Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Witness to Abstract Truth

By Hilaire Belloc

[An address given at the More Memorial Exhibition in July 1929, before the martyr's canonization] 

I COME to speak to you to-day upon the Blessed Thomas More, and I come to speak of him under one aspect alone; for what one man can say in the few brief moments of a public address should not, upon such a subject, touch more than one aspect, lest his audience be confused. But that aspect is surely the chief one in connection with such a name.

I come to speak to you of the nature of his sacrifice; not of his life, its scholarship, its humour, its worldly greatness, his voluntary decline therefrom; the affection Mosaic of Blessed Thomas More which he gave and received; the multiple humanity which has endeared him to those who least understand his last and tremendous act. For we all must remember that it has become the fashion among those who least comprehend or least love the Catholic Church to make certain exceptions in her favour, inverted scapegoats as it were, and to cite in history one or two Catholics out of the great host of martyrs and confessors and doctors and plain saints, let alone of common Catholic men and women, whom they deign to praise; there is St. Francis of Assisi, because he was fond of animals; there is (for some of them) St. Bernard, because he stopped a riot against money-lenders; and there is Blessed Thomas More—because when you are praising Cranmer, Henry his master, and for all I know, Thomas Cromwell himself, you must have some counterweight in order to look liberal, and broadminded. And Blessed Thomas More is there ready to hand.

Now all that, I confess, I despise as it deserves to be despised; nor am I here to speak of those other excellences of him which we deservedly praise, and for the right motives—his love of justice and of the poor, his contempt of wealth, his self-discipline in life, his merry bearing of the burden of this worldbut only the fashion in which he left it.

What I am here to-day to emphasize is this—the Blessed Thomas More died in support of one particular isolated truth, because it was the naked truth, and for no other reason. He did not make a sacrifice of this or that—he had made plenty of sacrifices—he did not give up, as heroic men give up around us day by day, position and income and the comfort of those who are dearest to them for the general Faith. He gave up life itself; deliberately; he accepted violent death as of a criminal, not even for the Faith as a whole but on one particular small point of doctrine—to wit, the supremacy of the See of Peter.

Now let me discuss the magnitude of this act. It is of sufficient greatness that it was performed for one isolated point of truth. But there was much more. It was a sacrifice not supported.

This it is that I desire to affirm, to reaffirm, to repeat, and to repeat again. This is that to which I desire to bear witness, and which, had I the power, I would make prominent in every history. Not that this unique man gave up much for his conscience; that, to the honour of mankind myriads have done and will do. No even that he gave up life itself in that cause. Not even that he gave it up for one detached article out of so many. But rather that he found it in him to so act without support: a triumph of the will.

Now consider how men are supported in their rare heroisms. 

There is in the first place the support of those who, weaker than the martyr himself, wish him well; those for whom he is a symbol, and who turn to him secretly as a flag-bearer, and by whom they hope perhaps to be later reconciled with that which they know to be the truth, but which they have not the courage to proclaim. He was not supported by an ambient fashion; he was not even supported, properly speaking, by a tradition, and—the most awful thing of all—he was not supported from within by anything more than that supreme instrument of action, the Catholic Will.

Newman said very well that we all die alone; but this is to die alone indeed! To allow oneself to be killed, by one’s own choice, in full life, rather than to pay the price of yielding upon one dry, narrow, intellectual point; having to applaud one and to support one and to sustain one neither enthusiasm within nor the sense of agreement without.

Let me put before you those two points. They are essential to and understanding of the scale upon which the martyr acted.

First, I say, he was not supported from within.

He had no enthusiasm for the Papacy; he had fashioned for himself no tradition of defending it; no habit, no formed body of argument and action in its favour. He did not defend the Papacy (in a day when its rights were everywhere doubted) because it was second nature to him. No: just the other way.

All his life he had been—as indeed, was every man of intelligence, judgment, and heart, in the turning-point between the Middle Ages and the Modern—a reformer in the full sense of that word. He had been in his youth the English Erasmus, denouncing with contempt, as did a thousand others, not only in the manifold and crying abuses into which the clerical organization had fallen, but many things which are not abuses at all, rather honest devotions, if a little exaggerated. His enthusiasm, the flame of his thought, his memories of sharp emotion in those affairs were all in tune with that flame of reforming zeal, which can so easily in such a moment be deflected into rebellion against the unity of Christendom. About this particular point of Papal Supremacy he had never worried. He had come out of a generation profoundly shaken in the matter; its intellectuals, contemptuous of the state into which the See of Rome had fallen, full of memories of the Schism and of the Councils, far from admiring the temporal pomp and what was worse, the mechanical revenues of the Papal Court. Had Thomas More’s death been a death for the Real Presence of Our Lord in the Sacrament of the Altar, for the Most Holy Mother of God, for the golden light which is thrown across the earth by the movement of the wings of the Faith, it would be quite another matter. He would have been engaged, and the whole man would have been at work. So it has been with great troops of martyrs. But not with him.

He had in this matter of Supremacy closely examined the thing, as one might of any other historical problem: “reading it up” and thinking out the pros and cons. And at one moment—a man of very grave reading, an excellent lawyer with a brain like a razor for separating one category from another—he had hesitated whether the supremacy of the Pope over Christendom were man-made or not. He had inclined to think it a man-made thing. When he had thrashed the whole thing out fully and thoroughly, he came to his conclusion, as might a judge, without “affection,” without any particular movement of the heart. The Supremacy of Peter and his successors (he decided) was of divine origin.

So far so good. That one point being isolated—intellectual, not moral, in no way attached to the heart, nothing that could inflame a man—he kept it carefully segregated and clear. He was willing to admit the succession of Anne’s child; to take the oaths of loyalty of any degree and in any respect, save that one point of Supremacy. And did he run out to defend it with warmth? Far from it! He kept it in the background; he tried not to answer upon it; he followed the debates as a counsel for the defence, making all his points, reserving action.

All that is very cold and very disappointing. But he died—which is more than you and I would have done. And he died merrily.

Nor was this extraordinary man supported from without. I am not sure that such support is not of even greater value (though I admit that the idea is paradoxical) than support from within. Many a man and woman, I fancy, have died martyrs or have suffered some lesser inconvenience after having within their own hearts and intelligences suffered grievous assaults against the Faith, but consoled by the ambient atmosphere of Christendom. “I may through my own fault and negligence have lost my firm hold upon the Faith, but it is my duty to support others who are in better case. They all agree. They regard me as their standard bearer; and I will not yield.” Such martyrs, I fancy, will have a very high place; for to serve the Faith by an act of will is greater than to serve it without interruption from any human frailty. But at any rate, Thomas More was not of this sort. He was not supported from without.

After four hundred years we have to-day forgotten how the matter looked to the men of the early sixteenth century. The average Englishman had little concern with the quarrel between the Crown and Rome. It did not touch his life. The Mass went on just the same and all the splendour of religion; the monasteries were still in being everywhere, there was no interruption whatsoever. Most of the great bodies—all the bishops except Fisher—had yielded. They had not yielded with great reluctance but as a matter of course. Here and there had been protests, and two particular monastic  bodies had burst, as it were, into flame. But that was exceptional. To the ordinary man of the day, anyone, especially a highly placed official, who stood out against the King’s policy was a crank.

We must firmly seize that or we do not understand the period at all. Kings had quarreled with Popes over and over again. In the matter of doctrine and practice Henry was particularly devout, and strenuously Catholic. Kings had been reconciled with Popes over and over again. For generations, the King of England had in practice been absolute master of his realm, and in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred papal action was but a formality. It would be bad enough to make oneself unpopular and to stand out and to look a fool in defence of one particular point of definition—which, after all, might have no meaning a few years hence, when Anne Boleyn should be dead, perhaps, and the two parties to the King Henry and Anne Boleyn quarrel might be reconciled again. That was the point of view (among other millions) of the Blessed Thomas More’s wife, and he was very much what is called a family man, tolerant of nagging. That was the point of view of pretty well all his friends. And it was the more difficult to resist because they loved him and desired to save him. Had they united in chorus to say, “This strong man is standing out; would we were of the same metal!” it would have been a support. But that was not their attitude at all. Their attitude was rather, “This imaginative and highly strung man, who has done more than one silly thing in his time, who threw away his great position as Chancellor and who in his youth published a Socialist sort of book, is doing it again! You never know what he will do next! Really, he is such a good fellow that somebody ought to argue him out of this nonsense!”

No, he was not supported from without.

Let me end by saying that he was not to be supported by posterity. There are men who can repose under the strain of an ordeal in the conviction that their suffering is a seed for the future. I will confess to the superstition that men like More have, in my judgment, some confused vision of the future. If he had, he must have known that his sacrifice was apparently in vain. Could he return to this earth to-day (and I am sure that it must be the least of his desires!), he would not find that he had sown a seed. He would not find—I do not say that he had saved the Faith in this country—even that the Faith had retained such a hold on English life as a reasonable man might have hoped for in 1535. Should the Blessed Thomas More return to life in this, his own country, to-day he would find the Faith an alien thing and himself praised as what I have called a “scapegoat the other way round,” a “scapegoat à rebours,” an exception which must be praised in order to give the more elbow-room for praising the vile spirits who served the court. At all this he would smile, being a man of humour; or more probably does now smile. At any rate, he has not the support of posterity.

If ever a man died alone, he died alone.

And the moral is clear. It is our business to give up all for whatever is truth, whether it appeals to our emotion or not; whether we have others with us or not; whether our mood concurs or repels. The intelligence is absolute in its own sphere. Intelligence commands us to accept the truth, and for the truth a man must lay down his life.

Let all those, therefore, who in defining the truth, though it be but in one corner and with regard to one arid thing, to them seeming dead, invoke the patronage of this very national Englishman. His fun, his courage, his scholarship will be of advantage to them; so also will his sanctity—if in such days as these I may speak of such a quality.

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Source: Hilaire Belloc: One Thing and Another: A Miscellany from His Uncollected Essays, chosen by Patrick Cahill. Chap. XXI. Hollis & Carter, 1955.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

"Mohammed had preached a powerful new heresy"

One Mohammed had preached in the desert Arabia (outside the effective boundaries of the Empire) a powerful new heresy, to which he and his followers converted by force and zeal the pagan Arabs and which was to prove violently attractive to great masses of the Eastern population.

This new movement was, on the religious side, an intense simplification of the body of Catholic doctrine, eliminating nearly all that had seemed difficult to the untrained masses: the Trinity, the Incarnation, above all the mysterious Sacrament, and therefore the priesthood. On the political side it got rid of the burden of debt, the shame and suffering of slavery, the toils of an elaborate legal system and the lawyers who battened on it. It also ministered to the jealousy felt by the outlying parts for the despotic central power at Constantinople. The message of Mohammed promised easy thinking on the religious side, freedom on the political; freedom not only to the individual but to local groups — the Egyptians, for instance. The individual was relieved from his debts and from legal constraint; the social groups from their domination by a distant imperial government with its arbitrary rule and its heavy weight of taxation.

The new creed came to be called Islam, that is, “The Acceptation,” and has retained that name. Those who followed it were the “True Believers.” We call them also, from the name of the great heresiarch who launched their effort, “Mohammedans.” We also talk of the culture they founded as the “Moslem” world.

Not long after Mohammed’s death, in A.D. 634, his Arab followers broke forth, a swarm of eager desert cavalry sweeping northward and making converts wherever it passed. Those who joined it, if they were slaves or debtors, recovered their freedom and could henceforward boast their independence of the imperial government. They were the more enthusiastic for their new creed because it seemed to them so simple of comprehension after the Christian affair of sacrifice and renunciation and difficult strain: its hierarchy of priests and its mysteries. The new enthusiasm, sweeping the Oriental world much as Communism proposes to sweep the Western world today, enthusiastically preached one God, It revered Jesus Christ as the greatest of the prophets but rejected the complications of the Trinity. It revered our Lady highly — far the highest among women, but not the Mother of God. It offered comprehensive worship to the Deity, but it swept away the Mass with its Communion and all the rest. It had hardly a ritual; only prayers that all could follow, and a social system which men could easily adopt and find just.

Within a century of the first change, the soldiery of this new thing, Islam, had mastered and garrisoned and were governing Syria, North Africa, and much the most of Spain. They had even for a moment thrust into the heart of France, whence they were thrown back to the Pyrenees. They had thus dismembered the Roman Empire of the East and had overrun North Africa and Spain in the West. There remained, of course, in the countries they thus garrisoned and held, a great number (for generations a large majority) of subject orthodox Christians; but these pretended to no political power. They paid tribute to their Arabian masters and those of their own fellows who in great numbers has joined themselves to these new Arabian masters. Through these Christians and renegades the old culture went on, for they could build and they could write and calculate and do all that had been done by civilised men. But political power was in the hands of the Moslems soldiery and their chiefs.

Islam mastered not only Syria and Egypt and North Africa and most of Spain but rapidly extended itself eastward, seizing the very fertile plain and wealth of Mesopotamia, flooding with its religion and arms Persia and the tangle of mountains on the borders of India and up into the steppes of Asia; and here it was, on this Asiatic border (which Western soldiers had visited after the campaigns of Alexander but had never colonised nor transformed in their own image), that Islam, this new power and expansion, did a fateful thing: it introduced the Mongol: it opened the gates to a racial force of murder and destruction.

The Mongol of the Asiatic steppes, nomadic hordes of mounted men, horrible in the eyes of all Westerners, detestable to the European, were favoured by Islam in the following fashion:

The original Arabian conquest looked to be short-lived. As a political power it had no sense of unity save such as was given by a simple, widespread religion. Native commanders here and there took over the government of towns and districts, fought each other and combined in alliances that dissolved almost as soon as made: hardly a lifetime’s lease. There was a moment when it seemed as though the power of Islam would break up into an anarchy, making possible the recovery of Africa and the Near East by the Christian power of the Empire seated in the Imperial City on the Bosphorus. Suddenly out of the steppes of Asia, came one band, then another, of these hideous, swift, fighting, mounted Mongol hordes, brought up wholly to combat, archers and swordsmen, pouring out in clouds.

Centuries earlier these same Asiatics had forced their way into the heart of Europe. They had been beaten back. Many of them remained in permanent fashion in the neighbourhood of the Black Sea and the Middle Danube, where today the word “Hungary” perpetuates their name of Huns. But here they never governed; in the East they did. They mastered, by their fighting quality, their physical endurance, and their ruthlessness, the central power of the Moslem world. They became the bodyguard and afterwards the supplanters of the caliphs of Baghdad. They were the real power, acting in the name of the Commander of the Faithful. That is the prime business which led at last to the Crusades: the Mongol, the Turk.

The issue to be joined was the issue between the main bulwark of Christendom on the east, Byzantium, and the pressure of these savage horsemen upon its frontiers.

Byzantium had held out bravely. Asia Minor had been stoutly maintained and great Christian armies were recruited from it. But the pressure on its eastern border was constant and severe. That border might crack and let in the Turkish torrent of death.

It is remarkable that the Mongol hordes, from their first wave onward, had fitted in at once with the social structure and creed of Islam. Why and how this was so had never been explained. It has not even been described. Their own bloody or absurd superstitions, barbaric as they were, without substance or philosophy or reason, yielded at once to the religious spirit of the society into which they came. They became not only Mohammedan, but fanatically Mohammedan, and through their military power what had already begun to be the decline of Mohammedanism recovered.

The best general name for them is the name “Turk.” They had no conscious unity; they came in bands fighting for immediate gain. They were possessed, as the original Arabian horsemen out of the desert had not been possessed, of a fierce lust for cruelty and mere destruction, and the letting in of that spirit and all its armed agents was the great and almost mortal wound delivered indirectly by Islam to the civilisation of Europe. They burnt and unroofed and massacred everywhere in their campaigns. Successive arrivals of them were to continue in that mood which was inherited from them by their mixed descendants in whom the Mongol language (Turkish) remained, though the Mongol features and habit of body had been transformed by perpetual intermarriage. Their function was the function of the Destroyer, and from the first of the great names among them, Attila, to the very last modern massacre of remaining Christians in Asia Minor, they have brought with them nothing constructive — only death.

But their fighting power, though it was merely murderous, was of such energy that for centuries it continued dominant, and even so late as little more than two hundred years ago it had penetrated to the heart of Europe, besieged Vienna, and threatened to reach the Rhine. Of these successive Turkish waves, of this Mongol abomination to which the original Arabian Islam had opened the door, the one which here concerns us was the Seljuk, for this it was, coming forward out of Asia in the eleventh century, which almost overwhelmed what was left of the Christian East and which provoked the Crusade.

The Seljuk clan took their name from a chieftain three generations back from the moment of which I am here writing, the last part of the eleventh century. He had extended his power as the leader of all those bands one after the other until starting from the stepped around the Aral Inland Sea, he had built up a sort of loose empire based on nothing more than the terror of small but fierce garrisons, the commanders of which soon quarrelled among themselves but, in coalition, could bring forward formidable armies.

Being the latest of the Mongol hordes, the Seljuk Turks had least benefitted by intermixture with more civilised people. They were still dwarfish, slant-eyed Tartars, crouched on the saddle of their small, swift horses, riding with the absurd short stirrup of nomads, kneeling over the horse’s neck, as do (or did) certain jockeys of our own day.

Their tactics were simple. Thousands of them came on, not in a close line but in a sort of thin extended flock, galloping closely at top speed, shooting with their short bows from the saddle then wheeling back again, while a second relay did just the same thing and then a third. Only when the enemy thus attacked was thoroughly shaken would they all come forward and charge with the curved, thin-bladed, very sharp sword, which, with their light bows, was their chief weapon. Mounted, mobile, and not dependent upon exact dressing, they would in this final charge work to envelop either wing of the strict, dense Byzantine line.

During the tenth century, at the end of what was for the West of Europe the Dark Ages (the generations when the Swabian German kings were wrangling for control of the Papacy, and when the Scandinavian pirates came so near to destroying our civilisation in northern Gaul and in Britain), Imperial Byzantium, the last heir of the Roman Empire, the last island of the ancient culture, passed through a period of military and political resurrection. These had not only stood up to the pressure of Islam on the eastern borders, they had found it possible to carry the counter-offensive into what had so long been Mohammedan territory. Christendom under their leadership pushed back Islam in spite of successive waves of Turkish invasion. The Turks would raid into Byzantine territory in Asia Minor but never came near to establishing a permanent foothold — until one fatal day, the day of Manzikert.

A Byzantine counterattack upon Mohammedanism even reached halfway down the Syrian coast. There was a moment when it threatened Mesopotamia.

But the strength of this revival in the Christendom if the East, in the Christians of the Greek rite, was sapped by political intrigue at the centre. That political intrigue was mixed up with an “intellectual” disease comparable to the movement called today in Europe by the barbaric names of “Pacifism,” and “Anti-Militarism.” The coming into power of such politicians as batten upon movements of that kind undermined the whole new strength which the Macedonian Emperors had built up. The last fighting emperor could no longer be certain of proper support in the filed against the Turk.

They still had admirable recruiting material in what was still the numerous peasantry, and ample finance from what were still the wealthy towns of Asia Minor. Their generals and leaders in the field were drawn mainly from the great landowners of that same Anatolian land which was the bulwark of Christendom against Islam. But the politician had done his work; the armed power was sapped: a collapse must come and did. The whole situation disastrously changed in one decisive action. At Manzikert on August 19, 1071, the great-grandson of Seljuk, the Turk, Alp Arslan, struck the fatal blow.

~Hilaire Belloc: excerpt from The Crusades: The World's Debate, Ch. II.


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