“Orthodoxy” by G.K. Chesterton

Posted on December 28, 2011 by

Five Stars

Okay, first of all I want to say that I loved this book, Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton. Loved it! I actually put it down with tears streaming down my face, at one point. I’m totally serious.

I’m not going to get into every topic he discussed, as there are great reviews and summaries online, or you could just go read it yourself. Instead, I would like to focus on one specific point he makes at the beginning of the book that really hit home for me, and is sort of relevant to the discussion we had here the past couple of days. The chapter is aptly titled, The Maniac.

Sometimes smart people go nuts

Basically, his point was that logical-thinking people sometimes drive themselves literally insane with their own logic. I do this sometimes, and I see the same proclivity in the other brainiacs around me. It’s like we get this idea in our heads, we examine it thoroughly for holes, and then we accept it as the absolute, unvarnished truth. We discuss this “truth” with other people, and best them easily in debate. Then we think, “Wow, look at that. It really is true.” We get carried away by the power of our own rhetoric.

The problem is that it isn’t really the truth. It’s a part of the truth, but the truth is too complex and multi-faceted for us to truly comprehend. Our own mental vanity prevents us from accepting that logic is not truth. Logic is logic. Truth is truth. We can use logic to conduct a search for truth (dialectic), but it’s not enough to get the whole way there. Sometimes we just have to accept that there’s a part of truth that we might not understand, that there might be errors in our logic, or that the answer might require a bit of what he calls magic — a suspension of disbelief even in the face of our own amazing logical abilities.

An inability to do that is a clear sign that we have lost our marbles. Normal people think we sound crazy, and — you know what? — they’re right. That’s how crazy people think. They think they know everything, and that everyone around them is crazy, evil, or stupid.

Confession is a concession

One of the powerful things I’ve discovered about confession, is that forcing myself to examine my own flaws reminds me that I’m not perfect. That sounds trite, but I sometimes think the world could use a bit more of that, and a bit less stereotyping and conspiracy-theorizing. Not that I don’t love a good conspiracy theory, and some of them are pretty accurate. I’m just saying… don’t overdo it.

Sometimes people just do stuff because they do it. Sometimes they just say stuff because they say it. It’s not always all about you. You’re not the center of the universe. Neither am I. And we can all be thankful for that!

But enough from me, everyone reads Chesterton for the quotes. So I’ll make room, and let the man speak for himself:

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.

He was talking of a cynical man of the world, a sceptic, a diplomatist, a great practical politician. Such men are indeed to madness near allied. Their incessant calculation of their own brains and other people’s brains is a dangerous trade. It is always perilous to the mind to reckon up the mind.

It is exactly such careless and causeless actions that the madman could never understand; for the madman (like the determinist) generally sees too much cause in everything.

He is not hampered by a sense of humour or by charity, or by the dumb certainties of experience. He is the more logical for losing certain sane affections. Indeed, the common phrase for insanity is in this respect a misleading one. The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.

Perhaps the nearest we can get to expressing it is to say this: that his mind moves in a perfect but narrow circle. A small circle is quite as infinite as a large circle; but, though it is quite as infinite, it is not so large. In the same way the insane explanation is quite as complete as the sane one, but it is not so large.

He is in the clean and well-lit prison of one idea: he is sharpened to one painful point. He is without healthy hesitation and healthy complexity.

They all have exactly that combination we have noted: the combination of an expansive and exhaustive reason with a contracted common sense. They are universal only in the sense that they take one thin explanation and carry it very far. But a pattern can stretch for ever and still be a small pattern.

Posted in: Book Review, Religion