Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Things forbidden, things permitted

The truth is, of course, that the curtness of the Commandments is an evidence…of its liberality and humanity. It is shorter to state the things forbidden than the things permitted, precisely because most things are permitted and only a few things are forbidden.

An optimist who insisted on a purely positive morality would have to begin (supposing he knew where to begin) by telling a man that he might pick dandelions on a common, and go on for months before he came to the fact that he might throw pebbles into the sea; and then resume his untiring efforts by issuing a general permission to sneeze, to make snowballs, to blow bubbles, to play marbles, to make toy aeroplanes … and everything else he could think of, without ever coming to an end. 

In comparison with this positive morality, the Ten Commandments rather shine in that brevity which is the soul of wit. It is better to tell a man not to steal than to try to tell him the thousand things that he can enjoy without stealing; especially as he can generally be pretty well trusted to enjoy them. 

(The Complete Works of G K Chesterton [Ignatius Press, 1989], 32:18)
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