A nut is a man obsessed by just one thing. He is slave to an overmastering theory, or a compulsive activity, or a consuming ambition, or a fiendish desire. A “gun nut” dreams about guns and will pay dearly to possess them. A “health nut” dotes on his diet and broods over his bowel movements. The word “nut” is sometimes applied promiscuously, to every variety of mental disorder that one finds in a “nut house,” but a purist reserves it for men in the grip of an idée fixe, or obsession. When the word was first used in its psychological sense, towards the end of the nineteenth century, it denoted an overwhelming sexual infatuation. A besotted young man was said to be “nuts on the girl.”
So a nut is the same as a maniac, a fanatic, or an enthusiast. Each of these words has its peculiar associations, but at bottom they all denote an unbalanced mind. The mind of the besotted young man is unbalanced because the girl on whom he is nuts has eclipsed all else, and so caused him to neglect his work, his friends, his prayers, and perhaps his self-respect. We are nowadays instructed to refer to lechers and tramps as “sex positive,” but men and women with this imbalance formerly went under the good and descriptive title of sex maniac (or erotomanic, if you prefer). The fanatic was, originally, a religious nut who cared for nothing but the business of the temple, or fanum. His city could burn, his children could starve, so long as the gods were served. His modern namesake is so fascinated by the business of the stadium that he allows grass to grow knee-deep in his yard, to the sorrow of his neighbor, the persnickety garden enthusiast.
Delinquency is the true test of a nut. This is the blind spot of his unbalanced mind. A man can have a theory, or enjoy an activity, or pursue an ambition, or feel a desire, and yet be nothing like a nut—provided he respects the other claims on his time and attention. The difference between a devout man and a fanatic is that the devout man knows that he owes service not only to God, but also to his country, his family, and even himself. The difference between a red-blooded man and a sex maniac is that the red-blooded man knows that sex, while very well in its way, is very far from everything. The difference between a man with a theory and a monomaniacal crank is that the man with a theory knows when to keep that theory to himself.
If you think that nuts are nothing more than pathetic little cranks, at worst pests to be avoided, you have been taken in by the obviousness of the Odd Little Nut. It’s easy to spot an Odd Little Nut because his nuttiness stands out, highlighted by its oddness and ineffectuality. We know that the political theory of an Odd Little Nut is nutty because it is so very odd, and because no one will listen to him unless they are tied to a chair. But he is not the only nut in the bowl. There are also the Common Little Nut and the Big Nut, and it is on these nuts that one can really chip a tooth. A Big Nut is an effectual nut. His political theory may be odd, but he is explaining it to the President, and the President is making notes. A Common Little Nut is also known as a “normal person,” a “normal person” being someone who has fully assimilated the nuttiness of his day, a nuttiness that originated with some Big Nut.
I hope these remarks on nuts will be useful to readers of the Orthosphere. Men who make their way to this asylum do so, by and large, under the impression that the world is run by Big Nuts. If they voice this opinion in public, they will likely find that all the Common Little Nuts begin to whisper and look at them with faces marked by worry and alarm. The Common Little Nut is a pack animal. That is how he became a Common Little Nut.
It is hard to bear up under whispers and faces marked by worry and alarm, so each of us has, I suspect, in a moment of doubt, asked himself, am I a nut? An Odd Little Nut, that is. It is an unsettling question, and far from easy to answer, so here I can only go so far as to draw your attention to some sound advice on how not to be a nut.
In 1656 the Cambridge philosopher Henry More published Enthusiasmus Triumphatus, a discourse, as his subtitle puts it, on “the nature, causes, kinds, and cure, of enthusiasm” (1). This was midway through the Commonwealth, when the cities and countryside of England were swarming with nuts. More contends that enthusiasm — in other words nuttiness — occurs when the humor known to classical physic as melancholy is heated, rises to the brain, there causes a “ligation of the outward senses,” and thus leaves the mind defenseless against the “enormous strength and vigor of the imagination.” He follows Aristotle in the opinion that the effect of melancholy is akin to that of wine. When “cold” it causes introspective brooding and pensive abstraction. When “warm” it causes ebullience and reckless fancy. Today a melancholic would be diagnosed as bipolar or manic-depressive. More describes it thus: “melancholy while it is cold, causes sadness and despondency of mind, but once heated, ecstasies and raptures with triumphant joy and singing.”
Seventeenth century England was, as I said, plagued by nuts. They had beheaded their king, were trying to pull down their church, and in some cases preached dangerous ideas about the proper relation between man and maid. There can be no doubt that their imaginations were operating with “enormous strength and vigor,” and Henry More, a pious royalist who liked a quiet life, thought that someone ought to put a stop to it. To this end he proposed an antidote and prophylactic to the unbalanced mind of the enthusiast, or what we are calling the nut. This had three parts: temperance, humility and reason.
“By temperance,” More wrote, “I understand a measurable abstinence from all hot or heightening meats or drinks, as also from all venereous pleasures, and tactual delights of the body, from all softness and effeminacy, a constant and peremptory adhesion to the perfectest degree of chastity in the single life, and of continency in wedlock, that can be attain’d to.” To this discipline added a regimen of “moderate exercise of body, and seasonable taking of the fresh air . . .whereby the blood is ventilated and purged from dark oppressing vapors.”
To understand these words, we must recall that melancholy was supposed to repose in the lower regions of the body, adjacent to the gut and the loins. When these lower regions were “stirred” by gluttony or venery, melancholy rose toward the head, rather like sludge stirred from the bottom of a pond. Therefore, in More’s words, temperance was the means to avoid “raising the feculency of our intemperance into those more precious parts of the body the brains, and animal spirits, and so intoxicating the mind with fury and wildness.”
Temperance alone was not enough, however, since even a temperate man was subject to mental freaks. If he found himself entertaining some crazy notion or wild scheme, it was necessary to check this with humility and reason.
“By humility,” More wrote, I understand an entire submission to the will of God in all things, a deadness to all self-excellency and preeminency before others, a perfect privation of all desire of singularity or attracting of the eyes of men upon a man’s own person.” There is not a little vanity in nuts, a conceit “that they have a more then ordinary influence from God,” and are therefore appointed to be “prophets and new lawgivers.”
“By reason” More continued, “I understand so settled and cautious a composure of mind, as will suspect every high flown and forward fancy that endeavors to carry away the assent before deliberate examination; she not enduring to be gulled by the vigor or garishness of the representation, nor at all to be born down by the weight or strength of it; but patiently to try it by the known faculties of the soul, which are either the common notions that all men in their wits agree upon, or the evidence of outward sense, or else a clear and distinct deduction from these. What ever is not agreeable to these three, is fancy.”
If your aim is to preserve a balanced mind and escape the wild fancies of the nut, this seems to be very sound advice.
(1) Philophilus Parresiastes, [Henry More], Enthusiasmus triumphatus, or, A discourse of the nature, causes, kinds, and cure, of enthusiasm (London: W. Morden, 1656)