So here we have chapter four of “Orthodoxy” by G.K. Chesterton. As you can tell by the chapter title, Gil can get a bit whimsical. To be honest, I’m not sure where the heck he pulled this one from, especially since one of the first quotes from the chapter has nothing to do with ethics or Elfland.
This is the first principle of democracy: that the essential things in men are the things they hold in common, not the things they hold separately.
I happen to agree with this wholeheartedly, as I suspect most people with any degree of common sense would. But how does it fit in with Elfland? My guess is this:
We all like astonishing tales because they touch the nerve of the ancient instinct of astonishment.
We all hold in common the need for a sense of wonder and we find it in Elfland. As for the ethics thing it’s a bit of a stretch, but if you’ve read many fairy stories this should sound familiar.
In the fairy tale an incomprehensible happiness rests upon an incomprehensible condition. A box is opened, and all evils fly out. A word is forgotten, and cities perish. A lamp is lit, and love flies away. A flower is plucked, and human lives are forfeited. An apple is eaten, and the hope of God is gone.
Chesterton believed in the world as a magical place and the fairy story was his template for understanding it. Most fairy stories had conditions which the hero or heroine had to uphold for order and happiness to continue. Ethics are those conditions which keep the story going. The conditions, or ethics, are put there by the author of the tale.
In other words, life has a purpose. It is a story. It is “intended” by someone. This is opposed to the materialists who mostly saw the universe as a vast machine.
The size of this scientific universe gave one no novelty, no relief. The cosmos went on forever, but not in its wildest constellation could there be anything really interesting; anything, for instance, such as forgiveness or free will.
There you have it. Without the purpose, without the storyteller, true ethics do not exist. A machine has no choice.
This modern universe is literally an empire; that is, it was vast, but it is not free.