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"The Maniac"

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"The Maniac"

Thomas Martin

Thomas Martin teaches in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. You may contact Thomas Martin at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Dale Ahlquist asked me last year if I would give a talk at this year's centennial celebration of Orthodoxy. I readily agreed without giving it a moment's thought until I heard from Dale several weeks ago. He reminded me of our conversation and, saving me the trouble of thinking of a topic, assigned Chapter Two, "The Maniac." I was suspicious. Of all the chapters in Orthodoxy, ones having to do with the ethics of elves, the flag of the world, Christian paradoxes, romance, authority and adventure, why was I given the maniac? [Does it take one to know one?] Perhaps Dale knows something of which I am not aware.

Dale, a. k. a. the President of the American Chesterton society, knows I am a ward at a state mental institution where I have been kept for twenty-two years in the position of a college professor by the citizens of Nebraska. It is not as though anyone in my position fears being charged like Socrates for creating false gods, or corrupting the youth, and being condemned to drink hemlock. In fact, Dale knows that as academic doctors at mental institutions we are free to think whatever we wish, even though it may appear disjointed, irrational, and irreverent to ordinary people outside the mental institutions of higher education. [We think ourselves to be quite sane.]

I wonder if I have been set-up. Given the next chapter is "The Suicide of Thought," which reveals the demise of the maniac, whose demented state I have been assigned to elucidate, it might well be the case that what follows is the suicide note for the maniac. Then again, why should I worry? If it takes a maniac to know a maniac, I would be the last to know if I had cracked my head, and surely I will not be held responsible for putting myself back together again. Therefore, if what I present appears to be disjointed, irrational, and irreverent, it is as it should be.

Before opening the door on the maniac, and while I still have my wits about me, I am going to present three pictures of Western civilization. These pictures have evolved like the maps of explorers, thought created by philosophers, authors, poets, or scientists who have brought back news from their journeys throughout the history of the Western world. The first map, the "Great Chain of Being," presents the universe as hierarchical, which was commonly understood from the beginning of time into the 1800s. The chain originates under the reign of God, as seen even in the pagan world of Homer, where Zeus from Olympian height rules over lesser gods and man. Later, with Christianity, everything emanates from God downward in the order of archangels, angels, man, animals, plants and finally the inanimate minerals. An object's place depends on the relative proportion of spirit and matter it contains -- the less "spirit" and the more "matter," the lower its link on the chain. God's understanding [Aquinas] is not distinct from his being; accordingly, intellectual life is more perfect in the angels, whose intellect does not proceed from something extrinsic to acquired self-knowledge, but knows itself by itself. Man's level of being is higher than the animal's but lower than the angel's. The human mind receives knowledge extrinsically and is capable of self-reflection through the knowledge of good and evil. This hierarchical organization of the mental faculties is reflected in the hierarchical order of the family, the state, and the church. When things are properly ordered, reason rules the emotions, just as the parent rules the children, a king rules his subjects, and the shepherd leads his flock. To act against human nature by not allowing reason to rule the emotions is to descend into the dark woods, to the level of the beast.

The second map, "The Great Tree," was founded on the principle of growth, the doctrine of progress, from the 18th to l9th century, when a reordering of the universe occurred. On this map, everything is moving upward from nature; each generation marks an advance over the previous generation, which can be measured by the fruits of scientific research, as seen in medical advancements, as well as an abundance of material goods and gadgets. In government, power emanates from its roots, the people, whose rights are founded in the deist's God of nature, the growth of which culminates in the blossoming of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. Man's source of happiness is found in his emotions that are the highest expression of his feelings in the world. Marx cut this tree down, separating it from its root. Now on the horizontal plain, Marx argues that the tree continues to grow in a natural historical progression as man is shaped by the economic environment. The seeds of man's development are in the antithesis to the current economic system, from the destruction of which man will eventually be led into the harmonious communal state of Communism.

The third map is "The Tangled Bank," a picture derived from an analogy Darwin uses at the conclusion of Origins of the Species. In this tangle, there is a selection of the species through interdependence and symbiotic growth, following the laws of growth with reproduction that are in a struggle for life. In the words of Darwin, it is:

. . . the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows.

The whole of nature, of which man is a part, is taken as a product of chance and necessity; there is neither meaning nor purpose nor intelligence in this process, but an accidental product of evolution, mutating like a cancerous growth into whatever matters at that moment.

In the chapter preceding The Maniac, "In Defense of Everything Else," Chesterton states, "central Christian theology (sufficiently summarized in the Apostles' Creed) is the best root of energy and sound ethics." Orthodoxy is rooted in the Apostles' Creed:

. . . as understood by everybody calling himself a Christian until a very short time ago and the general historical conduct of those who held such a creed. [Chesterton, Orthodoxy, p. 17]

In other words, we are no longer in the age of:

I believe in One God the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, His only Son our Lord. . . .

In fact, when Christians step out of their homes they will find they are not in a world rooted in the Great Chain of Being, but are in a world in which scientists are harnessing nature for man's benefit in order to make as many people's lives as comfortable as possible in the shopping mall of the Global Village.

Chesterton begins his prognosis of the maniac with the following:

Thoroughly worldly people never understand even the world; they rely altogether on a few cynical maxims that are not true. Once I remember walking with a prosperous publisher, who made a remark which I had often heard before; it is, indeed, almost a motto of the modern world . . . "That man will get on; he believes in himself." . . . I said to him, "Shall I tell you where the men are who believe most in themselves? For I can tell you. I know of men who believe in themselves more colossally than Napoleon or Caesar. I know where flames the fixed star of certainty and success. I can guide you to the thrones of the Super-men. The men who really believe in themselves are all in lunatic asylums. . . ."

Then the publisher asked, "Well, if a man is not to believe in himself, in what is he to believe?"

To which Chesterton responded,

"I will go home and write a book in answer to that question." This is the book that I have written in answer to it. [Orthodoxy, p. 18-19]

The publisher mentioned above as "thoroughly worldly" does not think of himself as a living soul lodged between the angels and the beasts in possession of a mind which is endowed with the faculty of reason breathed into him by God; he is not in the fallen state of being "like a god" with the knowledge of good and evil, praying "Thy will be done," to overcome himself in the redemption of the world. He is cut from the source of reason, and there is a missing link between him and the angels; he has cut his body off from his eternal soul, and he is left alone without any idea beyond himself. He is a man who believes in himself for that is all he has.

"To believe in oneself," Chesterton notes:

. . . is the clearest sign of a "rotter." Actors who cannot act believe in themselves; and debtors who won't pay. It would be much truer to say that a man will certainly fail, because he believes in himself.

The actor who believes in himself, fails as an actor because he does not recognize any talent or authority higher than his own. A creative writing student, with whom I recently spoke, who refuses to read other poets because he does not want them to affect his style, stinks as a creative writer because he refuses to admit his betters.

The thesis of "The Maniac," Chesterton notes:

. . . is purely practical and is concerned with what actually is the chief mark and element of insanity; we say in summary that it is reason used without root. The man who begins to think without the proper first principles goes mad; he begins to think at the wrong end. [Ibid. p. 230]
[The human race, according to religion, fell once, and in falling gained knowledge of good and of evil. Now we have fallen a second time, and only the knowledge of evil remains. p. 51, Heretics].

Given that only evil remains -- though modern man would never it call it such! -- Chesterton strategically begins his argument for orthodoxy "in the neighborhood of the mad-house." In the time of "thoroughly worldly people" you can no longer start an argument, "as our fathers did, with the fact of sin." In the mental institution in which I am lodged, it would be heretical for a teacher to profess something as unscientific as the university was established to use the faculties of reason for the greater glory of God's will on earth. This is because modern man is worldly man, thinking of himself as being lodged in his own creation: whatever he thinks to be good is good. Here are some of the maxims of modern thought which are tied to the man who believes in himself: I did it my way, if it feels good, do it!, the purpose of life is to find yourself, "I Got to Be Me," you have to be true to yourself, overcoming feelings of guilt is an important step to mental wellness.

Be this as it may, modern man has not yet denied "the existence of a lunatic asylum," of the possibility that he might at any moment be suffering from a chemical imbalance, be exhibiting a "behavior" which is indicative of a victim of a dysfunctional relationship, or be "stressing out" and in need of a few hours in a labyrinth to restore his mental health.

The two sources of modern man's madness can be found by using reason either to cut himself off from everything that is known by the senses, or to know only what can be experienced from the senses.

Descartes, the father of modern thought, is an example of the former. He denied any knowledge from experience in order to establish what is certain beyond a reason of a doubt. In the solitary confinement of contemplation, he doubts all knowledge from his senses and finds certitude in the self-evident proposition, "I think, therefore I am." Of this senseless observation Descartes is certain. This leads to, "Whatever I think I am, I am." Here is a man who thought himself into existence and obviously has to believe in himself. What is going to happen if he stops thinking about himself? In this solitary state, Descartes became like god and turned his back on the God of Moses who spoke, "I am who I am." After proving his existence to himself, Descartes then set about trying to figure out what the "I" is that thinks, fearing he might mistake himself for something he was not, a chair, a desk or even a tassel on his dressing gown.

[Is it any wonder why philosophers who are the cutting edge of thought are kept in mental institutions?]

Thomas Paine, in his introduction to The Age of Reason, written in 1794, captures the spirit of a sensible man whose mind is open to each new experience:

I have always strenuously supported the Right of every Man to his own opinion, however different that opinion might be to mine. He who denies to another this right, makes a slave of himself to his present opinion, because he precludes himself the right of changing it. [p. 7]

Thomas Paine is a freethinker whose creed is the right not to be held captive by his own opinion, which may change with the next opinion that enters his mind. Thomas is open-minded and will not have his mind fixed to a dogma which would limit his right to change his mind.

I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church I know of. My own mind is my own church. [Ibid. p. 8]

You can't tell doubting Thomas what to worship in the church service of his sensible mind!

Chesterton responds that:

The man who cannot believe his senses, and the man who cannot believe anything else, are both insane, but their insanity is proved not by any error in their argument, but by the manifest mistake of their whole lives. They have both locked themselves up in two boxes, painted inside with the sun and stars; they are both unable to get out, the one into the health and happiness of heaven, the other even into the health and happiness of the earth. [Orthodoxy, p. 31-32]

In all of this, it is important to remember the word "lunatic" is from the Latin luna, moon, for it was believed that lunacy fluctuated with the phases of the moon. That the moon is a metaphor for the mad man is fitting as he is a half-wit who is half lit. The moon is a cold and barren satellite that shines by the sun's reflected light as it revolves around the earth. The lunatic is a person without God, the creator of Heaven and Earth, and the Word that reveals the truth of the Logos. There is no light shining in the darkness to guide modern man beyond the revolutions of his mind. As the moon is a fitting symbol for the madman, the sun, Chesterton says, is:

The one created thing which we cannot look at [and] is the one thing in the light of which we look at everything. Like the sun at noonday, mysticism explains everything else by the blaze of it own victorious invisibility. Detached intellectualism is (in the exact sense of a popular phrase) all moonshine, for it is light without heat, and it is secondary light, reflected from a dead world [p. 33].

We now live in the soulless world of the materialist. The scientist is more important than the priest. We are a people captivated by the mentality of scientism, thinking that all our problems can be understood and resolved by science. It is the age of the positivist and the pragmatist. The former holds that valid knowledge is attainable only through the methods employed by the natural and social sciences, so no knowledge is regarded as genuine unless it is based on observable phenomena; the latter holds that the only valid test of truth is that it works: if it can be done, it should be done.

It is a fact that embryonic cells can be harvested from unborn babies and offer the possibility of a cure from dementia, so we baby boomers will not lose our mental health. We are worried about dementia but we are not worried about being demented.

It is a fact that a pregnancy can be terminated, and Barack Obama, standing on the platform of his party, sees abortion as the natural right of a woman who can do what she wants with and to her body.

The California Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, recognizing it as a "basic civil right." One supporter succinctly captured the modern "fact" as, "This is a life-affirming moment." That a homosexual union is life-affirming affirms the culture of death, reducing the procreative act of living souls to a sterile performance in the moonlight.

Now, if we are to glance at the philosophy of sanity, the first thing to do in the matter is to blot out one big and common mistake. 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 only say that this danger does lie in logic, not in imagination. [p. 20-21]

It does little good to argue with the maniac. Severed from the divine reason emanating down the Chain of Being, his divining is divine. His mind is not sparked by being in God's creation because he has recreated the world as an object dependent on his own judgment. Alone with his reason, the maniac does not recognize any source of judgment outside of his own. He hears no voices but his own. He is the magnetic point of his own compass beyond the pull of any other magnetic point, beyond the confines of north and south. There is no perfection at which to aim, but he is the perfection at which he points: his arrow is always on target. He is the Alpha and the Omega of his journey.

[This] madman's explanation of a thing is always complete, and often in a purely rational sense satisfactory. Or, to speak more strictly, the insane explanation, if not conclusive, is at least unanswerable. . . .

What do you say to the man who thinks everyone is plotting against him, the man who thinks himself the rightful King of England, or who says he is Jesus Christ? Keep in mind:

It does little good to tell the man who says that he is Jesus Christ that the world denies his divinity; for the world denied Christ's. [p. 24]

One hundred years ago, Chesterton saw a "new man" gaining mastery in Europe, the self-possessed man who believed only in himself. Before the turn of the century, Nietzsche announced that God was dead and that new philosophers were beginning to appear on the horizon whose will to power had not been weakened by the religious neurosis of Christianity because they were beyond good and evil.

He further expounded that it was not the case that God had died, in as much as it was the case that God had never existed. God was the invention of philosophers. In fact, Christianity was simply Platonism for the people, a religious neurosis affected by the misdirection of the will to power which is at the root of man's being.

Here is Nietzsche in a nutshell:

At the risk of displeasing innocent ears, I submit that egoism belongs to the essence of a noble soul. I mean the unalterable belief that to a being such as "we," other beings must naturally be in subjection, and have to sacrifice themselves. The noble soul accepts the fact of his egoism without question, and also without consciousness of harshness, constraint, or arbitrariness therein, but rather as something that may have its basis in the primary law of things: -- if he sought a designation for it he would say: "It is justice itself. " . . . he enjoys intercourse with himself -- in accordance with an innate heavenly mechanism which all the stars understand . . . every star is a similar egoist; he honours "himself" in them. [Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, p. 240-241]

The "being such as 'we'" to which Nietzsche refers is the noble soul, the man who is beyond good and evil, not hampered by morality. He is a character out of the tangled bank where survival of the fittest reigns as a natural creative force manifested in the will to power that is the catalyst of a higher animal. In the words of Nietzsche:

Let us acknowledge how every higher civilization hitherto has originated! Men with a still terrible natural nature, barbarians in every terrible sense of the word, men of prey, still in possession of unbroken strength of will and desire for power, threw themselves upon weaker, more moral, more peaceful races (perhaps trading or cattle-rearing communities), or upon old mellow civilizations in which the final vital force was flickering out in brilliant fireworks of wit and depravity. At the commencement, the noble caste was always the barbarian caste: their superiority did not consist first of all in their physical, but in their physical power -- they were more complete men (which at every point also implies the same as more complete beasts). [Ibid. p. 224]

The 20th century brought man to a "higher civilization" through the "will to power" founded on the detached intellectualism of men cut off from God. It was the century that belonged to Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, the new rights created by Supreme Court justices and the likes of Dr. Kevorkian, all who demonstrated the price of this "higher civilization." It necessitated the Gulags of the Soviet Union, the Holocaust to purify the Aryan race, one third of American's unborn babies being legally aborted to ensure a woman's freedom of choice after Roe vs. Wade, all culminating in suicide as a death with dignity.

Nietzsche's philosophy was captured for my generation of the 1960s by Jean Paul Sartre, who realized that since God does not exist, "there is at least one being in whom existence precedes essence." It is quite simple. Given there is no human nature, man defines himself. Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself. It would seem that this gives man, more specifically a man, license to do whatever he wills, especially with Mick Jagger and his Rolling Stones, thumping away in the background, "I can't get no satisfaction!" followed by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young's inspirational, "If you can't be with the one you love, love the one you're with!" However, this is not the case. By existence, Sartre means, one's awareness of becoming oneself in the future. In his own words:

Man is at the start a plan which is aware of itself, rather than a patch of moss, a piece of garbage, or cauliflower; nothing exists prior to this plan; there is nothing in heaven; man will be what he will have planned to be. [Sartre, Existentialism and Human Emotions, p. 16]

Man is the creature who has foresight, who can plan and will himself into existence. Man is responsible to himself for what he becomes. Man, in realizing he is responsible for himself, is responsible for all men and for creating what is good. Since there is no moral truth, that you should love your neighbor as yourself -- whatever a man chooses to be affirms the value of what he chooses:

. . . because we can never choose evil. We always choose the good, and nothing can be good for us without being good for all. [Ibid. p. 17]

For Sartre who thinks man is condemned to be free, it is obviously difficult to be man, given that there is nothing a man "ought" to do other than what he "feels" he should do, which is sure to incite a riot amongst the other existentialists who also think they are choosing for all mankind. Given that values are vague, the best a man can do Sartre says, is to, "Trust his instincts [because] in the end it is feeling which counts." [Ibid., p. 26].

There you have it: reason is finally the handmaiden of desire.

Back to the nuthouse, I mean, Nietzsche in a nutshell: the idea that there is a "will to truth" in man which is at odds with his instincts is a fiction which is the creation of Greek philosophers. Philosophers halted at the question of the origin of the Will, assuming that the value of it lies in seeking truth. The moralism of Plato is a "pathological condition." His dogmatic idea is that the soul of man is tri-part: reason, spirit, and desire. Of these three, reason and desire have been blindly accepted as the rational and irrational parts of the soul; the former part "calculates," and the latter part "lusts, hungers, thirsts, and gets excited by other appetites." That man by nature has an end, a telos, at which he may aim if he is to be fulfilled, is a myth. There is no self-evident principle beyond the instincts. That Reason leads man to virtue that in turn restrains the instincts is a prejudice crafted by Socrates' "hallucinations" which he thought to be the voice of conscience within him. Plato turned the natural impulses of man into tyrants, and Socrates' reason became the "counter-tyrant" to the instinct. All morality is anti-natural as it seeks to restrain the instincts. [Portable Nietzsche, p. 478].

In the words of Nietzsche:

[T]he whole improvement-morality, including the Christian, was a misunderstanding. The most blinding daylight; rationality at any price; life, bright, cold, cautious, conscious, without instinct, in opposition to the instincts -- all this too was a mere disease. . . . To have to fight the instinct -- that is the formula of decadence: as long as life is ascending, happiness equals instinct. [Twilight of the Idols, p. 11].

That is worth repeating, "as long as life is ascending, happiness equals instinct." Nietzsche's ascent is the descent of man, known as Darwin's higher animal, into the tangled bank of the modern world. Man is the vital force of nature, Nietzsche's Ubermensch: "the over-man," the crowning achievement of nature, a more complete beast, the manifestation of the "will and desire for power." There is no root to reason beyond man. Reason is rooted in instinct, the barbaric primordial desire that has been weakened by Christianity, the byproduct of Platonism.

Reading Nietzsche is like listening to a character in a novel, a man such as Dostoyevsky created in The Brothers Karamazov in the character of Ivan. Ivan is a thinker; he lives in his thoughts. This is also true of Nietzsche. He is a detached intellectual; his thoughts do not descend into the flesh of his actions. At a gathering of ladies in a parlor over tea, Ivan says that without immortality there is no morality; everything is lawful, even cannibalism. Ivan does not have the will to carry out his thoughts but Smerdyakov has the will. Ivan spoke and wrote that all things are lawful, so Smerdyakov kills their father. Ivan is shocked; ideas have consequences: think murder and your father is murdered, what then? If Ivan's ideas are only a mind game, they would remain entertaining and shocking, and therefore ideas, parlor-talk over tea with the ladies.

Ivan, like Nietzsche, is "nontraditional," a John Lennon of sorts. "Imagine there is no heaven," he sings, and in unison the audience lifts their arms in the air, swaying back and forth, back and forth:

It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today. . . .

It is a good concert. Mark David Chapman is taken by the lyrics: there is no heaven, no hell: there is no good, there is no evil, nothing matters? He shoots John Lennon. Is John Lennon responsible? No, he is just a singer, like Nietzsche is just a writer. He sings songs that shock people, like Nietzsche writes dynamite that shocks people. He is an incineratory thinker: thoughts afire; he turns God's creation into ashes in his mind. For example:

The noble type of man regards himself as a determiner of values; he does not require to be approved of, he passes the judgment; "What is injurious to me is injurious to itself"; he knows that it is he himself only who confers honour on things; he is the creator of values. [Beyond Good and Evil, p. 228].

As such, Nietzsche sees himself on a height where "he enjoys intercourse with himself," where he sits and composes under the light of the full moon, the world according to Nietzsche. He is, Chesterton sees "in the clean and well-lit prison of one idea," "the will to power" which is actually no will at all but just a thoughtless instinct fighting to be fed in the primordial tangled bank in a world without God.

Nietzsche philosophy "is a tale told by an idiot [lunatic], full of sound and fury/ Signifying nothing."

At this point of the tale, and in conclusion, it is good to remember Chesterton:

A man cannot think himself out of mental evil; for it is actually the organ of thought that has become diseased, ungovernable, and, as it were, independent. He can only be saved by will or faith. . . . Curing a madman is not arguing with a philosopher; it is casting out a devil." [Ibid, 26] *

"We are either a United people, or we are not. If the former, let us, in all matters of general concern act as a nation, which has national objects to promote, and a national character to support." --George Washington


1. Chesterton, G. K., Orthodoxy. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1995.

2. Nietzsche, Friedrich, Beyond Good and Evil. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus, 1989.

3. Paine, Thomas, The Age of Reason. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1984.

4. The Portable Nietzsche. Ed. Walter Kaufman. New York, NY: Viking Press, 1968.

5. Sartre, Jean-Paul, Existentialism and Human Emotions. New York, NY: Citadel Press, 1957.

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