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Martin Gardner

The Man Who Was Thursday

Revisiting Chesterton's masterpiece.

The Man Who Was Thursday, a masterpiece by G. K. Chesterton, revolves around two of the deepest of all theological mysteries: the freedom of the will and the existence of massive, irrational evil. The two mysteries are closely related.

In Chesterton's comic fantasy, which he calls on the title page "A Nightmare," free will is symbolized by anarchism. Man's freedom to do wicked things, as Augustine and so many other theologians of all faiths have said, is the price we pay for freedom. If our behavior were entirely determined by how our brain is wired by heredity and environment, then we would be mere automatons with no more genuine free will or self-awareness—two names for the same thing—than a vacuum cleaner. But we are not automatons. We have a knowledge of good and evil and a freedom to choose, within limits, of course, between the two. Somehow our choices are not totally determined, yet somehow they also are not random, as if decisions were made by shaking tiny dice inside our skull. This is the dark, impenetrable paradox of will and consciousness. "I see everything," Gabriel Syme shouts in the book's last chapter. "Why does each thing on the earth war against each other thing? … So that each thing that obeys law may have the glory and isolation of the anarchist."

The anarchist movement of Chesterton's time, with its fanatical bomb tossers, has happily faded, but individual anarchists are still with us. A Timothy McVeigh blows up a federal building because he hates the federal government. A Ted Kaczynski blows up strangers because he hates modern technology. Islamic extremists blow up buildings and airplanes because they hate Israel and the United States. Irish Catholics and Protestants explode bombs because they hate each other. Such are some of the horrors we pay for the mysterious gift of free will.

Henry James, the father of William, said it eloquently in a letter quoted by Ralph Barton Perry in the first volume of his Thought and Character of ...

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