“The Plan for a New Universe”


“… this is an essential of any poetry and any religion.  It must appeal to the origins and deal with the first things, however much or little it may say about them.  It must be at home in the homeless void, before the first star was made.  The one thing every man knows about the unknowable is that it is the Indispensable.” ~G.K. Chesterton 

“The Plan for a New Universe” by G.K. Chesterton from The Uses of Diversity

“THERE is one theory of the Origin of Species which I have never seen suggested.  Probably this is because I have never read the numberless and voluminous works in which it has been suggested.  For I have read much madder things, and nothing mad is likely to have been missed by the modern mind.  But since it shocked the respectability of agnostics to suggest that all creatures had been made different by God, why did nobody suggest that they had been made different by Man? Why not trace the vast variety of animals as we can really trace the vast variety of dogs? The dog is already almost a world in himself, with all the appearance of distinct orders and types.  A St.  Bernard approaches the size and surpasses the legendary virtues of a lion; while there is a sort of Pekinese which a man might almost tread on as a somewhat unpleasing insect.  Yet all this world of evolution has presumably had Man for its god.

Suppose our sphere in space has itself been the Island of Dr. Moreau.  Suppose Man had some prehistoric civilization so colossal and complete that all beasts were beasts of burden, or all animals were domestic animals; that all rabbits were pet rabbits or all fleas performing fleas.  Suppose the tame bird came first, and what we know as the wild bird afterwards.  Mr. Bernard Shaw, in one of his early anti-domestic diatribes, compared a woman in the home to a parrot in the cage, saying that mere custom made us think the connexion natural.

The answer, it has always seemed to me, is strangely obvious.  It is surely plain that the housewife is not the bird in the cage, but the bird in the nest.  But if, in that age of wild sceptics, anyone had wished to outdo Mr. Shaw in paradox, he could have done it brilliantly by this hypothesis that the colours of a parrot were actually produced in a cage; and that an exiled bird only built himself a rude den of sticks and mud as an outlaw does when driven from his home.  Suppose, in short, that Man has not only been a dog-fancier, but a wolf-fancier and a hyena-fancier.  Suppose he really fancied a rhinoceros.  Suppose some pre-historic squire kept a stud of giraffes; or his money-lender got a peerage on the plea that he had improved the breed of crocodiles.  Then we have only to suppose this universal Zoo broken up like the Roman Empire; and all we see is its neglect and riot.  The tiger is a stray cat; a specially large and handsome cat who took the prize (and the prize-giver) and escaped to the jungle.  A whale was some sort of hornless cow sent into the sea like a Newfoundland dog, who suddenly refused to come back again.

This thesis accounts for the comparative rapidity of the differentiations, over which the geologists fight with the biologists.  It accounts rationalistically for those evidences of a creative purpose which are so distressing to a refined mind.  It accounts for the camel, who seems always to have been in captivity; and accounting for a camel is something.  Above all, it accounts for that very vivid impression of something in various species at once outrageous and exact.  Jefferies found in the farcical outlines of fish or bird the notion that they must have been produced without design.  To me this sounds like saying that the caricatures of Max Beerbohm must have been produced without design.  I could as easily believe, so far as this mere aesthetic impression goes, that the face on a gargoyle was merely moulded by the pouring rain.  Artistically, the sun-fish or the hornbill do not look in the least like accidents; but it might be maintained that they look like fashions.  There are some tropical birds and fruits that really have the cut and colours of novelties in a shop window.  We might fancy that an elephant was designed in the same taste as Babylonian architecture; or the leopard and the tiger to match the tapestries of the East.  There is probably somewhere a bird as sinister and terrifying as a top-hat; and in some luxuriant jungle a plant as preposterous as a pair of trousers.  The monsters may be only antiquated fashion-plates.  For this is one of the numberless neglected fallacies in the clotted folly of Eugenics.  Even if we could in the abstract breed humanity well, there would be a flutter of modes and crazes about what was considered well-bred.  The dog is bred with design; but surely not always with discretion.  The dachshund appears to have been pulled out on the rack of some demoniac vivisectionist; and somebody seems to have cut off the bull-dog’s nose, most emphatically to spite his face.  On the analogy of the things we do breed, the Eugenist may be expected to produce a brood of hunchbacks or a pure race of Albinos.

It is, I hope, unnecessary to remark that I do not believe in this theory; but there have been people who might well have believed in it.  There were people who could believe in Swinburne’s sentiment, “Glory to Man in the highest; for Man is the master of things”; and it would surely have completed this consciousness in the poet if he could have thought that the birds of Putney Heath, where he walked, or the fishes in the sea, where he was so fond of swimming, were doing tricks taught to them as to performing dogs.  Suppose that such a fancy had fitted in with one of the humanitarian religions of that time, how far would it have satisfied what was often called the religious sentiment?

It would not have satisfied any religious sentiment, not even Swinburne’s.  He would have cared as little as Shelley to claim the birds when he could not claim the sky.  He certainly would have been much annoyed with the notion of loving the fishes, if he were not allowed to go on loving the sea.  And though he poisoned paganism with pessimism, a thing not only more false but more frivolous, though he tried to love the sea as a wanton or admire the sky as a tyrant, though this morbidity weakened his love of Nature not only as compared with Virgil or Dante, but as compared with Wordsworth or Whitman, yet he was like every poet elemental, and what he loved were the elementary things.  And this is an essential of any poetry and any religion.  It must appeal to the origins and deal with the first things, however much or little it may say about them.  It must be at home in the homeless void, before the first star was made.  The one thing every man knows about the unknowable is that it is the Indispensable.

Now, if any reader thinks that the scientific heresy I sketched above is too irrational for moderns to have held, I have the pleasure of informing him that moderns are now about to announce, or have already announced, a new heresy somewhat analogous but much less rationalistic and much less rational.  There is a new religion; that is a new fault being found with the old religion.  There is a new plan for a new universe, which may be expected to last for many a long month to come.  It is the view that seems to have satisfied Mr. Wells, or, at any rate, Mr. Britling.  It is the view which has been more than once suggested by Mr. Shaw, and is repeated in the skeleton of certain lectures he is delivering.  It is much more supernatural and even superstitious than my imaginary thesis; for instead of giving to man more of the powers of God, it arbitrarily imagines a God and then limits him with the impotence of man.  He is not limited, as in the theologies, by his own reason or justice or desire for the freedom of man.  He is limited by unreason and injustice and the impossibility of freedom even for himself.  But I do not make this note upon the new development with any intention of discussing it thoroughly in its theological aspect; though there is one aspect of that aspect which may respectfully be called amusing.  When I was a boy, Christianity was blamed by the freethinkers for its anthropomorphic demigod, substituted by savages for the Unknown God who made all things.  Now Christianity is blamed for the flat contrary; because its God is unknown and not anthropomorphic enough.  Thirty years ago we only needed the First Person of the Trinity; and thirty years later we have discovered that we only need the Second.  This sort of fashion-plate philosophy will no doubt go on as usual.  In a few decades we may be told that our fathers were profoundly right when they believed in the Archangel Gabriel, but made an inexplicable mistake when they believed in the Archangel Raphael.  We shall learn that the Seraphim are an exploded superstition, but the Cherubim a most valuable and novel discovery.  And as my note is not concerned with the theological, neither is it directly concerned with the purely logical side of it.

Here again, it seems obvious that all the doubts which legitimately attach to the idea of a progressive humanity are absolutely fatal to the idea of a progressive divinity.  A man may be progressing towards God; but what is a God progressing towards? And how does he know which of two developments in consciousness is the better (e.g., an imaginative compassion or an imaginative cruelty) if there be no aboriginal standard in his own nature? I am here only concerned to note the failure of this fancy where it is parallel to the failure of the fancy I mentioned first.  And it is the weakness which would instantly be discovered in both of them, not only by every poet but by every child.  It is that unless the sky is beautiful, nothing is beautiful.  Unless the background of all things is good, it is no substitute to make the foreground better: it may be right to do so for other reasons, but not for the reason that is the root of religion.  Materialism says the universe is mindless; and faith says it is ruled by the highest mind.  Neither will be satisfied with the new progressive creed, which declares hopefully that the universe is half-witted.”

by G.K. Chesterton, 1920

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