Whence comes the prosperity of peoples and whence their decadence

by Mgr Henri Delassus

This is the fourth in a series of twelve articles, drawn from Mgr Delassuss two-volume work, The Problem of the Present Time: Antagonism of two civilisations (1905), in which he examines the conditions for the restoration of Christian society and the return to social truth. The section of this work that is translated for this series considers the role of the family as the origin and model of all society and the disastrous effects of human tampering with this institution so manifestly wanted by God and nature. 

No society can subsist without mutual assistance — the help of the great for the small, the service of the small for the great — and it is an incontestable fact that, for this mutual assistance to be efficacious, for it to be able to make peace and prosperity reign in society, it must not be intermittent but constant; and in order to be constant, it must be organised socially.

This has not always been understood; in the heart of Christendom no more than in pagan antiquity; social peace and the goods which flow from it have always been subject to the fluctuations of fidelity to reciprocal duties. One must add that infidelity is always manifested first of all in higher society. Little by little, the upper classes enclose themselves in the enjoyment of the goods that their situation procures them; and the lower classes, following the same slope, detach themselves from the higher classes, only to end up revolting against those who had been their support for centuries.

A cursory glance at our own country’s ancient history, followed by its modern history, will bring us face to face with the recurrence of decadent phases — the same as those experienced by pagan society and as an effect of the same causes. We will profit, as we have already, from the triple study by M. Frantz Funck-Brentano,1 which itself made use of The Ancient City by Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges and Les origines de l’ancienne France by Geoffroi Jacques Flach, among other works. As Faustel de Coulanges said:

“The changes which appear in the constitutions of societies cannot be the effect of chance or of strength alone: the strength which produces them must be powerful and, to be powerful, the cause must reside in man.” 

From the heart of man come virtues which elevate him and vices which abase him, and which, by abasing him, make states disappear as well as families. Universally, the era when a people has shone most in strength and splendour corresponds to the time in which moral qualities (from which reciprocal obligations emanate) have been widespread enough, and have entered deeply enough into characters, to penetrate habits and customs. With these obligations forgotten, decadence set in. Always and everywhere, the principle of this decadence is found first among the aristocracy. When it neglects its duties towards its dependents, when it ceases to carry affection for them in its heart and, as a result, ceases to lend them assistance and protection, the sentiments which gave authority to superiors are weakened and ultimately extinguished in the hearts of their inferiors. So, a nobler feudal aristocracy is succeeded by a less noble one — for peoples are never without an aristocracy. In France, as in ancient Greece and Italy, once feudal aristocracy had neglected its duties, it gave way to a landed gentry, and this to a monetary aristocracy. The same historical eras succeed one other in the same order, both in antiquity and in modern times: in the measure that traditions gave way to the action of the age and that of human passions, the patriarchal regime gave way to an agrarian regime and the agrarian regime to an administrative one.

In Greece, from the period in which the Eupatrides started to forget their duties towards their clients, the ancient beliefs which placed their authority in the souls of their inferiors progressively faded. There remained as a source of influence only landownership, which could belong to commoners as well as nobles. Solon’s laws2 eventually came to say that the rights, honours, functions and obligations of citizens were to be reckoned by the size of their estates, so that an aristocracy of property succeeded that of birth. 

Another revolution soon came about: starting from the time of Solon, Athenian commerce flourished and soon made its influence widely felt. Landownership saw its own importance lessen in comparison with that of the merchant, to whom ships brought distant treasures. 

In Rome, the transformations were the same. The genteel class (the businessmen) replaced the old aristocracy, which disappeared. We will see the same changes take place in France; first, however, we must look at the consequences among ancient peoples.

As long as the patrician families were living on their lands, surrounded by their clients, destitution was a thing unknown: a man in need was supported by his landlord, to whom he gave his labour and devotion and who, for his part, had to provide for his needs. It was different once the monetary aristocracy had taken the place of the landed gentry. There was no longer a permanent link between the small and the great. The poor were (and remained) isolated: the less someone was responsible for them, the less he knew them and the less he wanted to help them. It is then that Cicero said, “No one is compassionate, unless he is stupid or absent-minded.”3 And Plautus gives the reason: “In giving your bread to those who lack it, you loose your goods and you help those poor people to prolong an existence which is only a burden for them.”

But the poor did not do nothing. They organised a regular war against the rich. They used their right of suffrage to overburden them with taxes, to decree the abolition of debts or bring about general confiscations.

Plutarch says that in Megara, after an insurrection, it was decreed that debts would be abolished and that creditors, on top of the loss of their capital, would be bound to reimburse the interest already paid.

In 412 BC, the people of Samos massacred two hundred of the island’s rich, exiled four hundred others and shared their lands and houses amongst themselves. In Corfu, the rich were almost entirely exterminated. Those who took refuge in the temples were walled in and left to die of starvation. “Everywhere one looked,” said Thucydides, “every cruelty, every barbarity came naturally to men whose blind sentiment of equality drove them to pitilessly hound their rivals.” And Fustel de Coulanges writes that: 

“In each city, the rich and the poor were enemies; between them, no relation, no service, no work which united them. The poor could only acquire wealth by despoiling the rich; the rich could only defend their goods by extreme cunning or by force. They watched each other with an eye full of hatred; it was a double conspiracy in each city. The poor conspired out of cupidity; the rich out of fear. It is not possible to say which party committed the greatest number of crimes and acts of cruelty. Hatred erased all sentiment of humanity from hearts. There was a war between the rich and the poor in Miletus; the latter had the upper hand at first and forced the rich to flee the city; but then, regretting not having been able to cut their throats, they took their children, assembled them in barns and crushed them under the hooves of oxen. The rich then, having reentered the city and become their masters again, took the children of the poor, coated them with pitch and burned them alive.”

What had Greece, once so great, become in this awful conflict? The historian Polybius tells us:

“In the fields, crops were abandoned; the tribunals, sacrifices and religious ceremonies in the city likewise. For ten generations, the Greeks lived in a civil war, and this became the habitual, regular and normal state of the race; in this state one was born, one lived and one died. Cities remained deserts and, to complete their sorrow, the Greeks could only attribute the calamities that struck them to their own folly.”

The history of Roman democracy gives the same teaching as that of Greek democracy. And if the crises which accompanied this conflict were not as bloody, it must be attributed it to a double cause: firstly, to the conquests by the Romans of immense territories, which they gave to the plebeians; secondly, to the armies which, spread across the frontiers, continually in conflict with the barbarians, wiped out many plebeians.

In France, as in Greece and Italy, civilisation had begun and had reached its highest point by a feudal aristocracy, which was succeeded by a territorial aristocracy from the days of the Renaissance until the days of the Revolution. Today, we have the same aristocracy of money which marked the end both of hellenic civilisation and that of Roman civilisation.

The origins of our civilisation go back to the sixth century, when the civilising effort was proportioned to the resistance of barbarianism: giving birth to the most monstrous of its types and, at the same time, showing some of the most radiating figures of the pure Christian life. This century and the one which followed it, which appears to have been the most barbarous of all, are the era in which the saints flourished in greatest number and exercised the most decisive action on the orientation of our society. Also, as Godefroid Kurth has said in his Origines de la civilisation moderne, “In less than a century, the stage of the world was renewed. New actors filled it, and performed another drama.”

God scattered on our ground — occupied by barbarians for four thousand years — young populations open to the noble inspirations of the Church, which waited to educate them. “It suffices to open one’s eyes,” said Kurth, “to see the strength with which the barbarian peoples were drawn, by the best tendencies of their nature, into the bosom of the Catholic Church,” whereupon Arianism solicited them.

And these wild stocks, full of pagan passions but equally of sap and vigour, were grafted onto the vine planted by the divine Saviour through the Church. She made evangelical charity — that is to say, the love of God and of neighbour — flow in their veins. The essential thing was to make them resolved to say just once, “I am Christian”, and from that moment on, many were — to the point of heroism.

When the Franks conquered Gaul, the impoverished cities had become nothing more than agglomerations of artisans. The power and wealth had passed to the country. There, in the middle of immense domains, there lived great families who lived only for pleasure, reigning over peoples of the poor and the enslaved. The Franks shared these lands amongst themselves with the same avidity which, at other times, presided over the sharing of horses, arms and treasures. Each one established his dwelling in the share which became his, identifying with the land that had become his heritage and that of his children.

Such were the origins of the first lords. Some remained pagan; others, having received baptism, continued to conduct their social relations with odious cruelty. But there were also families in which the grace of Christ, finding generous blood, produced the virtues which made of them our aristocracy: first in the temporal order and also in moral valour and in warlike valour. Under the auspices of the Church, they learned to know and practice their duties towards their neighbour; and charity began to establish its empire among us. All the pages of the acts of emancipation bequeathed to us by the first centuries of the middle ages attest to the religious sense which motivated them:

“One must not keep in chains those whom Christ has freed by baptism, because in His eyes there is no difference of condition but we are all united and equal before him.”

The social institutions which were then established were born of this spirit. As the editor of Antoine de Monchréstien’s economic work says:

“It is neither from the antiquated institutions of a nation in decadence (the Romans), still less from the wicked habits of barely disciplined bands (the Germans), that modern civilisation has come; it is from the strength, from the intensity of the affections spread throughout whole populations (by monks, bishops and saints), that affections transform themselves into mutual obligations and customs, and, from them, into reciprocal rights.”

Here we see reappear, but purified and sanctified, the social relations which we have admired in the Roman and Hellenic clients; relations which enveloped the whole of society in an immense network; relations, not only of great feudatories with nobles, and nobles with vassals, but of employers with workers also. We know the beautiful legislation that Étienne Boileau4 gave to trade guilds in the thirteenth century.

The thirteenth century was the apogee of feudal aristocracy and of the grandeur of France. By then, it had founded the French territory and had created its genius — made, before anything else, of generosity.

Another aristocracy succeeded it. One did not see it substitute itself all at once, but enter little by little into its midst. The great-grandsons of the first lords did not have the impulsive virtues of their ancestors. They had “civilised” themselves, more or less in the bad sense, and in the same measure, they saw families which were alien to them arise gradually in their midst, such that the coming of the territorial aristocracy (so-called to distinguish it from the feudal aristocracy) can be placed between the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. This second stem to come out of the prodigious trunk of the Frankish race did not have the valour of the first. The first sap is always the strongest. Also, though the latter kept its vigour during eight hundred years, the other could not provide for a career of even half that. It had the misfortune to come at the same time as the Renaissance, to be seized later by royal absolutism and, finally, to be injected with philosophical venom. France was nonetheless able to boast of it, and this did a great deal for the country’s grandeur, in every sense of the word.

It came in a continuous way from the families which built themselves up by long traditions of virtue and hard work, to the point of attaining that generosity of spirit which makes the nobility. When there was no source of wealth other than crops, every rich family was only rich because it had been gradually ennobled in its sentiments by the long practice of familial virtues; thus it was able to be ennobled; thus it became an ancient, respectable family: a “good family”, according to the received expression. This required it to educate (and educate better and better) a long succession of generations, and also required that, in this succession, there was no weak link in the chain; for then everything would have to start again. As Antoine Blanc de Saint Bonnet said: “The centuries would come to be placed like so many jewels in its crown, and it is the hand of time which approached to crown it.”

This second aristocracy lived like the first: militarily, patriarchally and agriculturally, submitting the land of its fathers to cultivation, defending it and spreading justice, bravery and disinterest. In this way, it maintained the triple capital of the nation: material capital, intellectual capital and moral capital. These are the terms in which Hippolyte Taine speaks of it:

“The lord was a resident and benevolent landowner, a voluntary promoter of all useful enterprises, a dutiful protector of the poor, a disinterested administrator and judge of the canton, an unpaid deputy before the king; that is to say, a conductor and promoter, as in bygone times, through a new patronage appropriate to the circumstances.”

Unfortunately, these salutary customs, these links of union and affection which linked all citizens, from the top to the bottom of the social scale, slackened imperceptibly. The politics of Louis XIV set out to separate the gentlemen from the people, by attracting them to court and into appointments. The monarchy, believing that it was strengthening itself, actually destroyed — with its own hand —the foundation on which it was established.[5] Henri IV had been better inspired, as Hardouin de Péréfixe de Beaumont wrote:

“He declared that he wanted his nobles to accustom themselves to live, each one on his own goods; that, to this effect, he would be satisfied because they would enjoy peace; that he wanted them to go and see to their houses and give the order to put their lands to good use. Thus, by sending them back to the provinces, he would relieve them of the ruinous expenses of court, and teach them that the best foundation that they could make was to be practical. Knowing that the French nobles liked to make out that they were imitators of the king in all things, he showed them, by his own example, how to cut out extravagance; for he normally went about dressed in grey cloth, with a doublet of satin or taffeta without tailoring, braids or embroidery. He praised those who dressed in like manner and railed at the others ‘who’, he said, ‘wore their domains on their backs.’”

Under Louis XIV, the nobility were taught other lessons, and, unfortunately, let themselves be led by other examples; and the results are well known. Alexis de Tocqueville observed:

“Material absenteeism, little by little, brought about an absenteeism of heart among the lords. When the gentleman reappeared among his people, his attitudes and sentiments were no different than those of his steward in his absence. Now, he saw his tenants only as debtors, and demanded from them the rigour of what was due to him by law or custom, whence sentiments of rancour and hatred. Moreover, by the effect of this same absenteeism, all general leadership was lacking: lands fell into a deplorable neglect. The nobility soon formed nothing more than a caste, proud of its titles, jealous of its privileges, and no longer justified by leading the life of the nation.”

When the Revolution broke out, each class had already been drifting apart for a century: maintaining and widening its prejudices and its hatreds against the class which had gone from being its ally to being its rival.

This explains, at least in part, what happened in the countryside. One can observe that, everywhere landowners had kept contact with their tenants, class antagonism was not manifested. What happened in the Vendée, in Anjou, in Poitou, in Brittany and in Normandy witness to this. On the contrary, everywhere that the lords administrated their goods by the intermediary of stewards, and as a result, were unknown to their farmers — everywhere, in a word, that contact was lost between the rich and the poor — social antagonism showed itself with great violence. Taine established this in several passages of his writings.

The landed gentry, fallen in this way, gave way — as in Athens and in Rome — to the monetary aristocracy.

This series will continue next month, on the subject: What sort of monetary aristocracy remains?”.

  1. La famille fait l’Etat; Grandeur and décadence des aristocraties; Grandeur et décadence des classes moyennes. (The family makes the state. Grandeur and decadence of aristocracies. Grandeur and decadence of the middle classes). From the collection Science et Religion, edited by M. Bloud and Company.
  2. Translator’s note: The once-prestigious legislation of ancient Athens, originating from constitutional and judicial reforms of the legendary statesman and poet, Solon, in the sixth century BC.
  3. Cicero, Pro Murena
  4. Translator’s note: One of the first known provosts of Paris, whose 1268 legislation for guilds of craftsmen in France was the first of its kind and, by its wise equity, did a great deal to improve law and order in the capital.
  5. Thus Louis Bourdaloue recalled the monarchy’s duties to the lords of the Grand Siècle:

“Aristotle, the prince of philosophers, had no conception of Christianity; nonetheless, he understood this duty when he said that kings, in that high degree of elevation which makes us regard them like divinities of the earth, are after all mere men made for other men, and that it is not for themselves that they are kings but for the people.

“And if this is true of royalty, no one among you will accuse me of taking the point too far if I propose that we cannot be anything in this world, nor raise ourselves up, even by upright and legitimate means, to the honours of the world, except with a view to employing and concerning ourselves, to consecrating and devoting ourselves to the good of those that Providence makes dependant on us; that a dignified man, for example, is but a subject destined by God and chosen for the service of a certain number to whom he owes his cares; that once a particular person accepts a charge, he is no longer his own but the public’s; that a superior, a master, only wields authority; he cannot be it. Saint Bernard, writing to a great person in the world, and putting before his eyes the idea that he needed to have of his condition, said, Praees non ut de subditis crescas, sed ut ipsi de te (‘You are in charge not so that you may thrive on those who are subject to you, but they on you’); you are put in command and it is just that they should obey you, but remember that this obedience is only owed to you by burdensome title, and that you are a prevaricator unless you make it serve entirely to the profit of those to whom you owe it.”