Chesterton: The Everlasting Man

January 6, 2010

The Everlasting Man (1925)
G.K. Chesterton (Ignatius, 1993)
276 p.  Second reading.

This is generally held to be one of Chesterton’s best books, if not his very best.  Its reputation is well deserved: it is ambitious, tightly argued (for Chesterton), clearly structured (again, for Chesterton), and full to the brim of that lively intelligence so characteristic of his finest work.

A recurring theme in Chesterton’s writings is that the spiritual capacity for appreciation of the world needs to be guarded against decay, encouraged, and constantly renewed. I use “appreciation” in multiple senses of the word: enjoyment, but also simple awareness and capacity for experience.  We are tempted to take the sun and the moon for granted, or to forget to be thankful for our health, or to fall into any number of other states of spiritual torpor simply because things are familiar.  Chesterton comes to disturb our complacency, to help us to see familiar things again as though they were as fresh and startling as a new day.

Chesterton contends that the modern West is sunk in a stupor concerning two things in particular: our selves, and our religion.  We are inclined to see them both blending into their surroundings, and looking a bit dull and indistinct as as result. Having learned that we are related organically to other animal life we are inclined to stress the continuity between our nature and theirs, and to overlook the differences; to Chesterton, the differences are so immense as to be the most obvious and important things about us.  When we came on the scene we brought something new, something that makes us stand out sharply. Likewise, we are inclined to see Christianity as one religion among many, more or less the same as the others, and to see Jesus as a good man analogous to Buddha, Moses, Confucius, and so on.  Chesterton denies that this is a reasonable view.  Jesus, he argues, brought something new into history; the Church, too, is “a thing without rival or resemblance”.

As to the first point — about the continuity between our nature and those of other creatures — he simply argues that most of what we think we know about the pre-history of man is based on uncertain inferences.  He is not interested in denying the theory of evolution, but in clarifying what it really tells us.  The fragmentary knowledge we have of early humans shows they painted, played music, and used tools.  The oldest civilizations about which we have substantial knowledge were already advanced societies, with all the essential features of our own.  There is not much evidence, he argues, apart from a vague prejudice that history ought to demonstrate “progress”, to support the claim that the human nature of our remote ancestors differed substantially from our own.  I am not an anthropologist and I do not know whether Chesterton’s general view of things would now stand up to scrutiny, but at the very least it serves as a reminder to be on guard against the lazy tendency to combine scientific findings with unstated assumptions and philosophical speculations without noticing what we are doing.

The more interesting part of the book is his analysis of religious history.  Modern secularists have a hard time giving Christianity its due. This will speak approvingly of Eastern religions, and make excuses for the deficiencies of other faiths, but about Christianity they are irritable and exacting.  This is so, says Chesterton, because they are still too close to it.  “They still live in the shadow of the faith and have lost the light of the faith.”  He believes that if we could see Christianity again, as if for the first time, we would find it extremely interesting, we would see once again its beauty and strength, and we would admire its moral vision — just as long as it didn’t make any moral demands of us.

The schema Chesterton adopts to discuss the general contours of mankind’s religious history is quadripartite: the philosophers, the demons, the gods, and God.  Philosophy is our attempt to probe ultimate things using reason, and it has traditionally — in the Greek and Roman worlds — been pursued apart from, and even parallel to, religion.  Christianity has sometimes been accused of divorcing faith and reason, but as a matter of historical fact it is the pre-eminent example of an attempt to combine the two.  Christians took philosophy very seriously, incorporated much of it into their own theology. It is nonetheless true that philosophy has its own life apart from religion.

“The demons” and “the gods” are two sides of the polytheistic coin.  There can be much to admire in paganism, and Chesterton is heartily appreciative of the achievement of Greek and Roman mythology, but we also know that this worship of unseen powers can be darkened into violence and cruelty.  The Carthaginian religion is the example Chesterton uses, and, in an extended digression, he gives a rousing history of the wars between Rome and Carthage.  He reminds us how different our history would have been had Rome been defeated.

Chesterton believes that we have had enough of purportedly scientific histories of religion; what we need is a humanistic history.  We need a history that tries to understand humanity’s religious history from the inside.  What was it like to be a polytheist?  One of the very best things in The Everlasting Man is Chesterton’s attempt to answer this question.  He argues that polytheism, at least in Greece and Rome, was largely an attempt to reach divine things through the imagination.  Polytheistic religion was not equivalent to Judaism and Christianity, nor was it meant to be.  It thrived on local legends, colorful ceremonies, and memorable tales, but it was never meant to be a comprehensive explanation of anything.  It had no creed.  It was not organized; it was not proclaimed as truth.

The classical world, therefore, had these two disjoint enthusiasms: the religious and the philosophical.  The one told stories; the other expounded arguments.  Both alluded to a hidden God, a distant figure who stood at the origin of all things. In the course of time, both became fatigued and declined from their first glories. They were the best that humanity could produce of its own efforts, but they were not enough. Into this stand-off came Christianity, and its genius was to reconcile the two parties.  It told stories, satisfying the human desire for narrative and drama, yet its stories were true accounts, laying down an invitation and a challenge to philosophers. “It met the mythological search for romance by being a story and the philosophical search for truth by being a true story.” The distinctive mark of Christianity, its central feature which distinguishes it from every other religion past or present, is its claim that the one God, the great Father (as he was known to mythology), the Good (as he was known to philosophy) was himself a human being at a particular time and place in history.  Its story is the story God Himself tells.

The second half of the book is an examination of the life of Jesus and the early history of the Church.  Chesterton gives a fresh and insightful reading of the Gospels, pointing out peculiarities and restoring the complexity of the portraits the Gospel writers give us. He addresses the idea, as common in his day as in ours, that the Jesus of the Gospels, allegedly a simple, good, and benign teacher, was distorted by the Church into something much less attractive.  He rightly answers that the truth is nearly the opposite: the Jesus of the Gospels is complex, many-sided, and in some ways unpalatable to modern sensibilities, but the Church has, in her art and devotion, tended to stress the gentle and meek side of him. Chesterton also develops an argument that closely resembles C.S. Lewis’ well-known lunatic/liar/Lord trilemma, and I wonder if Lewis got the idea from him.  (Lewis named The Everlasting Man one of the books most influential on his own life.)

It is fashionable today to take an interest in the epistles and gospels rejected by the early Church, and to speculate about “alternative Christianities” that could be constructed on the basis of those texts.  Chesterton, never one to shy away from controversy, enthusiastically defends the Church’s condemnation and rejection of heresies.  The Church may be criticized for dogmatism, but Chesterton perceives that her dogmatic condemnations are a sign of her liberty and love for the world.  When people said that the world was evil, she condemned them; when they said that marriage was wicked, she condemned them; when they said that God was remote and unknowable, or a despot, she condemned them; when they said that humanity was enslaved by physical chains of cause and effect, she condemned them; when they said that human nature was thoroughly depraved and corrupt, she condemned them. She opposed pessimism and despair at every step.

In the end, Chesterton lays down a serious challenge to anyone who wants to ignore Christianity.  It is the Church, he says, that brought hope to the world when its own best efforts faltered and failed.  Pilate, a representative of Rome and its justice, stood in judgement at the trial of Jesus and washed his hands of the affair.  He asked, “What is truth?”  The Church burst into history, moving with speed and confidence, and it proclaimed truth.  It brought Good News.  It changed the sense that there was nothing new in the world.  It gave the world a new story, a new direction, and a new challenge.  It declared that the world is good, and that justice will prevail, and that human lives are of great significance.  This proclamation may or may not be true, of course — we cannot decide that right away — but surely it is at least worth taking seriously?

I have harvested a heavy crop of quotations from the book.  Some have already been posted at The Hebdomadal Chesterton, and others will continue to appear.  In the meantime, here are a few teasers:

[The early Church as a bee]
When the Faith first emerged into the world, the very first thing that happened to it was that it was caught in a sort of swarm of mystical and metaphysical sects, mostly out of the East; like one lonely golden bee caught in a swarm of wasps. To the ordinary onlooker, there did not seem to be much difference, or anything beyond a general buzz; indeed in a sense there was not much difference so far as stinging and being stung were concerned. The difference was that only one golden dot in all that whirring gold-dust had the power of going forth to make hives for all humanity; to give the world honey and wax or (as was so finely said in a context too easily forgotten) ‘the two noblest things, which are sweetness and light.’  The wasps all died that winter; and half the difficulty is that hardly anyone knows anything about them and most people do not know that they ever existed; so that the whole story of that first phase of our religion is lost.

[Theology and mythology]
Theology is thought, whether we agree with it or not.  Mythology was never thought, and nobody could really agree with it or disagree with it. It was a mere mood of glamour and when the mood went it could not be recovered.  Men not only ceased to believe in the gods, but they realised that they had never believed in them. They had sung their praises; they had danced round their altars. They had played the flute; they had played the fool.

4 Responses to “Chesterton: The Everlasting Man”

  1. It’s hard to imagine a better summary of this book. I haven’t read it for many years (upwards of 20), but have read enough other Chesterton to have found some of his tricks a bit tiresome. This reminds me of what’s so good about him. Thanks.

  2. Janet Says:

    Whenever I read one of Craig’s book reviews, I’m once again amazed that he is a scientist. But then, I guess that fact that he can make a book about a book written by Copernicus sound appealing to me is proof that he is.


  3. cburrell Says:

    A bit like Dr. Johnson’s bipedal dog, eh? 8)

    Joking aside, I thank you both for the compliments. The writing of these “Book Notes” is a discipline that I try to keep up, and putting them here helps me to do that. If others enjoy them or learn something from them (about equants, for instance, Janet) that’s a really nice bonus.

  4. […] Notes that I carelessly toss forth from this earthy, rock-sheltered hollow.  If you’d like, you can read it, but I’d read Waugh […]

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