Lecture 71-As I Was Saying
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Lecture 71: As I Was Saying

Essays from The Illustrated London News

As I Was Saying is the last book by G.K. Chesterton that was published during his lifetime. However, his literary estate would publish fourteen more books by him after his death, and there are still new books by Chesterton appearing almost every year. He apparently hasn’t stopped writing. He certainly hasn’t stopped being relevant.

The title indicates that Chesterton is continuing a conversation he has been having with us all along. The amusing observations of our world, the striking insights, the prophetic pronouncements are all here (“In America, wheels have completely taken the place of legs.”), but upon revisiting this volume I found something else, something that I wasn’t looking for, but that I happened to notice because it was on my mind. I found more solid proof that Chesterton was not anti-Semitic.

If there is a connecting theme in these essays taken from the Illustrated London News, it is the problem of the modern world, whose philosophy is characterized, says Chesterton, by two main modern ideas: “first, that it is often extremely convenient to do what is wrong; and second, that whenever it is convenient to do what is wrong, it immediately becomes what is right.”

In art, anything is allowed, but there is no moral base for condemning it because we are no longer a Christian society. If we are Christians we should just admit this, and then “launch a crusade to convert or conquer the modern world.” Instead, we have formed a “one-sided truce” with the modern world., which is to the enormous disadvantage of Christians. We do not attack the modern world, but we allow it to continue to attack us.

Increasingly, we are seeing laws made that not only defy our beliefs, but defy common sense: “Recent legislation has ridden roughshod over the instincts of innocent and simple and yet very sensible people.”

Chesterton further points out that the void left by the loss of religion has been filled with a kind of tribalism. More about that in a minute.

Connected to the creeping secularism is a creeping skepticism. Agnosticism is the new religion. Chesterton makes reference to the same latitudinarian turnip that was still a novelty when he wrote Heretics thirty years before. Skepticism has attacked the foundations of Christianity, in spite of the fact that the doubts being raised against the Christian claims are in themselves rather doubtful, such as the new alternative theories to the miracle of the Resurrection: “The Apostles may have hidden [Jesus’ body] in order to announce a sham miracle but it is very difficult to imagine men being tortured and killed for the truth of a miracle which they knew to be a sham.”

While the marriage of skepticism and secularism injected doubt into religion, it injected materialism into philosophy. The hard-driving economic theories are propped up by technological innovations, and yet, as Chesterton points out, “Progress is the mother of problems.” Progress doesn’t seem to get us anywhere. Materialism is horribly unsatisfying. The modern world is filled with lots of things and is maddeningly empty. Chesterton has laid the groundwork for T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land: “The whole world of mere stunts and scoops and trading and self-advertisement is spiritually dead; although it is very noisy. It is, in the precise and literal meaning of the phrase, a howling wilderness.”

Now why is this proof that Chesterton is not anti-Semitic? Because if he were, he would blame these problems and all the problems of the modern world on the Jews. But he does not. He does not blame the Jews as the agents of secularization, the prophets of materialism, or the enemies of Christian culture. He does not blame Marx, Freud, and Rothschild. He blames Voltaire and Frederick the Great, he blames Protestants who lost their faith but kept their morality, which morphed into Puritanism, who have infected our culture not with their life, not even with their death, but with their decay.

In fact, the only time he mentions the Jews is to defend them.

He mentions the “New Myth” in Germany that the complete surrender of all the German armies in the World War I “was somehow or other brought about by the Jews.” In spite of the “real problem of the international position of the Jews,” it is ridiculous to think the Jews could be responsible for the defeat of Germany. No one listened.

He also notes that there are new reports of Jews being persecuted in Europe and Russia and, though it probably makes no difference to the people being persecuted, it is being called “the persecution of a race and not the persecution of a religion.” Ironically, it is not the old political systems that are persecuting the Jews, but the new political systems. “Doubtless those political systems deal even more in political persecution than in religious persecution. But that does not make them less persecuting, but more. The whole point of the last political theory is that sectional parties and programs must be forcibly effaced; that the opposition press must be abolished, and only one party allowed.…It is a much more profound problem than Progressives have ever found out. But it does measure the exact sense and degree in which humanity does change, that it should disappear in the nineteenth century to reappear in the twentieth.” No one listened.

And now, as the “Progressives” continue to ignore the failure of their political experiments in the 20th century and march further into a “howling wasteland” in the 21st century, we can expect more persecutions, and not just of the Jews.

“As I Was Saying” is unfortunately out of print.

This essay first appeared in the November/December 2008 issue of Gilbert! magazine.