He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Orthodoxy: The Maniac

This past year, I read Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton after many years of my friends recommending it to me.  My reading list is rather lengthy, both in terms of the actual word count of the books and the number of books on my list to read at some point.  Fortunately, Orthodoxy is a fairly short book of only 154 pages in the edition I purchased, and the font size is not tiny as it would be if the publisher were trying to cram more words into fewer pages.

As I mentioned in my rather lengthy review of Waking Up by Sam Harris, I was struck early on by how similar my journey is to his journey in some ways and by how starkly different our journeys are in other ways.  The immediately apparent similarity was that Chesterton's journey to Christian orthodoxy had begun as an earnest journey away from Christianity to find newer and bolder truths than the tired pablum of his ancestors.

In the Introduction to the book, he describes this process as being like a man who sailed away from England seeking other shores and through a quirk of navigational error somehow found himself back in England, thinking at first that he had discovered a new land and subsequently realizing that he had returned to where he started, to that place he was seeking to escape from the banality of his homeland.

"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 here can accuse me 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."

I happily echo his thoughts here, for my own journey in my early twenties is one of venturing away from Catholicism to try to find an enlightened belief system that provided a higher truth, a greater truthiness, if you will pardon my borrowing a Stephen Colbert expression.  While I was getting my first university degree, I started taking a serious look at atheism as an alternative to my current beliefs that was also conveniently compatible with my views on politics and my trust in science.

I eventually discarded atheism as a live option, but as one can see from how much I have written on the subject, it was indeed a live option for me at one point and I still wish to foster respectful dialogue between atheists and theists.  The other live option for me was Buddhism, and I struggled mightily to find a neutral standard that would allow me to choose between Buddhism and Christianity in a way that wasn't self-serving.  This was important to me because I know that given the chance, we humans are prone to choose the path that affords us the least resistance rather than the path of truth.

We all teeter on the edge of believing in our own competence to discern the truth so much that we make really stupid choices because our competence is so much smaller than we believe it to be.  Truth ought to help us offset this unfortunate consequence of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, but it is precisely this cognitive bias which leads us to believe that it doesn't affect us very much because we are so competent that it couldn't possibly overcome our reason.

In the chapter entitled "The Maniac" which follows the Introduction, Chesterton explains in his usual vibrant writing style what happens when we give in to the Dunning-Kruger Effect:

'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 Supermen.  The men who really believe in themselves are all in lunatic asylums."  He said mildly that there are a good many men who really believe 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 in one's self is a hysterical and superstitious belief..."'

The idea that believing in one's self leads to success is quite the superstition indeed, requiring us as it does to conclude on the basis of insufficient evidence that things will work out in some unknown fashion that can only be called supernatural because we know from painful experience that success is not the natural consequence of complete self-confidence.  Our experience tells us that complete self-confidence often precedes egregious failure, and that complete self-confidence generally blinds us to the inevitability of failure which we can only see in hindsight.

But believing in one's self is not the only way to be a maniac, as Chesterton observes later in the chapter:

"There is a notion adrift everywhere that imagination, especially mystical imagination, is dangerous to a men'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."

This description and the examples that follow very much speak to my own experience.  When I was younger, my clinical depression was caused in large part by my analytical bent.  I very much wanted (and so did many of my peers) to be able to figure the world out and stow it in the simplistic logical categories and framework I had formed at the time through my philosophical training.

Unfortunately, the world is not even close to being simple enough for me or anyone else to comprehend it with such paltry mental tools as I was using.  The inevitable disappointment that occurs when reality is far too complex for our little minds to hold (even though we've been taught from many quarters that such understanding is readily available) is something I try to help others of my generation with when it hits them.

As is often the case, Chesterton expresses it quite pithily:

"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 that splits."

As a poet myself, I know all too well how valuable poetry is for my sanity.  It is the beautiful outlet for all the world's beauty which would otherwise split my head open by the force of its immensity, a healthy release valve for the daunting infinity of reality which I am all too happy to explore.

Given the chance and no healthy outlet, we will retreat from the beautiful infinite reality rather than exploring it; we will find a small piece of reality and cling to it as if it were the only real thing.  It is easier to believe that we have found the only thing that is real than it is to believe that this vast infinite something is ultimately incomprehensible to us, and so we believe with all our might in the transcendent value of the one thing we believe to be real and significant in life.

We will value it above all else, and we follow the valuation to its logical conclusion.  Those who value power and strength will follow it to authoritarianism and fascism.  Those who value liberty will follow that value to the point of doing horrible things to themselves simply because they are at liberty to do so.  Those who value the rule of law will uphold even the most unjust law rather than allowing it to be broken or having mercy on the one who broke it.

"A man cannot think himself out of 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.  The moment his mere reason moves, it moves in the old circular rut; he will go round and round his logical circle...
Such is the madman of experience; he is commonly a reasoner, frequently a successful reasoner.  Doubtless he could be vanquished in mere reason, and the case against him put logically.  But it can be put much more precisely in general and even aesthetic terms.  He is the clean and well-lit prison of one idea: he is sharpened to one painful point."

It matters not to the maniac that he is objectively wrong; he has created a subjectively coherent reality inside his head which he cannot deny and makes perfect logical sense within its own confines and given its own axioms.  And because this subjective reality cannot be denied, he must act on it even when it comes into conflict with the needs of others or the evidence of reality's lack of adherence to the boundaries which seem so clear and reliable in his mind.

"They are universal only in the sense that they take one thin explanation and carry it very far.  But a pattern can stretch forever and still be a small pattern. They see a chessboard white on black, and if the universe is paved with it, it is still white on black.  Like the lunatic, they cannot alter their standpoint; they cannot make a mental effort and suddenly see it black on white.
Take first the more obvious case of materialism.  As an explanation of the world, materialism has a sort of insane simplicity.  It has just the quality of the madman's argument; we have at once the sense of it covering everything and the sense of it leaving everything out.  Contemplate some able and sincere materialist, as, for instance, Mr. McCabe, and you will have exactly this unique sensation.  He understands everything, and everything does not seem worth understanding.  His cosmos may be complete in every rivet and cog-wheel, but still his cosmos is smaller than our world."

This is the problem with much of modern philosophy: it's so often maniacal.  It's not that the maniac who grounds the entirety of his worldview on liberty, or power, or law is wrong about that one thing being quite valuable.  Those things are indeed valuable.  But even the casual observer will be able to immediately discern that where the maniac went wrong is in reducing all of reality to one valuable thing rather than accepting that many parts of reality might be equally or unequally valuable.

He went wrong not by proposing a transcendent value, but rather by excluding all other values in a simplistic logical fashion.  He went wrong not by trying to explain everything, but rather by making everything so small that it could be easily explained.

The problem with the maniac isn't so much that he makes everything up; his problem is that he makes everything less than he knows it to be.

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. -- G.K. Chesterton

Note: The above is an image I captured of the cover of my copy of the book being reviewed here.


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  2. Thanks for the review, Sam! It's been about 3-4 years since I read Orthodoxy, so the book is not fresh on my mind. However, I think his critique of materialism is pointed and effective.

    Ravi Zacharias, a Protestant Evangelical with whose work I am familiar, was very much influenced by Chesterton. He made an observation that was probably drawing from what Chesterton was saying in Orthodoxy: Atheism/materialism explains all of the peripheral issues of life and leaves the central questions unanswered, while Christianity explains the central questions of life and leaves the peripheral questions unanswered. For example, a neuroscientist who is an atheist might be able to give you a very detailed account of why a man beats his wife (based on neurobiology, psychological theories, etc.) but he would not be able to explain why the wife's life and well-being were objectively valuable in the first place. One the other hand, an illiterate Christian might not learn about neurobiology and psychological theories from his catechism classes, but he at least has an adequate starting-point for a philosophy of life by knowing that 1). God is maximally good/perfect, and 2). Human beings are valuable because they are created in the image of God. Therefore, his philosophy puts him in a better position to make moral sense of the man who is beating his wife.

    In any worldview, there is the question of choosing how to parse through all of the information and stimuli to which we are exposed in this life. For example, the Christian makes sense of his/her experiences in light of the Gospel of Christ. However, in materialism, there is no objective standard that is handed down to us...everything that now exists is the result random interactions of matter and energy. Therefore, we have to go out there and discover the truth...perhaps that is why atheists hold science on such a high pedestal, since scientific measurements and observations are objectively verifiable to a degree that virtually eliminates debates regarding the basic truths of science.

    On the other hand, theology and moral philosophy are two areas in which even the most basic truths are hotly debated. What is interesting to me, though, is that the modern materialist is apt to throw out the former while still trying to hold on to some form of the latter. He will argue with vehemence that the sheer diversity of religious beliefs in the world is proof that there isn't a God and that none of the religions are true, yet he is much slower to believe that the sheer diversity of moral standards in different cultures is proof that there are no objective moral truths. He wants to believe that human rights are a big deal, even though his framework cannot tell him why they are a big deal.

    Chesterton's emphasis on the value of the imagination, poetry, etc. is, I think, not so much a polemic against reason, logic, and mathematics, but an attempt to show the limits of those areas of knowledge. By virtue of our own experiences in being human, all of us are aware of certain truths and virtues that are not quantifiable. For example, you can't give a mathematical measure to love, or to the value of a human life. When dealing with questions of life and of love, it's as if the infinite were somehow tangentially intersecting with our Universe.

    1. Well put, Jack. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. :-)