THE ECLIPSE of Christian theology during the rationalist advance of the eighteenth century is one of the most interesting of historical episodes. In order to see it clearly, we must first realize that it was an episode and that it is now historical. It may be stating it too strongly to say that it is now dead; it is perhaps enough to say that it is now distant and yet distinct; that it is divided from our own time as much as any period of the past. Neither reason nor faith will ever die; for men would die if deprived of either. The wildest mystic uses his reason at some stage; if it be only by reasoning against reason. The most incisive sceptic has dogmas of his own; though when he is a very incisive sceptic, he has often forgotten what they are. Faith and reason are in this sense co-eternal; but as the words are popularly used, as loose labels for particular periods, the one is now almost as remote as the other. What was called the Age of Reason has vanished as completely as what are called the Ages of Faith.
It is essential to see this fact first, because if we do not see its
limitations we do not see its outline. It has nothing to do with which period
we prefer, or even which we think right. A rationalist is quite entitled to
look back to the eighteenth century as a golden age of good sense, as the
medievalist looks back to the thirteenth century as a golden age of good faith.
But he must look back, and look back across an abyss. We may like or dislike
the atmosphere of the modern world, with its intense interest in anything that
is called psychological, and in much that is called psychical. We may think
that speculation has gone more deep or that it has grown more morbid. We may
like or dislike the religions of faith-healing or spirit-rapping; or a hundred
other manifestations of the same mood, in fields quite remote from the
supernatural or even the spiritual. We may like or dislike, for instance, that
vast modern belief in "the power of suggestion" expressed in
advertising or publicity and educational methods of all sorts. We may like or
dislike the appeal to the non-rational element; the perpetual talk about the
Sub-conscious Mind or the Race Memory or the Herd Instinct. We may deplore or
we may admire all these developments. But we must fix it in our minds as a
historical fact that to any one of the great 'Infidels' or Freethinkers of the
eighteenth century, this whole modern world of ours would seem a mere madhouse.
He might almost be driven, in pursuit of the reasonable, to take refuge in a
We are dealing therefore with an episode and even an interlude; though the man
who likes it has as much right to say that it was an hour of happy daylight
between the storms as a Christian has to say it of primitive Christianity or
medieval Christendom. From about the time that Dryden died a Catholic to about
the time that Newman began to write a little less like a Protestant, there was
a period during which the spirit of philosophy filling men's minds was not
positively Protestant any more than it was positively Catholic. It was
rationalist even in Protestants and Catholics; in a Catholic like Pope or a
Protestant like Paley. But it can be seen at the clearest when the last
clinging traditions or presences were dropped; when the most stolid specimen of
the Protestant middle classes is found busily scribbling sneers in the
footnotes and even the index of a great history of the Fall of Rome; when a
brilliant pupil going forth out of the Jesuit seminary turns back over his
shoulder the terrible face of Voltaire.
In order to exhibit the essential quality, let us first compare the period with
that which preceded it. Touching its historical causes, no man with a sense of
human complexity will offer anything but contributory causes. But I think there
are contributory causes that have been strangely overlooked. On the face of it,
it refers back to the Renaissance, which refers back to the old pagan world. On
the face of it, it also refers back to the Reformation, though chiefly in its
negative aspect or branch in the old Christian world. But both these things are
connected with a third, that has not, I think, been adequately realized. And
that is a feeling which can only be called futility. It arose out of the
disproportion between the dangers and agonies of the religious wars and the
really unreasonable compromise in which they ended; cujus regio ejus religio: which may be translated, "Let every
State establish its State Church", but which did mean in the Renaissance
epoch, "Let the Prince do what he likes."
The seventeenth century ended with a note of interrogation. Pope, the poet of
reason, whom some thought too reasonable to be poetical, was once compared to a
question mark, because he was a crooked little thing that asked questions. The
seventeenth century was not little, but it was in some ways crooked, in the
sense of crabbed. But anyhow it began with the ferocious controversies of the
Puritans and it ended with a question. It was an open question, but it was also
an open wound. It was not only that the end of the seventeenth century was of
all epochs the most inconclusive. It was also, it must be remembered,
inconclusive upon a point which people had always hoped to see concluded. To
use the literal sense of the word 'conclude', they expected the wound to close.
We naturally tend to miss this point today. We have had nearly four hundred
years of divided Christianity and have grown used to it; and it is the Reunion
of Christendom that we think of as the extraordinary event. But they still
thought the Disunion of Christendom an extraordinary event. Neither side had
ever really expected it to remain in a state of Disunion. All their traditions
for a thousand years were of some sort of union coming out of controversy, ever
since a united religion had spread all over a united Roman Empire. From a
Protestant standpoint, the natural thing was for Protestantism to conquer
Europe as Christianity had conquered Europe. In that case the success of the
counter-Reformation would be only the last leap of a dying flame like the last
stand of Julian the Apostate. From a Catholic standpoint the natural thing was
for Catholicism to reconquer Europe, as it had more than once reconquered
Europe; in that case the Protestant would be like the Albigensians: a passing
element ultimately reabsorbed. But neither of these natural things happened.
Prussia and the other Protestant principalities fought against Austria as the
heir of the Holy Roman Empire in the Thirty Years War. They fought each other
to a standstill. It was utterly and obviously hopeless to make Austria
Protestant or Prussia Roman Catholic. And from the moment when that fact was
realized the nature of the whole world was changed. The rock had been cloven
and would not close up again, and in the crack or chasm a new sort of strange
and prickly weed began to grow. The open wound festered.
We have all heard it said that the Renaissance was produced or precipitated by
the Fall of Constantinople. It is true in a sense perhaps more subtle than is
meant. It was not merely that it let loose the scholars from the Byzantine
Court. It was also that it let loose the sceptical thoughts of the scholars,
and of a good many other people when they saw this last turn of the tide in the
interminable strife between Christ and Mahomet. The war between Islam and
Christendom had been inconclusive. The war between the Reformation and the
counter-Reformation was inconclusive. And I for one fancy that the former fact
had a good deal to do with the full sceptical expansion of the eighteenth
century. When men saw the Crescent and the Cross tossed up alternately as a
juggler tosses balls, it was difficult for many not to think that one might be
about as good or bad as the other when they saw the Protestant and the Catholic
go up and down on the seesaw of the Thirty Years War. Many were disposed to
suspect that it was six to one and half-a-dozen to the other. This addition
involved an immense subtraction; and two religions came to much less than one.
Many began to think that, as they could not both be true, they might both be
false. When that thought had crossed the mind the reign of the rationalist had
The thought, as an individual thought, had of course begun long before. It is,
in fact, as old as the world; and it is quite obviously as old as the Renaissance.
In that sense the father of the modern world is Montaigne; that detached and
distinguished intelligence which, as Stevenson said, saw that men would soon
find as much to quarrel with in the Bible as they had in the Church. Erasmus
and Rabelais and even Cervantes had their part; but in these giants there was
still a great gusto of subconscious conviction, still Christian; they mocked at
the lives of men, but not at the life of man. But Montaigne was something more
revolutionary than a revolutionist; he was a relativist. He would have told
Cervantes that his knight was not far wrong in thinking puppets were men, since
men are really puppets. He would have said that windmills were as much giants
as anything else; and that giants would be dwarfs if set beside taller giants.
This doubt, some would say this poison in its original purity, did begin to
work under the surface of society from the time of Montaigne onwards and worked
more and more towards the surface as the war of religions grew more and more inconclusive.
There went with it a spirit that may truly be called humane. But we must always
remember that even its refreshing humanity had a negative as well as a positive
side. When people are no longer in the mood to be heroic, after all, it is only
human to be humane. Some men were really tolerant, but others were merely
tired. When people are tired of the subject, they generally agree to differ.
But against this clear mood, as against a quiet evening sky, there stood up the
stark and dreadful outlines of the old dogmatic and militant institutions.
Institutions are machines; they go on working under any sky and against any
mood. And the clue to the next phase is the revolt against their revolting
incongruity. The engines of war, the engines of torture, that had belonged to
the violent crises of the old creeds, remained rigid and repellent; all the
more mysterious for being old and sometimes even all the more hideous for being
idle. Men in that mellow mood of doubt had no way of understanding the fanaticism
and the martyrdom of their fathers. They knew nothing of medieval history or of
what a united Christendon had once meant to men. They were like children
horrified at the sight of a battlefield.
Take the determining example of the Spanish Inquisition. The Spanish
Inquisition was Spy Fever. It produced the sort of horrors such fevers produce;
to some extent even in modern wars. The Spaniards had reconquered Spain from
Islam with a glowing endurance and defiance as great as any virtue ever shown
by man; but they had the darker side of such warfare; they were always
struggling to deracinate a Jewish plot which they believed to be always selling
them to the enemy. Of this dark tale of perverted patriotism the humanitarians
knew nothing. All they knew was that the Inquisition was still going on. And
suddenly the great Voltaire rose up and shattered it with a hammer of savage
laughter. It may seem strange to compare Voltaire to a child. But it is true
that though he was right in hating and destroying it, he never knew what it was
that he had destroyed.
There was born in that hour a certain spirit, which the Christian spirit should
be large enough to cover and understand. In relation to many things it was
healthy, though in relation to some things it was shallow. We may be allowed to
associate it with the jolly uncle who does not believe in ghosts. It had an
honourable expression in the squires and parsons who put down the persecution
of witches. The uncle is not always just to Spiritualists; but he is rather a
comfort on a dark night. The squire did not know all there is to know about
diabolism, but he did stop many diabolical fears of diabolism. And if we are to
understand history, that is humanity, we must sympathize with this breezy
interlude in which it seemed natural for humanity to be humane.
The mention of the squire is not irrelevant; there was in that humanity
something of unconscious aristocracy. One of the respects in which the rational
epoch was immeasurably superior to our own was in the radiant patience with
which it would follow a train of thought. But it is only fair to say that in
this logic there was something of leisure, and indeed we must not forget how
much of the first rational reform of the age came from above. It was a time of
despots who were also deists or even, like Frederick the Great, practically
atheists. But Frederick was sometimes humanitarian if he was never human.
Joseph of Austria, offending his people by renouncing religious persecution,
was very like a squire offending the village by repressing witch-burning. But
in considering the virtues of the age, we must not forget that it had a very
fine ideal of honourable poverty; the Stoic idea of Jefferson and Robespierre.
It also believed in hard work, and worked very hard in the details of reform. A
man like Bentham toiled with ceaseless tenacity in attacking abuse after abuse.
But people hardly realized that his utilitarianism was creating the new
troubles of Capitalism, any more than that Frederick of Prussia was making the
problem of modern militarism.
Perhaps the perfect moment of every mortal thing is short, even of mortal
things dealing with immortal, as was the best moment of the Early Church or the
Middle Ages. Anyhow the best moment of rationalism was very short. Things always
overlap, and Bentham and Jefferson inherited from something that had already
passed its prime. Not for long did man remain in that state of really sane and
sunny negation. For instance, having covered the period with the great name of
Voltaire, I may well be expected to add the name of Rousseau. But even in
passing from one name to the other, we feel a fine shade of change which is not
mere progression. The rationalist movement is tinged with the romantic
movement, which is to lead men back as well as forward. They are asked to
believe in the General Will, that is the soul of the people; a mystery. By the
time the French Revolution is passed, it is elemental that things are loose
that have not been rationalized. Danton has said, "It is treason to the people
to take away the dream". Napoleon has been crowned, like Charlemagne, by a
Pope. And when the dregs of Diderot's bitterness were reached; when they
dragged the Goddess of Reason in triumph through Notre Dame, the smouldering
Gothic images could look down on that orgy more serenely then than when
Voltaire began to write; awaiting their hour. The age was ended when these men
thought it was beginning. Their own mystical maenad frenzy was enough to prove
it: the goddess of Reason was dead.
One word may be added, to link up the age with many other ages. It will be
noted that it is not true, as many suppose, that the rational attack on
Christianity came from the modern discoveries in material science. It had
already come, in a sense it had already come and gone, before these discoveries
really began. They were pursued persistently partly through a tradition that
already existed. But men were not rationalistic because they were scientists.
Rather they became scientists because they were rationalists. Here as everywhere
the soul of man went first, even when it denied itself.
~G.K. Chesterton: From The Spice of Life and Other Essays.
(Originally a contribution to An Outline of Christianity; the Story of our Civilization. Vol. IV. Christianity and Modern Thought, 1926. The Waverley Book Co., London.)