Monday, June 29, 2015

The Everlasting Man: G.K. Chesterton

Prefatory Note
Introduction: The Plan of This Book

I The Man in the Cave
II Professors and Prehistoric Men
III The Antiquity of Civilisation
IV God and Comparative Religion
V Man and Mythologies
VI Demons and Philosophers
VII The War of the Gods and Demons
VIII The End of the World
I The God in the Cave
II The Riddles of the Gospel
III The Strangest Story in the World
IV The Witness of the Heretics
V The Escape from Paganism
VI The Five Deaths of the Faith
Appendix I.  On Prehistoric Man
Appendix II. On Authority and Accuracy
* * *
This book needs a preliminary note that its scope be not misunderstood
The view suggested is historical rather than theological, and does not
deal directly with a religious change which has been the chief event of
my own life; and about which I am already writing a more purely
controversial volume. It is impossible, I hope, for any Catholic to
write any book on any subject, above all this subject, without showing
that he is a Catholic; but this study is not specially concerned with
the differences between a Catholic and a Protestant. Much of it is
devoted to many sorts of Pagans rather than any sort of Christians; and
its thesis is that those who say that Christ stands side by side with
similar myths, and his religion side by side with similar religions, are
only repeating a very stale formula contradicted by a very striking
fact. To suggest this I have not needed to go much beyond matters known
to us all; I make no claim to learning; and have to depend for some
things, as has rather become the fashion, on those who are more learned.
As I have more than once differed from Mr. H. G. Wells in his view of
history, it is the more right that I should here congratulate him on the
courage and constructive imagination which carried through his vast and
varied and intensely interesting work; but still more on having asserted
the reasonable right of the amateur to do what he can with the facts
which the specialists provide.
* * *
There are two ways of getting home; and one of them is to stay there.
The other is to walk round the whole world till we come back to the same
place; and I tried to trace such a journey in a story I once wrote. It
is, however, a relief to turn from that topic to another story that I
never wrote. Like every book I never wrote, it is by far the best book I
have ever written. It is only too probable that I shall never write it,
so I will use it symbolically here; for it was a symbol of the same
truth. I conceived it as a romance of those vast valleys with sloping
sides, like those along which the ancient White Horses of Wessex are
scrawled along the flanks of the hills. It concerned some boy whose farm
or cottage stood on such a slope, and who went on his travels to find
something, such as the effigy and grave of some giant; and when he was
far enough from home he looked back and saw that his own farm and
kitchen-garden, shining flat on the hill-side like the colours and
quarterings of a shield, were but parts of some such gigantic figure, on
which he had always lived, but which was too large and too close to be
seen. That, I think, is a true picture of the progress of any really
independent intelligence today; and that is the point of this book.
The point of this book, in other words, is that the next best thing to
being really inside Christendom is to be really outside it. And a
particular point of it is that the popular critics of Christianity are
not really outside it. They are on a debatable ground, in every sense of
the term. They are doubtful in their very doubts. Their criticism has
taken on a curious tone; as of a random and illiterate heckling. Thus
they make current and anti-clerical cant as a sort of small-talk. They
will complain of parsons dressing like parsons; as if we should be any
more free if all the police who shadowed or collared us were plain
clothes detectives. Or they will complain that a sermon cannot be
interrupted, and call a pulpit a coward’s castle; though they do not
call an editor’s office a coward’s castle. It would be unjust both to
journalists and priests; but it would be much truer of journalist. The
clergyman appears in person and could easily be kicked as he came out of
church; the journalist conceals even his name so that nobody can kick
him. They write wild and pointless articles and letters in the press
about why the churches are empty, without even going there to find out
if they are empty, or which of them are empty. Their suggestions are
more vapid and vacant than the most insipid curate in a three-act farce,
and move us to comfort him after the manner of the curate in the Bab
Ballads; ‘Your mind is not so blank as that of Hopley Porter.’ So we may
truly say to the very feeblest cleric: ‘Your mind is not so blank as
that of Indignant Layman or Plain Man or Man in the Street, or any of
your critics in the newspapers; for they have not the most shadowy
notion of what they want themselves. Let alone of what you ought to give
them.’ They will suddenly turn round and revile the Church for not
having prevented the War, which they themselves did not want to prevent;
and which nobody had ever professed to be able to prevent, except some
of that very school of progressive and cosmopolitan sceptics who are the
chief enemies of the Church. It was the anti-clerical and agnostic world
that was always prophesying the advent of universal peace; it is that
world that was, or should have been, abashed and confounded by the
advent of universal war. As for the general view that the Church was
discredited by the War–they might as well say that the Ark was
discredited by the Flood. When the world goes wrong, it proves rather
that the Church is right. The Church is justified, not because her
children do not sin, but because they do. But that marks their mood
about the whole religious tradition they are in a state of reaction
against it. It is well with the boy when he lives on his father’s land;
and well with him again when he is far enough from it to look back on it
and see it as a whole. But these people have got into an intermediate
state, have fallen into an intervening valley from which they can see
neither the heights beyond them nor the heights behind. They cannot get
out of the penumbra of Christian controversy. They cannot be Christians
and they can not leave off being Anti-Christians. Their whole atmosphere
is the atmosphere of a reaction: sulks, perversity, petty criticism.
They still live in the shadow of the faith and have lost the light of
the faith.
Now the best relation to our spiritual home is to be near enough to love
it. But the next best is to be far enough away not to hate it. It is the
contention of these pages that while the best judge of Christianity is a
Christian, the next best judge would be something more like a Confucian.
The worst judge of all is the man now most ready with his judgements;
the ill-educated Christian turning gradually into the ill-tempered
agnostic, entangled in the end of a feud of which he never understood
the beginning, blighted with a sort of hereditary boredom with he knows
not what, and already weary of hearing what he has never heard. He does
not judge Christianity calmly as a Confucian would; he does not judge it
as he would judge Confucianism. He cannot by an effort of fancy set the
Catholic Church thousands of miles away in strange skies of morning and
judge it as impartially as a Chinese pagoda. It is said that the great
St. Francis Xavier, who very nearly succeeded in setting up the Church
there as a tower overtopping all pagodas, failed partly because his
followers were accused by their fellow missionaries of representing the
Twelve Apostles with the garb or attributes of Chinamen. But it would be
far better to see them as Chinamen, and judge them fairly as Chinamen,
than to see them as featureless idols merely made to be battered by
iconoclasts; or rather as cockshies to be pelted by empty-handed
cockneys. It would be better to see the whole thing as a remote Asiatic
cult; the mitres of its bishops as the towering head dresses of
mysterious bonzes; its pastoral staffs as the sticks twisted like
serpents carried in some Asiatic procession; to see the prayer book as
fantastic as the prayer-wheel and the Cross as crooked as the Swastika.
Then at least we should not lose our temper as some of the sceptical
critics seem to lose their temper, not to mention their wits. Their
anti-clericalism has become an atmosphere, an atmosphere of negation and
hostility from which they cannot escape. Compared with that, it would be
better to see the whole thing as something belonging to another
continent, or to another planet. It would be more philosophical to stare
indifferently at bonzes than to be perpetually and pointlessly grumbling
at bishops. It would be better to walk past a church as if it were a
pagoda than to stand permanently in the porch, impotent either to go
inside and help or to go outside and forget. For those in whom a mere
reaction has thus become an obsession, I do seriously recommend the
imaginative effort of conceiving the Twelve Apostles as Chinamen. In
other words, I recommend these critics to try to do as much justice to
Christian saints as if they were Pagan sages.
But with this we come to the final and vital point I shall try to show
in these pages that when we do make this imaginative effort to see the
whole thing from the outside, we find that it really looks like what is
traditionally said about it inside. It is exactly when the boy gets far
enough off to see the giant that he sees that he really is a giant. It
is exactly when we do at last see the Christian Church afar under those
clear and level eastern skies that we see that it is really the Church
of Christ. To put it shortly, the moment we are really impartial about
it, we know why people are partial to it. But this second proposition
requires more serious discussion; and I shall here set myself to discuss
As soon as I had clearly in my mind this conception of something solid
in the solitary and unique character of the divine story, it struck me
that there was exactly the same strange and yet solid character in the
human story that had led up to it; because that human story also had a
root that was divine. I mean that just as the Church seems to grow more
remarkable when it is fairly compared with the common religious life of
mankind, so mankind itself seems to grow more remarkable when we compare
it with the common life of nature. And I have noticed that most modern
history is driven to something like sophistry, first to soften the sharp
transition from animals to men, and then to soften the sharp transition
from heathens to Christians. Now the more we really read in a realistic
spirit of those two transitions the sharper we shall find them to be. It
is because the critics are not detached that they do not see this
detachment; it is because they are not looking at things in a dry light
that they cannot see the difference between black and white. It is
because they are in a particular mood of reaction and revolt that they
have a motive for making out that all the white is dirty grey and the
black not so black as it is painted. I do not say there are not human
excuses for their revolt; I do not say it is not in some ways
sympathetic; what I say is that it is not in any way scientific. An
iconoclast may be indignant; an iconoclast may be justly indignant; but
an iconoclast is not impartial. And it is stark hypocrisy to pretend
that nine-tenths of the higher critics and scientific evolutionists and
professors of comparative religion are in the least impartial. Why
should they be impartial, what is being impartial, when the whole world
is at war about whether one thing is a devouring superstition or a
divine hope? I do not pretend to be impartial in the sense that the
final act of faith fixes a man’s mind because it satisfies his mind. But
I do profess to be a great deal more impartial than they are; in the
sense that I can tell the story fairly, with some sort of imaginative
justice to all sides; and they cannot. I do profess to be impartial in
the sense that I should be ashamed to talk such nonsense about the Lama
of Thibet as they do about the Pope of Rome, or to have as little
sympathy with Julian the Apostate as they have with the Society of
Jesus. They are not impartial; they never by any chance hold the
historical scales even; and above all they are never impartial upon this
point of evolution and transition. They suggest everywhere the grey
gradations of twilight, because they believe it is the twilight of the
gods. I propose to maintain that whether or no it is the twilight of
gods, it is not the daylight of men.
I maintain that when brought out into the daylight these two things look
altogether strange and unique; and that it is only in the false twilight
of an imaginary period of transition that they can be made to look in
the least like anything else. The first of these is the creature called
man and the second is the man called Christ. I have therefore divided
this book into two parts: the former being a sketch of the main
adventure of the human race in so far as it remained heathen; and the
second a summary of the real difference that was made by it becoming
Christian. Both motives necessitate a certain method, a method which is
not very easy to manage, and perhaps even less easy to define or defend.
In order to strike, in the only sane or possible sense, the note of
impartiality, it is necessary to touch the nerve of novelty. I mean that
in one sense we see things fairly when we see them first. That, I may
remark in passing, is why children generally have very little difficulty
about the dogmas of the Church. But the Church, being a highly practical
thing for working and fighting, is necessarily a thing for men and not
merely for children. There must be in it for working purposes a great
deal of tradition, of familiarity, and even of routine. So long as its
fundamentals are sincerely felt, this may even be the saner condition.
But when its fundamentals are doubted, as at present, we must try to
recover the candour and wonder of the child; the unspoilt realism and
objectivity of innocence. Or if we cannot do that, we must try at least
to shake off the cloud of mere custom and see the thing as new, if only
by seeing it as unnatural. Things that may well be familiar so long as
familiarity breeds affection had much better become unfamiliar when
familiarity breeds contempt. For in connection with things so great as
are here considered, whatever our view of them, contempt must be a
mistake. Indeed contempt must be an illusion. We must invoke the most
wild and soaring sort of imagination; the imagination that can see what
is there.
The only way to suggest the point is by an example of something, indeed
of almost anything, that has been considered beautiful or wonderful.
George Wyndham once told me that he had seen one of the first aeroplanes
rise for the first time and it was very wonderful but not so wonderful
as a horse allowing a man to ride on him. Somebody else has said that a
fine man on a fine horse is the noblest bodily object in the world. Now,
so long as people feel this in the right way, all is well. The first and
best way of appreciating it is to come of people with a tradition of
treating animals properly; of men in the right relation to horses. A boy
who remembers his father who rode a horse, who rode it well and treated
it well, will know that the relation can be satisfactory and will be
satisfied. He will be all the more indignant at the ill-treatment of
horses because he knows how they ought to be treated; but he will see
nothing but what is normal in a man riding on a horse. He will not
listen to the great modern philosopher who explains to him that the
horse ought to be riding on the man. He will not pursue the pessimist
fancy of Swift and say that men must be despised as monkeys and horses
worshipped as gods. And horse and man together making an image that is
to him human and civilised, it will be easy, as it were, to lift horse
and man together into something heroic or symbolical; like a vision of
St. George in the clouds. The fable of the winged horse will not be
wholly unnatural to him: and he will know why Ariosto set many a
Christian hero in such an airy saddle, and made him the rider of the
sky. For the horse has really been lifted up along with the man in the
wildest fashion in the very word we use when we speak ‘chivalry.’ The
very name of the horse has been given to the highest mood and moment of
the man; so that we might almost say that the handsomest compliment to a
man is to call him a horse.
But if a man has got into a mood in which he is not able to feel this
sort of wonder, then his cure must begin right at the other end. We must
now suppose that he has drifted into a dull mood, in which somebody
sitting on a horse means no more than somebody sitting on a chair. The
wonder of which Wyndham spoke, the beauty that made the thing seem an
equestrian statue, the meaning of the more chivalric horseman, may have
become to him merely a convention and a bore. Perhaps they have been
merely a fashion; perhaps they have gone out of fashion; perhaps they
have been talked about too much or talked about in the wrong way;
perhaps it was then difficult to care for horses without the horrible
risk of being horsy. Anyhow, he has got into a condition when he cares
no more for a horse than for a towel-horse. His grandfather’s charge at
Balaclava seems to him as dull and dusty as the album containing such
family portraits. Such a person has not really become enlightened about
the album; on the contrary, he has only become blind with the dust. But
when he has reached that degree of blindness, he will not be able to
look at a horse or a horseman at all until he has seen the whole thing
as a thing entirely unfamiliar and almost unearthly.
Out of some dark forest under some ancient dawn there must come towards
us, with lumbering yet dancing motions, one of the very queerest of the
prehistoric creatures. We must see for the first time the strangely
small head set on a neck not only longer but thicker than itself, as the
face of a gargoyle is thrust out upon a gutter-spout, the one
disproportionate crest of hair running along the ridge of that heavy
neck like a beard in the wrong place; the feet, each like a solid club
of horn, alone amid the feet of so many cattle; so that the true fear is
to be found in showing, not the cloven, but the uncloven hoof. Nor is it
mere verbal fancy to see him thus as a unique monster; for in a sense a
monster means what is unique, and he is really unique. But the point is
that when we thus see him as the first man saw him, we begin once more
to have some imaginative sense of what it meant when the first man rode
him. In such a dream he may seem ugly, but he does not seem
unimpressive; and certainly that two-legged dwarf who could get on top
of him will not seem unimpressive. By a longer and more erratic road we
shall come back to the same marvel of the man and the horse; and the
marvel will be, if possible, even more marvellous. We shall have again a
glimpse of St. George; the more glorious because St. George is not
riding on the horse, but rather riding on the dragon.
In this example, which I have taken merely because it is an example, it
will be noted that I do not say that the nightmare seen by the first man
of the forest is either more true or more wonderful than the normal mare
of the stable seen by the civilised person who can appreciate what is
normal. Of the two extremes, I think on the whole that the traditional
grasp of truth is the better. But I say that the truth is found at one
or other of these two extremes, and is lost in the intermediate
condition of mere fatigue and forgetfulness of tradition. In other
words, I say it is better to see a horse as a monster than to see it
only as a slow substitute for a motor-car. If we have got into that
state of mind about a horse as something stale, it is far better to be
frightened of a horse because it is a good deal too fresh.
Now, as it is with the monster that is called a horse, so it is with the
monster that is called a man. Of course the best condition of all, in my
opinion, is always to have regarded man as he is regarded in my
philosophy. He who holds the Christian and Catholic view of human nature
will feel certain that it is a universal and therefore a sane view, and
will be satisfied. But if he has lost the pose to strike wherever
possible this note of what is new and strange, and for that reason the
style even on so serious a subject may sometimes be deliberately
grotesque and fanciful. I do desire to help the reader to see
Christendom from the outside in the sense of seeing it as a whole,
against the background of other historic things; just as I desire him to
see humanity as a whole against the background of natural things. And I
say that in both cases, when seen thus, they stand out from their
background like supernatural things. They do not fade into the rest with
the colours of impressionism; they stand out from the rest with the
colours of heraldry; as vivid as a red cross on a white shield or a
black lion on a ground of gold. So stands the Red Clay against the green
field of nature, or the White Christ against the red clay of his race.
But in order to see them clearly we have to see them as a whole. We have
to see how they developed as well as how they began; for the most
incredible part of the story is that things which began thus should have
developed thus. Anyone who chooses to indulge in mere imagination can
imagine that other things might have happened or other entities evolved.
Anyone thinking of what might have happened may conceive a sort of
evolutionary equality; but anyone facing what did happen must face an
exception and a prodigy. If there was ever a moment when man was only an
animal, we can if we choose make a fancy picture of his career
transferred to some other animal. An entertaining fantasia might be made
in which elephants built in elephantine architecture, with towers and
turrets like tusks and trunks, cities beyond the scale of any colossus.
A pleasant fable might be conceived in which a cow had developed a
costume, and put on four boots and two pairs of trousers. We could
imagine a Supermonkey more marvellous than any Superman, a quadrumanous
creature carving and painting with his hands and cooking and
carpentering with his feet. But if we are considering what did happen,
we shall certainly decide that man has distanced everything else with a
distance like that of the astronomical spaces and a speed like that of
the still thunderbolt of the light. And in the same fashion, while we
can if we choose see the Church amid a mob of Mithraic or Manichean
superstitions squabbling and killing each other at the end of the
Empire, while we can if we choose imagine the Church killed in the
struggle and some other chance cult taking its place, we shall be the
more surprised (and possibly puzzled) if we meet it two thousand years
afterwards rushing through the ages as the winged thunderbolt of thought
and everlasting enthusiasm; a thing without rival or resemblance; and
still as new as it is old.


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