31 October 2007

Episcopal Action

A couple of weeks back I mused here on how a lengthy passage from Dante, about the torments that would befall those who refused to take sides during moral crises, had been paraphrased by John F Kennedy in Bonn in 1963, and how Kennedy's exaggerated paraphrase has since mutated and proliferated further so that the line is to be found scattered throughout the internet, almost invariably attributed to Dante albeit saying something he'd not quite said in rather less words than he'd used to say something slightly different.

It's a common phenomenon.

Think, for example, of that line so often attributed to Edmund Burke, whose brazen form adorns College Green to this day: 'All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.' It's a fine sentiment, marvellously expressed; the only problem is that Burke appears never to have said it.

He did, however, say 'When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.' That's not far off the more famous saying, and has the advantage of foreshadowing Martin Niemöller's famous lament about the dangers of silence and self-interest in times of persecution.

Or, more recently, there's that quote that famously adorned Colin Powell's desk, quoting Thucydides as saying 'Of all manifestations of power, restraint impresses men most'. I spent ages looking it up once, because although I didn't recognise the line it certainly sounded like Thucydides, and surely must have featured either in his Mytilene Debate or his Melian Dialogue. I looked in vain, and in retrospect that's to have been expected as it seems that the line is nowhere to be found in the writings of the great Athenian.

On the other hand, to be fair, you'll find the sentiment, if not the words, attributed to Nicias in Thucydides' account of the doomed 'Sicilian Expedition'. Thucydides records the unfortunate and reluctant leader as opining 'And as to us, the Hellenes there would be most in awe, first, if we should not come at all; next, if after showing our power we should after a brief interval depart. '

If Thucydides, Dante, and Burke can be misquoted, you'll hardly be surprised to learn that the same fate has befallen the venerable GKC, and not just for perhaps the wisest and most famous thing he never wrote.

Coraline, Neil Gaiman's deliciously sinister novel for children, is prefaced by a perfectly balanced aphorism by Chesterton: 'Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.'

It's a fine line, only slightly spoiled by Gilbert never actually having written it. Having sought in vain for ages, starting with 'The Ethics of Elfland' from Orthodoxy and rifling through volume after volume of Gilbert's wise and witty words, I eventually a couple of years back wrote to Dale Ahlquist at the American Chesterton Society, asking did he know where I could find it.

He never said it, apparently. He said something pretty close, though, in an essay from Tremendous Trifles called 'The Red Angel':
Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.

Exactly what the fairy tale does is this: it accustoms him by a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors had a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies, that these infinte enemies of man have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear.
The point stands, I think.

Happy Hallowe'en, by the way. Trick or treat, if you prefer.

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