Heretics – Chapter 12: Paganism and Mr. Lowes Dickinson

Heretics

I am continuing my journey through G.K. Chesterton’s Heretics.

Mr. Lows Dickson is one of the political figures of the earth 20th century that has been lost in the drifting sands of time. In fact most of what one can quickly find on him is written by Chesterton. It is usually the people who are not glamorous or historically famous that impact us the most today, just like unnoticed ripples that cause a boat to drift.

What is the issue here that affects us today? Being a pagan in a post-Christian society but still acting like it is a Christian society.

Heresy exposed: Having the arrogance to keep the virtues that came from Christianity but rejecting Christianity at the same time.

Summary of Chapter:

In the days of the early church, the term pagan was applied to those who worshiped different faiths and usually were in what was considered the outskirts of society. However, like a word that is commonly used it loses meaning after time. Chesterton tries to make the term clear:

The term “pagan” is continually used in fiction and light literature as meaning a man without any religion, whereas a pagan was generally a man with about half a dozen. The pagans, according to this notion, were continually crowning themselves with flowers and dancing about in an irresponsible state, whereas, if there were two things that the best pagan civilization did honestly believe in, they were a rather too rigid dignity and a much too rigid responsibility. Pagans are depicted as above all things inebriate and lawless, whereas they were above all things reasonable and respectable. They are praised as disobedient when they had only one great virtue–civic obedience. They are envied and admired as shamelessly happy when they had only one great sin–despair.

The whole world was pagan before Christianity, and not in the prerogative sense. There really were no atheists in todays sense and in fact Christianity was called atheistic because there was no pantheon to worship. However, there was (and still is for some places) deep hopelessness. See either the pagan belief is true: the universe is chaotic and there is order placed on it but really is just chaos. That or the Christian belief is true: the universe is ordered but it has fallen into chaos for a time but there really is order. It is very true that Plato argued for order but in the end paganism won.

Let me set about making the matter clear. There is one broad fact about the relations of Christianity and Paganism which is so simple that many will smile at it, but which is so important that all moderns forget it. The primary fact about Christianity and Paganism is that one came after the other. Mr. Lowes Dickinson speaks of them as if they were parallel ideals –even speaks as if Paganism were the newer of the two, and the more fitted for a new age. He suggests that the Pagan ideal will be the ultimate good of man; but if that is so, we must at least ask with more curiosity than he allows for, why it was that man actually found his ultimate good on earth under the stars, and threw it away again. It is this extraordinary enigma to which I propose to attempt an answer. There is only one thing in the modern world that has been face to face with Paganism; there is only one thing in the modern world which in that sense knows anything about Paganism: and that is Christianity.

The issue is this, paganism is not a parallel belief or a new belief. It is the beliefs of Hesiod and Homer, the beliefs of ancestor worship and tribalism, it is the great Delphi and it is the background from what Christianity came from and what Christianity defeated (for a long time). What good is science in a chaotic universe? What good are the virtues of love, charity, and romance in a chaotic universe?

The greatest tribute to Christianity in the modern world is Tennyson’s “Ulysses.” The poet reads into the story of Ulysses the conception of an incurable desire to wander. But the real Ulysses does not desire to wander at all. He desires to get home. He displays his heroic and unconquerable qualities in resisting the misfortunes which baulk him; but that is all. There is no love of adventure for its own sake; that is a Christian product. There is no love of Penelope for her own sake; that is a Christian product. Everything in that old world would appear to have been clean and obvious. A good man was a good man; a bad man was a bad man. For this reason they had no charity; for charity is a reverent agnosticism towards the complexity of the soul. For this reason they had no such thing as the art of fiction, the novel; for the novel is a creation of the mystical idea of charity. For them a pleasant landscape was pleasant, and an unpleasant landscape unpleasant. Hence they had no idea of romance; for romance consists in thinking a thing more delightful because it is dangerous; it is a Christian idea. In a word, we cannot reconstruct or even imagine the beautiful and astonishing pagan world. It was a world in which common sense was really common.

All of the great Christian virtues, that are celebrated in modern society are virtues that are selfless. Therefore the great virtue that undergirds all other virtues in humility. Without it, the world seems very drab and unattractive.

The great psychological discovery of Paganism, which turned it into Christianity, can be expressed with some accuracy in one phrase. The pagan set out, with admirable sense, to enjoy himself. By the end of his civilization he had discovered that a man cannot enjoy himself and continue to enjoy anything else.

[…]

Humility is the thing which is for ever renewing the earth and the stars. It is humility, and not duty, which preserves the stars from wrong, from the unpardonable wrong of casual resignation; it is through humility that the most ancient heavens for us are fresh and strong. The curse that came before history has laid on us all a tendency to be weary of wonders. If we saw the sun for the first time it would be the most fearful and beautiful of meteors. Now that we see it for the hundredth time we call it, in the hideous and blasphemous phrase of Wordsworth, “the light of common day.” We are inclined to increase our claims. We are inclined to demand six suns, to demand a blue sun, to demand a green sun. Humility is perpetually putting us back in the primal darkness. There all light is lightning, startling and instantaneous. Until we understand that original dark, in which we have neither sight nor expectation, we can give no hearty and childlike praise to the splendid sensationalism of things. The terms “pessimism” and “optimism,” like most modern terms, are unmeaning. But if they can be used in any vague sense as meaning something, we may say that in this great fact pessimism is the very basis of optimism. The man who destroys himself creates the universe. To the humble man, and to the humble man alone, the sun is really a sun; to the humble man, and to the humble man alone, the sea is really a sea. When he looks at all the faces in the street, he does not only realize that men are alive, he realizes with a dramatic pleasure that they are not dead.

When people claim that being pagan is of the future, we need to gently remind them that it is of the past. If we follow paganism to its end we will reach Christianity because only Christianity can answer its riddles – it cannot lead anywhere else unless one is not a critical person.

My objection to Mr. Lowes Dickinson and the reassertors of the pagan ideal is, then, this. I accuse them of ignoring definite human discoveries in the moral world, discoveries as definite, though not as material, as the discovery of the circulation of the blood. We cannot go back to an ideal of reason and sanity. For mankind has discovered that reason does not lead to sanity. We cannot go back to an ideal of pride and enjoyment. For mankind has discovered that pride does not lead to enjoyment. I do not know by what extraordinary mental accident modern writers so constantly connect the idea of progress with the idea of independent thinking. Progress is obviously the antithesis of independent thinking. For under independent or individualistic thinking, every man starts at the beginning, and goes, in all probability, just as far as his father before him. But if there really be anything of the nature of progress, it must mean, above all things, the careful study and assumption of the whole of the past. I accuse Mr. Lowes Dickinson and his school of reaction in the only real sense. If he likes, let him ignore these great historic mysteries–the mystery of charity, the mystery of chivalry, the mystery of faith. If he likes, let him ignore the plough or the printing-press. But if we do revive and pursue the pagan ideal of a simple and rational self-completion we shall end–where Paganism ended. I do not mean that we shall end in destruction. I mean that we shall end in Christianity.

Thoughts:

Going back to paganism is like removing all the progress we have had in philosophy, theology, culture, and society. Here is an example using the story of Ulysses:

In the tale by Homer Odysseus (Ulysses in the Latin) wanted to return from his trials in Troy and so braved the wrath of the gods multiple times to do so (until they let him). All being said he did not want to love his wife as he slept around with most women he came across. He just wanted to survive.

However, Tennyson wrote the poem Ulysses depicting the now aged Odysseus setting off for adventure once again. This is (and I agree with Chesterton) a purely Christian idea. To be restless and seek adventure for adventures sake, to explore creation, “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield” is not something an arrogant man would do. Why, because adventure is something that is found in humility, only a humble man will love the world (John 3:16) and only a humble man will actually be secure.

If paganism returns and undoes the incredible progress Christianity has made it will be like Odysseus never leaving the island of Calypso. Taking and staying with cheap pleasures when there is both home and adventure calling.

This is great heresy of today is that we too arrogant to see the contributions of a post-pagan Christian society. Now that the world is post-Christian it is now worse off than the pagans were at the beginning. Not only is there despair, now people don’t care that they live that way.

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