Do I Exist? – Reading “Orthodoxy” by G.K. Chesterton

I read G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy three years ago. The cover of the copy that arrived from Amazon is almost as colorful and exciting as Chesterton’s writing – but not quite.

Orthodoxy Cover

I couldn’t possibly do justice to the brilliance of this entire book in a single post, so I won’t try to do that.  Instead, here are three lessons I learned while reading Orthodoxy that stuck with me long after I finished reading the book:

1. Thinking can make you crazy

Imagination does not breed insanity.  Exactly what does breed insanity is reason.  Poets do not go mad, but chess players do.  Mathematicians and cashiers go mad, but creative artists very seldom.

-G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy [1]

Regardless of whether or not this is a fair characterization of mental illness, my own experience is consistent with Chesterton’s description of madness.

Chesterton’s book introduced me to questions of epistemology, the branch of philosophy that deals with how we know and what we can know.  Before long, I was desperately trying to figure out whether or not I exist.  That phase, lasting for several months, was more than a curious intellectual puzzle; I was so shaken by the apparent impossibility of this question that I lost sleep, had frequent migraines, and felt sick to my stomach for days at a time.

Throughout the experience, Chesterton was giggling in a corner of my brain.  He had warned me of this exact problem.

But why was I unsure of whether or not I really exist?

2. Thinking can undermine thinking

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. [2]

There is a thought that stops thought.  That is the only thought that ought to be stopped.  That is the ultimate evil against which all religious authority was aimed. [3]

Insofar as religion is gone, reason is going, for both are of the same primary and authoritative kind.  They are both methods of proof that cannot themselves be proven. [4]

First of all, props to Chesterton for basically predicting the postmodern turn some 60-ish years before it fully arrived.  I’ve heard some interviews of philosopher John Caputo in which he describes postmodernism as the subversion of the authority of Reason and likens it to the Enlightenment’s subversion of the authority of the Church.  Sound familiar?

Second of all, I blame Chesterton for my crisis of existence.  In a chapter appropriately titled “The Suicide of Thought,” Chesterton described religious authority as the necessary defender of Reason. In order to really discern whether or not reason is reliability, we would need to begin our work without assuming the reliability of reason from the get-go.  But if reason must be evaluated without using reason, how would we evaluate it?

Where do you go after you arrive at the end of Reason?  Chesterton seems to suggest that that you only have two options: You can take Chesterton’s route and become a starry-eyed high church Christian.  Or, if you happen to find the authority of the Church impossibly un-believable despite your best efforts, you can “go mad,” maybe have a few migraines and convince your friends that you are out of your mind.  I, of course, took the second route.

3. Pragmatism can be very helpful

I agree with the pragmatists that apparent objective truth is not the whole matter, and that there is an authoritative need to believe the things that are necessary to the human mind.  But I say that one of those necessities precisely is a belief in objective truth. [5]

Like many of the books I read during this period of my life, Orthodoxy gave me questions that I couldn’t ignore and answers I couldn’t accept.

Chesterton seems to have found a relatively fixed and sturdy package-deal of Christian beliefs stated in the Apostles’ Creed and interpreted according to Church Tradition.  He evidently started with the givenness of Christian doctrine as it presented itself to him, and this whole surprisingly coalesced with what he found most reasonable and practical.

Personally, being helplessly curious about the creation of what the Christian doctrine that is given to me, I have found the origin and history of these doctrines to undermine the sense that they are necessarily a package-deal to be accepted or rejected as a whole.  Ultimately, the solution to Chesterton’s intellectual and spiritual journey could not and cannot be my own.

I did eventually arrived at a working solution to the problem of whether or not I exist, but I did not find that answer in Orthodoxy.  Eventually I found a way forward in Who’s Afraid of Relativism?, which coincidentally was also written by a die-hard proponent of orthodox Christianity, but that’s a different story for a different day.  For now, suffice it to say that a general sense of pragmatism was a crucial link between Chesterton’s work and the American school of philosophy that eventually freed me from Chesterton’s threatening “Suicide of Thought”.  Chesterton taught me to take a break from worrying about what ought, and to pay some attention to what is – although, as Chesterton recognized, the is always includes some amount of ought.

Orthodoxy is at once a hilarious and deeply insightful book and I am so glad that I read it when I did.  Chesterton’s work was an excellent teacher, giving me wonderful questions and pointing me in helpful directions.


[1] Chesterton, G. K. Orthodoxy. New Kensingtion: Whitaker House, 2013. 31. Print.

[2] Ibid. 31. Print.

[3] Ibid. 32. Print.

[4] Ibid. 32. Print.

[4] Ibid. 35. Print.

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