Father Joseph’s Folly

Posted by Mike on April 6, 2016 in Books |No Comments

Father Joseph, a barefooted Capuchin monk, served as an advisor to Cardinal Richelieu. This pious man—who spent hours a day in orison contemplating Calvary, and who wrote poems about the Crusades betraying a deep sense of bloodlust—pushed for policies that led to the Thirty Years’ War and created the conditions for the World Wars in the twentieth century. Or so believes Aldous Huxley in his moral study of the mystic, Grey Eminence (1941). Not for everyone, but a thoughtful book for those who find the passages below of interest (quotes from the Carrol & Graf: 1985 edition).

Any given event in any part of the universe has as its determining conditions all previous and contemporary events in all parts of the universe. Those, whoever, who make it their business to investigate the causes of what goes on around them habitually ignore the overwhelming majority of contemporary and antecedent happenings … The method adopted is always the same—that of over-simplification … No episode in history can be entirely irrelevant to any other subsequent episode. But some events are related, for our practical purposes, more significantly than others. This friar … his thoughts and feelings and desires were among the significantly determining conditions of the world in which we live today … In the long chain of crime and madness which binds the present world to its past, one of the most fatally important links was the Thirty Years’ War. (16-8)

Disinterestedness and active kindness wield an extraordinary influence over men’s minds and are the sources of a curious kind of non-compulsive power. In the first fifty years of their existence the Capuchins had thoroughly earned this power and influence. It is one of the tragedies of history that this moral force should everywhere have been exploited, by the rulers of church and state, for furtherance of their own generally sinister ends. This harnessing by evil of the power generated by goodness, is one of the principal and most tragic themes of human history. (52-3)

That this sort of thing should ever have carried conviction to anybody seems now completely incomprehensible. The fact that it actually did so is a salutary reminder that the frames of reference within which men do their reasoning and feeling do not remain the same, and that at any given moment of history certain thoughts are strictly unthinkable, certain sentiments, impossible to experience. (93-4)

Thanks to a certain kind of intellectual ‘progress,’ the rulers of the modern world no longer believe that they will be tortured everlastingly, if they are wicked. The eschatological sanction, which was one of the principal weapons in the hands of the prophets of past times, has disappeared. This would not matter, if moral had kept pace with intellectual ‘progress.’ But it has not. Twentieth-century rulers behave just as vilely and ruthlessly as did rulers in the seventeenth or any other century. But unlike their predecessors, they do not lie awake at nights wondering whether they are damned. (156-7)

About politics one can make only one completely unquestionable generalization, which is that it is impossible for statesmen to foresee, for more than a very short time, the results of any course of large-scale political action … A single victory is now held to justify a Te Deum, and if the policy yields apparently successful results for only a few years, the statesman feels satisfied and his sycophants are lavish in their praise of his genius … Thus, Richelieu is praised by modern writers as a very great and far-sighted statesman, even though it is perfectly clear that the actions he undertook for the aggrandizement of the Bourbon dynasty created the social and economic and political conditions, which led to the downfall of that dynasty, the rise of Prussia and the catastrophes of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. His policy is praised as if it had been eminently successful, and those who objected to it are blamed for their short-sighted views. (294-7)

If history is an expression of the divine will, it is so mainly in a negative sense. The crimes and insanities of large-scale human societies are related to God’s will only in so far as they are acts of disobedience to that will, and it is only in this sense that they and the miseries resulting from them can properly be regarded as providential … This brings us to the heart of that great paradox of politics—the fact that political action is necessary and at the same time incapable of satisfying the needs which called it into existence. (304-5)

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