The reason why modern armaments do not inflame the imagination like the arms and emblazonments of the Crusades is a reason quite apart from optical ugliness or beauty. Some battleships are as beautiful as the sea; and many Norman nosepieces were as ugly as Norman noses. The atmospheric ugliness that surrounds our scientific war is an emanation from that evil panic which is at the heart of it.
That’s G. K. Chesterton in What’s Wrong With the World.
I’ve come to realize that the real heart of evil that lies in the ribcage of modern man is a fear of the ancient. A panic, as Chesterton says. Modern people claim to abhor the benighted practices of olden times. But they have only the foggiest idea what those olden times were like, and their descriptions of the “benighted” practices are often wild fantasies.
No, what moderns truly abhor is the prospect of gazing with a steady eye into the past. Because we are mean, small, grey, selfish, flabby and inept. To behold the past — yes even to behold the crimes of the past — is to be shown how small we are indeed.
So instead we must always blindly charge into the “future,” which of course, does not actually exist. There is no future, and there never has been nor will be.
And the goad which drives it on thus eagerly is not an affectation for futurity. Futurity does not exist, because it is still future. Rather it is a fear of the past; a fear not merely of the evil in the past, but of the good in the past also. The brain breaks down under the unbearable virtue of mankind. There have been so many flaming faiths that we cannot hold; so many harsh heroisms that we cannot imitate; so many great efforts of monumental building or of military glory which seem to us at once sublime and pathetic. The future is a refuge from the fierce competition of our forefathers. The older generation, not the younger, is knocking at our door.
The future is a blank wall on which every man can write his own name as large as he likes; the past I find already covered with illegible scribbles, such as Plato, Isaiah, Shakespeare, Michael Angelo, Napoleon. I can make the future as narrow as myself; the past is obliged to be as broad and turbulent as humanity. And the upshot of this modern attitude is really this: that men invent new ideals because they dare not attempt old ideals. They look forward with enthusiasm, because they are afraid to look back.
We often read nowadays of the valor or audacity with which some rebel attacks a hoary tyranny or an antiquated superstition. There is not really any courage at all in attacking hoary or antiquated things, any more than in offering to fight one’s grandmother. The really courageous man is he who defies tyrannies young as the morning and superstitions fresh as the first flowers. The only true free-thinker is he whose intellect is as much free from the future as from the past.
This part reminds me of another Chesterton nugget, which has been sitting atop the dearly missed and now inactive Joy of Curmudgeonry blog since April.
Do not be proud of the fact that your grandmother was shocked at something which you are accustomed to seeing or hearing without being shocked. . . . It may mean that your grandmother was an extremely lively and vital animal; and that you are a paralytic.
Turning away from the past can be done either of these two ways: in a panic, or in a state of numbness. The one leads to the other, and the other necessitates the one. Panic at the thought of looking squarely at the Truth encourages us to numb ourselves (through hate, media, porn, drink, drug, politics). Our numbness makes us incapable of looking at the Truth.
You know, a crisp and sunny autumn morning is a glorious and invigorating thing. But if you spent the whole night before grousing — about how unfair the sun is, always rising in the east and never deigning to rise in the west, lousy sun! — drinking into a stupor and smoking three packs of cigarettes to numb your anger… well, that crisp and sunny autumn morning (“Yet again from the east! I rest my case!”) is nothing but a nuisance and a headache. And that’s just proof that you were right all along. That sun is trying to hurt and shame us. Down with the sun!
So it is with beautiful traditions, with Truth passed down through the ages, with Truth passed to us even this very day (forget the ages!); so it is with authority for modern man. Authority, tradition, and Truth cause us a headache… and instead of blaming our own dissipation and resentment, we blame the sun of Truth itself.