The Everlasting Man – Part 1, Chapter 2: Professors and Prehistoric Men

Everlasting ManIn this, the last chapter dealing with the prehistoric, Chesterton addresses the approach used to infer the animal nature of the cave-man.  In doing so the scientist becomes dogmatic to his view (as much as a dog is to its bone) while giving the man before written history some dignity.

Overview of Chapter:

Human civilization just like wars are constructed by the victors – however that view is a modern one.  Man has always been man with his flaws, solutions, mistakes, and creativity.  The issue at hand is the arrival of thought that brings the animal nature to man to explain away religion, because religion is the only thing that explains what it is to be man.

Outline of Chapter:

The construction of prehistoric man is a modern construction, one that is built to support theories not to truly find the truth.  To be closed minded is to cling to one idea and defend it at any cost.  That is the problem with science, it is built on the defense of a single idea and mockery of those against.  Theodore Roosevelt stated that”There is superstition in science quite as much as there is superstition in theology, and it is all the more dangerous because those suffering from it are profoundly convinced that they are freeing themselves from all superstition. No grotesque repulsiveness of medieval superstition, even as it survived into nineteenth-century Spain and Naples, could be much more intolerant, much more destructive of all that is fine in morality, in the spiritual sense, and indeed in civilization itself, than that hard dogmatic materialism of to-day which often not merely calls itself scientific but arrogates to itself the sole right to use the term. If these pretensions affected only scientific men themselves, it would be a matter of small moment, but unfortunately they tend gradually to affect the whole people, and to establish a very dangerous standard of private and public conduct in the public mind.” This is the contention here.

“The trouble with the professor of the prehistoric is that he cannot scrap his scrap. The marvelous and triumphant aeroplane is made out of a hundred mistakes. The student of origins can only make one mistake and stick to it.  We talk very truly of the patience of science; but in this department it would be truer to talk of the impatience of science. Owing to the difficulty above described, the theorist is in far too much of a hurry. We have a series of hypotheses so hasty that they may well be called fancies, and cannot in any case be further corrected by facts. The most empirical anthropologist is here as limited as an antiquary. He can only cling to a fragment of the past and has no way of increasing it for the future He can only clutch his fragment of fact, almost as the primitive man clutched his fragment of flint. And indeed he does deal with it in much the same way and for much the same reason. It is his tool and his only tool. It is his weapon and his only weapon. He often wields it with a fanaticism far in excess of anything shown by men of science when they can collect more facts from experience and even add new facts by experiment. Sometimes the professor with his bone becomes almost as dangerous as a dog with his bone. And the dog at least does not deduce a theory from it, proving that mankind is going to the dogs–or that it came from them.”

What is happening is either a Sapir-Whorf hypothesis word play or just plain ‘muddying-up-the-water’ of terms and definitions.  If the modernists play fast and loose with terms and ignore the evidence what is left is their own imignation.

“The truth is that they are using the terms historic and prehistoric without any clear test or definition in their minds. What they mean is that there are traces of human lives before the beginning of human stories; and in that sense we do at least know that humanity was before history. Human civilization is older than human records. That is the sane way of stating our relations to these remote things. Humanity has left examples of its other arts earlier than the art of writing; or at least of any writing that we can read. But it is certain that the primitive arts were arts; and it is in every way probable that the primitive civilizations were civilizations.”

The issue with the past is that not all things stand the test of time.  A flower arrangement will not last the same as a marble statue.  If in 1000 years (if the human race is still here) how will the future scientist view us.  By that point all of the plastic will be gone… or most of it as well as the wood, fabric and clothes.  We might be looked at as having no music, books, or clothes.  This is just what was and is still happening.

“It is necessary to say plainly that all this ignorance is simply covered by impudence. Statements are made so plainly and positively that men have hardly the moral courage to pause upon them and find that they are without support. The other day a scientific summary of the state of a prehistoric tribe began confidently with the words ‘They wore no clothes.’ Not one reader in a hundred probably stopped to ask himself how we should come to know whether clothes had once been worn by people of whom everything has perished except a few chips of bone and stone. It was doubtless hoped that we should find a stone hat as well as a stone hatchet.”

The real point here is not that there is evidence to support that they were dignified men, but that there is no evidence either way.  The only evidence we do have is the art that was left – art is something no animal has or can do.

“It is not contended here that these primitive men did wear clothes any more than they did weave rushes; but merely that we have not enough evidence to know whether they did or not. But it may be worthwhile to look back for a moment at some of the very few things that we do know and that they did do. If we consider them, we shall certainly not find them inconsistent with such ideas as dress and decoration. We do not know whether they decorated other things. We do not know whether they had embroideries, and if they had the embroideries could not be expected to have remained. But we do know that they did have pictures; and the pictures have remained. And there remains with them, as already suggested, the testimony to something that is absolute and unique; that belongs to man and to nothing else except man; that is a difference of kind and not a difference of degree. A monkey does not draw clumsily and a man cleverly; a monkey does not begin the art of representation and a man carry it to perfection. A monkey does not do it at all; he does not begin to do it at all; he does not begin to begin to do it at all.”

The heretical flaw is in the linguistics of the reports of the modernists.  Just as in the muddling of ‘historic’ and ‘prehistoric’ there is a manipulation that is apparent.  Once again Chesterton points out in trying to explain away religion, those who profess these explanations are just living in a circular world.

“For the plain truth is that all this is a trick of making things seem distant and dehumanized, merely by pretending not to understand things that we do understand. It is like saying that prehistoric men had an ugly and uncouth habit of opening their mouths wide at intervals and stuffing strange substances into them, as if we had never heard of eating. It is like saying that the terrible Troglodytes of the Stone Age lifted alternate legs in rotation, as if we never heard of walking. If it were meant to touch the mystical nerve and awaken us to the wonder of walking and eating, it might be a legitimate fancy. As it is here intended to kill the mystical nerve and deaden us to the wonder of religion, it is irrational rubbish. It pretends to find some thing incomprehensible in the feelings that we all comprehend. Who does not find dreams mysterious, and feel that they lie on the dark borderland of being? Who does not feel the death and resurrection of the growing things of the earth as something near to the secret of the universe? Who does not understand that there must always be the savour of something sacred about authority and the solidarity that is the soul of the tribe? If there be any anthropologist who really finds these things remote and impossible to realize, we can say nothing of that scientific gentleman except that he has not got so large and enlightened a mind as a primitive man. To me it seems obvious that nothing but a spiritual sentiment already active could have clothed these separate and diverse things with sanctity. To say that religion came from reverencing a chief or sacrificing at a harvest is to put a highly elaborate cart before a really primitive horse. It is like saying that the impulse to draw pictures came from the contemplation of the pictures of reindeer in the cave. In other words, it is explaining painting by saying that it arose out of the work of painters; or accounting for art by saying that it arose out of art. It is even more like saying that the thing we call poetry arose as the result of certain customs; such as that of an ode being officially composed to celebrate the advent of spring; or that of a young man rising at a regular hour to listen to the skylark and then writing his report on a piece of paper. It is quite true that young men often become poets in the spring; and it is quite true that when once there are poets, no mortal power can restrain them from writing about the skylark But the poems did not exist before the poets. The poetry did not arise out of the poetic forms. In other words, it is hardly an adequate explanation of how a thing appeared for the first time to say it existed already. Similarly, we cannot say that religion arose out of the religious forms, because that is only another way of saying that it only arose when it existed already. […] Prehistoric men of that sort were things exactly like men and men exceedingly like our selves. They only happened to be men about whom we do not know much, for the simple reason that they have left no records or chronicles; but all that we do know about them makes them just as human and ordinary as men in a medieval manor or a Greek city.”


Three brief thoughts.

1. Words are powerful things.  A friend of mine posted this blog: that argues that no matter how languages and words are changed there is always a way to communicate.  The theory of ‘newspeak’ does not work though it is affective against those who have no defense.

2. Science is based on interpretation. All views into the past and the present are inductive and depend entirely on the view of the researcher.  Science ought not to be an idol to be followed but a tool to be used carefully.

3. Man from the older times did not dilute themselves as much as we in the modern age do.  They know things were wrong with themselves but did not try to explain them away with social issues, gene theories, and by saying that we have has progress.  If there was a choice between going to tradition and going to progress, tradition ought to be chose.  Progress can never be reached.  It’s like striving to reach tomorrow, it will never come.  Tomorrow always turns into today, with another tomorrow in the future.  In contrast tradition is solid and stable, we know what is was, what worked and why.  We can confront the past like men or run into the future like animals.


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