Hilaire Belloc on the Supreme Confidence of the Modern Mind

Hilaire Belloc c.1908

Recently I observed that without even knowing it, I had been fumbling in the footsteps of a giant: Hilaire Belloc.

This is to say that many of the themes of this website are themes that Belloc – as I see now! – was elaborating a century ago.

There are many such themes that I will cite in the weeks to come.

But we will begin today with this particular theme: how trapped we are in the Zeitgeist.

I mean to say: our imprisonment in a modern way of thinking, which is supremely confident that it represents the be-all and end-all.

For example: how confident it is that the new values emerging from the 1960s – in contrast to many centuries of tradition in numerous cultures across the world – represent a final word, so manifestly superior to everything our ancestors cherished.

Thus not so long ago, I wrote at this weblog:

How many of us simply now accept the values of the 1960s wholesale?

A memory may illustrate what I mean by this: An American friend of mine and I are talking. And I object to something in the media.

I cannot recall what it was exactly, but I fancy it was at least somewhat sexually gratuitous.

My friend employed that well-worn cliche: ‘Well, that’s the price you pay for free speech’.

But this is a ‘’60′s head’ talking!

Western people in the 1940s and 1950s believed in free speech, too.

But something as ‘tame’ today as D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover was still illegal then.

No-one back then thought that banning (even literary) portrayals of intimate sexuality contravened free speech.

And this is to say nothing of banning the wholly unliterary and completely gratuitous!

For the pre-1960′s mind, it was near-universally accepted that freedom of speech did not include the ‘right’ to issue the horrific gorefests and pornography that have spewed forth since the 1960s.

It did not include such a ‘right’, anymore than it includes shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded arena, where people may be stampeded and smothered …

But so many of us, who are like the person I used to be – with my vaguely liberal and well-meaning ’60′s head’ – just think like my American friend.

This is to say: so many are so supremely confident that the ‘latest word’ represents the last word.

And Hilaire Belloc writes to great effect about the absurd confidence of the Zeitgeist …

And in his book Survivals and New Arrivals (reviewed here), he notes how there is nothing new in this arrogance.

For he points out how the Zeitgeist is always confident of itself – and confident that the timeless principles of the Church are wrong.

For again and again throughout history the Church finds itself at loggerheads with the Zeitgeist, a Zeitgeist, which is all-too-sure of itself (until that Zeitgeist changes!)

Meanwhile as Zeitgeists come and go, the Catholic Church holds on to her doctrine and dogma from age to age.

Belloc does not use the word ‘Zeitgeist’ in the book I refer to.

However, he means something rather similar with what he terms the ‘Main Opposition’ to the Church in various ages.

This Main Opposition of the moment has … varied astonishingly in character from one age to another; so much so that we find it hard to realise what that world must have been like in which the terrifying conqueror of Christians was the Mahommedan, or in which, some centuries later, a [Protestant] enthusiasm for general damnation and for a Moloch-God led to so intense an offensive against the Catholic Church because she defended beauty and joy.

These Main Oppositions in the past have all arisen as New Arrivals, all passed … on to a later stage of oblivion.

But each in its moment was supreme.

The Main Opposition … is characterised by its confidence.

It doubts not of its victory, for it takes its truth for granted and therefore its strength.

The Survivals [he means the previous Zeitgeists or elements of the previous Zeitgeist] are conscious of defeat … but the Main Opposition is hearty in attack.

It feels its own success to be part of the nature of things, and, to the certitude of the Catholic (which is Faith) it opposes an equal counter-certitude often so fixed and habitual that it is hardly aware of its own limited character.

Habitual and hardly aware of its own limited character … Takes its truth for granted …

I have italicised these words above dear Reader, because they express so well what I have been fumbling to say myself.

In our present Zeitgeist, we are hardly conscious at all how restricted our beliefs are to our own little slice of time …

And as Belloc makes clear, this is ever the case.

Thus he talks of a previous Zeitgeist where ‘Bible Christianity’ or Protestantism reigned supreme in the Anglosphere – and was also supremely confident in its paradigm:

Thus in the old days when the Bible Christian was a Main Opponent, he produced his creed and its conclusions with a simplicity born of complete confidence, “Your Confessional is an absurd and degrading excrescence.

It is a fraud—for I find no Confessional boxes in my family Bible.

Your doctrine of Purgatory and of an applicable fund of merit is nonsense.

It is not in my family Bible: to support it you have had to drag in Maccabees: which I see is not in my … Bible but only part of my Apocrypha.”

It was no good telling him that we didn’t accept his premises; that we did not admit the authority of a literally interpreted text of his own choosing.

He did not believe us.

He thought it impossible that to any man this Bible of his, as read by himself, should not be the final Court of Appeal.

Today that attitude looks comic.

But as Belloc points out, it was no more comic in its time, than our own Zeitgeist shall surely appear to our descendants in the future.

And as his point remains valid today – his point that I have italicised – that as Catholics, we do not accept the premises of the modern mind.

This was my point above: I do not accept the post-1960s premise of my American friend that parading gore and sex everywhere is necessary for freedom of speech.

My premises are not post-60s premises and therefore I cannot reach the same conclusions as she (unconsciously) expects me to reach.

I cannot nod my head and murmur in agreement with the conclusions drawn from modern premises, anymore than Catholics in the past could nod their head to Protestant conclusions from Protestant premises.

Writing in 1929, Belloc was also conscious of the recent demise of another fashion of the Main Opposition to the Church.

For Einstein’s revolution had recently demolished Nineteenth Century confidence in what Belloc called ‘Metric Truth’.

We saw the same thing with Scientific Negation in the hour of its greatest strength [i.e. in the Nineteenth Century].

It was quite unquestionable to it that Metric Truth alone was true.

It was the same thing with the old dead Deism in its day and with that older Protestant doctrine the Divine Right of Kings.

Now later in Survivals and New Arrivals, Belloc speaks of what he calls ‘the Modern Mind’.  We will be further unpacking precisely what Belloc meant by that in an upcoming entry – but let us say a little now.

Belloc speaks of a new authority emerging in the world, an authority based not on reason and tradition and the genius of philosophers and saints in ages past, as the Church was based, but rather on mindless repetition – or Iteration as Belloc called it.

As to the principle of blindly accepting an authority not based on reason, it runs through the whole base affair and binds it into one: Fashion, Print, Iteration, are the commanders abjectly obeyed and trusted …

[An issue] proceeds from mere assertion based on something hurriedly read or heard.

Again, this spirit, this “Modern Mind,” will refer to all transcendental belief in terms which imply the inferiority of the past to the present—that is, of other people’s epochs to the vain man’s own epoch.

It will call such faith “reactionary,” or “medieval,” or “exploded”; it will tell you that the Creed belongs to “an uncritical age,” and in saying so it will show its own ignorance of all that vast mass of intellectual work with which the past of Europe was filled, and of the almost equal mass of high modern work in defense of supernatural experience.

The color in which the whole of the “Modern Mind” is dyed is essentially stupidity: it will not think—and that is a very strange weakness for anything which calls itself a “mind”!

We will soon continue with further selections from Belloc, which I hope help, if only a little,  to not only bring his brilliance into our troubled age, but moreover help us articulate in our fumbling way what we want to say at this website.

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