Tuesday, September 15, 2020

He Believes in Himself

I said to him, "Shall I tell you where the men are who believe most in themselves? … The men who really believe in themselves are all in lunatic asylums."

Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton (ebook)


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’s easy to criticize; it is far more difficult to describe, with any coherence, what one is for.  This is what Chesterton is after in the book.  I have written on his book, Heretics, in the past; for those interested, my thoughts can be found in the Bibliography tab at the top of the page.

In this book, Chesterton will walk through his walk – how he came to believe that which he came to believe about Christianity.  The book was written in 1908, when Chesterton was still an Anglican.  He converted (I don’t like that word in such a context) to Catholicism fourteen years later.  The book has been described as a masterpiece of Christian apologetics.

He begins with a story, an idea for a romance novel: an English yachtsman, off to sea and thinking he discovered some exotic island in the South Pacific…only to find that he had come to shore in England.  Chesterton describes this as a delightful mistake:

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?

He is that man in the yacht.  This is how Chesterton has come to see his Christian faith, a faith that answers this double need: the mix of the familiar and unfamiliar, “which Christendom has rightly named romance.”  He is writing to those who view the world as a combination of both wonder and welcome.

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.

Where Chesterton felt he stood alone, he would discover that all of Christendom stood behind him.

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.

The best root of sound ethics.  It is as I have found, and relevant to the discussion of the necessary cultural and traditional foundation for liberty.

Various versions of the Creed can be found here.  Various really means various, as the Anglican Church itself has two versions!  Chesterton is not going to get into all that:

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.

The general historic conduct.  We know that men who held to such a creed would often fall short.  It was the creed that provided the foundation at which to aim, a foundation which could always be used to hold men to account.

The Maniac

Returning to the man who believes in himself…

“Complete self-confidence is not merely a sin; complete self-confidence is a weakness.”

"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.

I read this and think about the idea, articulated well by Immanuel Kant:

Enlightenment is man’s release from his self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is man’s inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another….” Have courage to use your own reason!” That is the motto of enlightenment.

There is a man who believes in himself, who has complete self-confidence.  What Kant felt about the value of tradition and cultural norms is secondary to the reality that the implementation of this ideal has resulted in a disdain – even hatred – of tradition and cultural norms.

Chesterton begins with the fact of sin, offering that any scientific study must begin with an indisputable fact.  He described this fact as “original sin.”  I know this phrase causes consternation in some; I have explored the topic before and don’t want to get into it again.  For me it is sufficient to note, as a fact, that every human being falls short of the mark that can be described as good.  None are perfect, nor can anyone be – contrary to Pelagius.

So, with my modification in mind – and remaining open to the possibility that my modification might not survive as I work through Chesterton’s narrative – what does Chesterton offer regarding this fact?

The strongest saints and the strongest sceptics alike took positive evil as the starting-point of their argument.

If a man can take pleasure in any evil act, one of two things must be true: God does not exist, as atheists will claim, or the present union between man and God is lacking, as Christians would claim.  In any case, the conversation must start with the fact of sin, and absent the concept of sin there can be no conversation. 

Of course, we have many who deny such a concept.  Chesterton concedes that men may deny hell, but they do not deny the lunatic asylum.  So, perhaps if we do not want to think of a man losing his soul, Chesterton suggests that we think, instead, of a man losing his wits.

And Chesterton returns, once again, to the man who only believes in himself:

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…

All men have a conspiracy against this man; that some men deny this is irrelevant – as this is what conspirators would say.  If he claims to be the king of England, the authorities would call him mad; but what else would they say if they didn’t want him to take his rightful throne?  If he claims to be Christ, the world would deny his divinity; perfect proof – as they also denied Christ’s!

The lunatic's theory explains a large number of things, but it does not explain them in a large way.

In each case, there is so much that is left out: are all men so busy with your world that they are all spending time conspiring against you?  Isn’t it more likely – and wouldn’t you be happier in the knowledge – that most men are not thinking of you at all?  Practical science does not entertain such simplistic reasoning, with so much left out; it does not argue with it like a heresy, it just snaps it off.

Neither modern science nor ancient religion believes in complete free thought.

Some religious societies discourage men from thinking about sex; science discourages men from thinking about death (wow, Chesterton wrote this 100 years ago.  What would he say today?).   In any case, curing a madman is not done via arguments aimed at a philosopher – he is cured by casting out a devil.

So what of this simplistic reasoning that explains many things but not very well?  What bearing does it play in Chesterton’s larger narrative?

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.

It ignores everything real, everything meaningful in the world – fighting peoples, proud mothers, fear of the sea, or one’s first love.  There is so much in this world that cannot be explained by the materialist – instead of explaining the cosmos, he has shrunk it to almost nothingness.  This materialist philosophy is far more limiting than anything offered by religion.

It must be understood that I am not now discussing the relation of these creeds to truth; but, for the present, solely their relation to health. Later in the argument I hope to attack the question of objective verity; here I speak only of a phenomenon of psychology.

This line is so Jordan Peterson.  It only begs the question: what is truth?  Is it limited to only that which can be measured, tested, falsified?  Or is there something more?  I guess we will understand more on this as Chesterton expands on his views.

The materialist views the Christian a slave, as it is believed that the Christian does not believe in determinism; yet the materialist is the slave, as it is impossible for him to believe in fairies.  Who is more the slave?  At least the Christian can believe there is much about the universal order that is settled; the materialist cannot believe in fairies.

The sane man knows he has a touch of madman in him; the madman believes no such thing.  Spiritual doctrines do not limit the mind the way materialist doctrines do.  A Christian has a choice to think about immortality or not; a materialist is barred from ever contemplating this.  When materialism brings men to complete fatalism, as it must (we are nothing but the result of random atoms smashing randomly together), there is nothing at all liberating about this.

We are told that religion stands in the way of freedom.  So, what freedom is there in believing, through your thought freed from religion (or from the thought of another, as Kant offered) that there is no such thing as free will?  Who is more enslaved: the Christian or the materialist?  Which worldview offers a better foundation for liberty?

You may use the language of liberty, if you like, about materialistic teaching, but it is obvious that this is just as inapplicable to it as a whole as the same language when applied to a man locked up in a mad-house. You may say, if you like, that the man is free to think himself a poached egg.

Think whatever you want about your freedom, but if it is all materialist and determined then there is no such thing.  It is an illusion (as I have heard Sam Harris and other such materialist new atheists state clearly).


This chapter is purely practical and is concerned with what actually is the chief mark and element of insanity; we may say in summary that it is reason used without root, reason in the void. The man who begins to think without the proper first principles goes mad; he begins to think at the wrong end.

So, what keeps man sane?  This is what Chesterton will attempt to answer by the end of this book.  For now, he merely offers the idea of mysticism:

As long as you have mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity.

Such a man cares for truth more than consistency; when he finds two truths that might seem contradictory, he takes the truths and the contradiction together.  He accepts such a thing as fate at the same time that he accepts free will.  How?  It’s a mystery!


  1. In the movie "Second Hand Lions" there was a dialog that ruined the movie for me. In that dialog one of the uncle says "It doesn't matter if they're true or not. Those are the things a man should believe in because those are the things worth believing in."

    To know a fictitious story, a fable, a fantasy, to not be real and, yet, understand a maybe even accept as true its lesson is not the same as believing in a lie and that the fable is real.

  2. Chesterton deals with the Modern materialist but not so much the Post-Modern materialist. Determinism I think is more of the old school materialist.

    Of course, he does hint at Post-Moderns with his comment about the man believing he is a poached egg. I think that is the only 2 choices for them.

    Listened to an interview of Thaddeus Russell. Man. That guy is insane. He wont even admit the sky is really blue, all for the sake of his version of freedom.