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G.K. Chesterton on Materialism and Christianity

G.K. Chesterton

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Most of these quotes are taken from G. K. Chesterton's "Orthodoxy." Chesterton argues against materialism, the philosophical view that only matter has any reality; non-material constitutents of human experience like love, meaning, compassion, etc. are not real. It's an important discussion given how much Western culture has been influenced by the materialist view in the last century -- Darwin, Freud, Marx, etc.



  • The general fact is simple. Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea and so make it finite. The result is mental exhaustion... To accept everything is an exercise, to understand everything a strain... 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...

  • As an explanation of the world, materialism has a sort of insane simplicity. It has just the quality of the madman's argument; we have at once the sense of it covering everything and the sense of it leaving everything out... His cosmos may be complete in every rivet and cogwheel, but still his cosmos is smaller than our world. Somehow his scheme, like the lucid scheme of the madman, seem unconscious of the alien energies and the large indifference of the Earth...

  • For we must remember that the materialist philosophy (whether true or not) is certainly much more limiting than any religion. In one sense, of course, all intelligent ideas are narrow. They cannot be broader than themselves. A Christian is only restricted in the same sense that an atheist is restricted. He cannot think Christianity false and continue to be a Christian; the atheist cannot think atheism false and continue to be an atheist.

  • But, as it happens, there is a very special sense in which materialism has more restrictions than spiritualism... 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. The Christian admits that the universe is manifold and even miscellaneous, just as a sane man knows that he is complex. But the materialist's world is quite simple and solid... The materialist is sure that history has been simply and solely a chain of causation...

  • Spiritual doctrines do not actually limit the mind as do materialistic denials. Even if I believe in immortality, I need not think about it. But if I disbelieve in immortality, I must not think about it. In the first case, the road is open and I can go as far as I like; in the second, the road is shut...

  • (I)t is the charge against the main deductions of the materialist that, right or wrong, they gradually destroy his humanity; I do not mean only kindness, I mean hope, courage, poetry, initiative, all that is human. For instance, when materialism leads men to complete fatalism (as it generally does), it is quite idle to pretend that it is in any sense a liberating force. It is absurd to say that you are especially advancing freedom when you only use free thought to destroy free will. The determinists come to bind, not to loose. They may call their law the "chain" of causation. It is the worst chain that ever fettered a human being. You may use the language of liberty, if you like, about materialistic teaching, but it is obvious that this is just as inapplicable to it as a whole as the same language when applied to a man locked up in a madhouse. You may say, if you like, that the man is free to think himself a poached egg. But it is surely a more massive and important fact that if he is a poeached egg, he is not free to eat, drink, sleep, walk, or smoke a cigarette. Similarly, you may say, if you like, that the bold determinist speculator is free to disbelieve in the reality of the will. But it is a much more massive and important fact that he is not free to raise, to curse, to thank, to justify, to urge, to punish, to resist temptations, to incite mobs, to make New Year resolutions, to pardon sinners, to rebuke tyrants or even to say "thank you" for the mustard.

  • In passing from this subject, I may note that there is a queer fallacy to the effect that materialistic fatalism is in some way favorable to mercy, to the abolition of cruel punishments or punishments of any kind. This is startlingly the reverse of the truth. It is quite tenable that the doctrine of necessity makes no difference at all; that i leaves the flogger fogging and the kind friend exhorting as before. But, obviously , if it stops either of them, it stops the kind exhortation. That the sins are inevitable does not prevent punishment; if it prevents anything, it prevents persuasion. Determinism is quite as likely to lead to cruelty as it is certain to lead to cowardice. Determinism is not inconsistent with the cruel treatment of criminals. What it is (perhaps) inconsistent with is the generous treatment of criminals, with any appeal to their better feelings or encouragement in their moral struggle. The determinist does not believe in appealing to the will, but he does believe in changing the environment. He must not say to the sinner, "Go and sin no more," because the sinner cannot help it. But he can put him in boiling oil; for boiling oil is an environment. Considered as a figure, therefore, the materialist has the fantastic outline of the figure of the madman. Both take up a position at once unanswerable and intolerable...

  • The ordinary man always has been sane because the ordinary man always has been a mystic... The whole secret of mysticism is this: that man can 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. The mystic allows one thing to be mysterious, and everything else becomes lucid. The determinist makes the theory of causation quite clear, and then finds that he cannot say "if you please" to the housemaid. The Christian permits free will to remain a sacred mystery but, because of this, his relations with the housemaid become of a sparkling and crystal clearness. He puts the seed of dogma in a central darkness, but it branches forth in all directions with abounding natural health...

  • It is idle to talk always of the alternative of reason and faith. Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all...

  • There is a thought that stops thought...Evolution is a good example of that modern intelligence which, if it destroys anything, destroys itself. Evolution is either an innocent scientific description of how certain earthly things came about; or, if it is anything more than this, is an attack upon thought itself. If evolution destroys anything, it does not destroy religion but rationalism. If evolution simply means that a positive thing called an ape turned very slowly into a positive thing called a man, then it is stingless for the most orthodox; for a personal God might just as well do things slowly as quickly -- especially if, like the Christian God, He were outside time. But if it means anything more, it means that there is no such thing as an ape to change, and no such thing as a man for him to change into. It means that there is no such thing as a thing. At best, there is only nothing, and that is a flux of everything and anything.

  • This is an attack not upon faith, but upon the mind; you cannot think if you are not separate from the subject of thought. Descartes said "I think, therefore I am." The philosphic evolutionist reverses and negatives the epigram. He says, "I am not, therefore I cannot think."

  • This bald summary of the thought-destroying forces of our time would not be complete without some reference to pragmatism; for, though I have here used and should everywhere defend the pragmatist method as a preliminary guide to truth, there is an extreme application of it that involves the absence of all truth whatever...

  • Pragmatism is a matter of human needs, and one of the first of human needs is to be something more than a pragmatist. Extreme pragmatism is just as inhuman as the determinism it so powerfully attacks. The determinist (who, to do him justice, does not pretend to be a human being) makes nonsense of the human sense of actual choice. The pragmatist, who professes to be specially human, makes nonsense of the human sense of actual fact.

  • To sum up our contention so far, we may say that the most characteristic currrent philosophies have not only a touch of mania, but a touch of suicidal mania. The mere questioner has knocked his head against the limits of human thought; and cracked it. This is what makes so futile warnings of the orthodox and the boasts of the advanced about the dangerous boyhood of free thought. What we are looking at is not the boyhood of free thought; it is the old age and ultimate dissolution of free thought.

  • It is vain for bishops and pious bigwigs to discuss what dreadful things will happen if wild skepticism runs its course. It has run its course.

  • It is vain for eloquent atheists to talk of the great truths that will be revealed if once we see free thought begin. We have seen it end. It has no more questions to ask; it has questioned itself.

  • You cannot call up any wilder vision than a city in which men ask themselves if they have any selves.

  • You cannot fancy a more skeptical world than that in which men doubt if there is a world.

Posted: 26-May-08



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