Orthodoxy

15 July 2012 § 2 Comments

15 July

This morning before church, I began reading G K Chesterton’s Orthodoxy.  I am greatly enjoying it and shall therefore quote it at length:

“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  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.

Now lilies will float around in your head all day

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 that splits.”

And a word on 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 leaving everything out.  Contemplate some able and sincere materialist, as for instance, Mr McCabe,”—a Catholic priest-turned-“rationalist” who seems an absolute bore from the little I’ve learned of him—“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.  Somehow his scheme, like the lucid scheme of the madman, seems unconscious of the alien energies and the large indifference of the earth; it is not thinking of the real things of the earth, of fighting peoples and proud mothers, or first love or fear upon the sea.  The earth is so very large, and the cosmos is so very small.  The cosmos is about the smallest hole that a man can hide his head in.”

“The sane man knows that he has a touch of the beast, a touch of the devil, a touch of the saint, a touch of the citizen. Nay, the really sane man knows that he has a touch of the madman.” Aye, Chesterton, you too have a touch of the madman.

Most of the book remains to be read, yet I shan’t post too many more paragraphs of someone else’s writing.  The past few days have been delightful.  Friday was full of work, yesterday was full of reading and running and Sara coming home from her week of working as a camp counselor, and today has been full of more reading and church and good rest.  It should soon be full of catching up on heaps of correspondence and eating Ethiopian food for the first time ever tonight!  It’s partially a birthday celebration for Sara (whose birthday was on Friday) and Erin (whose birthday is on Tuesday, when she and Kathryne and I will be in a presently undisclosed exciting place).  I pray that Ethiopian food agrees with me more than Indian food does . . .

I finished reading Hunter’s book, and now Erin and I are reading John Lennox’s God’s Undertaker together, in the preface of which Lennox states that statements by men of science are not necessarily statements of science (cf. Richard Dawkins).  Lennox, an Oxford mathematics professor, came to Duke this spring to speak about Christianity and science, and so many students came to the lecture that some of them were turned away.  He speaks (and writes) with such clarity and liberating lack of narrowness that one follows his thoughts with neither confusion nor hesitation.  Even his writing, taken by itself, delights the mind.  I love reading scientists who write well.  Even more, I love reading Oxford scientists who write well.

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