Russell and Duenes

G.K. Chesterton: Man Does Not Evolve from Barbaric to Civilized

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The dawn of history reveals a humanity already civilised. ~ ch. 3, The Everlasting Man: “The Antiquity of Civilisation”

g-k-chesterton1Chesterton continues to give us a glimpse into “the creature called man,” and then into “the man called Christ.” Thus, he remains in his “sketch of the main adventure of the human race in so far as it remained heathen.” He is trying to put to rest the notion that mankind moves from a primitive, barbaric state to an “advanced” civilised one. According to Chesterton, what we find when we look at ancient ruins are not only civilisations, but perhaps civilisations “already old.” He chooses to focus on Egypt and Babylon, and then the Mediterranean world, as representative of ancient man’s civilized state.

First, Chesterton dispenses with the common myth that all primitive governments were “despotic and tyrannical.” Indeed, they may have been despotic, but all signs point rather to despotism and tyranny cropping up in more advanced societies, even “tired democracies.” He writes: “As fatigue falls on a community, the citizens are less inclined for that eternal vigilance which has truly been called the price of liberty; and they prefer to arm only one single sentinel to watch the city while they sleep.” People often stand aghast at Nazi Germany, wondering how such an advanced and highly educated society could embrace such barbarism. I can’t help but think that Chesterton has gotten at something of it in his analysis here, and it is interesting to ponder what Chesterton might have thought of Europe in the 1930s and 40s, had he lived that long. At any rate, Chesterton concludes that “[i]t is far more probable that a primitive society was something like a pure democracy,” for “[d]emocracy is a thing which is always breaking down through the complexity of civilisation.” This is certainly my read on what is going on in the U.S. right now.

Chesterton says that it is nothing but pretension to suppose that we can “trace everything in a consistent course from the amoeba to the anthropoid and from the anthropoid to the agnostic.” What we find instead is that barbarism and civilisation “existed side-by-side,” as they continue to do today. There are nomads today who apparently like their nomadism and desire to retain it; and there were non-nomads back then, who equally liked their stationary status. “The chronological rearrangement of” the nomad and the farmer, as though one evolved inexorably into the other, “is but a mark of that mania for progressive stages that has largely falsified history.”

Further, Chesterton seeks to put the lie to the notion that religious people are backward and primitive, always obscurantist and resisting change and “progress.” He quips: “[A] politician once told me in debate that I was resisting modern reforms exactly as some ancient priest probably resisted the discovery of wheels. I pointed out, in reply, that it was far more likely that the ancient priest made the discovery of the wheels. It is overwhelmingly probable that the ancient priest had a great deal to do with the discovery of the art of writing.” Chesterton’s argument here cannot be made often enough. Modern man likes to act as if the society and technological advances upon which he lives somehow burst onto the scene through an exalted humanism released from the shackles of the superstition that is religion. All hail, Renaissance Man, for bequeathing us all that is good, or so we’re told.

It’s also interesting to note how Chesterton’s thinking here applies to our supposed understanding of Muslim terrorists, they all being “stone age,” “backward,” and jealous of our modern life. They are angry at us because our “advanced,” secular, nihilistic, technocratic societies “work.” Indeed, the West prospers, unlike the Old-Testament-like barbarian societies within Islamic fundamentalism. The claim is, as Chesterton puts it, “the vulgar assumption that terrorism can only come at the beginning and cannot come at the end” of civilisation. They “hate us” because we’re at “the end” and they are “at the beginning,” or so the trope goes. Yet I wonder how “stone aged” those men were who hijacked our airliners on 9/11. Did they believe they had to strike at us because we are civilisationally superior to them? Did they foreswear all modern accoutrements? Moreover, it is an open question whether the supposedly “tolerant, liberal, democratic, advanced” society has the virility to endure the onslaught of those more “primitive” societies of which religious fundamentalists are supposedly a part. Indeed, Chesterton ponders whether the enslavement of other human beings which is no doubt coming in the future (protestations of slavery’s extinction in “the West” notwithstanding) might be a good deal worse that the slaveries of the past.

From Egypt and Babylon, Chesterton moves on the juggernaut of the Mediterranean world, noting that “[i]f the world becomes pagan and perishes, the last man left alive would do well to quote the Iliad and die.” Yet the apex comes from one place in particular, which “shone like the shield of Hector, defying Asia and Africa; till the light of a new day was loosened, with the rushing of the eagles and the coming of the name; the name that came like a thunderclap when the world woke to Rome.”



Written by Michael Duenes

June 23, 2013 at 5:54 pm

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