Saint Hilary of Poitiers and the Unravelling of Western Culture

Today is the feast day of Saint Hilary of Poitiers (c. 310 – c. 368), who was a hugely significant figure in the early Church, named ‘Hammer of the Arians’ and ‘the Athanasius of the West’ for his tireless support of Nicene orthodoxy against the Arianism that had taken hold of the Christian world during his time, doing much the same job as Saint Athanasius did in the East, and also being exiled as Athanasius was (though just the once in Hilary’s case). Born in the Gallic town of Poitiers to a well-off pagan family, he later (with his wife and children) became a Christian, convinced of the Church’s claims by study of philosophy, and was baptised in 345. In 353/354, he was elected unanimously to the bishopric of Poitiers, where the people had a great love for his person, but was exiled to Phrygia soon after in 356 by the Emperor Constantius II, who was petitioned to do so by a group of Arian bishops that Hilary had denounced at the Synod of Beziers (referred to by the holy Doctor as a ‘synod of false apostles.’)

During his four-year exile, Saint Hilary wrote extensively on Trinitarian doctrine, drew up commentaries on synods and councils, and produced summary confessions of faith for the nurture of orthodoxy throughout the Church (indeed, it is said that his exile was ended prematurely because the Arians of Phrygia found him to be thwarting their efforts so much there that they sent him back to Gaul!) He also attended the Council of Seleucia (359) at which great divisions amongst the bishops were made manifest over attempts by some (ratified by the Emperor and the Arian bishops in power at the time at later councils) to say that the Son was homoion or ‘like’ the Father, but not of the same substance as Him. Despite vigorously protesting this decision, Saint Hilary also showed a conciliatory approach to those who took this position, showing a willingness to meet people half way and, by showing them the incompleteness of their view, lead them to the Truth:

I know dearest Brethren, that some acknowledge the likeness, while denying equality…If they say that there is a difference between likeness and equality, I ask what is the basis of equality. For if the Son is like the Father in essence and goodness and glory and time, I ask in what way does he appear not to be equal…If the Father has given to the Son, whom he has generated impassibly, a nature that was not other than his own, nor different from his own, it must have been his own nature that he gave. Thus “like” means “his own”; and that entails equality, the absence of difference. Things which show no difference are one; not by unity of person, but by equality of nature.

from De Synodis, 74, in The Later Christian Fathers (1987), p.49, Oxford University Press.

                As well as being an unfailing supporter of Nicene orthodoxy though, Saint Hilary was also a very learned man in secular matters, and the conciliatory approach shown to his theological opponents is mirrored in his embrace of all things good and true in the culture around him (something of the breadth of his learning is noted in a recent article by Christopher Howse here). This willingness to embrace good things in the surrounding culture is true of both Hilary and the Church as a whole. In his book The Tumbler of God: Chesterton as Mystic, Fr. Robert Wild picks up on something written by G. K. Chesterton in his biography of William Blake that pertains to this holistic approach. It has been the nature of the Church to combine ‘three strands’: its Faith, the sense of right order and reason inherited from Greece and Rome, and the guardianship of all things invisible, both good and bad – since the 18th Century (at least) though, these strands have begun to unravel:

These three men, of which Chesterton says each one of us is comprised, are not like strata of a rock, but the strands of a rope. Since they have come into existence, no one strand of the three can be unravelled from the rope without the other two also being untwined and becoming limp and weak. The first unravelling of the Christian strand in the 18th century resulted in humanitarianism, or compassion for the individual. “This personal humanitarianism is the relic of Christianity – perhaps (if I may say so) the dregs of Christianity. Of this humanitarianism or sentimentalism, or whatever it can best be called, Blake was the enthusiastic inheritor.”…

…At the same time, in the 18th century, the Roman strand of reason and order was being detached from the Church and reshaped into a grotesque parody of enlightenment. This left the “man of the forest,” who was also set loose and unravelled, as it were, from his companions, the Christian and the Roman. The occult residues of this element, which consisted of paganism and pagan magic, were never completely absent or eradicated by the tempering forces of Christianity. Now they were going to resurge with a vengeance.

The Tumbler of God: Chesterton as Mystic (2013), pp.140-141, Angelico Press.

                Saint Hilary of Poitiers is emblematic of that far-reaching and all-inclusive vision which brought together the Catholic Faith with all that was good and true around it, and which provided a means for discerning the rightness or wrongness of spiritual insight, ever wary that spirituality can be informed by evil spirits as well as the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, whether one likes to admit this or not (and many today do not), this vision is what has informed, underpinned and sustained all that is at the heart of European culture. During the 18th Century (though I would contend that this process has its roots in the late 15th and early 16th centuries) however, these strands came apart, leading to the errors of spiritualism and rationalism. We see the first of these in our own age under the aegis of the New Age movement, and the second in the ongoing project of secularisation which, in seeing naked reason as the sole solution to our problems, and in rejecting the Christianity which made our culture what it is, has left us culturally confused and deeply vulnerable as a result.

One can see this confusion in some of the response to the awful events in Paris recently. The attacks on the Charlie Hebdo offices and elsewhere have made more evident the extent to which Europeans really do not know what their heritage is, or where it comes from. Mass rallies have taken place in defence of free speech, yet those attending seem to be ignorant of the fact that the kind of free speech they are defending is not only without limits but also without foundation. As I have written before here, secularism has no values of its own but rather exists in a parasitic fashion; yet many continue to saw off the branch they sit upon by trying to eliminate all that remains of Christianity in our culture – in doing so, they leave themselves without foundations and thus are unable to deal with another culture (Islamic) which has a very strong sense of what it is about.

That anyone who dares to suggest the attackers in Paris were indeed motivated by their Islamic faith, or that they might have found a great deal more justification for their acts within their own scriptures and tradition than is commonly supposed, or that multiculturalism is not perhaps as sustainable an idea as its supporters believe (especially when not based on a strong underlying sense of cultural identity in the country in which it is applied), is either ridiculed, insulted or marginalised, shows us several things. Firstly, that commitment to free speech is not as absolute as proclaimed, but is highly selective (something also evidenced by the increasing number of Christians losing their jobs because they have not towed the line re same-sex marriage). Secondly, that despite claims to be meeting terror with solidarity and not giving in to fear, the reluctance to accept that these events might have anything to do with Islam actually highlights the existence of a deep-seated fear of causing offence – a fear which thus undermines genuine free speech.

Thirdly though, and most importantly regarding what I have written here about the Church and Western culture, we see that we have no real idea of what free speech (or freedom in general) is actually for. Contrary to its being a freedom to say or do whatever one likes, without limit, the right to liberty is the right to not be prevented from seeking one’s fulfilment in life, i.e.; by seeking all that is good and true. Having separated liberty from any sense of objective goodness and truth, or of the idea that humanity may have a common goal (instead reframing happiness in terms of the satisfaction of any number of short-term, material desires), it has become a buzzword, disconnected from reality and useless in its actual application to our long-term wellbeing. The lionisation of naked reason and naked liberty, unbeholden to any formative tradition or values, has left us flapping in the wind, shouting in defence of the right to attack our own culture from within (something that Charlie Hebdo was in fact dedicated to doing).

The ‘three strands’ of our culture have become almost fully unravelled now – the only ‘spiritualities’ spoken of favourably are those that emanate from the dark corners of paganism, the Faith itself is routinely ridiculed (and has itself in some cases become increasingly narrow, one example of this being the sentimental humanitarianism Chesterton wrote about) and we worship reason without roots, ignoring context as well as the basic tenets of logic which are its basic tools, using it as a synonym for positivism and scientism (perhaps because, if we were to actually employ those basic tools, we might not like where they lead us). As they have gradually unravelled, so has our culture, leaving us without any real means with which to counter the growing threat from another cultural expression which does not show any signs of going away or of decreasing the intensity of its mission. If we are to reclaim reason and liberty, if we are to reinvigorate Europe again, the answer is not further immersion within the secular project that the EU seems determined to propagate; it lies within the recovery of the Catholic Faith that Saint Hilary of Poitiers worked so hard to defend.

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3 thoughts on “Saint Hilary of Poitiers and the Unravelling of Western Culture

  1. All too true. Excellently put. This repudiation of our religious and cultural patrimony is what Roger Scruton refers to in his writings as the ‘refusal to inherit’. Nature, as we know, abhors a vacuum, and radical Islam is striving might and main to fill it.

    • Thanks for the comments John, particularly the reference to Roger Scruton, who as you say, has consistently pointed to the dangers of our ‘refusal to inherit’. There are many things that we could list that characterise the errors of our age, but certainly this deep-rooted desire to throw off the supposed shackles of the past underpins them all. Our leaders’ blindness to the threat of Islam is, I fear, a self-imposed one for the most part, as to acknowledge it would be to acknowledge how much of our own cultural identity they have already eroded.

  2. Pingback: C. S. Lewis: On Education as Opposed to Training | Journey Towards Easter

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