Sanity in Common Sense

When we think about what makes a person ‘sane,’ most would conclude that the distinction arises primarily from the person’s ability to reason, and to function properly within the context of mental exercises. The dictionary definition does not seem to provide for much more: it speaks of sanity as “1. (of a person) of sound mind; not mad or mentally ill / 2. reasonable; sensible.” “Sanity”—in these terms—simply equals the ability to reason logically…and who would disagree with such a fundamental definition?

One who certainly finds such an answer less-than-satisfying is the 20th century British author, G.K. Chesterton. In one of his most popular works, Orthodoxy, Chesterton writes precisely in contradiction to this popular definition: “Exactly what does breed insanity,” he says, “is reason.” And what evidence does he provide for this seemingly preposterous claim? “Poets do not go mad,” he continues, “but chess-players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists very seldom.” In Chesterton’s understanding, there is something much more profound than the ability to reason, which ultimately allows the human person to remain within the realm of ‘sanity.’ All madmen, according to him, have “the combination of an expansive and exhaustive reason with a contracted common sense.” “The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.”

At first glance, such a proposal seems ludicrous; how can we believe that sanity subsides in man’s creative and commonsensical capacity and not in his logical one? But Chesterton (very much in union with one of my favorite philosophers, Gabriel Marcel) states precisely why this is the case. “There is a notion adrift everywhere,” he writes, “that imagination, especially mystical imagination, is dangerous to man’s mental balance.” However it is precisely this mysticism, he continues, “that keeps man sane…The ordinary man has always been sane because the ordinary man has always been a mystic. He has permitted the twilight…He has always left himself free to doubt his gods; but (unlike the agnostic of today) free also to believe in them…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.”

This insightful approach to reality coincides perfectly with Marcel’s problem/mystery distinction—i.e. that some human experiences are problematic while others are mysterious, and the difference between the two ought to be maintained and thoroughly appreciated in our understanding. In the end, man is a creature intended to remain as such; he is not a god, although he aspires to be in union with the True God—the Creator himself—and will only be fulfilled once he has attained such communion. Here, the significance of ‘mystery’ in our lives comes into perfect clarity. We simply cannot approach the mysterious existence and life of God from a completely logical point of view; that constitutes insanity. Instead, if we approach God with the faculties of human and common sense, we will find him much more quickly and clearly than if we had approached him strictly intellectually. God is more than Truth, he is also Beauty; he is certainly the convergence of logical truth, but at the same time the confluence of meaning and beauty in our human experience.

If we desire to be sane, holy Christians, we need look no further than our lives as they are: completely human and utterly permeated by the emotional, beautiful, painful and meaningful. If we learn to appreciate and love the fullness of humanity in which form we have been created, we will eventually learn to love the fullness of human redemption in Jesus Christ. Loving Christ is the goal. Being sane is the inevitable medium.