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The Great Heresies: by Hilaire Belloc

September 16, 2011

Having recently read The Hills and the Sea by Hilaire Belloc (in which each chapter is a sketch of some land or region which Belloc visited) I thought I would see what the library might have by the same author.   Thus I am currently reading The Great Heresies. Aside from the historical summaries (which I should really take notes on) here are some of the interesting points/ideas:

“We must begin by a definition, although definition involves a mental effort and therefore repels.  Heresy is the dislocation of a complete and self-supporting scheme by the introduction of a novel denial of some essential part therein.”

I like both of these points; it is terribly important that words actually mean what they are supposed to, especially when you are trying to be precise.  For example, at one point in the section on Arianism Belloc says of its followers: “They have subscribed to an Orthodox phrase, but they interpret that phrase in an heretical fashion.” By which, you may see what I mean.

In the introduction, Belloc argues that heresies (specifically, heresies related to the Catholic Church) are of great significance historically, because what men believe effects how men live.  Since all of Western Europe was built on the Catholic Church and its teachings, a heresy which threatened to change the Church was something which also would have dramatically changed society.  For this reason, whether or not one believes the Catholic Church to be the true Church, it must still be admitted that knowing the histories of the major heresies is profitable.

In the rest of the book, Belloc covers:

Arianism: the denial that Jesus is God; an attack on one of the Church’s teachings

“The Great and enduring heresy of Mohammed” : an oversimplification of the Church’s teachings ; invented by a pagan, it is therefore much less inclined to revert back to Catholicism

Albigensianism: a dualist heresy, spirit – good, body – bad (summary from a Catholic theology course I took!); an attack on morals

The Reformation: various heresies having in common that they all attack the authority and unity of the Church

The Modern Phase: things are only real if they can be experienced and demonstrated empirically; Faith is not possible, and is nonsensical, as is religion

Side note: I think I am getting these summaries right.  Belloc says that these heresies basically cover all the ways in which the church can be attacked; anything coming after the modern phase is likely to be a re-hash.  So now you know!

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One Comment
  1. Rachel permalink

    Hello Jonathan, I really enjoyed this book although it is several years now since I read it and maybe I shall revisit it now you have reminded me just how wonderful it is! I found Belloc’s definitions very helpful, especially that of the “modernist” heresy. He says that this particular heresy tries to defy definition and so is especially difficult to counter. His mind is very clear and his style is easy to read and leads you logically through each argument. There was also plenty of useful information about Islam (Mohammedism) which is particularly relevant to our times. This heresy does not go away! I look forward to hearing your further comments on this great book!

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