The Suicide of Thought–Chesterton

Chapter three of  Chesterton’s Orthodoxy was a chapter I weathered more than enjoyed. In it Chesterton reviews the philosophical thought of his times, citing such men as Nietzsche, Tolstoy, and Shaw and others less well known.  Always one to blast an opponent with generosity and humor he cites Mr. Bernard Shaw as typifying his times in having ‘a heroically large and generous heart; but not a heart in the right place’.

And when it comes to socialist campaigner and atheist, Mr. Blatchford, I get the distinct feeling I’m missing something by way of background when Chesterton describes him as ‘not only an early Christian, he is the only early Christian who ought really to have been eaten by lions. For in his case the pagan accusation is really true: his mercy would mean mere anarchy.’

He has a strange idea that he will make it easier to forgive sins by saying that there are no sins to forgive. p.36

So I keep moving gleaning what I can…

Regarding what he terms “the dislocation of humility” Chesterton remarks:

A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert–himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt–the Divine Reason. p.38

Humility was largely meant as a restraint upon the arrogance and infinity of the appetite of man. p.37

He describes modern man as having destroyed half his joys by his demand for pleasure.

By asking for pleasure, he lost the chief pleasure; for the chief pleasure is surprise.  Hence it became evident that if a man would make his world large, he must be always making himself small.p.37

His main concern in this chapter is the potential peril of one generation of thinkers preventing the next from thinking, by teaching them that there is no validity in human thought.  This is the peril that ‘the human intellect is free to destroy itself.’ p.40

G.K. sees the Authority of Religion (the Catholic Church) as a needful defense against such ‘suicide of thought’, and seems to disdain the Reformation as a shattering of Christianity that enabled not only vices but virtues to run wild and destroy healthy reason.

“And in the act of destroying the idea of Divine authority we have largely destroyed the idea of that human authority by which we do a long-division sum.”

Though I don’t share Chesterton’s prejudice against the Reformation, or his defense of the Institutional Church of his day, I would say that the Divine Authority of the Word of God is needed if man is to stay on an even keel in matters of the intellect.  Just this afternoon I was looking over some quotes from a recently (2012) published book titled: Free Will, by popular “New Atheist” Sam Harris.  In it he claims that any sense of having a free will is an illusion.  We are all hard-wired by our brains, environment, circumstances, etc. and have no choice how we act.  He claims to be proof that just knowing this has the potential to make us more ‘morally sensitive and creative’ (and more compassionate toward ax-muderers and the like).  The fact that this man is lauded as “one of the sharpest scholars around” demonstrates clearly to me that Chesterton knew what he was talking about when forseeing the ‘suicide of thought’ that would come with man’s ridding himself of Divine Authority.  To  make a claim to moral sensitivity and creativity, while at the same time denying the existence of a personal Creator is nonsensical. But I digress.

In Chesterton’s generation the problem wasn’t denying the existence of man’s will but worshiping the limitlessness of it!  Chesterton smartly checks this assumption with the reminder that ‘every act of will is an act of self-limitation’. To choose one thing is to deny another.  [I commend to you Michele Morin’s blogpost exploring this quote further.]

Chesterton reminds that a world of facts is a world of limits:

You can free things from alien or accidental laws, but not from the laws of their own nature.

Perhaps this is ultimately the explanation for both man’s boasting in the might of his own will and his denying it altogether; the nature of Adam is impossible to escape by sheer will power.  Both exerting godhood and denying culpability are part of the fallen human condition. Both viewpoints exclude bowing the knee to a God who is sovereign over mankind and yet holds man responsible to choose his allegiance.

So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.  Rom 9:16 ESV

All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. Jn.6:37 ESV

Chesterton concludes his arguments against the false ideologies of his day by saying their proponents:

…are all on the road to the emptiness of the asylum.  For madness may be defined as using mental activity so as to reach mental helplessness; and they have neartly reached it…So he who wills to reject nothing, wills the destruction of will; for will is not only the choice of something, but the rejection of almost everything. p.56

But the quote that best sums up the chapter for me is this one:

Thinking in isolation and with pride ends in being an idiot.  Every man who will not have softening of the heart must at last have softening of the brain. p.55

Oh the value of a humble heart and a will submitted to God!

All these things my hand has made, and so all these things came to be, declares the LORD. But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word. Is.66:2 ESV


For my previous thoughts on Orthodoxy see: The Sin of Self-Confidence 

And for Michele Morin’s latest post on Orthodoxy (Chap. 3) see: The Freedom of Limitations

3 thoughts on “The Suicide of Thought–Chesterton

  1. You were WAAAAY more comprehensive in this post that I was in mine! And I was also hooked by that quote about our demandingness slaking any enjoyment we might have in life. I am not sorry to be done with chapter 3, and having just finished chapter 4, I was thrilled to find it full of a number of the passages I have associated with Chesterton. It’s going to be hard to narrow the field for my April post! It’s great to be reading this [extremely challenging] book in company with you!
    Thanks for persevering!

    1. You are so great at narrowing the field and adding condiments to round out the flavor of a concept and shape it into a nourishing meal deal… Thx for all the good cooking!

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