The Everlasting Man

The Everlasting Man



The Pequod Review:

Whatever your views of Christianity, G.K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man is a supremely intelligent work of alternative history. Written at least in part as a reaction to H.G. Wells’s popular 1919 book The Outline of History, which viewed human history as an upward evolution from primitive animal to a civilized and enlightened man, The Everlasting Man argues for a more complex view of human nature:

The simplest truth about man is that he is a very strange being; almost in the sense of being a stranger on the earth. In all sobriety, he has much more of the external appearance of one bringing alien habits from another land than of a mere growth of this one.

He has an unfair advantage and an unfair disadvantage. He cannot sleep in his own skin; he cannot trust his own instincts. He is at once a creator moving miraculous hands and fingers and a kind of cripple. He is wrapped in artificial bandages called clothes; he is propped on artificial crutches called furniture. His mind has the same doubtful liberties and the same wild limitations. Alone among the animals, he is shaken with the beautiful madness called laughter; as if he had caught sight of some secret in the very shape of the universe hidden from the universe itself. Alone among the animals he feels the need of averting his thought from the root realities of his own bodily being; of hiding them as in the presence of some higher possibility which creates the mystery of shame. 

Chesterton also takes more nuanced approach to evolution, both biological and religious:

[Proponents of evolution] 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 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. Even the test of savage beliefs, of which the folk-lore students are so fond, is admittedly often found to support such a view.

Elsewhere, Chesterton has perceptive insights into the real nature of Jesus:

We have all heard people say a hundred times over, for they seem never to tire of saying it, that the Jesus of the New Testament is indeed a most merciful and humane lover of humanity, but that the Church has hidden this human character in repellent dogmas and stiffened it with ecclesiastical terrors till it has taken on an inhuman character. This is very nearly the reverse of the truth. The truth is that it is the image of Christ in the churches that is almost entirely mild and merciful. It is the image of Christ in the Gospels that is a good many other things as well. The figure in the Gospels does indeed utter in words of almost heart-breaking beauty his pity for our broken hearts. But they are very far from being the only sort of words that he utters. Nevertheless they are almost the only kind of words that the Church in its popular imagery ever represents him as uttering.

There is something appalling, something that makes the blood run cold, in the idea of having a statue of Christ in wrath. There is something insupportable even to the imagination in the idea of turning the corner of a street or coming out in the spaces of a marketplace, to meet the petrifying petrifaction of that figure as it turned upon a generation of vipers, or that face as it looked at the face of a hypocrite. The Church can reasonably be justified therefore if she turns the most merciful face or aspect toward men; but it is certainly the most merciful aspect that she does turn.

Chesterton’s analysis isn’t without flaws. He often goes too far, as when he dismisses evolution too comprehensively and claims that monkeys did not evolve into humans. And his argument that humans have a fundamental need for a defined God and a defined doctrine — and therefore that this has any bearing on its truth — is not logically strong. But this is one of those books that causes you to rethink a lot of unexamined assumptions, and (for the non-believers) maybe even take a more open-minded view of religion.