Much of G. K. Chesterton’s work is an engagement with relativism and modernism in their multifarious manifestations. Nowhere is this more evident than in The Everlasting Man, arguably his most important book. It was no mere coincidence that Chesterton’s book should appear in 1925, the same year that H.G. Wells’s Outline of History was first published in a single, complete volume. Previously, Wells’s book had been published in separate sections, each of which had been attacked vociferously by Chesterton’s great friend and comrade in arms, Hilaire Belloc. Apart from The Outline of History’s tacitly anti-Christian stance, Belloc had objected to the materialistic determinism that formed the philosophical foundation of Wells’s History. Wells perceived the “progress” of history as the product of invisible and inviolable evolutionary forces, both blind and beneficial, that were coming to fruition in the modern age. The history of man had begun in the caves and was reaching a happy climax with the triumph of science and “reh.g.ason” over superstition and religion. History was heralding a new dawn, a brave new world where happiness would be ushered in by technology. Wells was the progressive optimist par excellence!
Belloc, with his customary bellicosity, was merciless in his attacks on Wells’s scholarship and lack thereof. “Mr Wells suffers from the very grievous fault of being ignorant that he is ignorant,” Belloc wrote, adding that Wells had a “strange cocksuredness” considering that he had clearly mistaken “the old conventional textbook of his schooldays” for “universal knowledge”. It was amid the acrimony and controversy of the heated debate between Wells and Belloc that Chesterton wrote The Everlasting Man. Intended as an answer to Wells but wholly different in tone from Belloc’s published ripostes, the book was Chesterton’s own attempt at an “outline of history”. He began, as had Wells, with a consideration of prehistoric man:
Today all our novels and newspapers will be found swarming with numberless allusions to a popular character called a Cave-Man. He seems to be quite familiar to us, not only as a public character but as a private character. His psychology is seriously taken into account in psychological fiction and psychological medicine. So far as I can understand, his chief occupation in life was knocking his wife about, or treating women in general with what is, I believe, known in the world of the film as ‘rough stuff’. I have never happened to come upon the evidence for this idea; and I do not know on what primitive diaries or prehistoric divorce-reports it is founded.
After mocking the prejudiced presumptions of those who had psychoanalysed a mythical prehistoric patient, Chesterton requested an unprejudiced, objective look at the physical evidence available:
In fact, people have been interested in everything about the cave-man except what he did in the cave. Now there does happen to be some real evidence of what he did in the cave. It is little enough, like all the prehistoric evidence, but it is concerned with the real cave-man and his cave and not the literary cave-man and his club. And it will be valuable to our sense of reality to consider quite simply what that real evidence is, and not to go beyond it. What was found in the cave was not the club, the horrible gory club notched with the number of women it had knocked on the head. The cave was not a Bluebeard’s Chamber filled with the skeletons of slaughtered wives; it was not filled with female skulls all arranged in rows and cracked like eggs … The secret chamber of rock, when illuminated after its long night of unnumbered ages, revealed on its large walls large and sprawling outlines diversified with coloured earths … They were drawings or paintings of animals; and they were drawn or painted not only by a man but by an artist. Under whatever archaic limitations, they showed that love of the long sweeping or the long wavering line which any man who has ever drawn or tried to draw will recognize; and about which no artist will allow himself to be contradicted by any scientist. They showed the experimental and adventurous spirit of the artist … as where the draughtsman had represented the action of the stag when he swings his head clean round and noses towards his tail, an action familiar enough in the horse. But there are many modern animal-painters who would set themselves something of a task in rendering it truly. In this and twenty other details it is clear that the artist had watched animals with a certain interest and presumably a certain pleasure.
Thus, with the keen knife of clarity, Chesterton cuts through the mythology of the “progressive” pseudo-scientists who had moulded the cave-man into the image of their own prejudiced preconceptions. Instead, looking at nothing but the physical evidence available, he deduces that man’s ancient ancestors were lovers and practitioners of art, that they observed and loved nature and, the most shocking revelation of all, that they may even have loved their wives. In short, Chesterton discovered that our ancient ancestors were remarkably like ourselves!
Clearly having fun, Chesterton continued his lampooning of “progressive” presumption by conjecturing what future scientists of the “progressive” ilk would make of today’s cave-drawings, those ultra-modern hieroglyphics commonly called graffiti:
… the time will come when these inscriptions will really be of remote date. And if the professors of the future are anything like the professors of the present, they will be able to deduce a vast number of very vivid things from these cave-writings of the twentieth century. If I know anything about the breed, and if they have not fallen away from the full-blooded confidence of their fathers, they will be able to discover the most fascinating facts about us from the initials left in the Magic Grotto by ’Arry and ’Arriet, possibly in the form of two intertwined A’s. From this alone they will know: 1. That as the letters are rudely chipped with a blunt pocket-knife, the twentieth century possessed no delicate graving-tools and was unacquainted with the art of sculpture. 2. That as the letters are capital letters, our civilization never evolved any small letters or anything like a running hand. 3. That because initial consonants stand together in an unpronounceable fashion, our language was possibly akin to Welsh or more probably of the early Semitic type that ignored vowels. 4. That as the initials of ’Arry and ’Arriet do not in any special fashion profess to be religious symbols, our civilization possessed no religion.
Chesterton’s good-natured humour fulfills its purpose in exposing the fatuity of “progressivist” presumption, or what C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery”, without succumbing to the pugilistic bellicosity of Belloc. The fruits of Chesterton’s charity towards his adversary were evident in the fact that Chesterton and Wells remained the best of friends whereas Belloc and Wells became the worst of enemies. In The Everlasting Man, as in all his works, Chesterton shows us the power of rational love.
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- Wells’s work was a populist spin on the critique of history given by J. B. Bury in The Idea of Progress, published in 1920, though Bury, in his preface, had the intellectual honesty to concede that “the doctrine of Progress” might “ultimately prove to be no more than an idolum saeculi”.
- Michael Coren, The Invisible Man: The Life and Liberties of H.G. Wells, London: Random House, 1993, pp. 162-3
- G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1947, pp. 14-15
- Ibid., pp. 29-32
- Ibid., p.52