Adventure and Difference:
Patterns in History in G.K. Chesterton’s Everlasting Man (1925)
“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 real summary of the real difference that was made by it becoming Christian.”—from the Introduction
Chesterton speaks of Nature “always looking for the supernatural,” and the deep structure of these dual, if intermingling realms pervades Chesterton’s reply to H.G. Wells’ popular Outline of History (1919/1920). Part 1 sets out to restore to his audience a sense of the wonder and uniqueness of humanity even as it narrates the tragedy and cosmic warfare that surrounds its (Western) history. As such, Chesterton is about affirming the essential unity of humanity—prehistoric humans possess the same intellectual, artistic, and mythic abilities as moderns. But this does not reduce natural human history to only the material and economic, for human history is also a story of the misuse of magic and the war of the gods and demons with all that implies.
Part 2 in turn sets out to lionize the essential impact of Christianity on human culture without denying its struggles and quandaries in history. At its heart, the Christian faith is a counter-rebellion against the rebellion of the powers, and he traces the way Christianity grows in response to ancient heresies and then to various periods of cultural opposition up until the present. Above all this, at the center of the book is the one called Jesus. The mystery of the Incarnation, the radical claims of Christ as God, the strangeness of the story are all matters that Chesterton appeals to in order to close off for his readers any reduction of Jesus to a simple moral philosopher or romantic soul. With Christ, the end of human history has been announced and the new creation begun.
Having this pattern in mind, one can see that Chesterton is not trying to offer a global history in brief so much as a challenge to reigning models of historiography, not by offering a careful apologetic or refutation of their claims, but by going after the imaginative pathways that such approaches truncate. Using a similar approach to the one he had set forth in his ethics of Elfland in Orthodoxy and that he had modeled in numerous biographical sketches, most recently St. Francis of Assisi (1922) and later that same year William Cobbett (1925), Chesterton uses the language of adventure, fairy tales, and all the other resources of the broadly Romantic tradition to oppose not so much historical approaches as attitudes and assumptions garnered from the new higher textual criticism, scientific and social evolution, secular sociology, comparative religion, historical anthropology, Freudian psychology, the search for a historical Jesus, and Whig views of liberty and progress.
“Introduction: The Plan of this Book”
Chesterton begins by declaring that we need to make strange the world again so that we might see it rightly. We need to see again both humanity and the human condition and also Christ and Christianity. Both humanity and Christianity are miracles, are exciting, unique, and beautiful. The various systems of higher criticism, comparative religion, and popular evolution have made many blind to the wonder of these because a) they have softened the distinction between humanity and the animal world and b) between Christianity and the other world religions. Therefore, the epistemic imagination must be reawakened by making monstrous what they believe to be understood and by bringing out clearly and boldly again the specialness of human nature and of the Christian faith come to exalt it.
Part 1—Key Ideas
Chesterton insists again and again on how little we really know about human origins and how much is conjecture. He complains that the concept of evolution is used to conjure certain feelings and vague associations rather than something truly understood by most people.
He rejects the hypothesis that religion as an instinct slowly evolved and insists that the why and how of things are always religious questions. We are innately religious beings.
While he accepts that there may have been intermediate physical forms, from what we first really know of humans, they are already highly distinct from other animals.
The broad outline of what we really know about primitive humanity is better suited to a fairy tale than the endless conjectures made by scientists.
The prehistoric art in the caves give the lie to those conjectures of violent pre-historic ancestry. Clothing and laughter are other examples of this uniqueness.
Recorded history already begins with developed, complex human cultures.
Continuing his concerns in chapter one, Chesterton complains of “the impatience of science” that rushes to produce a supposed history of primitive humanity without any experimental proof and little real artifacts.
What artifacts we do have prove little of what is claimed for them. We simply don’t know one way or the other much of what motivated prehistoric people.
Even if there were intermediate forms and the human being evolved, the specialness of human experience now sets us apart from other animals.
The sense of the mystical in human beings is everywhere present in our first records of them. The claim that such impulses evolved slowly is not provable.
In the same way, a sense of sin and basic family structures are ubiquitous in human experience, and we cannot conclude that they were slowly evolving things.
Chesterton rejects more strongly the thesis that “savage” (i.e. indigenous) peoples are comparable to prehistoric peoples. The better assumption is that indigenous peoples have developed and changed as much as others.
It is equally possible that some “barbaric” peoples have declined from previous, more developed states technologically and culturally. Centers of stable civilization have always existed alongside more barbaric, nomadic groups.
He equally discounts the historical conjecture, dear to Wells, that primitive peoples were tyrannical and despotic, for he holds that such political states require a certain developed hierarchy and technology. More likely, they were proto-democracies. Thus, he also discounts the “strong man” thesis of history dear to Nietzsche and Carlyle, as well as the Teutonic theory of constitutional origins and that of the Celtic theorists who located democracy in clan systems.
Chesterton then focuses on the early centers of Egyptian and Babylonian civilization. Egypt arises out of small independent communities marked by heraldry, totemistic in some sense to be sure, though we have little to help us sense how this felt.
However, more important is the development of written communication, which Chesterton believes was marked by adventure, joy, and laughter. This was likely developed by the priesthood, and it did become an instrument of control by the government.
Chesterton, again, however, rejects the simple Whig Liberal theory that government began despotic and has become over time more democratic and fair. Small polities begin as commonwealths and are absorbed by autocracies.
Babylonian civilization was less static and artistic, more philosophical and more subject to the pressures of invading nomadic tribes. Out of such, the concerns of Job and Abram arose. He does not hold to the position, however, that the invaders settled and matured to be followed by a fresh wave of invaders.
The presence of slavery in both civilizations reminds us that the individual could be considered as invisible before the state. Similarly, the reality of large political abstractions for most people in most cultures is questionable. The race theories, for example the Teutonic and Celtic, depend upon abstractions read back into history. The Aryan theory, based on Indo-European linguistic claims, is another nebulous example.
The Chinese civilization is separate from the Western one that Chesterton is mostly focused on here. He instead begins to center on the Mediterranean cultures, especially the Greek and Roman ones.
There is simply no basis for comparing the various world religions. Even the term “religion” assumes that they share things that they do not.
Chesterton offers a four-fold schema of spiritual beliefs: a) an original primitive monotheism; b) a period of polytheistic syncretism; c) the rise of demonic practices; and d) the separate rise of philosophical systems in the East and the West.
Within polytheistic beliefs worldwide, one encounters a high god above the rest, which (the late Andrew Lang is an example though he remains unnamed) many have seen as pointing to an original monotheism.
Such a belief is now attested to by the sense in polytheism of a high purity of deity that must not be touched.
Syncretism is the state that results as various local gods encounter one another, which makes Israel’s stubborn loyalty to Yahweh even more surprising.
Myths should be treated as artistic, rather than scientific statements. It is foolish to treat them as if they were ever intended for material, casual explanations. Chesterton’s rejects both Müller’s theory that the gods arose as explanations of natural phenomena, as well as the approach of Frazer’s Golden Bough to analyzing comparative mythology.
Rather myths are a pre-rational, imaginative response to local spirit through talisman, city or home. They possess an artistic sincerity, not a moral one per se.
Chesterton holds that myths are not fully religious. They are not a complete belief or disbelief, but a sensing of a power.
Yet they are also a dream and a desire for something more—something to be in the real world.
The foreshadowings of death as a kind of deliverance are an example.
Superstition is a kind of pragmatism akin to agnosticism. In its more dangerous forms, it trucks with the demonic forces and black magic to obtain practical power.
The worship of demons arose in cultures after the worship of the gods. It is in high civilizations, such as the Aztecs, the Incas, and Phoenicians that the religions of human sacrifice are practiced.
The systems of philosophy arose along another historical track, and while many philosophers continued in a relationship to the local polytheisms, they were not necessarily treating their relationship holistically.
In the East, we see examples of the royal philosophers, such as Confucius and Buddha, who were not seeking to offer what we call religious systems. The Egyptian pharaoh Akenahten is another example of this, for his was a return to a principle of Aten.
Buddha and original Buddhism might best be described as pursuing a metaphysical or psychological discipline, rather than a religion.
The circularity of the Eastern faiths in which the creation is itself a kind of fall to be escaped makes them quite different than the religions of monotheism.
Chesterton rejects histories that rely on materialistic and economic explanations. Instead, we need histories that are sympathetic to the psycho-social world of people.
For example, materialist, economic histories cannot explain what really motivates men to fight in wars, that they are motivated by loyalties of love and hate and by absolutes of religion and morality.
This is necessary to then understand the wars between Carthage and Rome. The domestic ideal of Cincinnatus with its imposed peace encounters the demonic pragmatism of Moloch with its civilized child sacrifice.
The Roman near defeat by Hannibal was experienced as evil, as the demonic victory over the Latin gods of hearth. But Punic material pragmatism with a religion of despair and bloodshed defeated itself, unable to follow though to the end.
This period of struggle defined the Latin character and energized its sense of being representative of humane humanity.
Chesterton rejects the theory of the sexual origins of folk-lore and mythology, though he accepts that they can descend to that level.
He argues that at one point Rome represented the best in paganism, which would eventually decay. The Latin repulsion at Greek homosexuality is a reminder that Greece, while not quite so far gone as Carthage, had a weakening decadence about it.
Roman examples of this best in paganism include: a democratic, plebian base; Virgilian piety and patriotism; and the Arcadian celebration of the pastoral.
But eventually the imperial servile state would wane away to a mythological jungle, a reduction of philosophy to oriental faddism, and a general cultural despair.
It was in this environment that the possibility of monotheism became attractive again and Christianity arose—first treated as a strange cult, then feared, then hated and persecuted.
Is Chesterton correct to be so skeptical about evidence for human evolution? Why or why not? What does he think is lost if we argue that humans are simply another species of animal?
What political lessons does Chesterton feel that we can learn from ancient Egypt and Babylon? How are these related to his own ideals of local patriotism, decision-making, and distributism?
What are some of the historiographic positions that Chesterton rejects and why?
Is Chesterton correct to distrust the field of comparative religions? Explain. Likewise, is his own schema a convincing one? Why or why not? Is he correct to distinguish mythology and religion?
Why does Chesterton put such a high priority on the Roman experience of almost total defeat by Carthage?
Equally, why does he describe the state of the Roman Empire before Christ’s birth as “the end of the world”?
Part 2—Key Ideas
A kind of recapitulation exists between prehistoric humanity painting in the cave and the God-man born at Christmas in a cave.
Christ’s birth identifies with the lowest, and after the Incarnation, each individual is important.
He fulfills the fading Arcadian dream by coming first to the shepherds, and answers the desires of the philosophers by appearing to the Magi.
But he also encounters the demonic spirit of Moloch as expressed in Herod’s Massacre of the Innocents.
The peculiar nature of Christ sets him above all birth-of-a-god stories, for he addresses us with his very being.
Chesterton’s method is to show the absurdity of the rationalists, for those who would deny the uniqueness of humanity also reduce Christ to only human.
The Jesus of the gospels is fundamentally strange, an enigma that cannot be explained by reducing him to a wise sage, a social revolutionary, a magician or healer-exorcist, or apocalyptic preacher.
His sayings cannot be easily classified as ethical maxims. He was no more suited to his age than our own. Thus, he cannot be dismissed simply as a man of his own time.
The search for the historical Jesus with its critical methods cannot explain his overwhelming deity.
The originality of Jesus’ humanity is expressed in the gospel’s value for children, in his particular imaginative use of symbol and language, in the wedding miracle at Cana, and in his claim to divinity, not put forth as a madman, but as a person of integrity and sanity.
Again, Chesterton rejects the claims of comparative religion. Jesus cannot be compared to Confucius or Buddha. He was not a wandering philosopher or sage, but a hero on a mission to his own death for us.
There at the cross where all the mob spirits of the powers were turned against him, he triumphed in and through his death and in his resurrection.
The Church’s creed functioned as a key to the world’s problem—it was a clarified and defined belief which though complex and elaborate fit the pattern of the need.
It is foolish to claim that the Church quickly taught and practiced something other than Jesus, its founder.
The Church was as much a rupture from the imperial culture as humanity was from the animal world. Manicheanism was the kind of religion one would have predicted of the culture.
The Church’s consistent rejection of both Manicheanism and Gnosticism helped it to retain its identity and survive amidst the swarm of Oriental mystery religions. It was not one of them.
Athanasius fought for the God of love expressed perfectly in the Trinity against Arianism. Arianism, and not Christianity, was as often the religion of the Imperial court.
In the same way, one can dismiss the claims that Christianity spread through a hard going fundamentalism or through being s secret society.
Islam is essential a Western, post-Christian heresy, while the East is in the same state paganism was before the coming of Christianity.
The Church militant brought hope into the world with a doctrine of God’s transcendence.
All human beings are equal before God in their sin and in their need.
The message of the church is complicated in the problem of evil and progress.
Christianity had to answer both myth and philosophy to reconcile the two sides of human nature.
On five occasions the Christian faith appeared to dead only to arise again—the Arian heresy of the ancient world, the Albegensian heresy of the medieval world, the humanistic skepticism of the Renaissance, the French philosophes of the age of Reason, and the science after Darwin. Christianity is not a vestige of the past but a power that continues to be renewed be its resurrected Lord.
The French Catholic Renassence and the Oxford Movement are the most recent, unexpected examples of these renewals.
The faith has survived numerous deaths of old age and benign, weak doctrinal compromise only to arise again empowered, as it is doing in Chesterton’s own day.
Why does Chesterton spend three lengthy chapters on the person of Christ and the gospel accounts? Is he justified in doing so?
How does Chesterton attempt to distinguish the Jesus of the gospels from that of the conclusions of the search for a Jesus of history?
Why does Chesterton see the Church as much a rupture with the ancient world as humanity is from the rest of the animal world? Why is that rupture, however, not a rupture with its founder?
How does Christianity answer both the impulse behind mythology and the one behind philosophy?
Is Chesterton fair to see Islam as a post-Christian heresy and to see Eastern beliefs systems as in the same place as Western paganism once was? Explain.
What principle is Chesterton invoking in his chapter on the five deaths of the faith? What message does this send to his own audience in 1925?
“Conclusion: The Summary of this Book”
Chesterton claims to be critiquing Well’s Outline of History not for its wealth of details but for the distorted shape of its outline. In its place, he offers a brief summary tale moving from the uniqueness of the human species to the sensing of a designer of the universe to two strands of response—one of mythology, the other of philosophy. Amidst this, comes the amazing exception of the God-man, of whom the Catholic Church continues to see itself as messengers. In a world of Eastern pagans and Islamic monotheists, and Western skeptics, comes the lightning of the truth of the gospel.
Appendix I and II
Chesterton seeks to restress that he does not wish to appear as if he is judging modern science when it is being scientific, only when it claims things that cannot be established. Likewise, he does not want to be perceived as scoffing at real, scholarly historians. He admits that a few places in the book are not quite clear, such as the complexities of the Egyptian polity. Nor does he want to appear as discounting entirely the various speculative theories about race.
Global Discussion Questions
Looking at the chart on the next page, can you trace the general pattern of recapitulation in Chesterton’s Everlasting Man? What, then, does he see as the shape of the broad outline of human history?
Chesterton admits to using the strategy of reduction ad absurdum throughout. Is he successful? Why or why not?
Does Everlasting Man reflect Chesterton’s own general approach to history as an imaginative and popular narrative meant to assist his audience in entering into how the past felt to its inhabitants? Explain.
Is it possible to set Chesterton apart from the welter of historiographical positions that he counters? Why or why not?
Outline of an Outline
Notice the pattern of recapitulation between Parts 1 and 2:
(Part 1) On the Creature Called Man-Reawakening us to the specialness of the human being
“The Man in the Cave” & “Professors and Prehistoric Men”—We really know very little about prehistoric humanity, but what we do know suggests that the line of rupture is between humans and animals, not between prehistoric and historic people.
“The Antiquity of Civilization”—The oldest recorded civilizations reveal complexities in government and the invention of writing, which call into question various racial, linguistic, and political theories.
“God in Comparative Religions,” “Man and Mythologies” & “Demons and Philosophers”—In history, an original primitive monotheism gave way to syncretism, which was more marked by the aesthetic sense of mythology than true religion. These in turn existed alongside later developments of demonic pragmatism and philosophical systemization.
“The War of the Gods and Demons,” & “The End of the World”—Rome’s victory over Carthage can be seen as the best of paganism defeating the worst, but this victory would eventually exhaust the best that could be done in the Roman servile imperium.
(Part 2) On the Man Called Christ—Reawakening us to the powerful strangeness of Christianity
“The God in the Cave,” “The Riddles of the Gospel,” & “The Strangest Story in the World”—Christ’s Incarnation answers the pastoral and philosophical aspirations of the ancient world while bringing on himself the demonic hatred of Moloch (Herod). He cannot be reduced to sage, philosopher, or madman, instead he is the God-man on a mission to die to rescue us all.
“The Witness of the Heretics”—The history of patristic Christianity, especially the clarification of its creeds, is itself a miracle that calls into question evolutionary and critical theories of its origins.
“The Escape from Paganism”—The Church Militant brought hope in the world precisely because it was not the fatalism of the East nor the militarism of Islam. Christianity reconciles the mythic and philosophical impulse of humanity and triumphs over the demonic.
“The Five Deaths of the Faith”—On five occasions Christianity seemed to have been defeated only to arise again—in the ancient world, in the high middle ages, in the Renaissance, in the age of Reason, and in the age of science after Darwin. It will always do so.