Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton Study
Chapter 1: Introduction: In Defense of Everything Else
1. What kind of apologetic does Chesterton intend to employ?
Chesterton opens telling us that he wants to defend Christianity as the one fitting/satisfying answer to the innate human need to live in the world as familiar and unfamiliar, completely at home and full of wonder as though it were a yet an undiscovered world. Chesterton is writing for “ordinary people”, people who take for granted the basic desirability of a life of imagination and wonder and joy. Chesterton wants to defend the faith as a “romance”.
2. What does Chesterton “despise most of all things”?
He despises “light sophistry” or what he also calls “mere paradox” or a “mere ingenious defense for the indefensible”. In other words he hates the scientist who explains to the little boy, “Oh that’s just gravity, it’s a measured, magnetic force that…” The problem is that for every so called “explanation” we cannot cover all the bases. We can define something and hope to have really explained everything it entails. And so when we say that something is “just…”, we are lying (e.g. Shaw, p. 4). But of course the lie is revealed for what it is by the reality of truth. All of our words compare to the Word. This is why Chesterton says that he never said anything in his life because he thought it was merely funny. (It was also always true.) Likewise the example of the rhinoceros: it’s one thing to explain or describe an imaginary creature with certainty (like the griffin or gorgon), but it’s an entirely different prospect to discover the rhinoceros as a creature that actually exists (is true!) and looks like it ought to be found in an anthology of mythological creatures.
3. So what does that mean?
The point of all this is that truth is gigantic, strange, and exotic. Lies are simple, plain and straight forward. The truth is a story of intrigue and adventure. So when we look at the world we need to come to at as Chesterton, the man in the yacht, discovering England for the first time. And the same thing goes for the Christian faith. It needs to be discovered afresh by every last man, woman and child in the world, and because it’s true it can be. But because it’s true, it will be discovered to have been there all along. It’s new and old, familiar and unfamiliar, alien and homely.
4. What form of Christianity is Chesterton defending?
Chesterton is after a defense of “mere” Christianity, the Christian faith as outlined in the Apostles’ Creed, and he is not seeking to discourse on the subject of where the rightful authority of that creed ought to be declared from (i.e. Rome, Constantinople, Canterbury, Greenville, etc.).
Chapter 2: The Maniac
1. How does Chesterton feel about the dictum: “Believe in yourself”?
Chesterton begins by deconstructing self-confidence because self-confidence is the beginning of insanity. This is first of all because of the reality of sin, yea even, original sin, which for some reason, modernists of all shapes and sizes have made a habit of denying. This should have been our first clue. But since sin has been denied by many moderns, Chesterton says he will begin with the insane, because that’s still an admissible category, and (we suspect) Chesterton doesn’t see any meaningful difference. They are both to some degree, self-inflicted cages.
Thus beginning with the asylum, Chesterton sets off on a mission to find sanity.
2. What is the main difference between sanity and insanity?
Insanity is created by an over insistence on reason and logic. Sanity is the common sense of the poet. “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.” (p. 11) This insistence on certain and exhaustive knowledge and understanding is an enslavement, a determinism. When one serves the god of reason or logic, one must keep to that one and only traveled path.
3. What are the three most common forms of insanity?
Chesterton gives three of what he calls the most common forms of insanity: the conspiracy theorist, the guy who says he’s the rightful king of England, and the one who says he’s Jesus Christ. The point is the same in all three instances. All three are examples of tiny minded intellectualism. Everything is about them and their theories. And it’s all self-centered and egotistical. Chesterton admits that there may be reasoned and logical arguments that can uncover the fallacious assumptions at work, but these are probably useless. The best argument is one of pity and aesthetics. Wouldn’t it be more lovely to have a bigger, grander world? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if it weren’t true? Isn’t it a more enjoyable existence to live as though your claims were nonsense?
Evil is at the heart of unbelief and insanity. And therefore it must always be remembered that we do not speak words into the world as though they were tools intended to fix the machinery. Logic and reason are not used because they merely convince the un-tuned mind; rather the words we speak should mimic the words of God (e.g. “Let there be light.”), speech-acts declared in faith to dis-spell the nothingness. We should not “seek to argue with it like heresy but simply to snap it like a spell” (p. 15) And this spell is an all encompassing spell. The madman has a tiny hammer and everything is nail.
4. What is the first modern example of a widely held or “respectable” insanity that Chesterton raises?
Chesterton brings up materialism as a prime example of the kind of insanity he is concerned with. It is a kind of “insane simplicity”. Everything is boiled down to the “blind destiny of matter”. (p. 18) And Chesterton objects to this on the grounds of how similar it is to the previous examples of insanity. It is a tiny universalism, limiting every question to a very small set of possibilities. Chesterton admits that all truth ‘limits’ to some extend, but some truth claims are more tyrannical than others. Materialism leaves a man with no other options than explaining everything by blindly determined causation wrought by the pure genius of matter. And Chesterton objects because there is nothing left unexplained. “Materialists and madmen never have doubts.” (p. 19) The circle is too small. The Christian faith draws the circle so wide that freedom is created. Materialistic determinism defeats every question.
5. What is the other example that Chesterton brings up, what Chesterton calls the “other extreme of speculative logic”?
Next Chesterton takes up Rene Descartes. Without naming the philosopher, Chesterton brings up the extreme skeptic, the one who is willing to doubt or question the verity of everything until finally reaching the echoing interior of his own skull and settles down as though he has finally found freedom and certainty. This theory is just as insane as materialism in that it is just as simplistic, just as universal in claim, and just as much a straightjacket for the imagination, a self-defeating circularity.
6. What does this chapter finally conceive of as the “chief mark of insanity”?
Reason without root (e.g. materialism) or reason in the void (e.g. skepticism) is the chief element of insanity.
7. And what does Chesterton finally claim is what keeps men sane?
Mysticism is what keeps men sane, the ability to live with mystery and paradox. This keeps the world “open” enough to live in, the world big enough to explore and celebrate (p. 23). “The whole secret of mysticism is this: that man can understand everything by the help of what he does not understand.” (ibid) Only by beginning with the infinite are we ready to study the finite as it’s reflection (in some miraculous way). In other words, only after one has first admitted the deep mysteries of chlorophyll and photosynthesis and bowed before the dark glory of the Creator, can one say truly, “That is a leaf”. Otherwise we are left lying our heads off, saying, “That’s just a leaf.” And we’ve drawn the circle in a tame, definite ring around our tiny, frail brains, effectively cutting off all possibility of actually arriving at the Truth.