Myths and Metaphors

by G. K. Chesterton


Originally published in The Illustrated London News, 26th January 1929.

(Source: G. K. Chesterton, Collected Works, Volume XXXV,
The Illustrated London News 1929-1931,
Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1991. Pages 29-33.)

What I venture to criticize in certain men, whom some call scientists and I call materialists, is their perpetual use of Mythology. One half of what they say is so true as to be trite; the other half of what they say is so untrue as to be transparent. But they cover both their platitudes and their pretenses by an elaborate parade of legendary and allegorical images. I read this in some remarks on Darwinism by one of the last surviving Darwinians: "Among the individuals of every species there goes on, as Malthus had realised, a competition of struggle for the means of life, and Nature selects the individuals which vary in the most successful direction." Now when men of the old religions said that God chose a people and raised up a prophet, at least they meant something; and they meant what they said. They meant that a being with a mind and a will used them in an act of selection. But who is Nature, and how does she, or he, or it, manage to select anything or anybody? All that the writer actually has to say is that some individuals do emerge when other individuals are extinguished. It hardly needed either Darwin or Darwinians to tell us that. But Nature selecting those that vary in the most successful direction means nothing whatever, except that the successful succeed. But this tautological truism is wrapped up in clouds of mythology, by the introduction of a mythical being whom even the writer regards as a myth. The reader is to be impressed and deluded by the vision of a vast stone goddess sitting on a mountain throne, and pointing at a particular frog or rabbit saying, in tones of thunder, that this alone is to survive. All we know is that it does survive (for the moment), and then we pride ourselves on being able to repeat the mere fact that it does survive in half a hundred variegated and flowery expressions: as that it has survival value; or that it is naturally selected for survival; or that it survives because it is the fittest for survival; or that Nature's great law of the survival of the fittest sternly commands it to survive. The critics of religion used to say that its mysteries were mummeries; but these things are in the special and real sense mummeries. They are things offered to a credulous congregation by priests who know them to be mummeries. It is impossible to prove that the priest knows that there is no god in the shrine, or no truth in the oracle. But we know that the materialist knows that there is no such things as a large fastidious lady, called Nature, who points a finger at a frog.

The particular case in which this mythological metaphor was used is of course another matter. It is, indeed, a matter which has involved at various times a great deal of this element of materialist mythology. To see what truth was really in it we should have to go back to the old Darwinian debate; which I have not the least intention of doing here. But I may observe, in passing, that this notion of Nature selecting things is specially incompatible with all that can really be said for their own case; and that the very name of natural selection is a most unnatural name for it. For it is their whole case that everything happened, in the ordinary human sense, by accident. We should rather call it coincidence; and some of us call it quite incredible coincidence. But, anyhow, the whole case for it is that one quadruped happened to have a long neck, and happened to live at a moment when it was necessary to reach a taller tree or shrub. If these happenings happen to happen about a hundred times in succession, in exactly the same way, you can by that process turn some sort of sheep or goat into a giraffe. Whether this is probable or not is another question. But the whole Darwinian argument is that it is NOT a case of Nature selecting, any more than of God selecting, or anyone else selecting, but a case of things falling out in that fashion. We are quite ready to discuss trees and giraffes in their place, without perpetual references to God. Could the materialists not so far control their rhetorical and romantic sentimentalism as to do it without perpetual reference to Nature? Shall we make a bargain; that we will for the moment leave out our theology, if they will leave out their mythology?

But the mythological habit is not entirely and exclusively confined to men of science, or even to materialists. This sort of mythology is rather generally scattered over the modern world. The popular form of the mythological is the metaphorical. Certain figures of speech are fixed in the modern mind, exactly as the fables of the gods and nymphs were fixed in the mind of pagan antiquity. It is astonishing to note how often, when we address a man with anything resembling an idea, he answers with some recognised metaphor, supposed to be appropriate to the case. If you say to him, "I myself prefer the principle of the Guild to the principle of the Trust," he will not answer you by talking about principles. He can be counted on to say: "You can't put the clock back," with all the regularity of a ticking clock. This is a very extreme example of the mental breakdown that goes with a relapse into metaphor. For the man is actually understanding his own case out of sheer love of metaphor. It may be that you cannot put time back, but you can put the clock back. He would be in a stronger position if he talked about the abstraction called time; but an all-devouring appetite for figurative language forces him to talk abut clocks. Of course the real question raised has nothing to do with either clocks or time. It is the question of whether certain abstract principles, which may or may not have been observed in the past, ought to be observed in future. But the point is here that even the man who means that we cannot reconstruct the past can hardly ever reconstruct his own sentence in any other form except this figurative form. Without his myth, or his metaphor, he is lost.

Another mass of metaphors is drawn from the phenomena of morning, or the fact that the sun rises; or, rather (I grovel in apology to the man of science), appears to rise. It is a perfectly natural metaphor for poets; or indeed, for all men, in that aspect in which all men are mystics. That there is mystery in these natural things, which the imagination understands more subtly than the reason, is true enough. Nor have I any contempt even for mythology considered mythology. But when we want to know what somebody wants to do, when we ask a free-thinker what he thinks, and why he thinks it, it is a little tiresome to be told that he is waiting for the Dawn, or engaged at the moment in singing Songs Before Sunrise. [Footnote 1] One is tempted to retort that Dawn is not always an entirely cheerful thing, even for those who have exercised their free thought upon the conventional tradition of their own society. There is such a thing as being shot at Dawn.

I do not mean for a moment, of course, that we should do without myths and metaphors altogether. I am constantly using them myself, and shall continue to do so. But I think we ought all to be on guard against depending on them as a substitute for reason. Perhaps it would be well to have a Fast Day, on which we undertook to abstain from everything but abstract terms, Let us all agree that every Friday we will do without metaphors as without meat. I am sure it would be good for the intellectual digestion.

Footnote 1: This is the title of a collection of Swinburne's poems (1871) with a strongly political cast.

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