The Need for Words, not Deeds

When something needs to be said, one can usually rely on Hillaire Belloc to say it.  Part of understanding the value of his famous Europe and the Faith is to know the context from which it arose.

The turn of the 20th century spawned a host of historiography centered around the notion of “deeds, not words,” a near worship of activity itself.  One sees this in Rafael Sabatini’s famous Life of Cesare Borgia (1912), the man whom Machiavelli supposedly modeled many of his thoughts in his The Prince.  Concerning Rodrigo, Ceseare’s notorious father, he writes,

Say of him that he was ambitious, greedy, and prey to carnal lusts.  . . . But do not let it be said that he was wanting either in energy or in will, for he was energy and will incarnate.

One gets the sense that Sabatini almost wants to excuse Borgia for the sake of his “energy” and “will.”

Later when contrasting the papal reigns of Sixtus IV and Innocent VIII, Sabatini seems to partially excuse the wars and murders of Sixtus for the sake of his “energy,” while condemning Innocent for merely doddering on his throne, attempting only to give church offices to his sons.  I mean no defense of Innocent VIII, but the principle of deeds, deeds, and still more deeds needs questioning.  We want bad people to be lazy.  Deeds have no meaning merely for being “deeds.”  Teddy Roosevelt, of this same era, said that,

In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.

but I’m not sure I agree with him.  If one stood near a precipice in a blinding fog, the best thing would be to walk away from the precipice, the next best would be do nothing and wait for the fog to clear.  The worst thing would be to make the wrong decision and plunge to your death.  Chesterton mimicked  the “success” ideology well when he parodied the early-20th century style, writing in 1908,

In playing cards it is very necessary to avoid the mistake (commonly made by maudlin humanitarians) of permitting your opponent to win the game.  You must have grit and snap and go in to win.  The days of idealism are over.  . . . It has now been definitely proved that in any game when two are playing, IF ONE DOES NOT WIN THE OTHER WILL.

He too was wary of “deeds for deeds sake.  In his essay, “The Fallacy of Success,” he points out that success comes really only in two ways.  One, you become really good at something.  Two, you cheat.  Mere activity itself gets one nowhere.

Belloc seeks to counter the “success” narrative that arose in the Victorian era concerning the fall of Rome.  According to this narrative, Rome fell by getting lazy, by losing its “grit and snap.”  At their point of low ebb, down came the hardy, “energetic” German barbarians from the north to sweep it all away.  It was these “energetic” types that brought back civilization after Rome’s fall.

Bilge, from stem to stern, Belloc argues.  For his day (1920) Belloc makes the radical claim that in the later empire, many barbarians were Romans, and many Romans barbarians.  Thus, what brought Rome down was civil war, not an invasion.  In this respect, Belloc has been echoed recently by the eminent late antiquity scholar Peter Brown, among others.  It had nothing to do at all with northern “energy” and southern “ennui.”

But ideas have consequences, and Belloc, one of the earliest and most strident critics of Fascism, could see buried beneath this “energy” thesis a grim racial specter.  The idea of a pure and energetic northern stock that periodically descended upon Europe to revive civilization (this theory has them doing it again during the Reformation) had already taken root in 1920 in Germany and would spread.  Bad ideas have bad consequences, especially in the lives of bad people.

I cannot improve on Chesterton, who writes in his essay, “The Unpractical Man,”

There is a popular philosophical joke intended to typify the endless and useless arguments of philosophers; I mean the joke about which came first, the chicken or the egg? I am not sure that properly understood, it is so futile an inquiry after all. I am not concerned here to enter on those deep metaphysical and theological differences of which the chicken and egg debate is a frivolous, but a very felicitous, type. The evolutionary materialists are appropriately enough represented in the vision of all things coming from an egg, a dim and monstrous oval germ that had laid itself by accident. That other supernatural school of thought (to which I personally adhere) would be not unworthily typified in the fancy that this round world of ours is but an egg brooded upon by a sacred unbegotten bird; the mystic dove of the prophets. But it is to much humbler functions that I here call the awful power of such a distinction.

Whether or no the living bird is at the beginning of our mental chain, it is absolutely necessary that it should be at the end of our mental chain. The bird is the thing to be aimed at–not with a gun, but a life-bestowing wand. What is essential to our right thinking is this: that the egg and the bird must not be thought of as equal cosmic occurrences recurring alternatively forever. They must not become a mere egg and bird pattern, like the egg and dart pattern. One is a means and the other an end; they are in different mental worlds. Leaving the complications of the human breakfast-table out of account, in an elemental sense, the egg only exists to produce the chicken. But the chicken does not exist only in order to produce another egg. He may also exist to amuse himself, to praise God, and even to suggest ideas to a French dramatist. Being a conscious life, he is, or may be, valuable in himself. Now our modern politics are full of a noisy forgetfulness; forgetfulness that the production of this happy and conscious life is after all the aim of all complexities and compromises. We talk of nothing but useful men and working institutions; that is, we only think of the chickens as things that will lay more eggs. Instead of seeking to breed our ideal bird, the eagle of Zeus or the Swan of Avon, or whatever we happen to want, we talk entirely in terms of the process and the embryo. The process itself, divorced from its divine object, becomes doubtful and even morbid; poison enters the embryo of everything; and our politics are rotten eggs.

Idealism is only considering everything in its practical essence. Idealism only means that we should consider a poker in reference to poking before we discuss its suitability for wife-beating; that we should ask if an egg is good enough for practical poultry-rearing before we decide that the egg is bad enough for practical politics. But I know that this primary pursuit of the theory (which is but pursuit of the aim) exposes one to the cheap charge of fiddling while Rome is burning. A school, of which Lord Rosebery is representative, has endeavored to substitute for the moral or social ideals which have hitherto been the motive of politics a general coherency or completeness in the social system which has gained the nick-name of “efficiency.” I am not very certain of the secret doctrine of this sect in the matter. But, as far as I can make out, “efficiency” means that we ought to discover everything about a machine except what it is for. There has arisen in our time a most singular fancy: the fancy that when things go very wrong we need a practical man. It would be far truer to say, that when things go very wrong we need an unpractical man. Certainly, at least, we need a theorist. A practical man means a man accustomed to mere daily practice, to the way things commonly work. When things will not work, you must have the thinker, the man who has some doctrine about why they work at all. It is wrong to fiddle while Rome is burning; but it is quite right to study the theory of hydraulics while Rome is burning.

It is then necessary to drop one’s daily agnosticism and attempt rerum cognoscere causas. If your aeroplane has a slight indisposition, a handy man may mend it. But, if it is seriously ill, it is all the more likely that some absent-minded old professor with wild white hair will have to be dragged out of a college or laboratory to analyze the evil. The more complicated the smash, the whiter-haired and more absent-minded will be the theorist who is needed to deal with it; and in some extreme cases, no one but the man (probably insane) who invented your flying-ship could possibly say what was the matter with it.

 

Advertisements