Man Was Always Small

In Orthodoxy, Chesterton has a great line:

It is quite futile to argue that man is small compared to the cosmos; for man was always small compared to the nearest tree.

To give context:

Herbert Spencer would have been greatly annoyed if any one had called him an imperialist, and therefore it is highly regrettable that nobody did. But he was an imperialist of the lowest type. He popularized this contemptible notion that the size of the solar system ought to over-awe the spiritual dogma of man.

It’s something I’ve seen various versions of from contemporary atheists. The most common is that the universe is so large that even if God existed he couldn’t possible care what human beings do. Other versions tend to run along the lines that the universe is so big our petty concerns can’t matter.

Chesterton’s point is a very good one—that man never took his importance from his size relative to the world. It reminds me greatly of a quote from C.S. Lewis in his book The Problem of Pain:

It would be an error to reply that our ancestors were ignorant and therefore held pleasing illusions about nature which the progress of science has since dispelled… even from the beginnings, men must have got the same sense of hostile immensity from a more obvious source. To prehistoric man the neighboring forest must have been infinite enough, and the utterly alien and infest which we have to fetch from the thought of cosmic rays and cooling suns, came snuffing and howling nightly to his very doors… It is mere nonsense to put pain among the discoveries of science. Lay down this book and reflect for five minutes on the fact that all the great religions were first preached, and long practiced, in a world without chloroform.

Of course, few atheists will put the idea this baldly—atheists rarely state any of their ideas without dressing them up a bit, or simply failing to consider how they relate to their other ideas, in my experience—but that one meets this sort of thing at all is very curious. One of the problems which some atheists seem to have in relating to older ideas is that they can’t relate to older peoples.

To the degree that there are solutions to this, I suspect that they are largely going to be narrative. The modern narrative is one of being utterly cut off from our ancestors. And yet we’re also seeing counter-narratives emerging; the revival of older traditions, the preference for older ways of doing things. It’s not material whether the putatively older ways of doing things are in fact accurate to how they used to be done, what matters to this purpose is whether they are believed to be in continuity. When they are—when people believe themselves to be in continuity with their ancestors—that’s when they’ll stop seeing their ancestors as aliens and see them as human, instead.

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