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.