16 September 2016

(4) Anglican Patrimony and the importance of the Argumentum ad hominem

But Blessed John Henry Newman went far beyond the gentle Procrustean Bed of the argumentum ad hominem. I can think of no satire more ruthless than his novel Loss and Gain. With exquisite cruelty he exposes the hypocrisies of the comfortable domestic affluence, combined with a dilettante affection for the superficial trappings of Catholicism, enjoyed by a certain type of Establishment, monied, gothic-romanticist Anglican. Clearly, it touched a raw nerve in Newman, and the Novel was the only way in which he could express the violence of his feelings. And violent they were. Not much more gentle was his ironic mockery of those who believed that the Birmingham Oratory contained oubliettes in which heiresses were tortured to death for their inheritances. Newman, frankly, took no prisoners. And his mode of attack is, essentially, to laugh at his adversaries. This, surely, is the most merciless sort of put-down imaginable. If someone criticises you in a flat, humdrum, terribly earnest style, he doesn't get to you. He is a poor, sad, old thing. But if he makes the world laugh at you ... ! And the victims of this sort of attack ... to quote the martial figure of Corporal Jones ... don't like it up 'em.

Another brilliant Anglican who brought his satirical gifts into the Catholic Church was Mgr Ronald Knox. He argued that "our sense of the ridiculous is not, in its original application, a child's toy at all, but a weapon, deadly in its efficacy, entrusted to us for exposing the shams and hypocrisies of the world. The tyrant may arm himself in triple mail, may surround himself with bodyguards, may sow his kingdom with a hedge of spikes, so that free speech is crushed and criticism muzzled. Nay, worse, he may so debauch the consciences of his subjects with false history and with sophistical argument that they come to believe him the thing he gives himself out for, a creature half-divine, a heaven-sent deliverer*. One thing there is that he still fears; one anxiety still bids him turn this way and that to scan the faces of his slaves. He is afraid of laughter. The satirist stands there, like the little child in the procession when the Emperor walked through the capital in his famous new clothes; his is the tiny voice that interprets the consciousness of a thousand onlookers: 'But, Mother, he has no clothes on at all!'"

I mean no disrespect to a great Pontiff when I suggest that Knox's satirical demolitions of 'Modern Biblical Scholarship' (The identity of Pseudo-Bunyan; Materials for a Boswellian problem; etc.) were more effective than any pronouncement of the Magisterium of S Pius X. The great, monolithic, illiberal structure of Liberal Theology, its censoring tentacles strangling every academic journal and printing house, had no defences against Knox's wit and the laughter it generated.
*This section bears reading in tandem with the paragraph in Mit Brennende Sorge which describes Hitler.
To be continued.

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