Thursday, February 26, 2015

“Islam has differed from all the other heresies"

“ISLAM has differed from all the other heresies in two main points which must be carefully noticed:

(1) It did not rise within the Church, that is within the frontiers of our civilization. Its heresiarch was not a man originally Catholic who led away Catholic followers by his novel doctrine as did Arius or Calvin. He was an outsider born a pagan, living among pagans, and never baptized.

. . . (2) This body of Islam attacking Christendom from within, happened to be continually recruited with fighting material of the strongest kind and drafted in from the pagan outer darkness.”

~Hilaire Belloc: The Great Heresies.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

On Historical Evidence

THE LAST BOOK to be published upon the last Dauphin of France set me thinking upon what seems to me the chief practical science in which modern men should secure themselves. I mean the science of history—and in this science almost all lies in the appreciation of evidence, for one of the chief particular problems presented to the student of history at the present moment is whether the Dauphin did or did not survive his imprisonment in the Temple.

Let me first say why, to so many of us, the science of history and the appreciation of the evidence upon which it depends is of the first moment. It is because, short of vision or revelation, history is our only extension of human experience. It is true that a philosophy common to all citizens is necessary for a State if it is to, live—but short of that necessity the next most necessary factor is a knowledge of the stuff of mankind: of how men act under certain conditions and impulses. This knowledge may be acquired, and is in some measure, during the experience of one wise lifetime, but it is indefinitely extended by the accumulation of experience which history affords.

And what history so gives us is always of immediate and practical moment.

For instance, men sometimes speak with indifference of the rival theories as to the origin of European land tenure; they talk as though it were a mere academic debate whether the conception of private property in land arose comparatively late among Europeans or was native and original in our race. But you have only to watch a big popular discussion on that very great and at the present moment very living issue, the moral right to the private ownership in land, to see how heavily the historic argument weighs with every type of citizen. The instinct that gives that argument weight is a sound one, and not less sound in those who have least studied the matter than in those who have most studied it; for if our race from its immemorial origins has desired to own land as a private thing side by side with communal tenures, then it is pretty certain that we shall not modify that intention, however much we change our laws. If, on the other hand, it could be shown that before the advent of a complex civilization Europeans had no conception of private property in land, but treated land as a thing necessarily and always communal, then you could ascribe modern Socialist theories with regard to the land to that general movement of harking back to the origins which Europe has been assisting at through over a hundred years of revolution and of change.

It sounds cynical, but it is perfectly true, that much the largest factor in the historical conception of men is assertion. It is literally true that when men (with the exception of a very small proportion of scholars who are also intelligent) consider the past, the picture on which they dwell is a picture conveyed to them wholly by authority and by unquestioned authority. There was never a time when the original sources of history were more easily to be consulted by the plain man; but whether because of their very number, or because the habit is not yet formed, or because there are traditions of imaginary difficulty surrounding such reading, original sources were perhaps never less familiar to fairly educated opinion than they are today; and therefore no type of book gives more pleasure when one comes across it than those little cheap books, now becoming fairly numerous, in which the original sources, and the original sources alone, are put before the reader. Mr. Rait has already done such work in connection with Mary Queen of Scots, and Mr. Archer did it admirably in connection with the Third Crusade.

But apart from the importance of consulting original sources—which is like hearing the very witnesses themselves in court—there is a factor in historical judgment which by some unhappy accident is peculiarly lacking in the professional historian. It is a factor to which no particular name can be attached, though it may be called a department of common sense. But it is a mental power or attitude easily recognizable in those who possess it, and perhaps atrophied by the very atmosphere of the study. It goes with the open air with a general knowledge of men and with that rapid recognition of the way in which things "fit in" which is necessarily developed by active life.

For instance, when you know the pace at which Harold marched down from the north to Hastings you recognize, if you use that factor of historic judgment of which I spake, that the affair was not barbaric. There must have been fairly good roads, and there must have been a high organization of transport. You have only to consider for a moment what a column looks like, even if it be only a brigade, to see the truth of that. Again, this type of judgment forbids anyone who uses it to ascribe great popular movements (great massacres, great turmoils, and so forth) to craft. It is a very common thing, especially in modern history, to lay such things to the power of one or two wealthy or one or two bloody leaders, but you have only to think for a few moments of what a mob is to see the falsity of that. Craft can harness this sort of explosive force, it can control it, or persuade it, or canalize it to certain issues, but it cannot create it.

Again, this sort of sense easily recognizes in historic types the parallels of modern experience. It avoids the error of thinking history a mistake and making of the men and women who appear there something remote from humanity, extreme, and either stilted or grandiose.

In aid of this last feature in historical judgment there is nothing of such permanent value as a portrait. Obtain your conception (as, indeed, most boys do) of the English early sixteenth century from a text, then go and live with the Holbeins for a week and see what an enormously greater thing you will possess at the end of it. It is indeed one of the misfortunes of European history that from the fifth century to at least the eleventh we are, so far as Western European history is concerned, deprived of portraits. And by an interesting parallel the writers of the dark time seemed to have had neither the desire nor the gift of vivid description. Consider the dreariness of the hagiographers, every one of them boasting the noble rank and the conventional status of his hero, and you may say not one giving the least conception of the man's personality. You have the great Gallo-Roman noble family of Ferreolus running down the centuries from the Decline of the Empire to the climax of Charlemagne. Many of those names stand for some most powerful individuality, yet all we have is a formula, a lineage, with symbols and names in the place of living beings, and even that established only by careful work, picking out and sifting relationships from various lives. The men of that time did not even think to tell us that there was such a thing as a family tradition, nor did it seem important to them to establish its Roman origin and its long succession in power.

Next it must be protested that the smallness and particularity of the questions upon which historical discussion rages are no proof either of its general purposelessness nor of their insignificance. All advance of knowledge proceeds in this fashion. Physical science affords innumerable examples of the way in which progress has depended upon a curiosity directed towards apparently insignificant things, and there is something in the mind which compels it to select a narrow field for the exercise of its acutest powers. Moreover, special points, discussion upon which must evidently be lengthy and may be indefinite, are peculiarly attractive to just that kind of man who by a love of prolonged research enlarges the bounds of knowledge and at the same time strengthens and improves for his fellows by continual exercise all the instruments of their common trade. Take, for instance, this case of the little Dauphin, Louis XVII. It really does not matter to day whether the boy got away or whether he died in prison. It does not prolong the line of the Capetians—the heir to that is present in the Duke of Orleans. It does not even affect our view of any other considerable part of history—save possibly the policy of Louis XVIII—and it is of no direct interest to our pockets or to our affections. Yet the masses of work which have accumulated round that one doubt have solved twenty other doubts. They have illuminated all the close of the Terror; they are beginning to make us understand that most difficult piece of political psychology, the reaction of Thermidor, and with it how Europeans lose their balance and regain it in the course of their quasi-religious wars; for all our wars have something in them of religion.

Three elements appear to enter into the judgment of history. First, there is the testimony of human witnesses; next, there are the non-human boundaries wherein the action took place, boundaries which, by all our experience, impose fixed limits to action; thirdly, there is that indefinable thing, that mystic power, which all nations deriving from the theology of the Western Church have agreed to call, with the schoolman, common sense; a general appreciation which transcends particular appreciations and which can integrate the differentials of evidence. Of this last it is quite impossible to afford a test or to construct a measure; its presence in an argument is none the less as readily felt as fresh air in a room; without it nothing is convincing however laboured, with it, even though it rely upon slight evidence, one has the feeling of walking on a firm road. But it must be "common sense"—it must be of the sort, that is, which is common to man various and general, and it is in this perhaps that history suffers most from the charlatanism and ritual common to all great matters.

Men will have pomp and mystery surrounding important things, and therefore the historians must, consciously or unconsciously, tend to strut, to quote solemn authorities in support, and to make out the vulgar unworthy of their confidence. Hence, by the way, the plague of footnotes.

These had their origin in two sources: the desire to show that one was honest and to prove it by a reference; the desire to elucidate some point which it was not easy to elucidate in the text itself without making the sentence too elaborate and clumsy. Either use may be seen at its best in Gibbon. With the last generation they have served mainly, and sometimes merely, for ritual adornment and terror, not to make clearer or more honest, but to deceive. Thus Taine in his monstrously false history of the Revolution revels in footnotes; you have but to examine a batch of them with care to turn them completely against his own conclusions—they are only put there as a sort of spiked paling to warn off trespassers. Or, again, M. Thibaut, who writes under the name of "Anatole France," gives footnotes by the score in his romance of Joan of Arc, apparently not even caring to examine whether they so much as refer to his text, let alone support it. They seem to have been done by contract.

Another ailment in this department is the negative one, whereby an historian will leave out some aspect which to him, cramped in a study, seems unimportant, but which any plain man moving in the world would have told him to be the essential aspect of the whole matter. For instance, when Napoleon left Madrid on his forced march to intercept Sir John Moore before that general should have reached Benevente, he thought Moore was at Valladolid, when as a fact he was at Sahagun. In Mr. Oman's history of the Peninsular War the error is put thus: "Napoleon had not the comparatively easy task of cutting the road between Valladolid and Astorga, but the much harder one of intercepting that between Sahagun and Astorga."

Why is this egregious nonsense? The facts are right and so are the dates and the names, yet it makes one blush for Oxford history. Why? Because the all-important element of distance is omitted. The very first question a plain man would ask about the case would be, "What were the distances involved?" The academic historian doesn't know, or, at least, doesn't say; yet without an appreciation of the distances the statement has no value. As a fact the distances were such that in the first case (supposing Moore had been at Valladolid) Napoleon would have had to cover nearly three miles to Moore's one to intercept him—an almost superhuman task. In the second case (Moore being as a fact at Sahagun) he would have had to go over four miles to his opponent's one—an absolutely impossible feat.

To march three miles to the enemy's one is what Mr. Oman calls "a comparatively easy task"; to march four to his one is what Mr. Oman calls a "much harder" task; and to write like that is what an informed critic calls bad history.

The other two factors in an historical judgment can be more easily measured.

The non-human elements which, as I have said, are irremovable (save to miracle), are topography, climate, season, local physical conditions, and so forth. They have two valuable characters in aid of history; the first is that they correct the errors of human memory and support the accuracy of details; the second is that they enable us to complete a picture. We can by their aid "see" the physical framework in which an action took place, and such a landscape helps the judgment of things past as it does of things contemporary. Thus the map, the date, the soil, the contours of Crecy field make the traditional spot at which the King of Bohemia fell doubtful; the same factors make it certain that Drouet did not plunge haphazard through Argonne on the night of June 21, 1791, but that he must have gone by one path—which can be determined.

Or, again, take that prime question, why the Prussians did not charge at Valmy. On their failure to do so all the success of the Revolution turned. A man may read Dumouriez, Kellermann, Pully, Botidoux, Massenback, Goethe—there are fifty eye-witnesses at least whose evidence we can collect, and I defy anyone to decide. (Brunswick himself never knew.) But go to that roll of land between Valmy and the high road; go after three days' rain as the allies did, and you will immediately learn. That field between the heights of "The Moon" and the site of old Valmy mill, which is as hard as a brick in summer (when the experts visit it), is a marsh of the worst under an autumn drizzle; no one could have charged.

As for human testimony, three things appear: first, that the witness is not, as in a law court, circumscribed. His relation may vary infinitely in degree of proximity of time or space to the action, from that of an eye-witness writing within the hour to that of a partisan writing at tenth hand a lifetime after. That question of proximity comes first, from the known action of the human mind whereby it transforms colours and changes remembered things. Next there is the character of the witness for the purposes of his testimony_. Historians write, too often, as though virtue—or wealth (with which they often confound it)—were the test. It is not, short of a known motive for lying; a murderer or a thief casually witnessing to a thing with which he is familiar is worth more than the best man witnessing in a matter which he understands ill. It was this error which ruined Croker's essay on Charlotte Robespierre's Memoirs. Croker thought, perhaps wisely, that all radicals were scoundrels; he could not accept her editor's evidence, and (by the way) the view of this amateur collector without a tincture of historical scholarship actually imposed itself on Europe for nearly seventy years!

And the third character in the witness is support: the support upon converging lines of other human testimony, most of it indifferent, some (this is essential) casual and by the way—deprived therefore of motive.

When I shall find these canons satisfied to oppose the strong probability and tradition of the Dauphin's death in prison I shall doubt that death, but not before.

~Hilaire Belloc: from First and Last.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

"The Devil will be served"

"THE Devil used the Materialist (though the Materialist had no use for the Devil) for his own ends, between the middle of the eighteenth and the last third of the nineteenth centuries. Now the Devil has impatiently ordered the Materialist to get out of the way, and, like Youth, the Devil will be served."

~Hilaire Belloc: Survivals and New Arrivals, Chap. III.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

On The Approach Of An Awful Doom

MY DEAR little Anglo-Saxons, Celt-Iberians and Teutonico-Latin oddities—-The time has come to convey, impart and make known to you the dreadful conclusions and horrible prognostications that flow, happen, deduce, derive and are drawn from the truly abominable conditions of the social medium in which you and I and all poor devils are most fatally and surely bound to draw out our miserable existence.

Note, I say "existence" and not "existences." Why do I say "existence", and not "existences"? Why, with a fine handsome plural ready to hand, do I wind you up and turn you off, so to speak, with a piffling little singular not fit for a half-starved newspaper fellow, let alone a fine, full-fledged, intellectual and well-read vegetarian and teetotaller who writes in the reviews? Eh? Why do I say "existence"?—speaking of many, several and various persons as though they had but one mystic, combined and corporate personality such as Rousseau (a fig for the Genevese!) portrayed in his Contrat Social (which you have never read), and such as Hobbes, in his Leviathan (which some of you have heard of), ought to have premised but did not, having the mind of a lame, halting and ill-furnished clockmaker, and a blight on him!

Why now "existence" and not "existences"? You may wonder; you may ask yourselves one to another mutually round the tea-table putting it as a problem or riddle. You may make a game of it, or use it for gambling, or say it suddenly as a catch for your acquaintances when they come up from the suburbs. It is a very pretty question and would have been excellently debated by Thomas Aquinas in the Jacobins of St. Jacques, near the Parloir aux Bourgeois, by the gate of the University; by Albertus Magnus in the Cordeliers, hard by the College of Bourgoyne; by Pic de la Mirandole, who lived I care not a rap where and debated I know not from Adam how or when; by Lord Bacon, who took more bribes in a day than you and I could compass in a dozen years; by Spinoza, a good worker of glass lenses, but a philosopher whom I have never read nor will; by Coleridge when he was not talking about himself nor taking some filthy drug; by John Pilkington Smith, of Norwood, Drysalter, who has, I hear, been lately horribly bitten by the metaphysic; and by a crowd of others.

But that's all by the way. Let them debate that will, for it leads nowhere unless indeed there be sharp revelation, positive declaration and very certain affirmation to go upon by way of Basis or First Principle whence to deduce some sure conclusion and irrefragable truth; for thus the intellect walks, as it were, along a high road, whereas by all other ways it is lurching and stumbling and boggling and tumbling in I know not what mists and brambles of the great bare, murky twilight and marshy hillside of philosophy, where I also wandered when I was a fool and unoccupied and lacking exercise for the mind, but from whence, by the grace of St. Anthony of Miranella and other patrons of mine, I have very happily extricated myself. And here I am in the parlour of the "Bugle" at Yarmouth, by a Christian fire, having but lately come off the sea and writing this for the edification and confirmation of honest souls.

What, then, of the question, Quid de quuerendo? Quantum?
Qualiter? Ubi? Cur? Quid? Quando? Quomodo? Quum? Sive an non?

Ah! There you have it. For note you, all these interrogative categories must be met, faced, resolved and answered exactly—or you have no more knowledge of the matter than the Times has of economics or the King of the Belgians of thorough-Bass. Yea, if you miss, overlook, neglect, or shirk by reason of fatigue or indolence, so much as one tittle of these several aspects of a question you might as well leave it altogether alone and give up analysis for selling stock, as did the Professor of Verbalism in the University of Adelaide to the vast solace and enrichment of his family.

For by the neglect of but one of these final and fundamental approaches to the full knowledge of a question the world has been irreparably, irretrievably and permanently robbed of the certain reply to, and left ever in the most disastrous doubt upon, this most important and necessary matter—namely, whether real existence can be predicated of matter.

For Anaxagoras of Syracuse, that was tutor to the Tyrant Machion, being in search upon this question for a matter of seventy-two years, four months, three days and a few odd hours and minutes, did, in extreme old age, as he was walking by the shore of the sea, hit, as it were in a flash, upon six of the seven answers, and was able in one moment, after so much delay and vexatious argument for and against with himself, to resolve the problem upon the points of how, why, when, where, how much, and in what, matter might or might not be real, and was upon the very nick of settling the last little point—namely, sive an non (that is, whether it were real or no)—when, as luck would have it, or rather, as his own beastly appetite and senile greed would have it, he broke off sharp at hearing the dinner-gong or bell, or horn, or whatever it was—for upon these matters the King was indifferent (de minimis non curat rex), and so am I—and was poisoned even as he sat at table by the agents of Pyrrhus.

By this accident, by this mere failure upon one of the Seven Answers, it has been since that day never properly decided whether or no this true existence was or was not predicable of matter; and some believing matter to be there have treated it pompously and given it reverence and adored it in a thousand merry ways, but others being confident it was not there have starved and fallen off edges and banged their heads against corners and come plump against high walls; nor can either party convince the other, nor can the doubts of either be laid to rest, nor shall it from now to the Day of Doom be established whether there is a Matter or is none; though many learned men have given up their lives to it, including Professor Britton, who so despaired of an issue that he drowned himself in the Cam only last Wednesday. But what care I for him or any other Don?

So there we are and an answer must be found, but upon my soul I forget to what it hangs, though I know well there was some question propounded at the beginning of this for which I cared a trifle at the time of asking it and you I hope not at all. Let it go the way of all questions, I beg of you, for I am very little inclined to seek and hunt through all the heap that I have been tearing through this last hour with Pegasus curvetting and prancing and flapping his wings to the danger of my seat and of the cities and fields below me.

Come, come, there's enough for one bout, and too much for some. No good ever came of argument and dialectic, for these breed only angry gestures and gusty disputes (de gustibus non disputandum) and the ruin of friendships and the very fruitful pullulation of Dictionaries, textbooks and wicked men, not to speak of Intellectuals, Newspapers, Libraries, Debating-clubs, bankruptcies, madness, Petitiones elenchi and ills innumerable.

I say live and let live; and now I think of it there was something at the beginning and title of this that dealt with a warning to ward you off a danger of some kind that terrified me not a little when I sat down to write, and that was, if I remember right, that a friend had told me how he had read in a book that the damnable Brute CAPITAL was about to swallow us all up and make slaves of us and that there was no way out of it, seeing that it was fixed, settled and grounded in economics, not to speak of the procession of the Equinox, the Horoscope of Trimegistus, and Old Moore's Almanack. Oh! Run, Run! The Rich are upon us! Help! Their hot breath is on our necks! What jaws! What jaws!

Well, what must be must be, and what will be will be, and if the Rich are upon us with great open jaws and having power to enslave all by the very fatal process of unalterable laws and at the bidding of Blind Fate as she is expounded by her prophets who live on milk and newspapers and do woundily talk Jew Socialism all day long; yet is it proved by the same intellectual certitude and irrefragable method that we shall not be caught before the year 1938 at the earliest and with luck we may run ten years more: why then let us make the best of the time we have, and sail, ride, travel, write, drink, sing and all be friends together; and do you go about doing good to the utmost of your power, as I heartily hope you will, though from your faces I doubt it hugely. A blessing I wish you all.

~Hilaire Belloc: from On Nothing & Kindred Subjects.

Share This