G.K. Chesterton on the “Myth of the Mayflower”

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From “The ‘Myth’ of the Mayflower”, Fancies Versus Fads (1923):

Screen Shot 2015-11-25 at 12.32.57 PMhe “Mayflower” is a myth. It is an intensely interesting example of a real modern myth. I do not mean of course that the “Mayflower” never sailed, any more than I admit that King Arthur never lived or that Roland never died. I do not mean that the incident had no historic interest, or that the men who figured in it had no heroic qualities; any more than I deny that Charlemagne was a great man because the legend says he was two hundred years old; any more than I deny that the resistance of Roman Britain to the heathen invasion was valiant and valuable, because the legend says that Arthur at Mount Badon killed nine hundred men with his own hand. I mean that there exists in millions of modern minds a traditional image or vision called the “Mayflower,” which has far less relation to the real facts than Charlemagne’s two hundred years or Arthur’s nine hundred corpses. Multitudes of people in England and America, as intelligent and sympathetic as the young lady in Mr. Wells’s novel, think of the “Mayflower” as an origin, or archetype, like the Ark or at least the Argo. Perhaps it would be an exaggeration to say that they think the “Mayflower” discovered America. They do really talk as if the “Mayflower” populated America. Above all, they talk as if the establishment of New England had been the first and formative example of the expansion of England. They believe that English expansion was a Puritan experiment; and that an expansion of Puritan ideas was also the expansion of what have been claimed as English ideas, especially ideas of liberty. The Puritans of New England were champions of religious freedom, seeking to found a newer and freer state beyond the sea, and thus becoming the origin and model of modern democracy. All this betrays a lack of exactitude. It is certainly nearer to exact truth to say that Merlin built the castle at Camelot by magic, or that Roland broke the mountains in pieces with his unbroken sword.

For at least the old fables are faults on the right side. They are symbols of the truth and not of the opposite of the truth. They described Roland as brandishing his unbroken sword against the Moslems, but not in favour of the Moslems. And the New England Puritans would have regarded the establishment of real religious liberty exactly as Roland would have regarded the establishment of the religion of Mahound. The fables described Merlin as building a palace for a king and not a public hall for the London School of Economics. And it would be quite as sensible to read the Fabian politics of Mr. Sidney Webb into the local kingships of the Dark Ages, as to read anything remotely resembling modern liberality into the most savage of all the savage theological frenzies of the seventeenth century. Thus the “Mayflower” is not merely a fable, but is much more false than fables generally are. The revolt of the Puritans against the Stuarts was really a revolt _against_ religious toleration. I do not say the Puritans were never persecuted by their opponents; but I do say, to their great honour and glory, that the Puritans never descended to the hypocrisy of pretending for a moment that they did not mean to persecute their opponents. And in the main their quarrel with the Stuarts was that the Stuarts would not persecute those opponents enough. Not only was it then the Catholics who were proposing toleration, but it was they who had already actually established toleration in the State of Maryland, before the Puritans began to establish the most intolerant sort of intolerance in the State of New England. And if the fable is fabulous touching the emancipation of religion, it is yet more fabulous touching the expansion of empire. That had been started long before either New England or Maryland, by Raleigh who started it in Virginia. Virginia is still perhaps the most English of the states, certainly more English than New England. And it was also the most typical and important of the states, almost up to Lee’s last battle in the Wilderness. But I have only taken the “Mayflower” as an example of the general truth; and in a way the truth has its consoling side. Modern men are not allowed to have any history; but at least nothing can prevent men from having legends.

We have thus before us, in a very true and typical modern picture, the two essential parts of modern culture. It consists first of false history and second of fancy history. What the American tourist believed about Plymouth Rock was untrue; what she believed about Stonehenge was only unfounded. The popular story of Primitive Man cannot be proved. The popular story of Puritanism can be disproved. I can fully sympathize with Mr. Wells and his heroine in feeling the imaginative stimulus of mysteries like Stonehenge; but the imagination springs from the mystery; that is, the imagination springs from the ignorance. It is the very greatness of Stonehenge that there is very little of it left. It is its chief feature to be featureless. We are very naturally and rightly moved to mystical emotions about signals from so far away along the path of the past; but part of the poetry lies in our inability really to read the signals. And this is what gives an interest, and even an irony, to the comparison half consciously invoked by the American lady herself when she asked “What’s Notre Dame to this?” And the answer that should be given to her is: “Notre Dame, compared to this, is _true._ It is history. It is humanity. It is what has really happened, what we know has really happened, what we know is really happening still. It is the central fact of your own civilization. And it is the thing that has really been kept from you.”

Notre Dame is not a myth. Notre Dame is not a theory. Its interest does not spring from ignorance but from knowledge; from a culture complicated with a hundred controversies and revolutions. It is not featureless, but carved into an incredible forest and labyrinth of fascinating features, any one of which we could talk about for days. It is not great because there is little of it, but great because there is a great deal of it. It is true that though there is a great deal of it, Puritans may not be allowed to see a great deal in it; whether they were those brought over in the “Mayflower” or only those brought up on the “Mayflower.” But that is not the fault of Notre Dame; but of the extraordinary evasion by which such people can dodge to right or left of it, taking refuge in things more recent or things more remote. Notre Dame, on its merely human side, is mediaeval civilization, and therefore not a fable or a guess but a great solid determining part of modern civilization. It is the whole modern debate about guilds; for such cathedrals were built by the guilds. It is the whole modern question of religion and irreligion; for we know what religion it stands for, while we really have not a notion what religion Stonehenge stands for. A Druid temple is a ruin, and a Puritan ship by this time may well be called a wreck. But a church is a challenge; and that is why it is not answered.

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A Round-Up of Articles I’ve been Meaning to Blog About

Things have been a little extra frenetic lately, and I haven’t had a chance to cover some of these items that I found of interest:

Apple’s co-founder: We’re all going to be robots’ pets one day – From Fortune Magazine. Somehow, the Woz isn’t too worried about it.

Historic meeting between Pope Francis and Russian Orthodox head ‘getting closer’ – From The Independent (UK). For a millennia-long schism, “getting closer” could still mean decades (or centuries) before actual movement.

Screen Shot 2015-06-30 at 1.11.41 PMSpaceships That Could Eat Star Destroyers for Breakfast – From Slate.com; someone took every sci-fi ship from every television and movie series and drew them to scale in one giant diagram. So you can see how the various incarnations of the U.S.S. Enterprise would look in a confrontation against say, the Battlestar Galactica.

From Shea’s Blog, The Prophet GKC on the Culture of Polymorphous Perversity – In case you were thinking that there is something novel or surprising about recent events:

“THE next great heresy is going to be simply an attack on morality; and especially on sexual morality. And it is coming, not from a few Socialists surviving from the Fabian Society, but from the living exultant energy of the rich resolved to enjoy themselves at last, with neither Popery nor Puritanism nor Socialism to hold them back… The roots of the new heresy, God knows, are as deep as nature itself, whose flower is the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eye and the pride of life. I say that the man who cannot see this cannot see the signs of the times; cannot see even the skysigns in the street that are the new sort of signs in heaven. The madness of tomorrow is not in Moscow but much more in Manhattan — but most of what was in Broadway is already in Piccadilly.” ~G.K. Chesterton: “G.K.’s Weekly,” June 19, 1926.

How Compatible are You?

It will take weeks — even months — to completely unpack all of what occurred at WYD in Rio and all of what Pope Francis said. Right now, many have seized upon a few choice soundbites: telling a group of Argentinian youth to “make a mess” in their dioceses (and apologizing to their bishops!), speaking about solidarity and the need for those with adequate resources to remain sensitive to the needs of those suffering social injustice, speaking against clericalism and the inclination to be oriented toward the sanctuary in an effort to avoid going out and being of service to others.

Hopefully all that Francis said and did will not be overshadowed by the press flash from a statement the Holy Father made while being interviewed on the return flight to Rome concerning the fact that it is not okay to judge homosexual persons, which, despite the major news outlets’ efforts to make it appear somehow different from what the Church teaches on the subject, is not a change in anything at all.

I think that Pope Francis knows that the only way we can offer authentic Christian witness is by discerning our “compatibility”. On July 27, as St. Sebastian Cathedral, he said:

“Read the first book of the Maccabees. It describes how they wanted to be in tune with the culture of the time. They said, culture, sure let’s take a bit of everything like everyone else. Laws? Sure, just as long as it’s not too much. But in time, they began to lose their faith because they tried to be compatible with the culture of that time.  Have the strength to go against this. Stand up against a culture that only accepts what’s convenient and throws out the rest.” 

The only authentic version of Catholicism today is the version that is not compatible with the culture of our time. We Catholics should be experiencing a personal incompatibility with mainstream culture now. It should not be too easy to watch television or choose a movie. It should not be perfectly joyful to shop at the mall. We should not be undisturbed when we throw away food. We should not automatically choose to buy the most expensive car we can afford. We should not happily consume all the advertising messages delivered to us.

G.K. Chesterton says that only something that is alive can swim against the current. If we are without a feeling of resistance to the things found in secular culture, we have a severe crisis of faith. Since Pope Francis is pointing out that our incompatibility with culture is a preservative of faith, we must ask ourselves, “How compatible am I?”. Step one is recognizing the need to ask the question.