Guest Column: The New Paganism

Hilaire Belloc generously agreed to pen an essay on the most recent topics, ripped from current headlines, for my journal today.

That is did so precisely one ninety-two years ago, in 1931, is a testament to the width of his worldview, its universal application, which grants him prescience akin to prophecy.

One might even call such a universal worldview catholic.

— The New Paganism —

by Hilaire Belloc

Our civilization developed as a Catholic civilization. It developed and matured as a Catholic thing. With the loss of the Faith it will slip back not only into Paganism, but into barbarism with the accompaniments of Paganism, and especially the institution of slavery. It will find gods to worship, but they will be evil gods as were those of the older savage Paganism before it began its advance towards Catholicism.

The road downhill is the same as the road up the hill. It is the same road, but to go down back into the marshes again is a very different thing from coming up from the marshes into pure air. All things return to their origin. A living organic being, whether a human body or a whole state of society, turns at last into its original elements if life be not maintained in it. But in that process of return there is a phase of corruption which is very unpleasant.

That phase the modern world outside the Catholic Church has arrived at.

We call Paganism an absence of the Christian revelation. That is why we distinguish between Paganism and the different heresies; that is why we give the name of Christian to imperfect and distorted Christians, who only possess a part of Catholic truth and usually add to it doctrines which are contradictory of Catholic truth. Moreover, the word “Christian” though so vague as to be dangerous, has this much reality about it, that there is something different between the general atmosphere or savor of any society or person or literature which can be called Christian at all and those which are wholly lacking in any part of Christian doctrine. For a Christian man or society is one that has some part of Catholicism left in him.   But when every shred of Catholicism is lost we call that state of things “Unchristian.”

Now, it must be evident to everybody by this time that, with the attack on Faith and the Church at the Reformation, the successful rebellion of so many and their secession from United Christendom, there began a process which could only end in the complete loss of all Catholic doctrine and morals by the deserters. That consummation we are today reaching. It took a long time to come about, but come about it has. We have but to look around us to see that there are, spreading over what used to be the Christian world, larger and larger areas over which the Christian spirit has wholly failed; is absent. I mean by “larger areas” both larger moral and larger physical areas, but especially larger moral areas. There are now whole groups of books, whole bodies of men, which are definitely Pagan, and these are beginning to join up into larger groups. It is like the freezing over of a pond, which begins in patches of ice; the patches unite to form wide sheets, till at last the whole is one solid surface. There are considerable masses of literature in the modern world, of philosophy and history [and especially of fiction], which are Pagan and they are coalescing—–to form a corpus of anti-Christian influence. It is not so much that they deny the Incarnation and the Resurrection, not even that they ignore doctrine. It is rather that they contradict and oppose the old inherited Christian system of morals to which people used to adhere long after they had given up definite doctrine.

This New Paganism is already a world of its own. It bulks large, and it is certainly going to spread and occupy more and more of modern life. It is exceedingly important that we should judge rightly and in good time of what its effects will probably be, for we are going to come under the influence of those effects to some extent, and our children will come very strongly under their influence. Those effects are already impressing themselves profoundly upon the Press, conversation, laws, building, and intimate habits of our time.

There are two ways in which this is happening; according to whether the New Paganism is at work in a Catholic or a non-Catholic country. It is happening in Catholic countries by the separation of a Pagan set from the rest of the citizens. In those countries the full body of Christian doctrine, that is, Catholicism, puts up a permanent and successful resistance. Its consequences in morals are accepted by masses of people who do not practice the Catholic religion or who are indifferent to its doctrines, and this resistance shows no sign of weakening; not everywhere are the governments of Catholic countries in sympathy with Catholic tradition, however vague, but in these countries the laws defending morals and the general habits of people outside the Pagan set may properly be called anti-Pagan.

But though the way in which the New Paganism is establishing itself differs according to whether the society in which it takes root was originally Catholic or Protestant, it is everywhere of much the same tone, and its effects are very similar, whether you find them in Italy or in Berlin, in an English novel or a French one; and the marks peculiar to Paganism are very clearly apparent in all.

Of these marks the two most prominent are, first, the postulate that man is sufficient to himself—–that is, the omission of the idea of Grace; the second [a consequence of this], despair.

The New Paganism is the resultant of two forces which have converged to produce it: appetite and the sense of doom. Of the forces which impelled it into being, the appeal of the senses to be released from restriction through the denial of the Faith is so obvious that none will contest it, the only controversy being upon whether this removal of restriction upon sensual enjoyment, declining every form of reticence and exercising the fullest license for what is called “self-expression,” is of good or of evil effect upon the individual and upon society. The Christian scheme is still close enough even to the most Pagan of the New Pagans to be familiar, and the social atmosphere which it created still endures as a memory, or as a rejected experience, in their lives. That social atmosphere insisted on a number of restrictions. Of course, no society could exist in which there were not a great number of restrictions, but the restrictions imposed by Christian morals were severe and numerous, and most of them are meaningless to those who have abandoned Christian doctrine, because morals are the fruit of doctrine.

It is not only in sexual matters [the first that will be cited in this connection], but in canons of taste, in social conduct, traditional canons of beauty in verse, prose, or the plastic arts that there is outbreak. The restriction and, therefore, the effort necessary for lucidity in prose, for scansion in poetry and, according to our tradition, for rhyme in most poetry—–the restrictions imposed by reverence for age, for certain relationships such as those between parent and child, for the respect of property as a right—–and all the rest of it are broken through. A license in act and a necessarily more extended license in speech are therefore the mark of the New Paganism.

But to this negative force must be added a positive one to explain what is happening, and that positive one is a philosophy which may be called Monist, or Fatalist, or Determinist, or by one of any number of names all signifying either the absence of conscious Will from the universe or the presence of only one such Will therein.

The true origin of this attitude of mind in modern times is the powerful genius of Calvin, though those who most suffer his influence would most strenuously deny their subjection to it, partly because they have never read him, much more because they do not see it in their daily papers, and most of all because Calvin is vaguely mixed up in their minds with an interest in theology, which science is thought to have exploded—–there is also perhaps some little distaste for Calvin because he was a Frenchman, but as that deplorable fact is never emphasized it cannot count for much. Calvin, then, is at the fountainhead of this new sense of Doom. But behind Calvin the fatalist attitude is an attitude as old, of course, as the hills. It is a temptation to which the human intellect has yielded on important occasions from as far back as we can trace its recorded experience and definitions. To the mind in that mood all things are part of an unchangeable process following from cause to effect immutably.

What else may have produced this positive force of fatalism, itself a main factor in the new Paganism, I will not here discuss; I have said more about it in my essay on “Science as the Enemy of Truth.” I am here only concerned with observing its presence; but I will say this much: that one very powerful agent in producing this mood is the desire to be rid of responsibility.

A direct consequence of this philosophy, though again it is a consequence furiously denied by its victims, is the elimination of right and wrong. Our actions do not depend upon our own wills; those who think that they proceed from an act of the will suffer an illusion; human action, from what used to be called the noblest self-sacrifice to the basest commercial swindling, is the inevitable result of forces over which the perpetrator has no control—–or, as Dean Swift has admirably put it in that great masterpiece, The Tale of a Tub, “It was ordained some three days before the Creation that my nose should come against this lamp post.”

It is true that the professors of this creed are illogical; for no one gives louder vent to moral indignation than themselves, especially when they are denouncing the cruelties or ineptitudes of believers in moral responsibility, but then, as the denial of the human reason is also part of their creed, or, at any rate, the denial of its value as the instrument for the discovery of truth, they will not be seriously disturbed by the incongruity of their outbursts; for what is incongruous or illogical is not to them blameworthy or ridiculous—–rather in their mouths does the word “logical” connote something absurd and empty.

Now, it is with this element of Monism that there enters a highly practical consideration in our survey of the New Paganism. It is this: the New Paganism is in process of building up a society of its own, wherein will be apparent two features novel in what used to be Christendom. Those two features have already appeared and will spread each in its own sphere, the one in the sphere of law—–that is, of coercive enactment—–the other in the sphere of status, that is, in the organization of society.

In the first sphere, that of positive law, the New Paganism has already begun to produce and cannot but produce more and more a mass of restrictive legislation.   It is a paradox, of course, that such restrictive legislation should be bred from a mood which proceeded originally from rebellion against restriction, but the fact is undoubted—–it is before all our eyes. With the denial of the will there necessarily appears the questioning of any content to the word “freedom.” In a Christian society you were free to do a number of acts, for some of which you could be punished under Christian laws, for others of which no state or other authority could punish you, but which were opposed to the social atmosphere in which you lived. But the New Paganism will tend, not to punish, but to restrain with fetters; to prevent action, to impose coercive bonds. It will be at issue more and more with human dignity. It has already, in certain provinces [the Calvinist canton of Vaud in Switzerland is an example], enacted what is called “the sterilization of the unfit” as a positive law. It has not yet enacted, though it has already proposed and will certainly in time enact, legislation for the restriction of births. Not only in these, but in many other departments of life, one after another, will this mechanical network spread and bind those subject to it under a compulsion which cannot be escaped.

In the sphere of social texture the New Paganism must also inevitably and of its nature, wherever it gives its tone to society, reintroduce that status of slavery from which our civilization sprang and which only very gradually disappeared under the influence of the Christian ethic.

This revival of slavery must not be confused with the spread of mechanical restriction applicable to all. They are cousins, but they are not identical. Slavery is the compulsion of one man or set of men to work for the benefit of others. It is a compulsion to work, backed by the arms of the State. The way has been prepared for it by that already half-Pagan thing—–industrial capitalism, of which I write on a later page; and the steps whereby the New Paganism will achieve slavery develop naturally from industrial capitalism. It is a thesis I have developed at greater length in my book, The Servile State; I here only touch on it as a main social result to which the New Paganism will give birth. That this novel status will bear the name “slavery” I doubt; for it is in the nature of mankind, when they are proceeding to call that good which once they called evil, to avoid the old evil name.   In the same way fornication is not called fornication but “companionate marriage.”

Probably slavery, when it comes, will be called “permanent employment”; and a century hence, a rich man will say to his friends, talking of his new gardener: “He’s a permanent. Paid for him at the Bureau only last Thursday.”

In the form of security and sufficiency for the men who labor to the profit of others, and in the form of registering and controlling them in the form of an organized public supervision of their labor, slavery is already afoot. When slavery shall succeed it will succeed through the acquiescence of those who will be enslaved, for they will prefer sufficiency and security with enslavement, to freedom, responsibility, insecurity and the threat of insufficiency.

As yet, during the transition, there is an illogical, and therefore an ephemeral mixture of the old and the new. The old freedom sufficiently survives in the mind of the wage earner to give him the illusion that, while accepting insurance and maintenance from the capitalist state, he can still be a full citizen. He thinks he can have his cake and eat it too. He is mistaken. The great capitalists who procured these regulations from the politicians knew what they were at. They were catching their proletariat in a net, and now they hold it fast.

The New Paganism will then, I say, give us, in those societies over which it shall obtain the control of the mind, increasing restriction against general freedom and increasing restriction against the particular freedom which left some equality between the man who worked and the man who exploited him under a contract—–it will replace that idea of contract by the older idea of status. In saying this, my object is to point out that the discussion of the New Paganism is not a mere academic discussion, but, as I have called it, one of immediate practical importance. If we adopt it we must be prepared for its consequences; if we abhor those consequences, it is our business to fight the New Paganism vigorously.

And here I have, as on so many other points, a quarrel with those moderns who will make of religion an individual thing [and no Catholic can evade the corporate quality of religion], telling us that its object being personal holiness and the salvation of the individual soul, it can have no concern with politics. On the contrary, the concern of religion with politics is inevitable.   Not that the Christian doctrine and ethic rejects anyone of the three classical forms of government—–democracy, aristocracy or monarchy, or any mixture of them—–but that it does reject certain features in society which are opposed to the Christian social products, and are opposed to them because they spring from a denial of free will.

The battle for right doctrine in theology is always also a battle for the preservation of definite social things [institutions, habits] following from right doctrine; nor is there anything more contemptible intellectually than the attitude of those who imagine that because doctrine must be stated in abstract terms it therefore has no practical application nor any real fruit in the real world of real men. Contrariwise, difference in doctrine is at the root of all political and social differences; therefore is the struggle for or against true doctrine the most vital of struggles.

But apart from these aspects of the New Paganism there is another which I confess I happen to feel myself closely concerned with. It is the connection between the New Paganism and that lure of the antique world, which is of such power over all generous minds, and especially upon those who are in love with beauty.

It is in my judgment an argument which has certainly been of powerful effect in the immediate past, and will continue for some time longer, even in our declining culture, to be of powerful effect, that Paganism is to be sought, respected and achieved because our race, before the advent of the Catholic Church, wrote what it did, built what it did, chiseled what it did, and everywhere created the loveliness to which we Christians are the heirs. Yet this attraction of the antique world I conceive to be a dangerous decoy, leading us on to things very different from and very much worse than that classic Paganism from which we all descend.

I know that to affirm the connection between the New Paganism and a wistfulness for the Old will sound in most modern ears fantastic, because most modern people who fall into the New Paganism know nothing about the Paganism of antiquity; there never was a time when educated men had a larger proportion among them ignorant of Latin and Greek, since first Greek was taught in the universities of Western Europe; and there was certainly never a time during the last two thousand years when the mass of people, the workers, were given less knowledge of the past and were less in sympathy with tradition.

Nonetheless, it is true that the idea of Pagan antiquity as a model runs through the whole new movement. With a few scholars it is at first-hand, with most people at second, third, fourth or fifth; but it is there with everyone. There is a general knowledge that men were once free from the burden of Christian duty, and a widespread belief that when men were free from it, life was better because it was more rational and directed to things which they could all be sure of and test for themselves, such as the health of the body and physical comforts and pleasant surroundings, and the rest. To direct life again to these objects, making man once more sufficient to himself and treating temporal good as the supreme good, is the note of the New Paganism.

Now what seems to me by far the most important thing to point out in this connection is that the underlying assumption in all this is false. The New Paganism differs, and must differ radically, from the Old; its consequences in human life will be quite different; presumably much worse, and increasingly worse.

The reason of this is that you cannot undo an experience. You cannot cut off a man or a society from their past, and the world of Christendom has had the experience of the Faith. When it moves away from the Faith to return to Paganism again it is not doing the same thing, not producing the same emotions, not passing through the same process, not suffering the same reactions, as the old Paganism did, which was moving towards the Faith. It is one thing to go south from the Arctic towards the civilized parts of Europe; it is quite another thing to go north from the civilized parts of Europe to the Arctic. You are not merely returning to a place from which you started, you are going through a contrary series of emotions the whole time.

The New Paganism, should it ever become universal, or over whatever districts or societies it may become general, will never be what the Old Paganism was. It will be other, because it will be a corruption. The Old Paganism was profoundly traditional;   indeed, it had no roots except in tradition. Deep reverence for its own past and for the wisdom of its ancestry and pride therein were the very soul of the Old Paganism; that is why it formed so solid a foundation on which to build the Catholic Church, though that is also why it offered so long and determined a resistance to the growth of the Catholic Church. But the New Paganism has for its very essence contempt for tradition and contempt of ancestry. It respects perhaps nothing, but least of all does it respect the spirit of “Our fathers have told us.”

The Old Paganism worshipped human things, but the noblest human things, particularly reason and the sense of beauty. In these it rose to heights greater than have since been reached, perhaps, and certainly to heights as great as were ever reached by mere reason or in the mere production of beauty during the Christian centuries.

But the New Paganism despises reason, and boasts that it is attacking beauty. It presents with pride music that is discordant, building that is repellent, pictures that are a mere chaos, and it ridicules the logical process, so that, as I have said, it has made of the very word “logical” a sort of sneer.

The Old Paganism was of a sort that would be open, when due time came, to the authority of the Catholic Church. It had ears which at least would hear and eyes which at least would see; but the New Paganism not only has closed its senses, but is atrophying them, so that it aims at a state in which there shall be no ears to hear and no eyes to see.

The one was growing keener in its sight and its hearing; the other is declining towards a condition where the society it informs will be blind and deaf, even to the main natural pleasures of life and to temporal truths. It will be incapable of understanding what they are all about.

The Old Paganism had a strong sense of the supernatural. This sense was often turned to the wrong objects and always to insufficient objects, but it was keen and unfailing; all the poetry of the Old Paganism, even where it despairs, has this sense. And you may read in those of its writers who actively opposed religion, such as Lucretius, a fine religious sense of dignity and order. The New Paganism delights in superficiality, and conceives that it is rid of the evil as well as the good in what it believes to have been superstitions and illusions.

There it is quite wrong, and upon that note I will end. Men do not live long without gods; but when the gods of the New Paganism come they will not be merely insufficient, as were the gods of Greece, nor merely false; they will be evil.  One might put it in a sentence, and say that the New Paganism, foolishly expecting satisfaction, will fall, before it knows where it is, into Satanism.