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In The Great Heresies, Hilaire Belloc takes the reader on a fast and furious tour of European history seen through the lens of its chief religious conflicts - Arianism, 'Mohammedanism' (Islam), Albigensianism, the Reformation, and what he terms 'The Modern Phase.'
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The Great Heresies
Published by Immortal Books, 2018.
The Great Heresies by Hilaire Belloc. First published in 1938.
Revised 2018 edition published by Immortal Books.
Introduction | What is a Heresy?
Chapter I | Scheme of This Book
Chapter II | The Arian Heresy
Chapter III | The Great and Enduring Heresy of Mohammed
Chapter IV | The Albigensian Attack
Chapter V | What Was the Reformation?
Chapter VI | The Modern Phase
Further Reading: The Jews
WHAT IS A HERESY, AND what is the historical importance of such a thing?
Like most modern words, ‘heresy’ is used both vaguely and diversely. It is used vaguely because the modern mind is as averse to precision in ideas as it is enamored of precision in measurement. It is used diversely because, according to the man who uses it, it may represent any one of fifty things.
Today, to most people (those who use the English language), the word ‘heresy’ connotes bygone and forgotten quarrels, an old prejudice against rational examination. Heresy is therefore thought to be of no contemporary interest. Interest in it is dead, because it deals with matter no one now takes seriously. It is understood that a man may interest himself in a heresy from archaeological curiosity, but if he affirms that it has been of profound effect on history and still is, today, of living contemporary moment, he will be hardly understood.
Yet the subject of heresy in general is of the highest importance to the individual and to society, and heresy in its meaning (which is that of heresy in Christian doctrine) is of special interest for anyone who would understand Europe: the character of Europe and the story of Europe. For the whole of that story, since the appearance of the Christian religion, has been the story of struggle and change, mainly preceded by, often, if not always, caused by, and certainly accompanying, diversities of religious doctrine. In other words, ‘the Christian heresy’ is a special subject of the very first importance to the comprehension of European history, because, in company with Christian orthodoxy, it is the constant accompaniment and agent of European life.
We must begin by a definition, although definition involves a mental effort and therefore repels. Heresy is the dislocation of some complete and self-supporting scheme by the introduction of a novel denial of some essential part therein. We mean by "a complete and self-supporting scheme" any system of affirmation in physics or mathematics or philosophy or what-not, the various parts of which are coherent and sustain each other. For instance, the old scheme of physics, often called in England ‘Newtonian’ as having been best defined by Newton, is a scheme of this kind. The various things asserted therein about the behavior of matter, notably the law of gravity, are not isolated statements any one of which could be withdrawn at will without disarranging the rest; they are all the parts of one conception, or unity, such that if you but modify a part the whole scheme is put out of gear.
Another example of a similar system is our plane geometry, inherited through the Greeks and called by those who think (or hope) they have got hold of a new geometry ‘Euclidean.’ Every proposition in our plane geometry - that the internal angles of a plane triangle equal two right angles, that the angle contained in a semi-circle is a right angle, and so forth - is not only sustained by every other proposition in the scheme, but in its turn supports each other individual part of the whole.
Heresy means, then, the warping of a system by ‘exception,’ by ‘picking out’ one part of the structure and implies that the scheme is marred by taking away one part of it, denying one part of it, and either leaving the void unfilled or filling it with some new affirmation. For instance, the nineteenth century completed a scheme of textual criticism for establishing the date of an ancient document. One of the principles in this scheme is this: that any statement of the marvelous is necessarily false. "When you find in any document a marvel, vouched for by the supposed author of that document, you have a right to conclude" (say the textual critics of the nineteenth century, all talking like one man) "that the document was not contemporary, was not of the date which it is claimed to be." There comes along a new and original critic who says, "I don't agree. I think that marvels happen, and I also think that people tell lies." A man thus butting in is a heretic in relation to that particular orthodox system. Once you grant this exception a number of secure negatives become insecure.
You were certain, for instance, that the life of St. Martin of Tours, which professed to be by a contemporary witness, was not by a contemporary witness because of the marvels it recited. But if the new principle be admitted, it might be contemporary after all, and therefore something to which it bore witness, in no way marvelous but not found in any other document, may be accepted as historical.
You read in the life of a Thaumaturge that he raised a man from the dead in the basilica of Vienna in A.D. 500. The orthodox school of criticism would say that the whole story being obviously false, because marvelous, it is no evidence for the existence of a basilica in Vienna at that date. But your heretic, who disputes the orthodox canon of criticism, says, "It seems to me that the biographer of the Thaumaturge may have been telling lies, but that he would not have mentioned the basilica and the date unless contemporaries knew, as well as he did, that there was a basilica in Vienna at that date. One falsehood does not presuppose universal falsehood in a narrator." There might even come along a still bolder heretic who should say, "Not only is this passage perfectly good evidence for the existence of a basilica at Vienna in A.D. 500, but I think it possible that the man was raised from the dead." If you follow either of these critics you are upsetting a whole scheme of tests, whereby true history was sifted from false in the textual criticism of recent times.
The denial of a scheme wholesale is not heresy and has not the creative power of a heresy. It is of the essence of heresy that it leaves standing a great part of the structure it attacks. On this account it can appeal to believers and continues to affect their lives through deflecting them from their original characters. Wherefore, it is said of heresies that "they survive by the truths they retain."
We must note that whether the complete scheme thus attacked be true or false is indifferent to the value of heresy as a department of historical study. What we are concerned with is the highly interesting truth that heresy originates a new life of its own and vitally affects the society it attacks. The reason that men combat heresy is not only, or principally, conservatism - a devotion to routine, a dislike of disturbance in their habits of thought - it is much more a perception that the heresy, in so far as it gains ground, will produce a way of living and a social character at issue with, irritating, and perhaps mortal to, the way of living and the social character produced by the old orthodox scheme.
So much for the general meaning and interest of that most pregnant word ‘heresy.’
Its particular meaning (the meaning in which it is used in this book) is the marring by exception of that complete scheme, the Christian religion.
For instance, that religion has for one essential part (though it is only a part) the statement that the individual soul is immortal - that personal conscience survives physical death. Now if people believe that, they look at the world and themselves in a certain way and go on in a certain way and are people of a certain sort. If they except, that is cut out, this one doctrine, they may continue to hold all the others, but the scheme is changed, the type of life and character and the rest become quite other. The man who is certain that he is going to die for good and for all may believe that Jesus of Nazareth was Very God of Very God, that God is Triune, that the Incarnation was accompanied by a Virgin Birth, that bread and wine are transformed by a particular formula; he may recite a great number of Christian prayers and admire and copy chosen Christian exemplars, but he will be quite a different man from the man who takes immortality for granted.
Because heresy, in this particular sense (the denial of an accepted Christian doctrine) thus affects the individual, it affects all society, and when you are examining a society formed by a particular religion you necessarily concern yourself to the utmost with the warping or diminishing of that religion. That is the historical interest of heresy. That is why anyone who wants to understand how Europe came to be, and how its changes have been caused, cannot afford to treat heresy as unimportant. The ecclesiastics who fought so furiously over the details of definition in the Eastern councils had far more historical sense and were far more in touch with reality than the French sceptics, familiar to English readers through their disciple Gibbon.
A man who thinks, for instance, that Arianism is a mere discussion of words, does not see that an Arian world would have been much more like a Mohammedan world than what the European world actually became. He is much less in touch with reality than was Athanasius when he affirmed the point of doctrine to be all important. That local council in Paris, which tipped the scale in favor of the Trinitarian tradition, was of as much effect as a decisive battle, and not to understand that is to be a poor historian.
It is no answer to such a thesis to say that both the orthodox and the heretic were suffering from illusion, that they were discussing matters which had no real existence and were not worth the trouble of debate. The point is that the doctrine (and its denial) were formative of the nature of men, and the nature so formed determined the future of the society made up of those men.
There is another consideration in this connection which is too often omitted in our time. It is this: That the skeptical attitude upon transcendental things cannot, for masses of men, endure. It has been the despair of many that this should be so. They deplore the despicable weakness of mankind which compels the acceptation of some philosophy or some religion in order to carry on life at all. But we have here a matter of positive and universal experience.
Indeed, there is no denying it. It is mere fact. Human society cannot carry on without some creed, because a code and a character are the product of a creed. Actually, though individuals, especially those who have led sheltered lives, can often carry on with a minimum of certitude or habit upon transcendental things, an organic human mass cannot so carry on. Thus, a whole religion sustains modern England, the religion of patriotism. Destroy that in men by some heretical development, by ‘excepting’ the doctrine that a man's prime duty is towards the political society to which he belongs, and England, as we know it, would gradually cease and become something other.
Heresy, then is not a fossil subject. It is a subject of permanent and vital interest to mankind because it is bound up with the subject of religion, without some form of which no human society ever has endured, or ever can endure. Those who think that the subject of heresy may be neglected because the term sounds to them old-fashioned and because it is connected with a number of disputes long abandoned, are making the common error of thinking in words instead of ideas. It is the same sort of error which contrasts America as a ‘republic’ with England as a ‘monarchy,’ whereas, of course, the Government of the United States is essentially monarchic, and the Government of England is essentially republican and aristocratic. There is no end to the misunderstandings which arise from the uncertain use of words. But if we keep in mind the plain fact that a state, a human policy, or a general culture, must be inspired by some body of morals, and that there can be no body of morals without doctrine, and if we agree to call any consistent body of morals and doctrine a religion, then the importance of heresy as a subject will become clear, because heresy means nothing else than, "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."
The study of successive Christian heresies, their characters and fates, has a special interest for all of us who belong to the European or Christian culture, and that is a reason that ought to be self-evident - our culture was made by a religion. Changes in, or deflections from, that religion necessarily affect our civilization as a whole.
The whole story of Europe, her various realms and states and general bodies during the last sixteen centuries has mainly turned upon the successive heresies arising in the Christian world.
We are what we are today mainly because no one of those heresies finally overset our ancestral religion, but we are also what we are because each of them profoundly affected our fathers for generations, each heresy left behind its traces, and one of them, the great Mohammedan movement, remains to this day in dogmatic force and preponderant over a great fraction of territory which was once wholly ours.
If one were to catalogue heresies marking the whole long story of Christendom the list would seem almost endless. They divide and subdivide, they are on every scale, they vary from the local to the general. Their lives extend from less than a generation to centuries. The best way of understanding the subject is to select a few prominent examples, and by the study of these to understand of what vast import heresy may be.
Such a study is the easier from the fact that our fathers recognized heresy for what it was, gave it in each case a particular name, subjected it to a definition and therefore to limits, and made its analysis the easier by such definition.
Unfortunately, in the modern world the habit of such a definition has been lost; the word ‘heresy’ having come to connote something odd and old-fashioned, is no longer applied to cases which are clearly cases of heresy and ought to be treated as such.
For instance, there is abroad today a denial of what theologists call ‘dominion’ - that is the right to own property. It is widely affirmed that laws permitting the private ownership of land and capital are immoral; that the soil of all goods which are productive should be communal and that any system leaving their control to individuals or families is wrong and therefore to be attacked and destroyed.
That doctrine, already very strong among us and increasing in strength and the number of its adherents, we do not call a heresy. We think of it only as a political or economic system, and when we speak of Communism our vocabulary does not suggest anything theological. But this is only because we have forgotten what the word theological means. Communism is as much a heresy as Manichaeism. It is the taking away from the moral scheme by which we have lived of a particular part, the denial of that part and the attempt to replace it by an innovation. The Communist retains much of the Christian scheme - human equality, the right to live, and so forth - he denies a part of it only.
The same is true of the attack on the indissolubility of marriage. No one calls the mass of modern practice and affirmation upon divorce a heresy, but a heresy it clearly is because its determining characteristic is the denial of the Christian doctrine of marriage and the substitution therefore of another doctrine, to wit, that marriage is but a contract and a terminable contract.
Equally, is it a heresy, a "change by exception," to affirm that nothing can be known upon divine things, that all is mere opinion and that therefore things made certain by the evidence of the senses and by experiment should be our only guides in arranging human affairs. Those who think thus may and commonly do retain much of Christian morals, but because they deny certitude from Authority, which doctrine is a part of Christian epistemology, they are heretical. It is not heresy to say that reality can be reached by experiment, by sensual perception and by deduction. It is heresy to say that reality can be attained from no other source.
We are living today under a regime of heresy with only this to distinguish it from the older periods of heresy, that the heretical spirit has become generalized and appears in various forms.
It will be seen that I have, in the following pages, talked of "the modern attack" because some name must be given to a thing before one can discuss it at all, but the tide which threatens to overwhelm us is so diffuse that each must give it his own name; it has no common name as yet.
Perhaps that will come, but not until the conflict between that modern anti-Christian spirit and the permanent tradition of the Faith becomes acute through persecution and the triumph or defeat thereof. It will then perhaps be called anti-Christ.
The word is derived from the Greek verb
, which first meant "I grasp," or "I seize," and then came to mean "I take away."
I PROPOSE IN WHAT FOLLOWS to deal with the main attacks upon the Catholic Church which have marked her long history. In the case of all but the Muslim and the modern confused but ubiquitous attack, which is still in progress, I deal with their failure and the causes of their failure. I shall conclude by discussing the chances of the present struggle for the survival; of the Church in that very civilization which she created and which is now generally abandoning her.
There is, as everybody knows, an institution proclaiming itself today the sole authoritative and divinely appointed teacher of essential morals and essential doctrine. This institution calls itself the Catholic Church.
It is further an admitted historical truth, which no one denies, that such an institution putting forth such a claim has been present among mankind for many centuries. Many through antagonism or lack of knowledge deny the identity of the Catholic Church today with the original Christian society. No one, however hostile or uninstructed, will deny its presence during at least thirteen or fourteen hundred years.
It is further historically true (though not universally admitted) that the claim of this body to be a divinely appointed voice for the statement of true doctrine on the matters essential to man (his nature, his ordeal in this world, his doom or salvation, his immortality, etc.) is to be found affirmed through preceding centuries, up to a little before the middle of the first century.
From the day of Pentecost some time between A.D. 29 and A.D. 33) onwards there has been a body of doctrine affirmed - for instance, at the very outset, the Resurrection. And the organism by which that body of doctrine has been affirmed has been from the outset a body of men bound by a certain tradition through which they claimed to have the authority in question.
Hence, we must distinguish between two conceptions totally different, which are nevertheless often confused. One is the historical fact that the claim to Divine authority and Infallible doctrine was and is still made; the other the credibility of that claim.
Whether the claim be true or false has nothing whatever to do with its historical origin and continuity; it may have arisen as an illusion or an imposture; it may have been continued in ignorance; but that does not affect its historical existence. The claim has been made and continues to be made, and those who make it are in unbroken continuity with those who made it in the beginning. They form, collectively, the organism which called itself and still calls itself ‘The Church.’
Now against this authoritative organism, its claim, character and doctrines, there have been throughout the whole period of its existence continued assaults. There have been denials of its claim. There have been denials of this or that section of its doctrines. There has been the attempted replacing of these by other doctrines. Even attempted destruction of the organism, the Church, has repeatedly taken place.
I propose to select five main attacks of this kind from the whole of the very great - the almost unlimited - number of efforts, major and minor, to bring down the edifice of unity and authority.
My reason for choosing so small a number as five, and concentrating upon each as a separate phenomenon, is not only the necessity for a framework and for limits, but also the fact that in these five the main forms of attack are exemplified. These five are, in their historical order, 1. The Arian; 2. The Mohammedan; 3. The Albigensian; 4. The Protestant; 5. One to which no specific name has as yet been attached, but we shall call for the sake of convenience ‘the Modern.’
I say that each of these five main campaigns, the full success of any one of which would have involved the destruction of the Catholic Church, its authority and doctrine among men, presents a type.
The Arian attack proposed a change of fundamental doctrine, such that, had the change prevailed, the whole nature of the religion would have been transformed. It would not only have been transformed, it would have failed; and with its failure would have followed the breakdown of that civilization which the Catholic Church was to build up.
The Arian heresy (filling the fourth, and active throughout the fifth, century), proposed to go to the very root of the Church's authority by attacking the full Divinity of her Founder. But it did much more, because its underlying motive was a rationalizing of the mystery upon which the church bases herself: The Mystery of the Incarnation. Arianism was essentially a revolt against the difficulties attaching to mysteries as a whole though expressing itself as an attack on the chief mystery only. Arianism was a typical example on the largest scale of that reaction against the supernatural which, when it is fully developed, withdraws from religion all that by which religion lives.
The Mohammedan attack was of a different kind. It came geographically from just outside the area of Christendom; it appeared, almost from the outset, as a foreign enemy; yet it was not, strictly speaking, a new religion attacking the old, it was essentially a heresy; but from the circumstances of its birth it was a heresy alien rather than intimate. It threatened to kill the Christian Church by invasion rather than to undermine it from within.
The Albigensian attack was but the chief of a substantial number, all of which drew their source from the Manichean conception of a duality in the Universe; the conception that that good and evil are ever struggling as equals, and that Omnipotent Power is neither single nor beneficent. Closely intertwined with this idea and inseparable from it was the conception that matter is evil and that all pleasure, especially of the body, is evil. This form of attack, of which I say the Albigensian was the most notorious and came nearest to success, was rather an attack upon morals than upon doctrine; it had the character of a cancer fastening upon the body of the Church from within, producing a new life of its own, antagonistic to the life of the Church and destructive of it - just as a malignant growth in the human body lives a life of its own, other than, and destructive of, the organism in which it has parasitically arisen.
The Protestant attack differed from the rest especially in this characteristic, that its attack did not consist in the promulgation of a new doctrine or of a new authority, that it made no concerted attempt at creating a counter-Church but had for its principle the denial of unity. It was an effort to promote that state of mind in which a Church in the old sense of the word - that is, an infallible, united, teaching body, a Person speaking with Divine authority - should be denied; not the doctrines it might happen to advance, but its very claim to advance them with unique authority. Thus, one Protestant may affirm, as do the English Puseyites, the truth of all the doctrines underlying the Mass - the Real Presence, the Sacrifice, the sacerdotal power of consecration, etc. - another Protestant may affirm that all such conceptions are false, yet both these Protestants are Protestant because they communicate in the fundamental conception that the Church is not a visible, definable and united personality, that there is no central infallible authority, and that therefore each is free to choose his own set of doctrines.
Such affirmations of disunion, such denial of the claim to unity as being part of the Divine order, produced indeed a common Protestant temperament through certain historical associations; but there is no one doctrine nor set of doctrines which can be affirmed as being the kernel of Protestantism. Its essential remains the rejection of unity through authority.
Lastly there is that contemporary attack on the Catholic Church which is still in progress and to which no name has been finally attached, save the vague term modern. I should have preferred, perhaps, the old Greek word alogos; but that would have seemed pedantic. And yet it is a pity to have to reject it, for it admirably describes by implication the quarrel between the present attackers of Catholic authority and doctrine, and the tone of mind of a believer. Antiquity began by giving the name ‘alogos’ to those who belittled or denied, though calling themselves Christians, the Divinity of Christ. They were said to do so from lack of ‘wit,’ in the sense of ‘fullness of comprehension,’ ‘largeness of apprehension.’ Men felt about this kind of rationalism as normal people feel about a color-blind man.
One might also have chosen the term ‘Positivism,’ seeing that the modern movement relies upon the distinction between things positively proved by experiment and things accepted upon other grounds; but the term ‘Positivism’ has already a special connotation and to use it would have been confusing.
At any rate, though we have as yet perhaps no specific name, we all know the spirit to which I refer: That only is true which can be appreciated by the senses and subjected to experiment. That can most thoroughly be believed which can most thoroughly be measured and tested by repeated trial. What are generally called ‘religious affirmations’ are, always presumably, sometimes demonstrably, illusions. The idea of God itself and all that follows on it is man-made and a figment of the imagination. This is the attack which has superseded all the older ones, which is now gaining ground so rapidly and whose votaries feel (as did in their hey-day all the votaries of the earlier attacks) an increasing confidence of success.
Such are the five great movements antagonistic to the Faith. To concentrate our attention upon each in turn teaches us in separate examples the character of our religion and the strange truth that men cannot escape sympathy with it or hatred of it.
To concentrate on these five main attacks has this further value, that between them they seem to sum up all the directions from which the assault can be delivered against the Catholic Faith.
Doubtless in the future there will be further conflict, indeed we can be sure that it is inevitable, for it is of the nature of the Church to provoke the anger and attack of the world. Perhaps we shall have later to meet the heathen from the East, or perhaps, earlier or later, the challenge of a new system altogether - not a heresy but a new religion. But the main kinds of attack would seem to be exhausted by the list which history has hitherto presented. We have had examples of heresy, working from without and forming a new world in that fashion, of which Islam is the great example. We have had examples of heresy at work attacking the root of the Faith, the Incarnation, and specializing upon that - of which Arianism was the great example. We have had the growth of the foreign body from within, the Albigenses, and all their Manichean kindred before and after them. We have had the attack on the personality, that is the unity, of the Church - which is Protestantism. And we now behold, even as Protestantism is dying, the rise and growth of yet another form of conflict - the proposal to treat all transcendental affirmation as illusion. It would seem as though the future could hold no more than the repetition of these forms.
The Church might thus be regarded as a citadel presenting a certain number of faces between the angles of its defenses, each face attacked in turn, and after the failure of one attack its neighbor suffering the brunt of the battle. The last assault, the modern one, is more like an attempt to dissolve the garrison, the annihilation of its powers of resistance by suggestion, than an armed conflict. With this last form the list would seem exhausted. If or when that last danger is dissipated, the next can only appear after some fashion of which we have already had experience.
I may be asked by way of postscript to this prelude why I have not included any mention of the schisms. The schisms are as much attacks upon the life of the Catholic Church as are the heresies; the greatest schism of all, the Greek or Orthodox, which has produced the Greek or Orthodox communion, is manifestly a disruption of our strength. Yet I think that the various forms of attack on the Church by way of heretical doctrine are in a different category from the schisms. No doubt a schism commonly includes a heresy, and no doubt certain heresies have attempted to plead that we should be reconciled with them, as we might be with a schism. But though the two evils commonly appear in company, yet each is of a separate sort from the other; and as we are studying the one it is best to eliminate the other during the process of that study.
I shall then in these pages examine in turn the five great movements I have mentioned, and I will take them in historical order, beginning with the Arian business - which, as it was the first, was also, perhaps, the most formidable.
ARIANISM WAS THE FIRST of the great heresies.
There had been from the foundation of the Church at Pentecost A.D. 29 to 33 a mass of heretical movements filling the first three centuries. They had turned, nearly all of them, upon the nature of Christ.
The effect of our Lord's predication, and Personality, and miracles, but most of all His resurrection, had been to move everyone who had any faith at all in the wonder presented, to a conception of divine power running through the whole affair.
Now the central tradition of the Church here, as in every other case of disputed doctrine, was strong and clear from the beginning. Our Lord was undoubtedly a man. He had been born as men are born, He died as men die. He lived as a man and had been known as a man by a group of close companions and a very large number of men and women who had followed Him and heard Him and witnessed His actions.
But - said the Church - He was also God. God had come down to earth and become Incarnate as a Man. He was not merely a man influenced by the Divinity, nor was He a manifestation of the Divinity under the appearance of a man. He was at the same time fully God and fully Man. On that the central tradition of the Church never wavered. It is taken for granted from the beginning by those who have authority to speak.
But a mystery is necessarily, because it is a mystery, incomprehensible; therefore man, being a reasonable being, is perpetually attempting to rationalize it. So, it was with this mystery. One set would say Christ was only a man, though a man endowed with special powers. Another set, at the opposite extreme, would say He was a manifestation of the Divine. His human nature was a thing of illusion. They played the changes between those two extremes indefinitely.
Well, the Arian heresy was, as it were, the summing up and conclusion of all these movements on the unorthodox side - that is, of all those movements which did not accept the full mystery of two natures.
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