The Everlasting Man – Part 1, Chapter 3: The Antiquity of Civilization

Everlasting ManWhat we do know about mankind we can see in the past,  not the prehistoric but the historic.   In the fashion of most truth what is real is often the opposite of what is not – it is too easy to say that we are progressive if we make up a savage past.  However our past may be more like us than we are comfortable to think.  The phrase “those who do not study the past are doomed to repeat it” is flawed; we do need to repeat the past.  Being doomed to repeat is a glorious thing, by not investigating the past we forge on like in the wilderness without a map.  It would be better to repeat the past than die in the future. Those who have gone before have shown us ways that work and ways that don’t – yet as a whole mankind (especially those stuck in a circle rather than those freed by a cross) ignore the work of the historic pioneers.  What can we learn from the past we know…

Overview of Chapter:

Two of the earliest civilizations are Egypt and Babylon  and they can teach us that civilization is not in a linear progressive relationship but in parallel lines.  What happens in the past happens today: they had technology, we have technology; they had a waning democracy, we have a waning democracy; they had art and mystery, we have lost that (by choice).

Outline of Chapter:

Today it can be surmised that we are proud with ourselves; we have so many gadgets, plethora of written materials, sounds and noises.  In this pride however we have forgotten that we are not the only ones in history that has had such a cornucopia.  Just because things are old does not make them invalid.  This is what C.S. Lewis termed Chronological snobbery.  Viewing the past as with a telescope is flawed but viewing the past as though reading a past loved ones diary is correct.  When we read about the past to learn about man it is important to view the civilizations as they were not how we think them to be.

“The dawn of history reveals a humanity already civilized. Perhaps it reveals a civilization already old. And among other more important things, it reveals the folly of most of the generalizations about the previous and unknown period when it was really young. The two first human societies of which we have any reliable and detailed record are Babylon and Egypt. It so happens that these two vast and splendid achievements of the genius of the ancients bear witness against two of the commonest and crudest assumptions of the culture of the moderns.”

The first wrong assumption of the moderns is that the newer forms of government is democracy when in fact it is the oldest.  In contrast with the ‘Old Man’ theory (that ruling bodies were created by strong-arming people) democracy understands that all people fall under the same law.  Those with authority have the same consequences as those in submission.  However complacency and decadence are the anti-thesis of democracy.

“As fatigue falls on a community, the citizens are less inclined for that eternal vigilance which has truly been called the price of liberty; and they prefer to arm only one single sentinel to watch the city while they sleep. It is also true that they sometimes needed him for some sudden and militant act of reform; it is equally true that he often took advantage of being the strong man armed to be a tyrant like some of the Sultans of the East. But I cannot see why the Sultan should have appeared any earlier in history than many other human figures. On the contrary, the strong man armed obviously depends upon the superiority of his armor, and armament of that sort comes with more complex civilization. One man may kill twenty with a machine-gum; it is obviously less likely that he could do it with a piece of flint. As for the current cant about the strongest man ruling by force and fear, it is simply a nursery fairy-tale about a giant with a hundred hands. Twenty men could hold down the strongest strong man in any society, ancient or modern.”

If God sees all mankind as equal – all being created by the divine then democracy is the view that we all ought to have; even monarchies that had that perspective were good.  However if we take the opposing viewpoint then there is no reason for this divinely inspired brother and sisterhood.

“Democracy is a thing which is always breaking down through the complexity of civilization. Anyone who likes may state it by saying that democracy is the foe of civilization. But he must remember that some of us really prefer democracy to civilization, in the sense of preferring democracy to complexity. Anyhow, peasants tilling patches of their own land in a rough equality, and meeting to vote directly under a village tree, are the most truly self-governing of men. It is surely as likely as not that such a simple idea was found in the first condition of even simpler men. Indeed the despotic vision is exaggerated, even if we do not regard the men as men. Even on an evolutionary assumption of the most materialistic sort, there is really no reason why men should not have had at least as much camaraderie as rats or rooks.”

The issue lies between the two viewpoints that (1) civilization in linear and is progressing into the heavens by work much like the tower of Babel [note- even the post-moderns see themselves as the logical progression from modernism] or (2) that mankind does the same things now as we did then and when we leave the points of view that for true outward progress there needs to be inner progress which can only be had through divine revelation.  Looking at the real records the second option is the likely one.

“According to the real records available, barbarism and civilization were not successive states in the progress of the world. They were conditions that existed side by side, as they still exist side by side. There were civilizations then as there are civilizations now; there are savages now as there were savages then.”

The real issue is once again one the false viewpoint of the hatred of religion.  Science can be a tool or a  toy.  If is is a tool then it must be asked: Whose tool is is?  What is it being used for?  If it is a toy then the child like wonder of all toy users must be maintained. The problem with science (As written about in ‘What’s Wrong With the World’) is not that it encourages doubt but that it is so universally and easily believed.   The myriads of inventions, creations, and innovations were not made by men and women moping around wishing for a better life but in play.

“The popular pictures of these primeval empires are not half so popular as they might be. There is shed over them the shadow of an exaggerated gloom, more than the normal and even healthy sadness of heathen men. It is part of the same sort of secret pessimism that loves to make primitive man a crawling creature, whose body is filth and whose soul is fear. It comes of course from the fact that men are moved most by their religion; especially when it is irreligion. For them anything primary and elemental must be evil. But it is the curious consequence that while we have been deluged with the wildest experiments in primitive romance, they have all missed the real romance of being primitive. They have described scenes that are wholly imaginary, in which the men of the Stone Age are men of stone like walking statues; in which the Assyrians or Egyptians are as stiff or as painted as their own most archaic art. But none of these makers of imaginary scenes have tried to imagine what it must really have been like to see those things as fresh which we see as familiar. They have not seen a man discovering fire like a child discovering fireworks. They have not seen a man playing with the wonderful invention called the wheel, like a boy playing at putting up a wireless station. They have never put the spirit of youth into their descriptions of the youth of the world. It follows that amid all their primitive or prehistoric fancies there are no jokes. There are not even practical jokes, in connection with the practical inventions. And this is very sharply defined in the particular case of hieroglyphics; for there seems to be serious indication that the whole high human art of scripture or writing began with a joke.”

The gift of the past and the toy of science must be maintained lest we fall into the fallacy that what is new is always best.


Thoughts:

1. The battle between the circle thinkers (or ball thinker) and cross thinkers is summed up in the first chapter of “The Ball and the Cross” a fiction written by Chesterton.  It can be summed up by this discourse:

“A plain of sad-colored cloud lay along the level of the top of the Cathedral dome, so that the ball and the cross looked like a buoy riding on a leaden sea. As the flying ship swept towards it, this plain of cloud looked as dry and definite and rocky as any grey desert. […] Beside the ship and beneath it (for it swung just under the ball), the immeasurable dome itself shot out and down into the dark like a combination of voiceless cataracts. Or it was like some cyclopean sea-beast sitting above London and letting down its tentacles bewilderingly on every side, a monstrosity in that starless heaven. For the clouds that belonged to London had closed over the heads of the voyagers sealing up the entrance of the upper air. They had broken through a roof and come into a temple of twilight.

Professor Lucifer slapped his hand twice upon the surface of the great orb as if he were caressing some enormous animal. “This is the fellow,” he said, “this is the one for my money.”

“May I with all respect inquire,” asked the old monk, “what on earth you are talking about?”

“Why this,” cried Lucifer, smiting the ball again, “here is the only symbol, my boy. So fat. So satisfied. Not like that scraggy individual, stretching his arms in stark weariness.” And he pointed up to the cross, his face dark with a grin. “I was telling you just now, Michael, that I can prove the best part of the rationalist case and the Christian humbug from any symbol you liked to give me, from any instance I came across. Here is an instance with a vengeance. What could possibly express your philosophy and my philosophy better than the shape of that cross and the shape of this ball? This globe is reasonable; that cross is unreasonable. It is a four-legged animal, with one leg longer than the others. The globe is inevitable. The cross is arbitrary. Above all the globe is at unity with itself; the cross is primarily and above all things at enmity with itself. The cross is the conflict of two hostile lines, of irreconcilable direction. That silent thing up there is essentially a collision, a crash, a struggle in stone. Pah! that sacred symbol of yours has actually given its name to a description of desperation and muddle. When we speak of men at once ignorant of each other and frustrated by each other, we say they are at cross-purposes. Away with the thing! The very shape of it is a contradiction in terms.”

“And what is that, pray?” inquired Michael, meekly.

“The cross is on top of the ball,” said Professor Lucifer, simply. “That is surely wrong. The ball should be on top of the cross. The cross is a mere barbaric prop; the ball is perfection. The cross at its best is but the bitter tree of man’s history; the ball is the rounded, the ripe and final fruit. And the fruit should be at the top of the tree, not at the bottom of it.”

“Oh!” said the monk, a wrinkle coming into his forehead, “so you think that in a rationalistic scheme of symbolism the ball should be on top of the cross?”

“It sums up my whole allegory,” said the professor.

“Well, that is really very interesting,” resumed Michael slowly, “because I think in that case you would see a most singular effect, an effect that has generally been achieved by all those able and powerful systems which rationalism, or the religion of the ball, has produced to lead or teach mankind. You would see, I think, that thing happen which is always the ultimate embodiment and logical outcome of your logical scheme.”

“What are you talking about?” asked Lucifer. “What would happen?”

“I mean it would fall down,” said the monk, looking wistfully into the void.”

2.  It is Religion and Christianity that has and will continue to bring joy into the world.  Just as there is creativity with rules, there is freedom in submission – a painter cannot paint without a frame to reign in the paint, just as a leader cannot lead without being subservient to the people.  Joy comes through serving, fun occurs when we do what we ought to, yet even those who are not submitting do not have this joy. Once again this can be expressed by Chesterton but this time in the poem ‘The Song of the Strange Ascetic”

“If I had been a Heathen,
I’d have praised the purple vine,
My slaves should dig the vineyards,
And I would drink the wine.
But Higgins is a Heathen,
And his slaves grow lean and grey,
That he may drink some tepid milk
Exactly twice a day.

If I had been a Heathen,
I’d have crowned Neaera’s curls,
And filled my life with love affairs,
My house with dancing girls;
But Higgins is a Heathen,
And to lecture rooms is forced,
Where his aunts, who are not married,
Demand to be divorced.

If I had been a Heathen,
I’d have sent my armies forth,
And dragged behind my chariots
The Chieftains of the North.
But Higgins is a Heathen,
And he drives the dreary quill,
To lend the poor that funny cash
That makes them poorer still.

If I had been a Heathen,
I’d have piled my pyre on high,
And in a great red whirlwind
Gone roaring to the sky;
But Higgins is a Heathen,
And a richer man than I:
And they put him in an oven,
Just as if he were a pie.

Now who that runs can read it,
The riddle that I write,
Of why this poor old sinner,
Should sin without delight-
But I, I cannot read it
(Although I run and run),
Of them that do not have the faith,
And will not have the fun.”

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