Let us exercise the eye until it learns to see startling facts that run across the landscape as plain as a painted fence. Let us be ocular athletes. Let us learn to write essays on a stray cat or a coloured cloud. I have attempted some such thing in what follows; but anyone else may do it better, if anyone else will only try. – Preface, Tremendous Trifles
Chesterton sets out on a beautiful day to do a bit of drawing. He puts 6 brightly colored pieces of chalk in his pocket and goes to the kitchen and asks the owner for some brown paper, the kind that parcels were wrapped up in. He gets to his destination and decides to draw “the soul of cow” because, in his estimation, he always get the back legs of such beasts all wrong. It is better to draw then what he really sees. But something else more disturbing is wrong: he seems to have forgotten his piece of white chalk. In the adventure of looking for it, he begins to muse on why a piece of white chalk tells us more about morality than it does perform a particular task. Does he eventually find his chalk? He does – and he’s been sitting on it all the time.
Was Chesterton playing a little joke with us to get us to see that the things we are looking for are not the things we should discover while we are doing that looking? That maybe God is doing the same thing with us: playing that little joke when things go wrong in this super-efficient world we are rushing around trying to get some employment done, to show us where our attention ought to be: noticing the small things of greater importance. Chesterton believes that is exactly the case – there is a life-saving message in hidden, but tremendous trifles.
“But as I sat scrawling these silly figures on the brown paper, it began to dawn on me, to my great disgust, that I had left one chalk, and that a most exquisite and essential chalk, behind. I searched all my pockets, but I could not find any white chalk. Now, those who are acquainted with all the philosophy (nay, religion) which is typified in the art of drawing on brown paper, know that white is positive and essential. I cannot avoid remarking here upon a moral significance. One of the wise and awful truths which this brown-paper art reveals, is this, that white is a colour. It is not a mere absence of colour; it is a shining and affirmative thing, as fierce as red, as definite as black. When, so to speak, your pencil grows red-hot, it draws roses; when it grows white-hot, it draws stars. And one of the two or three defiant verities of the best religious morality, of real Christianity, for example, is exactly this same thing; the chief assertion of religious morality is that white is a colour. Virtue is not the absence of vices or the avoidance of moral dangers; virtue is a vivid and separate thing, like pain or a particular smell. Mercy does not mean not being cruel or sparing people revenge or punishment; it means a plain and positive thing like the sun, which one has either seen or not seen.
Chastity does not mean abstention from sexual wrong; it means something flaming, like Joan of Arc. In a word, God paints in many colours; but He never paints so gorgeously, I had almost said so gaudily, as when He paints in white. In a sense our age has realised this fact, and expressed it in our sullen costume. For if it were really true that white was a blank and colourless thing, negative and non-committal, then white would be used instead of black and grey for the funeral dress of this pessimistic period. We should see city gentlemen in frock coats of spotless silver linen, with top hats as white as wonderful arum lilies. Which is not the case.
Meanwhile, I could not find my chalk….”
– G. K. Chesterton, A Piece of Chalk, Tremendous Trifles, Daily News (1901-1913)
Read the essay: A Piece of Chalk
Read the lecture: Tremendous Trifles