Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1343
Where Wells had described history in terms of an ongoing linear movement, virtually irreversible in its flow toward progress and improvement, Chesterton found human history far more complex. For him the history of humanity is full of paradoxes, as is the human being. Furthermore, his view of man himself differs significantly from Wells’s. Chesterton’s Christian humanism—words considered mutually exclusive by some critics—indeed treats man as the measure of all things. Man is separated from the animal kingdom because he is made in the image of God. Furthermore, it is his ability to reflect upon his experiences and to use the God-given faculty of critical reasoning that permits civilization to advance.
In his opening chapter, Chesterton asserts that man is not simply a higher animal but indeed a unique creature because of his powers of symbolization, powers that he shares with no other species on the planet. Symbolism in its broadest and most basic meaning is the use of one object to suggest another or of an action to represent an idea or concept. In his use of the word, Chesterton means that humans are capable of self-expression: architecture, or the dance, or the prehistoric cave paintings at Lascaux and Altamira. Human beings exhibit other forms of symbolism in dreams, laughter, religion, and rites. For Chesterton, man is more than a product of physical evolution: He is the result of a miracle.
According to Chesterton, human history does not proceed in some steady, incremental fashion. There are periods of retrogression, the waning of once-powerful civilizations, the decay of institutions, and new answers to old political, social, and intellectual problems. History is frequently interrupted by crises, the resolutions of which vary in their importance. Chesterton considers the struggle for supremacy in the Mediterranean world, where Rome and Carthage fought for control of classical civilization, as such a moment. Rome’s victory was more important in human history than other military successes, for it paved the way for the Roman Empire and the advent of Christianity.
A considerable portion of the first part, on human history, deals with mythology and religious developments, both before and after the introduction of Christianity. Here Chesterton takes on professional scholars in the fields of anthropology and comparative religion. He objects to both the substance and the methods of their work. The typical approach was to speak of religion in what Chesterton calls “geographic” or “vertical” divisions, labeling them as Prehistoric, Christian, Muslim, or Buddhist. Chesterton prefers to divide religions “horizontally” or “psychologically,” under such headings as “God,” “The Gods,” or “The Demons.”
Chesterton holds that his approach reveals the existence of a pervasive sense of monotheism underlying all mythologies. Even in clearly polytheistic societies he found evidence of a concept of a God behind the gods or a sense of some higher authority beyond the animism or the multiplicity of individual deities. Mythology is routinely defined as anonymous stories that may be traced to the primitive folk beliefs of races or nations, stories that have been used as a means of interpreting nature or events for which there is no concrete explanation. For Chesterton, mythology is also a search, a seeking for something that human beings need in order to complete themselves.
It is the placing of Christianity beside other religions or mythologies as though they could be equated that arouses Chesterton’s greatest ire. Christianity was not another of the mystery religions of the East that swept across the fading Roman Empire, replacing the older religion of “family and field.” Rather, its birth represents one of those events that Chesterton describes as interrupting history. The coming of Christ is for Chesterton the single most striking fact of human history. No other religion or mythology has a God or divine intelligence that has taken on flesh and visited His creation.
The second part of the essay, “The Man Called Christ,” explores the life, and the meaning of the life, of Jesus. The Nativity itself is for Chesterton a point of contact for divergent humankind. Around the crib are shepherds, simple people who live by the myths of their tradition. The Magi who followed the star to Bethlehem represent the seers or the philosophers at this unique event, and even menace is represented by Herod’s fear of the heralded birth and his determination to massacre the infants of Bethlehem. This reconciliation of human contradictions in Christ is one of Chesterton’s constant themes.
The greater part of the section on Christ is devoted to Chesterton’s interpretations of the human life of Jesus. Chesterton finds the Gospels to be full of riddles; he believes that the parables Jesus employed in teaching are far from simple and that they indicate His ability to cut through several planes of thought. It is possible to emphasize one aspect of Jesus’ teaching over another, and so find Him a teacher, a reformer, a socialist, a pacifist, a healer, a millenarian, or a dangerous fanatic. Yet he is God as well as man. For Chesterton, when the stone was rolled across the opening of the tomb following the act of the Crucifixion, it was as though the world that had existed and the history that preceded the event had come to an end. A new history and a new world had come into being. The Church had been founded by the God-Man’s direction, first to Peter and second to the Apostles as a group. The Church became the repository of the good news of the redemptive act and the great promise of the future. A new life had been engrafted on the old, and truth was henceforth to be found in the Christian Church.
The remainder of the book discusses briefly the threats to this Church and the five crises that caused it to die, only to rise again each time, proof for Chesterton of its divine origin. The Church’s first “death” was at the hands of so-called heretics during the late Empire, when Arians and other groups were declared to have erred in their understanding of truth. The second great threat was in the Middle Ages, which produced its own skeptics, rationalists, and heretics. The third crisis arose during the Renaissance era, which revived the pagan past and bred a secularism that invaded the Church itself. Unrest and general dissatisfaction led to the Reformation, which spawned both a revolt and counterrevolt among Christians and pitted both camps against the neopagan spirit. The fourth death was said to have begun with the era of Voltaire and a new generation of rationalists, who saw much in the history of organized Christianity that spoke to them of hypocrisy, superstition, and cant. The fifth death came with Charles Darwin and a new group of materialists who seemed to degrade humanity and the role of the Creator. Yet none of these deaths was final. The Church rose again to offer wisdom and truth to those who would receive it.
Chesterton equates the Church with the Roman Catholic church, offering as his reason its centrist position in history. From the ancient world through successive historical epochs it has withstood all the attacks leveled against it. Though its human leadership has faltered and it has had its own history of decay, it has renewed itself from within and continued to play a role in society.
The philosophy of history which Chesterton enunciates has Jesus Christ at its center. All historical conflict and crisis is resolved in Him. For Chesterton, that is the ultimate answer. The Mass, then, is the reenactment of the sacrifice and death of Jesus, but it is also a thanksgiving for the redemptive act and a celebration of resurrection.
In his conclusion, Chesterton voices doubts whether he has succeeded in conveying to the reader his perspective on history and faith. He wonders if he has fulfilled the plan outlined in his introduction. His final statement is that Christ brought truth to His Church; the Church has survived human history because it has made the supernatural natural and become the home of humanity.