Of the New Paganism (or neo-Paganism) …there is no necessity to take any very grave account, except as a thing which left behind it incomparable exercises in the English language.
Chesterton wrote these words more than 100 years ago. They are equally applicable to those known as new atheists today. We no longer have to take them into account either. The thing that is replacing Christianity is not a void – as the new atheists dream – but a new religion, one that includes original sin but without the possibility of forgiveness.
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 new version, the new atheists, are after a religion that is not a religion; they are after inventing “good,” although the best they can do is agree on what is bad (usually devolving into nothing more than pointing to Hitler; hence, everything short of Hitler is OK, or, at least, not to be condemned). They want the Christian ethic, just without the Christianity. They ignore Nietzsche’s warning.
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.
In his magnum opus, From Dawn to Decadence, Jacques Barzun would write of G. K. Chesterton that he, along with Hilaire Belloc, was one of the few who understood what was happening while it was happening: Western man was throwing away his ultimate good. Barzun would call this the Great Switch, when what we know as Classical Liberalism – with still some grounding in Christianity – transformed into its modern incarnation.
Chesterton notes that there is only one thing in our world that knows anything of paganism – and it isn’t the neo-pagans or the new atheists: it is Christianity. The ancient hymns and dances of Europe, the festivals of Rome, a “festoon of flowers at Easter or a string of sausages at Christmas.” All have their roots in ancient paganism.
Everything else in the modern world is of Christian origin, even everything that seems most anti-Christian. The French Revolution is of Christian origin. The newspaper is of Christian origin. The anarchists are of Christian origin. Physical science is of Christian origin. The attack on Christianity is of Christian origin.
We have been fighting a Christian civil war since the eighteenth century, if not the sixteenth. At least in the sixteenth century, each of the combatants believed he was acting on a Christian basis; since the eighteenth, half of the combatants are too ignorant of history to realize this, while most of the other half are too secular to act on what they claim to believe.
Chesterton points to the Seven Virtues, and finding here the real difference between Paganism and Christianity; this difference is to be seen in the difference of the four Natural Virtues and the three Theological Virtues, or Virtues of Grace as he calls these:
The pagan, or rational, virtues are such things as justice and temperance, and Christianity has adopted them. The three mystical virtues which Christianity has not adopted, but invented, are faith, hope, and charity.
He notes, of these, two facts: first, the pagan virtues are sad virtues and the Christian virtues are gay and exuberant; second, the pagan virtues are reasonable, while the Christian virtues are as unreasonable as can be. He clarifies “unreasonable” to mean that these offer a paradox. To expand, he offers:
Justice consists in finding out a certain thing due to a certain man and giving it to him. Temperance consists in finding out the proper limit of a particular indulgence and adhering to that.
This is quite reasonable.
But charity means pardoning what is unpardonable, or it is no virtue at all. Hope means hoping when things are hopeless, or it is no virtue at all. And faith means believing the incredible, or it is no virtue at all.
And this is all quite unreasonable to modern man. But Chesterton offers that the development of these three virtues was necessary because, despite being paradoxical, they were practical:
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.
Which also describes the phase that we are passing through today. We have the material means to satisfy virtually every lust; we are discovering that lust is an unquenchable desire. Hence, we lose meaning:
Ecclesiastes 1: 2 “Meaningless! Meaningless!”
says the Teacher.
Everything is meaningless.”
3 What do people gain from all their labors
at which they toil under the sun?
To find the cure for this, Chesterton returns to the necessity of humility:
Civilization discovered Christian humility for the same urgent reason that it discovered faith and charity—that is, because Christian civilization had to discover it or die.
Why is this so? It is humility that renews the earth and stars, that makes the heavens again and again fresh and strong. Humility preserves our sense of wonder. Humility allows us to find meaning in all around us. Only when we grasp the dark, where we have no sight or expectation, can we enjoy the fullness and beauty of life:
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."
Further, humility is necessary for self-examination. Imagine a world where self-examination is lost. Wait, you don’t have to imagine it; we live in it. And it is here where Chesterton extends the point, writing of Thomas Carlyle’s “Great Man”:
Carlyle said that men were mostly fools. Christianity, with a surer and more reverent realism, says that they are all fools. This doctrine is sometimes called the doctrine of original sin. It may also be described as the doctrine of the equality of men.
And with this, he previews that which Solzhenitsyn would so famously articulate decades later:
All men can be criminals, if tempted; all men can be heroes, if inspired. And this doctrine does away altogether with Carlyle's pathetic belief (or any one else's pathetic belief) in "the wise few." There are no wise few.
And this is where humility comes in: instead of extending our ego to infinity, we do better to reduce our ego to zero; instead of thinking more of ourselves, we should think less. Chesterton’s accusation of the neo-paganists and their pagan ideal of reason is quite simple:
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.
But this is what we have been told in the West since the Enlightenment.
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.
After the insanity of the French Revolution, the rapid failure of the American Revolution, the half-century of World War, the murderous reasonableness of communism and fascism, and the insanity of today’s ideal of “pride” and “enjoyment,” isn’t it time we learn this lesson?
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.
This is stunning in its simplicity.
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.
We can stand on the shoulders of giants, or be stomped on by the puny ants of modernity.
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.
Do we really believe we have one without the other? Not that technological advancement did not occur in pagan times, or outside of Christendom (and its remnants). But, for goodness’ sakes, man; check the weight of the evidence.
I asked the following, at the conclusion of this post:
I am wondering if this means we have come full circle; I am also wondering if it means the cycle might repeat. Will the cycle start with Christ, or with an anti-Christ? I don’t mean in an apocalyptic, Armageddon sort of way. I mean in terms of the direction our culture might take.
Chesterton answers my question, with hope:
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.
We will, because we must. It just is a question of how much pain we must pass through in the meantime.