Note: Here’s a new free ebook version of Orthodoxy with an introduction by Matt Anderson, which I’m looking forward to reading after I finish the book. I’m going to switch to this version, as its formatting is superior to the other free version I was using. From this post on, references will be to the location numbers in this edition. Also, read Matt’s intro.
Chapter 2 presented Chesterton’s case that, despite all the dark warnings in the modern age about the dangers of imagination and fancy, it is actually reason that is most likely to drive us mad. I had some sympathy for the argument “against” reason as Chesterton laid it out, though I’m skeptical that it makes sense to oppose imagination to reason as starkly as he does. In Chapter 3, he announces that his intent was not to “attack the authority of reason; rather it is the ultimate purpose to defend it” (748). In a nutshell, this chapter argues that reason has a “suicidal mania”; the various paths it took in late 19th-century thought led to the same self-annihilation. Chesterton devotes most of the chapter to the “dull” work of summing up these different “modern fashions of thought which have this effect of thought stopping itself” (778).
The chapter continues Chesterton’s diagnosis of the crisis of reason by examining the path by which reason arrived at being “suicidal.” This diagnosis is a bit paradoxical considering Chesterton’s indication that he intends ultimately to “defend” reason.The move goes something like: reason was corrupted when it was loosed from the restraints of humility. But the problem isn’t that reason is arrogant, but rather that the character of its humility has changed in the wake of the rejection of Christianity, and it is now out of balance.
Chesterton opens the chapter with a discussion of our common saying that someone’s “heart is in the right place,” which he interprets as “[involving] the idea of normal proportion; not only does a certain function exist, but it is rightly related to other functions” (701). After Christianity’s “shattering” by the Reformation and the modern world it created, Christian virtues were scattered and became dangerous once they were disembodied from the religious framework that balanced them against one another (712). Truth and charity can actually become disfigured doctrines apart from Christianity, Chesterton says, but it’s humility that he believes has mutated to the most dangerous effect. I’ll quote a long passage here that I think gets this across:
But what we suffer from today is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt—the Divine Reason. … The old humility was a spur that prevented a man from stopping; not a nail in his boot that prevented him from going on. For the old humility made a man doubtful about his efforts, which might make him work harder. But the new humility makes a man doubtful about his aims, which will make him stop working altogether. (739)
This is clear enough, but the larger point is more difficult to follow. The problem isn’t man’s reasoning capacities—his ability to ask skeptical questions—itself, but the outsize modern role those faculties have been given in relation to man’s other faculties, his overall self-understanding. We should be self-critical about our daily worldly activities, but not about what Chesterton calls our “aims,” which we automatically understand as derived from the authority of “Divine Reason” (741). Skepticism about our own abilities is a powerful, useful human function that becomes dangerous when turned against the deep, fundamental aspects of our existence like our ability to know who we are and why we’re here. Modern “thought,” characterized as it is by deep skepticism about our ability to know, is for Chesterton a failure to think.
The function of organized religion, he argues, has been to preserve a reverence for our ability to think and to have a healthy confidence about what we know. As he puts it in this eyebrow-raising reinterpretation of the church’s history of oppression:
The creeds and the crusades, the hierarchies and the horrible persecutions were not organized, is as ignorantly said, for the suppression of reason. They were organized for the difficult defense of reason. Man, by blind instinct, knew that if once things were wildly questioned, reason could be questioned first. The authority of priests to absolve, the authority of popes to define the authority, even of inquisitors to terrify: these were all only dark defenses erected round one central authority—the authority of man to think. (760)
So reason is only preserved within the holistic context of religion, where certain things are taken as self-evident (for example, “divine authority”). This is a counterintuitive, complex point, so I hope I’m making it clear. Chesterton is not arguing that man shouldn’t be rational and self-confident about what he knows, but that he can’t be those things without accepting certain first principles and certain boundaries, exemplified by the “schema” of religion. Reason can’t by itself be “proved,” and neither can religion, but outside the holistic structure of divine authority, reason can’t do anything but attack itself. If we destroy the idea of divine authority, eventually human authority will have to go, too.
This is the main critical point of Chapter 3, and the rest is devoted to illustrating how various “modern fashions of thought” perform the suicidal, self-annihilating move that Chesterton believes happens when Christian virtues are set to work outside of Christianity. Whether it’s progress undermining the idea of progress, or will undermining the possibility of willing, Chesterton seems to believe that all the major positions of his time are similarly self-defeating. I’ll examine his response some of those positions in the next section.
This chapter is more rhetorically sophisticated than I realized the first or even the second time through; it took careful reading to appreciate how tightly it’s tied together, how Chesterton carries his notion of the “suicide of thought” through his grab-bag of arguments with various early 20th century intellectual positions. It’s easy to be distracted by his more outlandish statements, but each reading revealed a bit more structural coherence than I’d noticed before. I do think some of the difficulty is Chesterton’s fault; for example, he slides between terms like “reason,” “thought” and “skepticism” without defining or differentiating them. In the argument I summarized above, I think Chesterton leaves his notions of “divine authority” and “divine reason” very murky, making it difficult to understand how exactly these protect against the “suicide of thought.” But more on that in a moment.
For reasons of space, I won’t go into every single “ism” Chesterton attempts to deconstruct, but I found most of his responses to these limited by his determination to explain them all in terms of the same self-annihilating formula. It’s quite possible that the “isms” of Chesterton’s day really were as idiotic as he presents them, but his egregiously simplistic understanding of Nietzsche, for example, doesn’t incline one to give him the benefit of the doubt. His responses are too often simply assertions rather than arguments or even rejoinders. For example, when refuting “evolution” as a philosophical position (as opposed to a scientific explanation, which he’s fine with), Chesterton concludes that the fact that evolutionary flux would undermine our concepts of things as fixed entities means, ipso facto, it must be false:
If evolution simply means that a positive thing called an ape turned very slowly into a positive thing called a man, then it is stingless for the most orthodox; for a personal God might just as well choose to doing things slowly as quickly, especially if, like the Christian God, he were outside time. But if it means anything more, it means that there is no such thing as an ape to change, and no such thing as a man for him to change into. It means that there is no such thing as a thing. At best, there is only one thing, and that is a flux of everything and anything. This is not an attack upon the faith, but upon the mind; you cannot think if there are no things to think about. (772-785)
It’s hard to know what to say about this; I think it’s as obviously absurd as Chesterton thinks it is right. It is a fact that the natural world is in flux, and that the things we understand to be fixed entities (apes, men) are shifting imperceptibly over long periods of time. The biological reality of flux doesn’t mean there is “no such thing as a thing,” unless by “thing” you mean some type of immutable Platonic form. Many human categories are simplifications or falsifications of reality in order to facilitate our style of conceptual thinking, but this doesn’t render them useless or thought in general meaningless. And there’s no reason a divine creator couldn’t be involved in a process of continual creation, or have set in motion a flux that shifts continually in defiance of human attempts to grasp it. There is no substance to Chesterton’s “refutation” here, even from a Christian perspective; all he seems to have to offer is rhetorical chicanery.
He thinks that one modern fashion has seen his insight about the world driven mad by reason and tried to revolt: the “philosophy of will,” which “came through Nietzsche” (843). Chesterton engages here with George Bernard Shaw and the poet John Davidson as much as Nietzsche, meaning there may be an understandable reason his version of the “philosophy of will” bears no resemblance to the one actually found in Nietzsche. His move here is to reduce Nietzsche to “pure willing,” a kind of willing without an aim. Once he’s done this, it’s easy to paint Nietzsche and his British contemporaries as absurd:
This pure praise of volition [will] ends in the same break up and blank as the mere pursuit of logic. Exactly as complete free thought involves the doubting of thought itself, so the acceptation of mere “willing” paralyzes the will. … The worship of the will is the negation of will. To admire mere choice is to refuse to choose. (864)
This would be obvious if Nietzsche (or Shaw or Davidson) were able to be reduced to a cartoonish “pure willing.” But Nietzsche, at least, cannot. The will for Nietzsche is not volition or choice, but psychological-biological drive. Drives are rooted in human biology, and all have the end goal of discharging their strength: will is not pure will with no aim, but the will to power. This picture of Nietzsche as an “egoist” deifying choice itself is laughable, and shows no evidence of anything beyond secondhand familiarity. (I’m happy to stand corrected if in fact Shaw and Davidson held to some silly “choice” philosophy, though I’d have to say Chesterton is still sloppy for equating them so easily with Nietzsche.)
But enough of this. Clearly, I didn’t think much of Chesterton’s attempts to rebut his contemporaries; most of his versions of their positions were obvious caricatures, and his responses not nearly as devastating as he seems to believe. Despite what I called the rhetorical unification of the chapter, I think a lot of its argument remains confused and undeveloped. I realize Chesterton isn’t writing philosophical treatise, but I think to be persuasive, we have to be able to understand what he means when he talks about “reason” and “thought” and “skepticism,” things that have important differences and can’t be casually conflated.
This chapter advances an argument I recognize from encounters with intellectual conservatives of various stripes: the notion that reason is dangerous outside of defined boundaries, and that reflection must be kept within certain restraints. This comes out in the various postures of religious, political, and academic conservatives who argue that certain types of inquiry are inherently illegitimate because they discount divine first principles, transgress professional academic conventions of clarity and concision, etc. Especially in his dubious passage quoted above on the Catholic church’s history of suppression, Chesterton is making a case for traditional authority over against the intellectual projects unleashed by modernity.
There are a couple of ways I think he’s insightful. One is his counterintuitive realization that the rational modern world, for all the monumental elevation of human effort unleashed by the scientific revolution, is ultimately doomed to arrive at a reduced purview for humanity, where we realize we are not the measure of the world as we once believed. Our stature on the planet is at once enormous and insignificant: we have no other framework by which to understand ourselves except our own efforts and projects, and the extraordinary results of those projects reveals how indifferent the world really is to our presence.
Another way Chesterton feels prescient is his awareness of the extent to which reason in the Western tradition is bound up in divinity, a sort of originary “highest” authority that philosophers in the second half of the 20th century would be particularly keen to trace and deconstruct. In the loose collection of “postmodern” French philosophers of the 1960s and 70s, Chesterton’s point that there is an inherent connection between reason, humanism, and Christianity is all but axiomatic. Derrida in particular was arguing, almost exactly 100 years later, that reason as logos in Western philosophy has a divine origin, that it is “essentially theological.”  He even wrote that Western rationalism has infected with a “suicidal autoimmunity,” a determination to attack its own foundations. Though in the mid-20th century such observations were typically made for the purpose of further deconstructing the West’s theological origins, Chesterton’s prediction seems to have been accurate:
In the act of destroying Divine authority, we have largely destroyed the idea of human authority by which we do a long-division sum. With a long and sustained tug we have attempted to to pull the mitre off pontifical man; and his head has come off with it. (777)
The question, of course, whether that’s a bad thing, and, even if it is, whether it can be undone.
1. Jacques Derrida, trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas, Rogues: Two Essays on Reason (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005), 127.
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