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G.K. Chesterton on the Vichian Problematic "Myth/History"
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2012-07-24 07:42:14
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There are multiple confusions on the relation between myth and history vis a vis truth. A common one is that of myth conceived ed as a sort of falsehood or a children’s fairy tale for those simple-minded people who are unable to reason and engage in philosophical speculation. For example, one often hears this sort of statement: original sin is a mere myth utilized to explain away certain perplexing characteristics of human nature with no empirical scientific basis. The implication is clear: it is a falsehood originating from ignorance and superstition, as most organized religions are. I’d like to turn to some of the writings of G.K. Chesterton to shed some light on this rampant confusion.

G. K. Chesterton's recognized magnum opus, The Everlasting Man, can be considered a theory of man in history. The overarching theme seems to be the methodology, so to speak, of the Christian revelation--God's self revelation in Jesus Christ rather than in a book. This is remarkably in tune with human nature as we see it in history. While it would be unwise to seek a complete theory of man in a book of apologetics (we cannot expect to find there anything like Eliade's theory of myth as archaic ontology) The Everlasting Man is replete with keen insights for the attentive reader. This is particularly true of Chesterton's reflections on the nature of mythology and its relation to Christianity. For Chesterton, to understand myth is to understand man. In some important respects this peculiar approach leads him to address these issues in ways that are both original and shed greater light than other more familiar approaches.

The core of Chesterton's thought is found in in two key chapters of the book. The first is "Man and Mythologies" (Chapter 5). In this chapter we find Chesterton's overall characterization of myth. First, Chesterton explicitly recognizes the function of myth: What are here called the Gods might almost alternatively be called the Day-Dreams. To compare them to dreams is not to deny that dreams can come true. Moreover, to compare them to travelers' tales is not to deny that they may be true tales, or at least truthful tales. The myth of Europa taking a journey on top of a bull (Zeus under disguise) is one such myth which intimates that Europe is an idea more than a geographical place and that the destination may well be the journey itself.

Chesterton is convinced that far from being a fairy tale for children, the function of myth is to communicate truth. Not, of course, in the literal fashion we have become accustomed to expect from the ideology of modern science, but rather in the form of metaphors. But Chesterton also adds an important caveat: Myths are not allegories. The reason this is important is because it suggests that the myth-making mentality is fully cognizant  of the limits of human knowledge. To say that myth is not allegory is to say that no complete and literal account of reality can be offered by man--that the truth that myth seeks to convey retains an element of mystery at all times.

In this respect it is useful to contrast myths as Chesterton describes them with Plato's use of "myths" in his dialogs, such as The Myth of the Cave, or The Myth of Anamnesis or that of Atlantis. Plato's use of myth as a form is rendered ambiguous by the uncertainty that the reader experiences: how literally are these myths to be taken? Are these Platonic myths strictly metaphorical or do they--at least in some instances--seek to formulate a more "scientific" account? Certainly the Myth of the Cave could be considered to be in the nature of an analogy, but the Myth of Anamnesis appears to be more like an attempted explanation in a quasi-scientific sense. It is definitely not an analogy and its very structure invites further speculation, fueled by logic rather than metaphor. Certainly its various transformations throughout the history of Western thought (Augustine's Divine Illumination, Kant's Categories, etc.) demonstrate that it has been taken to be an attempt at explanation. This tendency to mistake myth for explanation and even for science can be linked to the Platonic view of being as essence: the Platonic essences are Ideas (Forms) with a univocal rather than an analogical meaning.

Chesterton touches on this aspect when he writes: These are the myths and he who has no sympathy with myths has no sympathy with men. But he who has most sympathy with myths will most fully realize that they are not and never were a religion, in the sense that Christianity or even Islam is a religion.

Now, the reason that Christianity differs from myth is that, while Christianity shares some similarities to myth, its central truths are historical and therefore not metaphorical in the mythical sense. On the other hand, because the doctrine of creation ex nihilo is absolutely central to Christianity, ultimately an analogical view of being is also central to Christianity--unlike Platonism. Chesterton moves even closer to the core issue of human nature and man's proclivity for myth when he writes: “The substance of all such paganism may be summarized thus. It is an attempt to reach the divine reality through the imagination... It is only ... when such cults are decadent or on the defensive, that a few Neo-Platonists or a few Brahmins are found trying to rationalize them, and even then only by trying to allegorize them. Mythology, then, sought God through the imagination; or sought truth by means of beauty...

Now, myth seeks to communicate truth through stories. Thus, when Chesterton refers to "imagination" he is referring predominantly to the use of visual images communicated verbally. This should be familiar ground for those who are familiar with Vico’s philosophy, for whom all knowledge while ultimately derived from the senses, the concepts derived from sense knowledge are constantly rehearsed through imaginative recall of sense experience. Thus, the use of stories as vehicles for the communication of truth--means by which truth can be "seen" in images--should be no surprise in a universe of analogical being populated by humans who derive their knowledge through sensation: it is precisely what a Christian should expect, based on the Christian view of human nature. Chesterton maintains that this account of human nature "fits" the facts of our experience: "it is like life."

Chesterton returns to this topic in "The Escape from Paganism" (Part 2, Chapter 5 of the book). Here he explicitly addresses man's use of story (myth) as a means for communicating truth: The life of man is a story; an adventure story; and in our vision the same is true even of the story of God. Again, this is second nature for the Christian, for just as the life of man is a story, we can say that God communicated truth by becoming a story--by becoming the life of a man. And this is the difference between Christianity and myth, for by becoming a story--not just being a character in a story--God entered history. And once again Chesterton offers a profoundly Vichian insight, for "being" is essentially act rather than what is "conceptualizable," which is precisely the difference between entering history, becoming a story, and "being" in a story. To that extent, the Christian story, while subject to the analogical nature of being, exceeds the bounds of metaphor: in its communication of truth it fulfills what myth and philosophy (in their best senses) were aiming for. Thus, for Chesterton, the Catholic faith is the reconciliation because it is the realization both of mythology and philosophy. It is a story and in that sense one of a hundred stories; only it is a true story. It is a philosophy and in that sense one of a hundred philosophies; only it is a philosophy that is like life. But above all, it is a reconciliation because it is something that can only be called the philosophy of stories. That normal narrative instinct which produced all the fairy-tales is something that is neglected by all the philosophies--except one. The Faith is the justification of that popular instinct; the finding of a philosophy for it or the analysis of the philosophy in it.

Chesterton's striking phrase, "the philosophy of stories," deserves attention because, as we pointed out above, it directs us toward the Vichian (and in some way also Thomistic) theory of knowledge, which fits perfectly Chesterton's philosophy of stories. Chesterton writes that “Beyond the broad suggestion of this chapter I attempt no apologetic about why the creed should be accepted. But in answer to the historical query of why it was accepted, and is accepted, I answer for millions of others in my reply; because it fits the lock; because it is like life. It is one among many stories; only it happens to be a true story.”


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