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Monday, March 9, 2015

Lord of the World, XV: A Perfect Society?

Welcome to the final posting in our long digression into the world of Msgr. Robert Hugh Benson, author of Lord of the World, recommended reading by Pope Francis and other intelligent people.  That was a dangerous thing for the pope to do.  People don’t understand straightforward teachings of the Catholic Church or any other moral authority.  How are they supposed to understand something as subtle as satire?

The problem is, people haven’t understood.  They missed Benson’s message completely: that when humanity is allowed to follow its natural bent, without interference from the forces of secularism or socialism, this world will be a proper training ground to prepare us for the next one.  To this, we of the Just Third Way would add that capitalism, too, prevents people from being themselves by virtually ensuring that few people have either the opportunity or means to acquire and possess capital, and thus remain powerless before the private sector or State élite.

To carry his message in The Dawn of All, Benson again used the satiric technique he had perfected in Lord of the World. The earlier novel took everything that the materialists and secular humanists considered best in the world and carried it out to its logical conclusion. The result was the end of the world. In The Dawn of All, Benson took everything that Edwardian England professed to hate or despise most in Catholicism and, by carrying out an extremely exaggerated reductio ad absurdum, showed that it could result in the foundation of a new age of peace and prosperity — the dawn of all.

Not that Benson viewed his fantasy as the blueprint for an ideal society — far from it. As Martindale made clear,

“Benson wrote often and emphatically that he did not for a moment expect the pictured solution to realize itself, and that he even hoped it would not. Neither Science, nor the State, nor Religion would ever, he was convinced, find themselves in such mutual relations as he had invented.”

"What the hell are they up to now? ... Ah, the police will explain matters."
One favorite if brief passage in the novel is the toss-off line by one of the characters to the effect that a now-independent Ireland had granted “Home Rule” to all its colonies rapidly, with very little trouble and, apparently, to the benefit of the entire British Empire. This is a rather trenchant comment on the “Irish Question” that consumed Imperial politicians for nearly the whole of the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries until the frustration finally exploded in the “Easter Rising” of 1916, two years after Benson’s death, the centennial of which is next year, for all you Hibernians.

Unsinkable ... except by God.
One topical allusion that may send a chill down the spine of more sensitive readers is the mention of “Titanic-class liners” — a reference that helps date the novel as well. (Benson also remarked on a very old nobleman who had been present as a boy at the coronation of George V — which took place in 1910, another topical reference that puts the writing of the book squarely in 1911.) The Titanic was under construction at the time Benson wrote The Dawn of All, and was the largest human artifact built up to that time, with the exception of the pyramids.

Ironically, Benson was returning from a lecture tour in the United States in April 1912 when the liner on which he was traveling suddenly changed course. The captain was responding to the distress call sent out by the Titanic, but went back to his original course when it became obvious he could not reach the doomed ship in time.

The novel itself incorporates some minor faults. More concerned with demonstrating the extraordinary nature of the ordinary, Benson tended to become somewhat too much immersed in some of his background material. He gave his fascination with technology full rein, and spent just a little too much page space describing his fantastic inventions in detail — even though he was fully aware that the science was seriously flawed.

"Democracy is the most useful form of government."
Benson also presented a distorted idea of Catholic political concepts. In common with many English Catholics, Benson was concerned with demonstrating his political loyalty to the British crown while maintaining his religious independence. He appears to have believed that the so-called “Divine Right of Kings” — the idea that God directly endows civil rulers with the right to rule — was somehow consistent with Catholic teachings. In any event, Pius XI’s pointed repudiation of the “Divine Right of Kings” (preceded by the writings of Sts. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and Robert Cardinal Bellarmine), was fifteen years in the future when Benson wrote.

Unusually for a man who wrote a short biography of St. Thomas à Becket, who died resisting Henry II’s attempts to take over the Church in England, Benson also seemed to support the idea of an “established church.” This concept was anathema in the Middle Ages, and only gained a foothold in England with the Tudors, who also abolished popular sovereignty and the elective kingship. (It comes as a surprise to many people that Richard III Plantagenet was elected king of England by the parliament. Henry VII Tudor, however, claimed the throne by virtue of an ephemeral “right of conquest,” and was “confirmed” — not elected — by the parliament after judicious threats.)

"More? You want more? (Satire)?"
Unfortunately, some readers of The Dawn of All have taken it not as satire, but as the blueprint of an ideal society. Lest we look on these individuals with condescension, however, recall that St. Thomas More’s Utopia has been understood by many academics in the same way — and in spite of St. Thomas’s clear statements to the contrary.

The modern commentator tends to forget or ignores the fact that More was a lawyer and knew exactly what he was talking about. More put the tale of Utopia in the mouth of a man whose name loosely translates as “Lying Traveler Who Tells Fantastic Tales” — “Raphael Hythloday.” Nevertheless, not a few of today’s experts continue to insist that the book is actually a plea for communism and a condemnation of private property — ideas specifically refuted by More. Similarly, Benson stated in the very beginning of The Dawn of All that it is not to be taken seriously as a detailed factual or literal account. In the preface he calls it, in fact, a “parable.”

For that reason, when reading either Lord of the World or The Dawn of All, we should keep in mind what Benson was writing, and not, necessarily, what we hope or would like to find in the novel. Remember we’re reading a satire, not a blueprint for social order. Above all, of course, bring your sense of humor — and prepare to be entertained.