G.K Chesterton’s Defense of Mysticism and Poetry

The Catholic essayist, G.K. Chesterton, in the second chapter of his 1908 book, Orthodoxy , had the interesting and counterintuitive idea that mysticism and poetry do not cause a person to run the risk of going mad, but that doing mathematics might! Here’s what he wrote:

There is a notion adrift everywhere that imagination, especially mystical imagination, is dangerous to man’s 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. . . . 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 . . . in any sense attacking logic: I only say that this danger does lie in logic, not in imagination.

Now aside from Chesterton’s too easy stereotyping of the mental work that poets and mathematicians (and chess players and cashiers!) engage in, what would possess Chesterton to make so seemingly ridiculous a statement? What premises underly it?

I think that there are two. The first is that linear thought frequently can lead to reductio ad absurda : if government is bad, we should have no government at all; if taking one vitamin C tablet is good, ten must be better; if Christ said “Cast away your offending members,” then sexual temptation should be met by cutting off the genitals. As Chesterton put it (Orthodoxy chpt. 2):

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. . . . The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.

Another premise underlying Chesterton’s idea that reason can make one unreasonable—and even go mad—is Chesterton’s willingness to hold, in good pragmatic and Emersonian fashion (Emerson: “consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”) contradictory ideas. This is very like the poet’s capacious habit of looking at the world from very different vantages and metaphors without any rushing to artificially reconcile or justify them. Here’s Chesterton (again, from the second chapter of Orthodoxy ): 

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 the earth and the other in fairyland. He has always left himself free to doubt his gods; but (unlike the agnostic of to-day) free also to believe in them. He has always cared more for truth than for consistency. If he saw two truths that seemed to contradict each other, he would take the two truths and the contradiction along with them. His spiritual sight is stereoscopic, like his physical sight: he sees two different pictures at once and yet sees all the better for that. Thus he has always believed that there was such a thing as fate, but such a thing as free will also. . . . It is exactly this balance of apparent contradictions that has been the whole buoyancy of the healthy man. The whole secret of mysticism is this: that man can understand everything by the help of what he does not understand.

Chesterton sees in the Protestant poet William Cowper (the person who wrote the hymn, “Amazing Grace”) an example of the tension—within one person—between the healthy and “irrational” imaginative man and the narrow and linearly obsessed “rational” madman. Cowper tragically tormented himself with thoughts that he had committed the unpardonable sin in his heart (blasphemy against the Holy Ghost) and that God had not chosen him for salvation, and Chesterton locks onto these facts to illustrate the contending forces within Cowper (Orthodoxy chpt. 2):

[O]ne 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.

“John Gilpin,” of course, is one of Cowper’s more famous poems, and John Calvin was, well, John Calvin: the monomaniacal religious literalist and civic authoritarian.

If you can accept the premises underlying Chesterton’s argument, I think that his defense of mysticism and poetry is a pretty compelling one. His use of Cowper as an example is also illuminating—and provacative.

Poems not Prozac? Shakepeare not Calvin? Keats not Dawkins? Or maybe there’s a balance—a twilight to allow?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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1 Response to G.K Chesterton’s Defense of Mysticism and Poetry

  1. Pingback: Blogging Schick and Vaughn’s “How to Think about Weird Things” Chapter 2 « Prometheus Unbound

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