The Gods of the Copybook Headings
By Rudyard Kipling
AS I PASS through my incarnations in every age and race,
I make my proper prostrations to the Gods of the Market Place.
Peering through reverent fingers I watch them flourish and fall,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings, I notice, outlast them all.
We were living in trees when they met us. They showed us each in turn
That Water would certainly wet us, as Fire would certainly burn:
But we found them lacking in Uplift, Vision and Breadth of Mind,
So we left them to teach the Gorillas while we followed the March of Mankind.
We moved as the Spirit listed. They never altered their pace,
Being neither cloud nor wind-borne like the Gods of the Market Place,
But they always caught up with our progress, and presently word would come
That a tribe had been wiped off its icefield, or the lights had gone out in Rome.
With the Hopes that our World is built on they were utterly out of touch,
They denied that the Moon was Stilton; they denied she was even Dutch;
They denied that Wishes were Horses; they denied that a Pig had Wings;
So we worshipped the Gods of the Market Who promised these beautiful things.
When the Cambrian measures were forming, They promised perpetual peace.
They swore, if we gave them our weapons, that the wars of the tribes would cease.
But when we disarmed They sold us and delivered us bound to our foe,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: “Stick to the Devil you know.”
On the first Feminian Sandstones we were promised the Fuller Life
(Which started by loving our neighbour and ended by loving his wife)
Till our women had no more children and the men lost reason and faith,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: “The Wages of Sin is Death.”
In the Carboniferous Epoch we were promised abundance for all,
By robbing selected Peter to pay for collective Paul;
But, though we had plenty of money, there was nothing our money could buy,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: “If you don’t work you die.”
Then the Gods of the Market tumbled, and their smooth-tongued wizards withdrew
And the hearts of the meanest were humbled and began to believe it was true
That All is not Gold that Glitters, and Two and Two make Four
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings limped up to explain it once more.
As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man
There are only four things certain since Social Progress began.
That the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,
And the burnt Fool’s bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire;
And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins
When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins,
As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn,
The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!
It’s alarming how relevant Kipling’s poem still is.
We hear a lot about ‘progressive Christians’ these days. Of course, ‘Progressive’ pretty much just means “whatever ideas are currently popular,” so today a ‘progressive’ Christian is one who supports Gay Marriage, women’s ordination, and all manner of sexual practices. Not so long ago, a progressive Christian was one who supported eugenics, colonization, and harbored serious doubts about the Divinity of Christ. God only knows what progressive Christians will look like in thirty years or so, but I’m very much mistaken if they’ll be anything like the ones we have today.
Self-styled progressive Christians are never actually progressive; that is, they never actually build up the Body of Christ or do any good on Earth. In a sense, they aren’t actually ‘Christians’ at all. The world, and not Christ, is their God. A ‘progressive Christian’ is someone who tries to conform Christ to the world rather than the other way around.
How can you tell a true Christian from a PC? It’s really very simple. As Catholics, we believe there are only two viable sources of revelation: Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition, which are infallibly interpreted by the Magesterium of the Church. Therefore, a true Christian will ground his teachings in these sources (Protestants only accept the first of these, but the point still applies). A PC will couch his argument primarily in terms of what is ‘modern’ or in historical interpretation or appeals to rights or equality. Anything, as a matter of fact, except Revelation. If he brings up Scripture at all, it will either be to cite out-of-context passages dealing with completely different topics or to explain why the passages that very clearly refute his position shouldn’t count.
For instance, there is absolutely no way you can use Revelation to justify women’s ordination. Scripture, so far as it goes, does not allow for it, and Tradition very definitely excludes the possibility. Yet the current fashion is equality for equality’s sake, meaning that all positions must be open to women, even those that have very excellent reasons for excluding them. Thus, to be ‘progressive’ means to favor women’s ordination.
You see? Progressivism isn’t based on either Faith or Reason, still less Revelation, but simply on vanity; the desire to conform to the spirit of the age, to be thought trendy and enlightened and all that other rubbish. It’s nothing but the experience of the playground, where you automatically started parroting the opinions of the most popular kids, writ large over a whole society. The important thing wasn’t whether the popular kids were right or wrong; the important thing was that if you agreed with them, they might like you.
This isn’t a new phenomenon. Every age has its own ‘spirit:’ its own insanities which it fancies makes it superior to all past ages and which it foolishly believes will become the new norm of humanity. An age is almost defined by its generally accepted views, most of which will be thrown out and mocked in the next age. And, of course, most people unthinkingly and unhesitatingly go along with the ‘spirit of the age,’ judging themselves very independent and progressive thinkers in the process. As a matter of fact, it’s usually the people who pride themselves on their independence of mind that are the most eager to conform. Throwing off whatever tradition they are born into in order to foster a ‘spirit of inquiry,’ they quite naturally slip into whatever are the most popular or ‘trendy’ ideas at the moment. They eagerly listen to whatever intelligent and charismatic speaker happens to cross their paths, absorb a lot of unconscious assumptions, and so naturally adopt whatever worldview is most widely held in their particular corner of the globe in their particular time in history, all the while priding themselves on their independence of mind and scrutiny of thought. And so, they accomplish nothing of value, cause a lot of trouble, and are either forgotten or ridiculed when the current of opinion shifts away from them, as it inevitably will.
Independence of mind is one of those things you will never acquire so long as you are specifically looking for it. By throwing off everything that you fear will color your opinion, you simply create a mental vacuum which sucks in whatever current ideas happen to well-articulated in your general vicinity. If, on the other hand, you don’t bother about what kind of thinker you are and simply seek and follow the objective truth, you’ll find you become a much more shrewd and independent mind than your neighbors.
The thing we always forget is that independence can never be absolute; it must be grounded in something. I am economically independent insofar as I can earn my own living, but I can only do so within a societal structure with a specific currency and economic system. Independent thought is only independent to the extent that it is based on accepted Truth. That is, you can only be safe from one idea by holding to another and contradictory idea. If you don’t hold the idea that “life is sacred” you will have no defense against the assertion “certain strands of society are unhealthy and should be liquidated.”
It is skepticism, not dogma, that leads to tyranny. It is because we don’t hold the idea that “man’s first allegiance is to God” that we can conceive of the idea “man’s first allegiance is to the State.” Totalitarian states always first create doubt in people’s minds so that they can fill the gaps with the views they want the people to hold. Once you remove the traditional, assumed truth from someone’s mind, you can fill it with whatever you like.
We often wonder how such ordinary, otherwise decent people were able to commit or condone the atrocities of the Nazi State. No doubt future generations will ask the same thing regarding our tolerance of abortion. It’s really the same principle that allows for both: convince people that to be really modern, independent thinkers they need to shuffle off the “spoon-fed” beliefs of their childhood, and they naturally will fall in line with whatever the general opinion is. In Germany, the general opinion was Racialism, that the Jews were inferior, brutal, and dangerous and that the Aryan race needed to be supreme. Today it’s that sex is primarily about self-discovery and expression, that there’s no essential relation between sex and children, and that an unborn, unintended child doesn’t really count anyway.
Both these ideas are false and evil, but one is popular and the other isn’t. That’s really the only difference between them. Someone who bases his thought on the simple truth “Thou shalt not kill” or “All mankind are ultimately brothers” would see through both in an instant.
I would say, then, that people can be very roughly and broadly divided into two types: the type that holds to the truth, as he understands the truth, without carrying a whit how old it is or how many people have held it before or where he happened to get it from, and the type that believes that the truth is most likely to be found in modern thinkers, and that to find it he ought to divest himself as much as possible from the traditions and beliefs he was brought up with in order to see the world objectively.
I should add here that both these men may end up wrong, and both may end up right. And, it goes without saying, both can turn out to be good or bad men. But the former has, I would say, a much better chance of being right and turning into a good man than the latter. The reason is this: the first man’s beliefs are likely based on tradition. Tradition is, by definition, tried and true. It may not be complete, and it may need to be criticized, but it certainly works. If it didn’t, it would never have become tradition in the first place. Therefore, the first man is grounding his personality in things external to and more durable than the present age. He thus is more likely to have a true conception of the beliefs and practices of his modern fellows, and his own beliefs and practices are more likely to yield good results, just as a venerable airplane model is much safer than the prototype that was only completed yesterday.
The second man, on the other hand, by divesting himself of all his ‘prejudices’ and prior beliefs, does not see the world objectively, but simply opens himself up to receive whatever the world happens to give him. It’s a little as if a knight complained his armor was encumbering him and stripped naked, or if a sailor thought the best way to experience the ocean was to knock holes in his boat.
And note this; every genuine advance in morality has not been the result of just throwing out past beliefs, but in applying them more forcefully. There was no new moral law that said slavery was wrong; the immemorial belief in the brotherhood of man and the Golden Rule declared it so. Nor did it take a ‘new morality’ (assuming such a thing is possible) to call for more rights for women: “Male and Female He created them” was all that was needed. Every advance, every time man has put a stop to some great, entrenched cultural evil has been accomplished by those who prefer the Truth to the spirit of the age. Contrariwise, every backslide, every new evil has come about when men mistake the spirit of the age for the Truth.
Our choices are really only to conform to objective truth, with all that implies about morality, human nature, and tradition, or to conform to the present age. For Christians, the choice ought to be clear: “If it be just in the sight of God, to hear you rather than He, judge ye” (Acts 4; 20). “He that shall deny Me, I also will deny him before my Father who is in Heaven” (Matt. 10; 33). “Every one therefore that heareth my words, and doth them, shall be likened to a wise man who built his house upon a rock, and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and they beat upon that house, and it fell not, for it was founded on a rock.” (Matt. 7; 24-25). Clear, but no one said it would be easy. Let us pray that we will have the courage and constancy to hold fast to the Truth and to shun the spirit of the age.
Vive Christus Rex!