G.K. Chesterton Orthodoxy Chapter Two: The Maniac

Posted: January 7, 2013 in Inkspots
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So, for those who are not in the know, I’m taking some time this January/February and looking  at G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodox  with some friends. You’re welcome to join in on the fun  by posting comments or questions here, but I’m posting this primarily for their benefit.

Chapter two is titled “The Maniac” and it is in brief, a wallop against the idea that imagination breeds insanity. Chesterton takes the opposite point that it is reason that breeds insanity, not imagination.  Here are some of my favorite quotes from the chapter (which I highly recommend anyone go dig up and read)

Complete self confidence is not merely a sin; complete self confidence is weakness.

This is why the new novels die so quickly, and why the old fairy tales endure for ever. The old fairy tale makes the hero a normal human boy; it is his adventures that are startling. They startle him because he is normal.

You can make a story out of a hero among dragons; but not out of a dragon among dragons.

The  fairy tale discusses what a sane man will do in a mad world. The sober realistic novel of today discusses what an essential lunatic will do in a dull world.

Imagination does not breed insanity. Exactly what does breed insanity is reason.

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.

The mad man is not the man who has lost his reason. The mad man is the man who has lost everything but his reason.

Now, in The Maniac Chesterton references a poet named Cowper and says this of him;

Perhaps the strongest case {for reason and not imagination leading to madness} of all is this; that only one great English poet went mad, Copwer. And he was definitely driven mad by logic, but the ugly and alien logic of predestination.  . . He was driven mad by John Calvin; he was almost saved by John Gilpin

To fully understand what Chesterton is talking about, you need to know the three men he’s referencing. They are; Cowper who was  a poet, John Calvin who was a  French  evangelist/philosopher/father of Calvinist thought, and John Gilpin who was a fictional character Cowper created in one of his poems.

Let’s start with John  Calvin who some might know. The issue that hurt Cowper was the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, and it was this that drove him to try and kill himself.  It’s this that Chesterton is picking at, and is showing himself to be rather removed from Calvin’s dogma, as he does so. 

William Cowper, according to the Wikipedia (1731-1800) was an English poet and hymnist. The incident Chesterton sites, happened in 1773, where William became convinced that he was eternally damned to hell because of the Calvinist  thought he had imbibed on predestination. Not only was he convinced he was damned, but that God was commanding him to kill himself. Thankfully, he didn’t do so or we wouldn’t have
The Diverting History of John Gilpin. Writing the comic poem is said to have kept  Cowper’s mind occupied and his spirits bright, and “nearly cured him of his insanity”

So that, in a nut shell is what Chesterton is getting at. Calvin’s ‘reasonable’ doctrine of predestination drove a man to try and kill himself, and the imaginative telling of a fictional story brought the poet back from the edge.



Later in the chapter, he talks about the modernists of his time taking as their thought standard the “serpent with its tail in its mouth”*

It is amusing to notice that many of the moderns, whether skeptics or mystics, have taken as their sign a certain eastern symbol, which is the very symbol of this ultimate nullity. When they wish to represent eternity, they represent it by a serpent with his tail in his mouth. There is a startling sarcasm  in the image of that very unsatisfying meal.

The  symbol that the moderns of his time used,  is  called the Ouroboros. Above is a picture of one from the Wikipedia Common  archives. If you click on it, it’ll take you to the page in the Wiki about it for further information.

Later still, Chesterton claims that Buddhism is centripetal which means: moving or tending to move towards a centre. And he claims that  Christianity is its opposite,  centrifugal which means : moving or tending to move away from a centre.

If you have any thoughts or questions about the rest of the chapter, leave them in the comments below, and I’ll do my best to find additional resources to help clarify his thoughts. 


Be brilliant, be peculiar, be peculiarly brilliant.

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