Causes of Unrest: The Spiritual Roots of Rebellion
by Matthew M. Anger
In the early part of the 20th century an author named Nesta Webster penned a provocative work called The Cause of World Unrest. In it she posited, as she did in other books (including her much reprinted study of the French Revolution) that all human events were shaped by a small but malevolent conspiracy. Interestingly, Catholic historian and apologist Hilaire Belloc expressed impatience with such conspiracy-fixations in a letter to an American friend in 1924:
The Cause of World Unrest is a book written by a woman called Webster. In my opinion it is a lunatic book. She is one of those people who have got one cause on the brain....1
Belloc thought people were fools who denied certain conspiratorial elements in history, "but people are much bigger fools who... ascribe every revolutionary movement to Jews and secret societies." Such people ignore the obvious if unexciting causes of revolution. Instead, he says, "there is a type of unstable mind which cannot rest without morbid imaginings, and the conception of single causes simplifies thought. With [Nesta Webster] it is the Jews, with some people it is the Jesuits, with others the Freemasons and so on. The world is more complex than that. Many of the facts quoted are true enough, but the inferences drawn are exaggerated." 2
As will be discussed below, the causes of rebellion are fundamentally simple even if their manifestation seems confused or complex. For example, in discussing the role of Henry VIII in the English Reformation, Belloc says that the king's divorce of his wife Catherine of Aragon in favor of Anne Boleyn was guided by pure selfishness, rather than any "reforming" zeal. Yet Henry's thoughtless actions would have widespread ramifications. "He did not intend the results which ultimately followed, nor even the results which followed immediately within his own lifetime, still less the results which followed after his death. It was a passionate, foolish, ill-considered blunder and was a very good example of the truth that evil comes upon the world through menís blind sins much more than through their calculation" (emphasis added).3
Catholic theology is very clear on this one point. Ideas, rather than external machinations, are the font of human action. Belloc illustrates this fact in his discussion of Calvin's Institutes. "It is not very interesting," he says of the book. "But upon one thing everyone seems to be agreed, which is, that it was of sudden and vast effect." At the same time, "no book will be of effect unless it finds a receptive medium." 4 In this view he was seconded by his contemporary, liberal theorist John Maynard Keynes, who opined that the "ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood.... I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared to the gradual encroachment of ideas." 5 Keynes is merely reiterating H. G. Wells' idea of a "group of ideas" that shapes society.
H. G. Wells Outlines the Open Conspiracy
"A new and happier world," exulted H. G. Wells, "a world community, is awakening, within the body of the old order, to the possibility of its emergence. Our phrase, 'the Open Conspiracy' is merely a name for that awakening." Wells mapped out this belief in his book The Open Conspiracy (1928), and it is a concept endorsed by radicals since his time (e.g. Marilyn Fergusonís The Aquarian Conspiracy, 1980). Following the strategy of the Fabians of gradual revolution he articulates a form of subversion that is so simple, so basic, and so easily documented, that it hardly deserves the term "conspiracy" in the sense that we have come to understand it.
To summarize, Wells described a global secular movement based on a coalescence of heterogeneous forces, relying on no particular class or group, yet including all sympathetic elements in society. Wells further advocated an Open Conspiracy because he felt that secret organization was unnecessarily deceptive and not exposed to healthy criticism. While every subversive ideology has its sub rosa element, it is equally true that any movement away from God can only succeed once the mass of people becomes openly indifferent or hostile to Christianity. Short of that, even the most devious and secretive planning can affect little.
One example of this historical dynamic is the Albigensian heresy of the Middle Ages. It began as a truly underground movement dating back to Roman times, yet it became a major threat only insofar as it exploited pre-existing and widespread religious indifference and clerical corruption in southern France. By contrast, sects like the Waldenses, potentially just as dangerous, faded into obscurity because they never achieved a mass following.
More recently, we've seen the homosexual network foist its militant agenda on American society an "open conspiracy" thoroughly documented by conservative social critic Michael Medved. And yet it is clear that no one was forced at gunpoint to accept homosexuality as an "alternative lifestyle." Rather, it was the moral rot of the preceding decades and the supine behavior of men in authority, including the hierarchy, that paved the way for the "gay outing" of the 1990s.
Wells' understanding of revolution is considerably more accurate than those views that seek the origins of anti-traditional ideas primarily in groups rather than in individuals. It is also indicative that his blueprint for quiet revolution begins not with a political statement but an affirmation of the need for "modern religion." The false ideology must first have its false god. Extending Wells' thesis into a supernatural dimension, the Open Conspiracy appears as part of the larger Conspiracy of Sin that has afflicted the social order since Man's first fall from grace.
Documenting Subversive Politics
In a perceptive treatment of conspiracy theories, British political writer Jeffrey M. Bale has the following to say about what he terms "clandestine politics":
Very few notions generate as much intellectual resistance, hostility, and derision within academic circles as a belief in the historical importance or efficacy of political conspiracies. Even when this belief is expressed in a very cautious manner, limited to specific and restricted contexts, supported by reliable evidence, and hedged about with all sort of qualifications, it still manages to transcend the boundaries of acceptable discourse and violate unspoken academic taboos.6
Only liberals seem exempt from this proviso. Thus Hilary Clinton avowed in 1998 that a "vast right-wing conspiracy... has been conspiring against my husband since the day he announced for President. A few journalists have kind of caught on to it and explained it, but it has not yet been fully revealed to the American public." By contrast, conservatives are seldom permitted to state, or even imply, that there exists any sort of collusion amongst powerful elements in society. It is rather ironic, since the conspiratorial view of human events grew out of a leftist mindset, originating in the secularists and radicals of the Enlightenment. It remains, as in Hilary Clinton's case, a preferred means of distracting people from reality.
An article that might have offered clarification on this confusing topic, but instead only added to existing perplexity, was Sandra Miesel's "Swinging at Windmills: A Close Look at Catholic Conspiracy Theories," published in Crisis magazine in 2002.7 While raising a few valid points, she undermined her criticism of conspiracy theories with contentious and misleading statements. Her bias was so flagrant that it invited a reprimand from Dr. Alice von Hildebrand who said that Miesel "overshoots her mark and weakens her conclusions" by blithely dismissing Cold War Communist infiltration of the West, including the Church. Yet we know that this infiltration was both intense and widespread as shown in such carefully documented post-Soviet studies as The Secret World of American Communism based on KGB files, which says that "the widespread popular belief that many American Communists collaborated with Soviet intelligence... was well founded." 8 Clearly, Miesel's explanation was as simplistic as that of the "merchants of paranoia" she lambastes. As with the majority of journalists, she has succeeded merely in eliminating the sensible middle ground, leaving us with the prevailing extreme views on the subject.
The influence of subversive organizations in history is undeniable. Most recently the Daily Telegraph (UK) documented the machinations of the Skull and Bones Society in the careers of both George W. Bush and John Kerry. Political scientist Kenneth Minogue tells us that "the roots of modern ideology are to be found in the development of various rationalist secret societies (such as the Bavarian Illuminati founded in 1776 by Adam Weishaupt) from the second half of the eighteenth century onwards." 9 The Oxford History of the French Revolution acknowledges that "masons were to be found among the leading revolutionaries in France." 10 This same presence was felt in the nationalist and socialist upheavals of the 19th century. In his biography of the Italian revolutionary Garibaldi, J. Ridley states that the secret order of the Carbonari, who were linked to the Freemasons, "were the pioneers of the modern revolutionary underground organization." 11 None of the above sources can be dismissed as lunatic ravings.
At the same time, a judicious reading of history shows that there is no cut and dried pattern to political activities, including clandestine organizations. Freemasonry made significant strides amongst the nobility and royalty of France prior to the Revolution of 1789 and members of the Lodge were well represented on both sides of that conflict, as they were in the American War for Independence. Such overlapping involvement in secret societies, many of them unconnected or even rivaling one another, cannot be explained as part of a "unified field theory" of conspiracies, however plausible that may sound. It is easy to draw false inferences from a superficial reading of events. For example, Jews as a group tend to vote liberal and Democratic. So do blacks, Hispanics and the Boston Irish (the last two groups being Catholic). It has been pointed out that secular Jews were disproportionately represented in early Communism. By that same token, lapsed Catholics formed the top leadership of the Third Reich: Adolf Hitler, Josef Goebbels and Heinrich Himmler. But one must keep these points in perspective. The majority of Jews in Russia did not support Communism in 1918, and the majority of Catholics in Germany did not vote National Socialist in 1933.
The most common error of conspiracy theorists is confusing correlation with causation. They mistake certain undisputed facts or trends for an overarching definition of a given phenomenon which neglects other, equally important, facts and trends in providing an objective analysis. That liberals go out of their way to suppress or limit certain controversial revelations can be partly explained by the fact that they have their own one-dimensional theory which cannot admit of any data that might cast doubts on their agenda.
The "Localization of Evil"
Catholics are not compelled to accept or deny the existence of conspiracies. Subversive politics can be weighed in the same manner as any other historical phenomenon. Rather, what is erroneous is for the serious Christian to treat any group as a scapegoat for faults that universally afflict mankind. The fixation on the proximate promoters of evil (whether real or perceived) is what conservative writer Thomas Sowell refers to as the "localization of evil":
This localization of evil of evil is one of the hallmarks of the unconstrained vision. There must [the leftists believe] clearly be some cause for evils, but insofar as these causes are not so widely diffused as to be part of human nature in general, then those in whom the evils are localized can be removed, opposed, or neutralized, so as to produce a solution.12
With the conspiracy-obsessed, there is a Manichean notion that the forces of Good and Evil are equally powerful and that our personal effort is required to obtain mastery of one over the other in the physical realm. It is an obvious denial of Christian theology which posits that evil is not a positive, substantive force but a negation of good. By failing to see suffering and human failings in their proper eschatological light, one is led to the belief that the consequences of Original Sin can be eradicated once and for all in this life. Or, as Sowell says of classically leftist ideology:
Crime is another phenomenon seen in entirely different terms by believers in the constrained [conservative] and unconstrained [leftist] visions. The underlying causes of crime have been a major preoccupation of those with an unconstrained vision of human nature.... For those with the constrained vision, people commit crimes because they are people because they put their own interests or egos above the interests, feelings, or lives of others.... But to the believer in the unconstrained vision, it is hard to understand how anyone would commit a terrible crime without some special cause at work....13
The localization of evil rests on the denial of all menís inclination to vice. That is why (according to conservative Catholic thinker Erik Von Kuehnelt-Leddihin) one of the identifiers for leftist thinking is the idea that human sin is due to "good men tricked by conspiracies." Personal responsibility is obviated. We see this very plainly in attempts to define evil as the work of "sexist" men, "oppressive" whites, or "homophobic" heterosexuals.
From an ideological perspective, such pariah groups provide the "necessary enemy" whether the Kulak under Communism or the Jew under Nazism to mobilize emotional support. The history of this delusion is as old as the Left itself. The philosophes of the salon believed that priests were engaged in a conspiracy against enlightenment, and the Jacobins of the Revolution thought that the "despotic" kings were engaged in a conspiracy against liberty. In the 19th century, conspiracy theories ceased to be monopolized by the old-style radicals, and were appropriated by many others, including reactionary writers that is, men who were nominally antagonistic to liberalism but were not, for that reason, necessarily traditional in outlook. In many instances such reactionaries accepted the naturalistic premises of their opponents though they opposed the prevailing implementation of those premises. A clear example would be the obsessions of racialist Darwinians and ultra-nationalists who were as opposed to Catholicism as they were to egalitarian Darwinists of the left.
Conspiracy Theory as Simplified Theology
Msgr. Ronald Knox once said that "Psychological complications, all too frequently, go hand in hand with simplified theology." This is a rather apt description of conspiracy-obsession which has the hallmarks of false metaphysics. It is ideology turned ersatz theology.
In the City of God, St. Augustine recounts the attempt by Adam to shift the blame from himself to Eve, and Eve from herself to the Serpent. The "Devil made be do it" is much the same attitude. It is an instance of self-deception in the name of pride. There is something of that at work in the "blame game" of many conspiracy theories, both of the far left and the far right. While the Christian opposes temporal evil with humility, patience, and an eye to the necessity of Godís corrective chastisement, the naturalistic (or dualistic) view of iniquity can be seen in political and religious apocalyptic sects throughout history. Explains Jeffrey Bale,
Firstly, like many other intellectual constructs, conspiracy theories help to make complex patterns of cause-and-effect in human affairs more comprehensible by means of reductionism and oversimplification. Secondly, they purport to identify the underlying source of misery and injustice in the world, thereby accounting for current crises and upheavals and explaining why bad things are happening to good people or vice versa.... After all, if evil conspirators are consciously causing undesirable changes, the implication is that others, perhaps through the adoption of similar techniques, may also consciously intervene to protect a threatened way of life or otherwise alter the historical process. In short, a belief in conspiracy theories helps people to make sense out of a confusing, inhospitable reality, rationalize their present difficulties, and partially assuage their feelings of powerlessness.14
The basis for a conspiratorial view of human events is understandable. But unless empirical data is sifted intelligently and in view of fundamental realities, it can be unhelpful in the long run to those trying to make sense of a "confusing, inhospitable reality."
As Bale points out, a gnostic attitude is apparent in the more eccentric political theorists. Even while opposing what they see as a secretive elite attempting to dominate humanity, they believe that this can only be done by understanding the conspiracy in the way that they understand it. As with the esoteric sects, salvation comes not by faith but by knowledge, and membership in a select group which is deemed superior to the mass of deluded and enslaved humanity.
The Psychology of Rebellion
Writing on the subject of secret societies, A. Daraul states
It is interesting to note how students of this strange branch of human activity have tended to miss the fact that the secret society is an amalgam of many elements which are found in ordinary life.15
Daraul cites the exclusivity of membership and the psychological fulfillment that such membership entails. Many of the fundamental traits of subversive groups are found in all human organizations and indeed in all religions, though they are clearly perverted and exaggerated to suit more nefarious ends. "There is," he says, "the shared experience of the rituals and the beliefs (the 'myth') of the society. Every clan, nation, even family has such myths and rituals, which have come to have a special meaning for the participants." 16
As for the "undesirable activities of some secret societies," which Daraul admits of, it lies more in the underlying moral dysfunction of an organization than in the fact of the organization itself. Whether understood in its outward guise or its inner metaphysical aspect, the primal pride and hatred driving revolution is ultimately more important than its proximate promoters. To say that the abolition of the Council on Foreign Relations would end globalism is like saying that the elimination of the Italian mafia would end organized crime. Even if these groups ceased to exist tomorrow, the ideals that they represent would arise in new forms. Or, to use the language of St. Augustine, the strife between the City of Man and the City of God would remain, since evil begins and ends with the struggle for virtue in soul of individual men.
In discussing Freemasonry, long-time American Catholic expert William Whalen explains that the Churchís main objection to the Craft is not in its paraphernalia, but in its intense naturalism, confusing syncretist doctrine, and the fact that it "constitutes a religious sect in opposition to the revealed truths of the Gospel." 17 But looking at the history of Masonry we see, as with so many movements against the faith, that it began as a benign association (for skilled workingmen) and later turned to purely speculative, and subversive, activities. The basic pattern is repeated in other secret societies, including criminal gangs like Cosa Nostra (in Sicily) or the Garduna (in Spain). Both of these groups grew out of opposition, ostensibly justifiable, to foreign oppressors, but by becoming a law unto themselves they devolved into criminal operations. Needless to say the line between politics and criminality in many secret orders is not always a very fine one.
There is an undeniable intellectual continuity, however crude, between the gnostic, cabalistic and millenarian movements from ancient times, to the Middle Ages, and into the modern age. Writers like Eric Voegelin have examined this in some detail. However, this connection is more psychological than organizational. A person's basic motives are established first, and the intellectual or organizational props simply "substantiate" one's position. Insofar as there is a difference between early and modern rebellion, it lies in the fact that since the Reformation this primal non serviam (ďI will not serveĒ) is given strength and direction through ideologies, either openly or clandestinely.
In evaluating an episode like the French Revolution, the influence of Freemasonry is only one of many factors. Preceding the establishment of secret orders were the subversive cross-currents of Jansenism, Protestantism, Gallicanism and skepticism. Not least of all was the growing laxity and liberalism of the French clergy itself. As French historian Jean Matrat has said, the revolutionary generation that produced men like Robespierre, Danton and Marat was tutored by priests who were articulating an Enlightenment philosophy that would become the ideology of radical republicanism.
Robert Darnton, in The Literary Underground of the Old Regime (1982) details yet another aspect of the growing movement against traditional order namely moral subversion in the name of complete "freedom of the press" and the proliferation of scandalous and pornographic literature at all levels of society. Certainly, dissident movements profited by and even helped promote social demoralization. In more recent decades, this sort of political or economic exploitation of the masses by special interest groups has been detailed in such classic studies as The Hidden Persuaders (1957) by Vance Packard. Yet here again people are only victimized to the degree to which they allow themselves to become slaves of materialism and sensuality. Marketing only works if there is a willing consumer.
The Divisiveness of Rebellion
Despite their often vicious in-fighting, all anti-Christian cliques undoubtedly exhibit a similar motivation. It is a false harmony based more on common hatreds than common affections. Thus there is an appearance of organized unity which does not really exist on the human or natural level (hence the absurdity of trying to locate a single, ultimate conspiratorial cabal), but does exist very much on the level of spiritual rebellion. The answer to the "Open Conspiracy" must be a universal Catholic revival, not hindered by national, party or class-based rivalry and ignorance. Anything less than this, as H. G. Wells said of secular patriotic opponents of his day, will be destroyed piecemeal and prove futile in the face of revolutionary momentum.
St. Augustine said that the "wicked war with the wicked." We can take consolation in the fact that evil is by its very nature divisive and incapable of long-term stability or unity. On the other hand, the extreme conspiracy theory seems built on a denial of free will or at any rate the efficacy of individual moral action, so omnipotent is the power of subversion deemed to be. There is something of a wish-fulfillment at work. One feels that advocates of this view would be upset if their secret enemy disappeared. We are reminded of the philanthropist in Oscar Wilde's Picture of Dorian Gray:
[He] spent twenty years of his life in trying to get some grievance redressed, or some unjust law altered.... Finally he succeeded, and nothing could exceed his disappointment. He had absolutely nothing to do, almost died of ennui, and became a confirmed misanthrope.
A clue to the problem of the all-encompassing conspiracy theory is that it is a relatively late development in the intellectual history of Christendom. The reasons for its emergence are twofold: firstly, the fact of widespread militant anti-Catholicism and secularism in the last three centuries; secondly, the increasing dependence on purely secular or political solutions (even amongst "conservatives"). In both cases, the culprit is a decline in Christian belief and the desire of individuals to fill that vacuum with something other than faith in Christ. Their motivations range from overt malice to ignorance and confusion. But a fixation on the organizational manifestations of anti-Christian movements was never a hallmark of our religion. The disciples of Christ did not make it their aim to "expose and eliminate" the Pharisees. Nor do we find a specifically political agenda, other than the broad opposition to anti-Christian behavior, in early works of apologetics. Their concern was proselytization and conversion.
It is true that new times demand new responses to old evils, but our underlying approach must be the same. Perceptive conservative thinkers from Edmund Burke to Klemens von Metternich and Christopher Dawson, admitted the impact of clandestine politics without dwelling incessantly on their activities. Partly it is a matter of common sense. Our ability to manipulate immediate national or international policy is virtually nil, compared with our ability to resist immorality in our everyday lives. In that sense, the conspiracy theory serves as a distraction, and is basically escapist. Meanwhile, as Thomistic philosophy reminds us, "frequently God permits tyrants to rule, so that they may chastise the subjects for their sinful conduct." 18 In that sense, high level politics are indeed shaped gradually but decisively by the moral actions of individuals taken collectively.
In 1865 a French lawyer named Maurice Joly wrote:
The evil instinct in man is more powerful than the good. Man leans more toward evil than the good; fear and power have more control over him than reason.... All men seek power, and there is none who would not be an oppressor if he could; all, or nearly all, are ready to sacrifice the rights of others to their own interests.19
This maxim appeared in his satire on the regime of Napoleon III, Dialogue aux Enfers entre Machiavel et Montesquieu ("Dialogue in Hell Between Machiavelli and Montesequieu"). Few people today, however, have heard of Joly's original. But this and many other passages were plagiarized in one of the most famous and reviled conspiracy obsessions of all time, The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, compiled by Sergei Nilus in 1911. As for the air of plausibility that people attribute to The Protocols or any monolithic conspiracy theory, we need only recall the words from Maurice Joly's preface: "This book has characteristics that can be applied to all governments," 20 and indeed to all mankind since our First Parents' fall from grace.
Subversion never occurs ex nihilo or through the machinations of a minority that has no relation to society as a whole. It is always preceded by an increasing general moral decline. Further, once subversive elements achieve their aims they cease to operate clandestinely and may even diminish. Hence the fact, as William Whalen points out, that Freemasonry in the United States has declined dramatically in the past fifty years. Unfortunately, plenty of other, more radical, special interest groups have taken its place, and there is undoubtedly a need to monitor these movements. But it is a field that must, if it is to be taken seriously, be free of exaggeration and sensationalism.
For Catholics, the fact remains that the individual of good will is able to discern evil without being fixated by it. Nor is it necessary to have recourse to arcane wisdom. Christianity is neither gnostic nor esoteric in its tenets. Rather, any member of the faithful is able to combat nefarious influences through a solid knowledge of the catechism, and sincere spiritual and moral activity. Political involvement, though often important, is secondary to these things and must be built on these things. Discussion of subversive political movements should strive for a more critical and balanced approach in order to avoid the errors of either Nesta Webster or Sandra Miesel.
Matthew Anger is a freelance journalist who has written essays on history, philosophy and literature from a Catholic perspective. He lives with his wife and seven children in the Richmond, Virginia area, where he is employed as a web/multimedia designer. In addition to Seattle Catholic, he contributes to The Latin Mass and Homiletic & Pastoral Review.
1 Robert Speaight, The Life of Hilaire Belloc (New York: Farrar, Strauss & Cudahy, 1957), 456.
3 Hilaire Belloc, Characters of the Reformation (Rockford, Il.: TAN Books, 1992), 17.
4 Hilaire Belloc, "On the Books That Change the World," A Conversation With an Angel (New York: Harper & Bros., 1928), 121,122.
5 John Maynard Keynes, quoted in "Ideas to live (and die) for," The Economist (January 17, 2004), 72.
6 Jeffrey M. Bale, "'Conspiracy Theories' and Clandestine Politics," Lobster, Issue 29 (June 1995).
7 Sandra Miesel, "Swinging at Windmills: A Close Look at Catholic Conspiracy Theories," Crisis (December 2, 2002).
8 Harvey Klehr, John Earl Haynes, Fridrikh Igorevich Firsov, The Secret World of American Communism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), 16.
9 Kenneth Minogue, Alien Powers, The Theory of Pure Ideology (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1985), 26.
10 William Doyle, The Oxford History of the French Revolution (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), 219.
11 Jasper Ridley, Garibaldi (London: Constable, 1974), 19. The Carbonari was "bitterly opposed to the Catholic Church and to all organized religion" (p. 21). Many "leaders of the Italian Risorgimento... were freemasons, and when Garibaldi was in Rio [Brazil] in 1836 he joined the local lodge" (p.48).
12 Thomas Sowell, A Conflict of Visions (New York: Basic Books, 2002), 155.
13 Ibid, 157.
15 Arkon Daraul, Secret Societies (New York: Pocket Books, 1962), 9.
17 William Whalen, Christianity and American Freemasonry (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1998), 100.
18 Dino Bigongniari, The Political Ideas of St. Thomas Aquinas (New York: Hafner Publishing Co., 1957), xxxiii.
19 Maurice Joly, Dialogues in Hell Between Machiavelli and Montesqieu, 1864, reprinted in Conspiracy Digest, Vol. IV, No. 2 (Spring 1979), 2.