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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?


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26 thoughts on “A Discussion of “The Maniac” and “The Suicide of Thought” from G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy

  1. Keith Miller says:

    Trevin,

    Your connection to the marriage redefinition movement is quite apt. Chesterton, in Heretics, would also refute those who think that government shoudn’t settle on a single definition of “triangle” for the sake of liberty:

    What is the good of telling a community that it has every liberty except the liberty to make laws? The liberty to make laws is what constitutes a free people. And what is the good of telling a man (or a philosopher) that he has every liberty except the liberty to make generalizations. Making generalizations is what makes him a man.

    I love the way Chesterton speaks in defense of the way laws and limitations are fundamentally liberating and full of romance. Again from Heretics:

    The thing which keeps life romantic and full of fiery possibilities is the existence of these great plain limitations which force all of us to meet the things we do not like or do not expect. It is vain for the supercilious moderns to talk of being in uncongenial surroundings. To be in a romance is to be in uncongenial surroundings. To be born into this earth is to be born into uncongenial surroundings, hence to be born into a romance. Of all these great limitations and frameworks which fashion and create the poetry and variety of life, the family is the most definite and important. Hence it is misunderstood by the moderns, who imagine that romance would exist most perfectly in a complete state of what they call liberty… They are seeking under every shape and form a world where there are no limitations–that is, a world where there are no outlines; that is, a world where there are no shapes.

    Reforming marriage laws to eliminate easy divorce would certainly leave a lot of people in “uncongenial surroundings” and that would ultimately lead to much more happiness.

  2. Shawn White says:

    Chesterton is spot on in his assessment of limits and limitations. Without limits we could not say or think anything. All truth and thought and action is limiting as he so aptly points out.

    But he also, rightly points out that we can take this too far. Room must be left for the mysterious – that which we cannot completely define and therefore cannot completely say what it’s limits are. We can speak of it in a negative sense (describing it in terms of what it is not), but rarely can we speak of what it actually *is*. It seems this requires us to know our own limitations from an epistemological stance.

    In “The Maniac” it seems that the problem with the madman is that he has come up with one single, simple idea (limitation) that he wishes to apply to everything. And as Chesterton says, morbidity is born out of the death of mystery. The maniac wishes to remove mystery from the whole world (or at least his whole thought) but all he ends up doing is contracting his world to the size of his idea – and that makes a very small world indeed.

    What Chesterton proposes is almost an Aristotelian approach of finding a middle path between rationalism and mysticism – keeping, as he says, we must keep on foot planted in earth and the other foot planted in fairy-land.

  3. Brian Mann says:

    Not sure on the proverbial wisdom piece, but as for the other two questions, the point concerning marriage defined by that which is traced and has an absolute truth about it—this is an excellent point! I loved a certain quote, perhaps unrelated but pithy: “Don’t free a camel of the burden of his hump: you may be freeing him from being a camel” (p.64). Perhaps people are greatly seeing marriage as a violation of their own wills, and because of such the second question is quite related, namely, Does the argument about the will work? The argument being basically that ‘the will is defined by that which it pursues’—Indeed there must be some truth in this, namely that our fallen natures are products of what we in Adam have pursued—that is, a knowledge discontent with God and His rule. As a result we have become unsure about the very authority we should be sure about! Chesterton says, “A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth” (p.51).

    Adam and humanity are now prone to doubt the truth! “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love” is unfortunately the rhyme in the hymn we most remember above the “come thou fount!” This is because of our fallen nature, which Chesterton says is the only thing that is quite provable. He says, “Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved” (p.28). With this we see something very evident—the objects people are pursuing give evidence to what they in Adam have pursued all along.

    Furthermore, concerning the marriage debate, there is a clear picture of what marriage is from both nature and Scripture, which to be denied will eventually drive people mad, wondering where the missing piece is (cf. Matt’s chapter p.16). Perhaps the real turning upside down of things, though thought to be done by the homosexual, is that in every homosexual marriage there will be a missing space screaming out “God and Christ!” (yet the only ones that will be able to see it will be Christians) I.e. homosexual marriage is defined by what it is missing, not what it contains. Real marriage is defined by what it contains; both physically and spiritually. A real marriage has Christ, obedience to His authority, a man and a woman, that’s a real marriage—and it can be drawn on the paper of life because it has been named, defined, and displayed in both forms of revelation, natural and supernatural. The madman will deny a thing exists, the homosexuals are mad men, they are wishing something did not exist, building their lives not imagining, but rebelling, and instead of being unsure of themselves, they have doubted the thing they were made to be sure about.

    So then, we see an uprise in mad men, shaking their fists at God, yet at the same time denying He exists; but wait—didn’t you just shake your fist at Him? Why would you do that if He were not there?

  4. Gabriel says:

    Wow, I can safely state that I have moved out in to waters too deep for my current level of understanding. More often than not I found myself saying, “what???”

    Overall, I think I understand the argument. I was so happy that Chesterton seemed to be showing that those who decline to believe in a supernatural realm actually place themselves in intellectual chains and not liberate their minds. They do not allow a full level of explanation for all things. I think this is one way he attacks the proverbial wisdom of the day. The enlightenment and modernism have highlighted reason to the detriment of learning.

    In regards to Trevin’s question about limits and marriage, I think I agree. Only in fitting into a definition do we find what something is. If we do not have limits, there is no distinction. With no distinction how does one distinguish? I find this does apply to marriage. If our society does choose to think of marriage as something else, then it will lose its distinctiveness and probably not be sought.

    Lastly, to be honest, I have not the foggiest idea how to understand his argument about the will yet. Anybody want to help me out here?

    I look forward to reading through all the other responses soon. I am enjoying this very much.

    1. Shawn White says:

      The way I understood Chesterton on the “will” is that it is similar to how he talks about definition – it is inherently limiting.

      To will “X” means, at the same time, that I also sacrifice all non-X. To choose one thing means I choose against all other things that are not the thing I choose. This is why he says that change is the narrowest groove one can get themselves into. To act is to change.

    2. Kyle says:

      I think you have to start from the context of understand that there were existentialists (Camus, Sartre, etc) who claimed that the only way for humans to validate their existence was through an act of the will. It did not matter what you willed, only that you willed it. Whether you helped an old lady across the street or ran her over with your car, as long as you made it through an act of the will, you had validated your existence.

      The essence of Chesterton’s argument, as I see it, is that once you elevate the will alone as the ultimate good, you negate the ability of the will to decide what to do. Will is itself the ability to choose between different options, but I cannot choose an option which is “more” an act of will than any other. I know that what is important is that I make an act of the will, but what specifically shall I will? I shall will what conforms to my highest good, which is simply to will anything, which does not help me to will any particular action.

      Therefore, in order to take any particular action (a specific act of will) I must necessarily invent another criteria, even an arbitrary one. But this new criteria then supplants my original highest goal of “will anything” with “will this over that.” Thus while elevating the will seems to be freeing, it is actually paralyzing and impossible in practice.

  5. Gabe says:

    I’d love to hear more from Matt about how the section on humility is the most important in the book.

    My thoughts are here: http://www.trahtoom.blogspot.com/2013/08/reading-orthodoxy-maniac-and-suicide-of.html

  6. Kyle says:

    I think there is more than enough material to make these updates every chapter instead of cramming 2 chapters into one post. It feels like you are barely scratching the surface of the potential in this series. Is this by design? I actually had just finished reading the book when you started this series and I was really looking forward to your commentary, but it seems very… limited. Any chance of changing the format? (Probably not).

    I guess I just think this is an awesome idea and I want more of it not less!

    1. Trevin Wax says:

      We could devote an entire blog, 365 days a year to Orthodoxy and not exhaust all the topics that flow out of the book.

      Matt actually wanted to go faster. :)

      1. Shawn White says:

        How could one possibly go any faster. Lot’s to cover. :)

        1. Kyle says:

          Indeed. Boo Matt. :D :D :D

  7. Daniel Broaddus says:

    What did everyone make about the jab at the Reformation at the beginning of “The Suicide of Thought?” I’d love to hear what you all think he means by it. Is he just a RCC curmudgeon or is he getting at something particularly linked to the suicide of thought that happened in with the Reformation or was at least a consequence of the Reformation?

    1. Brian Mann says:

      Daniel, I’m glad you brought that up. It is well known that Chesterton is anti-calvinist. The jab made at the beginning of the Suicide of Thought chapter in first reading communicates the he sees something wrong with the supposed disunity the reformation brought, but I am no expert on Chesterton and would be interested to know myself. But clearly from the statement “When a religious scheme is shattered (As Christianity was shattered at the Reformation), it is not merely the vices that are let loose…But the virtues are let loose also [positive here, but not for long], and the virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone made because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone.” He goes on to speak of scientists caring for truth, but without pity. As a Calvinist reading Chesterton, I take the challenge and apply it two-fold. First, I must be terribly aware that one can get so divested in things that are true that it isolates and destroys the quality of love that should result from understanding truth. Secondly, I must disagree with what Chesterton calls Christianity here, if he is really thinking of Roman Catholicism. But all in all, I am challenged to really ask if my Calvinism, as good as I think it is, stands to take the accusation that it does little good. I am challenged to consider if the Reformation was any good for the church. And in that challenge I am immediately gladdened that the reformation has done much good for the world to put the Bible into more hands and free people by grace. Even so, I am glad for the challenge, and wish to be every mindful that I do not wish my Christianity to be seen as a rebellion against anything good, but a rescue form tyranny to establish a more sound unity among the people of God.

      1. Trevin Wax says:

        Brian,

        Just to clarify… Chesterton was not a Catholic when he wrote Orthodoxy. He was Anglican. John Piper has discussed Chesterton’s anti-Calvinist posture, and I asked N. D. Wilson about it too.

        I think Chesterton’s view of Calvinism, while a caricature, is a good word of caution for Reformed folks.

        1. Brian Mann says:

          Trevin,

          Thanks for the clarification.

          And while I was skeptical if I’d like to read Chesterton, thus far the challenges alone have been quite thought provoking and helpful. I agree from what I have read thus far that Chesterton’s view of Calvinism is a good word of caution for reformed folks.

          Thanks for hosting this discussion :)

      2. Daniel Broaddus says:

        Brian,

        Thank you for taking the time to answer my rather garbled query (I should probably reread before I post).

        I agree with you, we should all check ourselves when in discussion and conduct ourselves respectfully and in love. However, I don’t think that Chesterton’s dislike for Reformed theology/Calvinism is necessarily their attitude when he talks to them. I don’t think he’s concerned with table manners. Again, I don’t intend to dismiss those at all.

        I believe that Chesterton is addressing the philosophical implications of the Reformation, specifically Reformed theology. Take this excerpt, “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.” Connect this with all he said earlier about the difference between the poets and the logicians. Now, connect this with the Reformed rejection of Theotokos, the bodily presence in the Eucharist, baptismal regeneration, etc…, wherein God interacts with His creation through creation. John Calvin denies the full communication of attributes between Christ’s two natures because of his own philosophical presuppositions (the finite cannot contain the infinite). In Chesterton’s eyes, this position is that of the “lunatic” whose philosophical constructs forbid him to grasp the wonder of the poet who receives Christ’s Body and Blood, for the forgiveness of sins, in the Holy Eucharist. To Chesterton, this is a cookie cutter example of man asserting himself and what his own mind is able to comprehend over and against the Word of God (the Divine Reason) that says “But whoever eats of my body and drinks of my blood has eternal life.”

        I think much the same could be observed in Reformed theology in how it provides assurance of salvation. When one questions whether they are of the elect they can only look to their own faith or evidence of their faith in their own lives (asserting the person as the measurement of salvation). Whereas I don’t deny that this is one way of knowing whether one is saved, it is not, and should not, be the exclusive assurance of salvation. Rather, one should look to Christ’s promise of grace conferred to the believer through the incarnational means that God provided (Divine Reason)(e.g. Holy Baptism). The logician asks, “How can water do such great things?” and the poet will answer “It is not the water indeed that does them, but the word of God which is in and with the water, and faith, which trusts such word of God in the water.”

        To summarize, what I believe Chesterton is getting at in this small little excerpt “When a religious scheme is shattered (As Christianity was shattered at the Reformation), it is not merely the vices that are let loose…But the virtues are let loose also;… and the virtues do more terrible damage” is that the virtue of humility has wandered and transformed itself into skepticism; a skepticism that renders even Christians unable to grasp with faith, the paradoxes of Divine Reason.

        Thoughts?

        Again, thank you for taking the time to ponder the question and reply.

        1. Brian Mann says:

          Daniel,

          I too was struck by some thoughts concerning assurance that flowed out of words that Chesterton speaks in this section. For example when Chesterton speaks of the skeptic being now unsure of the truth, but sure of himself per se (as I recall)it made me consider where do we find assurance but in the truth.

          So, your point about assurance not to be found simply in if you believe and evidence that faith, but in what is declared to you by promise to believe is valid. I find that to be in line with 2 Peter chapter 1, where Peter takes us from adding to our faith, certainly a part of assurance–but not the whole; and goes on to say but we have a more sure Word.

          So, I find that the written Word of God and the sacraments of Lord’s Supper and Baptism (visible Word) are together greater helps to our assurance than our visible works. Even so, we don’t through out those evidences of faith either, they are important in our lives to examine ourselves on the basis of the second tablet of the law, our loving our brother stuff.

          What I am saying, Is I think I agree with what terms of assurance you are getting at, and it to be a valid point. This is me working it out a bit. Do you agree that the truth, the Word of God along with the sacraments provide us with the best assurance, and that our works of faith do play an important role in assurance as well? Blessings!

          1. Daniel Broaddus says:

            Brian,

            Again, thanks for the discussion.

            Yes, I do agree with you. The Gospel is proclaimed and given through Word and Sacrament. I like this as well, “our works of faith do play an important role in assurance as well.” It’s like the habituation of virtue in that the process of making holy (set apartness) is done through practicing holiness. But, being a monergist, you are as well I assume, I can’t help but acknowledge that the holiness I am practicing and “working out” has already been given to me through the unconditional salvation of Christ. Otherwise, we would be unable to practice holiness since we don’t naturally posses it.

            The fact that we do, through salvation, posses holiness we must necessarily practice it. And, that practicing of it, I would agree, is a mark of salvation. However, I would make sure to articulate, that works of faith are only evidence of salvation and not part of the means by which grace is conferred to us (i.e. Holy Baptism, etc…). Consequently, I would still look to my baptism and Christ’s promise for me there, before I looked to my works of faith. I believe that based on what I understand Christianity to be. However, even from a more pragmatic approach, when the afflicted and guilty Christian conscience is in such a state it is usually because the Christian has fallen into sin and/or has not been living and working out their faith as a consequence. If in that state, I am encouraged to look to my works of faith as assurance of Christ’s faithfulness, you can understand why I wouldn’t find that very reassuring. The source of my guilt, and therefore my doubt, in the first place is because we have “not done what we ought to have done and done what we ought not to have done.”

            Something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, though, is works of faith and sanctification. But perhaps we can have that conversation later on in the book if it comes up!

            I’m excited to continue reading and discussing this book. I look forward to many more discussions!

            Cheers,
            Daniel

  8. jason says:

    I finally get it!!! The following sentence made it clear:

    “Mr. McCabe thinks me a slave because I am not allowed to believe in determinism. I think Mr. McCabe a slave because he is not allowed to believe in fairies.”

  9. Jeff Kincaid says:

    The world is the madman, and he holds his limits and his will as absolute, putting them before those of God — the essence of the fall. It is only through surrender to the mysterious divine that we loose (and find) our true selves. Does this turn proverbial wisdom on end? How can it not do so to madmen? But to the following Christian, the poet, it represents genuine sanity, the only such path and the marriage of our will into the “already but not yet” kingdom that Christ inaugurated.

  10. Trish says:

    I guess I’ve always thought Chesterton and Lewis a bit fusty in their ideas on marriage. And I’m not into how Chesterton does or does not part company with Calvinism. The line in this chapter that I like so well that I’ll try to quote in my own writing is this:

    “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 do things slowly as quickly, especially if, like the Christian God, he were outside time.”

    I’m not Catholic, but one of the things I admire about Catholicism is its embrace of science. And it seems to me here that Chesterton concisely and clearly illustrates that.

  11. Stephen Conlon says:

    Love Chesterton! He is a man for our times.

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Trevin Wax


​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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