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Religion and modernity a century ago

21 May 2019

Jesting Pilate: The Diary of a JourneyJesting Pilate: The Diary of a Journey by Aldous Huxley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A travel diary of a journey undertaken nearly a century ago — the book was first published in 1926. On his journey Huxley and his companion(s) (whose name(s) are never mentioned) visit India, Burma, Malaya, Java, Borneo, the Philippines, China, Japan and the USA.

His observations are interesting historically, because the first three countries he mentioned were still under British colonial rule, while the Philippines were under American rule. At the end of his journey he concludes that travel is broadening, that it makes one aware of human diversity, and that awareness of that diversity should make one more tolerant, but not too tolerant. His views change with each country he visits, and one can see how each one changes the way he sees things.

The first country he describes is India. As a Westerner he regards India as too “spiritual”, and doesn’t think that attitude has done India much good. Back then India was one country, including Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka (which he did not visit). Muslims and Hindus lived side by side. He describes a visit to the River Ganges, where about a million Hindus had gathered for an eclipse of the sun. They were there to save the sun from a serpent that threatened to eat it. Huxley writes:

To save the sun (which might, one feels, very safely be left to look after itself) a million Hindus will assemble on the banks of the Ganges. How many, I wonder, would assemble to save India? An immense energy, which, if it could be turned into political channels, might liberate and transform the country, is wasted in the name of imbecile superstitions. Religion is a luxury which India, in its present condition, cannot possibly afford. India will never be free until the Hindus and the Moslems are as tepidly enthusiastic about their religion as we are about the Church of England, If I were an Indian millionaire, I would leave all my money for the endowment of an Atheist Mission (Huxley 1994:91).

After he had visited the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) and the Philippines he made an observation about Christian mission and colonialism that I, as a missiologist, found interesting:

The Dutch and English were never such ardent Christians that they thought it necessary to convert, wholesale and by force, the inhabitants of the countries which they colonized. The Spaniards, on the contrary, did really believe in their extraordinary brand of Catholic Christianity; they were always crusaders as well as freebooters, missionaries as well as colonists. Wherever they went, they have left behind them their religion, and with it (for one cannot teach a religion without teaching many other things as well) their language and some of their habits (Huxley 1994:161).

When he visited the USA he describes his reaction to an advertisement for a firm of undertakers in Chicago, where the undertaker became a mortician, the coffin became a casket, and the deceased became “the loved one” — a phenomenon that was to lead a couple of other British authors to write books about it — The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh and The American Way of Death by Nancy Mitford.

The thing that really caught Huxley’s attention, however, was the difference in values that this indicated, between the USA and Europe. The undertaker was proud of providing a necessary “service”. Huxley thought that the people who really provided a necessary service did not represent higher values, as the undertaker’s advertisement implied, but rather lower values. Higher values, for people in Europe, were represented by unnecessary services, like art and religion (Huxley seemed to have changed his mind about the value of religion by the end of his journey). In American modernity and materialism unnecessary services were just unnecessary.

In describing this, Huxley reflects on the source of values. He recognises that if one is a thoroughgoing materialist, there can be no values. One cannot talk of “higher values” or “lower values”, because it is meaningless to do so. The problem with America, he realises, is democracy. Science and technology made it possible for him to read, on a ship in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, about a young wife of an old doctor in California who was arrested and charged with driving her car onto a railway line while drunk and whistling like a train. The people who were entertained by these stories could not possibly have invented the technology that made it possible to transmit them to the furthest reaches of the universe. That was done by the few. I wonder what he would of made of our technology, where people send pictures, not of unusual events, but of what they ate for lunch.

What struck me about it was that in India, Huxley was a liberal, seeing the need for the liberation of the oppressed Indians.By the time he got to America he had become a conservative and an elitist, saying that democracy was causing lower values to have precedence over the higher.

In this I was struck by the contrast between Aldous Huxley and G.K. Chesterton, who was 20 years his senior. By the end of this book Huxley is coming across as a young fogey. Where Huxley was conservative and elitist, deploring democracy, which allowed the untalented many to enjoy the fruits of the work of the talented few, Chesterton was liberal and egalitarian, and stood up for the common man whose common sense was needed to protect him from the elite.

Huxley gives us fascinating glimpses into other places, other times, other values. Travelling eastwards round the world, he thought India needed to modernised, but after crossing the international date line from the East to the West, he seemed to change his mind, and thought that America was too modern.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. 22 May 2019 3:23 pm

    I wonder what he’d have made of modern atheism, which sometimes seems to have a religious zeal.

    • 3 June 2019 5:47 am

      In the 1930s the League of Militant Atheists had some 13 million members, so I don’t think much has changed there.

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