Reading with Joy — The Maniac


Welcome to my summer book club, friends!

If you’re just joining us now, let me catch you up. This summer we’re reading Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton, and this week we’re on chapter two: “The Maniac.” This book is a collection of essays in which Chesterton, a socialist journalist, essayist, and mystery novelist at the turn of the twentieth century, explains how he came to believe in the Christian faith. It is a raucous intellectual adventure, an intellectual and spiritual autobiography which combines the style of Augustine’s Confessions with postmodern pastiche. One friend described reading the book as “doing intellectual push ups while chortling.” It will make you laugh, learn, and think.

This is how the book club works: each week you read the assigned chapter by Tuesday, I put out a podcast on said chapter, and then, the folllowing day, you engage in discussion on either my Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram pages.

You can find the book for free on Project Gutenberg or at the link below.

So, what do you think, friends? Shall we dive in?

By G. K. Chesterton

Chapter Summary

The ancient masters... 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. But certain religious leaders in London, not mere materialists, have begun in our day not to deny the highly disputable water, but to deny the indisputable dirt.
— Orthodoxy, Chesterton

What do sin, madness, and rationalism have to do with each other? Quite a lot if you ask Chesterton. In this chapter, Chesterton finally begins with his own deep intuitions about the world, for which he will seek a philosophy to satisfy or answer these convictions. The first conviction he begins with is that of sin: that something is terribly wrong with the world and with ourselves. The trouble that Chesterton observes, however, is that we’ve lost the ability to describe this problem in spiritual terms. So, he seeks terms that moderns can understand: sickness, and more specifically, mental illness. He describes madness as a kind of minute, infinite rationality. The man who thinks he is Jesus Christ sees everything as evidence of this fact: he cannot be refuted. Madness, then, cannot be fixed by more rationality, but by an acknowledgement of its limits. The opposite of madness is health. Chesterton then argues that the modern world is afflicted with this kind of madness. It is stuck in the single, suffocating argument of materialism which explains everything and makes everything not worth explaining. For Chesterton, then, we must seek a philosophy which gets our heads into the heavens, and doesn’t attempt to get the heavens into our heads. We must value not only truth, but health. We must prize mystery.

My Take Aways…

But though moderns deny the existence of sin, I do not think that they have yet denied the existence of a lunatic asylum. We all agree still that there is a collapse of the intellect as unmistakable as a falling house. Men deny hell, but not, as yet, Hanwell.
— Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton
  1. The Medicalisation of Spiritual Illness

Chesterton helpfully points out that because, as a culture, we no longer possess the language do describe spiritual states, we describe every disturbance of heart and mind in medical terms. This fact has only intensified with the passing years. This is not to say that some things are not genuinely medical issues (I am from a family riddled with mental illness, and deeply thankful for medical intervention), but that not all issues can be satisfactorily described in these terms. It makes me think of the problem of addiction. There are deeply medical elements of addiction (family predispositions, withdrawal, etc), but when the addiction to the substance is cleared away, almost always there is a great chasm of pain and questions which cannot be explained or fixed medically. Addiction has become the single suffocating argument, the God that will help, and the person becomes less and less recognisably themselves. This helps us see the connection between madness (for Chesterton at least) and sin, but also helps us see the inadequacy of describing all problems as merely medical… there is a brokenness in human nature, a fragility that no balanced chemicals can mend. And ignoring that wound will only make it fester.


2. Reason Alone is Insufficient

If you or I were dealing with a mind that was growing morbid, we should be chiefly concerned not so much to give it arguments as to give it air, to convince it that there was something cleaner and cooler outside the suffocation of a single argument … Or it might be the third case, of the madman who called himself Christ. If we said what we felt, we should say, “So you are the Creator and Redeemer of the world: but what a small world it must be! What a little heaven you must inhabit, with angels no bigger than butterflies! How sad it must be to be God; and an inadequate God! Is there really no life fuller and no love more marvellous 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!”
— Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton

An important part of developing a worldview is recognising the limits of reason. The capacity to think, to organise things into categories, to notice similarities, to make arguments is one of the great hallmarks of humanity. But, we must always keep this in mind: the world about which we reason, and from which we draw these comparisons, is always more generous, abundant and complicated than our thoughts about it. To think about it, we must make it smaller and simpler. Our intellects can do wonderful things, but we must always approach them with a degree of humility, acknowledging what they cannot do: contain reality. They can only describe it. It is like Chesterton’s eloquent quip: “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.”


3. The Necessity of Mystery

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 to-day) free also to believe in them. He has always cared more for truth than for consistency. If he saw two truths that seemed to contradict each other, he would take the two truths and the contradiction along with them. His spiritual sight is stereoscopic, like his physical sight: he sees two different pictures at once and yet sees all the better for that. Thus he has always believed that there was such a thing as fate, but such a thing as free will also. Thus he believed that children were indeed the kingdom of heaven, but nevertheless ought to be obedient to the kingdom of earth. He admired youth because it was young and age because it was not. It is exactly this balance of apparent contradictions that has been the whole buoyancy of the healthy man. The whole secret of mysticism is this: that man can understand everything by the help of what he does not understand. The morbid logician seeks to make everything lucid, and succeeds in making everything mysterious. The mystic allows one thing to be mysterious, and everything else becomes lucid.
— Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton

If we are to be sane, to be healthful, we must retain a posture of mystical unknowing. If we are to escape the fate of the logician who goes mad, we must star up at the heavens, and desire to get into them, not to own them. This is where our spiritual and intellectual journey must begin.

That’s all for this week, friends! Tune in next week for Chapter Three.

Happy Reading!


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