236 Piercing Words

by Andrew Forrest

The following 236 words are among the most insightful, prescient, and terrifying words I have ever read.

Suppose that a great commotion arises in the street about something, let us say a lamp-post, which many influential persons desire to pull down. A grey-clad monk, who is the spirit of the Middle Ages, is approached upon the matter, and begins to say, in the arid manner of the Schoolmen, Let us first of all consider, my brethren, the value of Light. If Light be in itself good?? At this point he is somewhat excusably knocked down. All the people make a rush for the lamp-post, the lamp-post is down in ten minutes, and they go about congratulating each other on their unmediaeval practicality. But as things go on they do not work out so easily. Some people have pulled the lamp-post down because they wanted the electric light; some because they wanted old iron; some because they wanted darkness, because their deeds were evil. Some thought it not enough of a lamp-post, some too much; some acted because they wanted to smash municipal machinery; some because they wanted to smash something. And there is war in the night, no man knowing whom he strikes. So, gradually and inevitably, to-day, to-morrow, or the next day, there comes back the conviction that the monk was right after all, and that all depends on what is the philosophy of Light. Only what we might have discussed under the gas-lamp, we now must discuss in the dark.

G.K. Chesterton, Heretics, 1905

This is the culture in which we now live. Chesterton, writing 110 years ago, noticed the inclination we have in the Western world to disregard and dismantle the hard-won wisdom of the centuries in the name of “progress,” progress both of the moral and technological variety.

In the name of political progress:

  • 60,000 men were mowed down with machine guns?on the first day of the Somme, July 1, 1916. (The wise men of Europe were certain that they had eliminated man’s tendency to war.)

In the name of racial and evolutionary progress:

  • 6 million Jews were incinerated in Nazi ovens. (The Nazis were interested in eugenics, the cutting-edge science of the time that promised to eliminate the dregs of humanity.)

In the name of sexual progress:

  • Millions and millions of children are being raised without a father in their lives. (The sexual revolution promised us that uncoupling marriage and sex would lead to increasing levels of human flourishing and freedom.)

In the name of technological progress:

  • We’re unable to sit alone with our thoughts, but must constantly be connected.

This is the world in which we live. “Only what we might have discussed under the gas-lamp, we now must discuss in the dark.”

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Paul October 21, 2015 - 1:42 pm

Wow, not sure I understand. Is the lamppost symbolic or a metaphor for Jesus and his crucifixion, or is it symbolic or a metaphor for anything we want to pull or tear down today (like our Christian principals so as to comply with or conform to societal or secular norms). Or am I completely missing it and it all means something else. In either case, couldn’t the righteous become like many gas lamps and let their light shine (in greater numbers and in greater brightness, collectively). If the later, then whether it was right or wrong to tear down the gas lamp, couldn’t those loyal to the gas lamp erect a replacement or better gas lamp (though working in the dark may mean it takes a while, but once their eyes begin to see better in the darkness, they will be able to do it. We can rebuild it. We have the technology or ability or stamina or determination. We can make it better than it was. Better, taller, stronger, brighter, longer lasting!

OK, this is making my head hurt and I am probably completely missing the point.

Andrew Forrest October 21, 2015 - 9:59 pm

I’ll do a follow-up post on this. It’s about the Enlightenment tendency to think that because we now have technological knowledge, we no longer need the wisdom of our forebears. We think we can tear down the hard-won wisdom of the centuries and not suffer consequences.

Paul October 22, 2015 - 10:16 am

Yes, I agree. We definitely need the wisdom of our forebears. We need to know and understand whose shoulders we stand on. But we need to also take into account what is happening today. Maybe the answer is not to tear down the old lamp at all, but instead, if we think it needs updating, then erect more technologically updated lamps around it to support it and to shine a light on the same thing the old lamp was lighting. Maybe we need to clean the old lamp up a little so it can shine its light brighter without changing it at all or maybe make small changes or improvements to the old existing lamp. But leaving it shining dimly does not seem to be a good course. Relying solely on the old lamp without some improvement might not work. And not offering a brighter light (one way or another) might leave some folks new to the arena in the dark. I think I am agreeing with you (but look forward to your follow up post). I think there is much to learn here.

Andrew Forrest October 22, 2015 - 11:28 am

But, it all depends on the nature of the light…. Until we know what light is for, we should tread carefully in making changes.

RA October 23, 2015 - 1:03 pm

There always seems to be an assumption that we know better today than those 1000 yrs ago could have; As if the capability of the human philosophical and theological mind somehow linearly advances at the same pace as technology – and came from the same starting point.

Andrew Forrest October 23, 2015 - 2:01 pm

Exactly. As if human nature has ever changed. But, our assumption is that we can rid ourselves of the customs and wisdom of the past because now we have the microchip.

All the Cool Kids are Meditating, Man – Andrew Forrest December 28, 2017 - 7:57 am

[…] We’re a culture that’s forgotten what we used to know, and so we grab various life-giving practices out of the heap, but because we’ve forgotten what we used to know (like the folks in the Foundation in the Isaac Asimov novels), we’re not able to use them to their full benefit. […]


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