Chesterton Knew The Importance of Ecumenical Dialogue

Chesterton Knew The Importance of Ecumenical Dialogue

Saturday, 21 January 2012

GK's Weekly, The Thing, The Outline Of The Fall


I HAVE remarked on the curious rearguard action of bluff that is being fought to cover the retreat of the Darwinians. An example of the same thing has appeared in connection with a much more famous name; indeed, with two famous names. Mr. H. G. Wells has replied to Mr. Belloc, who wrote a criticism of the "Outline of History," chiefly to protest against a certain tone of arbitrary generalisation and sham knowledge of the unknown. A typical case was that in which Mr. Wells said of the men who drew reindeers in caves: "There seems no scope in such a life for speculation or philosophy," and Mr. Belloc not unnaturally answered: "Why on earth not?" But the details of the various works in question do not concern me immediately here; they mostly depend on that habit of talking as if every cave-drawing had its date obligingly inscribed on it; or any stone hatchet might bear the inscription 400,000 B.C. or possibly, B.O.H., or Before the Outline of History. At the moment the only point of contact is that which affects a continuation of our previous criticism, touching the present state of Darwinism. And what strikes me is that even Mr. Wells, often a sufficiently warm controversialist, is relatively and really cold in the matter; and his defence of Darwin is much more of an apology than an apologia. Indeed, like so many other modern apologies, it almost amounts to pleading that Darwin was not a Darwinian.

The Victorian evolutionists devoted themselves to declaring how great Darwin's thesis was. The new evolutionists seem to devote themselves to explaining how small it was. They really seem to plead, as in the old anecdote, that it gave birth to a theory, but a very little one. Some of Mr. Wells's words may surely, without unfairness, be called apologetic. He does not, like the professor previously mentioned, try to get over the word "origin" by talking about "the cause of the origin." So he concentrates on the word "species," as if evolution had not only applied to a sub-division. He adds that Darwin did not at the beginning even apply it to man. What in the world would the Victorian Darwinians have said had they heard it urged in defence of Darwinism that it was not applied to man? Are we to understand that only the first book of Darwin is divinely inspired? Again, Mr. Wells says that natural selection is common sense. And doubtless, if it only means that things fitted for survival do survive, it is common sense. We may also add that it is common knowledge. Has it come to this, that Darwin is defended because he only discovered what was common knowledge? The real question, of course, is that stated by Mr. Belloc; when he said that nobody needs to be told that in a flood fish live and cattle die. The question is, How soon do cattle turn into fish? That would be an example of the true Darwinian theory; and it is now merely minimised, represented as only one element of evolution and without even the elements of an explanation. We fancy there is a healthy prejudice behind it all. Mr. Wells indignantly repudiates the slander uttered by Mr. Belloc, who called him a patriot. But it is true; the deep English national pride has much to do with this devotion. And rather than deprive England of her Darwin, they have deprived Darwin of his discovery.

When a man is as great a genius as Mr. Wells, I admit it sounds provocative to call him provincial. But if he wants to know why anybody does it, it will be enough to point silently to the headline of one of his pages, which runs: "Where is the Garden of Eden?" To come down to a thing like that, and to think it telling, when talking to an intelligent Catholic about the Fall, that IS provinciality; proud and priceless provinciality. The French peasants of whom Mr. Wells speaks are not in that sense provincial. As Mr. Wells says, they do not know anything about Darwin and Evolution. They do not know and they do not care. That is where they are much better philosophers than Mr. Wells. They hold the philosophy of the Fall, in the form of a simple story which may be historic or symbolic, but anyhow cannot be more important than what it symbolises. In comparison with that truth, it does not matter twopence whether any evolutionary theory is true or not. Whether or no the garden was an allegory, the truth itself can be very well allegorised as a garden. And the point of it is that Man, whatever else he is, is certainly NOT merely one of the plants of the garden that has plucked its roots out of the soil and walked about with them like legs, or on the principle of a double dahlia has grown duplicate eyes and ears. He is something else, something strange and solitary; and more like the statue that was once the god of the garden; but the statue has fallen from its pedestal and lies broken among the plants and weeds. This conception has nothing to do with materialism as it refers to materials. The image might be made of wood; the wood might have come from the garden; the sculptor presumably might, and probably did, allow for the growth and grain of the wood in what he carved and expressed. But my fable fixes the two truths of the true scripture. The first is that the wood was graven or stamped with an image, deliberately, and from the outside; in this case the image of God. The second is that this image has been damaged and defaced, so that it is now both better and worse than the mere plants in the garden, which are perfect according to their own plan. There is room for any amount of speculation about the history of the tree before it was turned into an image; there is room for any amount of doubt and mystery about what really happened when it was turned into an image; there is room for any amount of hope and imagination about what it will look like when it is really mended and made into the perfect statue we have never seen. But it has the two fixed points, that man was uplifted at the first and fell; and to answer it by saying, "Where is the Garden of Eden?" is like answering a philosophical Buddhist by saying, "When were you last a donkey?"

The Fall is a view of life. It is not only the only enlightening, but the only encouraging view of life. It holds, as against the only real alternative philosophies, those of the Buddhist or the Pessimist or the Promethean, that we have misused a good world, and not merely been entrapped into a bad one. It refers evil back to the wrong use of the will, and thus declares that it can eventually be righted by the right use of the will. Every other creed except that one is some form of surrender to fate. A man who holds this view of life will find it giving light on a thousand things; on which mere evolutionary ethics have not a word to say. For instance, on the colossal contrast between the completeness of man's machines and the continued corruption of his motives; on the fact that no social progress really seems to leave self behind; on the fact that the first and not the last men of any school or revolution are generally the best and purest; as William Penn was better than a Quaker millionaire or Washington better than an American oil magnate; on that proverb that says: "The price of liberty is eternal vigilance," which is only what the theologians say of every other virtue, and is itself only a way of stating the truth of original sin; on those extremes of good and evil by which man exceeds all the animals by the measure of heaven and hell; on that sublime sense of loss that is in the very sound of all great poetry, and nowhere more than in the poetry of pagans and sceptics: "We look before and after, and pine for what is not"; which cries against all prigs and progressives out of the very depths and abysses of the broken heart of man, that happiness is not only a hope, but also in some strange manner a memory; and that we are all kings in exile.

Now to people who feel that this view of life is more real, more radical, more universal than the cheap simplifications opposed to it, it comes with quite a shock of bathos to realise that anybody let alone a man like Mr. Wells, supposes that it all depends on some detail about the site of a garden in Mesopotamia, like that identified by General Gordon. It is hard to find any parallel to such an incongruity; for there is no real similarity between our muddled mortal affairs and events that were divine if they were mysterious, and scriptures that are sacred even if they are symbolical. But some shadow of a comparison could be made out of the modern myths. I mean the sort of myths that men like Mr. Wells generally do believe in; such as the Myth of Magna Carta or the Myth of the Mayflower. Now many historians will maintain that Magna Carta was really nothing to speak of; that it was largely a piece of feudal privilege. But suppose one of the historians who holds this view began to argue with us excitedly about the fabulous nature of our ordinary fancy picture of Magna Carta. Suppose he produced maps and documents to prove that Magna Carta was not signed at Runnymede, but somewhere else; as I believe some scholars do maintain. Suppose he criticised the false heraldry and fancy-dress costumes of the ordinary sort of waxwork historical picture of the event. We should think he was rather unduly excited about a detail of mediaeval history. But with what a shock of astonishment should we realise at last that the man actually thought that all modern attempts at democracy must be abandoned, that all representative government must be wrong, that all Parliaments would have to be dissolved and all political rights destroyed, if once it were admitted that King John did not sign that special document in that little island in the Thames! What should we think of him, if he really thought we had no reasons for liking law or liberty, except the authenticity of that beloved royal signature? That is very much how I feel when I find that Mr. Wells really imagines that the luminous and profound philosophy of the Fall only means that Eden was somewhere in Mesopotamia. Now the only explanation of a great man like Mr. Wells having a small prejudice, like this about the snake, is that he does come of a religious tradition that regarded the text of Hebrew Scripture as the only authority and had forgotten all about the great mediaeval metaphysic and the discussion of fundamental ideas. The man who does that is provincial; and there is no harm in saying so even when he is one of the greatest men of letters and a glory to the English name.

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