In 1667 John Milton ascribed to man “the sanctity of reason,” that traditional human trait which relieves the human psychology of the “prone and brute” affects of other creatures: man stands erect, which means he is physically able to look toward both the heavens and the earth. Brutes, of course, have by nature only the power to see the earth, dirt, streams, the hole in a tree. To be endued with reason, here, is more particularly to be circumspect, the way Penelope was when she saw not only the suitors at her doors, but also her son at the table, the wrinkles of her aging father-in law, or even Odysseus himself toiling in his ship and in his home-sickness. But the modern man—modern to the Ancient Greeks and Medievalists but also modern for the sake of the 21st Century—, he is only able to see the one thing just before him, just as Penelope might only have seen her own weakness as a widow or the desperate urgency of her suitors.
The modern man, who first threw out the sanctity of reason in the Enlightenment and then the reason itself soonafter, distinctly lacks this native attribute. He is not circumspect. He cannot look toward the heavens. In psychiatry this was once called monomania, “a form of mental illness characterized by a single pattern of repetitive and intrusive thoughts or actions”—it used to be called an aberration.
And so Luther could see only his guilt, and no counter-point for it. When his circumspection was vanished, when divine mercy was too invisible in his mind to satisfy his own crimes, he traced out every fold and every niche, with repetition and intrusion, and could find no remedy but the approach of another monomania, like the Bible, like the Sola Scriptura that refuses any other subtlety or company. Once the monomaniac begins to imagine the living God, the presence of Christ per se or in others, the one mono-thought intrudes and will only withdraw for another more powerful monomania. There is absolutely not room for subtlety, or gentleness, or moderation; for moderation itself is a mean, the average of multiple things.
Calvin, likewise, could see Providence but not Free Will. He could not imagine two minds working together. He could imagine the horrors of original sin and so a naturally wicked man, but he could not imagine a good man with a wicked inclination. Leo III could imagine an invisible God and a visible artwork, but never the two married. John Woolman could see the undignified, bleary-eyed toper laid out in the streets but could not see the merriment of the wedding feast at Cana. Margaret Sanger could see over-population, poverty, or even the feebleness of the young, precipitate woman; but could not see the strength of the mother or the reality of the child.
But even the lover, that one creature most suspected of monomania, is not mentally ill; in fact, if he is a lover at all, he is a lover precisely because he is circumspect: he has the ability, the power, to see every feature and detail in his lover. He can see the corners of her mouth, the arches over her eyes, the way her skin is flecked and the way it softens this way or that beneath the light. He can see how her cheeks blush, or even how they might blush. He can see, like Byron, how her disposition compares so aptly with cloudy climes or starry skies, and how winsomely she smiles. He can even see her faults, in addition to her virtues, and he delights in every degree and every kind of trait, value, or love that appears or could appear in his lover. The Song of Songs is like this, a wonderful example of mental soundness, where instead of suffering from a singular, aguish obsession, in which only a mono-lover is considered, the whole song reminds of turtledoves, and jewels, and even goats.
In the early 19th Century, the psychiatrists who diagnosed monomania used to treat it with the neutral salts of aqua graminis. By the end of the 19th Century, G.K. Chesterton knew the remedy was paradox. The prescription, I think, is still efficacious: “And when it rains on your parade, look up rather than down. Without the rain, there would be no rainbow.”