GKC – Surviving the Mirror; Orthodoxy Chapter 2b   Leave a comment


Trigger Warning: Mental Illness Last weeks GKC post really wasn’t about the second chapter of Orthodoxy. It was about the idea that different people require different exhortations. Privileged people like me and Chesterton, who have (in the words of one of my favorite television characters) self esteem falling out of our butts, should think less of ourselves than we currently do. People who are not so privileged do not necessarily need to think that. But this post will be about the chapter. Instead of talking about one random and almost incidental part of this chapter, I’m going to get at the main arguments. There’s just one problem with this. I really don’t like any of the main points of this chapter. Since this deconstruction is supposed to be as much about rediscovering the wisdom that made me like Chesterton in the first place as it is about how Chesterton and younger me were both terribly wrong, this sads me. But there really isn’t much to like here. The entire chapter is an extended comparison between insanity and materialistic determinism. This comparison is fairly arbitrary (since the features the two seem to share could reasonably be said about a lot), and Chesterton doesn’t really understand mental illness in the first place. So let’s just hit a few of the major issues and move on to more favorable ground. First Issue: Chesterton does not understand mental illness. Chesterton’s contemporaries did not understand mental illness (Freud, who is cited constantly by literati and others in the social scientists, was simply wrong about a lot according to modern psychology). I myself don’t understand mental illness (at least not beyond knowing that Freud was wrong. English teachers, please stop making me read about his outdated theories). I wish I could break down just how bad Chesterton’s treatment of mental illness is, but non-nuerotypical people have enough to deal with without me spreading my own misconceptions around, so I’m just going to say that nothing Chesterton says about mental illness should be taken seriously, and leave it at that. Second Issue: Chesterton talks a bit about how The Ordinary Man often do not resolve apparent contradictions in his beliefs.

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.

To a certain extent, I still buy this. I still think that people can be held morally accountable for their actions, that they can make decisions to change themselves. This requires belief in some form of free will. Unfortunately, free will makes no logical sense to me. Not only can I not give very good reasons proving that it exists, I can’t even imagine in my brain how something resembling free will would work. How do I resolve that contradiction? I don’t. I think it’s true that free will exists, and also that it makes no sense to me. I take this as a case of truth over consistency, so I understand the principle Chesterton is going for here. The problem is my view has shifted. I am far too aware of things The Ordinary Man does that are inconsistent and not true. I think if people were pushed to resolve the contradictions more, the world would be a less violent, ignorant, and painful place. So while I still get this argument, my sympathy is all the other way. People should not be told that it’s just okay that they seem to believe two contradictory things, and that’s what Chesterton is doing here. Third Issue This next issue will come up repeatedly throughout Chesterton’s works. That’s not surprising, since it’s a common problem. Most people will never turn their best arguments against their own position. The main thrust of this entire chapter is that materialism might explain everything, but it makes people narrow minded. “Mysticism” on the other hand, explains things equally well, but it gives more room for imagination and intellectual freedom. Yet he does this merely by asserting the truth of these propositions and citing a few literary figures to prove his point. His arguments, lacking in substance could easily be applied against his own position. For example:

The Christian is quite free to believe that there is a considerable amount of settled order and inevitable development in the universe.  But the materialist is not allowed to admit into his spotless machine the slightest speck of spiritualism or miracle.  Poor Mr. McCabe [a materialist]  is not allowed to retain even the tiniest imp, though it might be hiding in a pimpernel.

I am quite certain I have never come across an imp in any of the Christian works I have read. Chesterton doesn’t seem to believe in the actual existence of imps, which leads me to suspect that Chesterton likes imps as creatures of the imagination, and I’m not sure why Chesterton supposes that materialists don’t have imaginations. This argument might be better employed if Chesterton actually believed in imps, which leaves him open to the criticism of anyone that does believe in imps. Few of us really sort through our arguments to see which might be applied against ourselves.

I used to believe that the strongest against abortion was saying that killing a fetus that might be a person was rather like firing a gun into bush that we thought might contain a person. With this argument, it didn’t matter whether or not I was sure fetuses were people. The extent to which I was unsure was the extent to which it would be massively irresponsible not to oppose abortion. It would be as irresponsible as shooting a gun into a bush that I thought might contain a person. It did not occur to me until my wife pointed it out that this a at least as strong an argument for animal rights as it was against abortion. I know that lots of animals are way more intelligent than we give them credit for (dolphins are about as intelligent as four-year-olds). While that doesn’t make them people, it makes it possible that they should be considered people. At the time, I was not really open to the idea of animal rights. So, just like that, I dropped one of my favorite arguments to oppose abortion.

So like I said, few people bother to use the criticisms they use against others against their own beliefs. Chesterton is especially bad about this. I’m sure I’ll bring it up again because it happens so frequently, but for now I’ll consider it covered unless one of my readers is unconvinced.

Next week, on the chapter three!
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Posted 07/16/2012 by reluctantliberal in GKC

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