Only foreigners and politicians talk of ‘Britain.’” So wrote Englishman C. S. Lewis, deeming the British Empire a thing much too broad, big, and abstract to interest the true patriot. In Lewis’ reckoning “Great Britain” was not a country but an ideology, one which threatened to swallow the national identities of real homelands – the historic England no less than Wales and Scotland. The rich, diverse heritage of the islands which Caesar himself could never quite master had been leveled, tragically, through the ambitions of said islands’ rulers and leading thinkers.
In Beauteous Truth: Faith, Reason, Literature, and Culture, this interpretation of British society and patriotism gets dusted off and refined by Joseph Pearce:
Sadly, England fell victim to the wrong sort of mysticism and it is no coincidence that England was swallowed up by Britain at the very moment that she began to have her faith stolen from her. It is Henry VIII who begins to build the navy even as he is destroying the monasteries, bent upon self-aggrandizement and the imperialism which is its bitterly destructive fruit; it is Henry VIII, Cromwell and William the Usurper who rape Ireland in the cause of Britain. It is Edmund Spenser in The Faerie Queen who eulogizes the concept of ‘Britain’ and idolizes Queen Elizabeth. The birth of Britain would be the death of an independent England, as it was the death of an independent Wales, Scotland, and Ireland.
As an Anglican, Lewis was naturally reluctant to admit that the excesses of British imperialism were the logical result of England’s break with the papacy. A Catholic as well as a native-born Englishman, Pearce argues that the yearning for the Universal which permeates man’s nature only finds complete fulfillment in the Universal Church. When men are cut off from the Church, this yearning often takes on perverse and self-destructive forms. Hence the dramatic decline of both English patriotism and English faith — and the resultant irony which colors Pearce’s hearty admiration for the author of The Abolition of Man and The Chronicles of Narnia. Perhaps, muses Pearce, “in the not so distant future, more people will be reading Lewis’s books than will be attending Anglican services.”
In turning against the Church, Pearce contends, Britain’s rulers turned against the very spiritual force which had for generations shaped and sustained the Isles’ Celtic and Anglo-Saxon peoples. The Venerable Bede, Saint Augustine of Canterbury, Saint Edward the Confessor – these heroes of ancient English Christianity would find it bizarre indeed to hear their names invoked against Rome. Henry VIII’s radical campaign against the Church could not contrast more starkly with the reign of Alfred the Great, who sought to revive the monastic tradition rather than liquidate it and fended of pagan invaders bent upon looting English churches. Twentieth-century English literary converts such as Evelyn Waugh were hardly chasing an exotic foreign cult; rather, they were coming home to the company of Chaucer and Caedmon.
As Pearce observes, one of the most telling blows against the idea of an inherently anti-Catholic England has been recent Shakespeare scholarship, which has established undeniable links between Shakespeare and Rome. Since he was born into a family which remained Catholic at a time when Catholicism was illegal, Shakespeare was at the very least heavily influenced by Church teaching, and was in all likelihood a practicing Catholic himself. Upon reflection, this revelation proves far more compelling than any fiction concocted by Dan Brown. Could it be that the most celebrated playwright in the world was secretly aligned with the Catholic counter-enlightenment? It sure could, says Pearce:
Throughout the plays Shakespeare’s Catholicism manifests itself in a philosophical dialectic with the emergent atheism (de facto if not always de jure) of the embryonic Enlightenment. Although allusions to the doctrinal disputes of the Reformation and Counter Reformation are present in the plays, they are eclipsed by the overarching dialectic with materialism […] Shakespeare’s greatest heroines, such as Cordelia, Portia, Desdemona and Isabella, exhibit a self-sacrificial love emblematic of the Christian saint. His great villains, such as Edmund, Goneril, Regan and Cornwall in King Lear, King Claudius in Hamlet, Iago in Othello, or the demonically twisted Macbeths, are all philosophical iconoclasts, ripping to shreds Christian philosophy and openly defying orthodox moral theology.
Some will no doubt object that Shakespeare’s art should be viewed precisely as art, and are afraid of his corpus being turned into a mere didactic vehicle for pushing the Catholic worldview. There is surely some merit to their concerns, but Pearce is just as surely correct in contending that Shakespeare’s metaphysical vision must condition the way his plays are viewed. Even from a purely literary perspective knowledge of an author’s culture and creed is critical to properly understanding and appreciating his work. (And in any case, a Catholic reading far more rigid than Pearce’s would still make more sense than the feminist, homosexualist, and Marxist obsessions which have been retroactively imposed on the Bard by academia.)
I should, however, dispel the impression that Beauteous Truth dwells solely on English life and culture. The book is comprised of 72 previously published essays by the editor of Saint Austin Review and covers a kaleidoscope of topics. The reader will find these short-and-sweet articles as absorbing as they are informative, provided he doesn’t mind switching subjects every few pages; if he does mind, he is advised to seek out one of Pearce’s extended biographies, including Old Thunder: A Life of Hilaire Belloc, Solzhenitsyn: A Soul in Exile, and Tolkien: Man and Myth, among others.
Speaking of Belloc, it so happens that the historian and Distributist gets mentioned more than once in this volume. Pearce notes that Belloc viewed September 11th— the day on which the Ottomans abandoned their siege of Vienna in 1683— as an anniversary which ought to be “among the most famous in history.” A striking remark, rendered even more uncanny when juxtaposed with Belloc’s prescient concerns regarding the Muslim world. “It has always seemed to me possible, and even probable,” Belloc wrote long before the rise of OPEC, much less ISIS, “that there would be a resurrection of Islam and that our sons or our grandsons would see the renewal of that tremendous struggle between the Christian culture and what has been for more than a thousand years its greatest opponent.” Pearce fears that these “unheeded” words of Belloc now “resound like the death-knell of Europe.”
As for the Washington elites who have inherited Britain’s imperial mantle and supposedly protect us, they could not have formulated foreign policies more helpful to the resurrection of Islam had they tried. In the article “Old World Cynicism Meets New World Naïveté”, Pearce counsels as firmly against “messianic Americanism” as against “the jaded, ethno-masochistic death wish” of leftists. To illustrate the former, he takes the reader back to 2007, when President George W. Bush defended the decision to invade Iraq during a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Inexplicably, Bush thought it prudent to invite comparisons between himself and Alden Pyle — the well-meaning, yet shallow and delusional, CIA operative who helps push the United States into the Vietnam quagmire in Graham Greene’s novel The Quiet American.
Did Bush’s speechwriters even bother to read the book? Pearce doubts it. He does agree, however, that Greene’s cynical treatments of international espionage are relevant to the modern scene, albeit “not perhaps in the way that Bush intended”:
Pyle is certain that “Democracy,” “Freedom,” and “America” are not only inseparable but that they are synonymous. It is almost as though they form an indivisible Trinity, as holy as the Trinity of the Christians and as worthy of praise. This quasi-religious zeal turns every war for “Freedom” and “Democracy” into a jihad, with Pyle emerging as a fanatic for the cause of “America” […] Parallels with Bush are not only palpable, they positively palpitate from the pages of The Quiet American!
An “idealist enslaved by an ideology” is hardly a patriot, claims Pearce, because the true patriot would, for the sake of his country, be willing to raise embarrassing points:
Why did previous American governments arm the Taliban in the name of “freedom” and “democracy”? Why did previous American governments arm Saddam Hussein in the name of “freedom” and “democracy”? Why did Bush’s own government declare war on the only secular government in the middle east capable of resisting the Islamo-fascism of Iran? These are questions that only George W. Bush or Alden Pyle could answer. The rest of us remain baffled.
I can’t help registering distaste for the expression “Islamo-fascism” — the current Iranian regime simply embodies observant Islam, no more and no less — but otherwise applaud Pearce’s candor. The illusion that Republican leaders give any thought at all to conserving Christian culture cannot be dispelled too soon, because this illusion obscures the real issue: civilizational decline. Our problem is not so much with Barack Obama as with the majority of US citizens, who enthusiastically elected the man. Twice.
So maybe it is time for a radically different approach to the American scene, and maybe such an approach is what Raymond Leo Cardinal Burke indirectly alludes to in Beauteous Truth’s foreword. Echoing Benedict XVI’s call for “an ecology of man”, His Eminence explains that said ecology would take for its starting point the “fundamental need of respect for the order which God has placed in Creation and restored by the Redemptive Incarnation.” By opening windows onto the lives and times of various saints, sinners, and sages, Pearce’s rewarding collection of essays represents one small step toward a more wholesome social science.
Beauteous Truth: Faith, Reason, Literature, and Culture
by Joseph Pearce. Foreword by Cardinal Raymond Burke.
St. Augustine’s Press, 2014.
Cloth, 280 pages.
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