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...
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