at the dramas of Ibsen (again, our reference here with Chesterton), we would see something far more complex. Some of the suicides (Ibsen was indeed fascinated with various forms of self-influenced or self-caused death) were not even direct suicides. They were suicides of circumstance. Or suicides of neglect. Or suicides of taking on a mission deemed worthy for some reason but certain to end in death. Even in Ibsen we see what troubled me in my previous remark: that suicide is far more complex that Chesterton allows, and, as it turns out, that Ibsen is far more complex than Chesterton allows as well.

      I mentioned Albert Camus in my last remarks too, and, while I recognize that this is a bit anachronistic to Chesterton, as Camus was but a young man when Chesterton died, Camus nonetheless grappled with philosophical suicide, so consider this from The Myth of Sisyphus: Rarely is suicide committed (yet the hypothesis is not excluded) through reflection. Even Camus, who directly addressed what he considered the supreme philosophical question of whether, in light of the absurdity of life, one should kill oneself, acknowledged that it is not just some cool, utilitarian question. Camus's own life, atheist that he was, speaks to this as well. He was, as we know, a bit heroic. Yet how was that? He had a certain Solomonic view of life's vanity, yet he lacked Solomon's fear of God and obedience to God's commandments. And he was philosophically opposed to suicide and a noble man.

    6. Now, as far as the podcast and contemporary issues are concerned, we do have worries about, say, suicide clinics in Europe or a couple of famous "clinical" suicides here in the States, but Chesterton's commentary, simplistic as it is (and, again, I think I am being perfectly fair in my analysis, as he mentions Ibsen as his primary reference and completely fouls Ibsen up), does not really help us a great deal with this, because Chesterton's commentary turns the complex issue of suicide into a caricature. Topics worth considering, and I credit all with reflecting on the critically, but Chesterton offers us little serious guidance.

      Since today is the 22nd of October, I shall leave you with this. In four days in the Orthodox Church we shall celebrate the feast day of St. Demetrios of Thessaloniki (my mother's hometown, as it happens), and the day after that the feast day of St. Nestor. Both were martyrs and are venerated as such in Orthodoxy. When Emperor Galerius was in Thessaloniki, young Nestor volunteered to fight the beastly pagan gladiator Lyaios, after the evangelist Demetrios had been locked up beneath the arena for having preached the Gospel. Nestor's plight was surely, in ordinary parlance, a "suicide mission": a boy against a tested gladiatorial champion. He knew very well that he would die. As it turned out, Nestor killed Lyaios in combat, but then the Emperor immediately beheaded Nestor. Again, one way or another the kid knew he was going to die. After that the Empreror murdered Demetrios too. And yet they are both saints and martyrs. Perhaps, my heterodox friends, you will not quite cotton to St. Nestor's martyrdom as a gladiator (and a surprisingly good one at that). Perhaps Chesterton would have though it a folly as well for a young man who was really just a boy to fight in the arena and then be executed. It was not, however, suicide. Nestor is a martyr. He is a saint. He acted as a Christian and he was a witness to Christ and to the Christian faith, Suicide is more complicated than Mr. Chesterton makes it out to be, as is suicide (which, again, we all seem more or less to agree on),

      I could, as you can imagine, say a great deal more. I am glad, of course, that my friend David over on the Google Plus joined the Orthodox Church, and, if Chesterton played a role, then I tip my hat to Mr. Chesterton as well. But, for my own part, I can't get much out of him. I just don't think he's fair to the sources that he cites, and I don't think he paints an accurate portrait of the human psyche. And I don't think he has a good grasp of history either, but that is another topic altogether (indeed unrelated to his suicide remarks), so I shall call it quits right here.

      Oh, but I'll say one more thing. Russ and Hannah, I hope you liked the Grieg I sent you on the Twitter. If you didn't recognize it or Google it: it's from (well, you guessed it, come on): his incidental music to Henrik Ibsen's Peer Gynt. ;-)

    7. Sorry it took me a bit to reply, it’s been kind of crazy.

      I’ll be honest, I know nothing about Ibsen. The reason I concluded Chesterton was talking about a philosophical suicide is that the entire remainder of the chapter is talking about things “symbolically.” The whole discussion is couched in an argument about – as Russ points out – cosmic patriotism. Cosmic patriotism is central to Chesterton (perhaps too much so, but it’s an idea that appeals to me very much), and suicide is the cardinal sin against that paradigm. It is the endgame of pessimism, he argues.

      One important reason why I reference Chesterton’s point in the podcast is that that cosmic patriotism worldview is also that of Tolkien. A character in the The Return of the King commits suicide because he has lost all hope and turned his back on providence. It’s pitched as a form of abandoning ship: giving up on what’s good in the world. Do all pessimists commit suicide? No, but pessimism’s logical conclusion is suicide. I think that, more than anything, was Chesterton's point.

      For what it’s worth, I think Chesterton wouldn’t call St. Nestor a suicide at all. It sounds (though I’ll admit I’m not familiar with the story) as if he died for a principle, or at least to demonstrate one, not because he particularly wanted to die.

      Here's Tolkien on Chesterton (replying to a letter from a fan):
      "What a dreadful, fear-darkened, sorrow-laden world we live in... Chesterton once said that it is our duty to keep the Flag of This World flying: but it takes now a sturdier and more sublime patriotism than it did then. Gandalf added that it is not for us to choose the times into which we are born, but to do what we could to repair them."

      Oh, and by the way, I've just now listened to the Grieg as I wrote this. It's lovely.

  2. Congratulations on the new member of your family! What a wonderful and generous thing to do! It is by no means a surprise, however. Living by your words seems to be a family trait. Prayers for continued Blessings!

    1. Meant to reply to this yesterday, but Shockwave flash kept crashing. Anyway, thanks. It's nice to hear some positive encouragement, too - it's been rather an adventure breaking the news to our family.

  3. With regard to 70s music, I think like any decade it had trends that were cringe-worthy, trends that were actually cool, underrated artists, overrated artists, etc. However, I do think that among music that was popular, it was easier to find music that had some interest to it. I find old-school rock and roll vastly more entertaining than the compressed, auto-tuned pop music we hear on the airwaves today. Give me some grit and growl and electric guitar solos over this Beyonce crap (pardon my French). Even the dance music was more fun, though nobody would pretend it's high art. If you look at BeeGees tunes like "Stayin' Alive," "You Should Be Dancin'," etc., even if you hate them, you have to admit that the grooves were legitimately funky. But today's dance tunes are just dull and repetitive.

    And then of course, we've always had artists like Billy Joel and Paul Simon who were just doing their own thing no matter what decade it was. They did some of their best work in the 70s, especially Joel. Among 70s bands, I'm partial to Fleetwood Mac, the Doobie Brothers, the Allman Brothers, and Kansas.


Warning: blogger sometimes eats comments - make sure you copy your message before you post.