Saturday, May 26, 2007

Barzun and Chesterton on Pragmatism in Practice

Chesterton gives a stunning example in his Autobiography. People in his small town wanted to put up a war memorial. After raising the money, some decided it would be “more practical” to build a meeting hall. The new proposal split the community. Chesterton comments:

If people thought it wrong to have a memory of the war, let them say so. If they did not approve of wasting money on a War Memorial, let us scrap the War Memorial and save the money. But to do something totally different which we wanted to do, was unworthy of Homo Sapiens. . . . I got some converts to my view: but I think that many still thought that I was not practical; though in fact I was very specially practical, for those who understand what is really meant by Pragma. The most practical test of the problem of unmemorial memorials was offered by the Rector of Beaconsfield, who got up and said: ”We already have a ward in the Wycombe Hospital which was supposed to commemorate something. Can anybody here tell me what it commemorates?”

The case is worth a moment’s attention to the pattern it reveals. Discerning the pragma usually requires that we pull apart old links: the townspeople thought of a meeting hall as practical (because you can meet there endlessly) and of a war memorial as unpractical (because you can only look at it). But a monument does memorialize and a hall does not; therefore the bronze group of soldiers (“with an officer about to hurl his binoculars at the post office”) is practical for the stated purpose.

— Jacques Barzun, A Stroll with William James, 1983, 98

Compare Romano Amerio in the blogpost New Friends.