How the West Was One’d

The New Inquisitions
by Arthur Versluis

Versluis -- "The New Inquisitions"

A marvellous and scholarly book making explicit a whole range of human motives for intolerance of heresy, through a big historical view. 20th century totalitarian terror-mongering has rigorously demonstrable roots in one strand of Christianity, beginning with such Fathers as Tertullian and resulting in the Inquisition, a machine for enforcing ‘ideocracy’ (rule of unquestionable ideations) with torture.

The combination of the prosecuting and judging roles into one body makes the Inquisition a very modern-looking institution anyhow, but Versluis proves this is more than coincidence. This becomes a precise demonstration of how conservative Catholicism could inspire very different later figures and philosophies who also claimed a ‘one right answer’ with a similar itch to smoke out the wrong-thinking and put them to the poker. That yen pops up everywhere from the obvious (Pat Robertson) to the less expected but no less deserving (Theodor Adorno).

Key in Versluis is that mystical experience, in the form of Gnosticism, becomes a whipping boy in early Christian agendas. It can then play the same role in modern materialist ones which dislike it equally. From the beginning Christian imperialism there was speculation that those who followed anything like a Gnostic path were in some way foul, and finding things foul was a part of early Christianity in any case as readers of Ramsey MacMullen will know. Again and again Versluis corrects the record and shows that the mystics are likely completely free of blame but almost never free of slander. Definitions of mysticism by those who hate it are often not merely incorrect but 180 degrees wrong.

The links in the chain include many writers I didn’t know such as Joseph de Maistre or Georges Sorel. Examining them in their due order down the ages, Versluis makes crystal clear their influence on later writers such as Carl Schmitt. He pinpoints telling details in Eric Voegelin and others which show how easily, in a materialist-dogmatic environment, “Gnosticism” or “occultism” or “esotericism” can be thoroughly straw-manned and seen as a pervasive “disordering influence” in need of correction. In every passage quoted the lack of any backup or reasoning signals the danger of yet another auto-da-fe.

Left and right are equally wrongheaded. The filthy enemy could be anyone from the Illuminati to the Cathars to the Satanists to the counter-revolutionaries. Most ordinary folks will happily join in a public lynching rather than wonder where the truth lies. The cure for that, which is the capacity to think and feel for oneself, is rather rare and corresponds to psychological self-actualisation which is itself usually a big part of mystical practice. Versluis gets that.

The value of the book lies in its anatomisation of what makes state torture and marginalisation of freedom possible, and indeed necessary, respectable, and right, in the eyes of mad-eyed fanatics and supposedly insightful intellectuals alike. Why it has taken so long to correct the record about the nature and influence of mysticism I’m not sure, but Versluis is clearly part of a movement doing that with some panache. It’s a fun read, not least because people I always suspected were talking out of anatomical areas other than their mouths are caught absolutely bang to rights. Dostoevsky with his “Grand Inquisitor” turns out to be ahead of numerous academic theorists.

A very enjoyable survey, teaching affably and indefatigably some very worthwhile lessons, I recommend this book to anyone whose interest it piques.

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