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Materialism and Madness by Dr Benjamin Wiker

Materialism isn’t just about wanting more stuff.  It is believing that stuff is all there is – that we are only material creatures with no soul and no immortal destiny. That is what causes madness.

Our most eminent and up-to-date scientists and social planners argue that, because only matter is real, belief in spiritual reality and the immaterial soul is foolish and out of date. The great G. K. Chesterton, taking the side of sanity, argued that materialism was a species of madness.

We have a strange prejudice nowadays—perhaps it is really a superstition—that truth is a function of time, i.e., that being later in time and truer are more or less identical, as if the best way to avoid error is to hold off being born as long as possible. People used to believe that human beings were a complex unity of immaterial soul and material body (so the prejudice goes), but we now know that human beings are a complex material machine. The latest science proves it.

The problem with this view should be evident. We don’t say that a man is on the right road merely by the fact that he has walked a long time on it. He might actually be lost. A good sign that he is lost (to delve momentarily into the obvious), is that he doesn’t know where he is and going stoutly and resolutely forward will only make the problem worse.

And this, G. K. Chesterton warned almost a century ago, is the problem with materialism. It is a way for human beings to lose themselves, to sever contact with their own common sense and everyday experience as material and spiritual beings, and thereby reduce themselves to madmen. Materialism may be the latest philosophical and scientific fad, but if it causes us to deny the obvious, then we have lost our way and need to do some backtracking.

What is the connection between madness and materialism? For Chesterton, materialism is a species of madness, albeit self-inflicted. A madman thinks he is a chicken, all evidence to the contrary. A materialist thinks that all human thought can be reduced to chemical reactions in the brain, his own thinking to the contrary, or he resolutely declares that all human action can be reduced to deterministic physical laws, his own free actions to the contrary.

Both insanity and materialism suffer a fateful contraction of reality, and both share “the strongest and most unmistakable mark of madness,” to wit, the “combination between a logical completeness and a spiritual contraction.” That combination is a perfect expression of many of the most eminent of our modern secular theories: their rejection of God and the soul allows them to posit that everything can be reduced to a few simple, physical causes.

Against this, Chesterton wisely declared that, “As an explanation of the world, materialism has a sort of insane simplicity. It has just the quality of a madman’s argument; we have at once the sense of it covering everything and the sense of it leaving everything out.”

At the root of materialism is the laudable desire for rational certainty, but as Chesterton noted, it is carried out in pride rather than humility. A materialist wants certainty on his terms, or not at all. As a result, he ends up “in the clean and well-lit prison of one idea: he is sharpened to one painful point. He is without healthy hesitation and healthy complexity.”

Tidy lucidity at the expense of the messiness of reality: that is what makes the materialist especially dangerous when he deigns to talk about human beings. The materialist reduces man to a physical being without a soul, without any sort of divine accountability, without any inherent worth. That is why such materialist simplifiers, when they engage in politics, have all too often turned into terrible simplifiers (to borrow a famous phrase from historian Jacob Burckhardt). The twentieth century was the bloodiest century in human history, and it was marked by ruthless leaders full of dreadful self-confidence that their materialist idea—of which Marxism was the dominant strand—would cure all that ails humanity. As Chesterton said, “Materialists and madmen never have doubts.” Had they more doubts about their materialism, the twentieth century would have been far less insanely bloody.

The key to living sanely, Chesterton says, is to realize that we live in a world that is larger than our grasp, a far grander cosmos than we can ever fully understand, one given to us by a God who is wiser and far more benevolent than we can comprehend. Against the notion that we understand everything, if we are honest, we find that our everyday lives are shot full of mystery. We act freely nearly every minute of the day, but no scientist can explain free will. We are constantly in thought, but no philosopher has come up with an adequate explanation for thought. For Chesterton, we must humbly and gratefully take things as we find them and accept the mysteries as gifts from God, rather than try to deny them by some entirely lucid but simplistic theory.

Perhaps, a very old story about human beings—one found in Genesis—was right after all. We are made in the image of a benevolent God, creatures of soul and body whose powers of reason and free will are a mysterious gift, a given for which we can only be thankful. It is truly too bad that we would be brought back to this truth by lapsing into so much self-destructive madness.

Author and speaker Benjamin Wiker holds a Ph.D. in Theological Ethics from Vanderbilt University, and has taught at Marquette University, St. Mary’s University (MN), Thomas Aquinas College (CA), and Franciscan University (OH). He is a Senior Fellow of the Envoy Institute of Belmont Abbey College, a Senior Fellow of Discovery Institute and a Senior Fellow at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology.

Dr. Wiker has written eight books, including 10 Books That Screwed Up the World: And 5 Others That Didn’t Help and his newest, 10 Books Every Conservative Must Read: Plus Four Not to Miss and One Impostor

His website is

Heretics and Orthodoxy by G K Chestertson are available from White Crow Books

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