The Everlasting Man by G.K. Chesterton

My summary notes of the book + sources used for summary of book: 

- www.windmillfighter.wordpress.com
- Lecture 44: The Everlasting Man 
- Free PDF copy of The Everlasting Man (click here)

Praise for The Everlasting Man: 

  • C. S. Lewis credited The Everlasting Man with “baptising” his intellect,much as George MacDonald‘s writings had baptized his imagination, so as to make him more than half-converted well before he could bring himself to embrace Christianity. C.S.Lewis listed The Everlasting Man among the 10 books which did most to shape his philosophy of life also in a letter to Sheldon Vanauken (23 Dec. 1950).

General Summary of The Everlasting Man:

  • Many consider this work to be Chesterton’s greatest, for he eloquently and concisely packs the whole human story between the covers of one book.  The Everlasting Man is Chesterton’s apologetic for the Christian explanation of life and apologetic against H.G. Wells’ The Outline of History, a secularist view inspired by Darwinism.
  • Chesterton says that Wells glossed over the two biggest points in history:
    1. The uniqueness of the creature called man.
    2. The uniqueness of the man called Christ.
  • Chesterton’s thesis = “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”

 

Key Points from The Everlasting Man:

(1) The Importance of Perspective

The genius of this book is that Chesterton is able to eloquently and concisely pack the whole human story between the covers of one book. He provides the big perspective like no one else has before.

I do desire to help the reader to see Christendom from the outside in the sense of seeing it as a whole, against the background of other historic things; just as I desire him to see humanity as a whole against the background of natural things. And I say that in both cases, when seen thus, they stand out from their background like supernatural things.

Chesterton begins his book by pointing out that critics of the Church are too close to see it. They are stuck with the small picture that affects them, rather than the big picture that reveals the startling beauty and unexpected truth of the Church.

For those in whom a mere reaction has thus become an obsession, I do seriously recommend the imaginative effort of conceiving the Twelve Apostles as Chinamen. In other words, I recommend these critics to try to do as much justice to Christian saints as if they were Pagan sages.

It’s like when one wants to learn a foreign language there are two approaches either learn it by immersing yourself in a culture (the best method) or by detaching yourself and learning it from a school (the second-best method) but not by attacking the culture the language comes from. ~ Ben Bishop

Now the best relation to our spiritual home is to be near enough to love it. But the next best is to be far enough away not to hate it.

Chesterton provides the following story to describe this reality:

 I conceived it as a romance of those vast valleys with sloping sides, like those along which the ancient White Horses of Wessex are scrawled along the flanks of the hills. It concerned some boy whose farm or cottage stood on such a slope, and who went on his travels to find something, such as the effigy and grave of some giant; and when he was far enough from home he looked back and saw that his own farm and kitchen garden, shining flat on the hill-side like the colours and quarterings of a shield, were but parts of some such gigantic figure, on which he had always lived, but which was too large and too close to be seen.

Only when we are able to see the big picture, then we…

But with this we come to the final and vital point I shall try to show in these pages that when we do make this imaginative effort to see the whole thing from the outside, we find that it really looks like what is traditionally said about it inside. It is exactly when the boy gets far enough off to see the giant that he sees that he really is a giant. It is exactly when we do at last see the Christian Church afar under those clear and level eastern skies that we see that it is really the Church of Christ. To put it shortly, the moment we are really impartial about it, we know why people are partial to it.

 

(2) The uniqueness of the creature called man

In order to show the uniqueness of the creature called man, Chesterton uses the reductio ad absurdum argument to show that if we

“really look at man as an animal, the less he will look like one” (8).

Why?

First, if man is just an animal, then it leads to a contradictory conclusion: why is there art? 

Chesterton looks at the caveman and his cave drawings to show that far from showing he was a violent man, the caveman was rather an artist.

“its artistic decoration has much more of the atmosphere of a nursery than of any of these nightmares of anarchical fury and fear” (11).

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 (12).

Man is “a creator as well as a creature” (13).

Man is the microcosm; man is the measure of all things; man is the image of God (14)

Man is at once the exception to everything and the mirror and the measure of all things (14).

The simplest truth about man is that he is a very strange being (14).

Something happened; and it has all the appearance of a transaction outside time (15).

His body may have been evolved from the brutes; but we know nothing of any such transition that throws the smallest light upon his soul as it has shown itself in history (18-9).

We know nothing about prehistoric man, for the simple reason that he was prehistoric (19).

H.G. Wells and others have used evolution to eliminate the mystery of man by saying that he gradually changed over time. But Chesterton shows an event is not any more intrinsically intelligible or unintelligible because of the pace at which it moves.

Man is not merely an evolution but rather a revolution (7).

Second, if man is just an animal, then it leads to an absurd conclusion: why would there be religion of any kind then? 

 

Those who try to explain the origin of religion are trying to explain it away (25).

 

(3) The uniqueness of the man called Christ.

In order to show the uniqueness of the man called Christ, Chesterton again uses the reductio ad absurdum argument to show that if we look at Christ through a secular point of view, it contradicts itself.

When we look at the Gospel from a secular point of view, we see weird things: riddles, statements that make no sense – even to the Jews, stories, the praising of the meek during a military occupation, coming on earth for the purpose of dying, and so forth.

“There are a great many things about it which nobody would have invented, for they are things that nobody has ever made any particular use of; things which if they were remarked at all have remained rather as puzzles. […] But whatever be the answer, the Gospel as it stands is almost a book of riddles.”

“Some of these things might strike him as fables and some as truths; but none as truisms.”

“The same truth might be stated in another way by saying that if the story be regarded as merely human and historical, it is extraordinary how very little there is in the recorded words of Christ that ties him at all to his own time… He never used a phrase that made his philosophy depend even upon the very existence of the social order in which he lived.”

“But he never made his morality dependent on the existence of the Roman Empire or even on the existence of the world. ‘Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.”

“I maintain therefore that a man reading the New Testament frankly and freshly would not get the impression of what is now often meant by a human Christ. The merely human Christ is a made-up figure, a piece of artificial selection, like the merely evolutionary man.”

Chesterton starts this second part about Christ in the same way as the first part. God in the cave. Just as the only thing we know about ‘the caveman’ is through his art, the only thing we know about Christ (remember that the scriptures were wither not written or they were kept secret only open to the Jewish people – as they were the only ones who found value there) is through the art in the cave where he was born.

The Christmas story is too close to us, we must stop back and marvel and what happened.  It was no peaceful assembly, no little drummer boy, no peaceful onlooking animals – just the ordinary aspects of a dirty cave with dirt and dung everywhere.  It was true humility, and yet it brought both division and unity to the world.

The argument that Jesus’ life was a mere fabrication misses the point that if it was fabricated then it really is an original fabrication.

“Divinity is great enough to be divine; it is great enough to call itself divine. But as humanity grows greater, it grows less and less likely to do so. God is God, as the Moslems say; but a great man knows he is not God, and the greater he is the better he knows it. That is the paradox; everything that is merely approaching to that point is merely receding from it. Socrates, the wisest man, knows that he knows nothing. A lunatic may think he is omniscience, and a fool may talk as if he were omniscient. But Christ is in another sense omniscient if he not only knows, but knows that he knows.” ~ Chapter 3

“The most that any primitive myth had even suggested was that the Creator was present at the Creation. But that the Creator was present at scenes a little subsequent to the supper-parties of Horace, and talked with tax-collectors and government officials in the detailed daily life of the Roman Empire, and that this fact continued to be firmly asserted by the whole of that great civilisation for more than a thousand years– that is something utterly unlike anything else in nature. It is the one great startling statement that man has made since he spoke his first articulate word, instead of barking like a dog. Its unique character can be used as an argument against it as well as for it. It would be easy to concentrate on it as a case of isolated insanity; but it makes nothing but dust and nonsense of comparative religion.” ~ Conclusion

 

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