Honestly, in a way, it feels superfluous to review G. K. Chesterton’s non-fiction. It seems that most everyone who might be interested in his work has already read something, and as I’ve said elsewhere, he’s nothing if not consistent. If you’ve read one of Chesterton’s books, you already know exactly what to expect from the others, and if you’ve read my review of either Heretics or Orthodoxy, you already know what I think of them.
That’s not really a major criticism. I remember someone on a forum I used to frequent criticising AC/DC for making the same album thirteen times, and the first reply was, “Yeah, but it was a damn good album.” That said, unless you absolutely love Chesterton’s style, as many people do, he can start to get tedious – and I’ve read a lot of his work at this point without even really intending to. He’s so ubiquitous in the Conservative milieu I grew up in and am still around, especially among Catholics, that it just seems natural to return to his books regularly. I’ve read at least nine of them, six of those non-fiction. At this point, he’s the author I’ve read the most of, and he’s not even in my top ten favourite authors.
He is, though, probably the best author who wrote primarily for a popular audience. Though not particularly rigorous, he is a clear thinker, often perceptive, well-read, and always entertaining.
In any case, The Everlasting Man is Chesterton’s foray into anthropology, and the most focused of his non-fiction books that I’ve read. As always, he’s at his best when criticising those who aren’t as clever as they think they are. He even felt it necessary to say in an appendix:
In this book which is merely meant as a popular criticism of popular fallacies, often indeed of very vulgar errors, I feel that I have sometimes given the impression of scoffing at serious scientific work. It was however the very reverse of my intentions. I am not arguing with the scientist who explains the elephant, but only with the sophist who explains it away. And as a matter of fact the sophist plays to the gallery, as he did in ancient Greece. He appeals to the ignorant, especially when he appeals to the learned.
Much of the books concerns what we’d now call “Scientism,” that is, giving science a scope and importance far beyond being a tool for studying the natural world, and posing as a lover of science to appeal to the know-it-all crowd. Think of Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye, or most of the New Atheists.
Most of the passages that stick out to me are fairly short, simple observations of the kind that he seems best-known for, and which make him such a popular source of quotations. In the chapter “The Riddles of the Gospel,” for example, he talks about reading the Gospel without any prior knowledge of them. That is, without having heard so much of what it’s about – or supposedly about.
First, a man reading the Gospel sayings would not find platitudes[…] For instance, he would not find the ordinary platitudes in favour of peace. He would find several paradoxes in favour of peace. He would find several ideals of non-resistance, which taken as they stand would be rather too pacific for any pacifist. He would be told in one passage to treat a robber not with passive resistance, but rather with positive and enthusiastic encouragement, if the terms be taken literally; heaping up gifts upon the man who had stolen goods. But he would not find a word of all that obvious rhetoric against war which has filled countless books and odes and orations; not a word about the wickedness of war, the wastefulness of war, the appalling scale of the slaughter in war and all the rest of the familiar frenzy; indeed not a word about war at all. 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. Indeed it is another perplexity, speaking from the same external and human stand point, that he seems to have got on much better with Romans than he did with Jews. But the question here is a certain tone to be appreciated by merely reading a certain text; and we might give any number of instances of it.
Another rather Chestertonian passage, concerning materialism, comes from the chapter “The War of the Gods and Demons.”
The materialist theory of history, that all politics and ethics are the expression of economics, is a very simple fallacy indeed. It consists simply of confusing the necessary conditions of life with the normal preoccupations of life, that are quite a different thing. It is like saying that because a man can only walk about on two legs, therefore he never walks about except to buy shoes and stockings. Man cannot live without the two props of food and drink, which support him like two legs; but to suggest that they have been the motives of all his movements in history is like saying that the goal of all his military marches or religious pilgrimages must have been the Golden Leg of Miss Kilmansegg or the ideal and perfect leg of Sir Willoughby Patterne. But it is such movements that make up the story of mankind and without them there would practically be no story at all. Cows may be purely economic, in the sense that we cannot see that they do much beyond grazing and seeking better grazing grounds; and that is why a history of cows in twelve volumes would not be very lively reading.
One criticism I do have of Chesterton is that he tends to labour his points. In both of the passages just quoted, he makes his point quite thoroughly and continues for a while beyond that. This holds for most of his non-fiction, but The Everlasting Man especially suffers from this; it could probably be trimmed by about 1/5 without any loss of substance.
So, is The Everlasting Man worth reading? Yes, I would say so. Of course, fans of Chesterton don’t need my recommendation. For those new to him, though, I’d suggest beginning with one of his other books. Heretics is my personal favourite, though a collection of essays like Tremendous Trifles will offer the most range. Again, he’s consistent enough that one can really just go to a local library or bookstore, pick whichever book they have in stock that looks interesting, and give it a read.