Josef Pieper’s Final Portion of his Autobiography 1964-1988: A Story Like a Beam of Light

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                                                 7 March 2020

Saint Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274)

Epigraphs

“I was especially pleased to see that the reason for the award [“the February 1982 Balzan Prize”], as I could now see for the first time, was precisely what had always been my greatest concern: namely, expressing myself in comprehensible, non-specialized language ‘which was capable of awakening for a world-wide public a philosophical awareness of the ultimate questions about human existence.’ And no matter how much it may seem like self-praise, I am not ashamed to say it.” (Josef Pieper, A Journey to Point Omega (2020)—or A Story Like a Beam of Light (1988—in German), pages 155-156—my emphasis added)

***

“He [the senior modern German air force officer ]…said immediately: ‘In our training, you must remember, the theme “German Luftwaffe in World War II” was taboo.’ Here again, I thought, is confirmation of the words of my teacher Thomas Aquinas with their manifold implications: ‘Praise of bravery depends on justice.’ The most daring, most intelligent, most dangerous undertakings by soldiers—which are often associated with extreme willingness to make sacrifices—cannot simply be praised when they are performed in the service of a criminal power; but it would be no less false to condemn them summarily and without distinction as likewise criminal [as in the case of the gifted German paratrooper General Kurt Student]; and with regard to the decision to keep silent about these things: it is indeed understandable and possibly even deserving of respect; but it can also thwart the inner cleansing, the catharsis, through which this tragedy [of war], too, could perhaps make even these awful events fruitful.” (Josef Pieper, A Journey to Point Omega–or A Story Like a Beam of Light, page 166—my emphasis added)

***

“But in public I was also silent. Should I have shouted aloud [about certain “naked crimes” targeting the Jews]: there is terrible injustice happening here? Some people did that and paid for it with their lives. Inge Scholl wrote to me shortly after the war [in 1945] telling me that her brother had read my books. And not until the spring of 1986 did the sister of Willi Graf, who also belonged to the “Weiße Rose” group and had been executed, sent me the photo-copy of a piece of paper from her brother’s diary: ‘Read J.P. about the Christian conception of man.’ This affected me in two ways. I heard this news and was ashamed. Some write things and others do them.” (Josef Pieper, A Journey to Point Omega, page 143—my emphasis added)

***

My objections [about some translations of “the texts of the Ordo Missae”] concerned not so much inadequate linguistic formulations but primarily the destruction of meaningwhich is almost always caused by misuse of language.” (Josef Pieper, A Journey to Point Omega, page 37—my emphasis added)

***

“My conclusion was that perhaps under the reign of sophistry and pseudo-philosophy true philosophy as a distinguishable independent discipline would disappear, and the specifically philosophical object—the root of things and the ultimate meaning of existence—would only be considered by those with faith.” (Josef Pieper, A Journey to Point Omega, page 68—my emphasis added)

***

The third volume of Josef Pieper’s autobiography, after some considerable delays, has finally been translated into English and just recently published in February of 2020 by St. Augustine’s Press in South Bend, Indiana. This 2020 text is now entitled A Journey to Point Omega—Autobiography from 1964.

The original German text was published in 1988, some fourteen years before Dr. Pieper’s own death on 6 November 1997 at 93 years of age. His original 1988 book in German—as well as his later Volume EB2 of his 2005 Eleven-Volume Opera Omnia–was carefully and more poetically entitled: Eine Geschichte wie ein Strahli.e., A Story like a Beam of Light—and it was originally also modestly subtitled Autobiographische Aufzeichnungen seit 1964 (Autobiographical Notes since 1964-1986).

It is important for us to remember that when Josef Pieper first published the last portion of his autobiography in 1988, he was eighty-four years of age; and when his beloved wife earlier died in 1984 after their almost fifty years together in marriage, Josef Pieper was eighty years old.

A Journey to Point Omega essentially begins with the multiple effects of the sudden death of his son Thomas in Seattle, Washington on 25 July 1964, and ends with the poignant death of his wife Hildegard in Münster, Germany on 25 June 1984. These events shook Josef Pieper and took him to the roots of his faith, hence the permeating atmosphere of his memoir: not just the medley of “notes” and the variety of things to be considered in his final and abiding—and often elegiac—memoir, to include his forthrightness about the sad burden of some recent German history, as well as the loss of his son Thomas and his beloved wife Hildegard in 1964 and 1984, respectively.

Indeed once in February 1964—shortly before he was additionally to face the sudden death of his son in America on 25 July 1964—Josef Pieper said the following after having just met in person General Kurt Student (b. 1890), the gifted and chivalrous German parachute officer of the Luftwaffe in World War II:

As for myself, I went home somewhat and sad. The burden of our destructive history, which was still with me under the surface, had revealed itself to me only too clearly. On that evening [in Münster] in February 1964 I had known very little. The more important things I found out only later….Above all, at this time [in 1964] I did not yet know other things that happened after the war. The planner and leader of the [May 1941] attack on Crete, which was daring and had an unusually high rate of casualties, did not only receive the chivalrous distinction [and an awarded medal!] from his [very courageous] New Zealand foes; it also happened that a British General [New Zealand Commanding Officer on Crete of the 4th NZ Brigade, Brigadier General Lindsay Inglis], acting as a judge in court, absolutely refused to confirm—and thereby prevented—the sentence of five-year imprisonment passed by the victors’ military tribunal against the enemy for alleged crimes. And in a well-documented publication of the Freiburg Military Research Institute in 1982 I read that General Student, condemned to death by a French military court, then first had his sentence commuted to life imprisonment and later passed some time [five years] in humiliating circumstances in a prison.

There was no mention of all that at table on that evening [in February of 1964]. And although perhaps no one had anything to hide, General Student [d. 1 July 1978] was probably not the only one who remained silent about what he had done and what had happened to him.—But for the younger officers, who had still been sitting there together quite at ease [in 1964], the deeds and experiences of the German Luftwaffe in World War II were, as I learned recently [“in this summer of 1987”], ‘quite taboo.’ (Josef Pieper, A Journey to Point Omega (2020), pages 171-172—my emphasis added1)

Earlier in the memoir—at the very beginning of his important Chapter II (“Post-Conciliar Confusion”), Josef Pieper had quietly mentioned in passing the loss of his son and that “The requiem for our son Thomas [was] celebrated at the end of July 1964—about a year and a half after [before!] the end of the Council” [sic—a typographical correction is needed: i.e, “before” instead of “after”: “before the end of the Council” in October of 1965]. (32—my emphasis added)

Throughout his memoir, as he learned it from his mentor Thomas Aquinas, Dr. Pieper is attentive to the combination of “order and mystery”—Saint Thomas’ “ordo et mysterium.” As they understand it, reality is intelligible, accessible, and knowable—and yet unfathomable. And thus “Sapientis Ordinare”: namely, that it is characteristic of a wise man—or a seeker of wisdom—to give order to things.

Here is the way Josef Pieper recurrently alerts us and awakens us to the searching themes of his own writings and invited lectures: by modestly mentioning their substantive titles, such as: “the meaning of ‘God speaks’” (21 and 105); “what distinguishes a priest” (46); “a necessary attempt at clarification” (46); “theology as the attempt to interpret revelation” (29); “a communion chalice” is “full of what?” (52); “the Corpus Christi also as a warning” (52); “abuse of language, abuse of power” (67); “discipline and moderation”—“Zucht und Mass” (76); “courage and hope” (780; “sacred vestments” and “praeambula sacramenti” (101); “memorial Mass for Thomas” (110); “Body Memory”—Latin “Memoria Corporis” (120); “Death and Immortality” and “On Love” (121); “a consecrated priest” and “a non-priest” (132); “the dilemma of a non-Christian philosophy” (148); Saint Thomas Aquinas: “Thomas a Creatore” (G.K. Chesterton) (149); “the current relevance of scholasticism” (153); the moral of the local stories of Münster in Westphalia (152); “praise of bravery depends on justice” (152); “This memoir was too personal for my Westphalian taste” (137); and the gifted General Kurt Student’s own “chivalrous distinction” (171-172).

Now we may better consider Josef Pieper’s representative presentation of a form of mysterium and the veil that properly protects it against coarsening and trivializing language and also against the deeper germs and spreading virulence of de-sacralization.

In his highly differentiated and deeply discerning second chapter on “Post-Conciliar Confusion,” he says, for example:

The defenders of a desacralized way of speakingi.e., a way which even in the Church and in the Mass, approximates as closely as possible to, and is even identical with the average way of speaking—have occasionally, in debate with me, appealed to an official “Instruction” [from 25 January 1969] which [allegedly] allows and even recommends such freedom with language….

With the word mysterium, which is always connected with the language of the liturgy, another aspect of sacred language has been named….I am referring to the element of the veil by which the mystery is protected from the very direct threat of language….

I don’t know how often I have attended the Easter blessing of the baptismal water celebrated by the bishop in St. Paul’s Cathedral in Münster. I remember, above all, Clemens August von Galen, who, with his somewhat dull, tortured sounding voice as he let the Easter candle down into the water, sang on three different notes the words: Descendat in hanc plenitudinem fontis virtus Spiritus Sancti. Hundreds of people listened with deep, silent attention and observed the symbolic action; and I am convinced that here, despite the Latin language, what was mysteriously happening here was brought home to the simplest of Christians present in an incomparably moving way—much more than it could be by the completely clear new new German text, which is sad, impoverished, and cold: “Let the power of the Holy Spirit descend into this water!” [“Es steige hinab in dieses Wasser die Kraft des Heiliges Geistes!”]…

The Bishop of Münster said to me, upset and in shock after the first time he performed the new rite, “If I only had at least been able to sing it!” The Missale Romanum speaks continually of the plenitudo fontis. To say instead “this water” is obviously a wretched abbreviation. But if it is too “poetic” to speak of “this overflowing spring,” why not in this particular case—and it might not be the only one—keep the Latin text and, of course, not speak it but sing it? In any case, here as elsewhere, translating into German giving the true meaning is the real problem, which often enough remains unsolved. (34-36—my emphasis added)

Dr. Pieper later was to show his rootedness and special gratitude to the self-sacrificing previous generation that so nourished his own childhood and the childhood of many others:

In 1979, on a November afternoon when it was already becoming dark, I was to receive in the town hall in Münster, as a somewhat late birthday present, the St. Paul Badge of this city which early in my life had become my home town….

During all this, the thought occurred to me that, on receiving the St. Paul Badge, I should relate all these things which I had witnessed at first hand during my childhood years. I intended in this way to honor and to express my gratitude to the preceding generation….Everyone immediately understood that these [grateful words] were intended as stories with a “moral.” The idea was to show what these simple folk, our fathers and mothers, who had never had such a thing as a holiday in Mallorca and whose almost daily midday meal was stew, paid in order that their children could do more than just make money. They paid with their unquestioning frugality, their uncomplaining, untiring self-sacrifice and the neglect of their own needs. I wanted, above all, to make clear, that it is precisely from these types of people that a nation really lives, and to whom the fine words of the German Jew, Walter Benjamin [d. 1940, in Spain], apply: “Honor without fame/ Greatness without glitter/ Dignity without pay.” Benjamin used these words in introducing his memorial [1936] book about the “German People” (Deutsche Menschen]. (150-152—my emphasis added)

The last section (181-189) of Josef Pieper’s final volume of autobiography is intimately and evocatively entitled “In manus tuas…” and it poignantly depicts his wife’s longstanding sufferings and her final sacraments and moments in this life in the attentive presence of her husband and of their two living children, Monika and Michael. From the very beginning of this final portion ending with her death on 25 June 1984, we may again glimpse and savor Dr. Pieper’s modesty and characteristic tacitness about certain piercing personal matters of moment in his life, to include “Sister Rotrudis, the Icelandic-Westphalian nun” (111) whom he met in Iceland in 1923. Later now, we also learn more about those so close to him:

On Easter Sunday [23 April] 1985 we could have celebrated our golden [50th] wedding anniversary. Our parish priest was willing to celebrate Mass on that occasion in our house [at Malmedyweg 10] at the table at which we had had our family meals until a few years ago—under the Rembrandt painting with the Emmaus disciples, which has been hanging there since our wedding day [on 23 April 1935]. In reality nobody really thought that we should reach that day. For about a year my wife could not have understood what we were talking about when the children and I spoke of this possibility. She died [on 25 June 1984] ten months before the anticipated date. (181)

His beloved wife even learned during her sustained illness to memorize the seven stanzas of Saint Thomas Aquinas’ Eucharistic hymn, “Adoro Te devote…,” though she later came to lose some of her recollection of some of its beautiful words, as well as some of her own Latin grammar as in their prayer “In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum” (where she would say “spiritus,” instead).

Josef Pieper uses those last words to say goodbye to his beloved wife and to express a moving gesture, too; and he now introduces us to their final moments, with his two children attentively present:

Near midnight [on 25 June 1984] her breathing became noticeably shallow and, though calm, shorter and shorter—until the last breath came. I stood up, placed my hand around her neck and said with my face very close to her: “Mother, now we can say: ‘In manus tuas…’,” and I repeated her own last prayer including the grammatical error.—I am certain that in this mysterious, timeless moment of passing over from earthly life she did not just hear it but also prayed it with me. (189—my bold emphases added)

CODA

In July 1974, shortly after his 70th birthday on 4 May, Josef Pieper gave a set of lectures in Spain to a group of Catholic Americans at “the University of Maria Cristina” (85) very close to King Philip II’s inspired building of the Escorial in the Guadarrama Mountains northwest of Madrid in the village of San Lorenzo de El Escorial and near General Franco’s well-meant mountain memorial of reconciliation, “Santa Cruz del Valle de los Caidos” (86), known also as the Valley of the Fallen.

With my wife at the time, I was not only in attendance at Dr. Pieper’s 1974 summer lectures at Maria Cristina where we also met him for the first time in person; but he and I were later kneeling beside one another together at the High Mass sung up at the Valley of the Fallen, which was “under the protection of the Benedictine monks” (86).

Here was one set of Dr. Pieper’s surprising (though partly inaccurate) notes and comments about us (even about my red-headed wife) while also then imagining that I was still on Military Active Duty:

I have seldom found myself so suddenly put into a group of such colorful people. While swimming [after also often playing “pelota” or even a sort of tennis] we constantly encountered a particularly charming couple: a young Vietnam War veteran [a retired captain from U.S. Army Special Forces] with his beautiful red-haired wife Sharon. It was the first time I had heard this name, but he insisted that it came from the Old Testament [as in “the Rose of Sharon”]. The “veteran” seemed more like an active officer on leave from the front. We quickly became engaged in a lively conversation, and naturally I could not hear enough from this “leather-neck” [sic] with the “green beret.” In the newspapers at the time there was talk of a massacre committed in a village by American soldiers on women and children. “Did such things really happen?” My “veteran” answered [in part] by telling a story followed by a question which left me bewildered. “In a village in the middle of the jungle a young woman carrying a child approached my group [another group of three men, not mine own!] smiling and apparently about to ask for something. But suddenly she pulled a pistol [tossed an explosive] from under her child and shot [killed] one of the group [all three of the small group, one of them being my 1964 West Point classmate!]. What do you do when, a second time, a young woman approaches you smiling?” (87)

It should be known, moreover, that so much more could be discussed here, although the current English translation of the Pieper Memoir omits and thereby partly distorts Dr. Pieper’s own reflective words and subtle but gracious meaning.

For example, the following sentences or portions from the original German text are omitted and even somewhat slanted in part: “The ‘veteran’ seemed rather to be an active-duty officer on military leave. We quickly entered into a lively conversation and, of course, I could not tire of hearing stories from this ‘leatherneck’ with the famous ‘green beret’ who had many times [apparently] led his combat team into the jungle.” (“Der ‘Veteran’ wirkte eher wie ein aktiver Frontoffizier im Urlaub. Wir kamen rasch in ein lebhaftes Gespräch; und natürlich konnte ich von dem ‘Ledernacken’ mit dem berühmten ‘grünen Barett’, der viele Male seinen Kampftrupp in den Dschungel geführt hatte, gar nicht genug erzählt bekommen.” (106—the 1988 German text2)

There is one final image of Josef Pieper, at 70 years of age, at the sung High Mass at the Valley of the Fallen that I wish to share with the reader. For, we two were kneeling beside each other at that July 1974 sacrifice of the Mass, ten years after the death of his son Thomas in July of 1964.

At the first elevation of the Host at the Consecration, all of a sudden all the lights in the Benedictine crypt church went out—except for a beam of light that shone on the larger-than-life and manly Crucifix behind the Altar. All of the choir chants (children and monks) were silent and the torch lights on the wall of the large cavern were all at once shut off. Only the Crucifix of the Lord was in the beam of light.

At that sight and light Josef Pieper immediately emitted a wondrous “ah, ahhhhh!” of gratitude and of loyal love. After the Mass, when we were together outside, he kept repeating the fervent words: “that was truly an Actio Sacra of the Mass”—and this Sacred Action “was so fittingly supported by all of the sensory enhancements within the range of the human senses: sound, silence, incense, chants of children, and the sudden light.” (Which he also conveyed in his later-published 1987 words: “welches aber für uns ein, so lange wir leben, unergründliches Mysterium bleibt.3 For us it remains—as long as we live–an Unfathomable Mystery.) Once again there is both the “Ordo” and the “Mysterium.”

Would that you could have seen his grateful eyes then, during and after Mass in July of 1974!

It was an unforgettable Actio Sacra along with an intimate “Memoria Corporis,” a memory of the fuller “Body of Things” as in the humility of the Incarnation and the Sacramental Sacred Tradition.

Eine Geschichte wie ein Strahl: A Story like a Beam of Light

–Finis–

© 2020 Robert D. Hickson

1Josef Pieper, A Journey to Point Omega (South Bend, Indiana: St. Augustine’s Press), pages 171-172—my emphasis added). Henceforth, unless specifically noted as otherwise, all further references to this edition will be place above in parentheses in the main body of this essay.

2Josef Pieper, Eine Geschichte wie ein Strahl (München: Kösel-Verlag, 1988), page 106.

3See Josef Pieper, Eine Geschichte wie ein Strahl (1988), page 8.

Josef Pieper on The Virtues of the Human Heart and the Test of Temptation

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                                              28 January 2020

Saint Peter Nolasco (d. 1256)

Saint Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274)

Second Feast of Saint Agnes (d. 304)

Epigraphs

***

“A temptation wouldn’t be a temptation if it weren’t attractive.” (Father John A. Hardon, S.J. to R. Hickson)

***

“If we be in the state of grace while also in the face of a grave temptation, we may not always have at that moment the sufficient grace to resist that temptation, but we always then still have the grace to pray for the grace we need.” (Father John A. Hardon, S.J. to R. Hickson)

***

“Virtue is the utmost of what a man can be; it is the realization of the human capacity for being.” (Josef Pieper, A Brief Reader on the Virtues of the Human Heart, page 9)

***

In “A Retrospective Preface,” Josef Pieper’s historical and moving personal four-page introduction to the 1991 English translation of his little book—A Brief Reader on the Virtues of the Human Heart—a reader will discover that this reissued German-language book had first been published fifty years earlier, in 1941, during World War II.1

Moreover, says Pieper himself, this little book, despite its being “a persistently exclusive production of plainly Christian religious literature” (7), was somehow allowed and even “provided with the official stamp of the ‘responsible’ political offices and placed on the list of officially permitted literature for mass distribution on the front lines” (9). (Germany, we may recall, was to attack the Soviet Union on Sunday 22 June 1941.)

In this short essay on this fresh and fine work, I therefore propose to concentrate on what Dr. Pieper writes as a young man of 37 about the virtue of courage (fortitude), the virtue of inner discipline, and those aspects of moral purity that aid our perception of reality and of the Christian virtue of hope.

At the end of his discussion of the virtue of justice, and just before young Josef Pieper’s examination of the virtue of fortitude (which itself presupposes the existence of moral evil), we also see how he carefully dares to speak of and to the National Socialist Regime in the midst of War:

In the human world there is hardly any worse or more hopeless calamity than unjust governmental rule….It is good to be forewarned that the mightiest embodiment of evil in human history, the Antichrist, could indeed appear in the form of a great ascetic….The worst corruption of the natural man is injustice….Above all, he [“the deceived natural man”] would be incapable of recognizing the [Antichrist in] the historical prefigures of that final condition; while he [the inattentive natural man] is looking out for the powers of corruption in a mistaken direction, they establish their rule before his eyes. (24—my emphasis added)

So, too, today.

When one cannot overcome at all (or at once) an unjust evil, one must—and should—learn to endure it while one is also learning to suffer well. Such is part of the quality of virtuous fortitude and endurance and the great gift of final perseverance. Thus, Josef Pieper will now prepare us, gradually, to face the meaning of certain virtues, such as the third cardinal (hinge) virtue of Fortitude:

Fortitude presumes vulnerability; without vulnerability there is no possibility of fortitude….To be brave means to be ready to sustain a wound. Since he is substantially vulnerable, man can be courageous. (24-25)

When one attentively reads Josef Pieper’s slowly developing insights in his little book’s final thirty pages (24-54), one gradually notices the artfully intertwined interrelationships between bravery (fortitude, courage) and patience and discipline (moderation, temperance) and purity and hope (as a virtue). It is this progression that I now hope to follow selectively. It is to be recommended that the reader read all of these pages himself, so as even to understand much better the meaning of a feast and the strict meaning of prudentia (the indispensable first cardinal virtue of prudence).

Dr. Pieper is honest and unflinchingly steady in his presentation of inescapable reality:

Every wound of the natural being tends toward death [not only in war]. Thus every brave deed draws its sustenance from preparedness for death as from its deepest root….A fortitude that does not extend to the depth of readiness to fall is rotten in its root and lacking in effective power.

Willingness to be wounded constitutes only the half, [namely,] the forefront of fortitude. The courageous person is not willing to sustain a wound for its own sake. Rather, through it [his willingness] he wants to protect or gain a deeper, more substantial freedom from harm.

To be brave is not the same as to have no fear. To be sure, fortitude excludes a certain kind of fearlessness, namely, when it is based on a mistaken appraisal and evaluation of reality [i.e., a lack of sober and virtuous prudence]. (25—my emphasis added)

Moreover, he says, as he presents some further illuminating nuances:

Anyone who has lost the will to live does not fear death. This dispirited indifference, however, is remote from authentic fortitude….Fortitude apprehends, acknowledges, and protects the natural order of things. The brave person is perceptive: he realizes that the wound he gets is an evil. He does not falsify reality or alter its value: it “tastes” to him as it really is. He does not love death, nor does he despise life.

That person is brave who does not allow himself to be brought by the fear of secondary and transient evils to the point [as in the case of final despair] of forsaking the final and authentic good things [even Eternal Life], and thus [thereby] of taking on himself the ultimate and unlimited horror. This fear of the definitive terror belongs, as the “negative” of the love of God, to the plainly necessary foundation of fortitude (and of any virtue). (26—my emphasis added)

It should be further helpful to our own grateful understanding now—as we also imagine the 1941 German soldiers of World War II in their own savoring of wisdom—to see what Josef Pieper wrote in 1941 concerning the proper order and distinctive purpose of fear, especially “fear of the Lord” (47) as a guard against “presumption” (one of the two forms of hopelessness and sin against hope, along with despair):

One of the scarcely examined principles from which our age’s governing image of humanity is drawn asserts that it is not fitting for man to be afraid. In this attitude the waters from two sources are mingled, The one is Enlightenment liberalism [with its presumption!], which relegates fearfulness to the realm of the unessential, and, in its view of reality, room and place are assigned to fear only in an unessential sense. The other source is an un-Christian stoicism with a concealed link to impudence [and presumption] as well as to despair; it opposes the fearful things of existence, which are clearly seen, with defiant immobility, without fear, but also without hope….

Nonetheless, the Christian inquires after the ordo timoris, the order of fear; he inquires about what is genuinely and ultimately fearsome….What is truly fearsome, however, is nothing else than the possibility that man might separate himself from his Ultimate Ground of Being voluntarily through his guilt…. This fearsomeness, which accompanies as a real possibility the life of every man, including the saints—the fearsomeness and this fear are not surmountable by any mode of “heroism”; on the contrary, this fear is a prerequisite for any genuine heroism….

If this natural human fear, contemplating nothingness, is not fulfilled through the fear of the Lord, then this anxiety erupts “unfulfilled” and destructive into the realm of spiritual and mental existence. (46-47—my emphasis added)

Earlier, the reflective young Pieper had presented his analysis and nourishing affirmations:

Whoever in such a situation of unqualified seriousness [near death or protracted torture], in the face of which…every heroic gesture becomes crippled, nonetheless advances toward the horror and does not allow himself to be prevented from doing the good, specifically for the sake of the good and thus finally for the sake of God, not out of ambition or out of fear of being taken for a coward: that person is truly courageous.

What is essential to the virtue of fortitude is not aggression or self-confidence or wrath but rather steadfastness and patience….because the real world is so structured that it is in the most extreme emergency [like blood martyrdom], where the only resistance possible is steadfastness, that the final and most profound spiritual strength of the person can become manifest….

[He] who is patient…does not allow himself thereby to be drawn into disordered sadness. To be patient means not to allow the serenity and discernment of one’s soul to be taken away….The virtue of fortitude protects a person from loving his life [natural life] in such a way that he loses it [i.e., sanctifying grace and supernatural life and Vita Aeterna].

The Christian prototype of the “heroic downfall” is the testimony of blood, the martyr’s death….The same can be said concerning the foundation of Christian readiness for suffering…asceticism….[which] contains for the Christian believer a mystery-filled opportunity for the affirmation of Being in itself: namely, the opportunity of devotion to the community of the suffering Son of Man. (27-29—my emphasis added)

After this preparation, we may better consider the apt relation between justice and fortitude:

Without a “just cause” there is no fortitude. The decisive element is not the wound but the cause. “A man does not expose his life to the danger of death except in order to secure justice. Therefore the praise of bravery is contingent upon justice,” says Thomas Aquinas. And in his book On Duties, [Saint] Ambrose says, “Courage without justice is a lever of evil.”

For the moral virtue of fortitude, the old tenet of classical Western rules for living holds true: every virtue must always be tied with all others at their core; thus there is no bravery without truthfulness, without justice, or without discipline. It is a bourgeois illusion to think that a person can be just without ever being required to demonstrate this courage as well. It is no less a distortion of meaningful order that one can be brave even though he knowingly fights on the side of injustice; the bravery of the criminal is a contradiction in terms. Likewise, fortitude as a moral virtue can have no bond with indiscipline. In [Wolfram von Eschenbach’s] Parcival [of the early thirteenth century chivalric poem, Parzival ] it is said, “Never have I heard that a man was praised for undisciplined bravery.

Discipline [part of the Fourth Cardinal Virtue of Temperance and Moderation] is selfless self-preservation. Indiscipline is self-destruction through selfish debasement of powers intended for self-preservation. (30-31—my emphasis added)

As we prepare to present Josef Pieper’s mature meaning of hope and the existential structure of the act of hope, we shall also selectively touch upon other encouraging matters: for, example, his treatment of anger, magnanimity and humility, man’s inner order and significant “cheerfulness of heart” (“hilaritas mentis”(32, 35)) in contrast to “hebetudo sensus” (“dullness of the interior understanding in grasping spiritual realities” (36)) and destructive “curiositas,” in contrast to disciplined “studiositas.”

Dr. Pieper further develops his vivid and revealing thoughts—about an inner discipline of human faculties—by first considering the mystery of a certain ordinary fact:

It is an everyday but no less mysterious fact that the inner order of man is not…a merely given and obvious reality but rather that those same powers by which human existence sustains itself could subvert that interior order even to the point of the destruction of the spiritual moral person. It is especially hard to conceive that it is truly the innermost human self that can bring itself to self-destruction in disorder….We ourselves alone are always the agents of discipline and indiscipline, of self-preservation and self-destruction. (32—my emphasis added)

Hence our abiding need for the fourth cardinal virtue (temperance, moderation, discipline).

Indeed, Pieper affirmatively and winsomely adds—and it “especially applies when the love of truth or some other noble virtue is ready and eager to dare the utmost” (32):

Cheerfulness of heart…is the seal of selflessness….Cheerfulness of the heart is the unmistakable sign through which the inner authenticity of discipline as selfless self-preservation becomes manifest. (32—my emphasis added)

Even in this context of “an affirming cheerfulness” (33), Josef Pieper brings up the matter of anger:

The common Christian thinking, whenever there is a question of anger, seeks only to point out the unruly, the unspiritual, and the negative in anger. Still, just like “sensuality” and “desire,” the power of becoming angry belongs to the basic powers of man. In this power of becoming angry the energy of human nature speaks most clearly. This power is aimed at what is hard to achieve, at that which eludes easy grasp; it is always readily available where a bonum arduum [“a steep good”], a difficult good waits to be won….

Precisely with regard to overcoming licentiousness in pleasure, the power of becoming angry assumes particular gravity.

Thomas [Aquinas] is of the opinion that affirmation must be stronger than negation. It is his opinion that the degradation of mental power must be capable of being healed by the still undamaged core of some other power. Therefore it must be possible to overcome and, so to speak, quench the flabby licentiousness of a lecherous desire for pleasure, so that a difficult task might by undertaken by the willing resistance that the full power of anger can engender.

The connection of the licentiousness of the desire for pleasure with the indolent inability to get angry is the distinctive mark of complete and genuinely hopeless degeneration. It shows itself wherever a social class, a people, or a culture is ripe for ruin. (34-35—my emphasis added)

Since true humility might help the recovery of such a situation, Dr. Pieper surprises us again with his insight about magnanimity and robust and generous humility:

Nothing shows the way to a correct understanding of humility so clearly as this: that humility and magnanimity not only are not mutually exclusive but also near to one another and intimately connected; both together and in opposition to pride as well as to faintheartedness. What indeed does magnanimity mean? Magnanimity is the expansion of the spirit toward great things; one who expects great things of himself and makes himself worthy of it is magnanimous….In the Summa Theologica [of Saint Thomas] it is stated, “If one disdains glory in such a manner that he makes no effort to do that which merits glory that action is blameworthy.” On the other side, the magnanimous one is not broken by disgrace; he looks down on it as unworthy of himself….Undaunted uprightness is the distinctive mark of magnanimity, while nothing is more alien to it than this: to be silent out of fear about what is true.

Magnanimity encompasses an unshakable firmness of hope…and the thorough calm of a fearless heart. The magnanimous person submits himself not to the confusion of feelings or to any human being or to fate—but only to God. (37-38—my emphasis added)

Moreover, Pieper again draws up the wisdom and repeated convictions of the Summa Theologica where somewhat surprisingly, for example:

It is stated in the Treatise on Humility several times that humility does not conflict with magnanimity. One can now consider what this sentence, uttered as a warning and a precaution, truly means to say. It means nothing else than this: that a “humility” that would be too narrow and too weak to bear the inner tension of coexistence with magnanimity is no humility. (38-39—my emphasis added)

After his interwoven and sobering set of reasoned affirmations, Pieper presents to us some negative examples, as if to say that “such contrast will further clarify the mind”:

There is a lust for seeing that perverts the original meaning of sight and casts a person into disorder. The meaning of sight is the perception of reality. However, “concupiscence of the eye” does not seek to perceive reality but rather just to see [as is “the itch for innovation”)….The degradation into curiositas [curiosity] of the natural desire to see can thus be substantially more than a harmless confusion on the surface. It can be the sign of one’s fatal uprooting. It can signify that a person has lost the capacity to dwell in his own self; that he, fleeing from himself disgusted and bored with the waste of an interior that is burnt out with despair, seeks a thousand futile ways with selfish anxiety that which is accessible only to the high-minded calm of a heart disposed to self-sacrifice and thus in mastery over itself: [in and towards] the fullness of being. (39-40—my emphasis added)

Moreover, we must also consider the effects of unchastity, not just the destructively “extirpative power” (40) and “restlessness” (40) stirred up by “the concupiscence of the eye”:

In a very particular way, unchastity destroys this self-possession and behaving oneself by man. Unchaste abandonment and prostitution of the soul to the sensual world wound the fundamental capacity of the moral person: to hearken in silence to the call of the real and out of this recollected silence within himself to make the decision appropriate [as in virtuous prudence] to the concrete situation of concrete action.

For us men and women of today, who are of the opinion that in order to know the truth one need more or less strain the brain, and who scarcely regard as sensible the concept of an ascesis of the intellect—for us, the deeply intrinsic connection that links the knowledge of truth to the condition of purity has vanished from our consciousness. [Saint] Thomas notes that the firstborn daughter of unchastity is the blindness of spirit. An impure and selfish degraded will for pleasure ruins both the decision-making power and the inmost resource of the soul to give silent heed to the discourse of reality.

To be open to the truth of real things and to live by perceived truth: these constitute the essence of the moral person. Only one who sees and affirms this objective reality is also able to recognize how deeply the ruin penetrates that an unchaste heart allows to happen within itself. (42-43—my emphasis added)

In his sincere consideration of the deeper meaning of purity, Josef Pieper shows an intimate part of his own heart and elegiac sense of irreparable loss:

Purity means that crystalline, morning-fresh artlessness and selflessness in relation to the world, as it becomes a reality when the shock of a deep pain [such as the death of the beloved] brings him to the the limits of existence or when the nearness of death touches him [as in war]….This sobriety belongs to the essence of purity….Tragedy achieves purification, catharsis. The donum timoris, the spiritual gift of fear, which Thomas subordinates to temperantia [i.e., the fourth cardinal virtue], also cleanses the disposition as the blessed experience of the innermost peril to the person [perhaps one’s damnation]; it has that purity as its fruit in virtue of which one renounces [as in the sacrament of penance] the selfish seeking after deceptive and false fulfillment. Purity is the unreserved openness of the entire being, for which alone the word can be spoken: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord” (Luke 1:38)….This supreme realization of purity is expressed…in an image of immaculate beauty and radiant authenticity: “Untroubled, the undaunted rose/ stays open in hope.” (Konrad Weiss)

Here a new depth becomes manifest: namely, that purity not only is the fruit of purification but also comprises in itself the readiness to accept God’s purifications, perhaps terrible and deadly, with the brave openness of a trusting heart and so experience its fertile and transforming power. (45-46—my emphasis added)

We may now consider the last portion of Josef Pieper’s gracious and modest little book: namely, his youthful and sober treatment of hope: the meaning and effects of hope, as well as the deadly and corrosive two forms of hopelessness (presumption and despair). We may then also better understand how this pure book might well have touched and formed the hearts of the men at war in 1941 who first read its grace-filled words of wisdom.

Before Pieper discusses natural hope and then the indispensable uniqueness of supernatural hope (implanted Christian hope), he more abstractly and theoretically presents his deep understanding of the structure of the act of hope. We shall attempt to convey his more philosophical grasp of hope’s intrinsic structure after we first try to articulate his position about the two forms of hopelessness, which are also the Catechism’s classic two sins against hope:

In the two forms of hopelessness, in despair as well as in presumption, this [distinctive] youthfulness of the hoping person comes to nothing all the same, but in different ways: in despair, in the way of the senile; in presumption, in the way of the infantile. (50—my emphasis added)

After I first met Dr. Pieper in Spain in the summer of 1974, he often compactly expressed to me the essence of presumption and despair. These are his words and as exactly as he incisively taught me:

Presumption is the premature anticipation of final fulfillment. Despair is the premature anticipation of final non-fulfillment.

In The Virtues of the Human Heart, he wrote, moreover:

In despair as in presumption, the truly human [and “youthful”] quality stiffens and congeals, and only hope is able to preserve it in radiant litheness. Both forms of hopelessness are in the real sense inhuman and deadly. “These two things kill the soul: despair and perverted [presumptuous] hope,” says [Saint] Augustine. (50—my emphasis added)

As to the structure of hope, in general, Pieper somewhat densely says the following:

For man who, in statu viatoris [in the condition of a wayfarer], in the state of being on the way, experiences the [his!] essential creatureliness, the “not yet really existing being” of his existence, there is only one appropriate answer to this experience [of dependency and vulnerability]. The answer cannot be despair—for the meaning of creaturely existence is not nothingness but rather is being, which means fulfillment. The response also cannot be the comfortable security [and assurance] of possessions—for the creature’s “being as becoming” still borders in peril on nothingness. Both of these, despair and assurance of possession [i.e., presumption], militate against the truth of real things. The only answer that is suitable for man’s authentic existential situation is hope. The virtue of hope is the first appropriate virtue of the “not yet.” In the virtue of hope, before all others, man understands and affirms that he is a creature, a creature of God.

Human nature and everything that immediately pertains to it have “the structure of hope.” We are viatores [wayfarers, and not yet comprehensores], on our way, “not yet” beings….Who could say that he already possesses the being intended for him, that he has comprehended anything (to comprehend means to know something as much as it is knowable, to perceive something completely), that he has taken the measure of all existing things? (47-48—my bold emphasis added)

And, as usual, Dr. Pieper acutely and candidly presents the darker matter of certain deceptions, self-deceptions, and camouflages of hope and despair:

Yet never can a pagan be tempted to such deep despair as a Christian and, so it appears, precisely [even in] the great Christians and saints.

Hope and despair can each differ in depth. Above a hope that is rooted in the soul’s innermost depth of being, there can be varieties of despair near the surface, so to speak. Yet they [these superficialities] do not touch the more profound hope [espérance, as distinct from espoir], and they have no definitive meaning. Furthermore, a person, who in the final analysis is in despair, can appear to be a thorough-going optimist in the penultimate concerns of existence, such as the naturally cultural, to others and to himself, as long as he is able to seal off radically the innermost chamber of despair, so that no pain can erupt outward (and it speaks volumes that the contemporary man of the world has made a real art of this [concealment]). (50-51—my bold emphasis added)

Reinforcing these sobering insights and psychological truths, Josef Pieper approaches and presents the last two pages of his book, and deftly touches upon nonchalance and complacency (or spiritual acedia), and presumption:

It is easy to flatter oneself [and especially one’s pride!] that one hopes for eternal life; however, it is hard truly to hope while in the midst of temptations to despair. In the situation of utmost bravery it becomes evident whether the hope is authentic. No one knows more deeply than the one who is truly brave that and how greatly hope is “virtue” and thus not “to be be had” casually and, as it were, “without charge”; no one experiences more clearly that the hope for eternal life is a grace. (52-53—my emphasis added)

These matters are so important for Josef Pieper—and for us—that he adds some earnest and manly additions especially helpful for those in war (to include even the valorous Ernst Jünger):

It can happen that, in a period of temptations to despair [for example, in the winter on the Russian Front, and in captivity], all inner prospects for a “happy ending” grow dark. It can also happen that, for a person confined to the natural, nothing else remains than the hopeless bravery of the “heroic downfall.” Indeed, this possibility will present itself as the only one to the true gentleman, since he is just the one who is able to forego soothing self-deception and narcosis along with, as Ernst Jünger notes [who himself later loyally became a Roman Catholic!], “the outlet [or gift] of luck.” In a word, it can also sometimes happen that supernatural hope remains simply the only possibility of hope at all….The sentence from Sacred Scripture [Job comes to mind here]—“Even were he [God] to kill me, I have no other hope that him. (The Book of Job 13:15)….Christian hope is first and foremost an existential direction of man toward the perfection of his being, toward the fulfillment of his essence, thus toward his ultimate realization, toward the fullness of being….

If, then,…at times all natural hopes become meaningless, then that means that, at times, supernatural hope remains simply the only possibility for man to align himself toward Being. The depressing bravery of the “heroic downfall” is fundamentally nihilistic; it looks toward nothingness; it presumes that it is able to endure nothingness. The bravery of a Christian, however, thrives on the hope in life’s abundance of reality, in eternal life, in a new heaven and a new earth. (53-54—my emphasis added)

Would that I (and many others) had had this little book with us in the 1960s in Vietnam and nearby, as the Germans first saw it in 1941 and kept it afterwards.

May we now at least remember anew and gratefully act upon my beloved mentor Josef Pieper’s words, supernatural hope included: “Virtue is the utmost of what a man can be; it is the realization of the human capacity for being.” (9)

–Finis–

© 2020 Robert D. Hickson

1Josef Pieper’s 1988 republication of the earlier 1941 book is entitled Kleines Lesebuch von den Tugenden des menschlichen Herzens (Ostfildern bei Stuttgart: Schwabenverlag AG, 1988). The 1991 English translation is entitled A Brief Reader on the Virtues of the Human Heart (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991). All further page references will be to this translation and placed in parentheses above in the main body of this essay and selective commentary.

Josef Pieper’s Summary Presentation of the Virtue of Prudence and Its Conscientiousness

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                                         16 December 2019

Saint Eusebius of Vercelli, Martyr (d. 371)

Epigraphs

Virtue is the utmost of what a man can be; it is the realization of the human capacity for being.” (Josef Pieper, A Brief Reader on the Virtues of the Human Heart (1991 in English at Ignatius Press, page 9; first published in 1988 in the original German as Kleines Lesebuch von den Tugenden des menschlichen Herzens).

***

“The Latin word virtus means manliness. The German word for virtue, Tugend, comes from taugen, to be fit; and related to the English word doughty, now obsolete except in humor, but originally meaning able. Virtue makes a man fit and able to be what his Creator intends, and to do what his Creator wills. (Josef Pieper What Catholics Believe (1951), page 65—my bold emphasis added; italics in original))

***

“While prudence is the cornerstone of the cardinal virtues, justice is their peak and culmination. A good man is above all a just man.” (Josef Pieper, What Catholics Believe (1951), page 75.)

***

If thy eye is single [Latin “simplex,” i.e., “sine dolo,” “without guile,” and thus without duplicity, without hypocritical cunning], the whole of thy body will be lit up [full of light].” (Gospel of Matthew 6:22—and the Epigraph of Josef Pieper’s own 1959 book on Prudence: The First Cardinal Virtue)

***

In 1951, Josef Pieper published in the United States his lucidly written and lucidly translated book, What Catholics Believe (Christenfibel in the original German).1 A portion of this deeply moving and refreshingly trustworthy book I now propose to consider more fully in this brief essay. It hopes to present Dr. Pieper’s compact understanding of the Christian virtue of prudence, and how and why virtuous prudence has a fitting consequence upon a well-formed conscience that is sincere.

Those who might find this brief consideration of sufficient worth in itself may also want to read and savor Josef Pieper’s later 1959 book for a fuller treatment—it is entitled Prudence: The First Cardinal Virtue 2 and published by the same excellent publisher, Pantheon Books.

Before addressing the specific virtue of prudence (rooted practical wisdom), he presents his view of the concept and reality of virtue in general:

The fact that the word virtue has in our time [as of 1951] taken on the tinge of something unmanly and even ridiculous imposes two obligations upon the Christian. He must beware of any falsely pious abuse of the word and the concept, and he must come to recognize its healthy and genuine sense [of virtue], which it is his duty to embody, regardless of any human respect. (65—my bold emphasis added; italics in original)

Dr. Pieper soon proceeds to examine more closely the concept and reality of virtue, as well as the contrast of what true virtue is not:

Thus virtue is not good surface behavior and orderly deportment. A good man is more of a man that a bad one, in the sense that he is making more of his humanity. He is in every respect more fit. Thus a man’s virtue shows that he is putting his ability into practice; here and now he is making actual what would otherwise remain merely possible [potential] within him. This means that he does good—and that he does it not because he has to, but because he wills to. He wants to, and he can. Through sin, the willful turning away from God, a man of his own free will becomes unfit to be and to do what he is intended to be and to do.

The highest and truest fitness of the Christian is to be able to lead the life of a child of God, in close relationship with God, by the power of the Holy Spirit. His most abysmal unfitness consists in losing this power and this life through his own fault.

The most important Christian virtues are the three theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity, and the four cardinal virtues of wisdom [sic—prudentia], justice, fortitude, and moderation [sic—temperantia]. (65-66—my bold emphasis added; italics in original)

Josef Pieper now helpfully gives us two more framing, doctrinal paragraphs of substance in order to prepare us, even better, to focus specifically on the virtue of prudence: “The Theological Virtues and Sanctifying Grace”; and “The Four Cardinal Virtues,” as such (72-73):

All three theological virtues have their roots in sanctifying grace. Their seeds are implanted in us together with grace as new potentialities which would otherwise be beyond our reach. In the order of their nature, faith comes before hope, hope before charity. And sin destroys them in reverse order—charity first, faith last. The faith of a man living in mortal sin is indeed incomplete, but the spark from which the flame of his supernatural life can be lit again to become full, warm, and bright.

The cardinal virtues are natural perfections—human potentialities on the natural level. But as Christian virtues they have their roots in the supernatural soil of faith, hope, and charity; above all, in sanctifying grace. In a Christian, the infused moral virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance go far beyond their natural strength and nobility, to the fullness of the sanctity of a life centered in God. (72-73—my emphasis added)

Now at last we may more ably try to incorporate Dr. Pieper’s own incisive and lucid insights and gradually deepening understanding of “The Virtue of Prudence”:

The first of the four cardinal virtues, and the rule for the other three, is prudence. Now it goes against the grain of present-day thinking [as of 1951] to see in prudence a virtue, let alone the first of the four cardinal virtues. The reason for this is that we often have an entirely wrong idea of the virtue of prudence. Prudence as virtue has nothing to do with sharpness [cleverness] and guile, nor with the timorous attitude of undue caution [or at least, perhaps, a seeming cowardice]. Prudence is the quality of clearsightedness. The prudent man approaches each decision with his eyes open, in the full light of knowledge and faith. He discerns reality objectively, sizes up a factual situation for what it is, and weighs the real value of things. Only after careful consideration does the prudent man make his decision. Whoever follows the impulse of his will before appraising the facts and the circumstances of a situation accurately and objectively is imprudent and unwise. That man is prudent who directs the choice of his will according to his insight in a situation and in the true reality of things as God has created them, and who is able to apply the general principles of virtuous action to the concrete, immediate instance. (73—my emphasis added)

In only three more and vividly nuanced paragraphs, Josef Pieper will modestly and unassumingly attempt to convey to us many other facets of virtuous prudentia, such as in this situation:

If the prudent man feels that he is beyond his own powers of insight, he will rely on the insight of a more competent person. Hence, docility is a part of prudencethe ability to accept instruction and advice. Presumptuousness and lack of objective reflection are the contrary of prudence. The know-it-all and the man lacking objectivity are not humble enough to match their judgment with reality. This type of person believes that he can come to a decision impetuously and blindly. However, any decision not arrived at from a sober appraisal of reality is bound to be wrong [in part, like the generous Don Quixote himself!]. And if such a decision concerns a matter of morals, it cannot possibly be a good one. (74—my emphasis added)

Moreover, with all these things in mind, our beloved mentor Josef Pieper will now choose to come to some additional firm conclusions that are marks of his own practical wisdom:

The person that lacks objectivity and who is unable to keep still and [is unable] to allow the facts to speak, in order to gain a sound basis for his decisions, cannot possibly be a just man either. Justice and all the other cardinal virtues demand capacity for weighing facts, respect for objective reality, and ability to transform this theoretical knowledge into effective action [“from knowledge of reality to the realization of the good” as Pieper says elsewhere]. From all this, it becomes obvious that prudence is the first requirement for the other virtues. And that is why Saint Thomas call it their “mother” [i.e., “genitrix” in his own Latin].

Prudence is the art of deciding wisely. The prudent man acknowledges the obligations contained in objective reality. Not only does he know what is right, he also does what he knows to be right. The decisions based on prudence, therefore, are the verdict of our conscience. Conscientiousness and prudence are as closely related as effect and cause. Whoever works on the development of prudence in others and in himself also improves and perfects his conscience. (74—my emphasis added)

CODA

On the premise that one may (and could all too often) possibly have a sincere but erroneous conscience, one must thus be especially attentive to how one forms one’s conscience. We sincerely and competently ask ourselves: “on what grounds?” and “by what authority?” are we forming our Conscience reliably.

Having only an unformed and impulsive conscience is not sufficient, and may thus be an irresponsible laxity and slothfulness, even a culpability in our negligence.

Therefore, the cultivation of the Virtue of Prudence—as Josef Pieper presents it and understands it—will also improve and perfect one’s conscience to the extent that one is sincerely and potentially capable, and also capable of receiving grace: i.e., Gratiae Capax.

Dr. Pieper’s entire book on What Catholics Believe (1951), as well as his excellent and eloquent later book on Prudence: The First Cardinal Virtue (1959), will further help the reader to understand and to live out virtuously these various and interrelated matters of moment.

–Finis–

© 2019 Robert D. Hickson

1Josef Pieper and Heinz Raskop, What Catholics Believe (New York: Pantheon Books, 1951), 112 pages and translated by Christopher Huntington. As Dr. Pieper later told me in person in his home in Münster, Germany, he himself was especially attentive to those portions on “The Christian Virtues” (pages 65-79), the virtues being one of his own academic specialties, also as part of his larger studies in Philosophical Anthropology. All further references to this 1951 book will be placed above in parentheses in the main body of this brief essay.

2Josef Pieper, Prudence: The First Cardinal Virtue (New York: Pantheon Books, 1959), 96 pages—and translated from the German by Richard and Clara Winston.

The Decline of a State and Power without Grace: Reflections of Hilaire Belloc and Evelyn Waugh

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                        23 April 2019 Saint George (d. 303)

Saint Adalbert of Prague (d. 997)

Epigraphs

***

“’I know I am human. In fact I often feel [as the Emperor and still “an unbaptized convert” (138)] that I am the only real human….And that’s not pleasant at all, I can assure you. Do you understand at all, mother?’

‘Oh, yes, perfectly.’

‘What is it, then?’

Power without Grace,’ said Helena [the future Saint Helena].

‘Now you are going to start nagging about baptism again.’

‘Sometimes,’ Helena continued, ‘I have a terrible dream of the future. Not now, but presently, people may forget their loyalty to their kings and emperors and take power for themselves. Instead of letting one victim bear this frightful curse [of sustained ruling] they will take it all on themselves each one of them. Think of the misery of a whole world possessed of Power without Grace.’…

‘We talked of it years ago….I have always remembered your words [,Constantine]. You said: ‘If I wish to live, I must determine to rule.’ ‘

‘And that is true today.’ [said Emperor Constantine]

‘But, not without Grace, Constantine.’

‘Baptism. It always comes back to that in the end. Well, I’m going to be baptized, never fear. But not yet. In my own time. I’ve got other things to do before that…. [even though he was still “one indeed who was not yet formally admitted as a catechumen”! (138)]….’”

(Evelyn Waugh, Helena (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1950), pages 185-186—my bold emphasis added; italics in the original.)

***

In the inmost cell of the foetid termitary of power, Diocletian [Emperor Diocletian] was consumed by huge boredom and sickly turned towards his childhood’s home. He ordained a house of refuge on the [Dalmatian coast] shores of the Adriatic.” (Evelyn Waugh, Helena, page 100—my emphasis added)

***

“Everywhere Constantine prospered until he became blandly [and presumptuously or delusively?] aware that he was invincible….There were glimpses of [his son,] a nobler figure; young Crispus, all dash and fidelity, last warrior of the high Roman tradition on whose shield the fanciful might descry the fading blazon of Hector [of Troy]. Reports of him came to Helena….His name was remembered always at her palace Mass. For Helena had been baptized.

“None knows when or where. No record was made. Nothing was built or founded. There was no public holiday. Privately and humbly, like thousands of others, she stepped down into the font and emerged a new woman. Were there regrets for her earlier loyalty? Was she persuaded point by point? Did she merely conform to the prevailing fashion, lie open unresisting to Divine Grace and so without design become its brimming vehicle? We do not know. She was one seed in a vast germination. (Evelyn Waugh, Helena, page 132—my emphasis added)

***

“’I’m only teasing, Lactantius [said Helena, but before she herself became a Christian]. Of course I know why you are all so excited. I confess I am a little uneasy myself. It’s this story that is going around that my boy has turned Christian. Has he?’

‘Not exactly, ma’am, as far as we can learn. But he has put himself under the protection of Christ.’

‘Why will no one ever talk plain sense to me? Am I too stupid? It is all I have ever asked, all my life, a straight answer to a straight question; and I never get one….All I want is the simple truth. Why don’t you answer me?’

After a pause Lactantius said: ‘Perhaps because I have read too much. I’m not the person to come to with straight and simple questions, ma’am. I don’t know the answers [to your several questions]….We all have the chance to choose the Truth….As you know he [Constantine] has brought the Church into the open.’

‘Beside Jupiter and Isis and the Phrygian Venus.’ [said Helena]

Christianity is not that sort of religion, ma’am. It cannot share anything [of the sort] with anybody. Whenever it is free, it will conquer.’

‘Perhaps there was some point in the persecutions then.’

‘The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.‘ [said Evelyn Waugh’s Lactantius to an attentive and receptive Helena, though as yet unbaptized; Helena, pages 127-128]

***

Three years before World War I began, Hilare Belloc first published an essay entitled “The Decline of a State.”1 And this compact essay, full of fresh insights, unexpectedly concluded with a memorable and challenging sentence:

Those who have least power in the decline of a State are priests, soldiers, the mothers of many children, the lovers of one woman, and saints. (242)

After further reflecting upon Belloc’s selection of especially vulnerable persons in a time of decline and disorder, I recalled some passages from Evelyn Waugh’s historical novel, Helena (1950), especially two of Waugh’s formulations about the insufficiency of “Power”: Emperor Diocletian’s “foetid termitary of power”; and Emperor Constantine’s “Power without Grace” as also envisioned by his mother Helena in a future ochlocracy that is likewise trying to rule “without Grace”).

In this context, we may even slightly expand Belloc’s original phrase concerning the vulnerable: “Those who have least power [“Power without Grace”] in the decline of a State.”

With this slight amendment in mind, we now propose to examine Belloc’s essay more closely. It will be conducted “on the premise that sustained power without Grace is inherently selfsabotaging as presented by a ‘foetid termitary.’” (Waugh’s malodorous termite analogy is a vivid one, for sure.)

One of Belloc’s main contributions is his examination of the influence and destructive consequences of “two vices” (240)– “Avarice” and “Fear”– in the decline of a State, especially as practiced in “an oligarchic State, or aristocracy as it is called.” (237) For example, he says:

In the decline of a State, of whatever nature that State be [democratic, despotic, oligarchic, or aristocratic], two vices will immediately appear and grow: these are Avarice and Fear; and men will more readily accept the imputation of Avarice than of Fear, for Avarice is the less despicable of the two—yet in fact Fear will be by far the strongest passion of the time [i.e., during the time of a growing decline]. (240—my bold emphasis and italics added)

By way of clarifying contrast, Belloc elsewhere in his writings often accents the perilous combination of “insecurity and insufficiency” both of which all too often tend to increase the passions and the vices of Avarice and Fear.

Let us now consider some of Belloc’s framing introductory words to his analysis:

The decline of a State is not equivalent to a mortal sickness therein. States are organisms subject to diseases and to decay…; but they are not subject to a rhythmic rise and fall…. A State in decline is never a State doomed or a State dying. States perish slowly or by violence, but never without remedy and rarely without violence. (237—my emphasis added)

Belloc then refers to the “texture” (237) of a State and its decline, namely whether or not it is mostly democratic, despotic, oligarchic or aristocratic—or some combination of them. For example, and also promptly recalling his own England as of 1911, he says:

An oligarchic State, or aristocracy as it is called, will decline principally through two agencies which are, first, illusion, and secondarily, lack of civic aptitude. For an oligarchic State tends very readily to illusion, being conducted by men who live at leisure, satisfy their passions, are immune from the laws, and prefer to shelter themselves from reality. Their capacity or appetite for illusion will rapidly pervade those below them, for in an aristocracy the rulers are subjected to a sort of worship from the rest of the community, and thus it comes about that aristocracies in their decline accept fantastic histories of their own past, conceive victory possible without armies, wealth to be an indication of ability, and national security to be a natural gift rather that a [disciplined and virtuous] product of the [informed] will.(237-238—my emphasis added)

Now he passes on to the second factor (or “agency”) of a growing “lack of civic aptitude” in the decline of a State:

Such [oligarchic-aristocratic] communities further fail from a lack of civic aptitude…,which means that they deliberately elect to leave the mass of citizens incompetent and irresponsible for generations, so that, when any more strain is upon them, they look at once for some men other than themselves to relieve them, and [they] are incapable of corporate action upon their own account. (238—my emphasis added)

Belloc then touches upon real differences between “a great State or a small one” (238) and factors of “indifference, faction, ignorance, and private spite” (238). And States “rooted originally in commerce, in arms, or in production” whether…artisan or peasant-agricultural. He weighs and differentiates “the basis of the State” (239) more specifically and more concretely. These candid observations we recommend to the attention of the reader, that he may better savor the diversities.

It is fitting that we now further consider Belloc’s focused insights and his illustrations of “Avarice” and “Fear” and their sabotaging influences in a growing decline of a State.

First, Avarice, as a passion and vice, thus an habitual deadly sin, under conditions of decline:

Avarice will show itself not indeed in a mere greed of gain (for this is common to all societies whether flourishing or failing), but rather in a sort of taking for granted and permeation of the mere love of money, so that history will be explained by it, wars judged by their booty or begun in order to enrich a few, love between men and women wholly subordinated to it [money], especially among the rich: wealth made a test for responsibility and great salaries invented and paid to those who serve the State [a declining State, moreover]. This vice will also be apparent in the easy acquaintance of all who are possessed of wealth and their segregation from the less fortunate, for avarice cleaves society flatways, keeping the scum of it quite clear of the middle, the middle of it [society] quite clear of the dregs, and so forth. It is a further mark of avarice in its last stages that the rich are surrounded with lies in which they themselves believe. Thus, in the last phase [of avarice’s illusion], there are no parasites but only friends, no gifts but only loans, which are more esteemed favours than gifts once were. No one [is] vicious but only tedious, and no one a poltroon but only slack. (240-241—my emphasis added)

Although Belloc’s analysis is largely a secular analysis, Waugh’s Saint Helena—if not her son—would have detected new and crippling forms of Fear and of Cunning Carnal Prudence and Weakness without Grace. We may also consider the broken trust and increasing fears in our own society and decomposing civilization, at least as of April 2019:

Of Fear in the decline of a State it may be said that it is so much the master passion of such decline as to eat up all others. Coming by travel from a healthy State to one diseased, Fear is the first point you take. Men dare not print or say what they feel of the judges, the public governors, the action of the police, [of] the controllers of fortunes and of news….Under the influence of Fear, to tell the least little truth about him [“a powerful minister”] will put a whole assembly into a sort of blankness.

This vice [of Fear] has for its most laughable effects the raising of a whole host of phantoms [subtle deceptions, or sensate “fake news,” perhaps?], and when a State is so far gone that civic Fear is quite normal to the citizens, then you will find them blenching with terror at a piece of print, a whispered accusation [e.g., about the immunities of International High Finance or the Money-Laundering of International Drug-Money Networks]. (241-242—my emphasis added)

By way of concluding his selectively nuanced essay, Belloc gives a glimpse of those who darkly and dubiously flourish in times of a State’s disorder and decline, as well as those who preserve some kind of independence or a deeply suffering vulnerability:

Moneylenders under this influence [of Fear] have the greatest power, next after them, blackmailers of all kinds, and next after these [two manipulative niche-operatives] eccentrics who may [“but, not without Grace”] blurt or break out [from under the vicious influence and atmosphere of Fear].

Those who have least power [under these secular and graceless and debilitating conditions] in the decline of a State are priests, soldiers, the mothers of many children, the [loyal] lovers of one woman, and saints. (142—my emphasis added)

It was a wise man who said that “those who are themselves uprooted tend to uproot others.”

Hilaire Belloc’s 1911-1912 essay on “The Decline of the State” is certainly resonantly enhanced in its complemetarity and counterpoise with Evelyn Waugh’s 1950 vivid historical novel, Helena—a novel about the times of Emperor Diocletian and Emperor Constantine and a newly germinating and spreading Christianity that Waugh himself so deeply cherished. (It was the only one he ever read aloud to his own beloved children.) Would that we knew whether Hilaire Belloc, who died in July of 1953, read Waugh’s moving 1950 novel with its supernatural perspectives on the indispensability of Grace.

In the 1960s, while a military officer in Southeast Asia, I one day somehow formulated to myself a principle about the mysteriously Permissive Acts of Divine Providence that was especially then consoling to me. It was a correlative relative proposition that went like this:

The greater the evil that God allows, the greater the good He intends to bring out of it.”

The faithful Practical Application of that Principle and Correlative Proposition goes like this:

Therefore, here and now, I (we) must promptly collaborate with the Divine Intention and thus resourcefully and loyally try to bring about a GREATER good out of what God, and sometimes so mysteriously, has allowed to happen—also in combat and other forms of warfare!

These are difficult principles and codes to live by. But “we are only as courageous as we are convinced,” as Father John A. Hardon, S.J. himself once solemnly and very supportively said to me.

–Finis–

© 2019 Robert D. Hickson

1Hilaire Belloc, First and Last (London: Methuen & Co. LTD., 1912—the second edition; 1911 was the first edition), pages 237-242. All further page references will be to the text of the Second Edition, and placed in parentheses above in the main body of this essay.

Hilaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton on the Need for Intellectual Magnanimity

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                                            14 April 2019

Palm Sunday

Saint Justin Martyr (d. 165)

Epigraphs

***

“Political and social satire is a lost art [i.e.,“the great and civilised art of satire” (47)], like pottery and stained glass. It may be worth while to make some attempt to point out a reason for it.

“It may seem a singular observation to say that we are not generous enough to write great satire. This, however, is approximately a very accurate way of describing the case. To write a great satire, to attack a man so that he feels the attack and half acknowledges its justice, it is necessary to have a certain intellectual magnanimity which realises the merits of the opponent as well as his defects. This is, indeed, only another way of putting the simple truth that in order to attack an army we must know not only its weak points, but also its strong points.” (G.K. Chesterton, Varied Types (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1905), pages 47-48 my emphasis added.)

***

“For a man is angry at a libel because it is false, but at a satire because it is true.” (G.K. Chesterton, Varied Types, 1905, page 53)

***

“Nevertheless I will maintain that [as of 1929] this very powerful, distorted simplification of Catholic doctrine (for that is what Mahommedanism is) may be of high effect in the near future upon Christendom; and that, acting as a competitive religion, it is not to be despised.” (Hilaire Belloc, Survivals and New Arrivals (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1929), page 193—my emphasis added.

***

The granite permanence [of Islam]– [“and its apparently invincible resistance to conversion”]— is a most striking thing, and worthy of serious consideration by all those who meditate upon the spiritual, and, consequently, the social, future of the world. (Hilaire Belloc, Survivals and New Arrivals (1929), page 192—my emphasis added.

***

In 1900, during the contentious imperial Boer War in South Africa, G.K. Chesterton memorably first met Hilaire Belloc. It was in London at a little restaurant in Soho, and Chesterton manifoldly and greatly admired Belloc and his glowing goodness and vivid magnanimity. Less than five years later, moreover, Chesterton even published in his new anthology, called Varied Types,1 an essay entitled “Pope and the Art of Satire” which addressed some of the trenchant themes that both of them had wholeheartedly and robustly discussed through the night in 1900.

For example, Chesterton wrote:

England in the present season and spirit [circa 1903-1905] fails in satire for the simple reason that it fails in war: it despises the enemy. In matters of battle and conquest we have got firmly rooted in our minds the idea (an idea fit for the philosophers of Bedlam) that we can best trample on a people by ignoring all the particular merits which give them a chance of trampling upon us. It has become a breach of etiquette to praise the enemy; whereas, when the enemy is strong, every honest scout ought to praise the enemy. It is impossible to vanquish an army without having a full account of its strength. It is impossible to satirise a man without having a full account of his virtues. (48-49—my emphasis added)

After we consider some further insights in Chesterton’s 1905 essay on satire and virtue and various forms of warfare, we shall then present Hilaire Belloc’s own 1929 understanding of both “Explicit Materialism” and the challenging religion of Islam. The latter shows a patient and magnanimous and differentiated understanding of Islam as of 1929. Belloc will also clearly convey his insights on the deeper potential revival of Islam and on the character of its anticipated future challenge to the Catholic Faith and Catholic Church at large.

To give us a glimpse of Belloc’s glowing good of heart as Chesterton first saw it, we shall in a brief excursus first consider the sincere and honorable way—sometimes even an affectionate way—in which Hilaire Belloc magnanimously presents the “Explicit Materialists” of his boyhood and their yet surviving errors which could still come to constitute a peril to Catholicism. For it is so that Belloc magnanimously admired those candid materialists in their own “half truths,” and in part he admired them because of their own personal virtues of “simplicity and sincerity.”

Chesterton’s 1905 essay itself should certainly prompt us in 2019 to examine the public and private language of our own earnest, sometimes wanton, disputes—indeed as seen in the “decomposition of discourse” often found even in our Church and surrounding, self-sabotaging civil society. For, to what extent do we not also tend to “despise the enemy”?

Back in 1905 in the English society of the growing Empire, Chesterton already discerned some unwholesome decomposition of discourse, and he forthrightly, but generously, said:

It is too much the custom in politics to describe a political opponent as utterly inhuman, as utterly careless of his country, as utterly cynical, which no man ever was since the beginning of the world. This kind of invective may often have a great superficial success: it may hit the mood of the moment; it may raise excitement and applause; it may impress millions. But there is one man [at least] among all those millions whom it does not impress, whom it hardly ever touches; that is the man against whom it is directed. The one person [in this case] for whom the whole satire has been written in vain is the man whom it is the whole object of the institution of satire to reach….But behind all this he [the intended target] has his real weaknesses, the real ironies of the soul: behind all these ordinary merits lie the mean compromises, the craven silences, the sullen vanities, the secret brutalities, the unmanly visions of vengeance. It is to these that the satire should reach if it is to touch the man at whom it is aimed. And to reach these it must pass and salute a whole army of virtues. (49-50—my emphasis added)

Then, after citing some well known figures in British society and politics—such as Lord Randolph Churchill—who have all unjustly been the target of swollen invective, Chesterton says:

And here we have the cause of the failure of contemporary satire, that it has no magnanimity, that is to say, no patience. It cannot endure to be told that its opponent has his strong points, just as Mr. Chamberlain could not endure to be told that the Boers [of South Africa] had a regular army [and were thus menacingly disciplined and a threat]. It can be [delusively] content with nothing except persuading itself that its opponent is utterly bad or utterly stupid….This is the point in which all party invective fails. (51-52—my emphasis added)

In his conclusion, Chesterton will have us consider the variously gifted poet, Alexander Pope, and thus “how a great satirist approaches a great enemy” (53). After giving us some lines from Pope’s poem “Atticus”—a reference to the character of Joseph Addison himself—Chesterton comments:

This is the kind of thing [the “satire”] which really goes to the mark at which it aims. It is penetrated with sorrow and a kind of reverence, and it is addressed directly to a man. This is no mock-tournament to gain the applause of the crowd. It is a deadly duel by the lonely seashore.

In the current political materialism [however] there is [as of 1905] the assumption that, without understanding anything of his case or his merits, we can benefit [perhaps chasten] a man practically. Without understanding his case and his merits [moreover] we cannot even hurt him. (54-55—my emphasis added)

Hilaire Belloc’s Own Later 1929 Consideration of Explicit and Implicit Materialism2

Belloc begins his section on Materialism with these clarifying words:

As things now are [as of 1929] the survival of the Materialist cannot be long maintained.

Explicit Materialism—that is, the frankly stated philosophy that there are none save material causes, and that all phenomena called spiritual or moral are functions of matter—is now hardly heard.

But Implicit Materialism—that is, an underlying, unexpressed, conception that material causes explain all things—survives….

That Materialism as an explicit, openly affirmed philosophy is—for the moment—vanishing. (56-57—my emphasis added)

Amidst his thorough examination of varieties of Materialism, we suddenly find him presenting a personal note:

Let me digress to confess a personal weakness, at heart, for that old-fashioned Explicit Materialism. My leaning to it lies in this—that it was full of common sense and sincerity.

It was eminently right as far as it went….It was a half truth, squat and solid, but human and, in its exceedingly limited way, rational.

The Materialist of my boyhood [Belloc having been born in 1870] went his little way along that open road which we all must follow when we begin to philosophise. Day in and day out, from moment to moment, we are concerned with a patent chain of material cause and effect.

Of things not material we have knowledge in subtle ways [as with “the living principle” of “a soul” (62)]. (59—my emphasis added)

Our modest author will continue yet a little with his confession and humane words:

All around us and all around the Materialist areinnumerable examples—visible, tangible, real—of material causes apparently preceding every effect. The Materialist is the man who stops there, at a half truth which is a truth after all, and he grows no further. All that appeals to me. It reposes upon two great virtues: simplicity and sincerity. (60—my emphasis added).

Belloc characteristically thinks of the hospitality of inns as he tries to express his own cherished rootedness and deep affection:

I would rather pass an evening with a Materialist at an inn than with any of these sophists [i.e., those who are vaguely dialectical “grandiloquence” (60)] in a common room. Moreover, the Materialist fills me with that pity which is akin to love.

I mark him, in the chaos of our day, with a protective affection I want to shelter him from the shocks of his enemies and to tell him that, weak as they [these grandiloquent sophists] are, he is even weaker than they. I also want to tell him all the time what an honest little fellow he is [though still “my sturdy little dwarf”(60)]. For he is at least in touch with reality, as are we also of the Faith in a grander fashion. He tells the truth as far as he can see it, whereas most of those who sneer at him care nothing for the truth at all but only for their systems or their notoriety.

I have noticed this about such Explicit Materialists as are left—they are nearly always honest men, full of illogical indignation against evil, and especially against injustice. They are a generous lot, and they have a side to them which is allied to innocence.

Among the Survivals [those still abiding Opponents of the Faith], they now take a very small place. They feel themselves to be out of the running. Their hearts have been broken with abuse and insult and with base desertion by their friends….Therefore have most of them become apologetic. They commonly talk as an uneducated man among scholars….

Now I like that….

He will not have wholly disappeared before my death I hope—though I fear he will—for when he has I shall feel very lonely. (60-62—my emphasis added)

What an open-hearted and respectful friend and man our Belloc was.

And he imparts his final words with his inimitable nuances and elegiac tones:

Should he [the Explicit Materialist] die in my own time, which is likely enough, I will follow piously at his funeral, which is more than I will do for any of them [such as “The Pantheist” (62)].

But when he dies his works will live after him and in due time he will return. He [“the Explicit Materialist”] is irrepressible. He lurks in the stuff of mankind [i.e., as a permanent and recurrent temptation to man!]. (62—my emphasis added)

Hilaire Belloc’s 1929 Insights Concerning Islam:

In one portion of his section called “New Arrivals,”3 from pages 188-195, Belloc compactly presents his historical knowledge and special insights about the understandable challenge of Islam; and we therefore now propose to present some reality-revealing selections from Belloc’s unmistakably brilliant analyses and anticipations.

Belloc first gives us a framing context for his comments on Islam, having just spoken himself of the disordered nature and special peril of “Neo-Paganism”:

There remains, apart from the old Paganism of Asia and Africa, another indirect supporter of Neo-Paganism: a supporter which indeed hates all Paganism but hates the Catholic Church much more: a factor of whose now increasing importance [as of 1929] the masses of Europe are not as yet aware: I mean the Mahommedan religion: Islam.

Islam presents a totally different problem from that attached to any other religious body [including Judaism] opposed to Catholicism. To understand it we must appreciate its origins, character and recent fate [as of 1929]. Only then can we further appreciate its possible or probable future relations with enemies of the Catholic effort throughout the world. (188-189—my emphasis added)

After asking the question “How did Islam arise?” (189), Belloc proceeds to give us some trustworthy history:

It was not, as our popular historical text-books would have it, a “new religion.” It was a direct derivative from the Catholic Church [and also partly from Judaism]. It was essentially, in its origin, a heresy: like Arianism [or Nestorianism] or Albigensians….

The Arabs of whom he [“Mahomet”] came and among whom he lived were Pagan; but such higher religious influence as could touch them, and as they came into contact with through commerce and raiding, was Catholic [largely Nestorian]–with a certain mixture of Jewish [often syncretistic] communities. Catholicism had thus distinctly affected these few Pagans living upon fringes of the [Eastern Byzantine] Empire.

Now what Mahomet did was this. He took over the principal doctrines of the Catholic Church—one personal God, Creator of all things; the immortality of the soul; and eternity of misery or blessedness—and no small part of Christian morals as well. All that was the atmosphere of the only civilisation [until Persia later?] which had influence upon him and his. But at the same time he attempted an extreme simplification.

Many another heresiarch has done this, throwing overboard such and such too profound doctrines, and appealing to the less intelligent by getting rid of mysteries through a crude denial of them. But Mahomet simplified much more than did, say, Pelagius or even Arius. [For example:] He turned Our Lord into a mere prophet…; Our Lady, he turned into not more than the mother of so great a prophet; he cut out the Eucharist altogether, and what was most difficult in the matter of the Resurrection. He abolished the idea of priesthood: most important of all [in the “burning enthusiasm” of energetic practice], he declared for social equality among all those who should be “true believers” after his fashion. (189-190—italics in the original; my bold emphasis added)

We should now have a good idea about the irreconcilable doctrinal differences, and highly recommend a close, repeated and savored reading of all of Belloc’s pages on Islam (188-195).

After supplying more history and strategic geography and the like, Belloc offers another perspective:

For centuries the struggle between Islam and the Catholic Church continued. It had varying fortunes, but for something like a thousand years the issue still remained doubtful. It was not until nearly the year 1700 (the great conquests of Islam having begun long before 700) that Christian culture seemed—for a time—to be definitely the master.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the Mahommedan world fell under a kind of palsy. It could not catch up with our rapidly advancing physical science….under the Government of nominally Christian nations, especially of England and France.

On this account our generation came to think of Islam as something naturally subject to ourselves….That was almost certainly a mistake. We shall almost certainly have to reckon with Islam in the near future. Perhaps if we lose our Faith it will arise.

For after this subjugation of the Islamic culture by the nominally Christian had already been achieved, the political conquerors of that [Moslem] culture began to notice two disquieting features about it. The first was that its spiritual foundation proved immovable; the second that its [Islam’s own] area of occupation did not recede, but on the contrary slowly expanded. Islam would not look at any Christian missionary effort….

I think it true to say that Islam is the only spiritual force on earth which Catholicism has found an impregnable fortress. Its votaries are the one religious body conversions from which are insignificant. (190-192—my emphasis added)

To reinforce his last point, Belloc says: “This granite permanence is a most striking thing, and worthy of serious consideration by all who meditate upon the spiritual, and consequently, the social, future of the world.” (192—my emphasis added)

Belloc will now gradually lead us to a few other fresh insights and revelations of reality, especially the challenging examples of the “practice” of Islam:

The spiritual independence of Islam (upon which everything depends) is as strong as, or stronger than, ever. What affinities or support does this threat of Islam promise to the new enemies of Catholic tradition [such as the extension of “Neo-Paganism”(188)]….

Even those who are directly in contact with the great Mahommedan civilisation…are impressed…by its strength and apparently invincible resistance to conversion….

No considerable number of conversions to Mahommedanism from Christendom is probable. I do not say that such a movement would not be possible, for anything is possible in the near future, seeing the welter into which Christian civilisation has fallen. But I think it improbable, and even highly improbable, because Mahommedans advances in herd or mob fashion. It does not proceed, as the Catholic religion does, by individual conversions, but by colonisation and group movement.

But there are other effects which a great anti-Catholic force [like Islam] and the culture based upon it can have upon anti-Catholic forces within our own [geographis and cultural] boundaries.

In the first place it can act by example. To every man attempting to defend the old Christian culture by prophesying disaster if its [Christianity’s] main tenets be abandoned, Mahommedanism can be presented as a practical answer. (192-193—my emphasis added)

With his aptly concrete and representative specificity, Belloc will now vividly illustrate his challenging meaning concerning an effective act by example:

“You say monogamy is necessary to happy human life, and that the practice of polygamy, or of divorce (which is but a modified form of polygamy) is fatal to the State? You are proved wrong by the example of Mahommedanism.”

Or again “You say that without priests and without sacraments and without all the apparatus of your religion, down to the use of visible images, religion may not survive? Islam is there to give you the lie. Its religion is intense, its spiritual life permanent. Yet it has constantly repudiated all these things. It is violently anti-sacramental; it has no priesthood; it wages fierce war on all symbols in the use of worship.”

This example may, in the near future [as of 1929], be of great effect. Remember that our Christian civilisation is in great peril of complete breakdown. An enemy would say that it is living upon its past. (193-194—my emphasis added)

The West’s temporary advantage over Islam for a few centuries after 1700 was “accomplished by…a superiority in weapons and mechanical invention.” (194) Belloc also reminds us: “And that this superiority dates from a very short time ago.” (194)

By way of his final illustrations and suggestive analogies, Hilaire Belloc admirably but all-too-forebodingly concludes his magnanimous discussion of Islam, especially as a combined “New Arrival” in opposition to the Catholic Church and Faith:

Old people with whom I have spoken as a child could remember the time when the Algerian pirates were seen in the Mediterranean and were still a danger along its southern shores. In my own youth the decaying power of Islam (for it was still decaying) in the Near East was a strong menace to the peace of Europe. Those old people of whom I speak had grandparents in whose times Islam was still able to menace the West. The Turks besieged Vienna [in 1683] and nearly took it, less than a century before the American Declaration of Independence. Islam was then our superior, especially in military art. There is no reason why its recent inferiority in mechanical construction, whether military or civilian, should continuing indefinitely. Even a slight accession of material power would make the further control of Islam by an alien culture difficult. A little more and there will cease that which our time has taken for granted, the physical domination of Islam by the disintegrated Christendom we know. (194-195—my emphasis added)

All things considered, and despite some grim “reports from reality,” G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc have so generously and effectively encouraged our “intellectual magnanimity,” that we preserve it respectfully and also strengthen it in our loyal and often difficult searches for the truth in proper proportion and fairness.

–Finis–

© 2019 Robert D. Hickson

1G.K. Chesterton, Varied Types (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1905). The essay on satire and magnanimity and the gifted Catholic poet, Alexander Pope, is to be found on pages 43-55 of Chesterton’s anthology. All further references to “Pope and the Art of Satire” will now be from this edition and placed above in parentheses.

2Hilaire Belloc, Survivals and New Arrivals (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1929). As a “Survival,” Materialism will be examined on pages 56-62. As a “New Arrival,” Islam will then be examined on pages 188-195. All further references to Survivals and New Arrivals will be to this 1929 text and placed above in parentheses in the main body of this essay.

3Hilaire Belloc, Survivals and New Arrivals (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1929). See especially pages 188-195 on the likely arrivals of “Neo-Paganism” and “Islam”and their possible (but limited and expedient) “alliance” against a common enemy: the Catholic Church. Quotations will henceforth be from this 1929 book and placed in parentheses above in the main body of this essay.

Recurrently Assessing the Battle-Situation of the Catholic Church: H. Belloc’s 1929 Insights

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                                         4 April 2019

Saint Isidore of Seville, Doctor of the Church (d. 636)

Saint Benedict the Moor, Franciscan Lay Brother (d. 1589)

Recurrently Assessing the Battle-Situation of the Catholic Church: H. Belloc’s 1929 Insights in Survivals and New Arrivals

Epigraphs

“Between the forms of attack on, or resistance to, the Faith which are retiring exhausted—Survivals—and new forms [of attack] not yet fully developed but only beginning to appear—New Arrivals—stand, at any one moment in history, the Main Opponents of the day.” (Hilaire Belloc, Survivals and New Arrivals (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1929 and 1992), pages 101 and 74, respectively—my emphasis added)

***

Truth lies in proportion. It is proportion which differentiates a caress from a blow, a sneer from a smile. It is the sequence and the relative weight of doctrines, not the bald statement, that makes the contrast between what damns and what saves.” (Hilaire Belloc, Survivals and New Arrivals, 1929 and 1992), pages 158 and 119, respectively—my emphasis added)

***

As for the ‘Modern Mind,’ nothing can deal with it but dissolution. It is like a huge heap of mud which can only be got rid of by slow washing away. It will be the last of the three [i.e., “Nationalism, Anti-Clericalism, and the Modern Mind”] to remain as a Survival.” (Hilaire Belloc, Survivals and New Arrivals (1992), page 78—my emphasis added)

***

“Why is this mood [of the “unreasoning” Modern Mind] so dangerous to the Catholic Church?….But in what, we may ask, is it a peril? It is a peril because true faith is based upon reason, and whatever denies or avoids reason imperils Catholicism.” (Hilaire Belloc, Survivals and New Arrivals, 1929 and 1992 ), pages 147 and 111, respectively—my emphasis added)

***

“The color in which the whole of the ‘Modern Mind’ is dyed is essentially stupidity: it will not thinkand that is a very strange weakness for anything which calls itself a ‘mind’!

If it were an active enemy, its lack of reason would be a weakness: being (alas!) not active, but a passive obstacle, like a bog, it is none the weaker for being thus irrational….There stands the ‘Modern Mind, a morass. (Hilaire Belloc, Survivals and New Arrivals, 1929 and 1992), pages 145-146, 153; and 110, 115 respectively—my bold emphasis added; italics in the original)

***

In his 1929 book dedicated to his beloved daughter Eleanor, Hilaire Belloc wrote out for her as well as for us some of his long-cultivated and still illuminating historical and theological insights on the old and new enemies of the Catholic Church and the Faith, entitled Survivals and New Arrivals.1 For example, he said in passing that, if the widespread Arian doctrinal challenge and martial-heretical movements had further permeated the lands and the seas and had been victorious, Europe itself would now (as of 1929) be a confident and powerful religious culture with qualities that were much closer to those of “Mohammedism” (Islam) than to those of orthodox Christianity. For, both Arianism and Islam deny the Incarnation and the personal divinity of Jesus Christ.

Moreover, even though he first published his insights in 1929, Belloc’s book still shows itself to be a farsighted presentation of what was likely soon to come to Europe and spread elsewhere.

This short essay therefore first proposes to present Belloc’s chosen categories of interpretation in his “examination of the battle’s phases” (2) against the Catholic Faith and Catholic Church (as an Institution with a divine foundation and a set of seven sacraments). Then we propose to examine a little more closely one example of the alleged “Main Opposition” against the Church, as of 1929: i.e., the case of the hypothetical “Modern Mind.”

We hope thereby to draw others to a close reading (and further savoring) of this brilliant book—it is a justly proportioned and generously fair-minded book—which could also be usefully applied, with some slight adjustments, to other historic institutions and religions, such as Calvinism and Islam, or even “the Masonic Corporation” and “ the Masonic Organization…organized like an army against the Church” (99).

At the very outset of his book, Belloc forthrightly says the following about the Church’s history, and her permanent combats with adversaries outside and also inside the Catholic Church:

But what has been more rarely undertaken [in studies of the Catholic Church], and what is of particular interest to our own day, is an examination of the battle’s phases. (2—my emphasis added)

Then Belloc presents to us a series of criteria and helpful standards of judgment, and does it subtly by way of his sets of linked and interdependent questions. For example:

Which of the attacks are getting old-fashioned? Which new offensives are beginning to appear, and from what direction do they come? Which are the main assaults of the moment? What is the weight of each, and with what success are they being received and thrown back?

I say this cataloging of the attacks in their order of succession, from those growing outworn in any period to the new ones just appearing, has been neglected. Yet to make such an appreciation should be of value. The situation of the Church at any one time can be estimated only by noting what forms of attack are failing, and why; with what degree of resistance the still vigorous ones are being combated; what novel forms of offensive are appearing. It is only so that we can judge how the whole position stood or stands in any one historical period. (2-3—my emphasis added)

Belloc approaches the deeper lucid structure of his book by presenting additional questions concerning the Church and in light of “Her unique character” (7):

There is, then, no man who cares to understand the character of the world but must acquaint himself with the situation of the Faith. What are its present enemies? What dangers beset it? Where and how is it checked? Where lies its opportunities for growth? These are the outstanding questions. Compared with a judgment upon the present situation of the Catholic Church, a judgment upon the rise and fall of economic systems or of nations is insignificant.

This is my postulate, and [at] the outset of my inquiry.

I have said that the situation of the Church at any moment (and therefore in our own time) is best appreciated by judging the rise and decline of the forces opposing Her at that moment.

Now these, when we pause to estimate the state of the battle in any one phase of it, fall into three fairly distinct groups. (7-8—my emphasis added)

It will be helpful to understand these three groups as he presents them in his own summary words:

There is, most prominent, what I will call the Main Opposition of the moment….At any moment there lie upon one side of the Main opposition old forms of attack [such as the early medieval danger of “a rationalizing movement from within, against the Sacramental mysteries and later against the Hierarchy” (8)] which are gradually leaving the field—I will call them The Survivals. There are, on the other side [of the Main opposition], new forms of attack barely entering the field. These I will call The New Arrivals (8—my emphasis)

After giving many examples of earlier main oppositions—such as “Heathen pirates of the north, and the eastern Mongol hordes” (8) as well as the martial forces of the Arians and of the later Mohammedans—he says the following:

The Survivals exemplify the endless, but always perilous, triumph of the Faith by their defeat and gradual abandonment of the struggle. A just appreciation of them makes one understand where the weakness of the main attack, which they preceded and in part caused, may lie. The New Arrivals exemplify the truth that the Church will never be at peace, and a just appreciation of them enables us to forecast in some degree the difficulties of tomorrow.

Between the two, Survivals and New Arrivals, we can more fully gauge the character of the Main Action and only in a survey of all three can we see how the whole situation lies. For such reasons is a survey of this kind essential to a full comprehension of the age. (8—my emphasis added)

A careful reading of his earlier historical analyses—full of specific details and vivid examples– will prepare us to appreciate the nuances of his important section on “The Modern Mind”–the third element of the Main Attack and Opposition, after the formidable facts of “Nationalism” (to include the endurance of Jewish Nationalism) and of “Anti-Clericalism” (as in the cases of France, Portugal, and Spain and Mexico in the early twentieth century).

For example, he asks: “Are there…contemporary conditions [as of 1929] which point to a future hostility to [various forms of] Nationalism [as of 1929]?” (88) He answers:

I think there are. Besides the Catholic Church there are two great international forces (not to quote more) which are already clearly apparent [as of 1929]. Once is that of Finance, the other is that of the Protest of the Proletariat against Capitalism; a protest which in its most lucid and most logical form is called Communism. Both of these [forces] are solvents to that religion of nationality which was universal before the Great War [1914-1918].

These two forces, International Finance and International Socialism, act after fashions often unexpected [as in the propaganda of “the big newspapers” (8)], and [often] more drastic….

But when you suppress a religious order, you have the opportunity to loot its property. Under the oligarchic Parliamentary system (strangely called “democracy”) the loot will go into the pockets of the politicians, the lawyers, and the hangers-on of both. The first taste of loot breeds an increasing appetite. (88, 97-98—my emphasis added)

Now we turn to his considerations of the hypothetical (still often professed) “Modern Mind”:

The third and far the most formidable element of Main Opposition to the Faith today, is what I propose to call by its own self-appointed and most misleading title: “The Modern Mind.”…

We note that it acts in a fashion wholly negative. It is not an attack but a resistance. It does not, like Anti-Clericalism, exercise an active effect opposed to religion, nor, like Nationalism, substitute a strong counter-emotion which tends to supplant religion. It rather renders religion unintelligible. Its effect on religion [hence on the Catholic Faith] is like that of an opiate on the power of analysis. It dulls the faculty of appreciation, and blocks the entry of the Faith. Hence its power. (105-106—my bold emphasis added, italics in the original)

Speaking again of the sapping importance of the third and final element of the then-current Main Opposition against the Faith, he says:

For, indeed, we are met at the outset of this, perhaps the most important section of our enquiry, by a difficulty which was not known in any other time than ours: that difficulty to which I have alluded, that this chief adverse condition we have to examine has no suitable name….Nevertheless,…it [“the Modern Mind”] is the word [that] its own votaries use.” (106-107—my emphasis added)

Belloc also warns us: “But everywhere it is of the same character, and everywhere, so far as its influence extends, it fills with despair those who attempt to deal with its fearful incapacities. (106—my emphasis added)

Yet, very soon after considering the difficulty of giving a “clear definition,”Belloc himself proposes “first to analyze its character,” that mark of the “Modern Mind”; and thus to postpone until later in his Chapter 4 an examination of “the causes of this philosophical disease—and it is an appalling one—which is affecting such a large numbers in our time [circa 1929]”(108):

Upon dissecting it we discover the “Modern Mind” to contain three main ingredients and to combine them through the force of one principle. Its three ingredients are pride, ignorance, and intellectual sloth; their unifying principle is a blind acceptance of authority not based on reason. (108—my emphasis added)

Belloc shows his magnanimity and sense of pathos when he adds a short note to the above characterization and statement of principle:

With most men who are afflicted [with the Modern Mind] the thing is not so much  a mixture of these vices as the mere following of [intellectual] fashion; but these vices lie at the root of the mental process in question.

As to the principle of blindly accepting an authority not based on reason, it runs through the whole base affair and binds it [like servitude] into one: Fashion, Print, Iteration, are the commanders abjectly obeyed and trusted.

Let us take a leading test: [for example] the attitude taken by the “Modern Mind” towards the supernatural….(108-109—my emphasis added)

A representative and fitting selection from Belloc’s examples and guiding interrogatives will aid us a little further in our understanding of “the horrible welter of the ‘Modern Mind’” (116) :

There stands the “Modern Mind,” a morass.

The great difficulty of the intelligent in dealing with this thing, whether they be Catholic or skeptical, is the lack of hold. It is like fighting smoke….

What are you to do with a man who always argues in a circle?….What do you do with a man who does not recognize his own first principles?….What are you to do with a man who uses the same word in different senses during the same discussion?….What do you do with a man who puts it forth as a foundation for debate that the human reason [logos] is no guide, and who then proceeds to reason through hundreds of pages on that basis? (115-116—my emphasis added)

(Do these comments and specific questions make anyone else think of the current Vatican and its ambiguous language? Perhaps we may honestly and reliably now recall some of the ongoing verbiage in the lengthy verbose Official Documents, partly deriving from the multiple and equivocal Bishops’ Conferences with their garrulous speeches, and the sometimes demeaning sermons from the higher Leadership, to include associated interviews with the Media given by the progressive, sometimes evasive, Prelates; and sometimes even to their artfully sophistical votaries and to their abrasively loud and voluble lay supporters of innovation against long-standing Tradition?)

In any case, Belloc reminds us: “the acceptance without question of such authority as it meets—especially that of print–‘blind faith‘ we have said, ‘divorced from reason‘–is the very mark of the ‘Modern Mind.’” (126—my emphasis added)

In this context Belloc also constructively speaks of our cultivating of “the faculty of distinction—[the faculty] of clarity in thought through analysis” (126—my emphasis) in contrast to the “sustainers” and “ill fruits” of the “Modern Mind.” On the premise that contrast clarifies the mind, he then additionally says:

Look around you and note the incapacity for strict argument, the impatience with exact definition, the aversion to controversyand the facility in mere affirmation [or “in mere assertion”]. (126—my emphasis added)

Near the beginning of his searching, candid and encouraging book, Hilaire Belloc would have us at the outset always remember something important and decisive, and then keep the proposed criterion in our hearts and in our enduring convictions:

As we proceed deeply and more deeply from cause to cause we discover that what gives its [specific] nature [thus a distinctive character] to a human group is its attitude towards the Last Things [“Death, Judgment, Heaven, Hell”]: its conception of the End of Man.

Even when a positive creed has lost it vigor and dwindled under indifference, its remaining effect upon the stuff of society remains profound.

Should any doubt this, let them mark the effects of the two contrasted religious cultures in the West: the Protestant and the Catholic; that proceeding from the schism in the sixteenth century, and that [“Catholic Thing”] which, in the sixteenth century, weathered the storm and maintained tradition.

All may [indeed] see the ease with which industrialism grows in a soil of Protestant culture, [and] the difficulty with which it grows in a soil of ancient Catholic culture.” (5—my emphasis added)

May we too be blessed to help cultivate the soil and defend the deep ancient culture of the Catholic Faith.

–Finis–

© 2019 Robert D. Hickson

1Hilaire Belloc, Survivals and New Arrivals (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1929—219 pages). This book was also later “retypeset and republished in 1992 by TAN Books and Publishers, Inc.” of Rockford, Illinois. For convenience of access to this 1929 book, we shall henceforth refer to the text and pagination of the 1992 TAN paperback edition of 167 pages. References to that 1992 paperback edition of Survivals and New Arrivals will also henceforth be placed above, in parentheses, in the main body of the essay.

An Introduction to Hilaire Belloc’s The Great Heresies (1938)

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                                6 November 2018

Saint Leonard of Limoges (d. 559)

Crusader Saint Leonard of Reresby in Yorkshire (d. circa 1260)

The Day of Death of Josef Pieper (d. 1997)

 

In 1938, Hilaire Belloc was still in his full intellectual and spiritual maturity when he came to publish his lucid book on The Great Heresies. This book, appearing shortly before the outbreak of World War II, presents Belloc when he was sixty-eight years of age, and it entered the public only two years after the death of his beloved friend G.K. Chesterton, and three years before the unexpected and utterly shattering death of his youngest son Peter, on 2 April 1941. Peter died in uniform, but not yet in combat, and he had suddenly contracted pneumonia while on duty and in training as a soldier in the expanding war. (Belloc had already lost, and with great and almost irreparable grief, both his cherished wife Elodie on 2 February 1914 (on Candlemas) and then his eldest son Louis, who was an aviator killed in combat in France late in World War I; and whose body was never to be found, despite the intensive and extensive efforts of many men, including Belloc’s intimate and resourceful friend, Major Maurice Baring.) Moreover, very soon after his son Peter’s death, Hilaire Belloc had his first of several strokes. Some of his intellectual powers, even from the outset, then began to wane, and he lived largely like that until his death on 16 July 1953. Such are the poignant circumstances framing, and partly surrounding, this book and its remarkably sustained vitality.

In some selected passages here, however, we shall give representative glimpses of our beloved Belloc’s differentiated and eloquent learning, and many instances of his mental acuity, as well as his deep and sincere Catholic Faith. He also especially shows us his capacity, without equivocation, to define his important conceptual terms, such as “heresy,” in addition to “capitalism.”

As he wrote in his own introductory chapter: “There is no end to the misunderstandings which arise from the uncertain use of words.” Therefore, at the beginning of his book, Belloc helps us understand what he means by “heresy.” He defines it as “the dislocation of some complete and self-supporting scheme [—“the various parts of which are coherent and sustain each other”—] by the introduction of a denial of some essential part therein….such that if you but modify a part the whole is put out of gear…..” Heresy, therefore, is “the warping of a system by ‘exception’: by ‘picking out’ [from “the Greek verb ‘Haireo‘”] one part of the structure.” It is, in Belloc’s eyes, the essence of a heresy “that it leave standing a great part of the structure it attacks.” Therefore, “it is said of heresies [thus even of the challenge of Islam] that “they survive by the truths they retain.” Hilaire Belloc has an historical interest in heresy, inasmuch as it does not only affect the individual, but “all society.”

It is in this sense that, for example, the debate about Arianism is not “a mere discussion of words,” but, rather, the Arian world would turn more out “like a Mohammedan world than what the European world actually became.” Words affect worlds. To affirm doctrine has an effect on society. This is what Belloc holds, since “Human society cannot carry on without some creed, because a code and a character are the product of a creed.” It is one of Hilaire Belloc’s own borrowed insights that “all human conflict is ultimately theological” (a profound insight by Cardinal Manning spoken to Belloc, who was often later to quote it – see Belloc’s great book, The Cruise of the Nona, for Manning’s searchlight insights!), and that no society has ever endured – “or ever can endure” – without some form of religion. Because, as Belloc puts, it “there can be no body of morals without doctrine, and if we agree to call any consistent body of morals and doctrine a religion, then the importance of heresy as a subject will become clear.”

It is only a deeply religious and moral man like Hilaire Belloc himself who is able to present these thoughts and to point to them. A thoroughly secularized world like the post-modern West is barely capable of grasping it. But it will certainly profit from Belloc’s own insights. Because we might easily say that, still today, there is a creed that is dominating society – it is just simply a creed without God and thus without a deeper set of binding moral laws.

As some put it into a motto “Ohne Glaube, keine Kultur,” [“without faith, no culture”] our author also explains: “The study of successive Christian heresies, their characters and fates, has a special interest for all of us who belong to the European or Christian culture, and that is a reason that ought to be self-evident—our culture was made by a religion. Changes in, or deflections from, that religion necessarily affect our civilization as a whole.”

Belloc proposes to give a further rationale for his selective book when he says that it is important to give clear definitions. Definitions set limits, and therefore make an analysis easier. And he rightly points out that “unfortunately, in the modern world [as of 1938] the habit of such a definition has been lost; the word ‘heresy’…is no longer applied to cases which are clearly cases of heresy and ought to be treated as such.”

Later in the book, Hilaire Belloc gives us an example of what he means when insisting upon giving clear definitions: “But to another man, the term ‘capitalism’ may mean simply the right to private property; yet to another it means industrial capitalism working with machines, and contrasted with agricultural production. I repeat, to get any sense into the discussion [of ‘financial capitalism,’ for example], we must have our terms clearly defined.” That is to say: only if we describe realities with clear definitions can we make decisions as to what we wish to encourage or to combat.

Speaking further about capitalism, Belloc points to the danger of a relativistic approach: “Terms are used so loosely nowadays, there is such a paralysis in the power of definition, that almost any sentence using current phrases may be misinterpreted.” For different people, for example, the word “capitalism” would mean different things to different men. It means to one group of writers (what I must confess it means to me when I use it) ‘the exploitation of the masses of men still free by a few owners of the means of production, transport, and exchange.’” Belloc himself then comments on why this sort of capitalism is destructive: “When the mass of men are dispossessed—own nothing—they become wholly dependent upon the owners; and when those owners are in active competition to lower the cost of production the mass of men whom they exploit not only lack the power to order their own lives, but [they] suffer from want [insufficiency] and insecurity as well.” I think we could say here that Belloc considers such a form of capitalism a “heresy.”

His attempt is to clear our minds of cant and to give such clear definitions that we are able to discern what we would like to fight for and what not. What Belloc tries to tell us with these examples is that, by treating cases of heresy with clear definitions, we would thereby protect those codes and morals that are pertinent for a flourishing society. When we let down our guard, relativism will creep in and undermine all of society, as can be seen today. In this sense, Hilaire Belloc can be seen as a prophet for our time.

Josef Pieper, the great German Catholic philosopher who himself held Hilaire Belloc in high esteem, was later to write a book about Missbrauch der Sprache, Missbrauch der Macht (Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power, first published in 1974) that can be seen in connection with Belloc’s attempt at carefully studying the language that is being used and whether it is helping at revealing reality, or, on the contrary, at concealing it. Pieper himself saw how the abuse of language was often a tool for manipulation – and, as we could say with Hilaire Belloc, the spreading of heresy.

Let us here consider two examples of what Belloc treats as heresy: Communism and divorce. First, he says about Communism: “For instance, there is abroad today a denial of…the right to own property….Communism is as much a heresy as Manichaeism.”

Secondly, he adds: “The same is true of the attack on the indissolubility of marriage….but a heresy it clearly is because its determining characteristic is the denial of the Christian doctrine of marriage and the substitution therefore of another doctrine, to wit, that marriage is but a contract and a terminable contract [as distinct from a sacred irreversible vow to God and a Sacrament].” The denial of any doctrine as such, says Belloc, should also be treated as heresy.

In conclusion, Belloc sums up the situation of his time – and, we could add, also of our own time – as follows: “We are living today under a regime of heresy with only this to distinguish it from the older periods of heresy, that the heretical spirit has become generalized and appears in various forms….because the tide [of “the modern attack”] which threatens to overwhelm us is so diffuse.”

We are thus living in a time of the regime of generalized heresy. Persecution is not far away, Belloc adds, in “the conflict between that modern anti-Christian spirit and the permanent tradition of the Faith.” It is thus that Belloc shows himself as a traditionalist who stands against the relativisms and heresies of his time, holding on to eternal truths about God and man.

Here, we might refer to another example from his book. When speaking about the “problem of evil” – a reality that often nowadays is being shunned, as well – we all are faced with the question of the universe and of our existence. Belloc says that when “we watch the human race trying to think out for itself the meaning of the universe, or accepting Revelation thereon, or following warped and false partial religions and philosophies, we find it always at heart concerned with that insistent question: ‘Why should we suffer? Why should we die?’” [Italics in the original]

As Father John A. Hardon, S.J., a great dogmatic theologian and personal friend, often used to say to me in person: “We are only as courageous as we are convinced.” When we have clear definitions – and subsequently clear aims and convictions, also about eternal life – we will be able to face today’s challenges to our societies, even if it means suffering or death.

To return to Hilaire Belloc’s The Great Heresies. He, writing as a Catholic author, highlights the fact that the Catholic Church answers that question of suffering and death. He speaks about “a prime truth of the Catholic Church itself, which has shortly been put in this form: ‘The Catholic Church is founded upon the recognition of pain and death.’ In its more complete form the sentence should run ‘The Catholic Church is rooted in the recognition of suffering and mortality and her claim to have provided a solution for the problem they present [i.e., ‘the mystery of evil’]’.” The Church’s solution and answer stands in contrast to those of other worldviews and religions that give at times very different answers, with deep consequences for the respective societies.

The reader may now better see the designed development of Belloc’s artfully presented sequence of seven chapters, especially now for us to savor those vivid chapters three to seven: the Arian Heresy; The Great and Enduring Heresy of Mohammed; the Albigensian Attack; What Was the [Protestant] Reformation?; and The Modern Phase [also called “The Modern Attack”]. These have each been attacks in the past from which we still can learn much for today and for the future.

When one reflects upon the various heresies that Belloc depicts in his book, one realizes that all of them in common—to include the persistent Islam—essentially deny (and always destructively target) the following doctrines and their derivatives: the Incarnation (and thus full Divinity of Our Lord); the doctrine of the Holy Trinity; a divinely founded authoritative Church and its central, universal Spiritual Authority; the seven Sacraments; and thus the unique Priesthood of Christ with its absolving and sacrificing duties, for example, in Sacramental Penance and in the Holy Mass.

We may later more specifically consider, especially when we have more leisure than now, the doctrines of the Gnostic-Albigensians and the various Protestant doctrinal positions, and what the Protestants commonly react to. He shows how consequential the Protestant revolt was for the European civilization. For example, on the first two pages of his sixth chapter (What Was the Reformation?), Belloc writes:

Though the immediate fruits of the Reformation decayed, as had those of many other heresies in the past, yet the disruption it had produced remained and the main principle—reaction against a united spiritual authority—so continued in vigour as both to break up our European civilization in the West and to launch at last a general doubt, spreading more and more. None of the other heresies did that, for they were each definite. Each had proposed to supplant or to rival the existing Catholic Church; but the Reformation movement [as “opponents of central authority”] proposed rather to dissolve the Catholic Church—and we know what measure of success has been attained by that effort! (my emphasis added)

Or, as one could put it: “Ideas have consequences.”

One of Belloc’s two longest chapters is on Islam—the “Mohammedan Heresy” and the “Mohammedan Attack”—which religion he considers to be a “permanent rival to us”: “It is, as a fact, the most formidable and persistent enemy which our civilization has had, and may at any moment [from his vantage point in 1938] become as large a menace in the future as it has been in the past.”

Others, such as Arnaud de Lassus, have also considered Islam as both as a Christian Heresy and as a Jewish Heresy, given Islam’s protracted experiences intermingling with both learned Nestorian (Heretical) Christians and also with variously practicing Jews in the Arabian Peninsula. (Belloc, however, does not go into this deeper history that Arnaud de Lassus was manifoldly able to study.)

Moreover, learned and reverent Muslims I have known down the years have very confidently expressed to me their principled view that Islam, as a third and final Revelation, has corrected the errors and distortions of both the Jewish Revelation and the Christian Revelation. Such a belief and such practical martial orientation certainly give much vigor to their spreading religion and to their strategic and tactical initiatives of conquest. Belloc himself, in his book, again and again tries to understand how and why Islam has endured so long—and his considered reflections should be of special interest to the reader.

In light of the current conflicts arising between Islam and Christian communities throughout the world – with Islam mostly being the aggressor – Hilaire Belloc’s considerations and analysis will be of great help to today’s readers in grasping the deeper underlying theological divisions. The creed of each religion does form societies and their conduct toward other societies. A thorough study of Islam would help the West to assess in a more fruitful way how to respond to this religion in a just and protective manner. By eliding over religious differences, one would only elide over that part within the religions that can potentially lead to serious conflict. Our forefathers knew that.

As I have been re-reading my recent and many notes on The Great Heresies, I have also been thinking of Thucydides and his great unfinished epic and tragic history about the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.), to include the very consequential Destruction of Athens. One could spend two full academic semesters at a university discussing and savoring in depth and detail with good students each of these two books.

Belloc and Thucydides were both also steeped in the epics and tragedies of Homer and his memorably presented tragedy of the Destruction of Troy and some of its consequences; and Belloc could himself artfully present some some larger dangers or actualities of Tragedy in History, to include the struggles and near subversion of the Catholic Faith and Holy Church. There is also a great abundance of truth and goodness and beauty in Hilaire Belloc’s epic book on the great heresies, and thus also on the contrasting and abiding wisdom of the Catholic Church’s formative orthodoxy.

The Catholic poet John Dryden (d. 1700) once gratefully described the poetry of Geoffrey Chaucer (d. 1400) as a presentation of “Goddes good foison”—“God’s good abundance.” So, too, is it the case with Hilaire Belloc’s rare and sustained abundance, and his candid Catholic spirit. May his lucid and often chivalrous book now also reach and deeply touch many German and Austrian readers.

 

APPENDIX

For our further reflections and convenience, this 7-page essay’s original version is placed below. For, it contains a considerable expansion of the epigraphs as well as many eloquent passages from Belloc’s own formidable book, The Great Heresies (1938).

An Introduction to Hilaire Belloc’s The Great Heresies (1938)

Epigraphs

“In the case of this great struggle [with ‘The Albigensian Heresy’] we must proceed as in the case of all other examples [of heresies] by first examining the nature of the doctrine which was set up against the body of truth taught by the Catholic Church.

The false doctrine of which the Albigensians were the main example has always been latent among men in various forms, not only in the civilization of Christendom but wherever and whenever men have had to consider the fundamental problems of life…By what its effects were when it was thus at its highest point of vitality we can estimate what evils similar doctrines do whenever they appear. For this permanent trouble of the human mind has swollen into three waves during the Christian period, of which three the Albigensian episode was only the central one….

“What is the underlying motive power which produces heresies of this kind?

“To answer that main question we must consider a prime truth of the Catholic Church itself, which has shortly been put in this form: ‘The Catholic Church is founded upon the recognition of pain and death.’ In its more complete form the sentence should run ‘The Catholic Church is rooted in the recognition of suffering and mortality and her claim to have provided a solution for the problem they present [i.e., ‘the mystery of evil’].’ The problem is [also] generally known as ‘The problem of evil.’

“How can we call a man’s destiny glorious and heaven his goal and his Creator all good as well as all powerful when we find ourselves subject to suffering and to death?….

“Nearly all young and innocent people are but slightly aware of this problem….But sooner or later every human being who thinks at all, everyone not an idiot, is faced by this Problem of Evil; and as we watch the human race trying to think out for itself the meaning of the universe, or accepting Revelation thereon, or following warped and false partial religions and philosophies, we find it always at heart concerned with that insistent question: ‘Why should we suffer? Why should we die?’” (Hilaire Belloc, The Great Heresies (1938), Chapter 5 (The Albigensian Attack); my bold emphasis added; italics in the original)

***

“There was one more ally to Arianism [i.e., to ‘the Arian Heresy’] through which it [the spreading heresy] almost triumphed—the Army.

In order to understand how powerful such an ally was we must appreciate what the Roman Army meant in those days and of what it was composed….

“The Army was the true cement, to use one metaphor, the framework to use another metaphor, the binding force and the support and the very material self of the Roman Empire in that fourth century; it had been so for centuries and was to remain so for future generations.

It is absolutely essential to understand this point, for it explains three-fourths of what happened, not only in the case of the Arian heresy but of everything else between the days of Marius [d. 86 B.C.] (under whose administration the Roman Army first became professional), and the Mohammedan attack upon Europe, that is, from more than a century before the Christian era to the early seventh century. The social and political position of the Army explains all those seven hundred years and more.

The Roman Empire was a military state. It was not a civilian state. Promotion to power was through the Army. The conception of glory and success, the attainment of wealth in many cases, in nearly all cases the attainment of political power, depended on the Army in those days, just as it depends upon money-lending, speculation, caucuses, manipulation of votes, bosses and newspapers nowadays.” (Hilaire Belloc, The Great Heresies (1938)–Chapter 3 (The Arian Heresy); my bold emphasis added; italics in the original)

***

Terms are used so loosely nowadays, there is such a paralysis in the power of definition, that almost any sentence using current phrases may be misinterpreted. If I were to say, ‘slavery under capitalism,’ the word ‘capitalism’ would mean different things to different men. It means to one group of writers (what I must confess it means to me when I use it) ‘the exploitation of the masses of men still free by a few owners of the means of production, transport, and exchange.’ When the mass of men are dispossessed—own nothing—they become wholly dependent upon the owners; and when those owners are in active competition to lower the cost of production the mass of men whom they exploit not only lack the power to order their own lives, but [they] suffer from want [insufficiency] and insecurity as well.

“But to another man, the term ‘capitalism’ may mean simply the right to private property; yet to another it means industrial capitalism working with machines, and contrasted with agricultural production. I repeat, to get any sense into the discussion [of ‘financial capitalism,’ for example], we must have our terms clearly defined.” (Hilaire Belloc, The Great Heresies (1938), Chapter 7 (The Modern Phase)—the last chapter of the book, my emphasis added)

***

In 1938, Hilaire Belloc was still in his full intellectual and spiritual maturity when he came to publish his lucid book on The Great Heresies. This book, appearing shortly before the outbreak of World War II, presents Belloc when he was sixty-eight years of age, and it entered the public only two years after the death of his beloved friend G.K. Chesterton, and three years before the unexpected and utterly shattering death of his youngest son Peter, on 2 April 1941. Peter died in uniform, but not yet in combat, and he had suddenly contracted pneumonia while on duty and in training as a soldier in the expanding war. (Belloc had already lost, and with great and almost irreparable grief, both his cherished wife Elodie on 2 February 1914 (on Candlemas) and then his eldest son Louis, who was an aviator killed in combat in France late in World War I; and whose body was never to be found, despite the intensive and extensive efforts of many men, including Belloc’s intimate and resourceful friend, Major Maurice Baring.) Moreover, very soon after his son Peter’s death, Hilaire Belloc had his first of several strokes. Some of his intellectual powers, even from the outset, then began to wane, and he lived largely like that until his death on 16 July 1953. Such are the poignant circumstances framing, and partly surrounding, this book and its remarkably sustained vitality.

In the three extended Epigraphs above, however, we are given representative glimpses of our beloved Belloc’s differentiated and eloquent learning, and many instances of his mental acuity and his deep and sincere Catholic Faith. He also especially shows us his capacity, without equivocation, to define his important conceptual terms, such as “heresy,” in addition to “capitalism.”

As he wrote in his own introductory chapter: “There is no end to the misunderstandings which arise from the uncertain use of words.” Therefore, at the beginning of his book, Belloc helps us understand what (with the help of our many ellipses) he means by “heresy”:

We must begin by a definition, although definition involves a mental effort and therefore repels.

Heresy is the dislocation of some complete and self-supporting scheme [—“the various parts of which are coherent and sustain each other”—] by the introduction of a denial of some essential part therein….such that if you but modify a part the whole is put out of gear….

Heresy means, then, the warping of a system by “exception”: by “picking out” [from “the Greek verb ‘Haireo‘”] one part of the structure; and [it] implies that the scheme is marred by taking away one part of it, denying one part of it, and either leaving the void unfilled or filling it with some new affirmation….

The denial of a scheme wholesale is not heresy, and has not the creative power of a heresy. It is of the essence of heresy that it leave standing a great part of the structure it attacks [e.g., the “religious structure of doctrine”]. On this account it can appeal to believers and continues to affect their lives through deflecting them from their original character. Wherefore, it is said of heresies [thus even of the challenge of Islam] that “they survive by the truths they retain.”….thus…the value of heresy as a department of historical study….

So much for the general meaning and interest of that most pregnant word “Heresy.” Its particular meaning (the meaning in which it is used in this book) is the marring by exception [some objection] of that complete scheme, the Christian religion….

Because heresy, in this particular sense (the denial of an accepted Christian doctrine) thus affects the individual, it affects all society, and when you are examining a society formed by a particular religion you necessarily concern yourself to the utmost with the warping or diminishing of that religion. That is the historical interest of heresy. That is why anyone who wants to understand [for example] how Europe came to be, and how its changes have been caused, cannot afford to treat heresy as unimportant….

A man who thinks, for instance, that Arianism is a mere discussion of words, does not see that an Arian world would have been much more like a Mohammedan world than what the European world actually became. He is much less in touch with reality than was [Saint] Athanasius when he affirmed the point of doctrine to be all important….

Indeed there is no denying it. It is mere fact. Human society cannot carry on without some creed, because a code and a character are the product of a creed….

Heresy, then, is not a fossil subject. It is a subject of permanent and vital interest to mankind because it is bound up with the subject of religion, without some form of which no human society has ever endured, or ever can endure….

There can be no body of morals without doctrine, and if we agree to call any consistent body of morals and doctrine a religion, then the importance of heresy as a subject will become clear, because heresy means nothing else than “the proposal of novelties in religion by picking out from what has been the accepted religion some point or other, denying the same or replacing it by another doctrine hitherto unfamiliar.”

The study of successive Christian heresies, their characters and fates, has a special interest for all of us who belong to the European or Christian culture, and that is a reason that ought to be self-evident—our culture was made by a religion. Changes in, or deflections from, that religion necessarily affect our civilization as a whole. (Italics in the original; my bold emphasis added–all of these interwoven words are from Hilaire Belloc’s own considerably important first chapter, entitled, “Introduction: Heresy.”)

Belloc now proposes to give a further rationale for his selective book:

The best way of understanding the subject [of the succession of Christian heresies] is to select a few prominent examples, and by the study of these to understand of what vast import heresy may be.

Such a study is easier from the fact that our fathers recognized heresy for what it was, gave it in each case a particular name, subjected it to a definition and therefore to limits, and made its analysis easier by such a definition.

Unfortunately, in the modern world [as of 1938] the habit of such a definition has been lost; the word “heresy”…is no longer applied to cases which are clearly cases of heresy and ought to be treated as such.

For instance, there is abroad today a denial of…the right to own property….Communism is as much a heresy as Manichaeism….The same is true of the attack on the indissolubility of marriage….but a heresy it clearly is because its determining characteristic is the denial of the Christian doctrine of marriage and the substitution therefore of another doctrine, to wit, that marriage is but a contract and a terminable contract [as distinct from a sacred irreversible vow to God and Sacrament].

Equally, ….because they [certain supposed Christians] deny certitude from Authority, which doctrine is a part of Christian epistemology, they are heretical. It is not heresy to say that reality can be reached by experiment, by sensual perception and by deduction. It is heresy [however] to say that reality can be attained from no other source.

We are living today under a regime of heresy with only this to distinguish it from the older periods of heresy, that the heretical spirit has become generalized and appears in various forms….because the tide [of “the modern attack”] which threatens to overwhelm us is so diffuse….

The conflict between that modern anti-Christian spirit and the permanent tradition of the Faith [may well also become] acute through persecution…. (Italics in the original; my bold emphasis added)

The reader may now better see the designed development of Belloc’s artfully presented sequence of seven chapters, especially now for us to savor those vivid chapters three to seven: the Arian Heresy; The Great and Enduring Heresy of Mohammed; the Albigensian Attack; What Was the [Protestant] Reformation?; and The Modern Phase [also called “The Modern Attack”].

When one reflects upon the various heresies that Belloc depicts in his book, one realizes that all of them in common—to include the persistent Islam—essentially deny (and always destructively target) the following doctrines and their derivatives: the Incarnation (and thus full Divinity of Our Lord); the doctrine of the Holy Trinity; a divinely founded authoritative Church and its central, universal Spiritual Authority; the seven Sacraments; and thus the unique Priesthood of Christ with its absolving and sacrificing duties, for example, in Sacramental Penance and the Holy Mass.

We may later more specifically consider, especially when we have more leisure than now, the doctrines of the Gnostic-Albigensians and the various Protestant doctrinal positions, and what the Protestants commonly react to.

For example, on the first two pages of his sixth chapter (What Was the Reformation?), Belloc writes:

Though the immediate fruits of the Reformation decayed, as had those of many other heresies in the past, yet the disruption it had produced remained and the main principle—reaction against a united spiritual authority—so continued in vigour as both to break up our European civilization in the West and to launch at last a general doubt, spreading more and more. None of the other heresies did that, for they were each definite. Each had proposed to supplant or to rival the existing Catholic Church; but the Reformation movement [as “opponents of central authority”] proposed rather to dissolve the Catholic Church—and we know what measure of success has been attained by that effort! (my emphasis added)

One of Belloc’s two longest chapters is on Islam—the “Mohammedan Heresy” and the “Mohammedan Attack”—which religion he considers to be a “permanent rival to us”: “It is, as a fact, the most formidable and persistent enemy which our civilization has had, and may at any moment [from his vantage point in 1938] become as large a menace in the future as it has been in the past.”

Others, such as Arnaud de Lassus, have also considered Islam as both as a Christian Heresy and as a Jewish Heresy, given Islam’s protracted experiences intermingling with both learned Nestorian (Heretical) Christians and also with variously practicing Jews in the Arabian Peninsula. (Belloc, however, does not go into this deeper history that Arnaud de Lassus was manifoldly able to study.)

Moreover, learned and reverent Muslims I have known down the years have very confidently expressed to me their principled view that Islam, as a third and final Revelation, has corrected the errors and distortions of both the Jewish Revelation and the Christian Revelation. Such a belief and practical martial orientation certainly give much vigor to their spreading religion and to their strategic and tactical initiatives of conquest. Belloc himself, in his book, again and again tries to understand how and why Islam has endured so long—and his considered reflections should be of special interest to the reader.

As I have been re-reading my recent and many notes on The Great Heresies, I have also been thinking of Thucydides and his great unfinished epic and tragic history about the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.), to include the very consequential Destruction of Athens. One could spend two full academic semesters at a university discussing and savoring in depth and detail with good students each of these two books.

Belloc and Thucydides were both also steeped in the epics and tragedies of Homer and his memorably presented tragedy of the Destruction of Troy and some of its consequences; and Belloc could himself artfully present some some larger dangers or actualities of Tragedy in History, to include the struggles and near subversion of the Catholic Faith and Holy Church. There is also a great abundance of truth and goodness and beauty in Hilaire Belloc’s epic book on the Great Heresies, and thus also on the contrasting and abiding wisdom of formative Orthodoxy.

The Catholic poet John Dryden (d. 1700) once gratefully described the poetry of Geoffrey Chaucer (d. 1400) as a presentation of “Goddes good foison”—“God’s good abundance.” So, too, is it the case with Hilaire Belloc’s rare and sustained abundance, and his candid Catholic spirit. May his lucid and often chivalrous book now also reach and deeply touch many German and Austrian readers.

–Finis–

© 2018 Robert D. Hickson

(This introductory essay will shortly be published by Renovamen Verlag as a preface to the German translation of Hilaire Belloc’s The Great Heresies (1938).)