The Dead Speak: G. K. Chesterton

G. K. Chesterton was physically and literarily a man of big stature. At six feet four inches and almost three hundred pounds, and with writings that ran the range from literary and social criticism, to history and politics, to philosophy and theology, he was in many ways a powerful force to be reckoned with in the early twentieth century. And, as his many current admirers and fans will testify, he continues to be a potent voice in the world. At risk of oversimplifying the attraction of a man whose talents were many, it could be said that Chesterton’s appeal primarily lay in what has been described as his uncommon sense which he wittily directed in criticism of the world’s all too common non-sense.

As for myself, I see Chesterton as an icon of no-nonsense sophistication, who provided a model of the kind of thinker and writer I would like to be. Moreover, I wish that many of those is in the Church who have a voice that is heard by many would take their cues from his example. For if they did, I am quite certain that we would be a significantly more potent cultural force, since many would see that indeed it is possible to be an orthodox Christian without being a loud-mouthed, culturally naive fool.


Let us begin, then, with the mad-house; from this evil and fantastic inn let us set forth on our intellectual journey. Now, if we are to glance at the philosophy of sanity, the first thing to do in the matter is to blot out one big and common mistake. There is a notion adrift everywhere that imagination, especially mystical imagination, is dangerous to man’ mental balance. Poets are commonly spoken of as psychologically unreliable; and generally there is a vague association between wreathing laurels in your hair and sticking straws in it. Facts and history utterly contradict this view. Most of the very great poets have been not only sane, but extremely business-like; and if Shakespeare ever really held horses, it was because he was much the safest man to hold them. 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. Artistic paternity is as wholesome as physical paternity. Moreover, it is worthy of remark that when a poet really was morbid it was commonly because he had some weak spot of rationality on his brain. Poe, for instance, really was morbid; not because he was poetical, but because he was specially analytical. Even chess was too poetical for him; he disliked chess because it was full of knights and castles, like a poem. He avowedly preferred the black discs of draughts, because they were more like the mere black dots on a diagram. Perhaps the strongest case of all is this: that only one great English poet went mad, Cowper. And he was definitely driven mad by logic, by the ugly and alien logic of predestination. Poetry was not the disease, but the medicine; poetry partly kept him in health. He could sometimes forget the red and thirsty hell to which his hideous necessitarianism dragged him among the wide waters and the white flat lilies of the Ouse. He was damned by John Calvin; he was almost saved by John Gilpin. Everywhere we see that men do not go mad by dreaming. Critics are much madder than poets. Homer is complete and calm enough; it is his critics who tear him into extravagant tatters. Shakespeare is quite himself; it is only some of his critics who have discovered that he was somebody else. And though St. John the Evangelist saw many strange monsters in his vision, he saw no creature so wild as one of his own commentators. 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 result is mental exhaustion, like the physical exhaustion of Mr. Holbein. To accept everything is an exercise, to understand everything a strain. The poet only desires exaltation and expansion, a world to stretch himself in. 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.

One Response to “The Dead Speak: G. K. Chesterton”

  1. Anthony Velez  

    This is the cliffnotes version of this excerpt from Chesterton.

    Against the common notion that insanity is a departure from reason that comes from a fanciful or overly active imagination, Chesterton argues that it is the inability to get out of the constraints of reason that drive people insane. The culmination of his argument is expressed when he says, “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.” Chesterton’s concept of sanity is related to a kind of humility that results in a buoyancy of being. Allegorically one can lay a hold of Chesterton’s idea by thinking about a surfer whose desire is to ride a wave, as opposed to the desire that someone might have to capture and control a wave. The surfer uses the power of the wave not by seeking to control it, but rather by learning to float on it and thereby enter into a relationship with the wave where it carries him even as he moves freely upon it. So it is in life that one can seek to control all the realities and forces they might encounter, particularly by analyzing them and thereby try to gain a mastery of understanding, or they can seek enough of an understanding to function gracefully amidst all these forces many of which are beyond the limits of human understanding. It is this latter approach that embodies grace, beauty and true power, in short, that demonstrates true sanity.