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Mere Christian Perspectives on the Human
© Mythopoeic Society
Donald T. Williams

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CHESTERTON AND THE EVERLASTING MAN

Man versus ApeIf we take Pope's secular path to understanding Man, we will of necessity view him as an animal: a chimpanzee with less hair, an opposable thumb, and a more flexible jaw, as it were. For the only viable destination which lies down Pope's path for modern people is an evolutionary model. Man would be a simple extension of what is seen in the animal kingdom, produced by the same processes and adapted to the same ends. It was Chesterton's contribution to take this idea more seriously than its proponents in order to see if it could really be made to work.

What Chesterton discovered in this experiment was that "It is exactly when we do regard man as an animal that we know he is not an animal" (xxii). His evidence for this conclusion is given in a series of impressionistic brush strokes that add up to a compelling portrait behind which is hidden a linear argument known as the reductio ad absurdum. His brilliant mind darts about the intellectual landscape like a hummingbird. The flight may at times seem erratic, but he never forgets either what nectar he is seeking or where his nest is.

"George Wyndham once told me," he notes, "that he had seen one of the first aeroplanes rise for the first time and it was very wonderful; but not so wonderful as a horse allowing a man to ride on him" (xviii). What is so wonderful about this? Rhinoceri allow tickbirds, sharks remora to ride on them. But the very analogies self-destruct as defenses of the evolutionary approach. For these other symbiotic relationships are instinctual, and the relationship between man and horse anything but. Rhinoceri are not directed by tickbirds whither they shall go by bit and bridle and the pressure of knees. Wherever the two species are found, moreover, the birds are found upon the backs. But it did not occur to all men at all times that horses could be persuaded to bear them, nor have all horses at all times been so persuaded. And while the word "persuaded" is no doubt a metaphor, it is a singularly apt metaphor. Even where men and horses have been performing this exotic behavior together for centuries, it does not "come naturally" to either species but has to be learned by both. When the first man thought of the idea, it was not a linear evolutionary projection from anything Nature had done before but an outlandish notion that was probably laughed to scorn until he actually pulled it off. And while our species has a long history of coming up with such outlandish notions that for good or evil veer straight off into space from anything that evolution could project, nobody will seriously argue that the horse was the one first to propose riding in exchange for warm stalls, currycombs, and oats. Why not?

Chesterton does not stop to elucidate his observation as I have done; he is off to look at another flower. But there is one kind of blossom he keeps circling back to:

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.

The most primitive forms of humanity that we have uncovered manifest this amazing trait. "After all, it would come back to this; that he had dug very deep and found the place where a man had drawn the picture of a reindeer. But he would dig a good deal deeper before he found a place where a reindeer had drawn a picture of a man."

Once again, analysis only deepens and widens the chasm between us and the other species. Monkeys may sharpen sticks to make primitive tools for digging termites out of the ground; they may arrange boxes into a pile they can climb to retrieve a banana hung from the ceiling. They do not arrange the sticks or the boxes into intricate patterns simply so they can sit back and lose themselves in the contemplation of their symmetry. Other species, in other words, pursue the practical arts on a rudimentary level, but know nothing of what we call the fine arts. And this impulse to "fine" (or what me might better call "unnecessary") art in the human species extends itself to touch all the practical arts as well — in fact, may be most impressive there:

Bird's nestThe very fact that a bird can get as far as building a nest, and cannot get any farther, proves that he has not a mind as man has a mind; it proves it more completely than if he built nothing at all. If he built nothing at all, he might possibly be a philosopher of the Quietist or Buddhistic school, indifferent to all but the mind within. But when he builds as he does build and is satisfied and sings aloud with satisfaction, then we know there is really an invisible veil like a pane of glass between him and us, like the window on which a bird will beat in vain. But suppose our abstract onlooker saw one of the birds begin to build as men build. Suppose in an incredibly short space of time there were seven styles of architecture for one style of nest. Suppose the bird carefully selected forked twigs and pointed leaves to express the piercing piety of Gothic, but turned to broad foliage and black mud when he sought in a darker mood to call up the heavy columns of Bel and Ashtaroth; making his nest indeed one of the hanging gardens of Babylon. Suppose the bird made little clay statues of birds celebrated in letters or politics and stuck them up in front of the nest. Suppose that one bird out of a thousand birds began to do one of the thousand things that man had already done even in the morning of the world; and we can be quite certain that the onlooker would not regard such a bird as a mere evolutionary variety of the other birds; he would regard it is a very fearful wild-fowl indeed.

Analogies to human arts in the animal kingdom, in other words, serve only to reinforce the conclusion that we are looking across a vast chasm which evolution alone could not bridge, and in fact has not bridged. Birds do not gather to listen to the songs of other birds for pleasure or fulfillment, nor do they sing to express sorrow or joy, but rather to tell the other birds to stay the heck out of their territory. What we call birdsong is song only after it has been filtered through a human mind. Art is the signature of man because it constitutes a radical break with animal behavior, not a development from it:

There is in fact not a trace of any such development or degree. Monkeys did not begin pictures and men finish them; Pithecanthropus did not draw a reindeer badly and Homo Sapiens draw it well. The higher animals did not draw better and better portraits; the dog did not paint better in his best period than in his early bad manner as a jackal; the wild horse was not an Impressionist and the race-horse a Post-Impressionist.

The arts, in other words, show that man is not merely adaptive, like the animals, but more than that: he is creative. "This creature was truly different from all other creatures; because he was a creator as well as a creature." He is not merely responsive to his environment; he initiates new things not dreamt of in Nature's philosophy. He is able to do this because he acts not from instinct but from understanding; he has an irresistible urge to try to see things in terms of principles. He has therefore, in a sense not shared by the other animals, a mind. And there is something in that fact that is more than natural, if philosophy could find it out. For on naturalistic principles, it is a thing that ought not to be.

No philosopher denies that a mystery still attaches to the two great transitions: the origin of the universe itself and the origin of the principle of life itself. Most philosophers have the enlightenment to add that a third mystery attaches to the origin of man himself. In other words, a third bridge was built across a third abyss of the unthinkable when there came into the world what we call reason and what we call will. Man is not merely an evolution but rather a revolution.

We know that evolution is, at most, less than the whole truth because the mind of man is something it could not have produced. The assumption that it could results from mere inattention to the reality of who we are as developed above, driven perhaps by reductionist philosophies that focus only on the physical. "There may be a broken trail of stones and bones faintly suggesting the development of the human body. There is nothing even faintly suggesting such a development of this human mind. It was not and it was; we know not in what instant or in what infinity of years. Something happened; and it has all the appearance of a transaction outside time."

One either allows for a transaction from outside of time, or one is left with a secularist reductionism. Various forms of such reductionism — economic, psychological, sexual — have naturally been the dominant paradigms for processing human experience in our secular age. And they are all ultimately dehumanizing, leaving out of the story much of what makes it worth telling. "Cows may be purely economic, in the sense that we cannot see that they do much beyond grazing and seeking better grazing grounds; and that is why a history of cows in twelve volumes would not be very lively reading." Why is the story of humanity, appalling though it often is, very lively reading indeed? Because secularism is reductionism, and man, even secular man, will not be so reduced:

The story only begins where the motive of the cows and sheep leaves off. It will be hard to maintain that the Crusaders went from their homes into a howling wilderness because cows go from a wilderness to a more comfortable grazing-ground. It will be hard to maintain that the Arctic explorers went north with the same material motive that made the swallows go south. And if you leave things like all the religious wars and all the merely adventurous explorations out of the human story, it will not only cease to be human at all but cease to be a story at all.

We know of course where Chesterton is going: the only explanation of humanity that actually explains it is the one that says we are adventurous because we are a venture; that we are creative and mindful because we were created in the image of the Creator who is still, as the Psalmist marvels, mindful of us. Ultimately nothing less than full Christian orthodoxy allows man to be fully human. Western secular philosophies reduce him to an animal, and eastern religious ones to nothingness. "I maintain that when brought out into the daylight these two things look altogether strange and unique…. The first of these is the creature called man and the second is the man called Christ" (xvii). They look strange, that is, when we come to them with either secular or pantheistic presuppositions, yet without letting those assumptions blind us to the full reality of what they are. This of course is difficult to do while we are still in the grip of those stifling ideologies. It needs a thinker who has already outgrown them to show us the way. It is Chesterton's ability to do just that which makes him so valuable.

We need not follow here all the details of how our darting hummingbird zeroes in on Bible and Creed as the foundations of anthropology. It has much to do with the plentiful lack of plot in the history of cows in twelve volumes, together with the fact that the Bible gives us the plot that makes sense of us, hence providing a foundation for what Chesterton calls "the philosophy of stories." Once the plausibility of naturalism has been exploded, the rest of the path is fairly plain. And once he has opened our eyes to it, his conclusion strikes with inevitable force: "It is not natural to see man as a natural product."  Man is the only one of the physical creatures with enough of a self to want to sign his name; art is his signature; and he gets both from the greatest Artist of all.

 

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