Saturday, June 04, 2005

Chesterton: The Everlasting Man

Chesterton's Everlasting Man (1925) does not merit long dissection. The parable that will follow is better than the book's point: "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." Or: "while the best judge of Christianity is a Christian, the next best judge would be something more like a Confucian." In illustration, he adduces an unwritten novel of his in parable form, which also is a geometric figure for the plan of Orthodoxy:
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.
Besides that there is much cant about the difference between man and Pithecanthropus and so on: apologists always fail humiliatingly when they try to act as a counterforce to the truths of science. "Art is the signature of man," says Chesterton of reindeer paintings. Good! But it is painful to see the misguidings of a mind that can write so well, with even the straightforwardness of a Bertrand Russell. Edwardian prose would make a good model for speechwriting in any era. That type of writing makes extensive use of metonymy, and from it mines aphorism.

God: "But absence does not mean non-existence; and a man drinking the toast of absent friends does not mean that from his life all friendship is absent."

Man and Mythologies: "scientists seldom understand, as artists understand, that one branch of the beautiful is the ugly." "The true origin of all the myths has been discovered much too often. There are too many keys to mythology, as there are too many cryptograms in Shakespeare. Everything is phallic; everything is totemistic; everything is seed-time and harvest; everything is ghosts and grave-offerings; everything is the golden bough of sacrifice; everything is the sun and moon; everything is everything. Every folk-lore student who knew a little more than his own monomania, every man of wider reading and critical culture...has practically confessed that the bewilderment of these things left his brain spinning."

Prophets: "These men had their limitations and their local passions; but this criticism of them is unimaginative and therefore unreal."

Against materialism in history: "men will not be martyred for money."

Against critics of dogma: "What the denouncer of dogma really means is not that dogma is bad; but rather that dogma is too good to be true...Dogma gives man too much freedom when it permits him to fall. Dogma gives even God too much freedom when it permits him to die...They mean that the universe is itself a universal prison; that existence itself is a limitation and a control; and it is not for nothing that they call causation a chain. In a word, they mean quite simply that they cannot believe these things; not in the least that they are unworthy of belief. We say, not lightly but very literally, that the truth has made us free. They say that it makes us so free that it cannot be the truth." Chesterton claims that for such as these to believe in men with wills is to believe in men with wings; but for him it is so too, as he compares in Orthodoxy the realm of his faith to Elfland.

"Despair lies not in being weary of suffering, but in being weary of joy."


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