Chesterton and The Everlasting Man
We must be aware of this Chesterton classic:
There are some authors you just cannot get enough of – and some books too. I recently posted this on the social media: “There are some books which not only should be read at least once, but once a year. Obvious candidates would include: Orthodoxy by G. K. Chesterton; Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis; and The Knowledge of the Holy by A. W. Tozer.
I have said before that Chesterton is perhaps my favourite author, and his 1908 Orthodoxy my favourite book. But Chesterton penned so many incredibly good books. Another one that many would rate as among his best is his 1925 apologetic work, The Everlasting Man (EM).
On a personal note, I believe the first Chesterton volume I bought was Orthodoxy which I picked up early in 1977. I picked up EM the following year. Of course I have since procured plenty more of his books. And my shelves feature almost as many books by him as about him.
Let me utilise just one of the many useful volumes which discuss the great English journalist, writer and apologist. Kevin Belmonte’s 2011 volume, Defiant Joy: The Remarkable Life and Impact of G. K. Chesterton is worth quoting from here, especially since he has a chapter on this book by Chesterton.
As is well known, Belmonte reminds us how influential GKC was to C. S. Lewis, and how that led to his conversion. Two quotes are worth noting here – both penned by Lewis before his conversion:
“Chesterton had more sense than all the other moderns put together; bating, of course, his Christianity.”
“I read Chesterton’s Everlasting Man and for the first time saw the whole Christian outline of history set out in a form that seemed to me to make sense.”
Belmonte reminds us that GKC in this book was responding to the evolutionary views found in the 1920 book by H. G. Wells, The Outline of History. Another Catholic writer, Hilaire Belloc had earlier very strongly locked horns with Wells on this. Says Belmonte:
“In writing The Everlasting Man Chesterton, a valued friend of both men, took a decidedly different tack. His book would initiate a dialogue, not a diatribe. He would forcefully set out an intellectual case for Christianity but be guided by charity: his was a desire to conciliate and persuade.”
But enough introductory matters here. What follows are some of the quotes I have highlighted in the book over the years. Of course this is only a small sampling, but they hopefully will give you a feel for what is in the book, and just might persuade you to go out and get a copy.
There would be many editions of this book now available. Those wanting to know where my quotes appear should know that I am using the 1955 Image Books edition, and its page numbering.
“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.” p. 7
“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.” p. 11
“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.” p. 12
“In the specially Christian case we have to react against the heavy bias of fatigue. It is almost impossible to make the facts vivid, because the facts are familiar; and for fallen men it is often true that familiarity is fatigue. I am convinced that if we could tell the supernatural story of Christ word for word as of a Chinese hero, call him the Son of Heaven instead of the Son of God, and trace his rayed nimbus in the gold thread of Chinese embroideries or the gold lacquer of Chinese pottery, instead of in the gold leaf of our own old Catholic paintings, there would be a unanimous testimony to the spiritual purity of the story. We should hear nothing then of the injustice of substitution or the illogicality of atonement, of the superstitious exaggeration of the burden of sin or the impossible insolence of an invasion of the laws of nature. We should admire the chivalry of the Chinese conception of a god who fell from the sky to fight the dragons and save the wicked from being devoured by their own fault and folly. We should admire the subtlety of the Chinese view of life, which perceives that all human imperfection is in very truth a crying imperfection. We should admire the Chinese esoteric and superior wisdom, which said there are higher cosmic laws than the laws we know.” pp. 19-20
“To his simplicity it must seem at least odd that he could not find any trace of the beginning of any arts among any animals. That is the simplest lesson to learn in the cavern of the coloured pictures; only it is too simple to be learnt. It is the simple truth that man does differ from the brutes in kind and not in degree; and the proof of it is here; that it sounds like a truism to say that the most primitive man drew a picture of a monkey, and that it sounds like a joke to say that the most intelligent monkey drew a picture of a man. Something of division and disproportion has appeared; and it is unique. Art is the signature of man.
“That is the sort of simple truth with which a story of the beginnings ought really to begin. The evolutionist stands staring in the painted cavern at the things that are too large to be seen and too simple to be understood. He tries to deduce all sorts of other indirect and doubtful things from the details of the pictures, because he cannot see the primary significance of the whole; thin and theoretical deductions about the absence of religion or the presence of superstition; about tribal government and hunting and human sacrifice and heaven knows what. In the next chapter I shall try to trace in a little more detail the much disputed question about these prehistoric origins of human ideas and especially of the religious idea. Here I am only taking this one case of the cave as a sort of symbol of the simpler sort of truth with which the story ought to start. When all is said, the main fact that the record of the reindeer men attests, along with all other records, is that the reindeer man could draw and the reindeer could not. If the reindeer man was as much an animal as the reindeer, it was all the more extraordinary that he could do what all other animals could not. If he was an ordinary product of biological growth, like any other beast or bird, then it is all the more extraordinary that he was not in the least like any other beast or bird. He seems rather more supernatural as a natural product than as a supernatural one.” pp. 34-35
“Sometimes the professor with his bone becomes almost as dangerous as a dog with his bone. And the dog at least does not deduce a theory from it, proving that mankind is going to the dogs – or that it came from them.” p. 42
“If there is one fact we really can prove, from the history that we really do know, it is that despotism can be a development, often a late development and very often indeed the end of societies that have been highly democratic. A despotism may almost be defined as a tired democracy. As fatigue falls on a community, the citizens are less inclined for that eternal vigilance which has truly been called the price of liberty; and they prefer to arm only one single sentinel to watch the city while they sleep.” p. 60
“In considering the elements of pagan humanity, we must begin by an attempt to describe the indescribable. Many get over the difficulty of describing it by the expedient of denying it, or at least ignoring it; but the whole point of it is that it was something that was never quite eliminated even when it was ignored. They are obsessed by their evolutionary monomania that every great thing grows from a seed, or something smaller than itself. They seem to forget that every seed comes from a tree, or from something larger than itself. Now there is very good ground for guessing that religion did not originally come from some detail that was forgotten because it was too small to be traced. Much more probably it was an idea that was abandoned because it was too large to be managed. There is very good reason to suppose that many people did begin with the simple but overwhelming idea of one God who governs all; and afterwards fell away into such things as demon-worship almost as a sort of secret dissipation.” p. 90
“The truth is that one of the weaknesses in nature-worship and mere mythology had already produced a perversion among the Greeks, due to the worst sophistry; the sophistry of simplicity. Just as they became unnatural by worshipping nature, so they actually became unmanly by worshipping man.” pp. 158-159
“Any agnostic or atheist whose childhood has known a real Christmas has ever afterwards, whether he likes it or not, an association in his mind between two ideas that most of mankind must regard as remote from each other; the idea of a baby and the idea of unknown strength that sustains the stars. His instincts and imagination can still connect them, when his reason can no longer see the need of the connection; for him there will always be some savour of religion about the mere picture of a mother and a baby; some hint of mercy and softening about the mere mention of the dreadful name of God. But the two ideas are not naturally or necessarily combined. They would not be necessarily combined for an ancient Greek or a Chinaman, even for Aristotle or Confucius. It is no more inevitable to connect God with an infant than to connect gravitation with a kitten. It has been created in our minds by Christmas because we are Christians; because we are psychological Christians even when we are not theological ones. In other words, this combination of ideas has emphatically, in the much disputed phrase, altered human nature. There is really a difference between the man who knows it and the man who does not. It may not be a difference of moral worth, for the Moslem or the Jew might be worthier according to his lights; but it is a plain fact about the crossing of two particular lights, the conjunction of two stars in our particular horoscope. Omnipotence and impotence, or divinity and infancy, do definitely make a sort of epigram which a million repetitions cannot turn into a platitude. It is not unreasonable to call it unique. Bethlehem is emphatically a place where extremes meet.” pp. 172-173
“On the third day the friends of Christ coming at daybreak to the place found the grave empty and the stone rolled away. In varying ways they realized the new wonder; but even they hardly realized that the world had died in the night. What they were looking at was the first day of a new creation, with a new heaven and a new earth; and in a semblance of the gardener God walked again in the garden, in the cool not of the evening but the dawn.” pp. 216-217
“If the moderns really want a simple religion of love, they must look for it in the Athanasian Creed. The truth is that the trumpet of true Christianity, the challenge of the charities and simplicities of Bethlehem or Christmas Day never rang out more arrestingly and unmistakably than in the defiance of Athanasius to the cold compromise of the Arians. It was emphatically he who really was fighting for a God of Love against a God of colourless and remote cosmic control; the God of the stoics and the agnostics. It was emphatically he who was fighting for the Holy Child against the grey deity of the Pharisees and the Sadducees. He was fighting for that very balance of beautiful interdependence and intimacy, in the very Trinity of the Divine Nature, that draws our hearts to the Trinity of the Holy Family. His dogma, if the phrase be not misunderstood, turns even God into a Holy Family.” pp. 232-233
“Christendom has had a series of revolutions and in each one of them Christianity has died. Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave.” p. 255
“In short, the whole world being divided about whether the stream was going slower or faster, became conscious of something vague but vast that was going against the stream. Both in fact and figure there is something deeply disturbing about this, and that for an essential reason. A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it. A dead dog can be lifted on the leaping water with all the swiftness of a leaping hound; but only a live dog can swim backwards. A paper boat can ride the rising deluge with all the airy arrogance of a fairy ship; but if the fairy ship sails upstream it is really rowed by the fairies.” pp. 261-262
(Australians will find this book at Koorong: https://www.koorong.com/product/the-everlasting-man-g-k-chesterton_9781598560169?ref=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.koorong.com%2F )
5 Replies to “Chesterton and The Everlasting Man”
“There is more of the wisdom that is one with surprise in any simple person, full of the sensitiveness of simplicity, who should expect the grass to wither and the birds to drop dead out of the air, when a strolling carpenter’s apprentice said calmly and almost carelessly, like one looking over his shoulder: ‘Before Abraham was, I am.’ ”
I shuddered when I first read this by Chesterton in EM. Page 198. It moves me every time I reread it. Thinking through every word and phrase pays rich reward. I am so thankful to God for the Chesterton.
Many thanks Steven.
We learn to know of power hidden below what seems to be inevitable – just like the ancients knew. With human interactions a force beyond necessity can operate because like the angels rowing their boats, God can make his other machinery creations work.
For Us in this modern age to worship Nature is to limit God and Nature because we still cannot see the depth of either.
I quoted Einstein to a friend yesterday. We have a choice. Either the universe is a miracle or it is not.
Thanks again Steven. You inspired me to pen a whole new piece, just on the chapter you quoted from!