The Church is Europe: and Europe is The
by Hilaire Belloc
The Catholic conscience of history is not a conscience which begins with the development of the Church in the basin of the Mediterranean. It goes back much further than that. The Catholic understands the soil in which that plant of the Faith arose. In a way that no other man can, he understands the Roman military effort; why that effort clashed with the gross Asiatic and merchant empire of Carthage; what we derived from the light of Athens; what food we found in the Irish and the British, the Gallic tribes, their dim but awful memories of immortality; what cousinship we claim with the ritual of false but profound religions, and even how ancient Israel (the little violent people, before they got poisoned, while they were yet National in the mountains of Judea) was, in the old dispensation at least, central and (as we Catholics say) sacred: devoted to a peculiar mission.
For the Catholic the whole perspective falls into its proper order. The picture is normal. Nothing is distorted to him. The procession of our great story is easy, natural, and full. It is also final...
(Continue here in full or come back to it; below are excerpts).
...the prime product of the Reformation was the isolation of the soul. That truth contains, in its development, very much more than its mere statement might promise.
The isolation of the soul means a loss of corporate sustenance; of the sane balance produced by general experience, the weight of security, and the general will. The isolation of the soul is the very definition of its unhappiness. But this solvent applied to society does very much more than merely complete and confirm human misery.
In the first place and underlying all, the isolation of the soul releases in a society a furious new accession of force. The break-up of any stable system in physics, as in society, makes actual a prodigious reserve of potential energy. It transforms the power that was keeping things together with a power driving separably each component part: the effect of an explosion. That is why the Reformation launched the whole series of material advance, but launched it chaotically and on divergent lines which would only end in disaster. But the thing had many other results.
Thus, we next notice that the new isolation of the soul compelled the isolated soul to strong vagaries. The soul will not remain in the void. If you blind it, it will grope. If it cannot grasp what it appreciates by every sense, it will grasp what it appreciates by only one.
On this account in the dissolution of the corporate sense and of corporate religion you had successive idols set up, worthy and unworthy, none of them permanent. The highest and the most permanent was a reaction towards corporate life in the shape of a worship of nationality--patriotism.
You had at one end of the scale an extraordinary new tabus, the erection in one place of a sort of maniac god, blood-thirsty, an object of terror. In another (or the same) a curious new ritual observance of nothingness upon every seventh day. In another an irrational attachment to a particular printed book. In another successive conceptions: first, that the human reason was sufficient for the whole foundations of human life--that there were no mysteries: next, the opposite extravagance that the human reason had no authority even in its own sphere. And these two, though contradictory, had one root. The rationalism of the eighteenth century carried on through the materialism of the nineteenth, the irrational doubts of Kant (which included much emotional rubbish) carried on to the sheer chaos of the later metaphysicians, with their denial of contradictions, and even of being. Both sprang from this necessity of the unsupported soul to make itself some system from within: as the unsupported soul, in an evil dream, now stifles in strict confinement and is next dissolved in some fearful emptiness.
All this, the first interior effect of the Reformation, strong in proportion to the strength of the reforming movement, powerful in the regions or sects which had broken away, far less powerful in those which had maintained the Faith, would seem to have run its full course, and to have settled at last into universal negation and a universal challenge proffered to every institution, and every postulate. But since humanity cannot repose in such a stage of anarchy, we may well believe that there is coming, or has already begun, yet another stage, in which the lack of corporate support for the soul will breed attempted strange religions: witchcrafts and necromancies.
It may be so. It may be that the great debate will come up for final settlement before such novel diseases spread far. At any rate, for the moment we are clearly in a stage of complete negation. But it is to be repeated that this breaking up of the foundations differs in degree with varying societies, that still in a great mass of Europe, numerically the half perhaps, the necessary anchors of sanity still hold: and that half is the half where directly by the practice of the Faith, or indirectly through a hold upon some part of its tradition, the Catholic Church exercises an admitted or distant authority over the minds of men.
The next process we note is--by what some may think a paradox--also due to the isolation of the soul. It is the process of increasing knowledge. Men acting in a fashion highly corporate will not so readily question, nor therefore so readily examine, as will men acting alone. Men whose major results are taken upon an accepted philosophy, will not be driven by such a need of inquiry as those who have abandoned that guide. In the moment, more than a thousand years ago, when the last of the evangelizing floodtide was still running strongly, a very great man wrote of the physical sciences: "Upon such toys I wasted my youth." And another wrote, speaking of divine knowledge: "All the rest is smoke."
But in the absences of faith, demonstrable things are the sole consolation.
There are three forms in which the human mind can hold the truth: The form of Science, which means that we accept a thing through demonstration, and therefore cannot admit the possibility of its opposite. The form of Opinion, which means that we accept a thing through probability, that is through a partial, but not complete demonstration, and therefore we do not deny the possibility of the opposite. The form of Faith, where we accept the thing without demonstration and yet deny the possibility of its opposite, as for instance, the faith of all men, not mad, in the existence of the universe about them, and of other human minds.
When acknowledged and defined Faith departs, it is clear that of the remaining two rivals, Opinion has no ground against Science. That which can be demonstrated holds all the field. Indeed, it is the mark of modern insufficiency that it can conceive of no other form of certitude save certitude through demonstration, and therefore does not, as a rule, appreciate even its own unproved first principles.
Well, this function of the isolated soul, inquiry and the necessity for demonstration for individual conviction through measurement and physical fixed knowledge, has occupied, as we all know, the three modern centuries. We all are equally familiar with its prodigious results. Not one of them has, as yet, added to human happiness: not one but has been increasingly misused to the misery of man. There is in the tragedy something comic also, which is the perpetual puzzlement of these the very authors of discovery, to find that, somehow or other, discovery alone does not create joy, and that, somehow or other, a great knowledge can be used ill, as anything else can be used ill. Also in their bewilderment, many turn to a yet further extension of physical science as promising, in some illogical way, relief.
A progression in physical science and in the use of instruments is so natural to man (so long as civic order is preserved) that it would, indeed, have taken place, not so rapidly, but as surely, had the unity of Europe been preserved. But the destruction of that unity totally accelerated the pace and as totally threw the movement off its rails.
The Renaissance, a noble and vividly European thing, was much older than the Reformation, which was its perversion and corruption. The doors upon modern knowledge had been opened before the soul, which was to enter them, had been cut off from its fellows. We owe the miscarriage of all our great endeavor in this field, not to that spring of endeavor, but to its deflection. It is a blasphemy to deny the value of advancing knowledge, and at once a cowardice and a folly to fear it for its supposed consequences. Its consequences are only evil through an evil use, that is, through an evil philosophy.
In connection with this release of powerful inquiry through the isolation of the soul, you have an apparently contradictory, and certainly supplementary effect: the setting up of unfounded external authority.
It is a curious development, one very little recognized, but one which a fixed observance of the modern world will immediately reveal; and those who come to see it are invariably astonished at the magnitude of its action. Men--under the very influence of skepticism--have come to accept almost any printed matter, almost any repeated name, as an authority infallible and to be admitted without question. They have come to regard the denial of such authority as a sort of insanity, or rather they have in most practical affairs, come to be divided into two groups: a small number of men, who know the truth, say, upon a political matter or some financial arrangement, or some unsolved problem; and a vast majority, which accepts without question an always incomplete, a usually quite false, statement of the thing because it has been repeated in the daily press and vulgarized in a hundred books.
This singular and fantastic result of the long divorce between the non-Catholic mind and reason has a profound effect upon the modern world. Indeed, the great battle about to be engaged between chaos and order will turn largely upon this form of suggestion, this acceptation of an unfounded and irrational authority.
Lastly, there is of the major consequences of the Reformation that phenomenon which we have come to call "Capitalism," and which many, recognizing its universal evil, wrongly regard as the prime obstacle to right settlement of human society and to the solution of our now intolerable modern strains.
What is called "Capitalism" arose directly in all its branches from the isolation of the soul. That isolation permitted an unrestricted competition. It gave to superior cunning and even to superior talent an unchecked career. It gave every license to greed. And on the other side it broke down the corporate bonds whereby men maintain themselves in an economic stability. Through it there arose in England first, later throughout the more active Protestant nations, and later still in various degrees throughout the rest of Christendom, a system under which a few possessed the land and the machinery of production, and the many were gradually dispossessed. The many thus dispossessed could only exist upon doles meted out by the possessors, nor was human life a care to these. The possessors also mastered the state and all its organs--hence the great National Debts which accompanied the system: hence even the financial hold of distant and alien men upon subject provinces of economic effort: hence the draining of wealth not only from increasingly dissatisfied subjects over-seas, but from the individual producers of foreign independent states.
The true conception of property disappears under such an arrangement, and you naturally get a demand for relief through the denial of the principle of ownership altogether. Here again, as in the matter of the irrational tabus and of skepticism, two apparently contradictory things have one root: Capitalism, and the ideal inhuman system (not realizable) called Socialism, both spring from one type of mind and both apply to one kind of diseased society.
Against both, the pillar of reaction is peasant society, and peasant society has proved throughout Europe largely coördinate with the remaining authority of the Catholic Church. For a peasant society does not mean a society composed of peasants, but one in which modern Industrial Capitalism yields to agriculture, and in which agriculture is, in the main, conducted by men possessed in part or altogether of their instruments of production and of the soil, either through ownership or customary tenure. In such a society all the institutions of the state repose upon an underlying conception of secure and well-divided private property which can never be questioned and which colors all men's minds. And that doctrine, like every other sane doctrine, though applicable only to temporal conditions, has the firm support of the Catholic Church.
So things have gone. We have reached at last, as the final result of that catastrophe three hundred years ago, a state of society which cannot endure and a dissolution of standards, a melting of the spiritual framework, such that the body politic fails. Men everywhere feel that an attempt to continue down this endless and ever darkening road is like the piling up of debt. We go further and further from a settlement. Our various forms of knowledge diverge more and more. Authority, the very principle of life, loses its meaning, and this awful edifice of civilization which we have inherited, and which is still our trust, trembles and threatens to crash down. It is clearly insecure. It may fall in any moment. We who still live may see the ruin. But ruin when it comes is not only a sudden, it is also a final, thing.
In such a crux there remains the historical truth: that this our European structure, built upon the noble foundations of classical antiquity, was formed through, exists by, is consonant to, and will stand only in the mold of, the Catholic Church.
Europe will return to the Faith, or she will perish. The Faith is Europe. And Europe is the Faith.