I have to say, I really think that's a misguided perception of Chesterton. First off, you could debate that Chesterton never really had a masterpiece, but it could totally be argued logically on either side. And secondly, if you're looking for a masterpiece, you're going to miss the richness of Chesterton's work. You're just going to keep looking for the best, the grandest of his achievements.
But that's not really what this blog post is supposed to be about. What it's really supposed to be about is what I - and many, many others- believe Chesterton's magnum opus to be. That is, Orthodoxy. Oh yes, the title may seem harsh and uninviting. But all you have to do is open the book to the first page and you're already engrossed.
There's so much to say about this book that it's not going to all fit into one post. To be perfectly honest, I'm probably going to be posting about sections of Orthodoxy for a long time. But this post is on just one part of the book...that of sanity and lack thereof.
I've never really thought much about insane people- it's not exactly a thought that pops into my mind all that often. =P But apparently, Chesterton thought about it a whole bunch, seeing as he has a whole chapter dedicated to it. And there, he makes a really insightful point.
"The man who begins to think without the proper first principles goes mad; he begins to think at the wrong end. And for the rest of these pages we have to try and discover what is the right end. But we may ask in conclusion, if this be what drives men mad, what is it that keeps them sane...For this moment it is possible in the same solely practical manner to give a general answer touching what in actual human history keeps men sane.
Mysticism keeps men sane. As long as you have mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you created 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. He has always left himself free to doubt his gods; but (unlike the agnostic of today) free also to believe in them."
Mystery isn't often regarded as an aid to sanity. Actually, it's thought of as quite the opposite. After all, when I first think of mystery, a crime searching for criminal and thereby justice comes to mind. A mad search for the wanted.
But what I think Chesterton is trying to say is that human intellect desires, needs, mystery. When you think you have all the answers, you start to become your own god. And while we're on the subject of gods, there's one sentence in that quote that really leapt out at me. "He has always left himself free to doubt his gods; but free also to believe in them."
There comes a time in every person's life where they begin to doubt God. Maybe it's after a tragedy, maybe it's because they think they have it all figured out. Regardless, that period of doubting God and his soverignty will come. And I think it's ordinary, healthy, and can be strengthening...as long as you don't let it end there. Doubt is not an end-it's just a step along the path.
When doubt comes, the rational and responsible person will want to find answers. They'll want to analyze and find out if this God whom they have worshipped all their lives is really true. And as they do that, they'll move along their path of doubt and eventually a realization, a change will come.
It might be easy and soft. It may be as loud as thunder. But the realization will come that somewhere along the line, that doubt disappeared and was replaced instead with a childlike trust. A trust that invites the real, ordinary, sane man to search deeper for the Truth. And maybe that will turn into what it did for Chesterton the man.
Not Chesterton the writer. Not Chesterton the playwright. Not Chesterton the poet. Chesterton the man.
Maybe it will turn into what it did for him- namely, orthodoxy.
"This is the thrilling romance of orthodoxy. People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There was never anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy. It was sanity- and to be sane is more dramatic than to be mad."