The Madness of Reason

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. Most of the very great poets have been not only sane, but extremely business-like; and if Shakespeare ever really held horses, it was because he was much the safest man to hold them. Imagination does not breed insanity. Exactly what does breed insanity is reason. Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do.

—Chesterton, The Maniac (1908).

Admittedly, as this is one of Chesterton’s more famous quotes, I am not treading any new ground here. Nevertheless, it stands as one of my favorites. Tesla went mad, and Nietzche, and Bobby Fischer. C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien did not. Not that they weren’t great intellectuals in their own right – just artistic ones, Tolkien even more so than Lewis. That’s why, despite some utterly brilliant philosophy found in some of his letters, Tolkien has no non-fiction books to his credit, unlike Lewis. It is worth noting, however, that no matter how great and intelligent Lewis’s fiction was it still doesn’t hold a candle to Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings”.

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6 Responses to The Madness of Reason

  1. lotharson says:

    I think I will blog in the future about Charles Baudelaire, the greatest poet of France. One of his famous sentences is: “If God exists, He is the devil.”

  2. Ronald says:

    I agree with the general thrust of the Chesterton quote, but I don’t think Nietzsche belongs in the same category as the other two. He had a tremendous flair for poetic expression present in all of his writings, and was actually a poet himself, having published a couple of books in the genre. He also composed music. “Artistic intellectual” fits him to a tee.

    His madness was something more diabolical.

  3. Syllabus says:

    That’s why, despite some utterly brilliant philosophy found in some of his letters, Tolkien has no non-fiction books to his credit, unlike Lewis.

    Slight point of disagreement: Tolkien’s lecture-cum-essay Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics is a good contribution to the field. If you mean, like, non-fiction with popular appeal, then yeah.

    • Is that something you’d say is book length?

      • Syllabus says:

        It’s roughly the same length – plus or minus about 500 words or so – as both The Abolition of Man (which was also originally a series of lectures) and the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, and I consider both of those to be (short) books, so yeah, I would. Though I concede that that sort of taxonomy is user-dependent.

      • I suppose I stand corrected then, though it doesn’t really affect my overall point much.

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