This is part of a series on G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy. Click here to read the introduction to the project. Page numbers refer to this free Kindle edition of the book. Other formats available for free here.
Note: Chapter 1 of Orthodoxy is the introduction, which I’ve decided to skip; it’s a brief few pages, and I will cover it several times in posts on the actual chapters.
Chesterton opens with a series of illustrations a skeptical reader might instantly seize upon as full of strangely categorical declarations; in fact, the beginning of the chapter is a good example of the sort of cheery sophistry I have always taken to be his overall style. But by the end of the chapter, I think it’s clear these are rhetorical devices whose weakness can be mostly overlooked. Right off the bat, it’s clear that quoting Chesterton in aphorisms doesn’t do him justice; the “quip” tends to introduce an argument, rather than standing alone in place of one. For example, the familiar poets-vs-chess players passage:
Imagination does not breed insanity. Exactly what does breed insanity is reason. Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists very seldom. I am not, as will be seen, in any sense attacking logic: I only say that this danger does lie in logic, not in imagination. Artistic paternity is as wholesome as physical paternity. Moreover, it is worthy of remark that when a poet really was morbid it was commonly because he had some weak spot of rationality on his brain. (9)
We could waste a lot of time pointing how baseless an opposition this is, but I’m quite sure that if pressed, Chesterton would certainly concede that there have been mad poets, and wonder why we’re missing the point. I’ll return to the dichotomy toward the end; for now, we can say this is intended as a counterintuitive, polemical set-up for his argument that reason that closes off mystery is madness.
The crux of this chapter is Chesterton’s opposition between reason and “imagination.” He observes that the insane are often particularly skillful reasoners; a madman has not lost his reason, but “has lost everything except his reason” (11). His logic is all the more perfectly watertight because it is not inhibited by the other human faculties that typically interact with and balance out rationality. In the madman, the human drive to see patterns in the world finds its ultimate and most absurd expression; the madman’s explanations are unassailable because they represent a circular theory of everything.
The trouble with the madman, Chesterton explains, is that the “world” that his explanation covers is small: “The lunatic’s theory explains a large number of things, but it does not explain them in a large way” (12). His problem is that he imagines himself to be the center of the world, which shrinks the universe to an oppressive, airless tight space. This is of course an impoverished existence, so lacking in perspective that it is likely to drive one mad. “How much larger your life would be if your self could become smaller in it,” Chesterton says in his imaginary therapy session with the lunatic.
The opposition between the poet and the logician soon morphs into an opposition between Christianity and materialism, which Chesterton seems to take as synonymous with “determinism.” The materialist scientist is like the madman in that he has “one idea,” a complete explanation of the world that he takes to go all the way down. “He understands everything, and everything does not seem worth understanding” (15). In the materialist picture, the world has shrunk down to a formula, a kind of causal machine that leaves no place for mystery, miracle, freedom, or many other things most of us understand as central to our humanity. The madman has a coherent, fully-explained cosmos, but his cosmos is only a faint representation of the actual world of human significance:
Somehow his 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 [materialist’s] cosmos is so very small. The cosmos is about the smallest hole that a man can hide his head in. (15)
Chesterton says that so far, he is not trying to show that the materialist cosmos is false, but is rather attempting to determine whether believing such a thing is healthy. The argument is that deterministic rational materialism, with its closing off of freedom and possibility, are psychologically destructive; “mysticism,” on the other hand, “keeps men sane” (19). Mysticism—the openness to mystery, to complexity, to contradiction, to the unknown—is man in his natural state, as opposed to materialists who, like madmen, “never have doubts.” This quite lovely passage at the end of the chapter sums up how Chesterton sees the dichotomy:
Detached intellectualism is (in the exact sense of the 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. (20)
I have to say I was pleasantly surprised re-reading this chapter, though many of the stylistic barriers to approaching Chesterton as an intellectual are as present as ever. He is addressing a number of philosophical questions that have been at the center of Western thought for the past three centuries, yet claiming he is not making a philosophical argument; it’s difficult to cut him the slack he seems to want when he is so glibly traipsing over issues that have been so difficult for so long. And that’s aside from the previously mentioned illustrations and rhetorical style which, if you’re not already sitting in the choir, can come off as rather cheap and insulting.
So maybe I should begin with what I disliked about the chapter, and then move on to the (I think deeper and more significant) stuff I liked. The reason I say one would already need to be on Chesterton’s team to be persuaded is his ridiculous cardboard version of materialism, which of course might have come in response to the style of particular materialists of his time. But for example, materialism has nothing inherently to do with determinism, a philosophical position that remains much more controversial than materialism. Nietzsche, Sartre, and Christopher Hitchens were all materialists who were anything but determinists. Materialism also need not be chained to notions of linear causality, with Nietzsche again being a prime example to the contrary.
But most importantly, materialism—which is most simply the belief that there is no evidence for/strong evidence against the presence of the supernatural—does not claim to have a foolproof, doubt-free explanation of the universe that precludes all mystery. Of course there are crass materialists who assert such things, but that sort of posturing is generally not taken seriously even by most firmly atheistic scientists and philosophers. Even Richard Dawkins, who one might describe generally as a crass materialist, can give poetic descriptions of the awe that scientific discoveries can inspire, in part because of what we still don’t know. And despite Chesterton’s broad-brushing, plenty of materialists have doubts all of the time.
All of that said, I have much more sympathy than I previously did for Chesterton’s overall point. I’m not sure Christianity is necessary to this chapter; you could drop the little lecture about sin (7) and replace “the Christian” with “the artist” or “the romantic,” and the argument would be roughly the same. The interesting fact, at least at this point in the book, is not that Chesterton conflates Christianity and romanticism, but rather the details of the Romantic critique—I think it’s fine to use the capital there—he is is directing at the materialist rationalism that was dominant in London at the beginning of the 20th century. The basic attack on rationalistic understandings of the world is not original—Rousseau and the German Romantics made similar ones in the 18th century, Nietzsche incorporated them into a philosophy in the 19th—but it’s easy to see how counterintuitive it might have been at the time, and why it might be so appealing to contemporary evangelical Protestants burdened with centuries of modernist baggage.
One of the Romantic threads that Chesterton picks up most skillfully is the idea that “detached intellectualism”—whether a heavy scientism or a radical skepticism à la Descartes (18)—is psychologically disfiguring, it is destructive to humanity. Chesterton makes this the main theme of his chapter; in the introduction, he describes his faith/viewpoint as answering a “spiritual need” (2), and, as noted above, says he is not yet trying to assess the truth of materialist worldviews, but merely their “relation to health” (15, emphasis mine). The madman, then, stands in for the deep violence the rational and scientific revolution have done to humanity. Here’s a passage where I think Chesterton visualizes this in a particularly evocative way:
Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite. … The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is head that splits. (9)
You can find versions of this all through the counter-enlightenment thought of the 20th century; for instance, Heidegger talking about modernity as “a completely destitute time” and declaring that we must listen to poets who “attend, singing, to the trace of the fugitive gods.”  His notion of Gestell (enframing) is exactly analogous to what Chesterton means here by crossing the infinite sea and making it finite: it is an attempt to enframe everything that exists, including ourselves, inside the purview of utilitarian human research. (“Every event must be seen so as to be fitted into this ground plan of nature”).  In this cosmos, “the thing has shrunk” (Chesterton, 15); “the nature of the thing never comes to light, it never gets a hearing” (Heidegger).  Chesterton agrees with Heidegger (and some of the later postmodernists): “The whole secret of mysticism is this: that man can understand everything by the help of what he does not understand” (20).
You’re perhaps noticed that I seemed to speak out of both sides of my mouth here: I defended materialism against Chesterton’s in my opinion rather one-dimensional attacks, then switched sides when he took up his rousing romanticism. The explanation is simple: I don’t think the tension between our scientific-materialist reality and its evident impoverishment of human experience can be turned into a zero-sum dichotomy the way Chesterton has done at this point in the book. The fastest way to solve an intellectual problem is to pretend it doesn’t exist; the easiest way out for a romantic post-1900 is to simply denounce reasoning and science altogether as corrupt, destructive, beside the point, etc., and it’s looking like that’s the road Chesterton takes. I doubt that was plausible in even in 1907, much less 2013. We can’t work from silly dichotomies between logic and imagination, or between materialism and freedom. If a kind of romanticism or ongoing critique of reason is to be anything but a hopeless nostalgia, it has a lot of work to do grappling with the things modern science have made all but undeniable. Though Chesterton doesn’t necessarily “deny” science, it’ll be interesting to see if he addresses it with any more nuance as he goes on.
1. Martin Heidegger, “What Are Poets For?” in Poetry, Language, Thought. New York: HarperCollins, 2001 , 92.
2. Martin Heidegger, “The Age of the World Picture” in The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. New York: HarperCollins, 1977, 119.
3. Martin Heidegger, “The Thing,” ibid, 168.
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- David Sessions on Burn Your Indecision to the Ground
- Robin Herbert on Burn Your Indecision to the Ground
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