by Hilaire Belloc. Annotation of text copyright (c)2006 David Trumbull and Patrick McNamara. All Rights Reserved.

"Sine auctoritate nulla vita"

by Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953)















I say the Catholic "conscience" of history–I say "conscience"–that is, an intimate knowledge through identity: the intuition of a thing which is one with the knower–I do not say "The Catholic Aspect of History." This talk of "aspects" is modern and therefore part of a decline: it is false, and therefore ephemeral: I will not stoop to it. I will rather do homage to truth and say that there is no such thing as a Catholic "aspect" of European history. There is a Protestant aspect, a Jewish aspect, a Mohammedan aspect, a Japanese aspect, and so forth. For all of these look on Europe from without. The Catholic sees Europe from within. There is no more a Catholic "aspect" of European history than there is a man's "aspect" of himself.

Sophistry does indeed pretend that there is even a man's "aspect" of himself. In nothing does false philosophy prove itself more false. For a man's way of perceiving himself (when he does so honestly and after a cleansing examination of his mind) is in line with his Creator's, and therefore with reality: he sees from within.
Let me pursue this metaphor. Man has in him conscience, which is the voice of God. Not only does he know by this that the outer world is real, but also that his own personality is real.
When a man, although flattered by the voice of another, yet says within himself, "I am a mean fellow," he has hold of reality. When a man, though maligned of the world, says to himself of himself, "My purpose was just," he has hold of reality. He knows himself, for he is himself. A man does not know an infinite amount about himself. But the finite amount he does know is all in the map; it is all part of what is really there. What he does not know about himself would, did he know it, fit in with what he does know about himself. There are indeed "aspects" of a man for all others except these two, himself and God Who made him. These two, when they regard him, see him as he is; all other minds have their several views of him; and these indeed are "aspects," each of which is false, while all differ. But a man's view of himself is not an "aspect:" it is a comprehension.
Now then, so it is with us who are of the Faith and the great story of Europe. A Catholic as he reads that story does not grope at it from without, he understands it from within. He cannot understand it altogether because he is a finite being; but he is also that which he has to understand. The Faith is Europe and Europe is the Faith.
The Catholic brings to history (when I say "history" in these pages I mean the history of Christendom) self-knowledge. As a man in the confessional accuses himself of what he knows to be true and what other people cannot judge, so a Catholic, talking of the united European civilization, when he blames it, blames it for motives and for acts which are his own. He himself could have done those things in person. He is not relatively right in his blame, he is absolutely right. As a man can testify to his own motive so can the Catholic testify to unjust, irrelevant, or ignorant conceptions of the European story; for he knows why and how it proceeded. Others, not Catholic, look upon the story of Europe externally as strangers. They have to deal with something which presents itself to them partially and disconnectedly, by its phenomena alone: he sees it all from its centre in its essence, and together.
I say again, renewing the terms, The Church is Europe: and Europe is The Church.
The Catholic conscience of history is not a conscience which begins with the development of the Church in the basin of the Mediterranean. It goes back much further than that. The Catholic understands the soil in which that plant of the Faith arose. In a way that no other man can, he understands the Roman military effort; why that effort clashed with the gross Asiatic and merchant empire of Carthage; what we derived from the light of Athens; what food we found in the Irish and the British, the Gallic tribes, their dim but awful memories of immortality; what cousinship we claim with the ritual of false but profound religions, and even how ancient Israel (the little violent people, before they got poisoned, while they were yet National in the mountains of Judea) was, in the old dispensation at least, central and (as we Catholics say) sacred: devoted to a peculiar mission.
For the Catholic the whole perspective falls into its proper order. The picture is normal. Nothing is distorted to him. The procession of our great story is easy, natural, and full. It is also final.
But the modern Catholic, especially if he is confined to the use of the English tongue, suffers from a deplorable (and it is to be hoped), a passing accident. No modern book in the English tongue gives him a conspectus of the past; he is compelled to study violently hostile authorities, North German (or English copying North German), whose knowledge is never that of the true and balanced European.
He comes perpetually across phrases which he sees at once to be absurd, either in their limitations or in the contradictions they connote. But unless he has the leisure for an extended study, he cannot put his finger upon the precise mark of the absurdity. In the books he reads–if they are in the English language at least–he finds things lacking which his instinct for Europe tells him should be there; but he cannot supply their place because the man who wrote those books was himself ignorant of such things, or rather could not conceive them.
I will take two examples to show what I mean. The one is the present battlefield of Europe: a large affair not yet cleared, concerning all nations and concerning them apparently upon matters quite indifferent to the Faith. It is a thing which any stranger might analyze (one would think) and which yet no historian explains.
The second I deliberately choose as an example particular and narrow: an especially doctrinal story. I mean the story of St. Thomas of Canterbury, of which the modern historian makes nothing but an incomprehensible contradiction; but which is to a Catholic a sharp revelation of the half-way house between the Empire and modern nationalities.
As to the first of these two examples: Here is at last the Great War in Europe: clearly an issue–things come to a head. How came it? Why these two camps? What was this curious grouping of the West holding out in desperate Alliance against the hordes that Prussia drove to a victory apparently inevitable after the breakdown of the Orthodox Russian shell? Where lay the roots of so singular a contempt for our old order, chivalry and morals, as Berlin then displayed? Who shall explain the position of the Papacy, the question of Ireland, the aloofness of old Spain?
It is all a welter if we try to order it by modern, external–especially by any materialist or even skeptical–analysis. It was not climate against climate–that facile materialist contrast of "environment," which is the crudest and stupidest explanation of human affairs. It was not race–if indeed any races can still be distinguished in European blood save broad and confused appearances, such as Easterner and Westerner, short and tall, dark and fair. It was not–as another foolish academic theory (popular some years ago) would pretend–an economic affair. There was here no revolt of rich against poor, no pressure of undeveloped barbarians against developed lands, no plan of exploitation, nor of men organized, attempting to seize the soil of less fruitful owners.
How came these two opponents into being, the potential antagonism of which was so strong that millions willingly suffered their utmost for the sake of a decision?
That man who would explain the tremendous judgment on the superficial test of religious differences among modern "sects" must be bewildered indeed! I have seen the attempt made in more than one journal and book, enemy and Allied. The results are lamentable!
Prussia indeed, the protagonist, was atheist. But her subject provinces supported her exultantly, Catholic Cologne and the Rhine and tamely Catholic Bavaria. Her main support–without which she could not have challenged Europe–was that very power whose sole reason for being was Catholicism: the House of Hapsburg-Lorraine which, from Vienna, controlled and consolidated the Catholic against the Orthodox Slav: the House of Hapsburg-Lorraine was the champion of Catholic organization in Eastern Europe.
The Catholic Irish largely stood apart.
Spain, not devout at all, but hating things not Catholic because those things are foreign, was more than apart. Britain had long forgotten the unity of Europe. France, a protagonist, was notoriously divided within herself over the religious principle of that unity. No modern religious analysis such as men draw up who think of religion as Opinion will make anything of all this. Then why was there a fight? People who talk of "Democracy" as the issue of the Great War may be neglected: Democracy–one noble, ideal, but rare and perilous, form of human government–was not at stake. No historian can talk thus. The essentially aristocratic policy of England now turned to a plutocracy, the despotism of Russia and Prussia, the immense complex of all other great modern states gives such nonsense the lie.
People who talk of "A struggle for supremacy between the two Teutonic champions Germany and England" are less respectable still. England is not Teutonic, and was not protagonist. The English Cabinet decided by but the smallest possible majority (a majority of one) to enter the war. The Prussian Government never dreamt it would have to meet England at all. There is no question of so single an issue. The world was at war. Why? No man is an historian who cannot answer from the past. All who can answer from the past, and are historians, see that it is the historical depth of the European faith, not its present surface, which explains all.
The struggle was against Prussia.
Why did Prussia arise? Because the imperfect Byzantine evangelization of the Eastern Slavonic Plains just failed to meet, there in Prussia, the western flood of living tradition welling up from Rome. Prussia was an hiatus. In that small neglected area neither half cultivated from the Byzantine East nor fully from the Roman West rose a strong garden of weeds. And weeds sow themselves. Prussia, that is, this patch of weeds, could not extend until the West weakened through schism. It had to wait till the battle of the Reformation died down. But it waited. And at last, when there was opportunity, it grew prodigiously. The weed patch over-ran first Poland and the Germanies, then half Europe. When it challenged all civilization at last it was master of a hundred and fifty million souls.
What are the tests of this war? In their vastly different fashions they are Poland and Ireland–the extreme islands of tenacious tradition: the conservators of the Past through a national passion for the Faith.
The Great War was a clash between an uneasy New Thing which desired to live its own distorted life anew and separate from Europe, and the old Christian rock. This New Thing is, in its morals, in the morals spread upon it by Prussia, the effect of that great storm wherein three hundred years ago Europe made shipwreck and was split into two. This war was the largest, yet no more than the recurrent, example of that unceasing wrestle: the outer, the unstable, the untraditional–which is barbarism–pressing blindly upon the inner, the traditional, the strong–which is Ourselves: which is Christendom: which is Europe.
Small wonder that the Cabinet at Westminster hesitated!
We used to say during the war that if Prussia conquered civilization failed, but that if the Allies conquered civilization was reestablished–What did we mean? We meant, not that the New Barbarians could not handle a machine: They can. But we meant that they had learnt all from us. We meant that they cannot continue of themselves; and that we can. We meant that they have no roots. When we say that Vienna was the tool of Berlin, that Madrid should be ashamed, what do we mean? It has no meaning save that civilization is one and we its family: That which challenged us, though it controlled so much which should have aided us and was really our own, was external to civilization and did not lose that character by the momentary use of civilized Allies.
When we said that "the Slav" failed us, what did we mean? It was not a statement of race. Poland is Slav, so is Serbia: they were two vastly differing states and yet both with us. It meant that the Byzantine influence was never sufficient to inform a true European state or to teach Russia a national discipline; because the Byzantine Empire, the tutor of Russia, was cut off from us, the Europeans, the Catholics, the heirs, who are the conservators of the world.
The Catholic Conscience of Europe grasped this war–with apologies where it was in the train of Prussia, with affirmation where it was free. It saw what was toward. It weighed, judged, decided upon the future–the two alternative futures which lie before the world.
All other judgments of the war made nonsense: You had, on the Allied side, the most vulgar professional politicians and their rich paymasters shouting for "Democracy;" pedants mumbling about "Race." On the side of Prussia (the negation of nationality) you have the use of some vague national mission of conquest divinely given to the very various Germans and the least competent to govern. You would come at last (if you listened to such varied cries) to see the Great War as a mere folly, a thing without motive, such as the emptiest internationals conceive the thing to have been.
So much for the example of the war. It is explicable as a challenge to the tradition of Europe. It is inexplicable on any other ground. The Catholic alone is in possession of the tradition of Europe: he alone can see and judge in this matter.
From so recent and universal an example I turn to one local, distant, precise, in which this same Catholic Conscience of European history may be tested.
Consider the particular (and clerical) example of Thomas Becket: the story of St. Thomas of Canterbury. I defy any man to read the story of Thomas a Becket in Stubbs, or in Green, or in Bright, or in any other of our provincial Protestant handbooks, and to make head or tail of it.
Here is a well-defined and limited subject of study. It concerns only a few years. A great deal is known about it, for there are many contemporary accounts. Its comprehension is of vast interest to history. The Catholic may well ask: "How it is I cannot understand the story as told by these Protestant writers? Why does it not make sense?"
The story is briefly this: A certain prelate, the Primate of England at the time, was asked to admit certain changes in the status of the clergy. The chief of these changes was that men attached to the Church in any way even by minor orders (not necessarily priests) should, if they committed a crime amenable to temporal jurisdiction, be brought before the ordinary courts of the country instead of left, as they had been for centuries, to their own courts. The claim was, at the time, a novel one. The Primate of England resisted that claim. In connection with his resistance he was subjected to many indignities, many things outrageous to custom were done against him; but the Pope doubted whether his resistance was justified, and he was finally reconciled with the civil authority. On returning to his See at Canterbury he became at once the author of further action and the subject of further outrage, and within a short time he was murdered by his exasperated enemies.
His death raised a vast public outcry. His monarch did penance for it. But all the points on which he had resisted were in practice waived by the Church at last. The civil state's original claim was in practice recognized at last. Today it appears to be plain justice. The chief of St. Thomas' contentions, for instance, that men in orders should be exempt from the ordinary courts, seems as remote as chain armors.
So far, so good. The opponent of the Faith will say, and has said in a hundred studies–that this resistance was nothing more than that always offered by an old organization to a new development.
Of course it was! It is equally true to say of a man who objects to an aroplane smashing in the top of his studio that it is the resistance of an old organization to a new development. But such a phrase in no way explains the business; and when the Catholic begins to examine the particular case of St. Thomas, he finds a great many things to wonder at and to think about, upon which his less European opponents are helpless and silent.
I say "helpless" because in their attitude they give up trying to explain. They record these things, but they are bewildered by them. They can explain St. Thomas' particular action simply enough: too simply. He was (they say) a man living in the past. But when they are asked to explain the vast consequences that followed his martyrdom, they have to fall back upon the most inhuman and impossible hypotheses; that "the masses were ignorant"–that is as compared with other periods in human history (what, more ignorant than today?) that "the Papacy engineered an outburst of popular enthusiasm." As though the Papacy were a secret society like modern Freemasonry, with some hidden machinery for "engineering" such things. As though the type of enthusiasm produced by the martyrdom was the wretched mechanical thing produced now by caucus or newspaper "engineering!" As though nothing besides such interferences was there to arouse the whole populace of Europe to such a pitch!
As to the miracles which undoubtedly took place at St. Thomas' tomb, the historian who hates or ignores the Faith had (and has) three ways of denying them. The first is to say nothing about them. It is the easiest way of telling a lie. The second is to say that they were the result of a vast conspiracy which the priests directed and the feeble acquiescence of the maim, the halt and the blind supported. The third (and for the moment most popular) is to give them modern journalistic names, sham Latin and Greek confused, which, it is hoped, will get rid of the miraculous character; notably do such people talk of "auto-suggestion."
Now the Catholic approaching this wonderful story, when he has read all the original documents, understands it easily enough from within.
He sees that the stand made by St. Thomas was not very important in its special claims, and was probably (taken as an isolated action) unreasonable. But he soon gets to see, as he reads and as he notes the rapid and profound transformation of all civilization which was taking place in that generation, that St. Thomas was standing out for a principle, ill clothed in his particular plea, but absolute in its general appreciation: the freedom of the Church. He stood out in particular for what had been the concrete symbols of the Church's liberty in the past. The direction of his actions was everything, whether his symbol was well or ill chosen. The particular customs might go. But to challenge the new claims of civil power at that moment was to save the Church. A movement was afoot which might have then everywhere accomplished what was only accomplished in parts of Europe four hundred years later, to wit, a dissolution of the unity and the discipline of Christendom.
St. Thomas had to fight on ground chosen by the enemy; he fought and he resisted in the spirit dictated by the Church. He fought for no dogmatic point, he fought for no point to which the Church of five hundred years earlier or five hundred years later would have attached importance. He fought for things which were purely temporal arrangements; which had indeed until quite recently been the guarantee of the Church's liberty, but which were in his time upon the turn of becoming negligible. But the spirit in which he fought was a determination that the Church should never be controlled by the civil power , and the spirit against which he fought was the spirit which either openly or secretly believes the Church to be an institution merely human, and therefore naturally subjected, as an inferior, to the processes of the monarch's (or, worse, the politician's) law.
A Catholic sees, as he reads the story, that St. Thomas was obviously and necessarily to lose, in the long run, every concrete point on which he had stood out, and yet he saved throughout Europe the ideal thing for which he was standing out. A Catholic perceives clearly why the enthusiasm of the populace rose: the guarantee of the plain man's healthy and moral existence against the threat of the wealthy, and the power of the State–the self-government of the general Church, had been defended by a champion up to the point of death. For the morals enforced by the Church are the guarantee of freedom.
Further the Catholic reader is not content, as is the non-Catholic, with a blind, irrational assertion that the miracles could not take place. He is not wholly possessed of a firm, and lasting faith that no marvelous events ever take place. He reads the evidence. He cannot believe that there was a conspiracy of falsehood (in the lack of all proof of such conspiracy). He is moved to a conviction that events so minutely recorded and so amply testified, happened. Here again is the European, the chiefly reasonable man, the Catholic, pitted against the barbarian skeptic with his empty, unproved, mechanical dogmas of material sequence.
And these miracles, for a Catholic reader, are but the extreme points fitting in with the whole scheme. He knows what European civilization was before the twelfth century. He knows what it was to become after the sixteenth. He knows why and how the Church would stand out against a certain itch for change. He appreciates why and how a character like that of St. Thomas would resist. He is in no way perplexed to find that the resistance failed on its technical side. He sees that it succeeded so thoroughly in its spirit as to prevent, in a moment when its occurrence would have been far more dangerous and general than in the sixteenth century, the overturning of the connection between Church and State.
The enthusiasm of the populace he particularly comprehends. He grasps the connection between that enthusiasm and the miracles which attended St. Thomas' intercession; not because the miracles were fantasies, but because a popular recognition of deserved sanctity is the later accompaniment and the recipient of miraculous power.
It is the details of history which require the closest analysis. I have, therefore, chosen a significant detail with which to exemplify my case.
Just as a man who thoroughly understands the character of the English squires and of their position in the English countrysides would have to explain at some length (and with difficulty) to a foreigner how and why the evils of the English large estates were, though evils, national; just as a particular landlord case of peculiar complexity or violent might afford him a special test; so the martyrdom of St. Thomas makes, for the Catholic who is viewing Europe, a very good example whereby he can show how well he understands what is to other men not understandable, and how simple is to him, and how human, a process which, to men not Catholic, can only be explained by the most grotesque assumptions; as that universal contemporary testimony must be ignored; that men are ready to die for things in which they do not believe; that the philosophy of a society does not permeate that society; or that a popular enthusiasm ubiquitous and unchallenged, is mechanically produced to the order of some centre of government! All these absurdities are connoted in the non-Catholic view of the great quarrel, nor is there any but the Catholic conscience of Europe that explains it.
The Catholic sees that the whole of the Becket business was like the struggle of a man who is fighting for his liberty and is compelled to maintain it (such being the battleground chosen by his opponents) upon a privilege inherited from the past. The non-Catholic simply cannot understand it and does not pretend to understand it.
Now let us turn from this second example, highly definite and limited, to a third quite different from either of the other two and the widest of all. Let us turn to the general aspect of all European history. We can here make a list of the great lines on which the Catholic can appreciate what other men only puzzle at, and can determine and know those things upon which other men make no more than a guess.
The Catholic Faith spreads over the Roman world, not because the Jews were widely dispersed, but because the intellect of antiquity, and especially the Roman intellect, accepted it in its maturity.
The material decline of the Empire is not co-relative with, nor parallel to, the growth of the Catholic Church; it is the counterpart of that growth. You have been told "Christianity (a word, by the way, quite unhistorical) crept into Rome as she declined, and hastened that decline." That is bad history. Rather accept this phrase and retain it: "The Faith is that which Rome accepted in her maturity; nor was the Faith the cause of her decline, but rather the conservator of all that could be conserved."
There was no strengthening of us by the advent of barbaric blood; there was a serious imperilling of civilization in its old age by some small (and mainly servile) infiltration of barbaric blood; if civilization so attacked did not permanently fail through old age we owe that happy rescue to the Catholic Faith.
In the next period–the Dark Ages–the Catholic proceeds to see Europe saved against a universal attack of the Mohammedan, the Hun, the Scandinavian: he notes that the fierceness of the attack was such that anything save something divinely instituted would have broken down. The Mohammedan came within three days' march of Tours, the Mongol was seen from the walls of Tournus on the Sone: right in France. The Scandinavian savage poured into the mouths of all the rivers of Gaul, and almost overwhelmed the whole island of Britain. There was nothing left of Europe but a central core.
Nevertheless Europe survived. In the refloresence which followed that dark time–in the Middle Ages–the Catholic notes not hypotheses but documents and facts; he sees the Parliaments arising not from some imaginary "Teutonic" root–a figment of the academies–but from the very real and present great monastic orders, in Spain, in Britain, in Gaul–never outside the old limits of Christendom. He sees the Gothic architecture spring high, spontaneous and autochthonic, first in the territory of Paris and thence spread outwards in a ring to the Scotch Highlands and to the Rhine. He sees the new Universities, a product of the soul of Europe, re-awakened–he sees the marvelous new civilization of the Middle Ages rising as a transformation of the old Roman society, a transformation wholly from within, and motived by the Faith.
The trouble, the religious terror, the madnesses of the fifteenth century, are to him the diseases of one body–Europe–in need of medicine.
The medicine was too long delayed. There comes the disruption of the European body at the Reformation.
It ought to be death; but since the Church is not subject to mortal law it is not death. Of those populations which break away from religion and from civilization none (he perceives) were of the ancient Roman stock–save Britain. The Catholic, reading his history, watches in that struggle England not the effect of the struggle on the fringes of Europe, on Holland, North Germany and the rest. He is anxious to see whether Britain will fail the mass of civilization in its ordeal.
He notes the keenness of the fight in England and its long endurance; how all the forces of wealth–especially the old families such as the Howards and the merchants of the City of London–are enlisted upon the treasonable side; how in spite of this a tenacious tradition prevents any sudden transformation of the British polity or its sharp severance from the continuity of Europe. He sees the whole of North England rising, cities in the South standing siege. Ultimately he sees the great nobles and merchants victorious, and the people cut off, apparently forever, from the life by which they had lived, the food upon which they had fed.
Side by side with all this he notes that, next to Britain, one land only that was never Roman land, by an accident inexplicable or miraculous, preserves the Faith, and, as Britain is lost, he sees side by side with that loss the preservation of Ireland.
To the Catholic reader of history (though he has no Catholic history to read) there is no danger of the foolish bias against civilization which has haunted so many contemporary writers, and which has led them to frame fantastic origins for institutions the growth of which are as plain as an historical fact can be. He does not see in the pirate raids which desolated the eastern and southeastern coasts of England in the sixth century the origin of the English people. He perceives that the success of these small eastern settlements upon the eastern shores, and the spread of their language westward over the island dated from their acceptance of Roman discipline, organization and law, from which the majority, the Welsh to the West, were cut off. He sees that the ultimate hegemony of Winchester over Britain all grew from this early picking up of communications with the Continent and the cutting off of everything in this island save the South and East from the common life of Europe. He knows that Christian parliaments are not dimly and possibly barbaric, but certainly and plainly monastic in their origin; he is not surprised to learn that they arose first in the Pyrenean valleys during the struggle against the Mohammedans; he sees how probable or necessary was such an origin just when the chief effort of Europe was at work in the Reconquista .
In general, the history of Europe and of England develops naturally before the Catholic reader; he is not tempted to that succession of theories, self-contradicting and often put forward for the sake of novelty, which has confused and warped modern reconstructions of the past. Above all, he does not commit the prime historical error of "reading history backwards." He does not think of the past as a groping towards our own perfection of today. He has in his own nature the nature of its career: he feels the fall and the rise: the rhythm of a life which is his own.
The Europeans are of his flesh. He can converse with the first century or the fifteenth; shrines are not odd to him nor oracles; and if he is the supplanter, he is also the heir of the gods.

Here Ends the Introduction to Europe and the Faith; which continues in Chapter I.