Hilaire Belloc’s 1931 Insights from His Survey of the New Paganism

Picture: Greek Architecture in Agrigento, Sicily (Pixabay)

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                                            18 August 2019

Saint Helena (d. 326)

Epigraphs

“We call Paganism an absence of the Christian revelation. That is why we distinguish between Paganism and the different heresies; that is why we give the name of Christian to imperfect and distorted Christians, who only possess a part of Catholic truth and usually add to it doctrines which are contradictory of Catholic truth [e.g., nominalism and syncretism or a denial of free will]….

“This New Paganism is already a world of its own. It bulks large [as of 1931], and it is certainly going to spread and occupy more and more of modern life [and thus not only in the sprawling Amazon Region then]. It is exceedingly important that we should judge rightly and in good time of what its effects will probably be, for we are going to come under the influence of those effects to some extent, and our children will come very strongly under their influence. Those effects are already [in 1931] impressing themselves profoundly upon the Press, conversation, laws, building [i.e., architecture as a public art], and intimate habits of our time.” (Hilaire Belloc, Essays of A Catholic Layman in England (London: Sheed & Ward, 1931), pages 13 and 14—my emphasis added)

***

“Of these marks [of the New Paganism] the two most prominent are, first, the postulate that man is sufficient to himself—that is, the omission of the idea of Grace; the second (a consequence of this [postulate]), despair. The New Paganism is the resultant of two forces which have converged to produce it: appetite and the sense of doom….A licence in act and a necessarily more extended licence in speech [also “exercising the fullest license for what is called ‘self-expression’” (15)] are therefore the mark of the New Paganism…. I will say this much: that the one very powerful agent in producing this mood [of fatalism] is the desire to be rid of responsibility. (Hilaire Belloc, Essays of a Catholic (1931), page 15-17—my emphasis added)

***

“But the New Paganism will tend, not to punish, but to restrain with fetters; to prevent action, to impose coercive bonds. It will be an issue more and more with human dignity. It has already, in certain provinces (the Calvinist canton of Vaud in Switzerland is an example), enacted what is called ‘the sterilisation of the unfit’ as a positive law. It has not yet enacted, though it has already proposed and will certainly in time enact, legislation for the restriction of births. Not only in these, but in many other departments of life, one after another, will this mechanical network spread and bind those subject to it under a compulsion which cannot be escaped.” (Hilaire Belloc, Essays of a Catholic (1931), page 19—my emphasis added)

***

In the first chapter of his 1931 book, Essays of a Catholic Layman in England,1 Hilaire Belloc presents his own farsighted “survey of the New Paganism”—its resistance and lack of receptivity to the Faith—which contains some profound insights that are timely for us still, and refreshingly articulated.

Given the current discussions about the nature (and proposed new modifications) of Catholic missionary activity in the large and multi-cultural Amazon Region of South America, Hilaire Belloc’s reflections and differentiated view of Classical Paganism and its History might well be especially welcomed now—at least so as to give us a fitting sense of proportion and distinction and integrity.

The Preface to Belloc’s set of Catholic Essays shows us his modesty and his cultured reticence about some important matters of moment to a mature man:

I do not know whether I ought to apologise for the fact that these papers [these reflective essays] deal only with what may be called the externals of religion, are even in great part political, and without exception controversial. I have, perhaps, no faculty for dealing on paper with the more essential, the all-important, interior things of Catholic life. If ever I have dealt or shall deal with them I am sure I should not sign my name. (10—my emphasis added)

At the beginning of his essay on “The New Paganism,” Belloc reveals what for him is the importance of the difference between first struggling and receptively going uphill into the fresh air and the fresh water and lucid vision, as distinct from one’s later, in disillusionment and even still bitterly bearing “a rejected experience” (16), going back downhill into a mephitic and fetid swamp:

Our civilisation developed [gradually] as a Catholic civilisation. It developed and matured as a Catholic thing. With the loss of the Faith it will slip back not only into Paganism, but into barbarism with the accompaniments of Paganism, and especially the institution of [or different forms of] slavery. It will find gods to worship, but they will be evil gods as were those of the older savage Paganism before it began its advance toward Catholicism. The road downhill is the same as the road up the hill. It is the same road; but to go down back into the marshes again is a very different thing from coming up from the marshes into pure air. All things return to their origins. A living organic being, whether a human body or a whole state of society, turns at last into its original elements if life be not maintained in it. But in the process of return [“downhill,” as it were] there is a phase of corruption which is very unpleasant. That phase the modern world outside [and now, in 2019, maybe also, in part, inside?] the Catholic Church has arrived at. (11—my emphasis added)

However, Belloc acknowledges that, as of 1931:

The Christian scheme is still close enough even to the most Pagan of the New Pagans to be familiar, and the social atmosphere which is created still endures as a memory, or as a rejected experience, in their lives. The social atmosphere insisted on a number of restrictions. Of course, no society could exist in which there were not a great number of restrictions, but the restrictions imposed by Christian morals were severe and numerous, and most of them are meaningless to those who have abandoned Christian doctrine, because morals are the fruit of doctrine.

It is not only in sexual matters (the first that will be cited in this connection), but in canons of taste, in social conduct, traditional canons of beauty in verse, prose, or the plastic arts that there is outbreak [in the New Paganism]. The restriction and, therefore, the effort necessary for lucidity in prose, for scansion in poetry and, according to our tradition, for rhyme in most poetry—the restrictions imposed by reverence for age, for certain relationships such as those between parent and child, for the respect of property as a right—and all the rest of it are broken through. A licence in act and a necessarily more extended [and promiscuous] licence in speech are therefore the mark of the New Paganism. (16—my emphasis added)

A few pages later Belloc shows us, with vivid force, how the New Paganism considers moral responsibility and logicality and human reason:

It is true that the professors of this creed [of “Monism,” of “Fatalism” or of Evolutionary “Determinism”] are illogical; for no one gives louder vent to moral indignation than themselves, especially when they are denouncing the cruelties or ineptitudes of believers in moral responsibility, but then, as the denial of human reason is also a part of their creed, or, at any rate, the denial of its value as the instrument for the discovery of truth, they will not be seriously disturbed by the incongruity of their outbursts; for what is incongruous or illogical is not to them blameworthy or ridiculous—rather in their mouths does the word “logical” connote something absurd and empty. (18—my emphasis added)

Belloc will now comment on the overlapping interrelationship of religion and politics, and he criticizes an error that the moderns sometimes make, especially when considering the loyal Catholics:

And here I have…a quarrel with those moderns who will make of religion an individual thing (and no Catholic can evade the corporate quality of religion), telling us us that its object being personal holiness and the salvation of the individual soul, it [religion] can have no concern with politics. On the contrary, the concern of religion with politics is inevitable. Not that the Christian doctrine and ethic rejects any one of the three classic forms of government—democracy, aristocracy or monarchy, or any mixture of them—but it does reject certain features in society which are opposed to the Christian social products, and are opposed to them because they spring from a denial of free will. (21-22—my emphasis added)

Moreover, Belloc will continue to accent for us the importance of doctrine and its practical fruits:

The battle for the right doctrine [also in the Amazon now] in theology is always also a battle for the preservation of definite social things (institutions, habits) following from right doctrine; nor is there anything more contemptible intellectually than the attitude of those who imagine that because doctrine must be stated in abstract terms it therefore has no practical application nor any real fruit in the real world of real men. Contrariwise, difference in doctrine is at the root of all political and social differences; therefore is the struggle for or against, the most vital of struggles. (22—my emphasis added)

After this compact and profound summary of his courageous convictions and principles, Hilaire Belloc will gradually conclude his essay (22-26) by comparing and contrasting the New Paganism with Classic Paganism (sometimes called the Old Paganism):

But apart from these [earlier-examined] aspects of the New Paganism there is another which I confess I happen to feel myself closely concerned with. It is the connection between the New Paganism and that lure of the antique world, which is of such power over all generous minds, and especially upon those who are in love with beauty….

Yet this attraction [of created loveliness] of the antique [Pagan] world I conceive to be a dangerous decoy, leading us on to things very different from, and very much worse than, that classic Paganism from which we all descend. (22—my emphasis added)

After noting that “most modern people who fall into the New Paganism know nothing about the Paganism of antiquity” (23—emphasis added), Belloc goes on to specify his meaning:

There never was a time when educated men had a larger proportion among them ignorant of Latin and Greek [as of 1931], since first Greek was taught in the universities of Western Europe; and there was certainly never a time during the last two thousand years when the mass of people, the workers, were given less knowledge of the past and were less in sympathy with tradition.

None the less,….There is a general knowledge that men were once free from the burden of Christian duty, and a widespread belief that when men were free from it [Christian duty] life was [putatively] better because it was more rational and directed to things [“such as the health of the body and physical comforts and pleasant surroundings, and the rest”]….To direct life again to these objects, making man once more sufficient to himself and treating temporal good as the supreme good, is the note of the New Paganism.

Now what seems to me by far the most important thing to point out in this connection is that the underlying assumption in all this is false. The New Paganism [which is a “corruption”] differs, and must differ radically, from the Old [Paganism]; its consequences in human life will be quite different; presumably much worse, and increasingly worse. (23—my emphasis added)

But what are Belloc’s well-grounded reasons for having such a dark assessment of the processes and finality of the the New Paganism? (Let us, for now, remember the return downhill to the swamp after having once deeply experienced and resolutely rejected the Faith and Traditional Catholicism.)

Since Hilaire Belloc remains, on principle, resistantly attentive to a false synthesis of religions or to the formation of a hybrid religion (as is being done now in the Amazon Region, as it seems), he will offer his own set of reasons for firmly resisting the New Paganism on many fronts:

The reason of this [mark of difference] is that you cannot undo an experience. You cannot cut off a man or a society from their past, and the world of Christendom has had the experience of the Faith. When it moves away from the Faith to return to Paganism again it is not doing the same thing, not producing the same emotions, not passing through the same process, not suffering the same reactions, as the Old Paganism did, which was moving towards the Faith. It is one thing to go south from the Arctic towards the civilised parts of Europe; it is quite another thing to go north from the civilised parts of Europe to the Arctic. You are not merely returning to a place from which you started, you are going through a contrary series of emotions the whole time.

The New Paganism, should it ever become universal, or over whatever districts or societies it may become general, will never be what the Old Paganism was. It will be other, because it will be a corruption. (24—my emphasis added)

As he moves to a more specific presentation of his condign warnings and fuller admonitions, he sharpens the contrasts between the Old Paganism and the New Pagan manifestations:

The Old Paganism was profoundly traditional; indeed, it had no roots except in tradition. Deep reverence for its own past and for the wisdom of its ancestry and pride therein were the very soul of the Old Paganism; that is why it formed so solid a foundation on which to build the Catholic Church, though that is also why it offered so long and determined resistance to the growth of the Catholic Church. But the new Paganism has for its very essence contempt for tradition and contempt of ancestry. It respects perhaps nothing, but least of all does it respect the spirit of “Our fathers have told us.”

The Old Paganism worshipped human things, but the noblest human things, particularly reason and the sense of beauty….But the New Paganism despises reason, and boasts that it is attacking beauty. It presents with pride music that is discordant, building that is repellent, pictures that are a mere chaos, and it ridicules logical process, so that, as I have said, it has made of the very word “logical” a sort of sneer. (24-25—my emphasis added)

Now Belloc considers the openness to authority and the need for an alert perceptiveness:

The Old Paganism was of a sort that would be open, when due time came, to the authority of the Catholic Church. It had ears which at least would hear and eyes which at least would see; but the New Paganism, not only has closed its senses, but is atrophying them, so that it aims at a state in which there shall be no ears to hear and no eyes to see.

The one [the Old Paganism] was growing keener in its sight and its hearing; the other [the New Paganism] is declining towards a condition where the society it informs will be blind and deaf, even to the main natural pleasures of life and to temporal truths. It [i.e, such an atrophied, pagan-informed society] will be incapable of understanding what they [the pleasures and truths] are all about. (25—my emphasis )

One final contrast will prepare us for his last alert and warning:

The Old Paganism had a strong sense of the supernatural. This sense was often turned to the wrong objects and always to insufficient objects, but it was keen and unfailing; all the poetry of the Old Paganism, even when it despairs, has this sense. And you may read in those of its writers who actively opposed religion, such as Lucretius [especially in his lengthy epic poem, De Rerum Natura], a fine religious sense of dignity and order. The New Paganism [by contrast] delights in superficiality, and conceives that it is rid of the evil as well as the good in what it believes to have been superstitions and illusions [such a the traditional Catholic Faith and the Sacraments of the Church].

There it [the New Paganism] is wrong, and upon that note I will end. Men do not live long without gods; but when the gods of the New Paganism come they will not be merely insufficient, as were the the gods of Greece, nor merely false; they will be evil. One might put it in a sentence, and say that the New Paganism, foolishly expecting satisfaction, will fall, before it knows where it is, into Satanism. (25-26—my emphasis added)

CODA

Beware of superficial or syncretic, newly proposed “inculturations” and the sly use of both the Hegelian and the Marxist Dialectic, both of which deny the logical principle of non-contradiction. These recommendations apply not only to the current developments in the Amazon Region and Rome.

–Finis–

© 2019 Robert D. Hickson

1Hilaire Belloc, Essays of a Catholic Layman in England (London: Sheed & Ward, 1931). Future references to this book will be to this first edition and, for convenience, be placed above in parentheses in the main body of this commentary.