Louise asked me, in the comment thread on the previous post, what I thought about Belloc’s The Great Heresies, especially the last chapter. So I re-read that chapter (I had read the book twenty or so years ago, in the 1980s sometime), and I’m impressed by its prophetic insight and accuracy. As I said in those comments, I would argue with certain details, but in general it’s a very insightful summary of the great struggle going on in the modern Western world. Considering that it was published 70 years ago, you might expect it to be more dated, but I think it remains substantially correct in its analysis of the situation.
There’s a lot I could say about it, but I’m not sure if or when I’ll get to it, and right now I want to mention this very striking passage:
...there you have the Modern Attack in its main character, materialist, and atheist; and, being atheist, it is necessarily indifferent to truth. For God is Truth.
But there is (as the greatest of the ancient Greeks discovered) a certain indissoluble Trinity of Truth, Beauty and Goodness. You cannot deny or attack one of these three without at the same time denying or attacking both the others. Therefore with the advance of this new and terrible enemy against the Faith and all that civilization which the Faith produces, there is coming not only a contempt for beauty but a hatred of it; and immediately upon the heels of this there appears a contempt and hatred for virtue.
Atheists would certainly object to the charge that they are indifferent to truth; yet the pursuit of truth as they see it is often a truncated, shrunken thing, limited mainly to the application of observation and logic to physical facts, which they call reason. Cut off from its ground in the intuitive knowledge of general truths on the one hand and the “pre-philosophy of common sense” on the other hand, reason, as it is often understood in atheism and especially in materialism, cedes most of what is truly human to the realm of emotion and subjective preference. Materialists take an obvious pride and pleasure in carrying to its logical conclusion the idea that thought is an illusion created by physical phenomena. But how anyone can assert such a thing and still expect reason to have an influence on people is beyond me; this is reason devouring itself, and a confirmation of Belloc’s view.
Of course it is possible for someone to disbelieve in God, in the sense that Christians use the word, and still honor reason in its fullest sense. But I am not at all sure that such a regard for reason is generally possible in a culture which is not pre-or non-, but post- and anti-, Christian. This is another of Belloc’s important insights; he sees, quite rightly, that what he refers to as the Modern Attack is consistent only in its aversion to the Faith. And a culture once having accepted the connection between God and Truth cannot readily discard the former and keep the latter.
And as for Belloc’s last two claims, well, look around at some of the products of the entertainment industry and for that matter the arts in general, and I think you’ll have a hard time denying that contempt for beauty and virtue are often in evidence. Certainly not all art and artists are affected by this impulse, but, just as certainly, many are. Is it not often the source of the delight in being “transgressive”?
And you see it in other areas of life, too: think of the hard-nosed capitalist types who sneer at the idea that the sheer ugliness of our commercial culture is an indicator of something deeply wrong with it. Or that morality should have any part in the decision as to what shall be bought and sold.
(The text of The Great Heresies is available online here.)