llustrated London News 1923-25
Volume 33 of the Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton
I will not say this is the best volume of Chesterton’s Illustrated London News columns, but I could certainly make the case if I wanted to. I will simply say this volume epitomizes the whole collection. First of all, most of the essays in it are gathered here for the first time. A few went into Generally Speaking and some other books, but the bulk of it is fresh stuff. It is also typically Chestertonian in that it seems to be describing the 2010s rather than the 1920s. But also, there is a definite thread that ties these essays together, even though their subject matter varies widely, from capital punishment to hedonism to stage costume. The common theme is the effect of increasing secularization in what was once a Christian society.
As usual, Chesterton is prophetic about small things—describing the telephone as a great scientific invention, but also “a horrible nuisance”—and about big things: “There is a very real problem of religious liberty ahead of us, though most people seem to be strangely blind to it.” The looming problem of religious liberty, he says, arises from the fact that “differences are indeed fewer, but are much more fundamental.” Even more “absolute and abysmal.” We do not notice them because “a habit of morals remains after a change of faith; sometimes only because a shell of manners remains after a loss of morals.”
Thus we have the new value of “Tolerance” to paste a veneer of good behavior over the absence of a definable philosophy, a belief that doesn’t know what it believes, but only knows what it doesn’t believe. But, says Chesterton, “secular impartiality is not so easy as it looks.” It purports to be neutral about religion, but it ends up persecuting religion. Those who happen to disagree with the secularists will be regarded as almost lunatic, while those who agree will seem perfectly simple and quite sensible. But there will be no basis for either the agreement or the disagreement. “Those who merely denounce intolerance seem to have no theory at all with which to defend toleration.”
The secularization will creep into the faith itself. We will hear the term “True Christianity,” which means the jettisoning of any distinctive Christian doctrine and the inclusion of “every sort of heathenry.”
Men reform a thing by removing the reality from it, and then do not know what to do with
the unreality that is left. Thus they would reform religious institutions by removing the religion. They do not seem to see that to take away the creed and leave the servants of the creed is simply to go on paying servants for nothing. To keep the temple without the god is to be hag-ridden with superstitious vigilance about a hollow temple—about a mere shell made of brick or stone. To support the palace and not support the king is simply to pay for an empty palace.
It began, ironically, with Puritanism, which took a negative form of Christianity and led to Prohibition. The reaction against the Prohibition is an outbreak of hedonism. Yet Prohibition never goes away. Chesterton predicts it will come to smokers next, and any minor pleasure will be attacked, and against the will of the people. “If our government were really a representative government it would not be a meddlesome government.” In the meantime, the real problem—sin—will be ignored.
The world suffers, he says, “from a certain tail-foremost trick of thought . . . It takes the trivial thing first and tries to put it right, without caring whether it is putting the important thing wrong.” The tail wags the dog. Thus we obsess over the intermediate and neglect the eternal. Efficiency and progress are secondary things. So are money and sex. The notion of progress, of always going forward, is especially worrisome when we have come to the end of the precipice. Chesterton suggests that at that point, retreat is a better strategy.
How did we reach this state of affairs? Through an “ignorance of the past combined with fatalism about the future.” What we could actually learn from the past would be very useful for creating our future:
There might be worse fates for us than the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. It would have been much worse for the old heathen empire if it had not declined and fallen, but only risen higher and grown richer in its old heathen way. What would have been the good of tracing amphitheatres larger than the amphitheatre of the Coliseum? What would have been the use of building baths more elaborate than the Baths of Caracalla? What, relatively speaking,
would have been the advantage even of making taller aqueducts for grander fountains or longer roads for larger legions? This is exactly what corresponds to the modern vista of scientific improvement; of quickening our quickest modes of transport, or linking up yet closer our network of communications; of something more rapid than racing-cars or more ubiquitous than wireless telegraphy. We can see at this distance that increasing the old heathen machinery would not have made the heathen world happy; and we know in our hearts that increasing the modern machinery will not make the modern world happy.