Benson: Lord of the World

December 6, 2016

Lord of the World
Robert Hugh Benson
(Martino Fine Books, 2015) [1907]
392 p.

A blessing of contemporary secularism is that in its flight from religious faith it has fled also religious rites and devotions. It is true that the French revolutionaries tried to institute secular rites with dignity sufficient to justify their occupation of French churches, but it didn’t last, and since then we’ve seen no sustained attempt to sacralize the City of Man. This is a blessing because it means that those who find within themselves a desire for these natural human things have had nowhere to go but home.

In Lord of the World Robert Hugh Benson imagines a future in which secularism has taken an alternate course, one in which it acknowledges worship as “the deepest instinct in man”, and accordingly adopts for itself the language and trappings of the sacred, while still forcefully setting itself against the transcendent. As one of the priests in the story says, “The world is beginning to range itself against us: it is an organized antagonism — a kind of Catholic anti-Church”, and a formidable one. It is a world in which “natural virtues had suddenly waxed luxuriant, and supernatural virtues were despised. Friendliness took the place of charity, contentment the place of hope, and knowledge the place of faith.” This quasi-religion, which advances under the banner of Humanitarianism, has ambitions to re-make all society in its own image, and it has a familiar ring:

“There shall be no more an appeal to arms, but to justice; no longer a crying after a God Who hides Himself, but to Man who has learned his own Divinity. The Supernatural is dead; rather, we know now that it never yet has been alive. What remains is to work out this new lesson, to bring every action, word and thought to the bar of Love and Justice; and this will be, no doubt, the task of years. Every code must be reversed; every barrier thrown down; party must unite with party, country with country, and continent with continent. There is no longer the fear of fear, the dread of the hereafter, or the paralysis of strife. Man has groaned long enough in the travails of birth; his blood has been poured out like water through his own foolishness; but at length he understands himself and is at peace.”

Or, seen from the point of view of the Catholics in the story:

“It was a world whence God seemed to have withdrawn Himself, leaving it indeed in a state of profound complacency — a state without hope or faith, but a condition in which, although life continued, there was absent the one essential to well-being.”

The novel therefore presents to us a global confrontation between the City of God and the City of Man, the one “telling of a Creator and of a creation, of a Divine purpose, a redemption, and a world transcendent and eternal”, and the other “self-originated, self-organised and self-sufficient”. Representing the ideals and interests of the former is the Pope, John XXIV. (Other Christian groups have, by the time the story commences, either withered under the pressure of Humanitarianism or returned to the Roman flock from whence they first departed.) Representing the latter is Julian Felsenburgh, a politician of consummate artistry and diplomatic genius who has successfully united the world’s principal political powers and seems the embodiment of Humanitarianism’s highest aspirations.

**

That, then, is the set-up, but I’ll resist the temptation to say more. I knew nothing going in, and I was glad of that, because the surprising twists and devastating turns caught me off guard. (I really need to find someone with whom to discuss the ending!) Simply considered as a thriller, it is excellent, but it is also more than that, for there is a good deal of rich content in it, and the general conflict it dramatizes on a global scale is one which plays out in each Christian soul. Pope Francis has recommended on more than one occasion that people read it, and, for what it’s worth, I concur.

**

Part of the fun of reading futuristic novels from the past is to see how well the author foresaw the future. Benson did pretty well: he predicted routine air travel (conceived, rather quaintly, as being like travelling by train, but aloft), telephones, and frighteningly powerful military ordnances. More penetratingly, he foresaw euthanasia being a natural concomitant of secular individualism; in his world, “individualism was at least so far recognised as to secure to those weary of life the right of relinquishing it”. “Since men were but animals — the conclusion was inevitable.” But he misses the mark in some cases too: the onset of rapid global communications he does not foresee at all.

**

In summary, it’s a very good novel, highly recommended especially to Catholics. Benson subsequently wrote a companion novel, The Dawn of All, in which he imagined yet another alternative future for the Church. It’s not been as popular as this one, but I hope to read it soon.

8 Responses to “Benson: Lord of the World”

  1. Janet Says:

    (I really need to find someone with whom to discuss the ending!
    Discuss it with me!

    I don’t think Dawn of All was anywhere near as good. He wrote it in response to the people who thought LotW was too negative, and it just didn’t have the ring of truth that LotW has.

    And, of course, LotW is a lot closer to the current trajectory.

    AMDG

  2. cburrell Says:

    You’re not the first person to say that about Dawn of All to me. I’m reading it now, and so far I agree.

    About that ending, just so I’m clear on what happened in the last pages: it was a moment on calamity suddenly upended by … the Second Coming, right? That’s what I understood.

  3. Janet Says:

    I think so.

    Have you ever read Mr. Blue?

    AMDG

  4. cburrell Says:

    No, but I’ve come across it now a couple of times. There was a little advert for it at the back of my copy of The Knot of Vipers, and then I saw a reference to it again in the last couple of weeks.

    Recommended?

  5. Mac Horton Says:

    I’ve read this and liked it, but I have to say that the thriller element really didn’t grab me. I kept thinking it should but…it may have had to do with the circumstances under which I was reading it.

    That was my understanding of the ending, too.

    Interesting observations about secularism and worship. It is our good fortune in that way, but we have the corresponding misfortune that the religion of Man is infiltrating the Church itself instead.

    • Janet Says:

      I don’t think the word “thriller” would ever occurred to me in conjunction with this book.

      AMDG

      • cburrell Says:

        Heh. The thing is, compared to the books I usually read, this one really did have me on the edge of my seat, wondering about what would happen next in … the plot! Isn’t that what thrillers do?


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