Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Enthusiasm, I: "These Torrents Which Threaten"

We come now to the second book in our series on common sense: Monsignor Ronald Knox’s Enthusiasm (1950).  Chronologically, of course, Enthusiasm was the third one written; Fulton Sheen’s God and Intelligence was published in 1925, and G.K. Chesterton’s St. Thomas Aquinas: The “Dumb Ox” was published in 1933.  Our goal being getting people to understand the point, however, we think that Enthusiasm should come second instead of third.

It also works out that Chesterton’s book covers (mostly) the Medieval period, Knox’s the early modern period, and Sheen’s subject is the aberrations and changes forced on the philosophy of common sense in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.  It thus all works out if our goal is to try and go back to the roots of the problem and see what can be done to try and get matters back on track.

Msgr. Ronald Knox
Thus, in Enthusiasm, Knox was, in a sense, following up on Chesterton’s examination of what went wrong: the shift away from the Aristotelian-Thomist understanding of the natural law.  Knox therefore concentrated on why those whom he called “enthusiasts” did what they did, describing and analyzing the results of error, rather than (as Chesterton did) refuting the fundamental error itself.

The book, as Knox described it, was the work of a lifetime.  That he assigned great importance to the issue is evident from what he wrote in his dedication to Evelyn Waugh.  As Knox said,

“There is a kind of book about which you may say, almost without exaggeration, that it is the whole of a man’s literary life, the unique child of his thought.  Other writings he may have published, on this or that occasion; please God, the work was not scamped, nor was he indifferent to the praise and the blame of his critics.  But it was all beside the mark.  The Book was what mattered. . . . Such a thing, for better or worse, is this book which follows.”  (Ronald Knox, Enthusiasm: A Chapter in the History of Religion with Special Reference to the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1961, v.)

A trumpet blast refuting errors?
Knox originally intended the book as “a broadside, a trumpet-blast, an end of controversy. . . . here, I would say, is what happens inevitably, if once the principle of Catholic unity is lost!” (Ibid.)  That, however, changed over the course of the thirty years it took to write the book.  As he said, “But somehow, in the writing, my whole treatment of the subject became different; the more you got to know the men, the more human did they become, for better or worse; you were more concerned to find out why they thought as they did than to prove it was wrong.” (Ibid., vi.)

. . . not to mention the fact that proving what they did was wrong would have meant re-plowing ground already covered by Chesterton.

This may, in fact, have been what changed the situation for Knox: Sheen’s and Chesterton’s identification and refutation of the principal error, the shift from the Intellect to the Will as the basis of the natural law.  Sheen’s detailed scholarly analysis of the transformation of western thought, and Chesterton’s insightful popularization of the problem — and the fact that Sheen and Chesterton had been almost completely ignored on this point — may have brought Knox to the realization that a different approach was needed.  Not a rehash of the problem, but an examination of the disastrous effects.

A decline in enthusiasm.
On the other hand, Knox may have assumed that Sheen’s and Chesterton’s efforts would be effective in their efforts to refute and combat error, at least inside the Catholic Church — it’s a little difficult to say, not having Knox to confirm or deny anything.  If that were the case (i.e., the assumption that Sheen and Chesterton would be successful), Knox’s work could serve as a graphic example of what had gone wrong in the past, and from what adherence to sound reason could deliver the Church in the future.  As he said, commenting on the seeming decline of enthusiasm in England by the middle of the twentieth century,

“Account for it how we will, . . . it is clear that our fellow countrymen are less susceptible, in these days, to the emotional appeal.  Perhaps it is a closed chapter, this chapter in the history of religion.

“Yet something may be written about enthusiasm by way of epilogue; if you will, of epitaph.  There may even be a moral in it; history teaches us our lessons, more often than not, obliquely.  Not what happened, but the meaning of what happened, concerns us.  At what sources do they feed, these torrents which threaten, once and again, to carry off our peaceful country-side in ruin?”  (Ibid., 578.)

Up to a point, Knox’s optimism seemed justified.  The “Catholic Moment” (although Fr. Richard Neuhaus referred to something else in his book) seemed to have arrived.  The churches were filled, Catholic writers, entertainers, and even politicians were constantly in the public eye, and favorably so.  Within a few years, Fulton Sheen would become a media phenomenon, holding television audiences spellbound with no props other than his ecclesiastical garb and a chalkboard.  Governments, especially in the United States, seemed to have implemented social programs based on Catholic social teaching.

But was everything as calm and settled, even triumphant, as it seemed?


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