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Tea with Chesterton

Last night four of us met to discuss the first chapter of G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday. The discussion ranged freely from anarchy, chaos and order in the arts to Chesterton’s use of colors and atmosphere, and the possible importance of the dream or nightmare motif to the novel. However, those topics, important and fascinating as they may be, are not what I want to write about here. Rather, the evening revealed something crucial about human nature.

Our discussion took place at a round table covered in a white linen cloth with cloth napkins placed by gold-rimmed saucers. The looseleaf Buckingham Palace Garden Party tea was served from a white German-made porcelain teapot, and we drank from some lovely porcelain cups with varied floral patterns. The delightful aroma came from the freshly baked warm blueberry scones with the option of toppings of lemon and passion fruit curds, marmalade and/or (why be exclusive?) butter.

Some might complain that such accoutrements detract from intellectual discussions. While I might agree with the criticism that beer, bread, and cheese would have been more Chestertonian, I strongly oppose the first complaint. It is wrong because it smells of a merely rationalistic view of human nature.

God did not make us as disembodied reasoning machines, not does the mind operate in splendid isolation apart from all those supposedly distracting senses and human companionship. Much could be said in support of this assertion concerning the quite important and mysterious way in which we humans know, but I would like to focus on three examples that demonstrate its validity: the effectiveness of the use of stories and images in intellectual argumentation, the effect of sense experience on our attitude towards reality, and the nature of man as a social being.

For example, why do thinkers often use stories to convey their ideas? Chesterton’s novels are admittedly philosophical with characters that can come across as ideas just walking and talking. Nevertheless, he uses colors extensively to describe them. The revolutionary anarchist Lucian Gregory is “the red-haired poet,” and his rival, the rather aesthete-like poet of order, Gabriel Syme, has yellow hair. They meet in Saffron Park, “which lay on the sunset side of London, as red and ragged as a cloud of sunset.” Interestingly, as one of the participants in our discussion of Thursday explained, Saffron is red and when heated colors food yellow, making the fictional suburb a fitting location for the two dueling poets. More broadly, the setting gives an apocalyptic feel to the eternal battle of ideas about to be waged in the novel. Chesterton also helps the reader feel the importance of the issues involved and their dangers by a chase on foot in the cold and wet snowfall and the more comforting smells and tastes of English public houses.

With its images and sounds when read aloud, poetry connects ideas with human sensations. After all, why does the psalmist not just state that God’s word is to be valued rather than that it is “to be desired more than gold” or “sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb” (Psalm 19: 10)? The positive gustatory experience we have of the sweetness of honey leads the mind to associate the word of God with something pleasant and thus a positive attitude toward it.

This leads to the final point of man as a social being. As finite beings our knowledge is limited not only or even principally by our differing intellectual capacities but especially by our varied experiences. These experiences grant us perspectives of the truth that others do not have. When we discuss these differences, we learn from one another and enrich each other.

Yes, you agree, but you might ask what does this have to do with fine china, tea, and scones? Given our differences, we humans tend to be hesitant to speak about our perspectives due to our fear of rejection and even change. A setting like the one we enjoyed last night communicates friendship and acceptance, a willingness to listen to one another, and one would hope, be influenced by one another, and ultimately granted a fuller view of the truth. It is perhaps no accident that so many important movements in political and cultural history, for good or for ill, have come from gatherings of friends to discuss ideas—Socrates and his friends, the salons of the philosophes in revolutionary France, Samuel Johnson’s circle in 18th-century England, and in 20th-century England the Bloomsbury group, and the Inklings.

None of this is meant to offer a complete epistemology, to criticize the arduous work of the individual in the quest for and understanding of the truth, and even less the importance and the capacity to step back and take an objective look at our beliefs and tastes. Rather, it is encouragement for friends to meet and discuss openly the important things in life.

Now what will we serve at our next Chesterton meeting?

4 thoughts on “Tea with Chesterton

  1. What a lovely gathering! Several years ago, I was in a book club with Sylvia Patterson-Scott, Peg Selb Strodtbeck, Susan Dierlam, Jan Potter, Dawn Zumbrun, Rachel Renner, Karen Smith and Ginny Kundrat. We would read books and then scour the pages for food references to enhance discussion. It is deeply heartening to find a coeducational group with the same modus operandi.

    We were sometimes tempted to choose the cuisine first and find a book that gave a good excuse to eat Mexican dishes or French pastries. But good books almost always include some vivid references to foods. Choosing from the cornucopia of excellent books led us through a wonderful selection of excellent dishes and drinks to stimulate good conversation and satisfy appetites of various kinds.

    You probably don’t need these, but here are a few Chesterton quotes about food. Toasted cheese looks like a good bet. The last link contains a great quote from GKC and the next to the last link has a good exposition on the process.

    Ingrid Mail

    “All true friendliness begins with fire and food and drink and the recognition of rain or frost. …Each human soul has in a sense to enact for itself the gigantic humility of the Incarnation. Every man must descend into the flesh to meet mankind.”
    ― G.K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World

    “You say grace before meals. All right. But I say grace before the concert and the opera, and grace before the play and pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing and grace before I dip the pen in the ink.”

    “The way to love anything is to realize that it may be lost.”

    1. Ingrid, thanks so much. Chesterton is so quotable. I’ll share these with the group. Your comment about the group being coed is interesting. I’m not sure that it is common, except for couples in Bible studies. I enjoy the different perspectives.

  2. Thanks Bill, for giving me some new insight into GKC and that story. (I visualize Chesterton as somewhat like Teddy Roosevelt-a lot of energy constrained withing one human being!). And thanks for giving me a new way to read that good story,which I’ve read often. I recognized some of the significance of the colors, but not as deeply. Thanks to the Humanities prof for enlightening a sciences guy. [I, too ,wondered about your very English Tea-that is not GKC’s aura as I envision him.

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