On Chesterton’s “The Maniac”

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Salisbury Cathedral, UK

“Great wits are oft to madness near allied.”

Chapter Two, “The Maniac” from Chesterton’s Orthodoxy:  This chapter is focused on Chesterton’s realization that “what peril of morbidity there is for a man comes rather from his reason than his imagination.”  He clarifies that this is not an attack on reason itself, but an attack on “reason used without root, reason in the void … without the proper first principles.”  One of those “first things” is a respect for a certain amount of mystery and paradox.  Chesterton resisted the materialist driven hyper-skepticism that is often bent on dismissing traditional authority.  He was the quintessential anti-reductionist.  In this book, he describes how this determination to preserve respect for these “first-things” led him to Christianity, i.e. it led him to orthodoxy.

He begins this chapter with an anecdote:  “I know where flames the fixed star of certainty and success,” said Chesterton to a friend one day.  His friend had just asserted that believing in one’s self is all that is needed for success.  I am not sure exactly how pervasive was this notion around the time of Orthodoxy’s composition, but such ideas are ubiquitous today.  Chesterton replied, “complete self-confidence is not only a sin; complete self-confidence is a weakness.”

Modern scientists begin with facts, so did the ancients.  The ancients “began with the fact of sin – a fact as practical as potatoes.  Whether or no man could be washed in miraculous waters, there was no doubt at any rate that he wanted washing.”  Back then, “the strongest saints and the strongest skeptics alike took positive evil as the starting-point of the argument.”  From this starting point or first-thing, the ancient skeptics denied the existence of God while the ancient saints denied “the present union between God and man.”

Today, we seem content to deny the existence of this very fundamental first-thing.  The late Malcolm Muggeridge wrote, “The depravity of man is at once the most empirically verifiable reality but at the same time the most intellectually resisted fact.”  Indeed and resisted not only by materialists, but even some theologians had begun to deny the indisputable dirt by Chesterton’s time.  They “admit divine sinlessness, which they cannot see even in their dreams … but they essentially deny human sin, which they can see in the street,”  he wrote.

Chesterton, with his typical sharpness, was sensitive to the widespread denial of sin that still plagues us today.  Yet, he sidesteps this issue and chooses to focus on something that we moderns haven’t denied (at least not yet).  We have yet to deny the lunatic asylum.  He writes, “we all agree that there is a collapse of the intellect as unmistakable as a falling house.’  This is a fundamental reality that is perhaps not as easy to escape as the reality of sin.  This is where he begins to draw his comparison with the maniac and the modern hyper-skeptic.

Chesterton dismantles the modern idea that insanity is somehow beautiful.  He remarks that really only the sane could ever romanticize insanity.  For the insane man, “his insanity is quite prosaic, because it is quite true.”  In fact, “it is the homogeneity of his mind which makes him dull, and which makes him mad.”  We find him interesting because this homogeneity of thought and focus are so unusual. It is because he does not see them as unusual at all that he belongs on the asylum.  “In short, oddities only strike ordinary people.  Oddities do not strike odd people.”  And, for the odd ones, it’s precisely this inability to see oddity that makes their life so dull.

Their life is consumed by one thought, all reality conspiring and revolving around it, like an endless but ever narrowing circle.  It is narrowed by the completeness of their explanations, there is no mystery left to widen and relieve.  This is where Chesterton enters the thrust of his argument:  that unchecked reason is what breeds madness, not imagination.  “The madman is not the man that has lost his reason.  The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason,” asserts Chesterton.  The lunatic’s explanation is of a sort that is always complete and unanswerable (much like the conspiracy theorist’s).  His is a mind suffocated by an all-encompassing “single argument” that “explains a great deal, but what a great deal it leaves out!”

Explaining a great deal, yet leaving a great deal out is a great way to describe many modern philosophies (like metaphysical naturalism), most of which are highly reductive of reality.  Like the conspiracy theorist’s idea, Chesterton writes that “they all have exactly that combination we have noted:  the combination of expansive and exhaustive reason with a constricted common sense.”  They take “one thin explanation and carry it very far.”  The result is that everything – all of nature – is fit into a very small box, not unlike the padded cell of the lunatic asylum.  Everything is “explained away” as C.S. Lewis said.  In The Abolition of Man, Lewis wrote that such hyper-reductionism entails “the kind of explanation which explains,” but “at a heavy cost.”  Lewis ended that book with the following:

“But you cannot go on ‘explaining away’ for ever: you will find that you have explained explanation itself away. You cannot go on ‘seeing through’ things for ever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to ‘see through’ first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see.”

Chesterton writes that the materialist’s “scheme, like the lucid scheme of the madman, seems unconscious of the alien energies and the large indifference of the earth; it is not thinking of the real things of the earth, of fighting peoples or proud mothers, or first love or fear upon the sea. The earth is so very large, and the cosmos is so very small. The cosmos is about the smallest hole that a man can hide his head in.”

There is a dangerous and morbid homogeneity for both the man who has lost his mind and the reductionist.  Chesterton notes that “both cases have the same completeness and the same kind of incompleteness.”  Both of their explanations seem to explain, but both encounter a resistance in the minds of normal people.

“Materialist philosophy (whether true or not) is certainly much more limiting than any religion,” Chesterton remarks, for unlike the Christian who can allow “a considerable amount of settled order and inevitable development in the universe” and can admit “that the universe is manifold and miscellaneous,”the materialist cannot allow “into his spotless machine the slightest speck of spiritualism or miracle” and must remain committed to the cramped idea that “history has been simply and solely a chain of causation.”  Indeed, “materialists and madmen never have doubts.”

With respect to the idea that materialist philosophy is liberating in any way, Chesterton notes that “free thought” is not freeing at all.   “It is absurd to say that you are especially advancing freedom when you only use free thought to destroy free-will.”  And, the resultant determinism is more likely to suppress the merciful treatment of criminals than their cruel punishment because it effectively binds the hands of anyone that might “appeal to their better feelings” or give “encouragement in their moral struggle.”  Instead, “the determinist does not believe in appealing to the will, but he does believe in changing the environment.”  The materialist “must not say to the sinner, ‘Go and sin no more,’ because the sinner cannot help it.”  He will eventually discover that only harsh environments can provide correctives.

Chesterton will end the chapter with this beautiful passage:

“Mysticism keeps men sane. As long as you have mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity. The ordinary man has always been sane because the ordinary man has always been a mystic. He has permitted the twilight. He has always had one foot in earth and the other in fairyland. He has always left himself free to doubt his gods; but (unlike the agnostic of today) free also to believe in them. He has always cared more for truth than for consistency. If he saw two truths that seemed to contradict each other, he would take the two truths and the contradiction along with them. His spiritual sight is stereoscopic, like his physical sight: he sees two different pictures at once and yet sees all the better for that. Thus he has always believed that there was such a thing as fate, but such a thing as free will also. Thus he believed that children were indeed the kingdom of heaven, but nevertheless ought to be obedient to the kingdom of earth. He admired youth because it was young and age because it was not. It is exactly this balance of apparent contradictions that has been the whole buoyancy of the healthy man. The whole secret of mysticism is this: that man can understand everything by the help of what he does not understand. The morbid logician seeks to make everything lucid, and succeeds in making everything mysterious. The mystic allows one thing to be mysterious, and everything else becomes lucid. The determinist makes the theory of causation quite clear, and then finds that he cannot say “if you please” to the housemaid. The Christian permits free will to remain a sacred mystery; but because of this his relations with the housemaid become of a sparkling and crystal clearness. He puts the seed of dogma in a central darkness; but it branches forth in all directions with abounding natural health. As we have taken the circle as the symbol of reason and madness, we may very well take the cross as the symbol at once of mystery and of health. Buddhism is centripetal, but Christianity is centrifugal: it breaks out. For the circle is perfect and infinite in its nature; but it is fixed for ever in its size; it can never be larger or smaller. But the cross, though it has at its heart a collision and a contradiction, can extend its four arms for ever without altering its shape. Because it has a paradox in its centre it can grow without changing. The circle returns upon itself and is bound. The cross opens its arms to the four winds; it is a signpost for free travellers.

Symbols alone are of even a cloudy value in speaking of this deep matter; and another symbol from physical nature will express sufficiently well the real place of mysticism before mankind. The one created thing which we cannot look at is the one thing in the light of which we look at everything. Like the sun at noonday, mysticism explains everything else by the blaze of its own victorious invisibility. Detached intellectualism is (in the exact sense of a popular phrase) all moonshine; for it is light without heat, and it is secondary light, reflected from a dead world. But the Greeks were right when they made Apollo the god both of imagination and of sanity; for he was both the patron of poetry and the patron of healing. Of necessary dogmas and a special creed I shall speak later. But that transcendentalism by which all men live has primarily much the position of the sun in the sky. We are conscious of it as of a kind of splendid confusion; it is something both shining and shapeless, at once a blaze and a blur. But the circle of the moon is as clear and unmistakable, as recurrent and inevitable, as the circle of Euclid on a blackboard. For the moon is utterly reasonable; and the moon is the mother of lunatics and has given to them all her name.”

In other words, humility.  Humility is key – especially when it comes to human reason.

G. K. Chesterton 8

You can read Orthodoxy in its entirety here:  Chesterton’s “Orthodoxy”
For more on Chesterton:
The American Chesterton Society

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