Chesterton, the Ethics of Elfland, and Exulting in Monotony

Today I received this video from my grandpa:   

If you’ve seen Planet Earth you are probably not a stranger to high speed footage of natural processes.  But how does this footage impact our perspective on history?  By speeding up the cyclical development of something as simple as a flower, we are confronted with the beauty of what otherwise can seem monotonous.  In Orthodoxy, GK Chesterton eloquently described the vitality of monotony in these words:

“All the towering materialism which dominates the modern mind rests ultimately upon one assumption; a false assumption. It is supposed that if a thing goes on repeating itself it is probably dead; a piece of clockwork. People feel that if the universe was personal it would vary; if the sun were alive it would dance. This is a fallacy even in relation to known fact. For the variation in human affairs is generally brought into them, not by life, but by death; by the dying down or breaking off of their strength or desire.

A man varies his movements because of some slight element of failure or fatigue. He gets into an omnibus because he is tired of walking; or he walks because he is tired of sitting still. But if his life and joy were so gigantic that he never tired of going to Islington, he might go to Islington as regularly as the Thames goes to Sheerness. The very speed and ecstasy of his life would have the stillness of death. The sun rises every morning. I do not rise every morning; but the variation is due not to my activity, but to my inaction. Now, to put the matter in a popular phrase, it might be true that the sun rises regularly because he never gets tired of rising. His routine might be due, not to a lifelessness, but to a rush of life.

The thing I mean can be seen, for instance, in children, when they find some game or joke that they specially enjoy. A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.

The repetition in Nature may not be a mere recurrence; it may be a theatrical ENCORE. Heaven may ENCORE the bird who laid an egg. If the human being conceives and brings forth a human child instead of bringing forth a fish, or a bat, or a griffin, the reason may not be that we are fixed in an animal fate without life or purpose. It may be that our little tragedy has touched the gods, that they admire it from their starry galleries, and that at the end of every human drama man is called again and again before the curtain. Repetition may go on for millions of years, by mere choice, and at any instant it may stop. Man may stand on the earth generation after generation, and yet each birth be his positively last appearance.”GK Chesterton – The Ethics of Elfland (Orthodoxy)

As historians do we “exult in monotony” or do we grow tired of it?  Let this be the challenge for our studies as another year begins.


3 thoughts on “Chesterton, the Ethics of Elfland, and Exulting in Monotony

  1. Monotony is the essence of history, indeed is what makes it so fascinating as a field of study. “The sun rises, and also sets,” and we learn or do not learn from unfolding experience, and these lessons or the lack thereof fit themselves somehow into the pattern of ongoing development. Everything changes, and at the same time everything stays the same. Human beings today, while their context has changed (technologically, socially, politically), act in fundamentally identical ways to those in which human beings acted at the fall of the Roman Empire or the dawn of the Reformation. We make the same relative choices, which is why we can never get away from war or poverty, and why for every prejudice overthrown, two or three more take its place. The central question of historical study is not “what have we learned,” but “having learned so much, why have we changed so little?”

  2. Reblogged this on Backwards with Time and commented:

    It has almost been a year since I posted this excerpt from Chesterton. At that time, the comment provided a much needed perspective to the repetitive nature of graduate school. Now, the year is drawing to a close and as we enter into the season of Advent a new year is beginning for the church. This is a season marked by a frenetic pace of consumption and gatherings, again requiring a healthy perspective. Our pastor reminded us this past Sunday, this season is characterized by waiting. We wait in anticipation for the fulfillment of God’s promise to send a Saviour. It is a time to “Be still and know that God is Lord.” Since there is a certain degree of monotony in waiting (eg. Three months and still no visa!) I’m hoping this excerpt (and video) reminds us that God fills every moment with beauty, if we take the time to be still and consider it.

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