For Stuff Non-Catholics Say About the Church Like This

No, this isn’t  a photograph of Karl Marx. That’s Walter Bagehot, former editor of the Economist and a fellow who could write his fanny off. I stumbled upon what follows while tracking down a quote attributed to Blaise Pascal. I’ve become something of an unbeliever in the attributions for quotes that can so easily be found on the internet these days. I want to see the footnotes, or the original text nowadays.

So I was snooping around the electronic shelves of Google Books and found the quote, “All human evil comes from a single cause, man’s inability to sit still in a room,” buried in an article written by Bagehot that was published in an astonishing place.

Would you believe a literary journal of sorts published monthly by the Traveler’s Insurance Company of Hartford Connecticut, Circa 1887? I kid you not.

The piece where Blaise’s quote (from thought #139) was used by Bagehot (how do you pronounce that name!) in a selection entitled Thoughtless Activity, the Curse of Society. Some things never change, do they? The article was taken from a chapter in Bagehot’s book of essays Physics and Politics. And though it was a good article, I was mainly bowled over by the idea that a for-profit insurance company even bothered to publish poetry and essay’s alongside their annual financial and mortality tables. What would Sandy Weill have thought? Fire that guy and hire another actuary! Click on this title line and have a look.

Poking around for more on Bagehot, it seems that he may have been fond of the Catholic Church for a time, early in his career, you know, before more important things took up his time. In his Literary Studies, published several years after his death, his biographer Richard Holt Hutton had this to say about him,

I have no doubt that for seven or eight years of his life the Roman Catholic Church had a great fascination for his imagination, though I do not think that he was ever at all near conversion. He was intimate with all Dr. Newman’s writings. And of these the Oxford sermons, and the poems in the Lyra Apostolica afterwards separately published—partly, I believe, on account of the high estimate of them which Bagehot had himself expressed—were always his special favorites.

Perhaps Bagehot’s brush with Rome was a near-miss, but he certainly wrote favorably of her from France here,

Walter Bagehot on The Catholic Church, from his essay The Coup d’Etat of 1851

I do not know that I can exhibit the way these qualities of the French character operate on their opinions better than by telling you how the Roman Catholic Church deals with them. I have rather attended to it since I came here. It gives sermons almost an interest, their being in French, and to those curious in intellectual matters, it is worth observing. In other times, and even now in out-of-the-way Spain , I suppose it may be true that the Catholic Church has been opposed to inquiry and reasoning. But it is not so now and here.

Loudly from the pens of a hundred writers, from the tongues of a thousand pulpits, in every note of thrilling scorn and exulting derision, she proclaims the contrary. Be she Christ’s workman or Antichrist’s, she knows her work too well.

“Reason, reason, reason!” exclaims she to the philosophers of this world. “Put in practice what you teach if you would have others believe it. Be consistent. Do not prate to us of private judgment, when you are but yourselves repeating what you heard in the nursery, ill-mumbled remnants of a Catholic tradition. No; exemplify what you command; inquire and make search. Seek, and we warn you that ye will never find, yet do as ye will. Shut yourselves up in a room, make your mind a blank, go down (as you speak) into the depth of your consciousness, scrutinize the mental structure, inquire for the elements of belief,— spend years, your best years, in the occupation,—and at length, when your eyes are dim, and your brain hot, and your hands unsteady, then reckon what you have gained.”

“See if you cannot count on your fingers the certainties you have reached; reflect which of them you doubted yesterday, which you may disbelieve tomorrow; or rather, make haste—assume at random some essential credenda,—write down your inevitable postulates, enumerate your necessary axioms, toil on, toil on, spin your spider’s web, adore your own soul, or if ye prefer it, choose some German nostrum; try an intellectual intuition, or the pure reason, or the intelligible ideas, or the mesmeric clairvoyance, and when so, or somehow, you have attained your results, try them on mankind.”

“Don’t go out into the byways and hedges; it is unnecessary. Ring a bell, call in the servants, give them a course of lectures, cite Aristotle, review Descartes, panegyrize Plato, and see if the bonne will understand you. It is you that say Vox populi, vox Dei. You see the people reject you.”

“Or, suppose you succeed,—what you call succeeding. Your books are read; for three weeks or even a season you are the idol of the salons. Your hard words are on the lips of women; then a change comes—a new actress appears at the Theatre Francais or the Opera; her charms eclipse your theories; or a great catastrophe occurs; political liberty, it is said, is annihilated. Il fauti se faire mouchard, is the observation of scoffers. Anyhow you are forgotten. Fifty years may be the gestation of a philosophy, not three its life. Before long, before you go to your grave, your six disciples leave you for some newer master, or to set up for themselves.”

“The poorest priest in the remotest region of the Basses-Alpes has more power over men’s souls than human cultivation. His ill-mouthed Masses move women’s souls—can you? Ye scoff at Jupiter, yet he at least was believed in, you never have been. Idol for idol, the dethroned is better than the unthroned. No, if you would reason, if you would teach, if you would speculate,— come to us.”

“We have our premises ready; years upon years before you were born, intellects whom the best of you delight to magnify, toiled to systematize the creed of ages. Years upon years after you are dead, better heads than yours will find new matter there to define, to divide, to arrange. Consider the hundred volumes of Aquinas. Which of you desire a higher life than that;—to deduce, to subtilize, discriminate, systematize, and decide the highest truth, and to be believed? Yet such was his luck, his enjoyment. He was what you would be. No, no, eredite, credite. Ours is the life of speculation. The cloister is the home for the student. Philosophy is stationary, Catholicism progressive. You call. We are heard,”etc.

So speaks each preacher, according to his ability. And when the dust and noise of present controversies have passed away, and, in the interior of the night, some grave historian writes out the tale of half-forgotten times, let him not forget to observe that, profoundly as the mediaeval Church subdued the superstitious cravings of a painful and barbarous age, in after-years she dealt more discerningly still with the feverish excitement, the feeble vanities, and the dogmatic impatience of an overintellectual generation.

You’ll find Bagehot’s report from France on the electronic stacks of the YIMCatholic Bookshelf.

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Because Napoleon Died a Catholic Death

A few weeks back, my family and I hit the used book sale that is held annually to benefit our local public library. Going to this sale has been an annual event for us, ever since we moved to Tennessee six years ago. It is at that sale where I first picked up the collection of Harvard Classics, where I met Blaise Pascal and Thomas à Kempis.

Now that I’m a Catholic, I go to this sale on the lookout for books about the Faith, and works written by great Catholic authors. 

I hit the jackpot this year, with a treasure trove of titles. Four Faultless Felons by G.K. Chesterton, for example. A paperback from 1956 called The Papal Encyclicals, with writings from St. Peter all the way up to Pope Pius XII. More Chesterton with Father Brown of the Church of Rome, edited by John Peterson. I picked up 17 titles in all, including The Waters of Siloe by Thomas Merton and The Peasant of Garonne by Jacques Maritain.

And the selection I am sharing with you today is from Hilaire Belloc’s biography of a famous French general and Emperor you may have heard of named Napoleon Bonaparte. Published in 1932, and weighing in at 379 pages, in a large hardback sporting “16 Illustrations and 22 Maps,” I’m looking forward to getting to know Napoleon better, through Hilaire Belloc’s pen.

A cursory glance of the volume landed me near the end of the book where the death of the exiled leader is imminent. Much as he did in The Great Heresies, Belloc doesn’t bother with footnotes here. But from what he writes about how Napoleon died, I hope to meet him in heaven.

Here is how Belloc tells the tale,

The Death of Napoleon

In exile on St. Helena

It was nightfall on Sunday, April 29, 1821. Napoleon lay dying. The little iron camp-bed with the silver eagles on its four corners and its green curtains was placed in the middle of the low petty room, its head to the light between two windows, its foot towards the simple fireplace, on the mantlepiece of which, in front of a large square looking-glass, stood the bust of his little son.

Wretched as the room was, it was the best in the shanty of a house—a place that was soon to be turned into common stables and was most suitable perhaps for that. It had been worse, when first the Emperor and the few who followed him came into that exile. They had found shreds of the wall-paper turned moldy and rotten with moisture and the ragged carpet on the floor gnawed into holes by rats. So much had been set right; muslin had been stretched over the walls and fluted round, the ceiling white-washed, and the place reasonably clean.

Napoleon’s Lodgings

It stood not far from the summit of a sort of very wide shallow cup sloping down easterly towards the sea from on of the ridges of that volcanic island (St. Helena in the South Atlantic), the floors of the long low place being somewhat less than 2000 feet above the sea, the noise of which could be heard coming up the funnel from the mouth of the depression below. And up that broad cup of the valley, and from the ocean below too, frequently blew the south-east gales—which the failing Emperor dreaded, finding that they suited him ill.

To the right end of the bed as he lay in such extremity he looked through an open door at the chapel which had been set up as best might be in the next room of the suite, the dining room. He gazed through to the wooden altar which the Chinese workmen (serfs of the East India Company) had set up; and his eyes could rest there on one of the last monuments of his name; the four golden letters “N” embroidered on either corner of the green velvet cloth which covered the two steps.

Through this door that morning he had heard the Sunday Mass which Bertrand’s young son had served. There also was the Tabernacle, rough, amateur, cardboard covered, but ornamented as best might be with gilt paper and the white of it gleaming against the red satin behind, while above stood a great Crucifix in ebony, too large it seemed for the altarpiece. Its great silver figure of Christ dominated the scene. He had given orders that when his last agony should be upon him, the Blessed Sacrament should be exposed and the Prayers of the Dead recited; also, said he, he desired to fulfill all the duties of the Catholic Faith.

Now as he had said these words, Antommarchi—the surgeon attendant upon him, who was an atheist in the spirit of his time,as also from the boast of science that he had, could not restrain a smile; whereat Napoleon, with some remnant of strength, flamed up at him and cried, “Be off! Stupidity fatigues me, but I can forgive shallow wits or even bad manners. I cannot forgive dullness of heart.”

It being not long after dark, Montholon had already taken up his watch at nine o’clock, which he changes alternately with the valet Marchand, and it ran till two o’clock in the morning. But on that day he had occasion to leave the Emperor alone, for this reason, that the priest Vignali was to attend. For Napoleon had said long before, when first he discovered what awaited him in his exile, “I must have a priest about me: I would not die like a dog.”

The Emperor had not feared death. He had seen it coming for now long past, ever since the beginning of the year. For when, on New Year’s Day, Marchand had pulled the curtains in the morning, Napoleon—who loved a joking converse with a familiar, and was devoted to those about him—had said, “Well, and what present have you for me this New Years?”

Marchand had answered, “Sire, the hope of seeing Your Majesty soon set to rights and leaving this air which does you only ill.”

But to such words Napoleon, no longer smiling, had gravely replied, “It will not last long, my son. My end is on me; I cannot carry on much more.”

Said Marchand, “As I see things it is not so.”

And then Napoleon had ended all this by the few words, “It shall be as God wills.”

As his illness had increased upon him he had known more and more that certainly it was death.

There came a time when he could no longer walk or ride out of doors, and when he attempted to do so turned faint. In March his blood had chilled and they needed to put warm clothes about his feet, and by the middle of the month he said to a doctor who begged him to take remedies prescribed, “Well, sir! I am at your orders! But do you not see that death will be to me a gift from Heaven? I do not dread it. I will do nothing to hasten it, but I would try no sortilege to make my life the longer.” And at another time he said, “Death has now been for some weeks beside me upon my pillow,” meaning that he had become familiar with that Visitor.

He had told them also, with more instinctive knowledge than their science possessed, that he was dying of what his father had died of; and so he was—with a cancer in the stomach which was certain soon to make an end; so that he could also say, when his English doctor asked him how he felt upon a certain day, “I shall soon give back to the earth the remnant of that life which it is of such import to the Kings to seize.”

He had asked, while still he could attend to reading, that they should read him Homer for a while; and that same day, Sunday the 29th, he had dictated, as he had dictated upon the day before, what he termed “A Reverie”—would that we possessed it! But now, when the night had come, greater things were at hand. The priest was with him alone.

Napoloeon Bonaparte confessed, and was absolved; his peace with the Faith was made; the Last Sacraments were administered—save for this, that he might not receive the Viaticum since he could retain no food. They therefore dared not give him the Eucharist. But he was at peace, while yet his reason remained to him.

It remained to him still for a brief four days. Upon the next day, the last of April, the Monday, his thoughts being still clear but his weakness very great and the sickness upon him very grievous, he kept his eyes still fixed upon the bust of his little son showing there against the glass at the foot of the bed upon the mantel. His sleep had left him, but he lingered on through May 2 and until the 3rd. Upon the 3rd, the last flicker of his great will being, as he thought, still at his service, he attempted to rise for a moment, but fell back. They gave him wine, and as he tasted it he murmured, “How good is wine!”

With that night of the 3rd, however, all around know that the end was upon him, and all watched. With the morning, before noon, his delirium began, in the frenzy of which at one moment he attempted to seize on Montholon at his side; and in that fever he muttered continually words the whispered confusion of which suggested now this, now that. It is said that the last of them which any mortal could distinguish were, “Army…army…” and “Head of the Army….” But there can be no certain record of such things.

All that day long, all the afternoon, right on through the night till four in the morning of the Saturday, the 5th, that final unconscious communion with the last flicker of this life continued. Drowning the slight murmurs of it, came violent rain for hours against the window panes at either side of the beds head, and mixed with that noise the saying of the Prayers before the Altar. Out of the sea a great wind arose and blew furiously up the valley, shaking the frail and miserable tenement with its gusts and rattling the casements and driving more furiously still the waters of the tempest against the glass.

But as the afternoon grew louder in the heavens without, the Emperor at last lay still, and even the faint whisperings from his lips were no longer heard; but they still moved imperceptibly in breathing. The household were assembled. It was near six in the evening. At nine minutes to the hour, the sunset gun was heard far off down the wind; and the rush of the tropical twilight fell under the hurrying clouds and that now lessening gale all those silent about him saw the change: the mouth half fell, the eyes opened; but they saw nothing of this world any more: Napoleon was dead.

They covered him with the cloak he had worn at Marengo, a Crucifix upon it, and by his side laid his sword.

You better believe that if I can say a prayer for the soul of Dracula, then I can certainly say one for Napoleon’s soul as well. And in the spirit of Lenten almsgiving, I’ll throw another one in for Hilaire Belloc’s soul for good measure too.

Update: Napoleon answers the question “Who is Jesus Christ?”

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