The Everlasting Man – Part 1, Chapter 5: Man and Mythologies

Everlasting ManIn the journey of life we tell tales, some tall others short.  Sometimes these tales are personal (like this one of mine) and other times they are parables.  They could also be called dreams (as Chesterton does in the first sentence), as dreams are reflections on the past and of the future.  Not sleep dreams, but the dreams of a dreamer.  In truth this chapter reflects on the “sort of tales the traveler tells to himself”

Overview of Chapter:

Now we reach the second category in the division of religions (God; the Gods; the Demons; the Philosophers).  Last chapter was God and man’s flight from a ‘Numinous‘.  In the progress (or regression) of civilizations we reach the next category of  ‘the Gods’.  There is a hint of something coming, a hero that fulfills the need expressed in these myths – but that world changing event is saved for the second half of the book.

Outline of Chapter

Just as in chapter one, man is primarily a creature of art.  He paints, creates, and writes.  This view of the creative is neglected by those who have left the field of the creative.  Of course science ought to and used to be creative but it has lost it of late.

“All this mythological business belongs to the poetical part of men. It seems strangely forgotten nowadays that a myth is a work of imagination and therefore a work of art. It needs a poet to make it. It needs a poet to criticize it. There are more poets than non-poets in the world, as is proved by the popular origin of such legends. But for some reason I have never heard explained, it is only the minority of unpoetical people who are allowed to write critical studies of these popular poems. We do not submit a sonnet to a mathematician or a song to a calculating boy; but we do indulge the equally fantastic idea that folk-lore can be treated as a science. Unless these things are appreciated artistically they are not appreciated at all.”

The art of folk-lore like all art is not just on the beautiful but also the ugly.  It is a combination of loss and triumph, of warning and jubilation, of worship from both the sun and the animals.  Nothing should be neglected just because it is ugly – a book ought not to be judged by it’s cover nor a joke by it’s subject.  For most folklore are humor in disguise.

“Mythology is a lost art, one of the few arts that really are lost; but it is an art. The horned moon and the horned moon-calf make a harmonious and almost a quiet pattern. And throwing your grandmother into the sky is not good behavior; but it is perfectly good taste. Thus scientists seldom understand, as artists understand, that one branch of the beautiful is the ugly. They seldom allow for the legitimate liberty of the grotesque. And they will dismiss a savage myth as merely coarse and clumsy and an evidence of degradation, because it has not all the beauty of the herald Mercury new lighted on a heaven-kissing hill; when it really has the beauty of the Mock Turtle or the Mad Hatter. It is the supreme proof of a man being prosaic that he always insists on poetry being poetical. Sometimes the humor is in the very subject as well as the style of the fable.”

Why then were myths and folklore created?  There is often a very scientific (and wrong) view, that it is a worship of nature.  However this  answer does not fit the question.  All myths are specific: Mount Olympus, the specific river spirit, even the gods had specific names, duties, and powers.  The writes of the myths and folklore know that around every tree and bend there is something that causes something to happen. Even we Christians forget this fact.

“It is often said that pagan mythology was a personification of the powers of nature. The phrase is true in a sense, but it is very unsatisfactory; because it implies that the forces are abstractions and the personification is artificial. Myths are not allegories. Natural powers are not in this case abstractions. […] Every true artist does feel, consciously or unconsciously, that he is touching transcendental truths; that his images are shadows of things seen through the veil. In other words, the natural mystic does know that there is something there; something behind the clouds or within the trees; but he believes that the pursuit of beauty is the way to find it; that imagination is a sort of incantation that can call it up. Behind all these things is the fact that beauty and terror are very real things and related to a real spiritual world; and to touch them at all, even in doubt or fancy, is to stir the deep things of the soul. We all understand that and the pagans understood it. The point is that paganism did not really stir the soul except with these doubts and fancies, with the consequence that we to-day can have little beyond doubts and fancies about paganism. All the best critics agree that all the greatest poets, in pagan Hellas for example, had an attitude towards their gods which is quite queer and puzzling to men in the Christian era. There seems to be an admitted conflict between the god and the man; but everybody seems to be doubtful about which is the hero and which is the villain.”

Obviously man knows that something is wrong with themselves; they do not fit in with the animals, they are doing terrible things to their own kind.  To understand the world around them these stories are created but they are not religion nor do they fulfill what religion does.  The myths are only explanations not creeds.

“These are the myths: and he who has no sympathy with myths has no sympathy with men. But he who has most sympathy with myths will most fully realize that they are not and never were a religion, in the sense that Christianity or even Islam is a religion. They satisfy some of the needs satisfied by a religion; and notably the need for doing certain things at certain dates; the need of the twin ideas of festivity and formality. But though they provide a man with a calendar they do not provide him with a creed. A man did not stand up and say ‘I believe in Jupiter and Juno and Neptune,’ etc., as he stands up and says ‘I believe in God the Father Almighty,’ and the rest of the Apostles Creed. Many believed in some and not in others, or more in some and less in others, or only in a very vague poetical sense in any. There was no moment when they were all collected into an orthodox order which men would fight and be tortured to keep intact. Still less did anybody ever say in that fashion: ‘I believe in Odin and Thor and Freya,’ for outside Olympus even the Olympian order grows cloudy and chaotic. It seems clear to me that Thor was not a god at all but a hero. Nothing resembling a religion would picture anybody resembling a god as groping like a Pygmy in a great cavern, that turned out to be the glove of a giant. That is the glorious ignorance called adventure. Thor may have been a great adventurer; but to call him a god is like trying to compare Jehovah with Jack and the Beanstalk. Odin seems to have been a real barbarian chief, possibly of the Dark Ages after Christianity. Polytheism fades away at its fringes into fairy-tales or barbaric memories; it is not a thing like monotheism as held by serious monotheists. Again it does satisfy the need to cry out on some uplifted name or some noble memory in moments that are themselves noble and uplifted; such as the birth of a child or the saving of a city. But the name was so used by many to whom it was only a name.”

Myth is an attempt to reach the divine through it’s own field: that of inventiveness and art. The myths do not have the answers (as some have claimed) but are only the questing of the creative minds. Myths are man-made but appeal to the divine problem of how things are.

“The crude fancy is no more a creed than the ideal fancy is a creed. Certainly the pagan does not disbelieve like an atheist, any more than he believes like a Christian. He feels the presence of powers about which he guesses and invents. St. Paul said that the Greeks had one altar to an unknown god. But in truth all their gods were unknown gods. And the real break in history did come when St. Paul declared to them whom they had ignorantly worshiped. The substance of all such paganism may be summarized thus. It is an attempt to reach the divine reality through the imagination alone; in its own field reason does not restrain it at all. It is vital to view of all history that reason is something separate from religion even in the most rational of these civilizations. It is only as an afterthought, when such cults are decadent or on the defensive, that a few Neo-Platonists or a few Brahmins are found trying to rationalize them, and even then only by trying to allegorise them. But in reality the rivers of mythology and philosophy run parallel and do not mingle till they meet in the sea of Christendom. Simple secularists still talk as if the Church had introduced a sort of schism between reason and religion. The truth is that the Church was actually the first thing that ever tried to combine reason and religion. There had never before been any such union of the priests and the philosophers.”

In the medievel period there were four philosophers who drew reason and religion together (reason and faith)

Tertullian – Credo quia absurdum est (I believe because it is absurd) Faith and human reason were opposite sides of the spectrum with no middle ground; ‘I believe because it is absurd; it is certain because it is impossible!’ Tertullian wanted to contrast the strength of faith to the inconsistency of reason, for example no man could create God, as that would seem absurd for a temporal being to create an infinite God; therefore God must exist. He uses reason to expose the problem of using reason by itself.

Augustine – Crede ut intelligas (I believe in order that I may know)Faith and reason are not mutually exclusive, as both are created to serve the same end, but faith serves as a foundation of reason. “Augustine does not mean by this [‘First believe, then understand’] that we begin with faith and then go on to knowledge. Faith, in a sense, is a precondition of knowing.”To raise the value of reason to the level, or right beneath faith Augustine emphasized the relationship of reason to faith, that reason is used to illuminate concepts such as the trinity and the existence of God.

Anselm – Credo ut intelligam (I believe in order that I might understand)This perspective goes beyond just knowing but to the level of understanding.  This differs from the Tertullian model that separates reason from faith, and the Augustine viewpoint where reason is subservient to faith.  Reason was the lynch pin of faith. If God did not give man the captivity of faith, man would still have the capacity to discover God.  Anselm points to the school of Athens, as they were seeking the nature of the cosmos even without knowing God, and convinced themselves that something was controlling the universe weather forms or an unmoved mover.

Aquinas – Intelligo et credo (I understand and I believe)He set faith and reason apart but having interconnected features, but there can never be a contradiction for they are both God given faith finds one truth and reason discovers another; when these truths are collaborated – Truth is confirmed.

But before the hands of the great scholars combined reason and faith, there was a search for answers. Others have worked from this search like Paul in Acts and also Pascal among others. We have the answer to this great mystery but we need not forget where the world was before this revelation nor discard all mysteries.

“In a word, mythology is a search; it is something that combines a recurrent desire with a recurrent doubt, mixing a most hungry sincerity in the idea of seeking for a place with a most dark and deep and mysterious levity about all the places found. […] Those who talk about Pagan Christs have less sympathy with Paganism than with Christianity. Those who call these cults ‘religions,’ and ‘compare’ them with the certitude and challenge of the Church have much less appreciation than we have of what made heathenism human, or of why classic literature is still something that hangs in the air like a song. It is no very human tenderness for the hungry to prove that hunger is the same as food. It is no very genial understanding of youth to argue that hope destroys the need for happiness. And it is utterly unreal to argue that these images in the mind, admired entirely in the abstract, were even in the same world with a living man and a living polity that were worshiped because they were concrete. We might as well say that a boy playing at robbers is the same as a man in his first day in the trenches; or that boy’s first fancies about ‘the not impossible she’ are the same as the sacrament of marriage. They are fundamentally different exactly where they are superficially similar; we might almost say they are not the same even when they are the same. They are only different because one is real and the other is not. I do not mean merely that I myself believe that one is true and the other is not. I mean that one was never meant to be true in the same sense as the other. The sense in which it was meant to be true I have tried to suggest vaguely here, but it is undoubtedly very subtle and almost indescribable. It is so subtle that the students who profess to put it up as a rival to our religion miss the whole meaning and purport of their own study. We know better than the scholars, even those of us who are no scholars, what was in that hollow cry that went forth over the dead Adonis and why the Great Mother had a daughter wedded to death. We have entered more deeply than they into the Eleusinian Mysteries and have passed a higher grade, where gate within gate guarded the wisdom of Orpheus. We know the meaning of all the myths. We know the last secret revealed to the perfect initiate. And it is not the voice of a priest or a prophet saying ‘These things are.’ It is the voice of a dreamer and an idealist crying, ‘Why cannot these things be?'”


As many of us have heard of the God-shaped hole both talked about by Pascal and Augustine (in the Confessions), we must also remember that this is also ‘feeling homesick at Home’ the end of chapter five of Orthodoxy, “The Flag of the World.” Chesterton wrote, “Christian optimism is based on the fact that we do not fit in to the world. I had tried to be happy by telling myself that man is an animal, like any other which sought its meat from God. But now I really was happy, for I had learnt that man is a monstrosity. I had been right in feeling all things as odd, for I myself was at once worse and better than all things.”  and again later on in the book “”And my haunting instinct that somehow good was not merely a tool to be used, but a relic to be guarded, like the goods from Crusoe’s ship – even that had been the wild whisper of something originally wise, for, according to Christianity, we were indeed the survivors of a wreck, the crew of a golden ship that had gone down before the beginning of the world. … I knew now why grass has always seemed to me as queer as the green beard of a giant, and why I could feel homesick at home.” Also in Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis writes “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”

Also there is the child-like wonder that is the first step toward the re-discovery of the God that we all have rebelled and have run from.  At the end of the poem (written by Chesterton entitled: ‘On the Disastrous Spread of Aestheticism in all Classes” this is what he writes:

“But one thing moved: a little child
Crashed through the flower and fern:
And all my soul rose up to greet
The sage of whom I learn.

I looked into his awful eyes:
I waited his decree:
I made ingenious attempts
To sit upon his knee.

The babe upraised his wondering eyes,
And timidly he said,
“A trend towards experiment
In modern minds is bred.

“I feel the will to roam, to learn
By test, experience, nous,
That fire is hot and ocean deep,
And wolves carnivorous.

“My brain demands complexity,”
The lisping cherub cried.
I looked at him, and only said,
“Go on. The world is wide.”

A tear rolled down his pinafore,
“Yet from my life must pass
The simple love of sun and moon,
The old games in the grass;

“Now that my back is to my home
Could these again be found?”
I looked on him and only said,
“Go on. The world is round.””


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