In the first post of this series, Matthew Lee Anderson and I described the merits of G.K. Chesterton and his book Orthodoxy. We also invited you to read along and discuss the latest section of the reading plan with us each week. Last week, we focused on the introduction, “In Defense of Everything Else.”
Today, we are discussing chapters 2 and 3, “The Maniac” and “The Suicide of Thought.”
Trevin: The subversion of accepted wisdom
The opening to “The Maniac” couldn’t be more relevant today. Chesterton starts by exposing the vacuousness of complimenting someone for “believing in himself.” He writes: “The men who really believe in themselves are all in lunatic asylums.” That, or they work for Disney today.
From here, Chesterton turns upside down the common maxims and accepted wisdom of his day (and ours) by encouraging us away from extreme rationalism and toward the poetry of existence.
“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 his head that splits.”
Chesterton describes materialism as insanity, and in a terrific twist, casts Christianity as free and the materialist “free thinker” as chained to a system that allows not “the slightest speck of spiritualism or miracle.” This is why I love Chesterton. He turns things upside down so that we can see things right side up.
Matthew: A mysticism that clarifies
Trevin, you’re right about Chesterton turning everything upside down, including how he thinks about mysticism. See, these days it seems many Christians want to take the revelation in Scripture and see only the darkness behind it. Chesterton goes the other direction: he makes the case for the need for mysticism first and the argument for definitions comes out of that.
The “seed of dogma” may be put in a “central darkness,” but it “branches forth in all directions with abounding natural health.” This isn’t a mysticism that subverts or destroys the sharp edges of the truth, but that allows them to grow and take shape.
Trevin: Praiseworthiness of limits
One question I have, following “The Suicide of Thought,” deals with Chesterton praising limits and how we might apply his insights today.
“It is impossible to be an artist and not care for laws and limits. Art is limitation; the essence of every picture is the frame. If you draw a giraffe, you must draw him with a long neck. If, in your bold creative way, you hold yourself free to draw a giraffe with a short neck, you will really find that you are not free to draw a giraffe. The moment you step into the world of facts, you step into a world of limits.”
I wonder how this discussion might apply to the different ways of looking at the debate over marriage. On the one hand, you have folks who, like Chesterton, would see marriage laws and limits as definitions of fact. Draw the lines differently and you no longer have marriage at all.
On the other hand, you have the virtual denial that marriage is something, marriage needs to be expanded, etc. To this, Chesterton would say,
“Do not go about as a demagogue, encouraging triangles to break out of the prison of their three sides. If a triangle breaks out of its three sides, its life comes to a lamentable end.”
Perhaps the same could be said about redefining the lines of marriage.
Matthew: A multi-party “suicide”
If Chesterton critiqued rationalism in the first chapter, he sets out to defend it here. And it turns out, the “suicide” here is a multi-party affair: Chesterton lays out the need for religious authority, casts a skeptical eye toward a certain notion of evolution, hammers away at skepticism and the misguided humility that accompanies it (in what I think is the most important part of the book), and takes on pragmatism by suggesting that the first practical need we have is to believe in absolutes.
But he saves the second half of the chapter to consider will and those who want to elevate it above reason. And here he really finds his intellectual groove. The argument is tricky, but boils down to this: the will is formed by the goods it pursues (“the essence of will is that it is particular”), and so to praise will in the abstract without reference to those goods is to undermine and destroy its operations altogether–and reason’s along with it. That’s the argument, at least. Does it fly?
Now, share your thoughts
Next week, we will discuss chapters 4-5 of Orthodoxy, “The Ethics of Elfland” and “The Flag of the World,” but first, what did you glean from this week’s reading?
How does Chesterton turn the proverbial wisdom of the day on its head? Is his praise of limits applicable to our current debate on marriage? Does his argument about the will work?