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Six Maniacal Observations from G.K. Chesterton

They'll help make sure you don't think like a maniac

Photo by Jurica Koletić / Unsplash

G.K. Chesterton shook England in 1908 with Orthodoxy, a book that took him from “promising young writer” to “celebrity” in early 20th-century England, possibly the most truly literate culture in the history of the world. It laid out his worldview.

He started that view in the neighborhood of the madhouse. Chapter II: “The Maniac.” The entire chapter is worth reading (and re-reading), but here are four observations that GKC makes about the Maniac.

1. The Maniac Rejects Evil

“The strongest stains and the strongest sceptics alike took positive evil as the starting point of their argument.”

Why do a few men feel exquisite happiness when they do something evil, like skinning a cat? It’s either because there is no God (the atheist conclusion) or because of Original Sin (the Christian conclusion). The maniac reasons it out and concludes that there is no cat.

2. Life is Dull for the Maniac

“Oddities only strike ordinary people. Oddities do not strike odd people.”

When you’re immersed in something, that something isn’t going to strike you. If you’re odd, oddities won’t strike you, but life’s quirks are what make things exciting. The maniac misses them.

3. Reason Breeds Insanity

“Most of the very great poets have been not only sane, but extremely business-like. . . Poets do not go mad; chess-players do.”

And when the poet does go mad, like Edgar Allen Poe did, it was because he has a “weak spot of rationality on his brain. He was, GKC points out, “specially analytical.”

GKC likes logic (it’s on display in all his work), but he also likes those things that transcend it. The maniac doesn’t. The maniac wants certitude — mathematically-precise certitude, preferably — and he’s willing to sacrifice common sense to get it, like the maniac who denies there is no cat (Observation 1 above).

4. The Maniac Always Has a Purpose

“If the madman could for an instant become careless, he would become sane.”

The maniac doesn’t chill and do stupid things, like mindlessly slashing grass with a stick or lingering among flowers. The maniac fills every moment with purpose. The happy person does useless things.

5. The Maniac is Always Right and Always Wrong

“The madman’s explanation of a thing is always complete, and often in a purely rational sense satisfactory.”

The maniac lives in a rational cocoon. He has his worldview and, within that world, everything has a place. You can never use reason to show him otherwise. The only option is to break open the cocoon somehow. If we can break open his cocoon, a flood of realities that defy his logical world would rush in and clean out the maniacal one, giving him a beautiful world instead of the logical one.

6. The Maniac Puts Himself in the Middle of His Logical World

“Those seekers after the Superman [are] always looking for him in the looking-glass.”

This is the primary thing that puts the maniac beyond our reach. His mistake is his whole life. That cocoon is, in reality, their own image. We need to break open the cocoon but without killing the person. That’s a delicately difficult thing to do, which is why alternate forces beyond our control (tragedy and grace) are often required.

An Assist from Another Englishman

“The Maniac” captures, it seems to me, the main thrust of Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary, a scholarly work that has been hugely popular (selling 200,000 copies, which is enormous for such works).

The left hemisphere of the brain is the hemisphere of purpose: cause, efficiency, and control. It is supposed to be subservient to the right hemisphere, which is the hemisphere of being. The right hemisphere takes into account everything, including those things that transcend logic. The left hemisphere works within narrow bounds that it can understand. Its role (as emissary) should be limited to the roles the right hemisphere (the proper master) gives it.

Unfortunately, the left hemisphere in the modern world has usurped the right hemisphere’s master status. That, McGilchrist spends nearly 500 dense pages explaining, is a seriously bad development for our world.

It’s no wonder everything looks increasingly maniacal.