Mankind: The Artist, the Revolution

by Melissa Cain Travis

In The Everlasting Man, G.K. Chesterton argues that man, as a species, is different in kind,  not just degree, from all other living creatures. Man’s origin, he says, is one of the grand mysteries of the cosmos, along with the birth of the universe itself and the emergence of the first life. Mankind, endowed with rationality and free will, exploded onto the scene and “a third bridge was built across a third abyss of the unthinkable…not merely an evolution, but rather a revolution.”

Chesterton rejects the “gray gradations of twilight” suggested by materialist accounts of evolutionary gradualism in favor of a human nature that was mature at first appearance. It is important to be clear on what he was and was not claiming here. He is unconcerned with the question of whether or not any sort of evolutionary process produced the biology of Homo sapiens; he is defining human nature as the entire package, which includes our rationality and awareness of transcendentals, such as objective morality and the inherent value of human beings.

Chesterton points to the character of famous ancient cave art in order to support his assertion. Instead of the crude, simplistic scratchings of the so-called “caveman,” the paintings and sketches were “drawn or painted not only by a man but by an artist.” Contrary to the materialist narrative that conceives of human beings as a product of gradualism in every respect (physical bodies and mental capacities) this artwork tells the story of a mind very much like contemporary man’s. “So far as any human character can be hinted at by such traces of the past,” says Chesterton, “that human character is quite human and even humane. It is certainly not the ideal of an inhuman character, like the abstraction invoked in popular science.” He concludes that the common caricature of ancient man, the brutish, uncivilized caveman, is unsubstantiated legend, and that the earliest available evidence of artwork points to a distinctively human nature.

Chesterton’s point goes beyond the fact that artistic activity can only be carried out by creatures with rationally-informed will; the inherent desire to create art for its own sake—the “impulse of art” as he calls it—further highlights the distinctiveness of man. Unlike any other creature of the animal kingdom, man is a creator, not only for utilitarian purposes, but for the simple joy of celebrating the wider creation through artistry. Chesterton is convinced that, as part of a wide gulf of separation, “art is the signature of man.” With his trademark wit-laced wisdom he argues that…

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Mankind: The Artist, the Revolution | Melissa Cain Travis