This is the sort of book that has study guides, that used to be required reading, that takes mental effort to delve into. I would apologize for the length these posts are likely to be, but I think they warrant the length (and I need to “talk it out” too). Please chime in and be part of the discussion; I know there’s plenty more to explore in this chapter and I am NOT an expert of any sort!
“The Maniac” begins with this quotable:
Thoroughly worldly people never understand even the world; they rely altogether on a few cynical maxims which are not true.
If I’m not careful, that could become one such maxim for me. The maxim Chesterton uses as his example just a few sentences later is, “That man will get on; he believes in himself.”
Does Chesterton mean to imply that self-confidence isn’t a critical element of success? And while we’re questioning him, what’s he mean by “true,” anyway?
In fact, he does mean to imply that self-confidence–believing in yourself–is over-hyped, and he bases “truth” firmly in what’s ancient and unwavering. Truth, to Chesterton (and, really, to anyone who’s seeking it), is not a moving target, something that depends on how you look at the world. There is nothing relative about truth. It is. Says Chesterton, to the publishing friend who used the above maxim:
It would be much truer to say that a man will certainly fail, because he believes in himself. Complete self-confidence is not merely a sin; complete self-confidence is a weakness.
I’ll admit: I shook my head. Lucky for us, Chesterton’s friend asked for more and we have this book as the answer.
Kind of a long answer, huh?
It’s the sort of question that deserves a long answer. What is it that makes us think that self-confidence alone suffices? Why do we tell ourselves that we can do anything–and should be able to do anything–if only we believe we can?
Modern masters of science are much impressed with the need of beginning all inquiry with a fact. The ancient masters of religion were quite equally impressed with that necessity. They began with the fact of sin–a fact as practical as potatoes. Whether or no man could be washed in miraculous waters, there was no doubt at any rate that he wanted washing.
What we’ve done, says Chesterton, is deny the dirt.
In my world, this relates to the experience I had just the other night with one of my children. This child came up to me and I smelled something…fragrant.
“What smells?!?” (No points for tact this time around. In my defense, I thought there was a rotting apple or something under the couch.)
Denial all around. My sniffer was the only one sensitive enough to smell whatever it was.
As I got to thinking about it, once I got past the frustration of me as the only one who could smell it, I realized she had not had a bath in a few days.
So, if I’m understanding Chesterton correctly, in ancient times, the fact was, “she needs a bath.” In modern times, the fact is, “the water needs changed,” or maybe, “the house needs cleaned.” Both of these might be true, mind you, but they ignore–or deny–the basic fact that the kid just needs a bath, plain and simple.
This chapter continues to explain this more clearly, using more examples.
[A]s all thoughts and theories were once judged by whether they tended to make a man lose his soul, so for our present purpose all modern thoughts and theories may be judged by whether they tend to make a man lose his wits.
The title of the chapter, then, is because Chesterton is defining the insanity of our current age.
[O]ddities only strike ordinary people. Odditities do not strike odd people. This is why ordinary people have a much more exciting time; while odd people are always complaining of the dullness of life. … The old fairy tale makes the hero a normal human boy; it is his adventures that are startling; they startle him because he is normal. … The fairy tale discusses what a sane man would do in a mad world.
We’ve lost sight of this, says Chesterton.
Imagination does not breed insanity. Exactly what does breed insanity is reason.
This made me pause. I had to reread it a few times. I love reason. I love logic. It’s who I am.
What Chesterton implies here is that reason is the problem. This excerpt about poetry helped me understand why:
Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists very seldom. I am not, as will be seen, in any sense attacking logic: I only say that this danger does lie in logic, not in imagination. Artistic paternity is as wholesome as physical paternity. … Poetry is sane because it floats so easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so to make it finite. The result is mental exhaustion … To accept everything is an exercise, to understand everything a strain. The poet only desires exaltation and expansion, a world to stretch himself in. 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 continues, a page or so later:
The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.
With this definition of what he means by “maniac,” Chesterton continues, explaining in detail. There seem to be quite a few specific cultural references, and I’ll admit, I skimmed past those. I didn’t look things up…and I found I could enjoy and mostly enjoy it without needing to. Some of the further clarifying points and definitions Chesterton makes about what he means by “maniac” include:
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, painted inside with the sun and stars; they are both unable to get out, the one into the health and happiness of heaven, the other even into the health and happiness of earth. Their position is quite reasonable; nay, in a sense it is infinitely reasonable … But there is such a thing as a mean infinity, a base and slavish eternity.
[W]e may say in summary that [the chief mark and element of insanity] is reason used without root, reason in the void. … Mysticism keeps men sane. As long as you have mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity. 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.
Chesterton ends the chapter leading into this idea of mysticism as the answer, of sorts, to too much intellectualism.
Next up: “The Suicide of Thought.”
What are your thoughts on “The Maniac” and Chesterton’s approach to insanity? How did this strike you? Let’s talk in the combox, shall we?
A few resources:
- Dale Ahlquist’s chapter on Orthodoxy in G.K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common Sense (at least part of which is available at the American Chesterton Society’s website)
- Chesterton 101 on the American Chesterton Society’s website
- An online study guide by Joseph Grabowski