All I Survey/Essay XXV

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Essay XXIV All I Survey
Essay XXV
written by Gilbert Keith Chesterton
Essay XXVI



Essay XXV: On Evolutionary Educators

WITH the high priests of Mumbo-Jumbo I am on friendly terms; with the worshippers of the Green Monkey and the Seven-headed Snake I can chat cheerfully if we meet by chance in society; with the Blood-drinkers of Baphomet I have tactfully agreed to differ; with the Howling Dervishes of the Red Desert I see the road open to reunion; from those who offer their babies to the Most Ancient Crocodile I differ only in opinion; of those who consider it a sign of divine favour that their mother's head is bitten off by a Bengal tiger, I am willing to believe that they are better than their creed; to those who believe the sea to be the green blood of a great giant whose anæmic visage is exhibited in the moon, I am ready to concede that we may be looking at two different aspects of truth; in those who sincerely hope to gratify the god of their fathers by eating nothing but live scorpions, I respectfully salute a counsel of perfection which I am not myself called upon to follow; in those who paint themselves scarlet all over and dance before the Nine-headed Elephant, I recognize a ritualistic practice which franker and fuller discussion might well commend even to less advanced schools of thought in the Universal Church; of Thugs I think hopefully; of Bashi-Bazouks I hear the most reassuring news; and to Christian Scientists I extend Christian charity. But there is one way of writing about such things and such people which seems to me to suggest something utterly subhuman and much less than half-witted; something so stunted that we can hardly recognize it as the stature of manhood; something so stupid that we can hardly call it the mind of man; something so flat and unlifting that it might possibly be the mind of one of those flat, pale fishes that lie on the floor of the deep dark sea and live only in two dimensions. And this mentality is the mentality of a large number of people who write educational works on evolutionary history, and are so grossly benighted that they really believe themselves to be enlightened.

For the depths of a superstition, even the depths of a degradation, are at least depths. They do not shout with shallow conceit at finding nothing but shallows. There is something in the grossest idolatry or the craziest mythology that has a quality of groping and adumbration. There is more in life than we understand; some have told us that if we ate a scorpion or worshipped a green monkey we might understand it better. But the evolutionary educator, having never since his birth been in anything but the dark, naturally believes that he is in the daylight. His very notion of daylight is something which is so blank as to be merely blind. There are no depths in it, either of light or darkness. There a no dimensions in it; not only no fourth, but no third no second, and hardly a first; certainly no dimension in which the mind can move. Therefore the mind remains fixed, in a posture that is called progressive. It never looks back, even for remembrance; it never looks the other way, even for experiment; it never looks at the other side, even for a paradox; it never winks the other eye. It simply knows all there is; and there does not seem to be much to know. I have recently been looking through a specimen of this sort of scientific summary of the story of man; and I am relieving my feelings.

Those writers sometimes say they are agnostic about God. Would to God they would consent to be agnostic about Man! Would they would leave the love of beauty or mystery as mysterious as they really are. Every child is born facing some open questions. He finds them open just as he finds his ears or his lungs or his nostrils open; and he knows by instinct that through these open questions he draws in the air and life of the universe. Why dreams are different from daylight, why dead things are different from live things, why he himself is different from others, why beauty makes us restless and even love is a spring of quarrels, why we cannot so fit into our environment as to forget it and ourselves; all these things are felt vaguely by children on long, empty afternoons; or by primitive poets writing the epics and legends of the morning of the world. And all legends, however barbaric, are filled with the wind of all this wider questioning. They all refer back to these ancient unfathomable wells which go down deeper than the reason into the very roots of the world, but contain the springs that refresh the reason and keep it active for ever. The object of the rationalist historian is to choke up those wells. He puts in a sort of plug, like a stupid plumber, to stop the flowing of the fountain of youth. The plug is generally a word; a stupid word used as a stopper upon thought. It does not solve the mystery; it only stupefies or paralyses the power to realize that it is a mystery. When a boy wants to walk about, he knows it is mixed up with feelings he has not fathomed and a song called "Over the Hills and Far Away." When a poet walks about, he realizes something strange in the fact that he can walk about, and that a tree or a mountain cannot walk about. But the object of the pseudo-scientist is to utter a sort of formula of enchantment which will chill and freeze these wanderers for ever. If their bodies still move about, at least their minds will never move again. He utters the magic words "Man has evolved powers of locomotion"; and man loses them on the spot. Those who were previously walking about remain stuck like statues in the garden of the wizard.

To take one case: the book I read repeated for the millionth time that modesty must be meaningless because the amount of clothing varies among various races. As if any theologian or moralist of standing ever said that the divine plan of the universe dictated a particular length of skirt! All they dictated was decent acquiescence in whatever was regarded as a reasonably unobtrusive length of skirt. But the writer did not think much of modesty as a reason for clothing; it was mentioned in Genesis and therefore could not be true. Now it is quite true that ornament is a very early element in this mysterious human behaviour; though the ornament often refers to taboos about sex. But this writer could not be content to say that dress began with ornament. He must insist on saying that dress began with ostentation. That is to say, he was bound to begin with a word that belittles and depreciates; even when it is inapplicable. A whole tribe could not wear the same clothes out of ostentation; and in our modern tribe it is commoner to wear no clothes with that object. Besides, ornament began with all sorts of things other than clothes; pottery and walls and weapons and so on. And if the writer supposes that one superior baboon could say to another slightly inferior baboon, "Paint or weave me an ornament that coils like the whirlpool or dances like the waves, that catches the stars in a net or branches into suns like a rose-tree into roses; because I am feeling ostentatious this morning," and that the common workman would then carry out the task--why then the writer considerably underrates the subtlety even of the most primitive and prehistoric art. But he must have a word that shrivels and cheapens something; so he calls the whole mystery of the human thirst for beauty "ostentation." But anybody, who has read many books of this swaggering scientific sort, knows that there can be a good deal of ostentation with no beauty at all.