12/15/13

On Original Sin

ONCE upon a time when Mr. H. G. Wells was setting forth on his varied and splendid voyage from Utopia to Utopia, he announced as a sort of watchword or war-cry that the new world would have nothing to do with the idea of Original Sin. He did not specially speak, and, indeed, there was no reason for him to speak, about his other beliefs or unbeliefs. He had not then compared the Trinity to a dance; but neither had he called adoring multitudes to the shrine of the Invisible King. But, standing at the end of the great scientific nineteenth century, he thought it time to announce that the one doctrine he did not believe in was Original Sin. Standing at the beginning of the still more scientific twentieth century, Mr. Aldous Huxley calmly announces that the one doctrine he does believe in is Original Sin. He may be a sceptic or a heretic about many things, but on that point he is quite orthodox. He may not hold many theological dogmas, but about this dogma he is quite dogmatic. There is one fragment of the ancient creed which he not only clings to, but declares to be necessary to all clear minds of the new generation. And that is the very fragment which Mr. Wells threw away thirty years ago, as something that would never be needed any more. The stone that the builder of Utopia rejected . . .

It is not a mere verbal coincidence that original thinkers believe in Original Sin. For really original thinkers like to think about origins. That should be obvious even to the negative thinkers of the nineteenth-century tradition, who for two or three generations claimed all originality, all novelty, all revolutionary change of thought for a book called The Origin of Species. But it is even more true of moral discovery than of material discovery; and it is even more true of the twentieth-century reaction than of the nineteenth-century revolution. Men who wish to get down to fundamentals perceive that there is a fundamental problem of evil. Men content to be more superficial are also content with a superficial fuss and bustle of improvement. The man in the mere routine of modern life is content to say that a modern gallows is a relatively humane instrument or that a modern cat-o’-nine tails is milder than an ancient Roman flagellum. But the original thinker will ask why any scourge or gibbet was ever needed, or ever even alleged to be needed? And that brings the original thinker back to original sin. For that is not affected as a universal thing by whether we approve or disapprove of the particular things. Whether we call it infamous tyranny or inevitable restraint, there is some sort of sin either in the scourger or the scourged.

Nevertheless, I often feel that the original thinker is not quite original enough. I mean that he does not get quite so near to the truth as the old tradition could take him. I say it without arrogance, for many of us owe the truth as much to tradition as to originality. But I am often struck by the fact that original thinkers originate trains of thought, but do not finish them. It is the great trouble with the advanced that they will not advance any further. Now, Mr. Aldous Huxley sees very clearly that medieval religion was more realistic than modern idealism and optimism. He says that the latest scientific view is more like the old Catholic view than was the intervening illusion of the Romantic Movement. But he adds that the scientific view of man necessitates a sort of original sin, if it be only the residuum of his animal ancestry.

Now, that is exactly where I should like him to advance a step further; and he does not. For sin, whatever else it is, is not merely the dregs of a bestial existence. It is something more subtle and spiritual, and is in some way connected with the very supremacy of the human spirit. Mr. Huxley must know well enough that this is so with the most execrable sins, such as often figure in his own admirable satires. It is not merely a matter of letting the ape and tiger die, for apes are not Pharisees, nor are tigers prigs. The elephant does not turn up his long nose at everything with any superior intention; and the totally unjust charge of hypocrisy might well be resented by any really sensitive and thin-skinned crocodile. The giraffe might be called a highbrow, but he is not really supercilious about his powers of Uplift. Man has scattered his own vices as well as virtues very arbitrarily among the animals, and there may be no more reason to accuse the peacock of pride than to accuse the pelican of charity.

The worst things in man are only possible to man. At least we must confine their existence to men, unless we are prepared to admit the existence of demons. There is thus another truth in the original conception of original sin, since even in sinning man originated something. His body may have come from animals, and his soul may be torn in pieces by all sorts of doctrinal disputes and quarrels among men. But, roughly speaking, it is quite clear that he did manufacture out of the old mud or blood of material origins, with whatever mixture of more mysterious elements, a special and a mortal poison. That poison is his own recipe; it is not merely decaying animal matter. That poison is most poisonous where there are fine scientific intellects or artistic imaginations to mix it. It is just as likely to be at its best — that is, at its worst — at the end of a civilization as at the beginning. Of this sort are all the hideous corruptions of culture; the pride, the perversions, the intellectual cruelties, the horrors of emotional exhaustion. You cannot explain that monstrous fruit by saying that our ancestors were arboreal; save, indeed, as an allegory of the Tree of Knowledge. The poison can take the form of every sort of culture — as, for instance, bacteria-culture. But the poison itself has always been there. Indeed it is as old as any memory of man. Wherefore, we have to posit of it that it also was of the human source and fountain head, that it was in the beginning, or, as the old theology affirms, original.

I suggest, therefore, with great respect, that it is not even now a case of having to admit that the old religion had come very near to the truths of the most modern science. It is rather a case of the most modern science having come very near to the truths of the old religion — but not quite near enough.


~G.K. Chesterton: Come To Think Of It.

1 comment:

  1. Very seldom has the English language been used as well as Mr. Chesterton uses it...He takes on all comers and has language as his sword. He especially enjoys flaying about amongst "intellectuals" and if we could get more English teachers to assign the reading of his essays we would all benefit. He has hundreds of essays to enjoy...start with this one.

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