Orthodoxy (book)

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Author G. K. Chesterton
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Genre Christian Apologetics
Publication date
Media type Print (hardback & paperback)

Orthodoxy (1908) is a book by G. K. Chesterton that has become a classic of Christian apologetics. Chesterton considered this book a companion to his other work, Heretics. In the book's preface Chesterton states the purpose is to "attempt an explanation, not of whether the Christian faith can be believed, but of how he personally has come to believe it." In it, Chesterton presents an original view of Christian religion. He sees it as the answer to natural human needs, the "answer to a riddle" in his own words, and not simply as an arbitrary truth received from somewhere outside the boundaries of human experience.

The book was written when Chesterton was an Anglican. He converted to Catholicism 14 years later. The title, Orthodoxy, is meant to avoid such sectarian questions.

Analysis of the text[edit]

The book is developed as an intellectual quest by a spiritually curious person. While looking for the meaning of life he finds truth that uniquely fulfills human needs. This is the truth revealed in Christianity. Chesterton likens this discovery to a man setting off from the south coast of England, journeying for many days, only to arrive at Brighton, the point he originally left from. He does not at first recognize it, and thinks he has discovered something new—only to find that it has been found by many before him. Such a man, he proposes, would see the wondrous place he grew up in with newly appreciative eyes. This is a common theme in Chesterton's works, and one which he gave fictional embodiment to in Manalive. It is also the way he describes his spiritual journey. He thought of himself as making a "blueprint" of what would be necessary in a religion, only to find that the structure had already been built and was standing in front of him—that structure is the Church.

The book has few quotations from (although many allusions to) Scripture. It also lacks authoritative statements by religious authorities. Chesterton sums up the essence of his intention in the introduction when he says, "When the word 'orthodoxy' is used here it means the Apostles' Creed, as understood by everybody calling himself Christian until a very short time ago and the general historic conduct of those who held such a creed. I have been forced by mere space to confine myself to what I have got from this creed; I do not touch the matter much disputed among modern Christians, of where we ourselves got it. This is not an ecclesiastical treatise but a sort of slovenly autobiography. But if any one wants my opinions about the actual nature of the authority, Mr. G. S. Street has only to throw me another challenge, and I will write him another book."(Page 5, Orthodoxy)

The book is presented as an intellectual inquiry by an individual looking for an explanation to the mysteries of human existence that satisfies his own innate reason. After investigation the author concludes that orthodoxy is the right answer for himself and everyone.


There are nine chapters:[1]

  1. Introduction in Defense of Everything Else
  2. The Maniac
  3. The Suicide of Thought
  4. The Ethics of Elfland
  5. The Flag of the World
  6. The Paradoxes of Christianity
  7. The Eternal Revolution
  8. The Romance of Orthodoxy
  9. Authority and the Adventurer

Chapter Summaries[edit]

Chapter I: Introduction in Defense of Everything[edit]

Gilbert Keith (G.K.) Chesterton accepted a challenge from G.S. Street to pontificate on his personal philosophy in writing.[2] Orthodoxy is that book. The author notes: "I will not call it my philosophy; for I did not make it. God and humanity made it; and it made me."

Chesterton puts forth the allegory of an English Yachtsman who sets off in search of new land, miscalculates and erroneously returns to England, thinking that he’s discovered a virgin island in South Seas.[2] Chesterton, lacking the drive to write it himself as a stand-alone piece, presents it as a philosophical metaphor.

Chesterton admits that the man who plants the British flag on a promontory, which turns out to be his homeland, might look foolish.[3] Yet he explains that if the readers look psychologically deeper, they would understand that the man had the desirable experience of having the terror of exploration with the comfort of having returned home again safely.

The Englishman who thought he had discovered New South Wales happily finds that he has only re-discovered Old South Wales. In doing so he answers what Chesterton views as the main problem of philosophy, which he describes as the question of how to be "at once astonished at the world and yet at home in it?”[3] Chesterton states his desire to establish his faith as answering the spiritual need for risk and security, which he identifies as romance.[3]

Chesterton closes by revealing that he is the metaphorical English Yachtsman. He admits that the book is about the wisdom he gleaned from his "elephantine adventures in pursuit of the obvious."[3] Chesterton confesses that he thought he was the first to make the discovery of romance. Yet, when he looked closer, he found that his “discovery” wasn’t unique at all, and that he had simply “found” Orthodoxy as many had before him. He declares his belief that the goal of Western man is for a safe and secure, yet strange and adventurous life, and he points to Orthodox Christian beliefs as the most sound and the most optimistic world view.

Chapter II: The Maniac[edit]

This chapter is about mental infirmity. He asks, rhetorically, where are men located who most believe in themselves. For example, where are people who believe themselves to be Napoleon or Caesar? They are in asylums.[3]

While occasionally using reasoning identical to that found in eastern religions, Chesterton chides what he views as modern madmen masquerading as what most people view as respectable members of society: scientific materialists, determinists, and adherents to eastern religions.

He concludes with a summation of the chapter. He mocks reason used without foundation as the mark of insanity. He argues for a proper basis for reasoning, which will be presented in future chapters. He suggests that he has presented the platform for insanity and suggests there is one for sanity. That basis is mystery which is healthy. Once mystery is lost, morbidity develops. Mankind has always simultaneously believed in religion and disbelieved in it. He calls this view stereoscopic: two differing views leading to a more profound view. When he found two truths that contradicted each other, he adopted the inconsistency along with both truths. This is sane. He finds the agnostic insane because he rejects truth that seems at odds with one inconsistency.

He gives examples of contradictory beliefs. Man admires youth for its vigor, old age for its sagacity. By trying to make everything explainable, the rationalist makes everything more obscure. By allowing one thing to be mystical and unexplainable, the mystic allows everything to become clear.

He concludes with religious comparisons and metaphors. He finds Buddhism centripetal but Christianity centrifugal. It breaks out. He compares the blazing sun, which one cannot look at, with the moon which can be scrutinized and found perfect in reflected light, and therefore a true metaphor for lunatics.[3]

Notable Quotes:

  • "Thoroughly worldly people never understand even the world; they rely altogether on a few cynical maxims which are not true".[3]
  • "Complete self-confidence is not merely a sin; complete self-confidence is a weakness".[3]
  • "Modern masters of science are much impressed with the need of beginning all inquiry with a fact. The ancient masters of religion were quite equally impressed with that necessity. They began with the fact of sin— a fact as practical as potatoes. Whether or no man could be washed in miraculous waters, there was no doubt at any rate that he wanted washing. But certain religious leaders in London, not mere materialists, have begun in our day not to deny the highly disputable water, but to deny the indisputable dirt. Certain new theologians dispute original sin , which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved. Some followers of the Reverend R.J. Campbell, in their almost too fastidious spirituality , admit divine sinlessness, which they cannot see even in their dreams. But they essentially deny human sin, which they can see in the street".[3]
  • "In short, oddities only strike ordinary people. Oddities do not strike odd people. This is why ordinary people have a much more exciting time; while odd people are always complaining of the dulness of life. This is also 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. But in the modern psychological novel the hero is abnormal; the centre is not central. Hence the fiercest adventures fail to affect him adequately, and the book is monotonous. 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 to-day discusses what an essential lunatic will do in a dull world".[3]
  • "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, like the physical exhaustion of Mr. Holbein. To accept everything is an exercise, to understand everything a strain. The poet only desires exaltation and expansion, a world to stretch himself in. 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".[3]
  • "It is always perilous to the mind to reckon up the mind. A flippant person has asked why we say, "As mad as a hatter." A more flippant person might answer that a hatter is mad because he has to measure the human head".[3]
  • "The last thing that can be said of a lunatic is that his actions are causeless. If any human acts may loosely be called causeless, they are the minor acts of a healthy man ; whistling as he walks; slashing the grass with a stick ; kicking his heels or rubbing his hands. It is the happy man who does the useless things; the sick man is not strong enough to be idle. It is exactly such careless and causeless actions that the madman could never understand; for the madman (like the determinist) generally sees too much cause in everything. The madman would read a conspiratorial significance into those empty activities. He would think that the lopping of the grass was an attack on private property. He would think that the kicking of the heels was a signal to an accomplice. If the madman could for an instant become careless, he would become sane. Every one who has had the misfortune to talk with people in the heart or on the edge of mental disorder, knows that their most sinister quality is a horrible clarity of detail; a connecting of one thing with another in a map more elaborate than a maze. If you argue with a madman, it is extremely probable that you will get the worst of it; for in many ways his mind moves all the quicker for not being delayed by the things that go with good judgment. He is not hampered by a sense of humour or by charity, or by the dumb certainties of experience. He is the more logical for losing certain sane affections. Indeed, the common phrase for insanity is in this respect a misleading one. The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason."[3]
  • "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. The moment his mere reason moves, it moves in the old circular rut; he will go round and round his logical circle, just as a man in a third-class carriage on the Inner Circle will go round and round the Inner Circle unless he performs the voluntary, vigorous, and mystical act of getting out at Gower Street. Decision is the whole business here; a door must be shut for ever. Every remedy is a desperate remedy. Every cure is a miraculous cure. Curing a madman is not arguing with a philosopher ; it is casting out a devil".[3]
  • “…I have described at length my vision of the maniac for this reason: that just as I am affected by the maniac, so I am affected by most modern thinkers. That unmistakable mood or note that I hear from Hanwell, I hear also from half the chairs of science and seats of learning to-day; and most of the mad doctors are mad doctors in more senses than one. They all have exactly that combination we have noted: the combination of an expansive and exhaustive reason with a contracted common sense. They are universal only in the sense that they take one thin explanation and carry it very far. But a pattern can stretch for ever and still be a small pattern. They see a chess-board white on black, and if the universe is paved with it, it is still white on black. Like the lunatic, they cannot alter their standpoint; they cannot make a mental effort and suddenly see it black on white."[3]

Chapter III: The Suicide of Thought[edit]

Chesterton states his belief that Christian virtues, when taken out of their proper context, become vices. He bemoans the fact that the questioning of the tenets of religious conviction and religious authority have led to the questioning of the tenets of all reasonable convictions and all human authorities. Those he holds most culpable for what he perceives to be the assault on thought and reason include Darwinian evolutionists, determinists, pragmatists, anarchists, general all-around rebels, and those he calls "will-worshipers". He says:

“…For there is a great and possible peril to the human mind: a peril as practical as burglary. Against it religious authority was reared, rightly or wrongly, as a barrier. And against it something certainly must be reared as a barrier, if our race is to avoid ruin. That peril is that the human intellect is free to destroy itself. Just as one generation could prevent the very existence of the next generation, by all entering a monastery or jumping into the sea, so one set of thinkers can in some degree prevent further thinking by teaching the next generation that there is no validity in any human thought. 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. If you are merely a sceptic, you must sooner or later ask yourself the question, "Why should anything go right; even observation and deduction? Why should not good logic be as misleading as bad logic? They are both movements in the brain of a bewildered ape?" The young sceptic says, "I have a right to think for myself." But the old sceptic, the complete sceptic, says, "I have no right to think for myself. I have no right to think at all."

— Page 25

According to Chesterton, what modern free-thinkers have in common is their inability to accept any real limits. Chesterton quotes H.G. Wells as saying that "All chairs are quite different", and retorts that if this is so, then, “…you could not call them 'all chairs.'” Without limits of some kind, everything is everything, and nothing is nothing, and nothing can be said about anything, because any attempt to say anything is totally arbitrary and therefore, meaningless.

“…it is impossible to be an artist and not care for laws and limits. Art is limitation; the essence of every picture is the frame. If you draw a giraffe, you must draw him with a long neck. If, in your bold creative way, you hold yourself free to draw a giraffe with a short neck, you will really find that you are not free to draw a giraffe. The moment you step into the world of facts, you step into a world of limits. You can free things from alien or accidental laws, but not from the laws of their own nature. You may, if you like, free a tiger from his bars; but do not free him from his stripes. Do not free a camel of the burden of his hump: you may be freeing him from being a camel. Do not go about as a demagogue, encouraging triangles to break out of the prison of their three sides. If a triangle breaks out of its three sides, its life comes to a lamentable end".

— Page 32

Chesterton disparages what he calls the impotency of the pacifist philosophies of Tolstoy and Schopenhauer and the will-worshipping philosophies of Nietzsche and George Bernard Shaw. He attacks Nietzsche as the example of how "Thinking in isolation and with pride ends in being an idiot. Every man who will not have softening of the heart must at last have softening of the brain". He continues:

"This last attempt to evade intellectualism ends in intellectualism, and therefore in death. The sortie has failed. The wild worship of lawlessness and the materialist worship of law end in the same void. Nietzsche scales staggering mountains, but he turns up ultimately in Tibet. He sits down beside Tolstoy in the land of nothing and Nirvana. They are both helpless— one because he must not grasp anything, and the other because he must not let go of anything. The Tolstoyan's will is frozen by a Buddhist instinct that all special actions are evil. But the Nietzscheite's will is quite equally frozen by his view that all special actions are good; for if all special actions are good, none of them are special. They stand at the cross-roads, and one hates all the roads and the other likes all the roads. The result is – well, some things are not hard to calculate. They stand at the cross-roads".

— Page 34

He raises Joan of Arc as the solution and the actualization of both of these two seemingly contradictory philosophical stances.

"Joan of Arc was not stuck at the cross-roads, either by rejecting all the paths like Tolstoy, or by accepting them all like Nietzsche. She chose a path, and went down it like a thunderbolt. Yet Joan, when I came to think of her, had in her all that was true either in Tolstoy or Nietzsche, all that was even tolerable in either of them. I thought of all that is noble in Tolstoy, the pleasure in plain things, especially in plain pity, the actualities of the earth, the reverence for the poor, the dignity of the bowed back. Joan of Arc had all that and with this great addition, that she endured poverty as well as admiring it; whereas Tolstoy is only a typical aristocrat trying to find out its secret. And then I thought of all that was brave and proud and pathetic in poor Nietzsche, and his mutiny against the emptiness and timidity of our time. I thought of his cry for the ecstatic equilibrium of danger, his hunger for the rush of great horses, his cry to arms. Well, Joan of Arc had all that, and again with this difference, that she did not praise fighting, but fought. We know that she was not afraid of an army, while Nietzsche, for all we know, was afraid of a cow. Tolstoy only praised the peasant; she was the peasant. Nietzsche only praised the warrior; she was the warrior. She beat them both at their own antagonistic ideals; she was more gentle than the one, more violent than the other. Yet she was a perfectly practical person who did something, while they are wild speculators who do nothing. It was impossible that the thought should not cross my mind that she and her faith had perhaps some secret of moral unity and utility that has been lost. And with that thought came a larger one, and the colossal figure of her Master had also crossed the theatre of my thoughts".

— Pages 35-36

Joan’s "Master" being, of course, Jesus Christ. Chesterton hints that like Christianity itself and its primary symbol, the cross, that Joan, a lowly, uneducated peasant was able to existentially live out the contradictory philosophies of two far smarter men (Tolstoy and Nietzsche), and because of this, when she came to the crossroads, she did not stop and sit and stare, she humbly moved forward. Her peasant common sense sliced through the abstractions that bogged both the minds (and bodies) of Tolstoy and Nietzsche down.

Notable Quotes:

  • "The old humility was a spur that prevented a man from stopping; not a nail in his boot that prevented him from going on. For the old humility made a man doubtful about his efforts, which might make him work harder. But the new humility makes a man doubtful about his aims, which will make him stop working altogether".
  • "It need hardly be said that this scepticism forbidding thought necessarily forbids speech; a man cannot open his mouth without contradicting it. Thus when Mr. Wells says (as he did somewhere), "All chairs are quite different," he utters not merely a misstatement, but a contradiction in terms. If all chairs were quite different, you could not call them "all chairs."
  • “…the most characteristic current 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 the 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 scepticism 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 sceptical world than that in which men doubt if there is a world".
  • "This pure praise of volition ends in the same break up and blank as the mere pursuit of logic. Exactly as complete free thought involves the doubting of thought itself, so the acceptation of mere "willing" really paralyzes the will".
  • "Liberalism has been degraded into liberality. Men have tried to turn "revolutionise" from a transitive to an intransitive verb. The Jacobin could tell you not only the system he would rebel against, but (what was more important ) the system he would not rebel against, the system he would trust. But the new rebel is a sceptic, and will not entirely trust anything. He has no loyalty; therefore he can never be really a revolutionist. And the fact that he doubts everything really gets in his way when he wants to denounce anything. For all denunciation implies a moral doctrine of some kind; and the modern revolutionist doubts not only the institution he denounces, but the doctrine by which he denounces it. Thus he writes one book complaining that imperial oppression insults the purity of women, and then he writes another book (about the sex problem) in which he insults it himself. He curses the Sultan because Christian girls lose their virginity, and then curses Mrs. Grundy because they keep it. As a politician, he will cry out that war is a waste of life, and then, as a philosopher, that all life is waste of time. A Russian pessimist will denounce a policeman for killing a peasant, and then prove by the highest philosophical principles that the peasant ought to have killed himself. A man denounces marriage as a lie, and then denounces aristocratic profligates for treating it as a lie. He calls a flag a bauble, and then blames the oppressors of Poland or Ireland because they take away that bauble. The man of this school goes first to a political meeting, where he complains that savages are treated as if they were beasts; then he takes his hat and umbrella and goes on to a scientific meeting, where he proves that they practically are beasts. In short, the modern revolutionist, being an infinite sceptic, is always engaged in undermining his own mines. In his book on politics he attacks men for trampling on morality; in his book on ethics he attacks morality for trampling on men. Therefore, the modern man in revolt has become practically useless for all purposes of revolt. By rebelling against everything he has lost his right to rebel against anything".
  • "They are all on the road to the emptiness of the asylum. For madness may be defined as using mental activity so as to reach mental helplessness; and they have nearly reached it. He who thinks he is made of glass, thinks to the destruction of thought; for glass cannot think. So he who wills to reject nothing, wills the destruction of will; for will is not only the choice of something, but the rejection of almost everything".
  • "Renan even represented the righteous anger at Jerusalem as a mere nervous breakdown after the idyllic expectations of Galilee. As if there were any inconsistency between having a love for humanity and having a hatred for inhumanity!"


  1. ^ [1]
  2. ^ a b [2]
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o [3]

External links[edit]

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