Note for August civic holiday

“Any one reading the chronicles will find that since the birth of Christ there is nothing that can compare with what has happened in our world during the last hundred years. Never in any country have people seen so much building, so much cultivation of the soil. Never has such good drink, such abundant and delicate food, been within the reach of so many. Dress has become so rich that it cannot in this respect be improved. Who has ever heard of commerce such as we see it today? It circles the globe; it embraces the whole world! Painting, engraving — all the arts — have progressed and are still improving. More than all, we have men so capable, and so learned, that their wit penetrates everything in such a way, that nowadays a youth of twenty knows more than twenty doctors did in days gone by.”

This paean to globalization was (purportedly) written by Martin Luther, in celebration of the century that lay behind the moment of his own arrival on earth — the last full century in which the Catholic Church had her monopoly on the affection and consent of Western Christendom. And while I, too, am impressed by the achievements of the fifteenth century, I think the passage overstates them. In particular I note that a youth of twenty is a youth of twenty: now and in all times likely to be a fool, regardless of education.

(Perhaps the fault lies partly with the Benedictine, Gasquet, through whom the quote passed. He had the unscholarly habit of improving his quotations.)

Yet prior to the Reformation, the five-hundredth anniversary of whose launch our strange pope intends to puff in Germany next year, a youth of twenty had opportunities that were not yet closed. An English youth, for instance, in possession of universal Latin, could travel to any continental university and pursue his studies there; he could wander freely from one famous centre of learning to another. Vice versa, the universities of Oxford and Cambridge welcomed youth from all over the Continent, and sometimes beyond. Suddenly, with the Reformation, the gates swung shut, and Europe was divided into dominational zones, so that the youth who crossed the boundaries would not be welcome home. Wars, bloody wars, would further divide a Continent whereon Lutheran, Calvinist, and Catholic offered different “takes” on indivisible truth, and their intellectual energies were now expended on smearing one another.

The sixteenth was the century of the great narrowing, and the rise of the modern nation state; the great triumph of politics over charity, humility, and reason; a great age for martyrs and massacres, exceeded only by the centuries that followed. Henceforth the old containable dynastic conflicts, in which faith was not at stake, would mutate into the new ideological wars, ascending towards the Total War conceived in the Enlightenment era. Yet it was already a new age: of smashed monasteries and cathedrals, torched libraries and the destruction of the Catholic artistic and philosophical heritage — wherever the puritan devils in human flesh could lay hands upon it.

But also, a century of steady material advance, not only in the implements of torture and homicide, but in provision for men’s bodily comforts. Life expectancy might be everywhere shrinking (for a host of reasons), but while men lived, those sufficiently shrewd in politics could enjoy luxuries their ancestors had denied themselves, or been indifferent to. For as the property of the Church was seized and “privatized,” a New Class built themselves extravagant estates, using monasteries for quarries. Over centuries to come, by the “trickle down” effect, men were gradually liberated from the ancestral fear of God, as from earthly participation in the heavenly Gloria.

Did the technological acceleration of the later Middle Ages make such developments inevitable? This would be the argument of the historical materialists, the sycophants of “progress” in both Marxist and Liberal (“capitalist”) trains. One thing “evolves” into another, with them, and everything in the universe has a purely material cause. Darwin, to my mind, has significance not as biologist, but as synthesizer of the emergent cosmology, in which everything of interest — all beauty, truth, and goodness — can be explained away; can be rendered glib and meaningless; and the world is made safe for the atheism that grew out of the scandal of warring ecclesiastical tribes.

It will never be safe, however. Not even “technological progress” is safe, for while cumulative (it would have proceeded in Europe with or without the Reformation, though possibly slower in the absence of so much military patronage), it depends on continuity of use. It lasts only so long as its beneficiaries can sustain the superficial order through which it is transmitted. The ruin of many civilizations which enjoyed technological progress in their time is spread through the archaeological record which our own technological progress has enabled us to see, though not to learn from.

More fundamentally, a civilization is held together by intangibles; by what is called faith, or even “good faith.” Man may be ever so inventive — primitive man as well as urban man — but his fate is tied less to inventions, than to purposes for which they are applied. We use ours only to pleasure ourselves, and the squalour and ugliness of our lives portends the catastrophe that awaits us. Our bone, our spiritual marrow, deliquesces. Men who are “meaningless” soon expire.

Conversely, not even our decline is safe. For as long as that spark in man, which first lifted him above the condition of the animals, continues to be implanted by God, there is chance of recovery and renewal. And that spark, once implanted, is ineradicable. We might almost call it an imposition on our freedom: that men cannot satisfy themselves forever with the life of swine.