Humanism, without foundation in sincere religious faith — whether Christian, or Jewish, or (sometimes) Islamic — will soon reflect the values of the Devil. This is a thought that has occurred often while reading, especially in the eighteenth century, when the ground was laid among intellectual elites for the more populist apostasy of the nineteenth century. By small increments, over a hundred years, even the most reasonable thinkers are detaching political thought and philosophy from its religious moorings in the tradition of the West — as if it were possible for a body to flourish and respire, without heart or lungs, but by brain and nerves only.
It is a long history: this destruction of the West, and of Christendom. It is necessarily so, for there was so much civilization to destroy; and still some of it is visible in ruins that remain inhabited.
Here I am not thinking of the French Revolution, or similar irruptions of fanatic violence. I am thinking instead of Lockes and Humes, Kants and Hegels, or even of what I was reading in the wee hours of summer cool this morning: an obscure English poet named William Diaper, writing a paraphrase of Oppian. It is an inverted Arcadian phantasy in which the mermen and fishes take the place of piping shepherds and their keep — or that is what plays over the surface of the witty couplets in a zoological catalogue of the underwater creatures, their loves and their fears and their fund of death. Diaper’s Nereides, read previously, set the taste for “piscatory eclogues.” He is a “water poet,” out of his boat and sinking in the deep.
Thus have I sung, how scaly Nations rove,
What Food they seek, what Pastures they approve;
How all the busy Wantons of the Seas
Soft Loves repeat, and form the new Increase. …
Diaper, a poor Anglican curate, rural and obscure in his own lifetime; a reliable Tory from the age of Queen Anne who never made court in London, but nevertheless shared in the eclipse of Tories after her demise — is a writer to whom we may turn to glean the first moments in what is called “the peace of the Augustans” — a strain in English literature which lies under “the Enlightenment,” and flows the other way. He died, fairly young, in 1717, happily before evidence of industry had begun to mar the English landscape, and to pollute the English streams.
He is subterranean, or submarine. His channel, like a buried river, resurfaces in pools, throughout the century, in gentle idyllic Thomson and the like, in Collins and Gray, in George Crabbe, finally gushing up through Wordsworth. He is small, but only because near the source. He has nothing to do with great thinkers and actors.
Why do I mention him? Gratuitously, for a start, for rivers must start somewhere; but also, I suppose, from what is implicit in his verses: and in the lines I quoted.
To our contemporary, “modern” mind, Nature might be a means towards the understanding of God, and could be studied by artists and scientists to that end. This argument is often tried, by our more desperate proselytizers: to seek God’s will through the supposed paradise of Nature. “The Heavens shew forth the glory of God, and the firmament declareth the work of His hands,” or so we might quote the Psalmist. But we will get him backwards.
To Diaper, as in the Psalms, it is through God that we can begin to know Nature. The precedence of God is fixed, in the mind that is, by heritage, Christian. The “peace” (the one that passeth all understanding, but extends to the Tory distaste for war) is communicated through the very animation of Nature, in her often telling beauty, by Nature’s God. It is that way around. It is not the other way.
Reverse this, and the beauty begins to disappear. Everything is for a use, and even the pursuit of God becomes “useful” — to some other end, such as restoring civilization. As even in Rome today, God becomes something that must be “applied” — not something lived, experienced and worshipped; not the final end in Himself. And once we are there — once we have taken for granted that God as everything else can be used for our purpose — it is, “Devil take the hindmost.” But he takes the foremost first.