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G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy: The Maniac

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After much time, I have finally started reading Chesterton’s work Orthodoxy. I kept hearing amazing things about this book from many Christians and boy were they right. This post is the first in a series of posts that will focus on summarizing Chesterton’s thoughts in his book.

The Maniac is the second chapter after the Introduction of Orthodoxy. This chapter delves into the modern rationalism that was popular back in Chesterton’s day and is still popular today. This rationalism has made men insane.

This madness of human thought begins with the denial of sin. Some theologians and modern thinkers deny original sin even though Chesterton says that it’s the only part of Christianity that can be empirically proved. Evil can be seen in the street; it’s impossible to deny this fact. He then begins to state his main thesis of this chapter: Mystery is essential for normality and sanity.

“The fairy tale discusses what a sane man will do in a mad world. The sober realistic novel of today discusses what an essential lunatic will do in a dull world” (p.g. 30)

Chesterton says the modern mind wants to negate imagination and poetry. It wants to overcome the dichotomy of faith and reason by just getting rid of faith altogether. But Chesterton demonstrates this way of thinking to be wrong by showing that it is the poet who is sane, and the pure rationalist who is insane.

“Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and make it finite” (p.g. 31)

He beautifully shows that the worship of human reason and intellect will ultimately cause utter chaos in all parts of the modern mind. Consider this next quote:

“The poet only asks to get his head in the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits” (p.g. 31-32)

The modern mind wants to reduce all these spiritual thoughts into something that can be comprehended easily and rationally, yet it is impossible to do such. Chesterton gives a brilliant real life example. R.B. Suthers, a determinist, believes that free-will is impossible because it involves causeless actions. Suthers denies this because free-will cannot exist with the materialist worldview. Chesterton shows that actions of the human will can be causeless and that the lunatic needs freedom in order to state his determinist view. Chesterton says that the determinist sees too much cause in everything. The madman is purely reasonable but that’s all the madman has. The madman is wrong about everything else.

He also shows the flaws in materialism. Materialism as a theory is too simple and too limiting when compared to any form of spiritualism. The Christian can accept science and methodological naturalism. He can accept things that are not forbidden in the Bible (for example, certain mathematical theorems). The materialist on the other hand can have nothing mystical or spiritual in his theory. He cannot even think about immortality whereas the Christian is free to think about it or not. This supports the point he just made regarding Suther’s argument.

G.K. shows the ethical folly of determinism:

“Determinism is quite as likely to lead to cruelty as it is certain to lead to cowardice. Determinism is not inconsistent with the cruel treatment of criminals. What it is (perhaps) inconsistent with is the generous treatment of criminals; with any appeal to their better feelings or encouragement in their moral struggle. The determinist does not believe in appealing the will, but he does believe in changing the environment. He must not say to the sinner, “Go and sin no more,” because the sinner cannot help it. But he can put him in boiling oil; for the boiling oil is an environment” (p.g. 43)

This critique ties in nicely with Kant’s principle of humanity. It is impossible to have moral responsibility if the criminal has no will. The determinist has to change the environment to change the person for it is the environment that determines how a person will act. Chesterton continues then to show the problems of solipsism and any type of empirical skepticism.

This brings us to the last part of the chapter where G.K. gives us a look at what the rest of the book will be based upon. So far in summary he has shown that insanity “is reason without root, reason in the void” (p.g 46). What keeps men sane? Chesterton proposes it is mysticism that keeps men sane. Since the quote is too large to put here, I’ll give an excerpt of what he means.

“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” (p.g. 47)

The Christian accepts God as his first axiom. While God has been revealed to us, He is spirit and is in some sense mysterious yet at the same time knowable. Once a person believes in God and heaven and hell, then everything else makes sense to him. The world is opened up. The person who just believes that reality is only natural (or made of matter) has to explain away everything seemingly spiritual or metaphysical and ironically he then makes everything mysterious and not natural at all.

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2 Comments

  1. Will you get mad if I quote your article on my Self Help Forum? I think your topic suits my audience perfectly. Well ya, thanks for posting this article.

  2. Jesse Roach says:

    Don’t know what this has to do with Self Help… but sure, you can link it.

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