Chapter I : Introduction
G.K. Chesterton's book "Orthodoxy" has been one of the best reads of my life. C.S. Lewis had previously been my favorite author, until Chesterton came along. For as witty and profound as Lewis is, Chesterton condenses that wit and profundity into his book so that the density of thought is staggering. On top of this, I love Chesterton because I have a passion for studying materialism and freethought. These topics are very intriguing to me, both because atheism is on the rise today, and because even many who are religious live their practical lives guided by these worldviews. In "Orthodoxy," Chesterton writes on a wide variety of topics, all with the same great weight and clarity. But since most people don't get the opportunity to read in what little spare time they have, I thought I would summarize Chesterton's work in hopes that I can 1) pique your interest to make the time to read it, or 2) summarize some of his great ideas so you can benefit from them.
Chesterton describes such a journey as the best possible journey one could have. It is filled with the excitement of adventure - setting out into the unknown - yet having the comfort and security of never actually leaving one's land. Chesterton describes his ideological experience as having been the same. While he had thrown off Christianity (his homeland) early on, seeking new ideas and ways of thinking (adventurous exploration), his exploration ended up bringing him right back home, to Christian orthodoxy.
The story of Chesterton's life is very encouraging, especially as we see many youth leaving the church today. Chesterton acknowledges the desire to throw off structure and tradition to blaze one's own trail and come to one's own conclusions, but his experience shows us that one's adventure out into the world can just as easily confirm Christian experience as it can naturalism. "Orthodoxy" is all about the questions and thoughts Chesterton had while walking through life as an agnostic, and how logic, reason, and experience lead him to see how all other views of the world - particularly materialism - were incompatible with reality. Not only that, but orthodox Christianity ended up being the ideology that was most explanatory, and often accurately predictive.
As I delve into Chesterton's book, I want to warn you that I will be using frequent and lengthy quotes. Chesterton says things in such a beautiful way, and often so succinctly, that a summary of the ideas would end up being longer and much less meaningful. I hope you find that format useful.
Chapter II : The Maniac
Chesterton begins chapter two by describing one of his first observations about life. Chesterton saw a world that was infatuated with self-confidence. To succeed in this life, humans were encouraged to hold the idea that they were capable of anything. But Chesterton realized rather quickly that such a notion was quite literally madness. Chesterton says that "complete self-confidence is not merely a sin; complete self-confidence is a weakness...I know of men who believe in themselves more colossally than Napoleon or Caesar. I know where flames the fixed star of certainty and success. I can guide you to the throne of Supermen. The men who really believe in themselves are all in lunatic asylums."
Utter self-confidence is a broken way of looking at the world. It is misguided and delusional. But while most assume that the self-deluded mad man is as such because he fails to add reason to his confidence, his problem, ironically, is his utter reasoning. Chesterton explains through analogy that it is only sane men - or men without hyper-reasoning - who are able to do useless things, like whistle while they walk, wave their cane around in blades of grass, or tap their heels as they're thinking. Sane people are able to be careless and causeless, while the lunatic reasons in everything.
"The madman would read conspiratorial significance into those empty activities. He would think that the lopping of the grass was an attack on private property. He would think that the kicking of the heels was a signal to an accomplice. If the madman could for an instant become careless, he would become sane. Everyone who has had the misfortune to talk with people in the heart or on the edge of mental disorder, knows that their most sinister quality is a horrible clarity of detail; a connecting of one thing with another in a map more elaborate than a maze... The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason."
Chesterton, here, hits on a very interesting observation. The mixture of self-confidence with extreme reason largely describes insanity. Surely we have all seen this and experienced this. We, in our society, believe that everything is about us. People are always watching us. Everything is conspiratorial. Everything impacts us and we impact everything. The world hinges on us, and we are capable of anything we put our minds to. If we understand and believe Chesterton's description of mad men, then we live in a mad, mad world.
The madman, then, uses his reasoning to condense the great complexities of life, relationships, and the universe into the smallest possible sphere - himself. Nothing that occurs happens outside the madman. They "take one thin explanation and stretch it very far." And this, Chesterton says, is exactly what materialists do. They condense a very large, complex world into a thin explanation and pattern. The materialist "understands everything, and everything does not seem worth understanding. His cosmos may be complete in every rivet and cog-wheel, but still his cosmos is smaller than our world. 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 cosmos is so very small. The cosmos is about the smallest hole that a man can hide his head in."
Chesterton goes on to elaborate about materialism, as he compares its simplistic, all-encompassing, excessive reasoning to the madman's.
"You can explain a man's detention at [an insane asylum] by an indifferent public by saying that it is the crucifixion of a god of whom the world is not worthy. The explanation does explain. Similarly you may explain the order in the universe by saying that all things, even the souls of men, are leaves inevitably unfolding on an utterly unconscious tree - the blind destiny of matter. The explanation does explain, though not, of course, so completely as the madman's. But the point here is that the normal human mind not only objects to both, but feels to both the same objection. Its approximate statement is that if the man in [the insane asylum] is the real God, he is not much of a god. And, similarly, if the cosmos of the materialist is the real cosmos, it is not much of a cosmos. The thing has shrunk. The deity is less divine than many men; and the whole of life is something much more grey, narrow, and trivial than many separate aspects of it. The parts seem greater than the whole."
Chesterton's complaint is that the materialist's utter reasoning shrinks love, passion, life, longing, and all such things into a tiny, all-encompassing explanation that does each of these individual experiences injustice. It does not fit at all with our common sense. The madman in an asylum may really be a persecuted god, but if he is, he is not much of a god. Likewise, the materialist’s explanation may stand, but it ends up making the universe a very bleak thing. And just as the madman sees absolute causality and reason in everything - the clicking of heels or the swiping at blades of grass - and loses his sanity, so materialists infuse trivial causality into all, and lose meaning. While this doesn’t disprove materialism, it should give us pause that it so grossly accosts our intuitions. It should also give us pause that materialists carry on as though meaning still exists.
Along with the loss of meaning, materialists also lose freedom. While one of their main complaints against religion is its demand on the individual and its hampering of personal freedom, it is in fact the materialist who is less free. While the materialist thinks Christians are enslaved because they are commanded to perform and abstain from particular actions, Chesterton argues that the materialists are enslaved because they cannot believe in “fairies.”
"The Christian is quite free to believe that there is a considerable amount of settled order and inevitable development in the universe, [just like the materialist]. But the materialist is not allowed to admit into his spotless machine the slightest speck of spiritualism or miracle. The poor [materialist] is not allowed to retain even the tiniest imp, though it might be hiding in a [flower]. The Christian admits that the universe is manifold and even miscellaneous, just as the sane man knows that he is complex. The sane man knows that he has a touch of the beast, a touch of the devil, a touch of the saint, a touch of the citizen. Nay, the really sane man knows that he has a touch of the madman. But the materialist's world is quite simple and solid, just as the madman is quite sure he is sane."
Chesterton has even more to say about the bondage and destruction materialism brings. Just as lunacy brings bondage to an idea through extreme reason, or reason without common sense and frivolity, so materialism brings bondage. Whether materialism is right or wrong, it destroys one's humanity.
" When materialism leads men to complete fatalism (as it generally does), it is quite idle to pretend that it is in any sense a liberating force. It is absurd to say that you are especially advancing freedom when you only use free thought to destroy free will. The determinists come to bind, not to loose. They may well call their law the 'chain of causation.' It is the worst chain that ever fettered a human being. You may use the language of liberty, if you like, about materialistic teaching, but it is obvious that this is just as inapplicable to it as a whole as the same language when applied to a man locked up in a mad-house. You may say, if you like, that the man is free to think himself a poached egg. But it is surely a more massive and important fact that if he is a poached egg, he is not free to eat, drink, sleep, walk, or smoke a cigarette. Similarly you may say, if you like, that the bold determinist speculator is free to disbelieve in the reality of the will. But it is a much more massive and important fact that he is not free to raise, to curse, to thank, to justify, to urge, to punish, to resist temptations, to incite mobs, to make New Year resolutions, to pardon sinners, to rebuke tyrants, or even to say ‘thank you’ for the mustard."
So according to Chesterton, the ideology of materialism destroys sanity, meaning, common sense, freedom, and ultimately one's humanity. But even more, materialism eventually leads to the removal of mercy and compassion. While many would think that fatalism leads to the abolition of cruel punishment, since one’s will is an external product rather than an inward one, the opposite is actually true.
"It is quite tenable that the doctrine of necessity makes no difference at all; that it leaves the flogger flogging and the kind friend exhorting as before. But obviously if it stops either of them, it stops the kind exhortation. That the sins are inevitable does not prevent punishment; if it prevents anything it prevents persuasion. 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 to 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 boiling oil is an environment.”
Chesterton finishes the chapter by leaving materialism for a brief paragraph, and explaining that the opposite end of materialism - solipsism (or superegoism) - is also problematic. For a man to believe that he is in a dream, and only he exists, is to destroy sanity, life, meaning, and all the other aforementioned blessings which materialism destroys. I think Chesterton only spends a paragraph on this because very few people actually believe this. However, it needs to be mentioned because though there are few adherents to this in an ideological sense, there are many adherents to it in practice. Of these two views - superegoism and materialism - Chesterton concludes,
"Now obviously there can be no positive proof given to [the man who believes he is in a dream] that he is not in a dream, for the simple reason that no proof can be offered that might not be offered in a dream. But if the man began to burn down London and say that his housekeeper would soon call him to breakfast, we should take him and put him with the other logicians in [the mad-house]. The man who cannot believe his senses, and the man who cannot believe anything else, are both insane, but their insanity is proved not by any error in their argument, but by the manifest mistake of their whole lives. They have both locked themselves up in two boxes...Their position is quite reasonable; nay, in a sense it is infinitely reasonable, just as a [penny] is infinitely circular. But there is such a thing as a mean infinity, a base and slavish eternity. It is amusing to notice that many of the moderns, whether sceptics or mystics, have taken as their sign a certain eastern symbol, which is the very symbol of this ultimate nullity. When they wish to represent eternity, they represent it by a serpent with his tail in his mouth. There is a startling sarcasm in the image of that very unsatisfactory meal. The eternity of the material fatalists, the eternity of the eastern pessimists, the eternity of the supercilious theosophists and higher scientists of today is, indeed, very well presented by a serpent eating his tail, a degraded animal who destroys even himself."
Chesterton summarizes the chapter by saying that since he has now shown what is insanity - "reason used without root," he will spend the rest of the book trying to discover what sanity is, and how to maintain it. However, in order not to keep any ignorant of his basic thesis, Chesterton makes his very basic claim which is that it is mysticism that keeps men sane. He says "as long as you have mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity." Chesterton concludes his chapter with this thought:
" 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 forever 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 forever without altering its shape. Because it has a paradox in its center 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 travelers."
"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 the popular phrase) all moon shine; 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."
As we shall see in subsequent chapters, Chesterton is not saying that reason is bad and that we should always settle for mystery. However, where you find one who cannot embrace both reason, mystery, and frivolity - you have likely found a madman.