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The Great Heresies

Were you to bother researching this extremely learned and extremely opinionated man, you would often find him accused of being a bit too, well, orthodox. Unlike his genial contemporary, Belloc was not someone who made much room in heaven, or, for that matter, on earth, for people who did not share his views on life, God, right, wrong, and a few other important things. He has been charged with antagonizing non–Catholics with his effusive and bull-like prose, as well as relegating non-Christians (a term I use ironically since he insists there is no such thing as a “Christian”; there are “Catholics” and everyone else) to levels of salvation, etcetera, quite below what he expects of himself and others who properly impale heresies right through the sternum. Since I don’t doubt that he would have considered my beliefs to err too greatly on the side of ecumenicalism, it is with a chastened but unscarified eye that I read and enjoyed this book for what it is worth and what it can bring us in terms of historical perspective. That it is one-sided, consistent, and unforgiving, you may rest assured; that it sparkles with radiant insight into many a human topos, you may find more than a little fascinating.

The scope, indeed the sweep of a small work like The Great Heresies cannot possibly detail these alleged crimes with sufficient accuracy, which, I suspect, is one of Belloc’s methods of downplaying their historical vigor. He has other works – especially on his unending nightmare, the Reformation, which he blames for everything and anything – that treat the topics with more academic precision. Apart from a definition of heresy, the current book has a list of the five main offenders: the Arian heresy, Islam, the Albigensians, the Reformation, and what he terms “the Modern Phase,” which is nothing more than the post-Darwinian reliance on empiricism and so-called hard science. But we should begin in any case with that all-important definition. According to Belloc, a heresy is “the proposal of novelties in religion by picking out from what has been the accepted religion some point or other, denying the same or replacing it by another doctrine hitherto unfamiliar" (these days we might say “customization”). If you find something faulty in his reasoning, some gaping hole in his logic, you will be surprised to learn how assailable Belloc’s arguments are throughout his text. He abides by that most commendable of principles that only people who believe in something fully and completely cannot defend themselves with any margin of success. Should you disagree with Belloc’s initial premises, you will shake your head at every single observation that follows; but if you like what you hear, you will be enthralled by the cold logic of his math and smooth pavings of his causeways. Since Islam and Protestantism are attacked unfairly and far too succinctly to justify a rebuttal by me or anyone else, and the Modern Phase has devolved into such flummery that I will let Belloc alone crush it into gunpowder, a brief look at the two lesser known heresies, the Arian heresy and the Albigensians, will give us an idea of Belloc’s style and substance.

The Albigensians, now in retrospect the minimus on heresy’s fist, were a mass movement in the mid–twelfth century, the likes of which the Church had not seen in quite a while. There is ample information available on their objections to the Church, as well as the vicious campaign that dammed their rebellious flood. Belloc draws attention, however, to the events at Muret on September 13, 1213:
Muret is a name that should always be remembered as one of the decisive battles of the world. Had it failed, the campaign would have failed. Bouvines would probably never have been fought and the chances are that the French monarchy itself would have collapsed, splitting up into feudal classes, independent of any central lord ... With it our culture of the West would have sunk, hamstrung to the ground.
This assessment, made about seventy years ago, seems overblown even at the time of its publication. But it is indicative of Belloc’s coercive spirit that wants us to know the hardships his faith has sustained to reach through the centuries down at long last to him, its herald. He supports, for example, the First Inquisition, which “arose from the necessity of extirpating the remnants of the disease” of the Albigensian heresy, but acknowledges “the sporadic cruelty of earlier Christian times.” When discussing the Manichean dualism of the fourth century Arian revolt, which appears almost as distant now as Christ’s time itself, he attributes to this movement
The factor which is called today in European politics “Particularism,” that is, the tendency of a part of the state to separate itself from the rest and to live its own life. When this feeling becomes so strong that men are willing to suffer and die for it, it takes the form of a Nationalist revolution.
Catholic, he points out like any good etymologist, is from the Greek word for “general” or “universal,” and it should know no boundaries, be they national or economic. There should be one general and universal culture, as there should be one religion from which “cultures spring,” because “the vital force which maintains any culture is its philosophy, its attitude towards the universe; the decay of a religion involves the decay of the culture corresponding to it.” And the vital force which maintains Catholic culture? A “certain indissoluble Trinity of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness,” which is a nice way of co-opting the Ancient Greeks into our ways and means.

About decay, as about many other things in this book, Belloc is right; he is perhaps wrong in his refusal to broaden his etymology to include other cultures who may not immediately identify with the straits through which his faith has sailed. Belloc is now seen as prescient for his warnings about the modern re-emergence of Islam, to which he claims Catholics have fallen inferior in their faith. Despite that nothing would ever bring him to reconsider the manifestoes of that faith, should one plod on with no corollaries and theorems that might aid in making sense of modernity as reflected through the prism of thousand-year-old truths?  Absorption by acceptance not subjugation; confederacy by trust not loyalty; compassion for differences, not similarities. But I do not want to rewrite Belloc’s book, just encourage its deliberation.

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