Book Review: The Everlasting Man – By G.K. Chesterton

With such a well-beloved author as C.S. Lewis positing this book as one of the great contributors to his conversion to Christianity one can’t help but give into the curiosity to delve into the mind of Chesterton.

During the early Twentieth Century four of the biggest writers were H.G. Wells, Bernard Shaw, Hilaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton; the latter two often engaging in debates with the former. As was noted with Chesterton’s book Orthodoxy, it was written in a format parodying that of one of Wells’ essays. In continuing the bout, The Everlasting Man is Chesterton’s answer to a book written by Wells entitled The Outline of History (which was possibly plagiarized anyway). Chesterton’s issue with Wells’ book was the minuscule role given to Christianity in the history of the world and thus he set out his own outline, that of The Everlasting Man (Hilaire Belloc’s book The Great Heresies similarly attempts to portray religion’s impact on history).

The book is divided into two parts: the first a discussion of man and the second a discussion of Christ and the church. Chesterton begins his text in a discussion of the anthropology of his time, specifically as it had begun to analyze primitive man [in relation to evolutionist theory]. This discussion is amusing and insightful; the ideas concerning the gulf between man and the animals, and his refutations concerning evolution, are quite good. One such quip involves art, stating: “A monkey does not draw clumsily and a man cleverly; a monkey does not begin the art of representation and a man carry it to perfection. A monkey does not do it at all; he does not begin to do it at all; he does not begin to begin to do it at all. A line of some kind is crossed before the first faint line can begin.”

Following this discussion of science and anthropology Chesterton takes a step backwards, to discussing the mythology and philosophy of the pagans, how they grew into their golden age, became all that man could be on it’s own, and yet the never combined into a universal system. These two quotations serve well to sum up the section: “Simple secularists still talk as if the Church had introduced a sort of schism between reason and religion. The truth is that the Church was actually the first thing that ever tried to combine reason and religion… Polytheism, or that aspect of paganism, was never to the pagan what Catholicism is to the Catholic. It was never a view of the universe satisfying all sides of life; a complete and complex truth with something to say about everything.”

By the time he gets to the second section of his book the central theme has emerged, a theme standing in great contrast to the of Wells, the theme of history being centered around Christianity. Calvary was the crux of history, producing something completely unique to itself, something incomparable to everything that was or came afterward. Again I’ll offer two quotations which convey well the ideas presented: “To compare the Christian and Confucian religions is like comparing a theist with an English squire or asking whether a man is a believer in immortality or a hundred-per-cent American. Confucianism may be a civilization but it is not a religion… In truth the Church is too unique to prove herself unique. For most popular and easy proof is by parallel and here there is no parallel… Nobody understands the nature of the Church, or the ringing note of the creed descending from antiquity, who does not realize that the whole world once very nearly died of broad-mindedness and the brotherhood of all religions.”

Christianity is a thing unique amongst itself which served to bring life to a mankind which had exhausted it’s own resources, the pinnacle of which is placed in the high mythology and philosophy of Greece and Rome. The church has faced many trials and even died, but as Chesterton notes it has as its head a figure who knows the way out of the grave.

While this is a fairly short read I don’t recommend it as a first step into reading Chesterton, for that I’d recommend Orthodoxy or one of his novels (such as The Man Who Was Thursday). Still, The Everlasting Man is a brilliantly written text which will serve to challenge any readers perception of history, specifically the place of Christ in it.

Memorable Quotes:

[As with Orthodoxy this book is filled to the brim with memorable quotes, here are a few of my favorites…]

-“If man cannot pray he is gagged; if he cannot kneel be is in irons.”

-“When the world goes wrong, it proves rather that the Church is right. The Church is justified, not because her children do not sin, but because they do.”

-“In other words, whatever else is true it is not true that the controversy has been altered by time. Whatever else is true, it is emphatically not true that the ideas of Jesus of Nazareth were suitable to his time, but are no longer suitable to our time. Exactly how suitable they were to his time is perhaps suggested in the end of his story.”

-“Now that purity was preserved by dogmatic definitions and exclusions. It could not possibly have been preserved by anything else…. If the Church had not insisted on theology, it would have melted into a mad mythology of the mystics, yet further removed from reason or even from rationalism; and, above all, yet further removed from life and from the love of life.”

-“It was supposed to have been withered up at last in the dry light of the Age of Reason; it was supposed to have disappeared ultimately in the earthquake of the Age of Revolution. Science explained it away; and it was still there. History disinterred it in the past; and it appeared suddenly in the future. To-day it stands once more in our path; and even as we watch it, it grows.”

Specific Criticisms

I don’t have many criticisms of this book. One, as I noted above, is that it’s not the most accessible of his writings and therefore I wouldn’t recommend it as a first book to read by him. That’s not to say that it’s difficult reading, simply that it’s much easier reading once you’re used to his style.

Another minor criticism is the way in which the author casually references philosophers, classic authors and his own contemporaries, as if the reader should simply be aware of all these individuals and their ideas. One can generally get the idea of the text without being familiar with them but it still causes the writing to be more dense and less accessible to audiences not living during Chesterton’s time.

Lastly, I’m not sure what’s up with the landscape on the cover pictured above, it looks more suitable to one of Tolkien’s books than this one, but I digress…

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