G. K. Chesterton on Paganism

The Everlasting ManI have been reading G. K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man. This book, first published in 1925, has much to say to a 21st century reader. For me, the early chapters generated one of those wonderful intellectual events, when on reading Chesterton’s account, a number of disparate puzzles coalesced for me and came together in an ‘ah hah’ moment.

Let me explain. In chapters V-VII, Chesterton describes three strands of paganism which ran side-by-side: mythology with all of its fantastic stories; philosophy, particularly post-Socratic philosophy which has given our civilization so much; and those strands of paganism which worshiped demons and were linked with human sacrifice such as Moloch worshipers in Palestine and the Aztecs in the new world. In one sense these three strands were contradictory. How could philosophically rigorous thinkers participate in rites and observances related to Bacchus? How could peoples who at least believed in objective values, as Lewis calls it, the tao (The Abolition of Man), degenerate into human sacrifice?

Chesterton showed how these strands really represented three attempts to connect with the spiritual. Mythology was an act of the imagination. Philosophy was an act of reason, but the two always remained separate, if parallel, strands of connection to the spiritual Other. The darker strand of demonology and human sacrifice, was more pragmatic than the other two. At some point, reason and imagination were abandoned and people sought for what worked. And so dark powers were invoked, requiring hideous sacrifices, all to a pragmatic end – they’ll give us the power that we want.

Chesterton goes on to point out that synthesis between the philosophical strands and the imaginative yearning for mystical experience were only thoroughly synthesized in the Middle Ages. From my own reading I can see how Thomas Aquinas was able to bring reason, faith, and mystical experience together. Perhaps this is why pagan societies, for all their shortcomings, were often very open to the Gospel. The imagination, reason, along with objective value had prepared them.

One final point. In my last post, I discussed the book Living at the Crossroads. It was interesting to see how in our current age the imaginative strand and the logical strand have parted company again. We have Postmodernism (imaginative strand) and Modernism (logical, data-driven strand) existing side by side. We yearn for the beauty and meaning of Postmodernism and yet fall back to the sterile world of data and logic because in some sense it is more connected with reality and outcomes. We have lost the synthesis.

If you have read The Everlasting Man, I would appreciate hearing what you thought of it.

Thanks for reading,

Peter

About Peter Kazmaier

Lover of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Author of the SF series THE HALCYON CYCLE. I frequently re-read my favourite books. http://tinyurl.com/p46woa4

Posted on April 2, 2014, in Authors, C. S. Lewis, Christian Worldview, G. K. Chesteron, Modernism, Postmodernism and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I read the Everlasting Man just under a year ago but I doubt it’ll be the last time. I find one of the treats of reading Chesterton is that there will always be more to get out of it with follow up readings. I can never find all the nuggets of wisdom with just a single reading.

    One of my favourite parts of the book was his passage on the fall of Rome. He talked about how the worst sort of Paganism (Carthage) was defeated by the best sort (Rome), and yet even the best sort of Paganism began to decay as Rome fell into some of the same vices as it began to decline.

    “Pessimism comes not from being weary of evil but weary of good. Despair does not lie in being weary of suffering, but in being weary of joy.”
    I suppose he’s saying trying to rely on imagination alone (Paganism) without tying to reality (Reason) tends to leave one unsatisfied in the long run.

    “The effect of this staleness is the same everywhere; it is seen in all drug-taking and dram-drinking and every form of the tendency to increase the dose. Men seek stranger sins or more startling obscenities as stimulants to their jaded sense. They seek after mad oriental religions for the same reason. They try to stab their nerves to life, if it were with the knives of the priests of Baal. They are walking in their sleep and try to wake themselves up with nightmares.”

    A bit of a dark passage to be sure, but timeless nonetheless. I believe you can see some examples of the same principle emerging today, especially in the wealthy Western world.

    As you pointed out, Chesterton says the rivers of philosophy and mythology run parallel until they mix in the sea of Christendom. There’s also a great book by Dan Taylor called the Skeptical Believer that talks about the Christian story being powerful because it speaks to all aspects of ourselves: emotions, imagination and reason. I agree with all three of you guys!

    Thanks for the post, look forward to the next one!
    Darren

  2. Darren, what a wonderful, enlightening comment. I particularly enjoyed your insight on Chesterton’s book:

    “One of my favourite parts of the book was his passage on the fall of Rome. He talked about how the worst sort of Paganism (Carthage) was defeated by the best sort (Rome), and yet even the best sort of Paganism began to decay as Rome fell into some of the same vices as it began to decline.”

    I remember that discussion in Chesterton’s book, but your interpretation really brought the point to light for me. Until I had read Chesterton, I had not seen those gradations in Paganism. Thank you for sharing your observations and insight.

    Peter

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