Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Aphorisms From G. K. Chesterton's Book, The Everlasting Man

(New York: Dodd, Mead and Co., 1925) [ link to online version ]

[citations in blue are not included in my book, A Treasury of Chesterton Aphorisms]


It is strange that aesthetics, or mere feeling, which is now allowed to usurp where it has no rights at all, to wreck reason with pragmatism and morals with anarchy, is apparently not allowed to give a purely aesthetic judgement on what is obviously a purely aesthetic question. (I-5)

Anthropologists and Anthropology

Sometimes the professor with his bone becomes almost as dangerous as a dog with his bone.

A man of the future finding the ruins of our factory machinery might as fairly say that we were acquainted with iron and with no other substance; and announce the discovery that the proprietor and manager of the factory undoubtedly walked about naked -- or possibly wore iron hats and trousers. (I-2)


Art is the signature of man.

All we can say of this notion of reproducing things in shadow or representative shape is that it exists nowhere in nature except in man; and that we cannot even talk about it without treating man as something separate from nature. (I-1)

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. (I-5)


The early Church was ascetic, but she proved that she was not pessimistic, simply by condemning the pessimists.

They were ascetic because asceticism was the only possible purge of the sins of the world; but in the very thunder of their anathemas they affirmed for ever that their asceticism was not to be anti-human or anti-natural; that they did wish to purge the world and not destroy it.

He might stand night and day on the top of a pillar and be adored for being an ascetic, but he could not say that the world was a mistake or the marriage state a sin without being a heretic. (II-4)

Athanasius, St.

It was emphatically he who really was fighting for a God of Love against a God of colourless and remote cosmic control; the God of the stoics and the agnostics. (II-4)


It is the reversal of a subconscious assumption in the soul; the sense that there is a meaning and a direction in the world it sees. (I-8)


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. (I-5)


Now those who seem to be nearest to the study of Buddha, and certainly those who write most clearly and intelligently about him, convince me for one that he was simply a philosopher who founded a successful school of philosophy, and was turned into a sort of divus or sacred being merely by the more mysterious and unscientific atmosphere of all such traditions in Asia. (I-6)

Christ said 'Seek first the kingdom, and all these things shall be added unto you.' Buddha said 'Seek first the kingdom, and then you will need none of these things.' (II-3)

Carthage and Carthaginians

These highly civilised people really met together to invoke the blessing of heaven on their empire by throwing hundreds of their infants into a large furnace.

We can only realise the combination by imagining a number of Manchester merchants with chimney-pot hats and mutton-chop whiskers, going to church every Sunday at eleven o'clock to see a baby roasted alive. (I-7)


It met the mythological search for romance by being a story and the philosophical search for truth by being a true story. (II-5)

Church, Catholic

Surely anybody's commonsense would tell him that enthusiasts who only met through their common enthusiasm for a leader whom they loved, would not instantly rush away to establish everything that he hated.

If we trace it back to such very early Christians we must trace it back to Christ.

It was not an official fashion because it was not a fashion at all.

It was something that could coincide with movements and fashions, could control them and could survive them.

It is ascetical and at war with ascetics, Roman and in revolt against Rome, monotheistic and fighting furiously against monotheism; harsh in its condemnation of harshness; a riddle not to be explained even as unreason.

That is the only explanation I can find of a thing from the first so detached and so confident, condemning things that looked so like itself, refusing help from powers that seemed so essential to its existence, sharing on its human side all the passions of the age, yet always at the supreme moment suddenly rising superior to them, never saying exactly what it was expected to say and never needing to unsay what it had said; I can find no explanation except that, like Pallas from the brain of Jove, it had indeed come forth out of the mind of God, mature and mighty and armed for judgement and for war. (II-4)

We might sometimes fancy that the Church grows younger as the world grows old. (Conclusion)


To compare the Christian and Confucian religions is like comparing a theist with an English squire or asking whether a man is a believer in immortality or a hundred-per-cent American.

The best authorities seem to think that though Confucianism is in one sense agnosticism, it does not directly contradict the old theism, precisely because it has become a rather vague theism. (I-4)

Confucius was not a religious founder or even a religious teacher; possibly not even a religious man. (I-6)

Confucianism may profess to satisfy the need of the philosophers for order and reason; it does not even profess to satisfy the need of the mystics for miracle and sacrament and the consecration of concrete things. (II-1)

Contraception; Anti-Child Mentality

People would understand better the popular fury against the witches, if they remembered that the malice most commonly attributed to them was preventing the birth of children.

This sense that the forces of evil especially threaten childhood is found again in the enormous popularity of the Child Martyr of the Middle Ages. (I-6)

Creation; Creator

Nobody can imagine how nothing could turn into something. (I-1)

God also was a Cave-Man, and had also traced strange shapes of creatures, curiously coloured, upon the wall of the world; but the pictures that he made had come to life. (II-1)

Cross, The

It is true, and even tautological, to say that the cross is the crux of the whole matter. (I-6)

Crowding, Urban

The human unity with which I deal here is not to be confounded with this modern industrial monotony and herding, which is rather a congestion than a communion. (I-4)


An event is not any more intrinsically intelligible or unintelligible because of the pace at which it moves. (I-1)

They talk of searching for the habits and habitat of the Missing Link; as if one were to talk of being on friendly terms with the gap in a narrative or the hole in an argument, of taking a walk with a non-sequitur or dining with an undistributed middle. (I-2)


Democracy is a thing which is always breaking down through the complexity of civilisation.

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. (I-3)


Despair does not lie in being weary of suffering, but in being weary of joy. (I-8)


The story of Egypt might have been invented to point the moral that man does not necessarily begin with despotism because he is barbarous, but very often finds his way to despotism because he is civilised. (I-3)

Dogma (Catholic)

What the denouncer of dogma really means is not that dogma is bad; but rather that dogma is too good to be true. (II-5)

All that is condemned in Catholic tradition, authority, and dogmatism and the refusal to retract and modify, are but the natural human attributes of a man with a message relating to a fact. (Conclusion)


And unfortunately doubt and caution are the last things commonly encouraged by the loose evolutionism of current culture. (I-2)

Fairy Tales

Peter Pan does not belong to the world of Pan but the world of Peter. (II-3)


Those that are supposed to derive from the mysterious Manes are called Manichean; kindred cults are more generally known as Gnostic; they are mostly of a labyrinthine complexity, but the point to insist on is the pessimism; the fact that nearly all in one form or another regarded the creation of the world as the work of an evil spirit.

The creed declared that man was sinful, but it did not declare that life was evil, and it proved it by damning those who did. (II-4)

Heresies and Heretics

And it is rather hard that the Catholics should be blamed by the same critics for persecuting the heretics and also for sympathising with the heresy. (II-4)

Higher Criticism

And it is stark hypocrisy to pretend that nine-tenths of the higher critics and scientific evolutionists and professors of comparative religion are in the least impartial. (Introduction)

The date of the Fourth Gospel, which at one time was steadily growing later and later, is now steadily growing earlier and earlier; until critics are staggered at the dawning and dreadful possibility that it might be something like what it professes to be. (II-4)

Historiography and Historians

But we are not supposed to notice such verbal trifles when sceptical historians talk of the part of history that is prehistoric. (I-2)

History, Church

But the first extraordinary fact which marks this history is this: that Europe has been turned upside down over and over again; and that at the end of each of these revolutions the same religion has again been found on top. (II-6)


Socrates, the wisest man, knows that he knows nothing. (II-3)


An iconoclast may be indignant; an iconoclast may be justly indignant; but an iconoclast is not impartial. (Introduction)

Incarnation (of Jesus)

Since that day it has never been quite enough to say that God is in his heaven and all is right with the world, since the rumour that God had left his heavens to set it right. (II-3)

It might well be asked, indeed, why any one accepting the Bethlehem tradition should object to golden or gilded ornament since the Magi themselves brought gold, why he should dislike incense in the church since incense was brought even to the stable. (II-4)


If Christianity had never been anything but a simpler morality sweeping away polytheism, there is no reason why Christendom should not have been swept into Islam.

The truth is that Islam itself was a barbaric reaction against that very humane complexity that is really a Christian character; that idea of balance in the deity, as of balance in the family, that makes that creed a sort of sanity, and that sanity the soul of civilisation. (II-4)

Islam, historically speaking, is the greatest of the Eastern heresies.

It was a heresy or parody emulating and therefore imitating the Church. (II-5)

Jesus Christ

There must surely have been something not only mysterious but many-sided about Christ if so many smaller Christs can be carved out of him. (II-1)

What he said was always unexpected; but it was always unexpectedly magnanimous and often unexpectedly moderate. (II-3)

Liberalism (Theological)

They call a Parliament of Religions as a reunion of all the peoples; but it is only a reunion of all the prigs. (II-1)


For once that he remembers exactly what work produces his wages and exactly what wages produce his meals, he reflects ten times that it is a fine day or it is a queer world, or wonders whether life is worth living, or wonders whether marriage is a failure, or is pleased and puzzled with his own children, or remembers his own youth, or in any such fashion vaguely reviews the mysterious lot of man.

And any number of normal doubts and day-dreams are about existence; not about how we can live, but about why we do. (I-7)


Man is not merely an evolution but rather a revolution.

Man is the microcosm; man is the measure of all things; man is the image of God (I-1)

Man, Evolutionary Ancestors Of

No uninformed person looking at its carefully lined face and wistful eyes would imagine for a moment that this was the portrait of a thigh-bone; or of a few teeth and a fragment of a cranium.
His body may have been evolved from the brutes; but we know nothing of any such transition that throws the smallest light upon his soul as it has shown itself in history. (I-2)

Mary, Blessed Virgin

But pagan antiquity had much more idea of the holiness of the virgin than of the holiness of the child. (II-3)


What we do know is that it was by experience and education that little commonwealths lose their liberty; that absolute sovereignty is something not merely ancient but rather relatively modern; and it is at the end of the path called progress that men return to the king. (I-3)

Abdication is perhaps the one really absolute action of an absolute monarch. (I-6)

Morality and Moralists

The morality of most moralists ancient and modern, has been one solid and polished cataract of platitudes flowing for ever and ever. (II-2)

Mythology and Folklore

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.

But the ultimate test even of the fantastic is the appropriateness of the inappropriate.

Very deep things in our nature, some dim sense of the dependence of great things upon small, some dark suggestion that the things nearest to us stretch far beyond our power, some sacramental feeling of the magic in material substances, and many more emotions past fading out, are in an idea like that of the external soul.

But the point of the puzzle is this, that all this vagueness and variation arise from the fact that the whole thing began in fancy and in dreaming; and that there are no rules of architecture for a castle in the clouds.

But he who has most sympathy with myths will most fully realise that they are not and never were a religion, in the sense that Christianity or even Islam is a religion.

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.

It is the voice of a dreamer and an idealist crying, 'Why cannot these things be?' (I-5)

A void was made by the vanishing of the whole mythology of mankind, which would have asphyxiated like a vacuum if it had not been filled with theology.

Mythology was never thought, and nobody could really agree with it or disagree with it. (I-8)

Nature and Nature Mysticism

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.

The poet feels the mystery of a particular forest; not of the science of afforestation or the department of woods and forests. (I-5)

Occultism and Spiritualism

But the man consulting a demon felt as many a man has felt in consulting a detective, especially a private detective; that it was dirty work but the work would really be done. (I-6)

Original Sin / Fall of Man

Those who have fallen may remember the fall, even when they forget the height. (I-4)


The Christian creed is above all things the philosophy of shapes and the enemy of shapelessness.

The condemnation of the early heretics is itself condemned as something crabbed and narrow; but it was in truth the very proof that the Church meant to be brotherly and broad.

If the Church had not insisted on theology, it would have melted into a mad mythology of the mystics, yet further removed from reason or even from rationalism; and, above all yet further removed from life and from the love of life.

And that is why the Church is from the first a thing holding its own position and point of view, quite apart from the accidents and anarchies of its age. (II-4)


We feel it in the unfathomable sadness of pagan poetry; for I doubt if there was ever in all the marvellous manhood of antiquity a man who was happy as St. Francis was happy. (I-4)

It is an attempt to reach the divine reality through the imagination alone; in its own field reason does not restrain it at all. (I-5)

Papacy and Popes

A bishop of Rome writes claiming authority in the very lifetime of St. John the Evangelist; and it is described as the first papal aggression. (II-4)

Pessimism and Pessimists

Pessimism is not in being tired of evil but in being tired of good. (I-8)

Philosophy and Philosophers

But in reality the rivers of mythology and philosophy run parallel and do not mingle till they meet in the sea of Christendom. (I-5)

Plato in some sense anticipated the Catholic realism, as attacked by the heretical nominalism, by insisting on the equally fundamental fact that ideas are realities; that ideas exist just as men exist.

Aristotle anticipated more fully the sacramental sanity that was to combine the body and the soul of things; for he considered the nature of men as well as the nature of morals, and looked to the eyes as well as to the light.

The pagan philosopher was seldom a man of the people, at any rate in spirit; he was seldom a democrat and often a bitter critic of democracy.

The temptation of the philosophers is simplicity rather than subtlety.

They are always attracted by insane simplifications, as men poised above abysses are fascinated by death and nothingness and the empty air. (I-6)


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.

In this sense it is true that it is the ignorant who accept myths, but only because it is the ignorant who appreciate poems. (I-5)


Gods and demigods and heroes breed like herrings before our very eyes and suggest of themselves that the family may have had one founder; mythology grows more and more complicated, and the very complication suggests that at the beginning it was more simple.

In short, there is a feeling that there is something higher than the gods; but because it is higher it is also further away.

It meant that ancient light of simplicity, that had a single source like the sun, finally fades away in a dazzle of conflicting Lights and colours. (I-4)

Polytheism fades away at its fringes into fairy-tales or barbaric memories; it is not a thing like monotheism as held by serious monotheists. (I-5)


It is the Catholic, who has the feeling that his prayers do make a difference, when offered for the living and the dead, who also has the feeling of living like a free citizen in something almost like a constitutional commonwealth. (II-5)


This deep truth of the danger of insolence, or being too big for our boots, runs through all the great Greek tragedies and makes them great. (I-5)


It is no more transcendental for a man to remember what he did in Babylon before he was born than to remember what he did in Brixton before he had a knock on the head. (I-6)

Religion (and Reason)

The truth is that the Church was actually the first thing that ever tried to combine reason and religion. (I-5)

Religion, Comparative

Putting the Church apart for the moment, I should be disposed to divide the natural religion of the mass of mankind under such headings as these: God; the Gods; the Demons; the Philosophers.

It is really the collapse of comparative religion that there is no comparison between God and the gods. (I-4)

Nobody understands the nature of the Church, or the ringing note of the creed descending from antiquity, who does not realise that the whole world once very nearly died of broadmindedness and the brotherhood of all religions. (II-1)

It is rather ridiculous to ask a man just about to be boiled in a pot and eaten, at a purely religious feast, why he does not regard all religions as equally friendly and fraternal. (II-5)


When Ibsen spoke of the new generation knocking at the door, he certainly never expected that it would be the church-door.

At least five times, therefore, with the Arian and the Albigensian, with the Humanist sceptic, after Voltaire and after Darwin, the Faith has to all appearance gone to the dogs. (II-6)

Revolution and Revolutionaries

It is chiefly interesting as evidence that the boldest plans for the future invoke the authority of the past; and that even a revolutionary seeks to satisfy himself that he is also a reactionary. (I-3)

Robes (Clerical)

They will complain of parsons dressing like parsons; as if we should be any more free if all the police who shadowed or collared us were plain clothes detectives. (Introduction)

Scholars and the Learned

But I can use my own common sense, and I sometimes fancy that theirs is a little rusty from want of use. (I-3)

Scientists and Scientism

It is precisely the unknown God of the scientist, with his impenetrable purpose and his inevitable and unalterable law, that reminds us of a Prussian autocrat making rigid plans in a remote tent and moving mankind like machinery. (II-5)


The Church is justified, not because her children do not sin, but because they do. (Introduction)


We miss the real moral importance of the great philosopher if we miss that point; that he stares at the executioner with an innocent surprise, and almost an innocent annoyance, at finding anyone so unreasonable as to cut short a little conversation for the elucidation of truth. (II-3)

Spirit of the Age (Zeitgeist)

A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it. (II-6)


Nobody understands it who has not had what can only be called the ache of the artist to find some sense and some story in the beautiful things he sees; his hunger for secrets and his anger at any tower or tree escaping with its tale untold. (I-5)


Superstition recurs in all ages, and especially in rationalistic ages. (I-5)

Theism and Monotheism

Whatever else there was, there was never as such thing as the Evolution of the Idea of God.

Even on the external evidence, of the sort called scientific, there is therefore a very good case for the suggestion that man began with monotheism before it developed or degenerated into polytheism. (I-4)

It is precisely the God of miracles and of answered prayers who reminds us of a liberal and popular prince, receiving petitions, listening to parliaments and considering the cases of a whole people. (II-5)

Trinity and Trinitarianism

Even in the days of my youth, I remarked that there was something slightly odd about despising and dismissing the doctrine of the Trinity as a mystical and even maniacal contradiction; and then asking us to adore a deity who is a hundred million persons in one God, neither confounding the persons nor dividing the substance. (I-4)

For if there be a being without beginning, existing before all things, was He loving when there was nothing to be loved?

If the moderns really want a simple religion of love, they must look for it in the Athanasian Creed. (II-4)


Perhaps there are no things out of which we get so little of the truth as the truisms; especially when they are really true. (I-6)


A man does not want his national home destroyed or even changed, because he cannot even remember all the good things that go with it; just as he does not want his house burnt down, because he can hardly count all the things he would miss. (I-7)

War (and Christianity)

They will suddenly turn round and revile the Church for not having prevented the War, which they themselves did not want to prevent; and which nobody had ever professed to be able to prevent, except some of that very school of progressive and cosmopolitan sceptics who are the chief enemies of the Church.

As for the general view that the Church was discredited by the War -- they might as well say that the Ark was discredited by the Flood. (EM, Introduction)

There is nothing that throws any particular light on Christ's attitude towards organised warfare, except that he seems to have been rather fond of Roman soldiers. (II-2)

Wise Men (Three)

They were those who sought not tales but the truth of things, and since their thirst for truth was itself a thirst for God, they also have had their reward. (II-1)

Writing, Origin Of

It is overwhelmingly probable that the ancient priest had a great deal to do with the discovery of the art of writing. (I-3)

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