Tuesday, May 10, 2011

On the repression of information in the pursuit of an agenda

I grew up during the cold war, during the 60’s and 70’s, when complete and total annihilation could occur at any moment. Such a memory can have a lasting effect on you.

Other things, too, make an impression on the memory. In the Orwell novel, ‘1984’ – in those days, it was still a dystopian future – it was the job of the main character, Winston Smith, “to rewrite historical documents so they match the constantly changing current party line. This involves revising newspaper articles and doctoring photographs — mostly to remove ‘unpersons,’ people who have fallen foul of the party.”

To find real-life precedent for this practice, Orwell had to travel no further than the Roman Catholic Church, which had enshrined such a practice for centuries. In describing how we have come to know about the genuine teachings of Nestorius, for example, Friedrich Loofs wrote, “The church of the ancient Roman Empire did not punish its heretics merely by deposition, condemnation, banishment and various deprivation of rights, but, with the purpose of shielding its believers against poisonous influence, it destroyed all heretical writings ... a similar fortune was prepared for Nestorius.” (Loofs, “Nestorius,” 2-11).

Of course, according to Orwell, “If the Party could thrust its hand into the past and say this or that even, it never happened—that, surely, was more terrifying than mere torture and death.” (Book 1, Chapter 3)

Rome knew well this tactic. In describing the difference between movements that are typically known as the “Catholic Reformation” and the “Counter-Reformation” (and arguing that they were really one and the same thing), Patrick Collinson related this incident:
In 1543 a little book was published in Venice with the title Trattato utilissimo del beneficio di Giesu Christo crocifisso i cristiani (A Most Useful Treatise on the Merits of Jesus Christ Crucified for Christians), written by an elusive Benedictine monk called Benedetto da Mantova (dates of birth and death unknown, but his surname seems to have been fontanino) with some help from the humanist and poet Marcantonio Flaminio (1498-1550), a popular work of piety that was translated into several languages including Croat. At first sight this may appear to be a piece of native Italian Christocentrism, part of a Pauline and Augustinian renaissance known to have been nourished by a Spanish humanist and biblicist, Juan de Valdes (1500-1541), whose pious circle in Naples had included Flaminio. But the Beneficio can be read in more than one way. It proves to have been made up from a number of transalpine Protestant texts, and especially the 1539 edition of Calvin's Institutes. Whether or not Benedetto had come across Calvin in his monastery on the slopes of Mount Etna, which seems unlikely, the Institutes was known to Flaminio.

It is hard to distinguish between the theology of the Beneficio and Protestantism. “Man can never do good works unless he first know himself to be justified by faith.” Other scholars insist, however, that the Beneficio is an expression of Evangelism, a movement that was not generated by Protestantism and should be distinguished from it. What is certain is that the Beneficio was placed on the Index and so successfully repressed by the Roman Inquisition that of the many thousands of copies of the Italian edition that were once in existence only one is known to survive, discovered in the library of a Cambridge college in the nineteenth century. That sort of successful repression was the Counter-Reformation. (“The Reformation, a History”, Patrick Collinson, (c) 2003, New York: The Modern Library (Random House edition), pgs. 105-106.)
So, yesterday, the thing I was lamenting was not so much that the Heidelblog was gone (though I’ve quoted from it many times and found it to be a very fine resource), so much as that it was thought that the act of deletion was some sort of disciplinary measure, by one party or another, thinking that either the “plucking out of an eye,” so to speak, or the excision of some inconvenient form of information, was going to be a solution to a problem.


  1. By the way, this incident helps to illustrate the value of old-fashioned books.

    We like to think that the Internet is a great resource -- and in fact, we now have virtually all the accumulated knowledge of humanity at our fingertips, so to speak.

    But if a blog, with five year's worth of information, can be deleted with a few clicks of a mouse, how difficult would it be for a hypothetical totalitarian regime of the future to play "1984" with us?

  2. And that is precisely what the practice of bestowing the title "Church Father" and "Doctor of the Church" does as well - it artificially inflates the early author of Christendom to a more exalted status, such that now Rome (or Eastern Orthodoxy, which does this just as flagrantly) can appeal back to that man as support for its Sacred Apostolic Tradition.

    In reality, if you want to know what early Christians believed, it's pretty hard since we have an infinitesimally small % of people writing compared to the total population of Christians at the time, and out of those writers an underwhelming % of their writings are extant. As Steve Hays likes to say: Show me the survey data.

    All this illustrates the impossibility of any rational appeal to "tradition" to found a prescription for doctrine. We must stick with God's revealed Word, not what a modern organisation picks and chooses out of history.

  3. I wonder how much is cached on Google.

  4. "On the repression of information in the pursuit of an agenda"

    LibProts and secularist liberals (eg., Democrats) do this also.

    Bad conservatives too.

  5. Truth is normative, and sunshine is the best medicine.

  6. "On the repression of information in the pursuit of an agenda"

    When I saw the title of this post I thought it was going to be about Obama not releasing his genuine birth certificate.


  7. Well, I've studiously avoided commenting on the "Birth Certificate" issue, and I'm not going to begin now.

  8. One school of thought that got rubbed out of written history with particular thoroughness, and is thus known to us almost only through the description of its sworn enemies, were the 8th and 9th century Byzantine Iconoclasts:

    Seventh Ecumenical Council (783) - Destroyed Patristic Writings Opposed to Icons

    And speaking of Orwell and iconoclasm, reading through the un-expurgated acts of pro-icon 2nd Nicene council leaves one in a state of something like moral shock at seeing what an intellectually dishonest Stalinist-like show trial this event (hailed by both RCs and EOs as an "ecumenical council") really was:

    The Seventh General Council, the Second of Nicaea, held A.D. 787, in which the worship of images was established

  9. Viisaus, I wish I had time to read all the things that you post. :-)