VI. Enlightened Minds Versus Minds Darkened by Enlightenment
(The Remnant, March 15th, 1991)
“Once they abolished the supernatural realm and returned to pagan rationalism, the modernizers of society found that they could not stop. They had to continue their demolition, beginning with the moral truths that serve as a foundation for the existence and order of society, and then society’s whole natural organic structure….All that remains to do now is to have the individual unlearn all the essences of things, deny all the laws of logic, and burrow into the Night of complete ignorance in order that he be said to reach the apex of perfect liberty.” (La Civiltà Cattolica, I, vii, 1851, 45; II, i, 1853, 31.)Taparelli d’Azeglio and Louis Veuillot argued that the cosmic theme discernible behind the historical detail of the last seven hundred years was a struggle of the Incarnation and its consequences against a revolutionary anti-incarnational spirit. The battles in this conflict-unto-death centered round basic decisions regarding the universe, the Church, and the way to organize effective human action. Were created things precious? Did the “Whole Christ” have the power to perfect nature or no? Should this supernatural movement to perfection be supported by a variety of natural communities, authorities, and ceremonies incarnating specific limited truths about life? Or was the individual fulfilled by increasing his independence from any and all bonds in a basically evil universe? Momentous questions! And the earth would be radically different depending upon the answers given to them.
Catholics, both of our prophets complained, had been dangerously sluggish in recognizing the extent and profundity of the cosmic war raging about them. Their initial torpor helped mightily in explaining the difficulty of arousing proper understanding of the evil, even by the mid nineteenth century, after the Revolution had become “impotent to pronounce a word that was not incoherent”, unable “to move a step not disgraced by injustice and villainy”, “a lie belied solemnly by nature in all the pages of Creation” (La Civiltà Cattolica, I, iv, 1850, 29; II, iv, 1853, 258). A look at the problem of removing the blindfold from the standpoint of the search for wisdom itself will clarify exactly what they meant.
Hypostatic Law, Taparelli explained, plainly teaches us how knowledge is to be gained, enriched, and rendered effective. Its statutes indicate the Eternal Word’s respect for human nature in the Incarnation as a starting point. If the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity treated nature seriously, then we, too, must listen to the messages that created things send to our bodies, our emotions, our reason.
Let us focus on love as an example. Anyone seeking wisdom regarding what life is all about must deal with the powerful signal that nature sends us concerning love and its importance. A dilemma immediately arises, however, once we perk up our ears. We know, both from our Faith and experience, that the meat of love’s message, which must be good, is mixed together with the poison injected by the devil and human sinfulness. So how do we learn love’s truth, and tune out the static making knowledge of its lessons vain and unwise indeed? Hypostatic Law tells us that love’s message will stand a much greater chance of becoming true knowledge for us when taught within a community (analogous to the Mystical Body), backed by authority (of the sort exercised by Christ) and concrete ceremonial actions (similar to liturgies, sacramentals, and the like) impressing the teaching upon the whole man, body as well as soul.
Hence, the role of the family. Individual perceptions of the meaning of love are tested, within the discipline of family, in union not only with one’s living relatives, but with the traditions of those long dead, and their considered judgments as well. Each member of the family then learns that love entails more than mere pleasure. It is seen to be an incredibly more complicated phenomenon, requiring development of the virtues of patience, devotion, obedience, self-sacrifice, and mortification. Moreover, these manifold spiritual characteristics are not emphasized by words alone, as though human beings were merely walking brains, but are incarnated in fleshly symbols and activities: in splendid, solemn weddings; rings; gifts; public gestures of respect for elders; daily chores; dining together. When such symbols and activities become habitual, they make us feel and know the complicated character of love without having to think the whole thing through again. We are spared the effort of learning from scratch each morning everything about love that people have learned from the time of the Sumerians to the present.
What is true of love, and the vital teaching, correction, and discipline provided by the material forms—communities and their traditions—in which it has come to be incarnated, is true also of every other kind of human activity. Thinking itself, to take another example. Dedication to the work of the mind is good, but it would be disastrous to undertake it alone, outside of some community, without the aid of an authority imposing the good sense of tradition, and shriven of incarnate symbols confirming the value of scholarly methods and goals. Socrates understood this clearly when he recognized that people had to dialogue seriously with one another to clean the rubbish from their brains. So did the medievals, when they shaped and disciplined the scholarly endeavor within the physical confines of universities, deans, robes, degrees, clubs, and customs.
Still, Hypostatic Law also shows us that no amount of openness to the messages of nature, even when disciplined by communities, authorities, and ceremonies, could ever complete the search for wisdom. For it is only in submitting nature’s messages and social organs to the transcendent vision of the Whole Christ that we really gain eyes to see and ears to hear. It is only the sursum corda lifting man’s mind out of the limits of nature that enables him to see deeply into all of Creation’s nooks and crannies, and grasp its eternal significance. It is only—and this is very, very important—the confirmation that faith in the Incarnation gives to our minds that life is ordered and purposeful which enables us to treat our own thinking seriously.
Dear Remnant readers, let us pause for a moment to dwell on the incredible tact and respect that Almighty God shows to those who crucify His Son each day. In giving us Christ, in giving us the most exalted example possible of the value that He put on Creation, He provides us with the means to gain the strength we need to believe in the importance of our own knowledge! When Christ died for the world, His Death and Resurrection taught anyone interested in the search for wisdom that the knowledge he was seeking was lovable and useful and worth suffering for. Without the Incarnation, seekers of wisdom were like dancers uncertain of whether they really knew the steps that Arthur Murray’s studio had taught them and could dare to go to the party. Even the greatest of them were ultimately unsure of themselves, and watched their feet as they moved. With Christ, however, we have God’s assurance that our brains are honestly capable of accomplishing a lot of good work, and we glide across the dance floor like bons vivants at the Imperial Ball. How true to the historical record the experience of my best friend, a classicist, who became a Catholic after realizing that he needed the arguments of the Faith to convince himself and others of the importance of Greece and Rome. This is why even natural civilization was truly born “on Calvary a the foot of the Cross”, and a Catholic world came to see “social improvements which would have been insane to presume possible under the heathens” (La Civiltà Cattolica, III, xii, 1859, 432.)
Our two prophets were very eager to remind people that we never outgrow the need to gain knowledge by listening to the voice of nature, disciplining it within community and authority, confirming it through ceremonies incarnating the truths learned, and allowing everything to be permeated with the teaching authority of the Whole Christ. Rather than being offended by our dependence upon such measures, we should be thrilled at the fruits we have gained from them. “Long live the chains!”, Spanish peasants shouted as they pulled the carriage of their legitimate king back to Madrid, ending years of revolutionary enlightenment leading nowhere. “Long live the chains of advancing wisdom!”, we should also shout, realizing that all knowledge helps to raise our sights, to prepare us for grace and then the eternal embrace of God.
But what about the Revolution? It leads us down a pathway headed far away from Hypostatic Law. And it thereby destroys not only the possibility of perfecting knowledge, but even the very hope of obtaining the tiniest particle of wisdom at all. Why?
Most importantly, because the anti-incarnational revolutionary spirit refuses earthly knowledge the illumination given only by the Faith. Gone, then, is the sursum corda allowing the mind’s eye to soar. Gone is the light cast on the shadows of Creation by looking at things from God’s perspective. Gone is that liberating confirmation of the truths that we think we know, but really only have the courage to act upon with all our heart and soul when seeing that God so loved the world that He gave it His Only Begotten Son.
This, Taparelli noted sadly, was one of the greatest tragedies of history. Catholicism so glorified the abilities of natural seekers of wisdom, it so nurtured Reason along with every other created good, that revolutionaries believed the human mind could do the job without God. The Revolution took “that which was only in reality a product of the Catholic spirit”—the courage to believe in Order and Truth and act in accord with them—and assumed that it was “a native product of humanity on its own”. But with the Incarnation stripped from the picture, seekers of knowledge step-by-step began to sink back to the position they really held before Christ: that of a small, persecuted elite; or a group of dilettantes, playing with ideas in a salon; or simply a gathering of fools who could never understand practical realities. (La Civiltà Cattolica, I, ii, 1850, 391.
The search for knowledge also suffered from the Revolution’s attack on communities and authorities and incarnational ceremonies as “crutches” used by “child-like peoples not yet matured”. For once we are told that we must be freed from the chains that actually bind individual perception closely to the truth, there is no end to the demolition job required. It is not merely doctrines of Faith that have to be broken down. Aristotelian logic becomes an intolerable limitation upon the creative spirit. Scientific axioms, artistic canons, grammatical rules, and the accumulated judgments of experience, consistency, and the very definitions of words themselves will be understood to hamper free choice. Why, even the very attempt to explain definitively what knowledge in general is all about becomes a monstrous act of tyranny. And all from the standpoint of an equally indefinable liberty.
So what does the Revolution leave us with? The naked individual. With no help from his God. None from his neighbor, his leaders, or his tradition either. All alone, a walking brain, condemned, to begin, by himself, from scratch, the work of five or six thousand years. And left on his own, shorn of all the natural and supernatural aids which keep him from sin and raise his mind from the gutter, he quite understandably swims about desperately in the mud of egotistical, petty, materialistic conceptions of life . The fullness of revolutionary knowledge ends in the fullness of barbaric ignorance and depravity. Indeed, it ends in this murk in classic demonic fashion, while absurdly convincing itself that it is responsible for finally ushering in an age of true Enlightenment.
Louis Veuillot is particularly valuable in describing the consequences. Wisdom, in its revolutionary form is, he argues, a truly base, mercantile, savage thing, reflecting “the odor, the character, and the inevitable unhappiness of the mob”. “Everywhere”, he insists, “the reduction of truth has diminished intelligence, hearts, and even the instinct of life”. The western mind, stung to the quick, set sail “on a sea of platitudes where it will grow immensely bored”. Men were taught to communicate in a “dishonored jargon which would have drawn forth cries of indignation from the most careless writer of one hundred years ago”. They had become “barbarians of civilization”. Even the evils that debased minds praised as truths were petty. “Everything is lacking in the poverty of our times, including the brilliance and often even the substance of the vices it would like to have”. Dullness was so triumphant that a Saint Bernard would find himself able only “to convince a hundred bourgeois to make their Easter Duty”, and that merely “if the socialists had preached there before him”. “No more men anywhere!!”, Veuillot lamented, “The production of man has ceased in France.” (Louis Veuillot, Mélanges, I, p. 327; II, p. 350; IV, pp. 2-3; V, pp. 186-187; XI, p. 337; XII, pp. 359-361, 401, 416-420; XIII, p. 448).
This brings me back to Taparelli’s and Veuillot’s argument about the disastrous results of Catholic failure to grasp the extent and profundity of the revolutionary assault when it first began. For, once Catholics allowed Hypostatic Law regarding how to conduct the search for knowledge to be neglected; once the incarnational framework for obtaining wisdom was dismantled; once the mind’s eye had become focused generally on base and petty desires and ideas, we Catholics also got trapped in a maze. Born and bred ourselves in a degraded revolutionary society, we, too, suffer from the harm caused the search for knowledge by the anti-incarnational spirit. There are so many realms in which we have been condemned to seek wisdom under its miserable rules that we ought to be very suspicious about the conclusions that we commonly draw concerning the nature of things and events. It is no wonder that we attribute many of our problems to limited, self-interested causes, and think that we can destroy the beast with swift blows against our own pet outrage. It is no wonder that we frequently do not treat the intellectual character and difficulty of the cosmic war raging around us seriously. How could we? We ourselves often think like Protestants. Like followers of the Enlightenment. Like revolutionaries. And every time we do so, we think with ideas designed to blow Catholic Wisdom out of the sky; ideas assuring that we never see the whole picture in a truly wise way, and that we remain firmly within the grip of the entire modern fraud.
Think about it for a moment. Do we, at times, limit the value of nature? Do we disdain philosophy as a waste of time? How about history? Art? Music? Poetry? Are we suspicious of authority in principle? Do we talk more about liberty than duty? Do we encourage people to be self reliant, or rugged individualists, even if it means that traditions are broken and authorities treated as natural enemies? Do we tell our children to be practical, meaning by that that they are wise men if they spend their time making lots of money? Then, friends, we are playing with the Revolution’s weapons, and those weapons are aimed straight at Catholic Truth. A lifetime of hunting for wisdom under such conditions will never lead us near the store of knowledge that our ancestors had incarnated for them through respect for Hypostatic Law. And we, like many of our so-called leaders today, will fail to understand the real meaning of the messages of nature, and the full glory to which we are called by Christ. When Catholic Wisdom is presented, we will laugh at it. The Revolution so lowers our sights that we prefer its mess of pottage.
Taparelli and Veuillot expended a great deal of energy on this question of Catholic as opposed to revolutionary paths to knowledge, in order that they could show potential counterrevolutionaries of their own day the pitfalls separating them from a proper judgment of the disaster befalling western civilization. Still, they knew that articles and arguments alone would never do the job. To think such a thing would be to play the anti-incarnational game. To treat men like disembodied intellects. Catholics would become wise again only when they were made to see the truth in all its fullness through the aids given them by incarnational societies and tools; by everything from the Church and her sacraments down to schools and scholarly dress. Here was the true conundrum: Catholics had to be taught the importance of having a Christian civilization to support them. But they needed a Christian civilization, with all its glorious aids to gaining wisdom, to grasp the teaching from the very beginning. How to resolve the dilemma? All things are possible with God.
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