THE use of analogy, which is so wise and necessary a thing in historical judgment, has a knack of slipping into the falsest forms.
When ancient civilisation broke down its breakdown was accompanied by the infiltration of barbaric auxiliaries into the Roman armies, by the settlement of Barbarians (probably in small numbers), upon Roman land, and, in some provinces, by devastating, though not usually permanent, irruptions of barbaric hordes.
The presence of these foreign elements, coupled with the gradual loss of so many arts, led men to speak of "the Barbarian invasions" as though these were a principal cause of what was in reality no more than the old age and fatigue of an antique society.
Upon the model of this conception men, watching the dissolution of our own civilisation to-day, or at least its corruption, have asked themselves whence those Barbarians would come that should complete its final ruin. The first, the least scholarly and the most obvious idea was that of the swamping of Europe by the East. It was a conception which required no learning, nor even any humour. It was widely adopted and it was ridiculous. Others, with somewhat more grasp of reality, coined the phrase "that the barbarians which should destroy the civilisation of Europe were already breeding under the terrible conditions of our great cities." This guess contained, indeed, a half-truth, for though the degradation of human life in the great industrial cities of England and the United States was not a cause of our decline it was very certainly a symptom of it. Moreover, industrial society, notably in this country and in Germany, while increasing rapidly in numbers, is breeding steadily from the worst and most degraded types.
But the truth is that no such mechanical explanation will suffice to set forth the causes of a civilisation's decay. Before the barbarian in any form can appear in it, it must already have weakened. If it cannot absorb or reject an alien element it is because its organism has grown enfeebled, and its powers of digestion and excretion are lost or deteriorated; and who ever would restore any society which menaces to fall, must busy himself about the inward nature of that society much more than about its external dangers or the merely mechanical and numerical factors of peril to be discovered within it.
Whenever we look for "the barbarian," whether in the decline of our own society or that of some past one whose historical fate we may be studying, we are looking rather for a visible effect of disease than for its source.
None the less to mark those visible effects is instructive, and without some conspectus of them it will be impossible to diagnose the disease. A modern man may, therefore, well ask where the barbarians are that shall enter into our inheritance, or whose triumphs shall, if it be permitted, at least accompany, even if they cannot effect, the destruction of Christendom.
With that word "Christendom" a chief part of the curious speculation is at once suggested. Whether the scholar hates or loves, rejects or adopts, ridicules or admires, the religious creed of Europe, he must, in any case, recognise two prime historical truths. The first is that that creed which we call the Christian religion was the soul and meaning of European civilisation during the period of its active and united existence. The second is that wherever the religion characteristic of a people has failed to react against its own decay and has in some last catastrophe perished, then that people has lost soon after its corporate existence.
So much has passion taken the place of reason in matters of scholarship that plain truths of this kind, to which all history bears witness, are accepted or rejected rather by the appetite of the reader than by his rational recognition of them, or his rational disagreement. If we will forget for a moment what we may desire in the matter and merely consider what we know, we shall without hesitation admit both the propositions I have laid down. Christendom was Christian, not by accident or superficially, but in a formative connection, just as an Englishman is English or as a poem is informed by a definite scheme of rhythm. It is equally true that a sign and probably a cause of a society's end is the dissolution of that causative moral thing, its philosophy or creed.
Now here we discover the first mark of the Barbarian.
Note that in the peril of English society today there is no positive alternative to the ancient philosophic tradition of Christian Europe. It has to meet nothing more substantive than a series of negations, often contradictory, but all allied in their repugnance to a fixed certitude in morals.
So far has this process gone that to be writing as I am here in public, not even defending the creed of Christendom, but postulating its historic place, and pointing out that the considerable attack now carried on against it is symptomatic of the dissolution of our society, has about it something temerarious and odd.
Next look at secondary effects and consider how certain root institutions native to the long development of Europe and to her individuality are the subject of attack and note the nature of the attack.
A fool will maintain that change, which is the law of life, can be presented merely as a matter of degree, and that, because our institutions have always been subject to change, therefore their very disappearance can proceed with out the loss of all that has in the past been our selves.
But an argument of this sort has no weight with the serious observer. It is certain that if the fundamental institutions of a polity are no longer regarded as fundamental by its citizens, that polity is about to pass through the total change which in a living organism we call death.
Now the modern attack upon property and upon marriage (to take but two fundamental in stitutions of the European) is precisely of this nature. Our peril is not that certain men attack the one or the other and deny their moral right to exist. Our peril rather is that, quite as much as those who attack, those who defend seem to take for granted the relativeness, the artificiality, the non-fundamental character of the institution which they are apparently concerned to support.
See how marriage is defended. To those who would destroy it under the plea of its inconveniences and tragedies, the answer is no longer made that, good or ill, it is an absolute and is intangible. The answer made is that it is convenient, or useful, or necessary, or merely traditional.
Most significant of all, the terminology of the attack is on the lips of the defence, but the contrary is never the case. Those opponents of marriage who abound in modern England will never use the term "a sacrament," yet how many for whom marriage is still a sacrament will forego the pseudo-scientific jargon of their opponents?
The threat against property is upon the same lines. That property should be restored that most citizens should enjoy it, that it is normal to the European family in its healthy state—all this we hear less and less. More and more do we hear it defended, however morbid in form or unjust in use, as a necessity, a trick which secures a greater stability for the State or a mere power which threatens and will break its opponents tyrannously.
The spirit is abroad in many another minor matter. In its most grotesque form it challenges the accuracy of mathematics: in its most vicious, the clear processes of the human reason. The Barbarian is as proud as a savage in a top hat when he talks of the elliptical or the hyperbolic universe and tries to picture parallel straight lines converging or diverging—but never doing anything so vulgarly old-fashioned as to remain parallel.
The Barbarian when he has graduated to be a "pragmatist," struts like a nigger in evening clothes, and believes himself superior to the gift of reason, or free to maintain that definition, limit, quantity and contradiction are little childish things which he has outgrown. The Barbarian is very certain that the exact reproduction in line or colour of a thing seen is beneath him, and that a drunken blur for line, a green sky, a red tree and a purple cow for colour, are the mark of great painting.
The Barbarian hopes—and that is the very mark of him—that he can have his cake and eat it too. He will consume what civilisation has slowly produced after generations of selection and effort but he will not be at the pains to replace such goods nor indeed has he a comprehension of the virtue that has brought them into being. Discipline seems to him irrational, on which account he is for ever marvelling that civilisation should have offended him with priests and soldiers.
The Barbarian wonders what strange meaning may lurk in that ancient and solemn truth, "Sine Auctoritate nulla vita".
In a word, the Barbarian is discoverable everywhere in this that he cannot make; that he can befog or destroy, but that he cannot sustain; and of every Barbarian in the decline or peril of every civilisation exactly that has been true.
We sit by and watch the Barbarian, we tolerate him; in the long stretches of peace we are not afraid.
We are tickled by his irreverence, his comic inversion of our old certitudes and our fixed creeds refreshes us: we laugh. But as we laugh we are watched by large and awful faces from beyond: and on these faces there is no smile.
We permit our jaded intellects to play with drugs of novelty for the fresh sensation they arouse, though we know well there is no good in them, but only wasting at the last.
Yet there is one real interest in watching the Barbarian and one that is profitable.
The real interest of watching the Barbarian is not the amusement derivable from his antics, but the prime doubt whether he will succeed or no, whether he will flourish. He is, I repeat, not an agent, but merely a symptom, yet he should be watched as a symptom. It is not he in his impotence that can discover the power to disintegrate the great and ancient body of Christendom, but if we come to see him triumphant we may be certain that that body, from causes much vaster than such as he could control, is furnishing him with sustenance and forming for him a congenial soil—and that is as much as to say that we are dying.
~Hilaire Belloc: This That and the Other. (1912)