Writings by Dr. John C. Rao

A “Stupid Nineteenth Century”?

(The Angelus, November, 2022.)

Léon Daudet (1867-1942), one of the most important figures in Charles Maurras’ (1868-1952) monarchist movement, l’Action Française, wrote a book in 1922 entitled The Stupid Nineteenth Century. Although he was himself tainted by some of the tempting flaws of the period in question, he certainly seems to me to have been correct in many of his complaints concerning the appallingly arrogant socio-political absurdities resulting from the intellectual reductionism that came to dominate the western world in the 1800s. Forces from a variety of European countries played central roles in developing what was an ever more mechanist, secularist “spirit of the times”; a Zeitgeist that in English speaking countries is most popularly associated with the long reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901).

The passion-focused “Romantic” direction of the overall naturalism of the Enlightenment, which seemed triumphant earlier in the century, began to cede pride of place to its more mechanist version from the 1830s onwards underneath the hammer blows of the “dismal science” of liberal “Scientific Capitalism” and the Utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). Disillusionment with lofty ideals of all kinds then became general after the failures of the Revolutions of 1848, which had at first been hailed throughout Europe as promising a bright new “Springtime of the Peoples”.

Post-1848 salvos against the Romantic outlook were launched in the name of the brutally earth-bound literature of writers ranging from Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) with Madame Bovary (1857) to Emile Zola (1840-1902) through his twenty-volume Les Rougon-Maquard series (1871-1893), and Thomas Hardy’s (1840-1928) description of the destructiveness of a class-structured society in Jude the Obscure (1895). Meanwhile, Charles Darwin’s (1809-1882) reduction of all of life to biological evolution, mutation, and survival of the fittest was translated by thinkers such as Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) into an infallible guideline for all manner of social and political questions.

There are many people, from the era in question to the present, who have interpreted the latter part of the century in terms of an existential battle for the soul of the western world. On the one side they have placed a “good”, “progressive” England (followed by the United States) and the movements inspired by Anglo-Saxon bourgeois liberalism seemingly everywhere. On the other, they place---and lament---a reactionary authoritarianism, increasingly represented by a wicked Prussian militarism whose spirit of “Blood and Iron” power politics was well expressed by Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898) and certain aspects of the German Empire to which the wars he unleashed gave birth in 1871.

But despite this all too influential Manichean depiction of the struggle of the century as one of obvious liberal benevolence versus palpable backward-looking evil, I think that Daudet’s accusation of arrogant, naturalist, and secularist stupidity can be applied to both camps simultaneously. For these supposedly opposing contestants for the soul of the century merely focused on two different aspects of the same obsession with the “Promethean lust for material power that serves as the deepest common drive behind all modern Western cultures” (R. Gawthrop, Pietism and the Making of Eighteenth Century Prussia, Cambridge, 1993, p. 284).

Such lust was expressed in the Anglo-Saxon---or rather Anglo-American---influenced manner through a “promethean” individualism that also in no way excluded adulation of an openly militaristic imperialism to help its cause along. It was articulated in Prussian/German form through a “promethean” exaltation of an increasingly reckless militarist attitude that was still nevertheless very often accompanied and shaped by more “peaceful” but ultimately equally materialist bourgeois, liberal, “Victorian” economic and moral guidelines. Both saw the opening of a new railroad line as a proof positive of man’s “spiritual” progress, baptizing it as such through the maintenance of a connection with a “Christianity” displaying less and less interest in the message of Christ.

Moreover, the most prominent socio-political enemies of both of these approaches in the Marxist camp were just as “promethean” in their thirst for reductionist, ideological---and therefore “stupid”---naturalist answers to the dilemmas of human existence. The only difference in their outlook was that they openly rejected the role of things spiritual to which their liberal and militarist enemies ostentatiously still tipped their hat, while in practice ignoring their substantive claims where money and power might be at stake. In short, the “flesh” of the nineteenth century---once again, especially after 1848---appeared to be more than willing, while its supernatural spirit was exposed as being correspondingly weak and even totally non-existent.

Not that this dismal progress of an ever more mechanistic civilization pleasing to individuals, militarists, and Marxists pursuing Francis Bacon’s (1561-1626) “knowledge in the service of power” went unchallenged. The anti-Bentham, anti-Utilitarian novels of the “Victorian” Charles Dickens (1812-1870), ranging from A Christmas Carol (1843) with Scrooge to Hard Times (1854) and the educational theories of Professors Gradgrind and Choakumchild indicate as much. So does Matthew Arnold’s (1822-1888) anguish over the dead end to which nineteenth century materialism was leading as can be seen in his poem, Dover Beach (1867).

Although not nearly as blazing as in the pre-1848 years, the fires of an anti-mechanist passion and mystery as fueled by the Romantic Movement were still being regularly stoked. These also warmed the worlds of literature, music, and the visual arts. Those fires burned in hearts eager to break through ironclad natural and cultural laws in movements baptized with the names of “Symbolism”, “Decadence”, “Impression”, “Expressionism”, and, when Romantic composers began to push tonality to its utmost extremes, in “Atonalism” as well. True, Romanticism’s seemingly more “spiritual” critique of the materialism of the era---like that of the Anarchists, who were often influenced by it---was also generally crippled by an inability to break out of its own “dumb”, reductionist obsession with the earth-bound individual and the satisfaction of his personal desires. A lust for power over words, canvases, plaster, and keyboards, albeit non-technological, was, sadly, all too clearly at work here as well.

Nevertheless, there were many notable exceptions to this rule. This was particularly the case with Romantics whose initial intellectual imprisonment in a universe they thought to be filled with innumerable clashing passions and desires inexorably led them to deny the existence of any overriding “natural law”. Once they saw that this inevitably produced nihilistic despair, a significant number of them began to question whether their underlying naturalist Enlightenment presuppositions were themselves erroneous, requiring an opening to the possibility that earthly life could only be fully understood and brought to fruition through the message of Creation by a God beyond nature. It became clear to them that here was no escape from an existential choice. It was either Christian hope or the bottom of the Nihilist abyss into which the brilliant Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) saw the “stupid nineteenth century” pushing its hapless successor; a century that would be the bloodiest and most catastrophically destructive in history: as the 1900s indeed proved themselves to be.

Hence, a steady stream of expressions of profound religious sentiments coming from anti-mechanist, anti-nihilist Romantics, along with Anarchists with certain Romantic tendencies. Edgar Degas (1834-1917), one of the most prominent Impressionist painters, is one example from the artistic realm. Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), Pierre Proudhon (1809-1865), Paul Verlaine (1844-1896), and Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891) are but a few of the more troubling writers representatives of this development, which also effected the substantive conversions of other fin de siècle representatives of self-proclaimed literary “decadence”. One could do worse here than call upon the memory of Ernest Dowson (1867-1900), a friend of Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898) and Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), other anguished souls who eventually made the same leap that he did, in a letter dated 27 August 1890, a year before his conversion to Roman Catholicism:

You ought to have come to N.D. de France tonight. There was a procession after Vespers of the Enfants de Marie. . . . It was a wonderful and beautiful situation: the church—rather dark the smell of incense—the long line of graceful little girls all with their white veils over their heads—banners—: a few sad faced nuns—and last of all the priest carrying the Host, vested in white—censed by an acolyte who walked backwards—tossing his censer up “like a great gilt flower”: and to come outside afterwards—London again—the sullen streets and the sordid people and Leicester Square: Really a most pictorial evening. . . . Children’s voices exercised in the “Ave Maria Stella,” are the most beautiful things in the world. What a monstrous thing a Protestant country is! (Ernest Dowson, The Letters of Ernest Dowson, ed. Desmond Flower and Henry Maas, Cassell, 1967, pp. 172-173.)

In short, it cannot be denied that there were impressive religious lights at the end of the tunnel of nineteenth century stupidity towards which those who had eyes to see could and did run. Those lights led Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881) back to Russian Orthodoxy and the Christian vision, although admittedly as a follower of the spirituality of the Philokalia, which I think opens up a path to a certain type of mischief making that has had its impact on the development of progressive Catholicism. They brightened up the highway built upon more solid doctrinal rock on which a number of Protestants of formerly purely ethics-focused Pietist backgrounds then journeyed. But, most importantly, they served as flares guiding men across the nineteenth century no man’s land firmly onto the path to Rome.

At this point it is absolutely necessary to underline a final condemnation of “the stupidity of the nineteenth century”; one, however, that is totally unjust and also highly prejudicial to the defense of the True Faith in our own day, when it is in the greatest need of protection than ever before in its entire history. It comes from those progressive Catholics, their vision deeply rooted democratizing visions of Romantic Enlightenment origin developed in the 1800s by the Abbé de Lamennais (1782-1854) and his followers. They insist that the stupidity of the nineteenth century was manifest not in their own naturalist errors, but in the mainstream thought and practices of a Roman Church of the 1800s: precisely that thinking and those practices that lit the light enticing naturalists away from their tunnel vision and nihilist despair.

According to the myth that these progressives have created, a nineteenth century tsunami of dull-witted obscurantism drowned everything truly Christian, particularly from the reign of Blessed Pius IX onwards. Only their takeover of the Church of Christ in the 1960s, now ready to seal its consequences through the victory of “the synodal way”, has enabled Catholics to walk the apostolic path upright once again. So successful have they been in perpetrating this myth that it is almost impossible to convince people to reexamine what nineteenth century Catholicism actually did achieve. Its full history has been liquidated. To hate the “intransigents” who are said to have been responsible for this obscurantism is to know them; to know them in their fullness is beside the point and utterly forbidden.

Hence, no one is permitted to learn of what nineteenth century Catholicism really accomplished, which, first and foremost, was the recognition of the need to fight the ravages of a “stupid eighteenth century”, whose imprisonment of the western mind in the tunnel of naturalism had been voluntarily and apologetically accepted by much of the higher clergy and influential laity. For, strange as it may seem to those whose access to the truth has been cut off by the progressive myth, the chief characteristic of mainstream Catholic life of the 1800s was a general rediscovery of the entirety of the Church’s historical past, which had been more and more suppressed as the 1700s wreaked its blinding havoc.

With this nineteenth century rediscovery came the joy that could not help but accompany the recapturing of that complete sense of the primacy of the supernatural guidance that could only be obtained through exploiting the rich doctrinal and devotional life represented by the whole of the history of the Mystical Body of Christ. This was now seen, in ever greater clarity, as not only being essential for the sake of eternal salvation, but also for the possibility of living a fully human natural existence, both as individuals and as a Christian political and social order.

It was this joy, to take but one example, that inspired two “eminent Victorians” that the progressive Catholic myth try to depict as being hopeless opposites: Cardinals St. John Henry Newman (1801-1890) and Henry Edward Manning (1808-1892). Yes, there is no denying that these were two quite distinct and often clashing personalities with different chief concerns and practical labors. Nevertheless, both loved and sought to contribute to an understanding of the mystery of the Mystical Body of Christ in their own way, the former through the history of doctrine, the latter through the strengthening of Church structure and the promotion of social justice. And both, in their preaching, their writing, and their organizational and episcopal endeavors, vigorously fought the real stupidity of the nineteenth century---an arrogant naturalism that could guarantee nothing but the “abolition of man”.

Still, how an someone know this unless he actually consults a record declared unworthy of investigation by a progressive Inquisition seemingly more powerful every day? I personally, had discussions while at Oxford with a progressive Catholic don who magisterially condemned La Civiltà Cattolica, one of the most important nineteenth century organs of the wicked forces in question while I was enjoying the privilege of cutting open large numbers of the thousand pages of its volumes for the fifteen year period from 1850-1865---and, thus, presumably, becoming the first man actually to read them in the university library.

I would not be surprised if the same were still true for students in other libraries today. Thankfully, they have only to “look” to discover the truth, as one of the other Catholic heroes of the “stupid, naturalist, nineteenth century” whom I repeatedly cite in these pages joyously insisted. “The supernatural is finished”, Louis-Édouard Cardinal Pie (1815-1880), speaking at the grotto at Lourdes, quoted nineteenth century man as gloating. “Well, look here, then! The supernatural pours out, overflows, sweats from the sand and from the rock, spurts out from the source, and rolls along on the long folds of the living waves of a river of prayers, of chants and of light” (J.M. Mayeur, ed., Histoire du Christianisme, Desclée, Thirteen Volumes, 1990-2002, XI, 350).

It may have been the stupidest of centuries---although the next and the one thereafter have given it more than a run for the money---but it possessed its glories as well!

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