Quas primas

Lately, the centenaries of events leading into the lizard pit of the First World War have been much on my mind. This is thanks partly to the nice people at the Daily Telegraph, in England, who have been putting the whole year’s run of their newspaper, from 1914, up on the Internet in facsimile, day by day. On many levels it is instructive reading, for a creature mired in 2014. For instance, we learn what idiots people were, in fairly comprehensive detail; and must have been, well beforehand. This is always good to know. It is one of the most useful lessons of history: that, in the main, people are idiots. And just as travelling the world opens our eyes, on return, to the peculiarities of our own culture, travelling time helps to free us from chronological provincialism. It is a pity the Telegraphers did not put up their run for 2014, however, back in 1914. It could have served their readers back then as a terrible warning.

Yet a hundred years is, as the old papers also show, not that far away. Rather it is uncomfortably close, as we see in the case of malicious Serbian idiots, still celebrating the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, and thus all the bloodshed that followed from it. We were in rapid transit, at that time, from what I call “modernity” — dating back to Luther, or perhaps Columbus, or perhaps Gutenberg — to what I call “post-modernity.” Which is to say, the same spool of string, but now horribly knotted, gooed, shredded, and snaking into the bababulla, as we say in Siamese. (The term is more evocative than our disyllable, “insane.”) The act of descending through those trenches into Hell — by men in their millions — had much to do with it. And then, the act of learning nothing from the experience, in the spirit of Versailles — where the boules were simply set up for another round of world-cup pétanque.

Or put this another way: I assign, arbitrarily to the year 1914, that point in history at which the possibilities of “Renaissance” modernity became totally exhausted, so that only men who were mentally unsound (from shell shock, perhaps, or the post-war influenza) could wish to take “progress” even one inch farther. But it was hardly the end of the world. For instance, “Western Civ” did not end, completely, until the 10th of August, 1969.

(Nothing of any significance happened that day. I’m simply counting from the moment I looked over the Atlantic from a cliff near New Waterford, Cape Breton, anno aetatis sixteen, and realized that it was salt water all the way to Ireland; and desert all the way behind me, to the corpse of Sharon Tate.)


For the purposes of my politics, I realized recently, I missed the sedecentenary (sixteen hundred years) of the publication of De Civitate Dei, by Aurelius Augustinus, bishop of Hippo in North Africa (since fallen to the Saracens). That was in 2010. To say nothing of the 500th anniversary of its first appearance in print, thanks to Conrad Sweynheym and Arnold Pannartz, at Subiaco (near enough Rome; they were German printers summoned by the Benedictine monks, who launched roman as opposed to blackletter type). That was in 1967.

There is much more to be said about this book, The City of God as we call it in English, which I recommend to gentle Catholic reader, if he wants to think through his own politics. I came close to weaving it into my last post, but it was already getting too long.

More often read than the Confessiones (first printed at Strasbourg, 1470), Augustine’s manual on the political interface between Heaven and Earth had already been, for a thousand years, the most important single standard reference for all Western Christian rulers. It was bedside reading for Charlemagne, and I should think almost every Holy Roman Emperor. It told them — in five “books” or long sections about the pagan Romans, five more on the Greek philosophers, then twelve on time and eternity in the Bible — how things are, and thus how things should be. It made brilliantly clear that no Heaven could be created on Earth. But the two mingle here, in the hearts of men, and it would actually be possible to improve quite considerably the conditions in which men lived, if they discovered some humility, and began to acknowledge the unapproachable authority of God, over the do-it-yourself authority of Man.

Beginning in the XVIIth century, and continuing through the XVIIIth, modern men “of the Enlightenment” reversed this instruction, and “democracy” today is the result of their endeavours. The very notion of a theocratic order was overturned, in the course of establishing the only possible alternative: a totalitarian order. But not by the first Protestant reformers. (Calvin, for instance, cites Augustine with approval many thousand times.)

The sans-culotte philosophers did not argue with Augustine, for after all, Augustine had anticipated all of their arguments and utterly demolished them. Instead, they pretended he had never existed. Or that he didn’t mean what he said. Or that he was irrelevant. (Similarly, the philosophers did not argue with Thomas Aquinas, since Thomas could expose their ludicrous premisses. Instead they pretended he had never existed; that nothing had existed; that nothing had happened; that everything was dark, all the way back to Cicero.)

The event from which De Civitate Dei drew its occasion — the sack of Rome by the army of that semi-Christianized Goth, Alaric, in August of 410 (after eight hundred years of “Roman exceptionalism”) — stands as another of those plausible  temporal boundaries, in this case between true “ancient and modern.” In particular, as many writers before me have noticed (e.g. Swift understands it, in his Battle of the Books), we read classical authors with a consciousness that they are exotic, full of traps such as words that have quite different connotations in our modern languages. But in Augustine we suddenly find an author who uses them with our associations, who often sounds accessibly like “one of us.” That is because he invented us; invented “the West”; invented innumerable things that even the incendiaries of the Enlightenment took for granted (and thus ignored). It is the deeper “modernity” which our ancestors understood — insofar as they were actually acquainted with Augustine — the “New Testamental” modernity. He is in this sense the first full Modern, for he lifts the Catholic thinking of his age decisively free of Pagan Antiquity. He writes the Christian “Declaration of Independence” — as I once put it, trying to explain his rôle to my-fellow-Americans.

It thus behooves us to read him, to return to our foundations; or even to begin to understand the nature of what we call “Western Civ.” (Which may not actually be dead; which may be only in a coma.) There are more than a thousand years of “middle ages” to explore, between say 410 and say 1492, filled with wonderful illustrations of what could be done, rightly or wrongly, on Augustine’s Christian premisses. There are further examples, to the present day, of what is possible whenever and wherever they are partially recovered.


Item, the meaning of what I’ve just written, above, is that one must go much deeper into history, and much farther back than one hundred years, to get a conception of what a Christian politics might be like, or of what it might consist.

Item, hint, it has nothing to do with “theories.”

Item, note well, any interpreter who starts talking about “Augustine’s theory of history,” or his “theory of government,” or his “theory of natural law,” or his any-other-sort of “theory,” is talking rubbish and must be whipped and stripped of his tenure. Augustine doesn’t do “theories.” They are what comes out of the Civitas Terrena (or, Civitas Diaboli, as I prefer). Whereas, the directions we seek are to the Civitas Coelestis.

Item, conversely, the “social contract” is a theory. In other words, it is nonsense, of the kind that is continuously updated with more nonsense.

Item, FYI, Christ did not tell us how to do politics. He had more important things to discuss. He left that to Augustine, along with many other significant delegations (through Holy Church).

Item, consider, it is for the very reason that Catholics and Protestants (of some education) both refer back to Augustine, that he provides the forum for recovering a common heritage, prior to and necessarily excluding the wicked inversions of the French, British, German, Italian, and other “Enlightenments.” He provides, as it were, a leap to safety, then a way home (to Christ). Too, as it were, a way forward, unentangled with the actual “Middle Ages,” which in point of fact came after his time.

Item, to give this post a more “breaking news” quality, let me add that it was upon Augustine’s prayers to “Christ the King” that Pope Pius XI mounted the recovery of the Feast of Christ’s Kingship, as recently as 1925. The phrase itself presents the orienting principle, for an attitude towards politics that should be shared by all Catholics, indeed all Christians, and finally, all men of goodwill; all of the alternative attitudes being heretical, i.e. wrong.