Note: We’re skipping chapter 1 because it’s merely an introduction.
Chesterton begins the meat of the book, of all places, in the insane asylum. It’s a genius move really, because the goal of psychology (to help people feel better about themselves) long ago became co-opted to make guilty people feel better about their sin, and with that became popular enough to replace Christianity as the dominant religion of America. When it did, the seat of our being passed from the soul to the mind, thus ensuring Chesterton’s argument would be inescapably relevant to us today. As he says, “Men deny hell, but they do not deny Hanwell.” And here I should add—yet—because we are now arriving at the place where we’re expected to believe a man is a woman, a dog is a cat, violent protests are peaceful, true reality is in the mind, etc. But even so, despite the fact that we’ve nearly been positioned to death with the idea that reality is what we want it to be rather than what it is, Chesterton proves his point.
Lunatics are doomed not because they lack reason, but because they lack imagination. Contrary to common assumptions, madmen are quite rational, indeed, they are overly rational. Their real problem is that they have no sense of wonder, but have instead trapped themselves a too-small prison that filters out everything else they can’t control. “The madman’s explanation of a thing is always complete, and often in a purely rational sense satisfactory… his mind moves in a perfect but narrow circle… we should be chiefly concerned not so much to give him arguments as to give him air.” What’s wrong with the lunatic is not that his brain doesn’t work; it’s that his reason has dominated his sense of proportion.
Quite naturally this leads to the solution of using goodness, rather than reason to cure such a man. “A man cannot think himself out of a mental evil; for it is actually the organ of thought that has become diseased, ungovernable, and, as it were, independent. He can only be saved by will or faith.” If you’re going to help the madman you need to break into his small but orderly world with the bigness of creation. With fresh joy. With the truth that the vast cosmos of creation is the playground and he’s not even figured out how to use the slide yet. You must tell the man in the asylum who believes he is god that he is, in the words of the Hulk, a “puny god.”
And Chesterton is absolutely brilliant in pointing this out. You can’t help but read the chapter and be at once convinced that he’s put his finger on the problem of our age and called it out appropriately. But having said that, I want to immediately agree with its substance and at the same time point out a potential mistake.
Chesterton believes that reason or knowledge constructs the prison, while poetry and imagination tear the prison down. “Poets do not go mad, but chess-players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists very seldom… 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.” But then he goes too far with it and tries to convince us that Cowpers Calvinism drove him mad while his poetry was the cure.
Sorry brother, but I’m not buying that. There are enough poets who write crazy rambling manifestos and famous broken artists who are imaginative but mad (Dali anyone?) that make this point invalid beyond a first order approximation. Further, I don’t think much of the proposed cure of mysticism as having much merit in and of itself: “Mysticism keeps men sane. As long as you have mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity,” because it’s complete balderdash. Mystery in and of itself is no cure to anything, it’s just an admission we don’t know something. To embrace paradox could equally mean to turn your brain off as it could mean to stare in awe at the vastness of the universe; to account all forms of ignorance and wonderful and valid is quite frankly a terrible idea. A baby’s ignorance is not equivalent to an adult who spends his life stubbornly committed to pretending God doesn’t exist.
So Chesterton does a bad job making the case that reason can put men into a prison and a not so great case that imagination can spring him from it. Nevertheless, having said that, I believe he’s correctly put enough of his finger on both the problem and the cure to inarguably drive the point home. Imagination does cure madness. Not because imagination is the cure, but because it brings with it humility, and that undercuts the real problem of pride.
It’s pride that drives the philosopher or the materialist, or the social engineer, or lawyer (or whatever) to madness. In their pride they say, “Ah yes, I understand perfectly. I am a genius in my field. I can explain it all” and with that close down. The crime is not in trying to sort and understand the data—because everyone does that about everything all the time—the problem is in ceasing to be a creature who does it. Children are wonderful examples of this. They spend their time learning the basics of how things work and trying to interact with the world to figure it out, but this learning doesn’t drive them to madness because they know themselves to be children. When confronted by Festus with charge of madness Paul pointed out that his great learning didn’t make him insane—but why not? Because Paul knew himself to be a man and not a god. Likewise, the problem for a Calvinist is not that he believes in predestination, the problem starts when he steps into an area of study prohibited by God and begins wild speculation.
The distortion comes when you swallow the knowledge in the wrong way and it puffs you up rather than builds you up, which I believe Paul gave a few words on. Believing yourself to be greater than you are is the problem—at the point you put your arms around the world outside your mind and say “Thus far and no more. I have arrived at knowledge” you’ve closed yourself off to what God wants to say to you, and teach you, and grow you into. His revelation goes on forever, and by opposing that, you oppose Him. So you’ve set yourself up against God, and to fight against Him you push His system away by retreating into your own system. Thus the world shrinks because the mind is forced to construct a safe place to hide from God by the will which hates God. In the end you go mad because while you believe yourself to be like God, you are in fact obviously not God.
How would such a man escape such a prison? By letting go of the pride which drove him in there in the first place of course. As Chesterton says, “How sad it must be to be God… is there really no life fuller and no love more marvelous than yours; and is it really in your small and painful pity that all flesh must put its faith? How much happier you would be, how much more of you there would be, if the hammer of a higher God could smash your small cosmos, scattering the stars like spangles, and leave you in the open, free like other men to look up as well as down!”
Awe smashes pride. Look at the size of the universe, or the size of the universe inside each drop of pond water. Look at all the wonderful books in the nearest library which contain thousands or millions of stories. There is great beauty in the world, and if it breaks in even for a second to impose its colossal size upon the man his madness is cured. So to keep out God the nonbeliever has set about the business of rejecting the awe inspiring pleasure at every turn lest it smash his hideaway and leave him exposed. This is why devout atheism is such a bloodless and unhappy affair. As Aslan said, “Oh, Adam’s son, how cleverly you defend yourself against all that might do you good!”
Awe, imagination, the unknown, the chance to grow, these are what spring a man from his cell. And the way Chesterton argues that is not to tell, but to show. His words are so delightful and brilliant, that it’s impossible not to like him. Orthodoxy is easy to read and even easier to enjoy. But having said that, I think you’ll appreciate having a guide though the dense jungle that is to come, as it’s easy to get lost in the vastness of what we’re about to step into.
Next: Chapter III – THE SUICIDE OF THOUGHT