Wednesday, July 18, 2007

G.K. Chesterton's Modern Thoughts: Part III The Maniac and Activists

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 iron of his idea that he is put in Hanwell [English mental institution, --ed.] 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 dullness of life. This is also why the new novels die so quickly, and why the old fairy tales endure for ever.

...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 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 skeptic, 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.

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 more general and even aesthetic terms. He is in the clean and well-lit prison of one idea: he is sharpened to one painful point. He is without healthy hesitation and healthy complexity.
--The Maniac, Chapter 2, Orthodoxy
If one finds himself tired trying to understand the mind of the maniac, he'll completely exhaust himself trying to reason with the activist. Cindy Sheehan qualifies as both maniac and activist, if the two can even be separated. Her reasoning: "War is bad" is simple, clear and unarguable. However, it is, as Chesterton says "without healthy complexity". This makes her reasoning wrong but leaves a person of a different opinion in the impossible position of trying to persuade against her truth. Her delusion is utterly real to her.

Most activists these days seem barking mad. A short list:
All these groups maniacally adhere to one ostensibly noble idea. At the Animal Liberation Front link you'll find a slide show called "logic". It is clear, rational and ultimately false. It would be impossible to reason against them for they possess the truth.

Today, the Kossaks rage against Russ Feingold for being anti-impeachment. His view is completely sane, but not to the reasoning of the drooling Leftists.

Today, a man living the American dream, gets a rude message from his peace and earth-loving neighbors. Glenn Reynolds asks: "A RELIGIOUS HATE CRIME? Gaia's worshippers are angry."

Today, a Zimbabwean woman gave birth in line for groceries rather than give up her place. Viva la socialism!

Interestingly, when Chesterton wrote about Maniacs it was in response to a Marxist determined to defend determinism and married to materialism:
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 don 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, perpahs, 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. 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 o a healthy man; whistling as he walks, slashing the grass with a stick; kicking his heels or rubbing his hands. It is the happy mad 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. Everyone 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 humor 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.
It is the reasoning of Rosie that takes her to the madness that would cause her to do this and say this.

Beware the maniac. It leads to places where fire can't melt metal.

Chesterton: Part I Traitors
Chesterton: Part II Suicide Bombers

1 comment:

David said...

"..his education had had the curious effect of making things that he read and wrote more real to him than the things he saw. Statistics about agricultural laboureres were the substance: any real ditcher, ploughman, or farmer's boy, was the shadow...he had a great reluctance, in his work, to ever use such words as "man" or "woman." He preferred to write about "vocational groups," "elements," "classes," and "populations": for, in his own way, he believed as firmly as any mystic in the superior reality of the things that are not seen."

--C S Lewis, describing his protagonist (a sociologist) in the novel That Hideous Strength.

The problem is not so much excessive devotion to reason as it is the inability to use abstractions correctly. Too often, people who are educated extensively but shallowly have a hard time distinguishing between an abstraction and the reality that it represents--this confusion is sometimes referred to as the *reification* of the abstraction.

More on this later.