The Great Heresies, by Hilaire Belloc
In this book, Belloc reviews five different heresies. As I have noted in the past on this general topic, my interest (at this blog) is not theological; it is in what such things mean for culture, tradition and governance.
Belloc reviews the following heresies, dedicating one chapter to each: Arian, Mohammed, Albigensian, the Reformation, the modern age. I don’t know how much time I will spend on the details of each, although given my interests I suspect the chapter on the Reformation will be of particular interest.
In this post I will review his introduction – there is much that is meaningful both regarding definition and in regard to a uniting tradition. Belloc defines what he means specifically by the term “heresy”:
Heresy is the dislocation of some complete and self-supporting scheme by the introduction of a novel denial of some essential part therein.
Belloc applies this to subjects as varied as physics, mathematics and philosophy. In physics, you cannot just remove the idea of matter relative to gravity; in geometry, you cannot only remove the concept that the interior angles of a triangle equal two right angles. In other words, you can’t change just one thing and expect the remainder to function as it was.
It is not heresy to deny a subject wholesale. The heresy is when most of the important components are left untouched, thereby appealing to believers as something not meaningfully different from that being attacked.
Wherefore, it is said of heresies that “they survive by the truths that retain.”
How does this relate to my interests?
…the subject of heresy in general is of the highest importance to the individual and to society, and heresy in its particular meaning (which is that of heresy in Christian doctrine) is of special interest for anyone who would understand Europe: the character of Europe and the story of Europe.
Why do men combat heresies? Is it simply a matter of conservatism, a “devotion to routine,” or a disturbance in their habits of thought? No, it is something much more:
…it is much more a perception that the heresy, insofar as it gains ground, will produce a way of living and a social character at issue with, irritating, and perhaps mortal to, the way of living and the social character produced by the old orthodox scheme.
Is it merely conservatism (and if it is, is this inherently “bad”)? What happens to governance when the way of living is delivered a mortal blow? Is it likely that government by force will decrease? I think the answer to this is obvious.
Take, for example, the idea of an immortal soul. What happens if it is generally accepted that this just isn’t so?
If they except, that is cut out, this one doctrine, they may continue to hold all the others, but the scheme is changed, the type of life and character and the rest become other.
One can accept the Virgin Birth, that Jesus is both the Son of God and God, that bread and wine are transformed in a particular manner; but if he removes this one plank – the idea of an immortal soul – he will be quite a different man than the man who accepts this plank.
Those considered noble during much of the Middle Ages worked to maintain this noble standing in front of their peers, superiors and subordinates. Can one say the same of the “nobles” of today? The ones held out as “noble” are often the most vulgar, most corrupt, most abusive.
Let me try it this way:
Far in the distant future
Beyond the pages of our time
Cold-blooded wicked tyrants
Threaten the freedom of mankind
Corruption, lust, and greed
Define the new nobility
Changing the course of history
- Dream Theater, The Gift of Music
Would a man who believed in the immortality of his soul act this way?
Such a heresy does not merely affect the individual who accepts it; it affects all of society if generally accepted.
That is why anyone who wants to understand how Europe came to be, and how its changes have been caused, cannot afford to treat heresy as unimportant.
It is of secondary importance (for the purposes of this post) if the doctrine is true; what is important is that it is believed and that this belief shapes behavior.
Must man believe such things, holding certain beliefs in common; why not just dump the idea of a common creed?
In deed there is no denying it. It is mere fact. Human society cannot carry on without some creed, because a code and a character are a product of a creed.
Sheltered individuals can carry on without such a unifying creed; for an organized society, it cannot be so. The idea of the non-aggression principle – negative liberty – being all that is necessary to hold a society together in relative peace is not only insufficient, it has no precedent.
Heresy, then, is not just 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 ever has endured.
You can’t replace something with nothing. Absent traditional religion, we are offered the religions of patriotism and equality. With one, we are convinced toward constant war and worship of political leaders, with the other we accept socialism.
The European culture was made by religion, specifically the Christian religion and specifically that which was shepherded by the Catholic Church. Belloc intends to examine this.
As mentioned, Belloc’s last chapter is on the heresy of the modern age; this age has no common name as of yet (this book was published in 1938). Perhaps a name will come…
…but not until the conflict between that modern anti-Christian spirit and the permanent tradition of the Faith becomes acute through persecution and the triumph or defeat thereof. It will then perhaps be called anti-Christ.
Or it will be called socialism and progressivism.