Yes, there is an echo of Plato in that statement, but as Chesterton writes, the living doctrine of Jesus is more than a philosophy (of idealism or any other ism), and is in fact more than an outline but the story of history. Man and civilization may have started in a cave, he concedes, but Man was already drawing pictures on those cave walls and building pyramid monuments when we meet him full on in history, and Jesus the Everlasting man was born in a cave and destined to undermine and transform the civilizations above.
Like other Chestertons I have read his writing here is incredibly compact and dense. He writes with the sparing efficiency of a deadline-driven, column bound journalist, the sure logic of a practicing philosopher, and the clear-eyed passion of an intellect certain of its right to speak and its reason to be heard. It is a style that seems almost startlingly direct and impossibly authoritative to our less certain and less capable modern eyes. Indeed, the time required and committed to really read and understand Chesterton's arguments is rewarded with blinding insights into the world outside the eye's window and the reader's mind and heart within.
The temptation to quote Chesterton at length or read out loud to the nearest companion (my apologies to Vickie and thanks for her forbearance for not telling me to stop already) is great. Perhaps even worse is the attempt to summarize in less capable words his arguments for the ages, but let me hazard a brief recap, if you will. In the first section of the book he describes man and human history, in terms of cavemen, kings, gods of mythology, philosophers and demons. The central feature of the story is not "the absence of the presence of God," but the "presence of the absence of God" (p. 92 of the ancient paperback edition I read). In other words, in the minds and vision of these thinkers, God was not dead but missing, and mythology while not a doctrine or form of religion ("Mythology was never thought, and nobody could really agree with it or disagree with it" p. 161), was a search (p. 173) that ended in another cave with another caveman.
That cave was the stable of Bethlehem, where Chesterton begins the second section of the book. "The place that the shepherds found was not an academy or an abstract republic; it was not a place of myths allegorized or dissected or explained or explained away.. It was a place of dreams come true. The shepherds had found their Shepherd." (p. 173)
From this position, Chesterton goes on to describe the power of the life, actions, words, church, and especially death of Jesus on the story of man. And He uses the word story purposefully. It is not a scientific diagram, the "childish" drawing of the myth makers, or the pattern of the philosophers. "Religion is really not a pattern but a picture." (p. 136). And "the story of Christ is the story of a journey, almost in the manner of a military march." (p. 207). It is a story and a march headed in one direction--Jerusalem and the cross: "There is in this buried divinity an idea of undermining the world, of shaking the towers and palaces from below, even as Herod the great king felt that earthquake under him and swayed with his swaying palace" --referring to the murder of the infants in an attempt to kill the Cave-child causing the quake (p. 180).
Who was this Jesus?
He was exactly what the man with a delusion never is, he was wise, he was a good judge. What he said was always unexpected, but it was always unexpectedly magnanimous and often unexpectedly moderate. . . . Divinity is great enough to be divine, it is great enough to call itself divine. But as humanity grows greater, it grows less and less likely to do so. God is God . . . but a great man knows he is not God, and the greater he is the better he knows it. That is the paradox, everything that is merely approaching to that point is merely receding from it. Socrates, the wisest man, knows he knows nothing. A lunatic may think he is omniscience, and a fool may talk as if he were omniscient. But Christ is in another sense omniscient if he not only knows, but knows that he knows. (p. 203)
He knows. He is the Everlasting Man.
This is a hard message for the world to accept and the reason Jesus Christ has been a lightning rod drawing the power and fire of Heaven and earth in His favor and in fatal attack that led to His crucifixion. And this event divides the world and energizes the Church:
There are people who say they wish Christianity to remain as a spirit. They mean, very literally, that they wish it to remain as a ghost. But it is not going to remain as a ghost. What follows this process of apparent death is not the lingering of a shade, it is the resurrection of the body. These people are quite prepared to shed pious and reverential tears over the Sepulchre of the Son of Man, what they are not prepared for is the Son of God walking once more upon the hills of morning. These people, and indeed most people, were indeed by this time quite accustomed to the idea that the old Christian candle-light would fade into the light of common day. . . . It was all the more unexpected, and therefore all the more unmistakable, that the seven-branched candle-stick suddenly towered to heaven like a miraculous tree and flamed until the sun turned pale. (p. 257-258)
The Everlasting Man, the Cave-man, the Son of Man, the Son of God. God is all of these. The sun fades in comparison.
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