Hilaire Belloc: The Permanence of the Heretical Spirit through History

Editions Artège has brought out an unpublished French translation of Hilaire Belloc’s The Great Heresies. By showing how the great heresies of Catholicism result from permanent forms of mind in history, the British thinker underlined the genius of Catholicism and its incompatibility with modernity, itself the fruit of the Protestant mind.

The publication of this translation is an opportunity to discover the prolific author that was Hilaire Belloc. A historian by training, a close friend of G. K. Chesterton, but also a poet, novelist, member of parliament and military chronicler, Hilaire Belloc was British on his mother’s side but a fervent Catholic, born in France in 1870, to a French father. In Les Grandes Hérésies (The Great Heresies), first published in 1938, Belloc presents and analyzes the main heresies that successively opposed Catholicism: Arianism; what he calls the Mohammedan heresy; the Albigensian heresy; and Protestantism.

In the introduction to the book, the author recalls the etymology of the word “heresy” which comes from the Greek hairetikos meaning “who chooses.” A heretic is one who adheres to a dogma except for one aspect of it that he specifically chooses to reject. Heresy is characterized by the nature of that choice which corrupts the unity of the dogma in question. Belloc thus defines heresy as “the enterprise of deconstructing a unified and homogeneous body of doctrine by the negation of an inseparable element of the whole.” For example, the heresies of the early centuries of the Church specifically attacked the mystery of the incarnation. With Arianism, then Nestorianism and Monophysitism, it was a question of debating first the exact nature of Christ, then the ways in which his two human and divine natures coexisted.

The Permanent Temptation to Rationalize Dogma

Behind the conceptual and dogmatic battles waged between the Church and heresies, Hilaire Belloc perceived, however, something other than simple intellectual quarrels over dogmatic details. The great heresies actually embodied permanent types of mindsets in history. Belloc thus highlights the propensity of the great heretical currents to rationalize, simplify and demystify Catholic dogma.

The first great heresy that was Arianism illustrates this tendency. Arianism, doctrine professed by the Alexandrian Christian theologian Arius at the beginning of the 4th century, denied the divine nature of Jesus Christ. For the Arians, Christ was the Son of God, but he was still a man and not a God. It was by confronting the supporters of Arius that the Catholic Church proclaimed the dogma of the consubstantiality of the Son and the Father at the Council of Nicaea in 325.

Despite all the care taken by the Church to choose the vocabulary used to qualify the relation between the Son and the Father, the Arian heresy continued in new forms which refused to admit the strict equality between the Son and the Father. Arianism therefore sought to elucidate the question of the incarnation, the mystery of which it refused.

Other ancient heresies such as Nestorianism and Monophysitism pursued this desire to rationally solve the “problem” of the incarnation. It was necessary to explain by reason the nature of this son of God who was Christ. For the Nestorians, the divine and human natures of Christ were necessarily strictly separated, man and God cohabited in the figure of Christ. For the Monophysites, it was the human nature of Christ that was called into question. In both cases, God did not become fully man. In the midst of these attempts at logical and rational explanations, the Church maintained its complex and mysterious dogma of the one but triune God.

It is this same desire for simplification and rationalization that Hilaire Belloc perceives in Islam, which he qualifies as Christian heresy. Coming from a pagan background on the margins of the Roman Empire that had become Christian, Muhammad adopted a Christianity purged of its dogmatic complexities.

Islam takes up the idea of a single god, creator of the world and granting life after death, but denies the incarnation by making Jesus a prophet. For the British historian, Islam foreshadows the heretical quest for rationalism and the abolition of the Catholic mysteries that was then the Reformation. All these great heresies had in common the simplification of Catholic dogma by trying to purge it of the mysteries that proud human reason could not grasp.

The Heretical Rejection of Matter

For Belloc, the study of heresies reveals another tendency of the mind that also emerges chronically in history—that consisting in condemning matter. This matter is bad while the spirit is the only source of the good. The Albigensian heresy perfectly embodied this tendency by condemning any carnal compromise with matter: sexual relations, marriage, procreation, consumption of meat and alcohol were prohibited. The ideal of purity advocated by the Cathars (from the Greek katharos: pure) conceived matter as intrinsically evil. Belloc sees in it the resurgence of the ancient Manichean heresy but also the precursor of Protestant puritanism. These heresies are all based on the mortifying detestation of matter and carnal life; whereas the Catholic Church condemns this dualism and values the union of spirit and flesh.

Rejection of mystery, thirst for rationalism and refusal to inhabit the world carnally are the pillars of the great heretical currents. However, Belloc does not reduce heresies to their religious and spiritual dimensions. As a historian, he is interested in the practical reasons for the success of the great heresies. He thus notes the social dimension of heresies, which can feed on worldly postures and use the dynamics of local particularisms to prosper. Arianism thus spread within the old pagan elites and in Roman military circles, anxious to differentiate themselves from the very popular religion that Catholicism was becoming.

The Albigensian heresy was also a means for local identities to assert themselves in medieval southern France. Belloc is fascinated by the continuing success of Islam. He attributes this success in particular to the fact that the Mohammedan heresy developed outside the Church and was able to benefit for centuries from a constant renewal of its fighters who also came from barbarian worlds. Noting the possible compatibility between Islam and the modern world, he prophesied a probable return of the vitality of Islam, despite the “physical paralysis” in which this religion found itself, when he wrote his book in the middle of the 20th century.

The Revolution of the Protestant Heresy

But it is to the Protestant heresy that Belloc devotes his longest chapter. It is a fundamental heresy from which modernity emerged and which shook the foundations of the Church. He traces its genesis in detail during the 14th and 15th centuries. Belloc considers, however, that Protestantism was not condemned to become the heretical religion it has become. The Reformation could have been a simple reform of the Catholic Church without altering its faith or dogma. The historian finely traces how Protestantism finally became heretical and above all how it altered Catholicism and then generated the spirit of modernity.

For Belloc, the particularity of Protestantism is to constitute more a “moral atmosphere” and a disposition of the mind than a religion. Calvin’s doctrine no longer governs the modern world, but its spirit would endure: “the fruits of Protestantism prove to be permanent, despite the fact that its doctrine has disappeared.” Founded on the contestation of authorities and the primacy of rational individual examination, Protestantism dissolved its own theological and scriptural foundations to give birth to modernity.

Belloc’s entire book tends to highlight the specificities of Catholicism, which has never yielded to the temptations of simplification and rationalization of the mysteries of its dogma. For the English author, however, the Protestant Reformation constitutes a turning point which manages to make Catholicism doubt its own dogma. Secularization of the Protestant spirit, modernity also appears as the fruit of this doubt of the Church on itself.

The Great Heresies is the work of a historian who assumes his Catholic fervor and tries to explain why the study of heresies allows us to better understand both Catholicism and the modern world. By becoming incarnate on Earth to save mankind from original sin, the Christian God irrevocably entered into history. The great religious currents that appeared afterwards are all linked to Christianity. Religion can only be Catholic or heretical.

For Belloc, the advent of modernity cannot be a return to the noble paganism of antiquity. This return is impossible after the coming of the Savior. Unable to make people forget Christ, modernity can only be an inversion of Catholicism. Modernity and Catholicism are then be engaged in a struggle to the death. Belloc admits that the organic laws of history could support the near-end of Catholicism. But the faith of the Catholic author forces him to maintain the hope of a safeguard of the Church and the resurgence of its mysteries.

Bertrand Garandeau is an anarcho-conservative sovereignist, based in France. This article appears through the kind courtesy of PHILITT.

Featured: “First Temptation of Christ,” fol. 28v, Livre d’images de Madame Marie; ca. 1285-1290.

Russia: Tradition and Sacred Geography

Regularly under the spotlight for his supposed influence on the Kremlin, Alexander Dugin has taken up and developed the geopolitical concept of Eurasia. Through this notion, he advocates the use of sacred geography and tradition in contemporary geopolitics.

For Dugin, geopolitics is not a science like any other. If alchemy and magic have disappeared in favor of their modern and secular forms, such as chemistry and physics, the sacred geography of the ancients remains alive through geopolitics. Recalling the Heartland theory of the British geopolitician Halford John Mackinder, Dugin makes Eurasia the centerpiece of sacred geography. With Russia at its center, Eurasia embodies the last bastion of tradition in the northern hemisphere, the only one capable of fighting effectively against modernity.

The Russian thinker holds that geography shapes ideologies, cultures and religions. Civilizations of the plains, steppes or deserts, for example, which are conducive to expansion and conquest, differ from civilizations of the mountains and forests, which are more inclined to preserve the traditions of the people. Dugin also defends the relevance of the traditional opposition thalassocracy-tellurocracy, used to qualify two distinct types of powers. There are those who dominate by the mastery of the sea and those who dominate by the mastery of the land; and it is understood that these modes of domination are not be insignificant on the ideological level.

According to Dugin, tellurocracy embodies stability, gravity, fixity and politics, while thalassocracy promotes mobility, fluidity, dynamics and economy. While the terrestrial empires, often military, are tellurocratic in form, the colonial empires, more commercial, are more thalassocratic. However, the geopolitician notes that this typology does not boil down to a simple water/land opposition and to a strict geographical determinism. There are maritime lands (islands) and terrestrial waters (rivers and inland seas). Similarly, Dugin notes that Japanese geopolitics is tellurocratic, despite its insular character; while he sees in the power of the North American continent a thalassocracy that relies on the dynamism of its maritime and commercial interfaces. Applying this reading grid, the Russian thinker considers that Eurasia, a land continent going from Europe to Asia and whose center of gravity is located in Russia, constitutes the tellurocratic model opposed to the Atlanticist United States of America.

Sacred Geography and Religions

Going beyond the strict framework of geography, this dualism is also found within religious systems. The values of the land transposed to the religious is manifested by depth, tradition, contemplation and mysticism. The Atlanticist principle, on the other hand, is more superficial and materialistic, giving primacy to ritual, to the organization of daily life, and even going so far as to ignore the divine part in man. Thus, Dugin sees Orthodoxy as the earthly aspect of Christianity, while Catholicism and Protestantism constitute its Atlanticist face. Similarly, within Islam, the earthly principle is found more in certain branches of Shi’ism and in Sufism. On the contrary, Salafism and Wahhabism would be more Atlanticist in their emphasis on ritual and their religious dogmatism, which seeks to eradicate the traditional spiritualities of the converted peoples. Faced with American Protestantism and Saudi Salafism, whose geopolitical alliances, since 1945, Dugin points out, the Russian world brings together, on the contrary, religions of a telluric type with Russian Orthodoxy but also Caucasian and Central Asian Islam.

As for Judaism, not only does it not escape this internal opposition, but it is also found in the secular forms of Jewish thought. Dugin analyzes the mystical branches of Judaism (Hasidism, Sabbataism, Kabbalism) as the expression of the earthly aspect of this religion. Talmudism, on the other hand, represents the Atlanticist aspect of the religion, particularly through its emphasis on dogmatic rigor and rationalism. Moreover, recalling the influence of Jewish messianism on the development of Marxism and Bolshevism, Dugin sees the latter as secular forms of earthly Judaism. On the contrary, secularized Atlanticist Judaism contributed to the rise of capitalism and the bourgeois spirit. The Russian geopolitician sees in this internal tension within Judaism the explanation of a recurrent “Jewish anti-Semitism.” Karl Marx’s statement that money is the profane God of Judaism (The Jewish Question) is the empirical embodiment of the mystical Jew attacking the Talmudic Jew, an emanation of tradition against a form of modernity.

The opposition between Eurasianism and Atlanticism does not summarize the vision of sacred geography according to Alexander Dugin, but it is an actualization of the eternal struggle between tellurocracy and thalassocracy, as well as the underlying basis of the war between tradition and modernity. He also relies on the East-West and North-South dualisms. For the champion of Eurasism, the East embodies archaism, tradition and the primacy of the supra-individual over the individual. The West represents on the contrary material progress, modernity and individualism. Faithful to the geographical representations of numerous traditions (biblical, Egyptian, Iranian or Chinese), this opposition is also corroborated by the frequent contemporary representations of the “Western world” and the East. However, in sacred geography, it is the Eastern values that are superior to the Western values. The exact opposite can be observed in modern geopolitics, for which Western values of liberal democracy and individualistic human rights, associated with a strict market economy, are set up as a model.

The Tradition of the North

In the eyes of Dugin, the East-West duality is however only a late horizontal transposition of the primordial geographical duality opposing the North to the South. Divine land par excellence, the North is the land of the spirit and of being. If he refuses the idea of a purely objective North, which would designate only a geographical pole, the Russian philosopher however rejects the definition of a North reduced to an idea. Certainly, the primordial tradition came from the geographical North; but that era is over. The man of the North, almost divine, has disappeared today as such but is still be present in a diffuse way and in variable proportions within all the peoples. The same is true of the man from the South, who embodies the tendency towards materialism and idolatry. If the man of the South venerates the cosmos, often in the form of Mother Earth, he apprehends it only by his instinct and shows himself incapable of grasping its spiritual part. These two types of man are no longer opposed to each other today, but within peoples and civilizations. In no way can this opposition be compared to a Manichean combat of good against evil. The North and the South are complementary; the former embodied in the latter. Nevertheless, Dugin believes that respect for the divine order requires the superiority of the spiritual principle of the North over the material principle of the South.

Although the opposition between the North and the South takes precedence over that between the East and the West, the Russian strategist notes that the first duality takes on a different coloring according to the geographical transpositions that take place. Various combinations can be formed by the spirituality of the North, the materialism of the South, the holism of the East and the individualism of the West. Dugin thus establishes that the sacred values of the North are sterilely preserved by the South, enhanced by the East and fragmented by the West. As for the values of the South, according to their milieu of immersion, they opacify the spirit of the North, transform Eastern holism into a pure negation of the individual, and generate an individualistic materialism in the West. It is under this last form that Western modernity appears in the eyes of the Eurasist philosopher. Fruit of the most negative combination of sacred geography, the supposed success of Western countries, however essentially located in the geographical north, advocates values opposed to tradition. This inversion of the poles constitutes a characteristic of the dark age, or Kali Yuga, in which the world now finds itself.

Nevertheless, Alexander Dugin does not consider that salvation must come from the South. Sterile by essence, the latter would only be able to preserve fragments of northern tradition that the Russian mystic perceives in the Islamic world, in Hindu India, and even in China, despite its partial conversion to modernity. Salvation comes from the alliance between this conservative South and the islands of authentic tradition still present in the North, and particularly in the Northeast. Dugin thus locates in the Russian world the current heart of tradition and the struggle against modernity. The Russian world, including Russia but also its various peripheries, brings together geographical qualities (located in the North-East in the sense of sacred geography), religious qualities (Orthodoxy, Eurasian Islam, Russian Judaism) and the characteristics of a telluric power which allow it to play a decisive role in the struggle against Atlanticist, Western modernity and its opposition to the spirit of the North.

Bertrand Garandeau is an anarcho-conservative sovereignist, based in France. This article appears through the kind courtesy of PHILITT.

Featured image: “Vyaselka,” (Rainbow), by Nikolay Dubovskoy; painted in 1892.