I am proofreading a book on William Blake by G. K. Chesterton.  Addressing the question whether the passionate Blake was mad, Chesterton argues that the wild supernaturalism of the classical world was conquered by the coolly rational Romans, followed by a reversion to mysticism by Christianity, tempered but never strictly sane in the Roman sense:
it may be said in passing that the
chief claim of Christianity is exactly this--that
it revived the pre-Roman madness, yet brought
into it the Roman order. The gods had really
died long before Christ was born. What had
taken their place was simply the god of
government--Divus Cæsar. The pagans of
the real Roman Empire were nothing if not
respectable. It is said that when Christ was
born the cry went through the world that Pan
was dead. The truth is that when Christ was
born Pan for the first time began to stir in his
grave. The pagan gods had become pure
fables when Christianity gave them a new lease
of life as devils. . . . But it put upon this occult
chaos the Roman idea of balance and sanity.
Thus, marriage was a sacrament, but mere sex
was not a sacrament as it was in many of the
frenzies of the forest. Thus wine was a sacrament
with Christ; but drunkenness was not a
sacrament as with Dionysus. In short, Christianity
(merely historically seen) can best be
understood as an attempt to combine the
reason of the market-place with the mysticism
of the forest. It was an attempt to accept all
the superstitions that are necessary to man and
to be philosophic at the end of them. Pagan
Rome has sought to bring order or reason
among men. Christian Rome sought to bring
order and reason among gods.


Grim said...

Chesterton saw farther than almost anyone.

Tom said...

That's a fascinating idea.

ymarsakar said...

State religion, what he calls god of gov.

The true epic has yet to be unveiled

Assistant Village Idiot said...

CS Lewis wrote about related topics several times, of which I pick one at random; long, but including most of his thought:
The influence of Chesterton is as strong on this topic as anything else he wrote, and those who liked your quote by GKC will enjoy toggling back and forth between them.

There is no escape for Christians. Some of us prefer a religion of intellect but are continually forced back into experiences of emotion and frank paganism. Some prefer a religion of feelings but are shoved into Bible studies, intellectual ambiguities, and reflections on history and philosophy.

Joel Leggett said...

Interesting. I'll have to think on that.

Texan99 said...

AVI, as I was reading this Chesterton passage I too was thinking of Lewis, who so clearly felt their influence. It had a very Lewis-like feel to me, not only from his religious essays but from his fiction. Especially the passage in "That Hideous Strength," when Jane Stoddard is advised to look to Christianity to transform the chaotic primal power of sex and fertility, so that it suits her modern fastidiousness, without jettisoning its proper power, which was rendering her and her marriage so barren.

Eric Blair said...

Ooof. I almost don't want to get into it on why I think Chesterton is misreading Roman religion and society, but thinking that the Romans (of what period even?) as a group thought that the Gods were fables, is well, just plain wrong.

But don't take my word for it. Pulling 5 books off my shelves, you can start with Robert Turcan's "The Cults of the Roman Empire", Robert Wilken's "The Christians as the Romans saw them", Tim Whitmarsh's "Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World", Ramsay Macmullen's "Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centruries", and if you really want some mind bending, David Ulansey's "The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries: Cosmology & Salvation in the Ancient World". And I"m not even going to start on source materiel.

It's a huge freakin' subject.

Kevin said...

I wonder what GK Chesterton would have made of the possible gap between the 'coolly rational' Communist Chinese, vs the (can we agree not rational) mystical Climate Change and SJ Warrior inchoate horde.

Would Mr Chesterton quail now at just how narrow the gate, difficult the way.