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    The Priest of Spring

    by Gilbert Keith Chesterton
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    The sun has strengthened and the air softened just before Easter Day.
    But it is a troubled brightness which has a breath not only of novelty but
    of revolution, There are two great armies of the human intellect who will
    fight till the end on this vital point, whether Easter is to be
    congratulated on fitting in with the Spring--or the Spring on fitting in
    with Easter.

    The only two things that can satisfy the soul are a person and a story;
    and even a story must be about a person. There are indeed very voluptuous
    appetites and enjoyments in mere abstractions like mathematics, logic, or
    chess. But these mere pleasures of the mind are like mere pleasures of
    the body. That is, they are mere pleasures, though they may be gigantic
    pleasures; they can never by a mere increase of themselves amount to
    happiness. A man just about to be hanged may enjoy his breakfast;
    especially if it be his favourite breakfast; and in the same way he may
    enjoy an argument with the chaplain about heresy, especially if it is his
    favourite heresy. But whether he can enjoy either of them does not depend
    on either of them; it depends upon his spiritual attitude towards a
    subsequent event. And that event is really interesting to the soul;
    because it is the end of a story and (as some hold) the end of a person.

    Now it is this simple truth which, like many others, is too simple for our
    scientists to see. This is where they go wrong, not only about true
    religion, but about false religions too; so that their account of
    mythology is more mythical than the myth itself. I do not confine myself
    to saying that they are quite incorrect when they state (for instance)
    that Christ was a legend of dying and reviving vegetation, like Adonis or
    Persephone. I say that even if Adonis was a god of vegetation, they have
    got the whole notion of him wrong. Nobody, to begin with, is sufficiently
    interested in decaying vegetables, as such, to make any particular mystery
    or disguise about them; and certainly not enough to disguise them under
    the image of a very handsome young man, which is a vastly more interesting
    thing. If Adonis was connected with the fall of leaves in autumn and the
    return of flowers in spring, the process of thought was quite different.
    It is a process of thought which springs up spontaneously in all children
    and young artists; it springs up spontaneously in all healthy societies.
    It is very difficult to explain in a diseased society.

    The brain of man is subject to short and strange snatches of sleep. A
    cloud seals the city of reason or rests upon the sea of imagination; a
    dream that darkens as much, whether it is a nightmare of atheism or a
    daydream of idolatry. And just as we have all sprung from sleep with a
    start and found ourselves saying some sentence that has no meaning, save
    in the mad tongues of the midnight; so the human mind starts from its
    trances of stupidity with some complete phrase upon its lips; a complete
    phrase which is a complete folly. Unfortunately it is not like the dream
    sentence, generally forgotten in the putting on of boots or the putting in
    of breakfast. This senseless aphorism, invented when man's mind was
    asleep, still hangs on his tongue and entangles all his relations to
    rational and daylight things. All our controversies are confused by
    certain kinds of phrases which are not merely untrue, but were always
    unmeaning; which are not merely inapplicable, but were always
    intrinsically useless. We recognise them wherever a man talks of "the
    survival of the fittest," meaning only the survival of the survivors; or
    wherever a man says that the rich "have a stake in the country," as if the
    poor could not suffer from misgovernment or military defeat; or where a
    man talks about "going on towards Progress," which only means going on
    towards going on; or when a man talks about "government by the wise few,"
    as if they could be picked out by their pantaloons. "The wise few" must
    mean either the few whom the foolish think wise or the very foolish who
    think themselves wise.

    There is one piece of nonsense that modern people still find themselves
    saying, even after they are more or less awake, by which I am particularly
    irritated. It arose in the popularised science of the nineteenth century,
    especially in connection with the study of myths and religions. The
    fragment of gibberish to which I refer generally takes the form of saying
    "This god or hero really represents the sun." Or "Apollo killing the
    Python MEANS that the summer drives out the winter." Or "The King dying in
    a western battle is a SYMBOL of the sun setting in the west." Now I
    should really have thought that even the skeptical professors, whose
    skulls are as shallow as frying-pans, might have reflected that human
    beings never think or feel like this. Consider what is involved in this
    supposition. It presumes that primitive man went out for a walk and saw
    with great interest a big burning spot on the sky. He then said to
    primitive woman, "My dear, we had better keep this quiet. We mustn't let
    it get about. The children and the slaves are so very sharp. They might
    discover the sun any day, unless we are very careful. So we won't call
    it 'the sun,' but I will draw a picture of a man killing a snake; and
    whenever I do that you will know what I mean. The sun doesn't look at all
    like a man killing a snake; so nobody can possibly know. It will be a
    little secret between us; and while the slaves and the children fancy I am
    quite excited with a grand tale of a writhing dragon and a wrestling
    demigod, I shall really MEAN this delicious little discovery, that there
    is a round yellow disc up in the air." One does not need to know much
    mythology to know that this is a myth. It is commonly called the Solar
    Myth.

    Quite plainly, of course, the case was just the other way. The god was
    never a symbol or hieroglyph representing the sun. The sun was a
    hieroglyph representing the god. Primitive man (with whom my friend
    Dombey is no doubt well acquainted) went out with his head full of gods
    and heroes, because that is the chief use of having a head. Then he saw
    the sun in some glorious crisis of the dominance of noon on the distress
    of nightfall, and he said, "That is how the face of the god would shine
    when he had slain the dragon," or "That is how the whole world would bleed
    to westward, if the god were slain at last."

    No human being was ever really so unnatural as to worship Nature. No man,
    however indulgent (as I am) to corpulency, ever worshipped a man as round
    as the sun or a woman as round as the moon. No man, however attracted to
    an artistic attenuation, ever really believed that the Dryad was as lean
    and stiff as the tree. We human beings have never worshipped Nature; and
    indeed, the reason is very simple. It is that all human beings are
    superhuman beings. We have printed our own image upon Nature, as God has
    printed His image upon us. We have told the enormous sun to stand still;
    we have fixed him on our shields, caring no more for a star than for a
    starfish. And when there were powers of Nature we could not for the time
    control, we have conceived great beings in human shape controlling them.
    Jupiter does not mean thunder. Thunder means the march and victory of
    Jupiter. Neptune does not mean the sea; the sea is his, and he made it.
    In other words, what the savage really said about the sea was, "Only my
    fetish Mumbo could raise such mountains out of mere water." What the
    savage really said about the sun was, "Only my great great-grandfather
    Jumbo could deserve such a blazing crown."

    About all these myths my own position is utterly and even sadly simple.
    I say you cannot really understand any myths till you have found that one
    of them is not a myth. Turnip ghosts mean nothing if there are no real
    ghosts. Forged bank-notes mean nothing if there are no real bank-notes.
    Heathen gods mean nothing, and must always mean nothing, to those of us
    that deny the Christian God. When once a god is admitted, even a false
    god, the Cosmos begins to know its place: which is the second place. When
    once it is the real God the Cosmos falls down before Him, offering flowers
    in spring as flames in winter. "My love is like a red, red rose" does not
    mean that the poet is praising roses under the allegory of a young lady.
    "My love is an arbutus" does not mean that the author was a botanist so
    pleased with a particular arbutus tree that he said he loved it. "Who art
    the moon and regent of my sky" does not mean that Juliet invented Romeo to
    account for the roundness of the moon. "Christ is the Sun of Easter" does
    not mean that the worshipper is praising the sun under the emblem of
    Christ. Goddess or god can clothe themselves with the spring or summer;
    but the body is more than raiment. Religion takes almost disdainfully the
    dress of Nature; and indeed Christianity has done as well with the snows
    of Christmas as with the snow-drops of spring. And when I look across
    the sun-struck fields, I know in my inmost bones that my joy is not solely
    in the spring, for spring alone, being always returning, would be always
    sad. There is somebody or something walking there, to be crowned with
    flowers: and my pleasure is in some promise yet possible and in the
    resurrection of the dead.
    If you're writing a The Priest of Spring essay and need some advice, post your Gilbert Keith Chesterton essay question on our Facebook page where fellow bookworms are always glad to help!

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