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Baptism by Beer: Hilaire Belloc's The Four Men: A Farrago

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By Andrew M. Greenwell, Esq.
2/6/2012 (6 years ago)
Catholic Online (https://www.catholic.org)

This is the problem of philosophers who have lost their grounding in reality, in what is.

In a book called The Four Men: A Farrago, Belloc tells a delightful tale of a pilgrimage in Sussex, a half-real and half-fictional allegory of the pilgrimage of life.  It is full of curiosities, inane things, doggerel, songs and hymns, silliness, whimsy, and irreverent fun, as so much of Belloc's writings have.  But it is also serious, and contains some very deep reflections about life, about beauty, about friendship, about love, about lasting things, about the fleetingness of human life, and our hankering after the divine.

Highlights

CORPUS CHRISTI, TX (Catholic Online) - In the history of Western philosophy, there is a cataclysmic thought event called the "epistemological turn."  Epistemology (from the Greek episteme=to know) is the study of how we know what we know, and how we know what we know is equivalent to what is.  Descartes, generally given the prize for initiating the "epistemological turn" and ushering modern philosophy, is the fellow who famously suggested the senses may not give the mind reliable input, and so he felt he had to rely on something outside of the senses upon which to base thought. 

Doubting everything all about him, Descartes, the methodological doubter, came to conclude that the only reality he could trust was in his mind: I think therefore I am, Cogito ergo sum.  As Jacques Maritain describes the error, Descartes' "capital error" was to divide the idea in the mind from the thing outside the mind.  Without a link between mind and reality, there was no guarantee that the idea in the mind corresponded to that which was outside the mind.  We could never know that the idea which is in our mind is true, that is, that it corresponds with what is, i.e., reality.

This, of course, is quite a change from the traditional and classical view.  In the classical Aristotelian and Thomistic view (which imbibes in what  is called the philosophia perennis or perennial philosophy) nihil in intellectu nisi prius fuerit in sensu, "nothing is in the intellect without first being in the senses."  What is in the mind is somehow related to what is, the two are inextricably linked, and therefore what is in our mind corresponds with the truth of what is.

But since Descartes' "epistemological turn," we moderns have strayed into all sorts of philosophical absurdities based on this "capital error."  A little mistake in the beginning of a journey can lead us seriously astray. In the main, we moderns are all Kantians, and we doubt the adequacy of our senses to inform our minds as to objective truth.  Kant insisted that we could never know the thing in itself-the ding an sich was unknowable-we only could not the idea in our mind.  From Kant's idealism, we slowly lapsed into skepticism, which, of course, is currently a serious problem we face.

Let us read Descartes and his bastard philosophical progeny and sorrow.  As Catholics, let us pity them, for they were not baptized by beer.

Baptized by beer?  What does being baptized by beer mean?  To be sure, this sort of baptism is not to be found in the Catechism.  Only baptism by water, by blood, and by desire is therein mentioned.  Where shall we go to learn more about the baptism by beer?

Why to that infallible source of Catholic common sense, Hilaire Belloc.  In a book called The Four Men: A Farrago, Belloc tells a delightful tale of a pilgrimage in Sussex, a half-real and half-fictional allegory of the pilgrimage of life.  It is full of curiosities, inane things, doggerel, songs and hymns, silliness, whimsy, and irreverent fun, as so much of Belloc's writings have.  But it is also serious, and contains some very deep reflections about life, about beauty, about friendship, about love, about lasting things, about the fleetingness of human life, and our hankering after the divine.  There are four main protagonists, all really part of Belloc's personality, called Myself, Grizzlebeard, the Poet, and the Sailor.

To get back to the baptism by beer.  During the pilgrimage, we find one of the protagonists in Belloc's story, a certain Grizzlebeard, arguing "hammer and tongs" with a modern philosopher, a "stranger," who--egads!--drinks not strong ale, but only tea, a drink only good for the effete.  This modern, nameless philosopher --like the philosopher David Hume--denies the principle of cause and effect.  Like Francis Bacon, the father of empiricism, this nameless character denies any notion of the Aristotelian efficient cause.  Here is a man who denies the moderate realism of Aristotle and Aquinas, denies the principle nihil in intellectu nisi prius fuerit in sensu, "nothing is in the intellect without first being in the senses," denies common sense. In sum, here is one who denies the perennial philosophy.  A modernist!  He is on the road to untruth, to be sure, and perhaps even well-along the road to a Nietzschean insanity. 

The description of the philosopher by Belloc is marvelous:

"The Stranger was a measly sort of fellow in a cloak, tall, and with a high voice and words of a cultured kind, and his eyes were like dead oysters, which are unpleasing things; and he and Grizzlebeard, though they had so recently met, were already in the midst of as terrible a balderdash of argument as ever the good angels have permitted on this sad earth."

Dead oysters?  What is more dead than dead oysters?  Scriptures say that the eye is the lamp of the body.  (Matt. 6:22)  Having dead oysters for lamps bespeaks a dead, a stinky, a lifeless soul.  What happens when our scholars, our academia in the main have eyes like dead oysters?

As these two argue, they ignore the efforts of the others to converse with them or to understand the argument, which appears as so much esoteric Latin, German, or Greek, and so the Sailor warns the Poet and Myself to do what any sensible man would do: go to a bar and drink some beer, and hang out with some common folk:  "'Let us go hence, my children," the Sailor wisely instructs his companions, "and drink in the bar with common men, for the Devil will very soon come in by the window and fly away with these philosophers. Let us be apart in some safe place when the struggle begins.' So they go, quaff down some drinks with "certain laboring men," charitably "paying for their drinks because we were better off than they."

While drinking with his fellow pilgrims, the Sailor complains of the constant bickering of philosophers who, like a couple of fighting dogs, can't seem to do anything but yelp and yap at each other.  The arguments continue in the background, and the Sailor-a very practical fellow-finally reaches the limits of his patience in hearing Grizzlebeard and the stranger continue to argue about "their realities and their contents, and their subjectivities and their objectivities, and their catch-it-as-it-flies." 

So the Sailor tells his friends:

"Have you not seen two dogs wrangling in the street, and how they will Gna! Gna! and Wurrer- Wurrer all to no purpose whatsoever, but solely because it is the nature of dogs thus dog-like to be-dog the wholesome air with dogged and canicular noise of no purport, value, or conclusion? And when this is on have you not seen how good housewives, running from their doors, best stop the noisome noise and drown it altogether by slop, bang, douches of cold wet from a pail, which does dis-spirit the empty disputants, and, causing them immediately to unclinch, humps them off to more useful things?  So it is with philosophers, who will snarl and yowl and worry the clean world to no purpose, not even intending a solution of any sort or a discovery, but only the exercise of their vain clapper and clang. Also they have made for this same game as infernal a set of barbaric words as ever were blathered and stumbled over by Attila the king when the Emperor of Constantinople's Court Dentist pulled out his great back teeth for the enlargement of his jaw."

This is the problem of philosophers who have lost their grounding in reality, in what is. It is the whole host of modern philosophy since Descartes' "epistemological turn."  The likening of moderns philosophers and their discussions to two yapping, yelping, barking dogs in flagrante delicto is hilarious, and pure Belloc.

Is there are cure for this kind of philosophical malady which brings men to act like to dogs copulating?  Is there a cure for those unfortunates who cannot, like Plato, understand that wisdom is know what is, and that it is, and what is not, and that it is not?

Thankfully there is. Belloc (through the Sailor) informs us of the cure: "Now this kind of man can be cured only by baptism, which is of four kinds, by water, by blood, and by desire: and the fourth kind is of beer.  So watch me and what I will do."

Armed with the knowledge of this fourth kind of baptism--baptism by beer, a disciplina aracani if I have ever heard of one--let us see what the intrepid Sailor decides to do.

"Then he [the Sailor] went in ahead of us, and we all came in behind, and when we came in neither Grizzlebeard nor the Stranger looked up for one moment, but Grizzlebeard was saying, with vast scorn: 'You are simply denying cause and effect, or rather efficient causality.'  To which the Stranger answered solemnly, 'I do!'

On hearing this reply the Sailor, very quickly and suddenly, hurled over him all that was in the pint pot of beer, saying hurriedly as he did so, 'I baptize you in the name of the five senses,' and having done so, ran out as hard as he could with us two at his heels, and pegged it up the road at top speed, and never drew rein until he got to the edge of Jockey's Spinney half a mile away, and we following, running hard close after, and there we found him out of breath and laughing, gasping and catching, and glorying in his great deed."

What happened to the philosopher, we are not told.  Whether the baptism by beer into the five senses works ex opere operato, like the baptism of water, we are not told. 

But regardless, one lesson is learned.  Any good Catholic, and anyone who follows the philosophia perennis, will be "baptized by beer," which is to say "baptized in the name of the five senses," because he will know that the senses are given to him by God and they inform him reliably enough of reality, of what is, and this includes the entirety of creation.  And not only the entirety of creation, but that creation is but need not be, and so it screams--as loud as any fact does, whether it be bacon, cheese, or beer (all given high encomia in the Sussex pilgrimage)--of the existence of the Creator.

Blessed be God, in his angels and in his saints.  And blessed be God in all the good things of this earth including (dare I say it?) bacon, cheese, strong drink, friendship, and, above all, the common sense behind the Catholic Faith, and the promise of heaven which it contains.

-----

Andrew M. Greenwell is an attorney licensed to practice law in Texas, practicing in Corpus Christi, Texas.  He is married with three children.  He maintains a blog entirely devoted to the natural law called Lex Christianorum.  You can contact Andrew at agreenwell@harris-greenwell.com.

---


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