Chesterton and the Antiquity of Civilization

Ancient Egypt

Having begun with his reflections on caricatures of prehistoric man and biological evolution, Chesterton turns his attention to the development of civilization. Here again he takes our common understanding of civilization to task. Humanity isn’t quite what we expect it to be. Against a theory of gradual socio-political progress from barbarism to civilization Chesterton writes that “The dawn of history reveals a humanity already civilized.” (50). In other words, the first civilizations that we know of precede records of themselves. Ancient civilizations existed long before they began to record their own history.

This idea of change from the barbaric to the civilized is what Chesterton is seeking to challenge. The early civilizations of the earth are often characterized as barbaric dictatorships run by heartless despots. But given that our early records of these civilizations only give us a tiny glimpse of early history such pictures of early man are highly speculative. Given that such early history is so speculative, and given that early records arise out of civilized societies, we do well to understand such societies more cautiously in light of the history of politics and societies that we really do know of.  Instead, “If there is one fact we really can prove, from the history that we really do know, it is that despotism can be a development, often a late development and very often indeed the end of societies that have been highly democratic.” (53). And again, “According to the real records available, barbarism and civilization were not successive stages in the progress of the world. They were conditions that existed side by side, as they still exist side by side.” (56).

That early history is open to such speculative theorizing also opens up the possibility of another danger. The danger I am referring to is ‘projection’. What is projection? Projection takes place when we ‘project’ our ideas onto things. A very current example would be the debate over Brexit. Brexit is a particularly vague term that generally refers to the UK’s leaving of the European Union. But precisely what that looks like isn’t laid out by the term Brexit itself and so many people read into the word what they’d like it to be.

With regard to the history of early civilization Chesterton writes, “…it may be noted that as soon as feminism became a fashionable cry, it was insisted that human civilization in its first stage had been a matriarchy. Apparently it was the cave-woman who carried the club. Anyhow all these ideas are little better than guesses; and they have a curious way of following the fortune of modern theories and fads.” (57).

Again, human beings are unique. We find them already civilized when we read the earliest records. We find that barbarism and civilization are not successive stages in a world history of gradual process but that they often coexist, and one leads to the other in all manner of orders. Chesterton finishes by drawing our attention to the Iliad. It is perhaps one of the oldest poems we know of but it is also one of the best. It is a poem likely to outlive all other poems, and yet it came from one of the earth’s early societies. Human beings were unique from their beginning.

 

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