Written by: Chesterton, Gilbert K. Posted on: 03/26/2003
Category: Classic Christian Library
GILBERT K. CHESTERTON
THIS book is meant to be a companion to "Heretics,"
and to put the positive side in addition to the negative.
Many critics complained of the book called "Heretics" because
it merely criticised current philosophies without offering any
alternative philosophy. This book is an attempt to answer the challenge.
It is unavoidably affirmative and therefore unavoidably autobiographical.
The writer has been driven back upon somewhat the same difficulty as
that which beset Newman in writing his Apologia; he has been forced
to be egotistical only in order to be sincere. While everything else
may be different the motive in both cases is the same. It is the
purpose of the writer to attempt an explanation, not of whether
the Christian Faith can be believed, but of how he personally
has come to believe it. The book is therefore arranged upon
the positive principle of a riddle and its answer. It deals first
with all the writer's own solitary and sincere speculations and then
with all the startling style in which they were all suddenly satisfied
by the Christian Theology. The writer regards it as amounting to
a convincing creed. But if it is not that it is at least
a repeated and surprising coincidence.
Gilbert K. Chesterton.
I. Introduction in Defence of Everything Else
II. The Maniac
III. The Suicide of Thought
IV. The Ethics of Elfland
V. The Flag of the World
VI. The Paradoxes of Christianity
VII. The Eternal Revolution
VIII. The Romance of Orthodoxy
IX. Authority and the Adventurer
I INTRODUCTION IN DEFENCE OF EVERYTHING ELSE
THE only possible excuse for this book is that it is an
answer to a challenge. Even a bad shot is dignified when he
accepts a duel. When some time ago I published a series of
hasty but sincere papers, under the name of "Heretics,"
several critics for whose intellect I have a warm respect
(I may mention specially Mr. G.S.Street) said that it was all
very well for me to tell everybody to affirm his cosmic theory,
but that I had carefully avoided supporting my precepts with
example. "I will begin to worry about my philosophy,"
said Mr. Street, "when Mr. Chesterton has given us his."
It was perhaps an incautious suggestion to make to a person
only too ready to write books upon the feeblest provocation.
But after all, though Mr. Street has inspired and created this book,
he need not read it. If he does read it, he will find that in its
pages I have attempted in a vague and personal way, in a set of
mental pictures rather than in a series of deductions,
to state the philosophy in which I have come to believe.
I will not call it my philosophy; for I did not make it.
God and humanity made it; and it made me.
I have often had a fancy for writing a romance about an
English yachtsman who slightly miscalculated his course and
discovered England under the impression that it was a new
island in the South Seas. I always find, however, that I am
either too busy or too lazy to write this fine work, so I may
as well give it away for the purposes of philosophical illustration.
There will probably be a general impression that the man
who landed (armed to the teeth and talking by signs) to
plant the British flag on that barbaric temple which turned out
to be the Pavilion at Brighton, felt rather a fool. I am not
here concerned to deny that he looked a fool. But if you
imagine that he felt a fool, or at any rate that the sense of
folly was his sole or his dominant emotion, then you have not
studied with sufficient delicacy the rich romantic nature of
the hero of this tale. His mistake was really a most enviable
mistake; and he knew it, if he was the man I take him for.
What could be more delightful than to have in the same few
minutes all the fascinating terrors of going abroad combined
with all the humane security of coming home again? What could
be better than to have all the fun of discovering South Africa
without the disgusting necessity of landing there? What could
be more glorious than to brace one's self up to discover
New South Wales and then realize, with a gush of happy tears,
that it was really old South Wales. This at least seems to me
the main problem for philosophers, and is in a manner the main
problem of this book. How can we contrive to be at once
astonished at the world and yet at home in it? How can this
queer cosmic town, with its many-legged citizens, with its
monstrous and ancient lamps, how can this world give us at once
the fascination of a strange town and the comfort and honour of
being our own town?
To show that a faith or a philosophy is true from every
standpoint would be too big an undertaking even for a much
bigger book than this; it is necessary to follow one path of
argument; and this is the path that I here propose to follow.
I wish to set forth my faith as particularly answering this
double spiritual need, the need for that mixture of the
familiar and the unfamiliar which Christendom has rightly named
romance. For the very word "romance" has in it the mystery and
ancient meaning of Rome. Any one setting out to dispute
anything ought always to begin by saying what he does not dispute.
Beyond stating what he proposes to prove he should always state
what he does not propose to prove. The thing I do not propose
to prove, the thing I propose to take as common ground between
myself and any average reader, is this desirability of an active
and imaginative life, picturesque and full of a poetical
curiosity, a life such as western man at any rate always seems
to have desired. If a man says that extinction is better than
existence or blank existence better than variety and adventure,
then he is not one of the ordinary people to whom I am talking.
If a man prefers nothing I can give him nothing. But nearly
all people I have ever met in this western society in which I
live would agree to the general proposition that we need this
life of practical romance; the combination of something that is
strange with something that is secure. We need so to view the
world as to combine an idea of wonder and an idea of welcome.
We need to be happy in this wonderland without once being merely
comfortable. It is THIS achievement of my creed that I shall
chiefly pursue in these pages.
But I have a peculiar reason for mentioning the man in a yacht,
who discovered England. For I am that man in a yacht.
I discovered England. I do not see how this book can avoid
being egotistical; and I do not quite see (to tell the truth)
how it can avoid being dull. Dulness will, however, free me
from the charge which I most lament; the charge of being flippant.
Mere light sophistry is the thing that I happen to despise most
of all things, and it is perhaps a wholesome fact that this is
the thing of which I am generally accused. I know nothing so
contemptible as a mere paradox; a mere ingenious defence of the
indefensible. If it were true (as has been said) that
Mr. Bernard Shaw lived upon paradox, then he ought to be a mere
common millionaire; for a man of his mental activity could
invent a sophistry every six minutes. It is as easy as lying;
because it is lying. The truth is, of course, that Mr. Shaw is
cruelly hampered by the fact that he cannot tell any lie unless
he thinks it is the truth. I find myself under the same
intolerable bondage. I never in my life said anything merely
because I thought it funny; though of course, I have had
ordinary human vainglory, and may have thought it funny because
I had said it. It is one thing to describe an interview with
a gorgon or a griffin, a creature who does not exist. It is
another thing to discover that the rhinoceros does exist and
then take pleasure in the fact that he looks as if he didn't.
One searches for truth, but it may be that one pursues instinctively
the more extraordinary truths. And I offer this book
with the heartiest sentiments to all the jolly people who
hate what I write, and regard it (very justly, for all I know),
as a piece of poor clowning or a single tiresome joke.
For if this book is a joke it is a joke against me. I am
the man who with the utmost daring discovered what had been
discovered before. If there is an element of farce in what
follows, the farce is at my own expense; for this book explains
how I fancied I was the first to set foot in Brighton and then
found I was the last. It recounts my elephantine adventures in
pursuit of the obvious. No one can think my case more
ludicrous than I think it myself; no reader can accuse me here
of trying to make a fool of him: I am the fool of this story,
and no rebel shall hurl me from my throne. I freely confess
all the idiotic ambitions of the end of the nineteenth century.
I did, like all other solemn little boys, try to be in advance
of the age. Like them I tried to be some ten minutes in
advance of the truth. And I found that I was eighteen hundred
years behind it. I did strain my voice with a painfully
juvenile exaggeration in uttering my truths. And I was
punished in the fittest and funniest way, for I have kept my
truths: but I have discovered, not that they were not truths,
but simply that they were not mine. When I fancied that I
stood alone I was really in the ridiculous position of being
backed up by all Christendom. It may be, Heaven forgive me,
that I did try to be original; but I only succeeded in inventing
all by myself an inferior copy of the existing traditions of
civilized religion. The man from the yacht thought he was the
first to find England; I thought I was the first to find Europe.
I did try to found a heresy of my own; and when I had put the
last touches to it, I discovered that it was orthodoxy.
It may be that somebody will be entertained by the account
of this happy fiasco. It might amuse a friend or an enemy to
read how I gradually learnt from the truth of some stray legend
or from the falsehood of some dominant philosophy, things that
I might have learnt from my catechism--if I had ever learnt it.
There may or may not be some entertainment in reading how
I found at last in an anarchist club or a Babylonian temple
what I might have found in the nearest parish church. If any
one is entertained by learning how the flowers of the field or
the phrases in an omnibus, the accidents of politics or the
pains of youth came together in a certain order to produce a
certain conviction of Christian orthodoxy, he may possibly read
this book. But there is in everything a reasonable division of labour.
I have written the book, and nothing on earth would induce me to
I add one purely pedantic note which comes, as a note
naturally should, at the beginning of the book. These essays
are concerned only to discuss the actual fact that the central
Christian theology (sufficiently summarized in the Apostles' Creed)
is the best root of energy and sound ethics. They are not
intended to discuss the very fascinating but quite different
question of what is the present seat of authority for the
proclamation of that creed. When the word "orthodoxy" is used
here it means the Apostles' Creed, as understood by everybody
calling himself Christian until a very short time ago and the
general historic conduct of those who held such a creed. I
have been forced by mere space to confine myself to what I have
got from this creed; I do not touch the matter much disputed
among modern Christians, of where we ourselves got it. This is
not an ecclesiastical treatise but a sort of slovenly
autobiography. But if any one wants my opinions about the
actual nature of the authority, Mr. G.S.Street has only to throw
me another challenge, and I will write him another book.
II THE MANIAC
THOROUGHLY worldly people never understand even the world;
they rely altogether on a few cynical maxims which are not
true. Once I remember walking with a prosperous publisher,
who made a remark which I had often heard before; it is, indeed,
almost a motto of the modern world. Yet I had heard it once
too often, and I saw suddenly that there was nothing in it.
The publisher said of somebody, "That man will get on; he believes
in himself." And I remember that as I lifted my head to listen,
my eye caught an omnibus on which was written "Hanwell." I said to him,
"Shall I tell you where the men are who believe most in themselves?
For I can tell you. I know of men who believe in themselves
more colossally than Napoleon or Caesar. I know where flames
the fixed star of certainty and success. I can guide you to
the thrones of the Super-men. The men who really believe in
themselves are all in lunatic asylums." He said mildly that
there were a good many men after all who believed in themselves
and who were not in lunatic asylums. "Yes, there are," I retorted,
"and you of all men ought to know them. That drunken poet from
whom you would not take a dreary tragedy, he believed in
himself. That elderly minister with an epic from whom you were
hiding in a back room, he believed in himself. If you
consulted your business experience instead of your ugly
individualistic philosophy, you would know that believing in
himself is one of the commonest signs of a rotter. Actors who
can't act believe in themselves; and debtors who won't pay.
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.
Believing utterly in one's self is a hysterical and superstitious
belief like believing in Joanna Southcote: the man who has it
has `Hanwell' written on his face as plain as it is written on
that omnibus." And to all this my friend the publisher made this
very deep and effective reply, "Well, if a man is not to believe
in himself, in what is he to believe?" After a long pause I
replied, "I will go home and write a book in answer to that
question." This is the book that I have written in answer to it.
But I think this book may well start where our argument started
--in the neighbourhood of the mad-house. 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. 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. Certain new theologians dispute original sin,
which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.
Some followers of the Reverend R.J.Campbell, in their almost too
fastidious spirituality, admit divine sinlessness, which they
cannot see even in their dreams. But they essentially deny
human sin, which they can see in the street. The strongest
saints and the strongest sceptics alike took positive evil as
the starting-point of their argument. If it be true (as it
certainly is) that a man can feel exquisite happiness in
skinning a cat, then the religious philosopher can only draw one
of two deductions. He must either deny the existence of God,
as all atheists do; or he must deny the present union
between God and man, as all Christians do. The new theologians
seem to think it a highly rationalistic solution
to deny the cat.
In this remarkable situation it is plainly not now
possible (with any hope of a universal appeal) to start, as our
fathers did, with the fact of sin. This very fact which was to
them (and is to me) as plain as a pikestaff, is the very fact
that has been specially diluted or denied. 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.
For the purpose of our primary argument the one may very well stand
where the other stood. I mean that as 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.
It is true that some speak lightly and loosely of insanity
as in itself attractive. But a moment's thought will show that
if disease is beautiful, it is generally some one else's disease.
A blind man may be picturesque; but it requires two eyes to see
the picture. And similarly even the wildest poetry of insanity
can only be enjoyed by the sane. To the insane man his
insanity is quite prosaic, because it is quite true. A man who
thinks himself a chicken is to himself as ordinary as a chicken.
A man who thinks he is a bit of glass is to himself as dull as a
bit of glass. It is the homogeneity of his mind which makes
him dull, and which makes him mad. It is only because we see
the irony of his idea that we think him even amusing; it is only
because he does not see the irony of his idea that he is put in
Hanwell at all. In short, oddities only strike ordinary people.
Oddities do not strike odd people. This is why ordinary people
have a much more exciting time; while odd people are always
complaining of the dulness of life. This is also why the new
novels die so quickly, and why the old fairy tales endure for ever.
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.
But in the modern psychological novel the hero is abnormal;
the centre is not central. Hence the fiercest adventures fail
to affect him adequately, and the book is monotonous. You can
make a story out of a hero among dragons; but not out of a
dragon among dragons. The fairy tale discusses what a sane man
will do in a mad world. The sober realistic novel of to-day
discusses what an essential lunatic will do in a dull world.
Let us begin, then, with the mad-house; from this evil and
fantastic inn let us set forth on our intellectual journey.
Now, if we are to glance at the philosophy of sanity, the first
thing to do in the matter is to blot out one big and common mistake.
There is a notion adrift everywhere that imagination, especially
mystical imagination, is dangerous to man's mental balance.
Poets are commonly spoken of as psychologically unreliable;
and generally there is a vague association between wreathing laurels
in your hair and sticking straws in it. Facts and history
utterly contradict this view. Most of the very great poets
have been not only sane, but extremely business-like; and if
Shakespeare ever really held horses, it was because he was much
the safest man to hold them. Imagination does not breed insanity.
Exactly what does breed insanity is reason. 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. Moreover, it is worthy of
remark that when a poet really was morbid it was commonly
because he had some weak spot of rationality on his brain.
Poe, for instance, really was morbid; not because he was
poetical, but because he was specially analytical. Even chess
was too poetical for him; he disliked chess because it was full
of knights and castles, like a poem. He avowedly preferred the
black discs of draughts, because they were more like the mere
black dots on a diagram. Perhaps the strongest case of all is
this: that only one great English poet went mad, Cowper.
And he was definitely driven mad by logic, by the ugly and alien
logic of predestination. Poetry was not the disease, but the medicine;
poetry partly kept him in health. He could sometimes forget
the red and thirsty hell to which his hideous necessitarianism
dragged him among the wide waters and the white flat lilies of
the Ouse. He was damned by John Calvin; he was almost saved by
John Gilpin. Everywhere we see that men do not go mad by dreaming.
Critics are much madder than poets. Homer is complete and calm enough;
it is his critics who tear him into extravagant tatters.
Shakespeare is quite himself; it is only some of his critics who
have discovered that he was somebody else. And though St. John
the Evangelist saw many strange monsters in his vision, he saw
no creature so wild as one of his own commentators. The general
fact is simple. Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an
infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so
make it finite. The result is mental exhaustion, like the physical
exhaustion of Mr. Holbein. 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
It is a small matter, but not irrelevant, that this
striking mistake is commonly supported by a striking misquotation.
We have all heard people cite the celebrated line of Dryden as
"Great genius is to madness near allied." But Dryden did not say
that great genius was to madness near allied. Dryden was a
great genius himself, and knew better. It would have been hard
to find a man more romantic than he, or more sensible.
What Dryden said was this, "Great wits are oft to madness near allied";
and that is true. It is the pure promptitude of the intellect
that is in peril of a breakdown. Also people might remember of
what sort of man Dryden was talking. He was not talking of any
unworldly visionary like Vaughan or George Herbert. 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. A flippant person has asked
why we say, "As mad as a hatter." A more flippant person might
answer that a hatter is mad because he has to measure the human head.
And if great reasoners are often maniacal, it is equally
true that maniacs are commonly great reasoners. When I was
engaged in a controversy with the CLARION on the matter of free will,
that able writer Mr. R.B.Suthers said that free will was lunacy,
because it meant causeless actions, and the actions of a lunatic
would be causeless. I do not dwell here upon the disastrous
lapse in determinist logic. Obviously if any actions, even a lunatic's,
can be causeless, determinism is done for. If the chain of causation
can be broken for a madman, it can be broken for a man. But my
purpose is to point out something more practical. It was
natural, perhaps, that a modern Marxian Socialist should not
know anything about free will. But it was certainly remarkable
that a modern Marxian Socialist should not know anything about lunatics.
Mr. Suthers evidently did not know anything about lunatics.
The last thing that can be said of a lunatic is that his actions
are causeless. If any human acts may loosely be called causeless,
they are the minor acts of a healthy man; whistling as he walks;
slashing the grass with a stick; kicking his heels or rubbing
his hands. It is the happy man who does the useless things;
the sick man is not strong enough to be idle. 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. The madman would read a conspiratorial
significance into those empty activities. He would think that
the lopping of the grass was an attack on private property.
He would think that the kicking of the heels was a signal to
an accomplice. If the madman could for an instant become
careless, he would become sane. Every one who has had the misfortune
to talk with people in the heart or on the edge of mental disorder,
knows that their most sinister quality is a horrible clarity of detail;
a connecting of one thing with another in a map more elaborate
than a maze. If you argue with a madman, it is extremely
probable that you will get the worst of it; for in many ways his
mind moves all the quicker for not being delayed by the things
that go with good judgment. 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.
The madman's explanation of a thing is always complete,
and often in a purely rational sense satisfactory. Or, to speak
more strictly, the insane explanation, if not conclusive,
is at least unanswerable; this may be observed specially in the
two or three commonest kinds of madness. If a man says (for instance)
that men have a conspiracy against him, you cannot dispute it
except by saying that all the men deny that they are conspirators;
which is exactly what conspirators would do. His explanation
covers the facts as much as yours. Or if a man says that he is
the rightful King of England, it is no complete answer to say
that the existing authorities call him mad; for if he were
King of England that might be the wisest thing for the existing
authorities to do. Or if a man says that he is Jesus Christ,
it is no answer to tell him that the world denies his divinity;
for the world denied Christ's.
Nevertheless he is wrong. But if we attempt to trace his error
in exact terms, we shall not find it quite so easy as we had supposed.
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. A bullet is quite as round as the world,
but it is not the world. There is such a thing as a narrow universality;
there is such a thing as a small and cramped eternity; you may
see it in many modern religions. Now, speaking quite externally
and empirically, we may say that the strongest and most
unmistakable MARK of madness is this combination between a
logical completeness and a spiritual contraction. The lunatic's
theory explains a large number of things, but it does not
explain them in a large way. I mean that 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. Suppose, for instance,
it were the first case that I took as typical; suppose it were
the case of a man who accused everybody of conspiring against him.
If we could express our deepest feelings of protest and appeal
against this obsession, I suppose we should say something like this:
"Oh, I admit that you have your case and have it by heart,
and that many things do fit into other things as you say.
I admit that your explanation explains a great deal; but what
a great deal it leaves out! Are there no other stories in the
world except yours; and are all men busy with your business?
Suppose we grant the details; perhaps when the man in the street
did not seem to see you it was only his cunning; perhaps when
the policeman asked you your name it was only because he knew it already.
But how much happier you would be if you only knew that these
people cared nothing about you! How much larger your life would be
if your self could become smaller in it; if you could really
look at other men with common curiosity and pleasure; if you
could see them walking as they are in their sunny selfishness
and their virile indifference! You would begin to be interested
in them, because they were not interested in you. You would
break out of this tiny and tawdry theatre in which your own
little plot is always being played, and you would find yourself
under a freer sky, in a street full of splendid strangers."
Or suppose it were the second case of madness, that of a man who
claims the crown, your impulse would be to answer, "All right!
Perhaps you know that you are the King of England; but why do you care?
Make one magnificent effort and you will be a human being and
look down on all the kings of the earth." 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 sta
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