Page 5, 18th December 1936

18th December 1936
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Page 5, 18th December 1936 — THE HERITAGE OF THE XIX CENTURY
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THE HERITAGE OF THE XIX CENTURY

By BERNARD WALL

HE six representative figures whose thought I have tried to describe— Rousseau, de Maistre, Marx, Nietzsche, Tolstoy and Wells—may seem to differ in every way front one another. But this makes them all the more representative of the nineteenth century, which was a century of contrasts.

During the epoch which stretches from Rousseau to Wells new problems occurred in our civilisation of a sort rather different and more complex than problems that had occurred before.

These writers led the thought of their times, but they were also children of their time. Unfortunately, save for de Maistre, they did not try to solve these new problems in terms of our tradition and our civilisation, but dreamt of a new and different world.

Development of Science

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries scientific knowledge had been able to advance much further than its furthest outposts reached in the past. The question for these centuries was whether religion and our traditional culture could ab sorb and so to speak baptise all the new discoveries made by men like Galileo, Newton and Descartes, and whether religion could keep allied with science.

Such an alliance is essential for human thought. It had existed in the Middle Ages when science was in a more backward state. There was no reason why the alliance should not continue. But by the end of the eighteenth century religion and—not precisely science, but what could be called " the spirit of the age " — had become divorced. This divorce had fatal effects on the outlook of the age, which tended to become revolutionary, uncontrolled, antitraditional, something feeling out into the void without any guide. It had bad effects On society because it sowed the seed of secularism and political materialism. And it had very nearly fatal effects on religion, because religion can only flourish if there is a frank and fearless attitude to reality and confidence in religion's essential theses. Religion began to seem afraid of reality, knowledge seemed, for a dark period at least, almost a danger to religion.

The French Revolution

The seeds of political materialism were already laid, but they burst up volcanically rather than flowered, with the French Revolution.

The French Revolution started with the I conviction that at last mankind was having a New Birth, that a new golden age of I Liberty, Equality and Fraternity was beginning. But this Liberty, Equality and Fraternity was anti-religious and anti-traditional.

In this tempest the Industrial Revolution—or the propagation of machine power—burst like a bomb. It also helped to break down traditional bonds by altering the whole economic life on which the old order had been based.

None of the writers I have discussed cared about tradition save de Maistre, nor did they realise the danger of departing from views and practises. that people had always held in the past.

This was the great weakness of the nineteenth century epoch, the thing that made it destructive even more than constructive. It has been called the " unhistorical century " the exception in world history. The sublime hopes of the writers T have been discussing have not come true.

The End A New Beginning

Though the twentieth century stands on the shoulders of the nineteenth, neventheless we seem to be seeing signs of a return to history and tradition. We are coming to the end of the resources tapped in the nineteenth century, and we have explored the unexplored.

We know now that there are no immense surprises awaiting us, but only the old rules. For all Wells's effort to whip up our enthusiasm about " the miracles of science" it is probable that our attitude to science is changing. Though we are prepared to admit that we may still see extraordinary inventions, we feel that no discoveries can change the essential data We already have concerning man's destiny and the universe.

It is very difficult to believe the contention of Professor load who suggested that we may some day discover the truth about the universe through the development of science, but that there is no reason to suppose that we should have discovered it already, at such an early stage of the human race's development. If we have not the data for finding the essential truth now, we will never have it. We have seen another vast revolution in our own lifetime—the Russian—and we know now that no ideal society can come from it, but only the old groans: that flesh and blood as we know it, the man of history, will sooner or later emerge once more,

Interpretations of Fascism If the period up to the Great War—and even perhaps the war itself—were victories for liberalism, and a too idealistic view of mankind, tradition has been winning heavily in Europe since. One of the forms that this return to tradition has taken has been the " Fascist " form.

I am putting the word " Fascist " in inverted commas, because it is a word which has very differeent interpretations, is at the same time supposed to be a single force whereas really it is manifold, and its genesis is usually misunderstood. Some of these governments called "Fascist " are better than others: but they all seem to me to be a penalty for and a corrective for the

The Heritage Of The XIX Century

false optimism about human nature which was the fault of nineteenth century thought. They seem to be almost inevitable, because they hark back to tradition, and it is almost inevitable that tradition will reassert itself. I think it will reassert itself in a more or a less pleasant way according to the debt owed to history. That indeed is a sign that our society has still in it seeds of life and energy to save itself from anarchy— from material anarchy, but above all from spiritual anarchy.

The man who believed that the past does not matter now has to face the man who affirms the past is all important: the idea of man as a creature progressing beyond recognition towards some ideal, the idea which mocked the traditional conventions as " taboos " and " anachronisms " is faced by the older idea of man as a creature with endless faults.

This older idea of man, which seems reborn in a new costume in some of the movements popularly called " Fascist" emphasises traditional morality and stoicism, parenthood, and even warlikeness. The " Fascist " idea of man is rather like Homer's idea of man in some ways, or the Roman Catos: it is quite different from the Wellsian idea.

Of course there are many other aspects of " Fascism," but this one ought not to be lost sight of. It is one of the things that " Fascism " most depends on for its strength. Of course the tradition it harks back to is not necessarily Christian.

The Utopias All the writers I have been discussing, except de Maistre, had somewhere deep down in their hearts a yearning for a perfect state on earth. They disagreed utterly about the nature of this perfect state, but they all yearned for it. They yearned either for a perfect political state (Rousseau), a perfect economic state (Marx) a Superman (N ietzsche), a perfect universal morality (Tolstoy) or progress to perfection (Wells).

It is interesting to notice that whatever a man's beliefs, this yearning for pencedon always remains, though expressing itself in new forms. When people lost the belief in a spiritual life, and the yearning for spiritual perfection, they got a yearning for material perfection. No great thought has ever been exempt from this yearning. It is something which belongs to the whole human race.

, Materialists maintain that religion is only needed by those, vy.Ao have somehow failed to express'lheir natures properly in the t natural or material world. it comes 'partly•-frorn a twisting of one's natural desires. Perhaps what 1 have written in previous artielA may help to show that the argument could also be turned the other way. To my mind the other way is the right way.

Human beings have a natural yearning for spiritual perfection, and I think, a natural yearning for spiritual immortality. If for some reason these yearnings—which all classed together could be called (roughly) the religious instinct—cannot express themselves in their proper way thrmigh religion they express themselves in all sorts:of anarchistic forms. This immense concern for the ideal political state, which is one of the things that most worries our contemporaries, is really disproportionate and unhealthy; and is due to a lack of religion.

Religion and Tradition

At the same time, as I think de Maistre showed, religion cannot be separated entirely from tradition, nor can Catholicism be separated entirely from Christendom.

Religious movements like • Toistoy's, which are not based on our traditional good sense, may end up by preaching the most inhuman doctrines. Our tradition is immensely important, and we must guard it jealously because it is threatened. The decline of religion in some parts of Spain meant also a decline of tradition: and these revolutionary anarchistic movements attack both religion and the traditional national life of the people. Fortunately, however, religious and traditional life is still immensely strong. Its enemies always thought that " progress " and " enlightenment were on the revolutionary side, and that religious and traditional life was bound to lose. Recent years may have shown us that this may be far from the truth.

But our way of life can only be preserved if it is flexible and can adapt itself to new needs as they occur. In the past its weakness has been its neglect of social needs, of social justice. I believe that some of the new corporative movements in Europe—seine. not all -have shown that traditional life is capable of adapting itself to the new age. The " progressives" -above all the socialists—go on pretending that tradition cannot give social justice, but this is because their faith depends on affirming this pretention, and year by year they arc forced to turn the facts more obviously to suit their theories. Anyway, the future is not entirely black, and the world may be surprised to see time and time again things happening like the defence of the Alcazar.

Books to be read about this subject, from different points of view:—

Christopher Dawson : Inquiries, Progress and Religion. Religion and the States.

Nicholas Berdyaer The End of Our Time and 'The Russian Revolution.

Wyndham Lewis: Left Wings Over Europe, Time and Western Man.

Henri Massis: Defence of the West. Guglielmo Ferrero : Woids to the Deah




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