Misunderstanding Orthodoxy

Mysticism keeps men sane.  As long as you have mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you have morbidity.  The ordinary man has always been sane because the ordinary man has always been a mystic… 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…  The whole secret of mysticism is this: that man may understand everything by the help of what he does not understand.  The morbid logician seeks to make everything lucid, and succeeds in making everything mysterious.

~Gilbert K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Image Books, Garden City, NY: 1959) p. 28

I recall recently having a prolonged discussion concerning the nature of evil in which, after laying out many facets concerning the reality of evil, I considered one theory in contrast with some others and stated that I considered the theory helpful because it did n’t escape mystery.  I call it mystery because after a short while my analysis goes no further fruitfully.  I ‘ve studied evil enough to believe I do n’t understand it and have come to despise any theory which explains away it’s reality flippantly.  I especially like what Chesterton says here about understanding with the help of what is n’t understood.

G.K.C. certainly does n’t despise logic, his prose is far too careful for this, but he clearly does n’t believe that anything worth knowing can be thoroughly explained by purely logical means.  That is, he does n’t see the meaningful aspects of life through a reductive lens.  For example, one can speak of evil as insanity, and that seems to be a good place in which to consider it, but one can’t quite grasp what insanity is.  Chesterton has returned often to the theme of insanity because reason alone won’t fix insanity.  He speaks of reason as the only thing that has n’t failed the insane, stating: “For the moon is utterly reasonable; and the moon is the mother of lunatics and has given to them all her name” (p. 29).  The lunatic’s description of reality can’t be argued with, for the lunatic pays closer attention to those details they have collected, but it simply does n’t fit the whole picture.

I think most of us also have this ‘stereoscopic’ or 3 dimensional view because we look at reality through at least two dominant poles.  We understand life as more valuable because of death and we can only understand death as non-life (which makes the undead a bit confusing, or almost as confusing as arguing about Lost‘s characters’ status in relation to our world); we identify darkness as light’s absence but would n’t see light if we had no experience of the dark.  In the same vein we could say that those who can explain evil do n’t understand it.  Even if one of us could ration up all grievances by some moral calculus and prove that the numbers weigh out such that ‘the good guys and girls win’, we would notice that reconciling evil is n’t a matter of balancing an equation.  One is much better off to leave some error in one’s calculations for only so many problems can be solved by means of scratchpaper, a sharp pencil and an eraser.  The eraser might be the most important tool when considering such concerns.


But ah well, the point is clear I think that Chesterton has spoken of the healthiest understanding being one which utilizes the best view its available misunderstandings afford to it.  Although we know the image itself not to be accurate to 6 decimals, the overall sense provided is healthier than the singular view which shuts out all others by a violent show of force in logic.  We might compare such calculations with sports statistics meant to separate good performances from bad.  But these numbers are only meaningful when applied back to the game from which they derive their origin.  The numbers elucidate, but only to a small extent.  The eyes tell a truer tale, and the field tells the truest tale – as any athlete will contest.


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