Five years ago I posted this quote and comments as part of a blog-along about the author. Today as I read it I am half terrified at the tone of Chesterton’s statement, how he makes education sound like the most natural and effortless, even unstoppable thing. The health of the sub-cultures we nurture is more critical than ever, so that the “soul” of these little societies may continue to nurture us and to educate our grandchildren and great grandchildren.
Education is simply the soul of a society
as it passes from one generation to another.
People who aren’t used to thinking in a Chestertonian way may think this statement extravagant, or overly poetic and ephemeral. I forgive them, because they likely are recipients of a societal soul that lacks perspective and understanding. It takes time and tradition to build a healthy society, and the modernists who taught many of us have lost the moorings of our Christian past. Many people don’t have a concept of passing something on to their children; they just want them to have a college degree so they can get a Good Job.
I have done most of my growing up in the little society of the family my husband and I created many decades ago, and the culture and nourishment has been good. The word soul didn’t come to mind as a descriptor of what we were trying to impart to our children, while we were trying to give them the best nurturing, the best culture for healthy growth, but now that I have for so long been focused on cultivating life in my children and my self, Chesterton’s way of describing it seems perfect.
Of course, it’s frighteningly full of possibilities. How would you characterize the soul of American society? Or the society of your extended family? Are you in a church that is unified and close-knit enough to constitute a society, and is it one that you can feel good about the next generation continuing? The process that GKC hints at brings to mind images of some ghost-like being floating over the globe, and I wonder how much control I can have over that?
At any rate, this thought makes me gladder than ever that my husband and I were able to homeschool our children for many years, and pass on to them thousands of small bites of hearty soul food. We can’t even know for sure which were superfoods and which were maybe just as nourishing, but harder to digest, seeing how God redeems and uses even our failures. But we cooked up the recipe ourselves, in our home kitchen, so to speak, and after all this time, it is still tasting very good.
From G.K. Chesterton:
It is a very remarkable thing that none of us are really Copernicans in our actual outlook upon things. We are convinced intellectually that we inhabit a small provincial planet, but we do not feel in the least suburban. Men of science have quarreled with the Bible because it is not based upon the true astronomical system, but it is certainly open to the orthodox to say that if it had been it would never have convinced anybody.
If a single poem or a single story were really transfused with the Copernican idea, the thing would be a nightmare. Can we think of a solemn scene of mountain stillness in which some prophet is standing in a trance, and then realize that the whole scene is whizzing round like a zoetrope at the rate of nineteen miles a second? Could we tolerate the notion of a mighty King delivering a sublime fiat and then remember that for all practical purposes he is hanging head downwards in space? A strange fable might be written of a man who was blessed or cursed with the Copernican eye, and saw all men on the earth like tintacks clustering round a magnet. It would be singular to imagine how very different the speech of an aggressive egoist, announcing the independence and divinity of man, would sound if he were seen hanging on to the planet by his boot soles.
— The Defendant (1901)
GLORIA IN PROFUNDIS
There has fallen on earth for a token
A god too great for the sky.
He has burst out of all things and broken
The bounds of eternity:
Into time and the terminal land
He has strayed like a thief or a lover,
For the wine of the world brims over,
Its splendour is spilt on the sand.
Who is proud when the heavens are humble,
Who mounts if the mountains fall,
If the fixed stars topple and tumble
And a deluge of love drowns all—
Who rears up his head for a crown,
Who holds up his will for a warrant,
Who strives with the starry torrent,
When all that is good goes down?
For in dread of such falling and failing
The fallen angels fell
Inverted in insolence, scaling
The hanging mountain of hell:
But unmeasured of plummet and rod
Too deep for their sight to scan,
Outrushing the fall of man
Is the height of the fall of God.
Glory to God in the Lowest
The spout of the stars in spate-
Where thunderbolt thinks to be slowest
And the lightning fears to be late:
As men dive for sunken gem
Pursuing, we hunt and hound it,
The fallen star has found it
In the cavern of Bethlehem.
“Idolatry is committed, not merely by setting up false gods, but also by setting up false devils; by making men afraid of war or alcohol, or economic law, when they should be afraid of spiritual corruption and cowardice.”
-G.K. Chesterton, in the Illustrated London News, 1909