The Great Heresies, by Hilaire Belloc
Belloc offers his view of the transitions that occurred in the west after the Reformation and the modern heresy that followed – the heresy that we, in fact, are currently living through. It will be my last post on this book.
In the aftermath of the Reformation, men of Europe would come to regard religion as a secondary thing; at the same time, the dissolution of the Catholic position in Europe would unleash energies that Catholicism restrained – especially in competition and commerce.
Both Catholic and Protestant cultures advanced in physical sciences and colonization, but the Protestant cultures were more vigorous:
To take one example: in the Protestant culture (save where it was remote and simple) the free peasant, protected by ancient customs, declined. He died out because the old customs which supported him against the rich were broken up.
The rights (protected by custom) that the peasant previously held in property were lost, leaving such men without substance in difficult times. I have examined before the position of the serf in the Middle Ages (and, more broadly, the classical liberalism of the time); in many ways, the serf of the time enjoyed more rights in his property and life than do the “free” men of the west today.
But the great, the chief, example of what was happening through the break-up of the old Catholic European unity, was the rise of banking.
Usury was practiced everywhere, but in the Catholic culture it was restricted by law and practiced with difficulty. In the Protestant culture it became a matter of course.
Belloc identifies the merchants of Holland and England as introducing the practices of “modern banking.”
I am certainly no expert on the history of modern banking, however I do believe the concepts of fractional-reserve banking and central banks were legitimized and institutionalized in these two Protestant countries (along with Sweden, also a Protestant country). While I do not want to put words in Belloc’s mouth, it seems possible that when he speaks of “usury” and modern banking, what he means is this idea of charging interest on air.
[In an attempt to gain some understanding of this topic of usury in the traditional Catholic view, I read several examinations online using a search on the terms: usury Catholic tradition. I found absolute statements against the practice, statements of conditional acceptance, different practices at different times driven by expanding foreign trade, etc. So…this is why I concluded the last sentence in the preceding paragraph – I just don’t know what else Belloc could have meant given the context in which he makes this statement.]
Confidence was on the Protestant side, and waning on the Catholic. The Protestant countries had superiority in financial, military and naval power. This was drastically exaggerated with the establishment of the Protestant America.
Italy, Spain, and Portugal in decline; England, Germany (led by Prussian Protestants) and America on the rise; France, confused and in constant turmoil after the Revolution.
The Tide Turns
Belloc sees the tide turning against this Protestant wave at around the turn of the last century (“somewhere between 1885 and 1904”; coincidentally – or not – the start of the Progressive era). Not toward re-establishment of the Catholic Church, but in terms of the breakdown of ideas that gave the Protestant culture its strength.
Protestantism was being strangled at its root, at its spiritual root; therefore the material fruits of that tree were beginning to wither.
Belloc identifies two causes. The first, perhaps less important, was a certain level of confidence reappearing in at least some nations of Catholic Europe – specifically in the wealthier classes of these nations. More important was the decline of the Protestant culture from within, “the great internal weakness of the Protestant culture as opposed to the Catholic.”
Lacking a better name, Belloc labels this period “the Modern Phase.” The general cause of this Protestant breakdown he describes as “auto-toxic” – meaning, an organism which is beginning to poison itself.
What are the particular causes of this breakdown? Belloc offers first: the breakdown of the Bible as a supreme authority; historical and scientific research have shaken this foundational belief – as it must if man is left with nothing but his rational thinking (limited, as it must be, when trying to understand God and His creation).
A second cause, economic:
Protestantism had produced free competition permitting usury and destroying the old safeguards of the small man’s property – the guild and the village association.
Belloc describes “modern industrialism in its capitalistic form” and “modern banking” as “becoming master of the community” and, ultimately, breeding “vast social evils.”
Regarding the idea of “free competition” as it relates to usury and banking, given my assumption that he is addressing central banking and fractional reserves, his complaint is not about “free” competition in any meaningful sense – although the view of where (in which countries) these practices were first granted legitimacy by government is valid.
Third, internal quarrels; most notably, the British against the German (Prussian):
That was what one would have expected from a system at once based upon competition and flattering human pride.
Finally, a lack of a plan:
The Protestant culture, having begun by exaggerating the power of human reason, was ending by abandoning human reason.
How has the Protestant culture abandoned reason? I will come to this shortly.
And with this, Belloc comes to 1914 and the Great War. Everything about the old order “came down with a crash.” Then began a period of political experiments; the most disastrous political experiments known to man.
The Modern Phase
The enemy which the Faith now has to meet, and which may be called “The Modern Attack,” is a wholesale assault upon the fundamentals of the Faith – upon the very existence of the Faith. And the enemy now advancing against us is increasingly conscious of the fact that there can be no question of neutrality.
The intent is to destroy everything left of the culture and tradition of the Catholic Church. Of course, the true Church cannot be destroyed; but what remains and what influence it holds is in question. To those Christians who hold no sympathy for the Catholic Church, Belloc suggests that “the struggle appears as a coming or present attack on what they call ‘Christianity.’”
Whatever the foundation of your faith (even if you hold nothing that can be called Christian faith), this attack cannot be denied. Whatever the foundation for your faith, the result is the same:
…there is a clear issue now joined between the retention of Catholic morals, tradition and authority on the one side, and the active effort to destroy them on the other.
You need not be Catholic, or more broadly “Christian” to see this. We are living daily as witness to the destruction of traditional morals; we are told to praise these or be outcast from acceptable (and by certain corners of libertarian) society. Today’s society worships these.
Yet, if it is true that the freedoms that those in the west have enjoyed were built on a foundation of these morals and traditions, what does the destruction of these same morals and traditions portend for this freedom?
Do you think that those actively promoting this destruction, under whatever label they choose, are working for your freedom (whether you are red, yellow, black, white or any color of the rainbow)? Think again.
Belloc describes the characteristics of this moral attack. First, it is materialistic. Consider the use of this term in Belloc’s context. When he describes usury, he speaks of modern banking. I believe libertarians and Austrians recognize the moral corruption that modern banking facilitates.
Second, it is superstitious; it has abandoned reason. I have struggled with his meaning, but as he explains it, it seems to me he is describing the philosophies of Cultural Marxism and post-modernists (neither of which had any concrete form at the time of his writing). These have taken root in the west; these both have abandoned reason – if reason is defined as considering man’s natural realities.
Belloc sees communism as a manifestation of this modern attack, although he describes this as “probably a passing one.”
Ultimately, of course, it is the fruit of the original break-up of Christendom at the Reformation. It began in denial of a central authority. It has ended by telling man that he is sufficient to himself, and it has set up everywhere great idols to be worshipped as gods.
I am certain that the term “central authority” sticks in the craw of many readers, certainly when used in the context above. To rephrase his statement: the destruction of this “central authority” (The Church) has led to this modern attack, of which communism (a different central authority) is but one manifestation.
I will suggest, consider custom, culture and tradition as the “central authority” that was replaced – take out the idea of “The Church” and see if this works any better for you. Because until someone convinces me (heck, even makes an argument) that nothing is necessary to govern and organize society, something will govern and organize society. I will vote for custom and tradition.
It isn’t just in communism where Belloc sees this manifestation; it also exists in many of the nations and organizations that oppose communism. He describes the fruits of this manifestation: first, the return of slavery. In communism it is full slavery; in the west, he is willing to call it half-slavery.
Regarding the half-slavery of the west: he describes this as the state of the masses, now deprived of property and left with nothing but the possibility of wages, being dependent on the state to enforce conditions of security and sufficiency – call it welfare, social security, the social safety net, a livable wage, a basic income guarantee, unearned tax credits, whatever.
Yet the more the state steps in to do this, the more the people become slaves.
If it be continued for, say, three generations, it will become so thoroughly established as a social habit and frame of mind that there may be no escape from it….
Second, Belloc sees the moral fruit of this manifestation, undermining “every form of restraint imposed by human experience acting through tradition.”
Note that regarding this “moral fruit,” Belloc does not lean on pronouncements from a “central authority” in any political sense. He speaks of the lessons learned through dozens of generations and thousands of years: “human experience acting through tradition.”
…human society cannot co-exist with anarchy; new restraints and new customs will arise.
Let go of the Rothbardian definition of anarchism, as this is not what Belloc is referring to. Imagine a society with no customs, norms, or traditions. You cannot, as it cannot exist. Something will fill the void, something not refined by experience but created from whole cloth; something man made, in a political environment where the worst get on top.
Belloc sees cruelty as the chief form of this moral degeneration: “men are not shocked by cruelty, but indifferent to it.” Finally, Belloc describes the degeneration of human reason; reason is replaced with “reiterated affirmation.” Call it political correctness; call it the bastardized terms of “diversity,” “tolerance,” “social justice,” and “inclusiveness.”
I think Belloc has pretty-well summed up the current state of the west. He saw this coming, eighty years ago.