YIM Catholic Book Club, “Orthodoxy,” Chapter 2

We got a start on G. K. Chesterton’s “Orthodoxy” last week, looking at the first chapter, “In Defense of Everything Else.” If you’re just coming in, you might want to check out the discussion and comments here. In the second chapter, “The Maniac,” Chesterton begins setting up his argument for Christianity by taking on two common forms of secular thinking in his time and ours: materialism and its opposite, what he calls “panegoism,” or the belief that only the self is real.

Chesterton summarizes the core belief of materialism, “All things, even the souls of men, are leaves inevitably unfolding in an utterly unconscious tree,” adding that “if the cosmos of the materialist is the real cosmos, it is not much of a cosmos.” If the universe is just a blind engine pushing matter around, free will is a fiction and man is a puppet. “It is the charge against the main deductions of the materialist that, right or wrong, they gradually destroy his humanity. I do not mean only kindness, I mean hope, courage, poetry, initiative, all that is human.”

At the other extreme is the panegoist, the man who “believes in himself”:

There is a sceptic far more terrible than he who believes that everything began in matter. It is possible to meet the sceptic who believes that everything began in himself. He doubts not the existence of angels or devils [as the materialist does], but the existence of men and cows. For him his own friends are a mythology made up by himself. He created his own father and his own mother. This horrible fancy has in it something decidedly attractive to the somewhat mystical egoism of our day.

I would add that New Age “religion” is a contemporary form of the “mystical egoism” of Chesterton’s age and therefore not so new, after all, as I argued earlier this week both here and here. In the 1970s, Werner Erhard, founder of est, taught that before we are born, we choose our parents, which is as good as “creating” them, I suppose.

These two extremes, materialism and egoism, exhibit the same paradox, according to the author; they are “complete in theory, crippling in practice.” Each is like a circle closed in upon itself: perfect in its simplicity, but also limited. Chesterton’s final thrust in the direction of Christianity contrasts the circular symbol he describes as a snake eating its own tail (the yin-yang in another form), with the cross, which unites contradictions, as healthy people always do.

* * *

Healthy people. Healthy ordinary people. This is the notion that interests me in this chapter, which otherwise I find pretty dense. (Chesterton does love to pile up analogies, and alliteration.) Chesterton doesn’t accuse materialism or egoism of being illogical. He accuses them of being unhealthy. They limit man, preventing him from being and experiencing all that he can. The materialist and egoist both end in the lunatic asylum. What keeps men sane?

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.

What I like about this is what I like about Catholicism. First, it places Mystery at the center of our religious life: the Incarnation, the Eucharist, the Holy Trinity. There are libraries full of commentary on these mysteries, but ultimately they remain mysteries.

Second, Catholicism places the ordinary man and woman in front of the Mystery. When I was moving away from Christianity into spiritual practices that weren’t called New Age in the 1960s or 1970s and weren’t new then, the appeal of these practices was the promise that I might become extraordinary, that I might rise above the common man. These practices were fundamentally gnostic. They seduced one with the belief that there is an esoteric knowledge that only the true initiate can access. The ordinary man or woman need not apply.

I love the ordinariness of Catholicism, which is another way of saying the universality of Catholicism. Everyone may apply, and be saved. Maybe I am diverging from Chesterton’s main points here, but I encourage readers to use comments to bring the discussion back to Chesterton. What did you find meaningful? Meanwhile, I will stand, or kneel, with my ordinary Catholic friends before the Mystery of the Eucharist—and feel pretty healthy in the bargain.

  • Anonymous

    The egotist and his self-centeredness is the person that can do it on his own, he does not need nor want the help of others. As Chesterton states it, "he believes in himself". The egotist will also expect a person who is having financial or personal troubles to take care of it himself. In other words, if I can do it so can you. He is an island. He is alone. In society today common sense is not evident. Just watch Judge Judy! And although many people in our country consider themselves spiritual, there is a growing number that do not follow a classical church. Chesterton writes that this person" has a logical completeness and a spiritual contraction", and "expansive and exhaustive reason with a contraction of common sense". The egotist is prevalent today but , again Chesterton writes that, "the insanity is proved not by error in their argument but by their manifest mistake of their whole lives". I feel sad about this since, by this analogy, the way to prevent a person from living such a self-centered life he must live it before he could be shown the tragedy of his experience. I guess my Catholic education is influencing me. We are injured by the sins of our brothers. We must care for our neighbor because we are all God's creation and His spirit resides in all of us. As Jesus said, "As you did to the least of these, you did it to me". Chesterton better have a solution to his egotist later in the book. But then, he beached his yacht from chapter one and went to an insane asylum in chapter two. Where will we go from here?Sincerely, Mary R

  • Webster Bull

    Mary,If it's any comfort, we're going to Elfland! No, I didn't think that would be comforting….But seriously, Chesterton's egoist is worrisome to me too, maybe even more worrisome than the materialist at the other end of the spectrum. Worrisome to me because I am an egoist. When I was twenty, I wanted nothing more in the world than to "believe in myself." Now that I do believe in myself, I realize that believing in almost anything EXCEPT myself is better, saner, healthier. The Sufis say, Better to obey the will of a cat than to obey your own will. With that in mind, I have no problem obeying the Catholic Church.One thing that is very convincing to me about this chapter: Chesterton is not arguing from truth, from theology, he's arguing from health, from psychology. His question: What makes a man or woman healthy? With THAT in mind, remember, the chapter does end with the Cross. Which may tell you where we're really headed.

  • Kneeling Catholic

    YIMCatholic—Meanwhile, I will stand, or kneel, with my ordinary Catholic friends before the Mystery of the Eucharist—and feel pretty healthy in the bargain.—Hey Bff! (I know you granted me this name in jest, but I am ntl honored!)sorry to nitpick….you know from visiting my website….I don't see it as a matter of indifference as to how we approach the Eucharist. Standing is not kneeling nor vice versa. There is a meaning for each gesture. Kneeling was universal prior to either of us becoming Catholic. Then came the flower power generation and kneeling was eradicated. The Holy Father is setting an example and is inviting us to return to kneeling — like the grateful leper — before Jesus.back to the topic. I think 'orthodoxy' is an excellent choice. I only recently began reading it and so we can learn together!k.c.

  • Webster Bull

    Hey, Kneeling Catholic (your blog name, for those who don't know)—As a member in good standing of the flower power generation, I can only say, Cool! Somehow I arrived at that turn of phrase at the end of the post; as a writer it "felt" right, but admittedly as a Catholic, it sounds stupid! Thanks for the catch. And so glad you're joining in on "Orthodoxy."

  • EPG

    Webster wrote (in part)“Worrisome to me because I am an egoist. When I was twenty, I wanted nothing more in the world than to ‘believe in myself.’”And, of course, this should be worrisome to all of us, because we all are, to one extent or another, egoists. After all, isn’t that what the Fall was all about? Satan appealed to the ego – offering the prospect that, with certain knowledge, we could be like gods. We took the bait, and we take it again and again and again.And of course, the temptation can be very strong when you’re in your teens and twenties. A little Ayn Rand, a little bad science fiction (Robert Heinlein comes to mind), a little D.H. Lawrence, and a typical adolescent male (as I was) will turn into a raging egoist (not that most adolescent males need much nudging in that direction). So, in a way, failure can be helpful, because it can teach you that we are not God. We are not even like gods. So remember that Jesus came and spent time, not with kings, or with emperors who asserted their divinity, but very ordinary people, and take comfort.As I read this chapter during the week, I was reminded of something else. I recently re-read Hamlet, for the first time since college. And, when I came to the admonition “to thine own self be true,” I realized, probably for the first time, that it is almost always quoted out of context. It is generally cited as an assertion of ego, of will – “Be yourself, adhere to what you think is right.” In fact, however, it comes following an admonition to be honest with others, and then, most of all, “to thine own self be true (i.e., honest). So Shakespeare, like Chesterton, was onto something: We need not so much to believe in ourselves, but to test ourselves. We need to measure our egos against reality, and against Reality.

  • Webster Bull

    EPG is on to me (the adolescent me). Ayn Rand? The books were too long. But — "Stranger in a Strange Land" was the Eureka book of my senior year in boarding school. "Women in Love" (the movie first, then the novel) was the weird, wonderful call to sexuality/sensuality (what WAS Lawrence really about???) that I heeded for the first 18 months in college. Want to hear something weird, that might even make you stop reading this blog? Remember the scene in WOL (the movie) where Alan Bates and Oliver Reed wrestle nude in front of a fireplace. I did that with a friend my sophomore year at Amherst. Except it was outdoors on the Hampshire College campus. (Where else but Hampshire College?) I mean, please! Lord, have mercy on my absurd adolescent soul!

  • EPG

    Yes, Webster that is weird, but, if you were at Hampshire, it is explainable. [grin here].More seriously, I took "Stranger in a Strange Land," "The Fountainhead," and "Lady Chatterly's Lover" very seriously when I was in my teens. The film version of Women in Love, however, was just too wierd for me . . .

  • Webster Bull

    EPG, I have a friend who, while running a bookstore, used his knowledge of Lady Chatterly's Lover to hit on the woman who became his wife. She was browsing in the fiction section, looking at Lawrence, and leafing through a copy Lady C's Lover as my friend walked smoothly to her side and said only, "Page 39." They are "weird" too!!