Disraeli got it wrong

Speaking to a clerical audience in 1864, shortly after the publication of Darwin’s Origin, Benjamin Disraeli said: “What is the question now placed before society with a glib assurance the most astounding? The question is this – Is man an ape or an angel? My lord, I am on the side of the angels.”

The phrase has become proverbial, and even people who disagree with Disraeli’s rejection of Darwinism use it. I suspect they wouldn’t do so if they were aware of the original context, but Disraeli’s listeners, while also appreciating the spiffy phrase, had no problem with the context.

So they cheered, and I’m happy to join in, if belatedly and not without reservations. One such is that Disraeli got the antithesis wrong. The opposite of an angel is a demon, not an ape.

But true enough, man isn’t an ape. So Disraeli was half-right, which sets him apart favourably from today’s politicians who tend to be totally wrong on just about everything.

Though Disraeli was a Christian most of his life (he was baptised at 12), his main interest was politics, not theology. And even in those civilised times, politicians knew that a memorable adage was more effective than sound thought.

Disraeli’s quip is a case in point. It has made its way into the Thesaurus on the strength of its form, not substance.

In substance, I am always puzzled when people on either side of the religious divide insist that evolution is somehow incompatible with Genesis. It isn’t. In fact, it’s much more incompatible with disciplines other than theology, such as microbiology, palaeontology, cosmology, the physics of elementary particles, genetics, biochemistry and geology.

Darwinism only begins to contradict the Old Testament, along with the commonest of senses, when its fanatical and intellectually challenged champions repeat with Richard Dawkins that evolution “explains everything”.

Well, one thing it doesn’t explain is how things that evolve came to be before they started to evolve. After all, the word ‘evolution’ implies a gradual development of something that already exists.

Hence, before an ape began its inexorable evolution into a J.S. Bach, someone must have taken the trouble of creating it. Neither Darwin nor any of his followers come even close to explaining how that came about, for the simple reason that they can’t. Elementary logic won’t allow it.

That would be like insisting that J.S. Bach came into being as a result of his evolution from an embryo. The implication has to be that the embryo was created by parthenogenesis, without any meaningful contribution from Mr and Mrs Johann Ambrosius Bach.

Now, since God is omnipotent by definition, he could have created man ab nihilo and instantly, the way Genesis has it. Or he could have created an ape first, breathed a particle of his own essence into it and let it become man slowly, over thousands or millions of years.

At this point both atheists and Protestant sectarians join forces to insist on the literal reading of the Bible. Such misguided pedantry leads them to deny this second possibility I mentioned.

Genesis says nothing about millions or even thousands of years, they aver. It says God created man on the sixth day, thank you very much. So whether you believe (sectarians) or disbelieve (atheists), there goes that theory of theistic evolution.

Of the two groups, I prefer the atheists. They have a ready excuse for their crepuscular thinking on such subjects, as I have a ready excuse for my ignorance of, say, horticulture. The subject just doesn’t interest me.

Protestant sectarians, on the other hand, insist on being orthodox Christians, which insistence they belie by their most unfortunate scriptural literalism.

As Christians, they ought to know that, since God (again by definition) is outside time, our vocabulary of temporal durations doesn’t apply to him. Whoever wrote the Old Testament, or rather wrote it down, understood that. He was (they were?) communicating the story in the language of poetic imagery, metaphor and parable.

Yet he was indeed communicating it, and every communicator knows that he must use the language his audience will understand. Jesus Christ, for example, not only spoke to his audience in their own Aramaic, but he also copiously used references to the Hebrew scripture they all lived by. Even his words on the cross, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”, were a quotation from Psalm 22.

By the same token, the Genesis writer spoke of six days because he was confident that his audience would both relate to such terms and not take them literally. The genre of realistic novel didn’t yet exist, and the ancient Hebrews were broght up on metaphorical expression.

Overall, whether or not man started out as an ape, he was manifestly not an ape in 1864, although those who insisted he was ought to have been complimented on their capacity for uncompromising self-assessment. And anyone this side of Richard Dawkins will know that the difference between man and ape was that of kind, not of degree. (I’ll dismiss out of hand any attempt to refute this statement by producing photographs of Tommy Robinson at his most agitated.)

But the fact that man isn’t an ape doesn’t mean he is an angel. If he were, he’d be as likely to be a fallen angel as a rosy-cheeked cherub.

According to doctrine, both man and angels are created in the image of God, yet both are capable of sin. Angels sin less frequently than humans, which makes them superior beings. However, if man’s sins can be forgiven, angels’ sins cannot. That means that the tables will be turned on the Day of Judgement: the men whose sins have been forgiven will become superior to angels and able to judge them.

Disraeli was using the phrase not theologically but colloquially, but I’m not sure it works even at that level. The angels in his aphorism are perfect celestial beings, presumably free of sin. Juxtaposing them with apes, as he did, seems to suggest that, whereas angels are perfect human beings, apes are imperfect ones. Hence he was inadvertently vindicating something he had set out to debunk, Darwinism.

Don’t get me wrong: I like a snappy phrase as much as the next man and, after 30 years of writing ads, perhaps more than the next man. Yet outside advertising an aphorism can only act as an ornament of thought, not as its substitute.

Very few aphorisms can survive the kind of decortication to which I subjected Disraeli’s maxim. Realising this makes me dislike slogans of any kind, including those that are seemingly unobjectionable. That antipathy naturally leads to a distrust of modern politics that depends on slogans too much for my taste.

Disraeli was a master phrasemaker, and he could have made a bloody good copywriter. But then he was also a master politician, some will even say statesman. Today’s lot aren’t even good political mechanics, never mind statesmen. They all, however, hire speechwriters, some my former advertising colleagues experienced in producing soundbites that are as punchy as they are meaningless.

Now, do you think slogans like MAGA can withstand scrutiny? If so, I’ll be happy to prove you wrong some other time. Soon, if you insist.

8 thoughts on “Disraeli got it wrong”

  1. Biblical literalists are hard to follow. Jesus spoke in parables. It takes some study and understanding to get at the true meaning. The Jews knew that their ancient writings were in colorful and metaphorical, not literal, language. How the various Protestant sects now reinterpret the Old Testament literally is confounding. Perhaps that change in the language is what Francis refers to as “the God of surprises”?

    At a macro level biology is astounding. At a micro level its complexity is incomprehensible.

    1. And at any level your piece today is so very wrong. It is sad to see someone who is generally right take a so childishly erroneous view of evolution.

  2. Try to imagine yourself as an all powerful God, you can either create a species capable of having a relationship with you in one fell swoop, or, you can bring such a creature into being by kick-starting a torturous, merciless process spanning millions of years. Why on earth would you do the latter?

    When it comes to the Bible, what is the purpose of all this metaphor, analogy and parable? Why not make your message to the human race clear? The Protestants are quite right to expect a literal explanation for life, the universe, and everything. Theistic evolution is perhaps the ultimate oxymoron, it makes God come across as an evil trickster, toying with his would-be believers. The whole notion of ‘intelligent design’ was refuted by Prof. Richard Dawkins in an article from 1998!

    1. I can’t imagine myself to be that which is (by definition) unimaginable. Because I can’t imagine myself to be that unimaginable being, I can’t imagine myself to be able to answer your questions. They’re questions which seem to me to be philosophically improper to ask, and impertinent to try to answer.

      But those of us Christians who are not infected with the impertinence typical of ultra-Protestantism can enjoy asking and answering lesser questions, not about God but about the lesser reality in which we live. But no matter how well we explain our reality, we’re like Flatlanders exploring Flatland in E A Abbott’s great Christian allegory. When confronted with a sphere, the Flatlanders were baffled, until the sphere spoke. Christians believe that the sphere has spoken.

      (I don’t know if E A Abbott was a Christian or not, but Flatland seems to me to be a Christian book. Similarly, I don’t know if Dante was right in supposing that Statius was a Christian or not, but the Thebaid seems to me to be a Christian poem.)

  3. I maintain everyone has faith! There are three big questions; where did we come from, by what rules should we best live and what happens after our last breath.
    Christianity involves a faith that Jusus did miracles, and many of the miracles required time to be condensed. For example, with water to wine, not only the structure of water changed into that of grape but it aged into a fine vintage. Similar with the cursing of the pear tree.
    My point being, for God to be God He can do anything, which includes a fully laden mango tree in the Garden of Eden. He is beyond time and our concepts of proper scientific laws, (like walking on water). He could have made the universe with a passing thought or used a zillion years. Or do we limit God to a being who has limits and can only do certain things?

    1. God is the ultimate cop-out idea, allowing people who are too weak-minded to evade responsibility for their own actions. But all gods are nothing but ideas, and what a lot of trouble they have caused and continue to cause!

  4. ” How the various Protestant sects now reinterpret the Old Testament literally is confounding. ”

    Within the Protestant tradition each and every believer is allowed to interpret the Biblical passages as the see fit. Whatever a passage of the Bible means to you is correct. 100 persons and 100 interpretations.

  5. Excellent article, but something was missed; humans and angels can sin, but apes cannot, if my memory of basic theology is correct.

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