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Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Lord of the World, II: Introducing Robert Hugh Benson (1871-1914)

We closed yesterday’s posting about Pope Francis’s “endorsement” of Robert Hugh Benson’s science fiction satire Lord of the World with the question, Who is this guy Benson, and why should anybody today care about “Catholic” novels written over a century ago?  By a Dead, White, European Male yet?

None genuine without this cover.
 First and foremost, because you might want to read something worth reading as well as entertaining.  Benson’s Lord of the World, while never at the top of any bestseller list, has sold well for over a century, and still stacks up against a numerous coterie of very pale imitations.  Frankly, a lot of Benson’s imitators just don’t “get it,” and they miss the main point he was making; don't let the Catholic veneer fool you: it’s not a prophecy, but a satire.

Maybe it’s because, as G.K. Chesterton pointed out, people have become so used to sneering at anything they don’t understand (like any organized religion), and confusing ridicule with satire almost as much as they confuse faith with reason (another thing that Chesterton deprecated), that they don’t recognize the real thing when it comes along, and wouldn’t even if it bit them on their broad and spreading fundament.

R.H. "Hugh" Benson
And Lord of the World takes rather large chunks out of one’s posterior if one happens to buy in to that Manichean mutability of the modern mind of which Chesterton had a few (thousand) pithy things to say as well.  Benson practically rams it down the reader’s throat . . . and then apologizes if (in his words) he has screamed at you a little too loudly.

Given that, however, who was this guy?

Nicholas Cardinal Wiseman
Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson wrote half a century after Nicholas Cardinal Wiseman (1802-1865) published his novel Fabiola (1854) and John Henry Cardinal Newman (1801-1890) published his novels, Loss and Gain (1848) and Callista (1855).  Benson, however, was the only one of the three who made popular fiction a centerpiece of his ministry.

A young J.H. Newman
In common with both Wiseman and Newman, however, Benson appeared to regard fiction, however insightful or well crafted, as secondary to his primary mission in life.  Wiseman sought to show that faith and reason, especially in their aspects of religion and science, are not in opposition.  Newman worked tirelessly to present the full truths of the Catholic faith to both Catholics and Protestants, principally by adhering to the motto he chose as Cardinal: Cor ad Cor Loquitur, “Heart Speaks to Heart.”

That was not what Benson was trying to do.  He was by far the most popular writer of the three, although we have to use that term advisedly these days.  He appealed to Catholics, Protestants, and even non-Christians because his themes were universal, even if they appeared in Catholic clothing.  Wiseman might be the more learned, Newman the better writer and more profound scholar, but Benson spoke more to the task to which every human being, regardless of his or her specific religion, is set.  That is, becoming more fully human not only by conforming one’s self to God’s Nature, but also by fulfilling God’s particular plan for each individual.

Dan'l Webster, sans Devil
From the Just Third Way perspective, of course, fulfilling God’s plan requires that one have the power to do so — “power” is, after all, defined as “the ability for doing.”  And, as readers of this blog are aware (and as American statesman Daniel Webster declared), “Power naturally and necessarily follows property.”

Pope Leo XIII
Leo XIII, who was pope as Benson was growing up and who clearly influenced his decision to become a Catholic, was explicit about the necessity for widespread capital ownership in his landmark encyclical Rerum Novarum — “On Capital and Labor.”  After first making painfully clear that ownership of capital is a natural, inalienable right inhering in each and every child, woman, and man on the face of the earth, the pope declared,

“We have seen that this great labor question cannot be solved save by assuming as a principle that private ownership must be held sacred and inviolable.  The law, therefore, should favor ownership, and its policy should be to induce as many as possible of the people to become owners.”  (Rerum Novarum, § 46.)

Benson’s focus on how a person applies basic moral and ethical principles to his or her station in life is why the English satirist Evelyn Waugh remarked in his essay on Benson that appeared as an introduction to the 1956 Regnery edition of The History of Richard Raynal, Solitary, that Benson’s work was chiefly concerned with the question of vocation, that is, one’s particular “calling” in life.

To Benson, as we will see in the next posting in this series, the purpose of life was, well, to have a purpose.  To waste it doing nothing except gratifying one’s own whims was, to him, anathema.

Sources for Benson’s novels and related material: