How to Argue with a Madman (from GK Chesterton)

by Dr. Taylor Marshall  


After blogging for a few years, I have learned to ignore the trolls who drop spiteful comments or who surf the Catholic web looking for a fight. About once or twice per year, however, I will encounter someone who is brilliant but crazy. The first sign is that such a person is usually well spoken and well planned. They are usually well read. However, the rapidity of the argument goes so quickly and is so scattered that you cannot keep up with him. Sometimes these madmen are Protestant. Sometimes they are Catholic. Often times they are sedevacantists.

I was recently reminded of this excellent advice from GK Chesterton regarding “how to argue with a madman.” This passage is quintessentially Cherstertonian – witty, concise, and precise:

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 humor or by charity, or by the dumb certainties of experience. He is the more logical for losing 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.

The madman’s explanation of a thing is always complete, and often in a purely rational sense, satisfactory. Or, to speak more strictly, the insane explanation, if not conclusive, is at least unanswerable; this may be observed specially in the two or three commonest kinds of madness.

If a man says (for instance) that men have a conspiracy against him, you cannot dispute it except by saying that all the men deny that they are conspirators; which is exactly what conspirators would do. His explanation covers the facts as much as yours. Or if a man says that he is the rightful King of England, it is no complete answer to say that the existing authorities call him mad; for if he were King of England that be the wisest thing for the existing authorities to do. Or if a man says that he is Jesus Christ, it is no answer to tell him that the world denies his divinity; for the world denied Christ’s…

…his mind moves in a perfect but narrow circle. A small circle is quite as infinite as a large circle; but, though it is quite as infinite, it is not so large…The lunatic’s theory explains a large number of things, but it does not explain them in a large way…

…If we could express our deepest feelings of protest and appeal against this obsession, I suppose we should say something like this: “Oh, I admit that you have your case and have it by heart, and that many things do fit into other things as you say. I admit that your explanation explains a great deal; but what a great deal it leaves out! Are there no other stories in the world except yours; and are all men busy with your business? Suppose we grant the details; perhaps when the man in the street did not seem to see you it was only his cunning; perhaps when the policeman asked you your name it was only because he knew it already. But how much happier you would be if you only knew that these people cared nothing about you! How much larger your life would be if your self could become smaller in it; if you could really look at other men with common curiosity and pleasure; if you could see them walking as they are in their sunny selfishness and their virile indifference! You would begin to be interested in them, because they were not interested in you. You would break out of this tiny and tawdry theatre in which your own little plot is always being played and you would find yourself under a freer sky, in a street full of splendid strangers.”

Curing a madman is not arguing with a philosopher; it is casting out a devil.

– GK Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, pp. 25-27.

In sum, with the madman, you can not convince him to entere into the real world. You must enter is tilted universe and expose it as a fraud. It’s pretty dangerous, but so are exorcisms. Pray, fast, and proceed with caution with the internet crazies. I simply try to avoid them. 

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8 Responses to How to Argue with a Madman (from GK Chesterton)

  1. JabbaPapa says:


    I actually have a neighbour who is *simulating* madness, which is even weirder than what GK is talking about, but the whole thing is eminently applicable to many forms of internet trolldom…

    He’s quite right — the only way to counter the brilliance of a true internet/real life madman is to provide an objectively superior degree of intellectual brilliance — so please, if anyone has a handy method to achieve this sort of Illumination, please I beg you — cut’n’paste below !!!


  2. toadspittle says:

    Isn’t “simulating” madness a patently insane thing to do? And anyway, how can you tell?
    and Toad would have thought that providing “…an objectively superior degree of intellectual brilliance…” would only make the loonies loonier than ever. But who’s Toad to talk?


  3. JabbaPapa says:

    Isn’t “simulating” madness a patently insane thing to do? And anyway, how can you tell?
    and Toad would have thought that providing “…an objectively superior degree of intellectual brilliance…” would only make the loonies loonier than ever. But who’s Toad to talk?

    Correct on both counts — but as for your first query, it’s mainly a benefits dodge.

    I can tell because he can’t withstand a focused challenge of his “psychosis”.

    Whatever — he is ALSO a very nice guy.


  4. kathleen says:

    Yes, looking back I can think of a few examples of these type of madmen we have come across (here and elsewhere ;-)) that Dr. Taylor Marshall is referring to.

    Interesting how GFK’s advice on how to deal with them would naturally be on a face-to-face encounter, whereas the anonymity of the internet undoubtedly gives these ‘madmen’ an added advantage.


  5. toadspittle says:

    Kathleen has a point. Perhaps it would be better to rename it “The Internut.”

    Toad is just back from Mass where Don Sanitago (who is a living saint!) reminded him that last week he (Toad) had asked for prayers for a friend in Key West, Florida, who was worried she might be swept away by Hurricane Isaac.
    Well the friend was OK, Toad was happily able to report back. Spared by God from the very hurricane He Himself designed, possibly as a result of Original Sin (Nobody seems clear on this point.). Thank God, only some black people in Haiti killed, probably Voodoo believers anyway.

    Bit ironic though, in retrospect, thinks Toad.


  6. toadspittle says:

    Lovely snap of G.K.C., “The Human Tent,” in full sail.

    However…i>”A small circle is quite as infinite as a large circle…”

    No it’s not! Circles are finite and easily measurable by simple geometry. Toad supposes what the ” quintessentially Cherstertonian – witty, concise, and precise” Old Podger really meant to say was that a small sphere is as boundless as a larger sphere.

    Well then, why not say so?

    If Toad is wrong on this, which is highly likely – as he is a dolt at geometry – he will be delighted to be put right by smarter people.


  7. “Catholicism Pure and Simple” seems to attract lots of comments from exactly the kind of people Chesterton was referring to.


  8. toadspittle says:

    Don’t be so hard on yourself, Robert John.


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