Chesterton on Imagination, Reason, and Insanity

I’m re-reading Chesterton’s Orthodoxy (1908), and I was struck by this line of argument:

There is a notion adrift everywhere that imagination, especially mystical imagination, is dangerous to a man’s mental balance. . . . 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.

After giving some examples, Chesterton attempts an explanation for the phenomenon:

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 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.

Finally, in a passage that might reassure a good many Reasonable Minds, Chesterton asserts:

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.

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7 Responses to “Chesterton on Imagination, Reason, and Insanity”

  1. David Fitzgerald Says:

    This calls to mind what I like to refer to as the “Santa Claus Problem.” Many modern parents struggle with the question of when they should tell their kids there is no Santa Claus. The answer to that question, of course, is that you should never tell them that there is no Santa Claus, because if you did so you would be lying.

    Our culture will, all to soon, deconstruct the symbol of course. They will come home, at far too young an age we will mourn, and knowingly announce that no one comes down the chimney, mommy and daddy buy all the presents at Toys R Us and, by the way dad, the last thing you needed after Christmas Eve dinner were “Santa’s” cookies.

    You see, the culture wants to make them all little fundamentalists or little nihilists (which is really just a form of fundamentalism). They will be forced into a false dichotomy, things are either literally true, in the most limited phenomenal sense or they are “mythic” by which is meant false. The notion that a physical/phenomenal vessel, like a poem, can convey a noumenal reality which transcends that vessel is quite foreign to the current modern mind. Hence, you are left with atheists arguing that the ignorance of religion is the source of all our current evils on the one hand and the people who see the Virgin in a slice of toast on the other. These people have a very hard time speaking with one another, largely because they are so much alike.

    How then do you solve the Santa Claus Problem? Chesterton points to the answer. One invites ones children to experience the totality of reality. That normal everday things, like Sunday dinner, a poem, bread, wine, a song, properly marked off from the mundane, can communicate the depths of reality without ever completely consuming the depth of the mystery which is reality. You, in short, invite them to be human (or perhaps just Irish) by helping them see that, unconditional love and tenderness and all infinite truths exist, are experienced in the physical plain in which we live but, and this is the tragedy of this vale of tears, although they are within our reach, they always exceed our grasp.

    So…Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. The question is, where do you find him when you strip off the red suit and take him out of the sleigh. Our current culture won’t help you there. It is too preoccupied with “getting to the bottom of things” and “seeing what is really there.”

  2. jim walsh Says:

    A usage note:

    “mythos” = story

    “myth” = story, in various senses

    “mythological” refers to stories of the gods (it’s a technical term in the study of religion), especially as systematized more or less by scholars ancient and modern; from that it is applied to figures in such stories, like unicorns, as “mythological”

    “mythical” non-existent; note the overlap with “mythological” in common usage

    “mythic” Ah, mythic! Larger than life; a story that is *the* Story of a person or culture, a figure that in the imagination of a culture stands for something cosmic, transcendent, beyond ordinary grasp. Napoleon was such in the 19th century, Hitler still is even in the 21st.

    None of this is written in stone, but it seems to me to be useful to distinguish these different aspects of mythos and its derivatives.

    For a child, Santa is mythic; only as the child grows up does he become mythical.

  3. Mark Grannis Says:

    Huffington Post, Daily Kos, and Instapundit: Eat your hearts out.

  4. Pat O'Donnell Says:

    Followers of this thread might be interested in a story in today’s Wall Street Journal about militant atheism in Europe, which attacks all religion head-on as mythical. Here’s a link, but I believe you have to have a subscription to follow it: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB117631918714166684.html?mod=hps_us_pageone. I believe today’s print edition carries it, too.

  5. Mark Grannis Says:

    Very interesting, Pat. I note that the priest in Caen sees the same similarities between atheism and fundamentalism that Fitz remarked in my favorite part of his comment.

    It would be nice to know whether the WSJ reports on these evangelical atheists because they are mainstream or because they are not. It would also be interesting to know whether they are militant in more than a metaphorical sense — something this article suggested to me without really coming out and saying it.

  6. David Fitzgerald Says:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/08/magazine/08pope.t.html?ref=magazine

    I actually posted the comment before I saw the NY Times Magazine piece on Pope Benedict. Apparently, the Holy Father is also grappling with this notion that fundamentalism, in all its forms, is the most salient threat to western culture.

    Now, if he could only get that concept through to his priests and bishops, we might actually get somewhere.

    Mark, forgive me if I hyperlinked incorrectly again. The technical stuff eludes me a bit.

  7. Greg Jones Says:

    Can you define fundamentalism for the purposes of this discussion?

    Are we talking about people who believe every word of the Bible is perfect and Divinely inspired?

    If so, there are Christians who believe that God has revealed Himself to men through history, and that those men recorded those revelations in the Bible.

    With this in mind, can we not think of people being partially-fundamental?

    I don’t like that phrase so let me suggest the following instead. Can we not broaden our thinking beyond fundamentalist and non-fundamentalist and instead of see many Christians being somewhere in a continuum between those two viewpoints?

    I say this because I see the extreme of non-fundamentalism, as being just as dangerous for someone who claims to be a Christian but disbelieves in a revealed Divine authority, is left to making up his/her belief according to his/her own wishes. Such a faith is likened to man making God in His own image.


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