“Green fumes of depravity”

Those who detest the harmless writer of this column are generally reduced (in their final ecstasy of anger) to calling him “brilliant”; which has long ago in our journalism become a mere expression of contempt. But I am afraid that even this disdainful phrase does me too much honour. I am more and more convinced that I suffer, not from a shiny or showy impertinence, but from a simplicity that verges on imbecility. I think more and more that I must be very dull, and that everybody else in the modern world must be very clever. I have just been reading this important compilation, sent to me in the name of a number of men for whom I have a high respect, and called “New Theology and Applied Religion.” And it is literally true that I have read through whole columns of the things without knowing what the people are talking about. Either they must be talking about some black and bestial religion in which they were brought up, and of which I have never even heard, or else they must be talking about some blazing and blinding vision of God which they have found, and which by its very splendour confuses their logic and confounds their speech. But the best instance I can quote of the thing is in connection with this matter of the business of physical science [. . .] The following words are written over the signature of a man whose intelligence I respect, and I cannot make head or tail or them —

When modern science declared that the cosmic process knew nothing of a historical event corresponding to a Fall, but told, on the contrary, the story of an incessant rise in the scale of being, it was quite plain that the Pauline scheme — I mean the argumentative process of Paul’s scheme of salvation — had lost its very foundation; for was not that foundation the total depravity of the human race inherited from their first parents? . . . But now there was no Fall; there was no total depravity, or imminent danger of endless doom; and, the basis gone, the superstructure followed.

It is written with earnestness and in excellent English; it must mean something. But what can it mean? How could physical science prove that man is not depraved? You do not cut a man open to find his sins. You do not boil him until he gives forth the unmistakable green fumes of depravity. How could physical science find any traces of a moral fall? What traces did the author expect to find? Did he expect to find a fossil Eve with a fossil apple inside her? Did he suppose that the ages would have spared for him a complete skeleton of Adam attached to a slightly faded fig-leaf? The whole paragraph which I have quoted is simply a series of inconsequent sentences, all quite untrue in themselves and all quite irrelevant to each other. Science never said that there could have been no Fall. There might have been ten Falls, one on top of the other, and the thing would have been quite consistent with everything we know from physical science. Humanity might have grown morally worse for millions of centuries, and the thing would in no way contradict the principle of Evolution…

What can people mean when they say that science has disturbed their view of sin? What sort of view of sin can they have had before science disturbed it? Did they think that it was something to eat? When people say that science has disturbed their faith in immortality, what do they mean? Did they think that immortality was a gas?

Of course the real truth is that science has introduced no new principle into the matter at all. A man can be a Christian to the end of the world, for the simple reason that a man could have been an Atheist from the beginning of it. The materialism of things is on the face of things; it does not require any science to find it out. A man who has lived and loved falls down dead and the worms eat him. That is Materialism if you like. That is Atheism if you like. If mankind has believed in spite of that, it can believe in spite of anything. But why our human lot is made any more hopeless because we know the names of all the worms who eat him, or the names of all the parts of him that they eat, is to a thoughtful mind somewhat difficult to discover.

The Illustrated London News, 28 September 1907.

Published in: on October 4, 2007 at 11:25 am  Leave a Comment  

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