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Chesterton, The Everlasting Man > Week 2: Chapters III & IV

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message 1: by Kerstin (last edited Mar 13, 2018 07:15PM) (new)

Kerstin | 1350 comments Mod
Chapter III: The Antiquity of Civilization

This is a rather long chapter, and I will try to get to the gist of it. Chesterton states that “The dawn of history reveals a humanity already civilized.” And later, that “[i]n a sense it is a true paradox that there was history before history.” His intent is to refute the Victorian premise of “the whole vague notion that a monkey evolved into a man and in the same way a barbarian evolved into a civilized man and therefore at every stage we have to look back to barbarism and forward to civilization.”

He says,
” According to the real records available, barbarism and civilisation were not successive states in the progress of the world. They were conditions that existed side by side, as they still exist side by side. There were civilisations then as there are civilisations now; there are savages now as there were savages then. It is suggested that all men passed through a nomadic stage; but it is certain that there are some who have never passed out of it, and it seems not unlikely that there were some who never passed into it. It is probable that from very primitive times the static tiller of the soil and the wandering shepherd were two distinct types of men; and the chronological rearrangement of them is but a mark of that mania for progressive stages that has largely falsified history.”
Barbarism is a development of a civilization in decline and is not the foundation said civilization.

Chesterton touches briefly on the emergence of Christianity, “But one of the strange marks of the strength of Christianity is that, since it came, no pagan in our civilization has been able to be really human.”

He spends some time talking about the early civilizations of Egypt, Babylon, and Greece, and ends the chapter with the significance of the cultures that emerged around the Mediterranean and their lasting impact on mankind.
”But round that little sea like a lake were the things themselves, apart from all extensions and echoes and commentaries on the things; the Republic and the Church; the Bible and the heroic epics; Islam and Israel and the memories of the lost empires; Aristotle and the measure of all things. It is because the first light upon this world is really light, the daylight in which we are still walking to-day, and not merely the doubtful visitation of strange stars, that I have begun here with noting where that light first falls on the towered cities of the eastern Mediterranean.”


Chapter IV: God and Comparative Religion

One could sum up this chapter in one sentence: If you scrutinize comparative religion the whole concept falls apart. Or as Chesterton put it, “It is really the collapse of comparative religion that there is no comparison between God and the gods.”
He begins with the fallacy of lumping all religious founders and the religions they generated together as if they were all variations of the same theme. But when you look closer there aren’t many things in common, they often don’t resemble one another and none have the equivalent of the Church. “In truth the Church is too unique to prove herself unique.”

Taking a closer look at paganism and polytheism what they do have in common is that all their creation myths ultimately lead to a single creator or spirit. Over the course of time and interaction and intermingling with other people the polytheistic construct is a structure that became more complex over time, but the underlying creator spirit is still there.
” The myths are merely tall stories, though as tall as the sky, the waterspout, or the tropic rain. The mysteries are true stories, and are taken secretly that they may be taken seriously. … Whatever there was, there was never any such thing as the Evolution of the Idea of God. The idea was concealed, was avoided, was almost forgotten, was even explained away, but it was never evolved.”
Chesterton closes the chapter by pointing out the exceptional role of Judaism:
“The more we really understand of the ancient conditions that contributed to the final culture of the Faith, the more we shall have a real and even a realistic reverence for the greatness of the Prophets of Israel. As it was, while the whole world melted into this mass of confused mythology, this Deity who is called tribal and narrow, precisely because he was what is called tribal and narrow, preserved the primary religion of all mankind. He was tribal enough to be universal. He was as narrow as the universe.”

“They had one of the had one of the colossal corner-stones of the world: the Book of Job. It obviously stands over against the Iliad and the Greek tragedies; and even more than they it was an early meeting and parting of poetry and philosophy in the morning of the world. It is a solemn and uplifting sight to see those two eternal fools, the optimist and the pessimist, destroyed in the dawn of time. And the philosophy really perfects the pagan tragic irony, precisely because it is more monotheistic and therefore more mystical. Indeed the Book of Job avowedly only answers mystery with mystery. Job is comforted with riddles; but he is comforted. Herein is indeed a type, in the sense of a prophecy, of things speaking with authority. For when he who doubts can only say ‘I do not understand,’ it is true that he who knows can only reply or repeat ‘You do not understand.’ And under that rebuke there is always a sudden hope in the heart; and the sense of something that would be worth understanding.”



message 2: by Kerstin (new)

Kerstin | 1350 comments Mod
Ok, we're ready to roll now for this week :) I've added Chapter IV.


message 3: by Nicolás (new)

Nicolás | 11 comments Apologise before asking this: where did you added chapter IV?


message 4: by Kerstin (new)

Kerstin | 1350 comments Mod
I edited the initial post. I guess I should have made that a bit more clear...


message 5: by John (new)

John Seymour | 167 comments I've finished these two chapters, and there are a few interesting things to comment on, but I have to confess I was a bit discomforted by his casual use of the word "nigger" in a couple places.


message 6: by Kerstin (new)

Kerstin | 1350 comments Mod
John wrote: "I've finished these two chapters, and there are a few interesting things to comment on, but I have to confess I was a bit discomforted by his casual use of the word "nigger" in a couple places."

The book was written almost 100 years ago and wouldn't match today's sensibilities. Personally, I don't get hung up on stuff like this. Chesterton may be direct, but I don't find him disparaging.


message 7: by Manny (new)

Manny (virmarl) | 3727 comments Mod
Also, Chesterton is British, and while it's still a derogatory word I don't think the British used it to suggest the subhuman as American slave owners did back then. It's derogatory but I don't think it carries the same weight as it did in the United States. But I'm no expert on that, so I could be wrong.

By the way, I had to re-read chapter III. Somehow I had lost focus as to why and how Chesterton went in this direction. I think I got it now. I'll make some comments after I read chapter IV.


message 8: by Nicolás (last edited Mar 19, 2018 05:02PM) (new)

Nicolás | 11 comments John wrote: "I've finished these two chapters, and there are a few interesting things to comment on, but I have to confess I was a bit discomforted by his casual use of the word "nigger" in a couple places."

I read it for the first time in English, a few years ago. That was tough. But I don't remember the word "nigger" appearing anywhere. What's more, I don't remember feeling like Chesterton had offended anyone.
Now I'm reading it in Spanish. So, I cannot help much in this respect. I can say, though, I laughed many times. Especially when he speaks of the man of the cavern.


message 9: by John (new)

John Seymour | 167 comments Kerstin wrote: "The book was written almost 100 years ago and wouldn't match today's sensibilities. Personally, I don't get hung up on stuff like this. Chesterton may be direct, but I don't find him disparaging. "

But of course it's disparaging. I'm not suggesting that Chesterton is not worth reading, and I understand that in Chesterton's world moderate racism and anti-Semitism was simply in the air that they breathed, But it is nonetheless disappointing to see someone as perceptive as Chesterton unable to rise above his surroundings in this respect. He is, in the end, a son of the British Empire. It seems to me that is something worth keeping in mind as we read him.


message 10: by Manny (last edited Mar 20, 2018 02:33PM) (new)

Manny (virmarl) | 3727 comments Mod
Pertaining to Chapter III, I think Kerstin hit the central thesis of the chapter, that barbarism and civilization are not successive states. I think there's a section that captures the thought even better than Kerstin quoted above. This one:

......the broad truth is that barbarism and civilization have always dwelt side by side in the world the civilization sometimes spreading to absorb the barbarians, sometimes decaying into relative barbarism, and in almost all cases possessing in a more finished form certain ideas and institutions which the barbarians possess in a ruder form; such as government or social authority, the arts and especially the decorative arts, mysteries and taboos of various kinds especially surrounding the matter of sex, and some form of that fundamental thing which is the chief concern of this inquiry; the thing that we call religion.


The point of the third chapter is to argue that civilization is not a steady, continuous rise but that it has declines. He also makes the point that the "modern savage" is not the same thing as primitive man. A whole period of time has transpired, and that all men at any stage we find them can have elements of civilization and barbarism. Chesterton fundamentally disagrees with all the speculators on how they have created an evolutionary model of civilization. This paragraph from the beginning of Chapter III is I think important:

..Of course most of these speculators who are talking about primitive men are thinking about modern savages. They prove their Progressive evolution by assuming that a great part of the human race has not progressed or evolved; or even changed in any way at all. I do not agree with their theory of change; nor do I agree with their dogma of things unchangeable. I may not believe that civilized man has had so rapid and recent a progress; but I cannot quite understand why uncivilized man should be so mystically immortal and immutable. A somewhat simpler mode of thought and speech seems to me to be needed throughout this inquiry. Modern savages cannot be exactly like primitive man, because they are not primitive. Modern savages are not ancient because they are modern. Something has happened to their race as much as to ours, during the thousands of years of our existence and endurance on the earth. They have had some experiences, and have presumably acted on them if not profited by them, like the rest of us. They have had some environment and even some change of environment and have presumably adapted themselves to it in a proper and decorous evolutionary manner..


Of course. That makes perfect sense. Finally I think another important point he makes is that shear force is not what drives a civilization.

...It may be remarked, in this connection, but even among animals it would seem that something else is respected more than bestial violence, if it be only the familiarity which in men is called tradition or the experience which in men is called wisdom. I do not know if crows really follow the oldest crow, but if they do they are certainly not following the strongest crow. And I do know in the human case that if some ritual of seniority keeps savages reverencing somebody called the Old Man, then at least they have not our own servile sentimental weakness for worshipping the Strong Man.


So what builds civilization is tradition and the experience that rises to the level of wisdom. And while I don't think Chesterton says it, at least not here, perhaps a corollary might be that the loss of tradition and wisdom is what decays civilizations into barbarism.


message 11: by John (new)

John Seymour | 167 comments Manny wrote: "They prove their Progressive evolution by assuming that a great part of the human race has not progressed or evolved; or even changed in any way at all."

I thought this was a brilliant observation by Chesterton and it captures in one sentence the essential flaw in all theories of social evolution.


message 12: by John (new)

John Seymour | 167 comments Manny wrote: "So what builds civilization is tradition and the experience that rises to the level of wisdom. And while I don't think Chesterton says it, at least not here, perhaps a corollary might be that the loss of tradition and wisdom is what decays civilizations into barbarism. "

I think Chesterton does say that, though maybe not in those words: "Most of those who criticise this view do not seem to have any very clear notion of what a decline from civilisation would be like. Heaven help them, it is likely enough that they will soon find out."

and

"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."


message 13: by Manny (new)

Manny (virmarl) | 3727 comments Mod
Chapter IV is a bit problematic for me. I'm not sure it holds together as a sound argument. But let's see.

First there is the introductory comments about the nature of man being an idolater, which I think he's suggesting that man has a natural inclination for religion. Then he makes the point that one of the most important of human instincts is to form human unity, which I think he means the formation of people coalescing into groups.

When I am speaking of this thing, therefore, I am speaking of something that doubtless includes very wide differences; nevertheless I will here maintain that it is one thing. I will maintain that most of the modem botheration comes from not realizing that it is really one thing. I will advance the thesis that before all talk about comparative religion and the separate religious founders of the world, the first essential is to recognize this thing as a whole, as a thing almost native and normal to the great fellowship that we call mankind.


This appears to be fundamental to Chesterton's argument but unless I missed it he doesn't explain it in this chapter. I assume it will be coming later.

Chesterton goes on to make the argument that comparitive religion is really a fallacy, "an optical illusion." Somewhere else, I think in Orthodoxy, I remember a Chesterton quote that said (I'm paraphrasing) that religions may be similar in a superficial way but very different is significant ways. He's making that point again here.

Comparative religion is very comparative indeed. That is, it is so much a matter of degree and distance and difference that it is only comparatively successful when it tries to compare When we come to look at it closely we find it comparing things that are really quite incomparable.


He is absolutely right. In my cursory study world religions, there are vastly different ways of looking at the world. This notion that all religions are a path to God is deeply wrong.

With all that as a context for his chapter, Chesterton moves to this chapter's central thesis, the nature of religions. Chesterton rejects the modern classification of religions for his own:

In this sketch of religious history, with all decent deference to men much more learned than myself, I propose to cut across and disregard this modem method of classification, which I feel sure has falsified the facts of history. I shall here submit an alternative classification of religion or religions, which I believe would be found to cover all the facts and what is quite as important here, all the fancies. Instead of dividing religion geographically... I would divide it psychologically and in some sense horizontally, into the strata of spiritual elements and influences that could sometimes exist in the same country, or even in the same man. Putting the Church apart for the moment, I should be disposed to divide the natural religion of the mass of mankind under such headings as these: God; the Gods; the Demons; the Philosophers. I believe some such classification will help us to sort out the spiritual experiences of men much more successfully than the conventional business of comparing religions and that many famous figures will naturally fall into their place in this way who are only forced into their place in the other.


OK, I can follow that I'm not predisposed to arguing against it. He goes on though. He makes a very specific claim, that religion started as monotheistic and devolved into polytheism.

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. Even the test of savage beliefs, of which the folk-lore students are so fond, is admittedly often found to support such a view. Some of the very rudest savages, primitive in every sense in which anthropologists use the word, the Australian aborigines for instance, are found to have a pure monotheism with a high moral tone.


Now hold on there. Where is the proof of that? Chesterton does provide some anecdotal examples, but his claim is a claim to near universality. Do all religions have as a seed a single God? Can that claim withstand the scrutiny of thousands of cultures across the world and across time? I'm no expert and I don't know, but frankly I have my doubts. If his argument is central to this point, then he needs to buttress the claim substantially or his argument can fall apart.

What saves it for me is that I don't think whether religions start from monotheism and devolve or they don't really makes a difference in the overall scheme of his book. He would have been better off not making that claim. I think his further claim that there is something fundamentally simple and reflects the greater truth of creation.

What’s strange is that he makes a similar leap into unproven assumptions that he claims his opponents make with their understanding of brutish primitive man. And the change from a one God to devolve into many gods is also an evolutionary transition, creating an evolutionary model of social construct, here being religion. Isn’t that what he argued was wrong in his opponent’s thinking?


message 14: by Kerstin (last edited Apr 02, 2018 06:58PM) (new)

Kerstin | 1350 comments Mod
Nadine wrote: "do you think our theories about that time period have improved since this book was published?"

I have been thinking about this question. From what I can gather I think it is a mixed bag. Not very satisfying, I know. I think our methods in archeology have vastly improved, and evidence is not destroyed as it once was.

When Troy was rediscovered in the 19th century Heinrich Schliemann tore down an entire section thinking that somewhere on the ground levels were the remains of Bronze Age Troy of Illiad fame. It was later realized he had torn down the very evidence he was looking for - he didn't believe the sophisticated masonry he encountered could have been from the Bronze Age. So this is right in line with what Chesterton is writing about.

There are instances where archeologists have changed their minds on what they used to believe. I am reminded here of the Anasazi cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde. They used to think they had chosen these rather hidden and remote sites because they were under siege. However, in all the years of excavating they have not found any evidence of prolonged warfare. It happens to be that when you live in a desert climate, the sites they chose to live in was rather smart.

What makes archeologists rather cranky though, is when you push civilizations further into the past than the roughly 5,000 years we normally talk about. There is very credible evidence the pyramids and sphinx in Egypt are around 10,000 years old based on natural erosion patterns on the stone masonry. And, it is clear the sphinx's head was re-carved at some point. The head is much too small in proportion to the body. It is thought it may have been a lion's head once.
The pyramids of Egypt not Egyptian? There are a lot of tourist dollars at stake here.

Another such "barrier" exists over the question when did the original indigenous people settle the Americas. The traditional answer is during the last Ice Age when there was a land bridge what is now the Bering Sea. There is evidence people have lived in the Americas much longer, but that stuff gets dismissed and discredited.

Given the financial realities of academia, the grants they receive, and the reputations professors build by their publications, which in turn secures their tenure and personal livelihood, it is very risky to be outside the norm - at least publicly.


message 15: by John (new)

John Seymour | 167 comments Kerstin wrote: "Nadine wrote: "do you think our theories about that time period have improved since this book was published?"

I have been thinking about this question. From what I can gather I think it is a mixed..."


That's interesting Kerstin. There is a similar conflict between the archeological record and the bible history relating to the Exodus and the Egyptian captivity. There is an interesting video about it, which I don't have with me and have unfortunately forgotten the title of - I can try to digit up if anyone is interested. It starts by presenting the conflict - the bible says the Exodus happens in year x, but archeology says it happened in year y, so there is a significant discrepancy. Then he goes back and shows that there is an ambiguity in the text scholars have relied on to date the bible story, and that when you look at it in light of an alternative meaning, the archeology matches perfectly with the biblical time line. It is an interesting video.

What I found fascinating, though perhaps it is just my legal training in which I read looking for potential ambiguities, is that at the beginning, when he gives the text which is the basis for dating the Exodus, my immediate reaction was "wait a minute, that could be read a different way." And yet for years, decades, scholars have accepted the standard reading as, well, gospel. They have eyes, but do not want to see.


message 16: by Manny (last edited Apr 03, 2018 06:29AM) (new)

Manny (virmarl) | 3727 comments Mod
Great discussion. My brother is an anthropologist. I should ask him. I do think the understanding of anthropology has come a long way since Chesterton wrote. My hunch is that Chesterton would be proven correct that primitive man was a not brute who lived tooth and claw. He was, as people are today, complex, with a heart for wonder, the need to live amongst other humans beings in a society, as well as struggling to live in a harsh world.


message 17: by Manny (last edited Apr 03, 2018 06:29AM) (new)

Manny (virmarl) | 3727 comments Mod
Manny wrote: "Great discussion. My brother is an anthropologist. I should ask him. I do think the understanding of anthropology has come a long way since Chesterton wrote. My hunch is that Chesterton would be pr..."

Oops, I had a typo. I meant to say:

Great discussion. My brother is an anthropologist. I should ask him. I do think the understanding of anthropology has come a long way since Chesterton wrote. My hunch is that Chesterton would be proven correct that primitive man was not a brute who lived tooth and claw...


message 18: by Kerstin (new)

Kerstin | 1350 comments Mod
John wrote: "There is a similar conflict between the archeological record and the bible history relating to the Exodus and the Egyptian captivity."

Now that you mention it, I seem to recall that the Exodus also took place in a different location which matches up much better with all the geography. Is this the same documentary?


message 19: by Kerstin (new)

Kerstin | 1350 comments Mod
A long time ago, it must have been back in the 80s or early 90s I bought a book out of curiosity, Maps of the Ancient Sea Kings: Evidence of Advanced Civilization in the Ice Age, and it blew me away.


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