Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Tag: faith

The Inquisition – A Truly Modern Institution

The Inquisition was its own dominion of judgement, a state within a state, answerable to no one other than the Pope, the Crown and its own array of imposing bureaucratic regulations. As well as the inquisitors and those who staffed the tribunals of interrogation, a huge array of ‘familiars’, who were responsible for handling the bureaucratic work that oiled the machinery of terror. So many carefully considered regulations surrounded the application of torture, for example, that those who oversaw it constituted the first systematically organised bureaucracy of pain. The Inquisition even had its own miniature armies of protection and intimidation. The Inquisitor General Tomas de Torquemada never travelled anywhere without his own army of horsemen, especially after an inquisitor had been murdered in Saragossa Cathedral by a desperate group of ‘conversos’. Notoriously, virtually unlimited powers of torture were granted to extract ‘full’ confessions from those suspected of relapsing or, worse, those who were impenitent, active Judaisers. Thus the snooping state made its way into history: servants, family members, neighbours frightened and cajoled into becoming informers and spies. Even in monasteries and convents, monks and nuns would report on brothers and sisters whom they suspected of looking down when the Host was raised, stumbling over the Paternoster or Ave Maria and saying who knew what in the solitude of their cells. Yirimiyahu Yovel is right to see in this the germ of a modern malevolent modern institution rather than a medieval relic. It was indeed something fresh in its inhumanity.

Simon Schama, The Story of the Jews, p. 405

Support for Yovel and Schama is found in Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism and in Foucault’s account of the prison. The Inquisition may have been one of the first modern institutions, but the hospital, the prison, the asylum, concentration camps and extermination centres were to quickly follow. The religious and the anti-religious joined together in a barbaric assault on humanity.

Modern doesn’t mean better.

And as Arendt and Foucault noticed, the sign of a truly modern institution is that it refuses to accept merely outward signs of conformity. It is not good enough that we seem to be fitting in – we must really fit in – and if not we must be remade or destroyed.

What is the connection between this modern desire to invade the inner private sphere of the mind and spirit and the growing conviction that no such sphere exists? It is almost as if the declining faith in metaphysics (not just Christian, but any deeper metaphysics) leaves us exposed to the most extreme outrages by those who seek control.

Materialism leaves us naked, ready to be herded hither and thither.

Perhaps the Inquisition was the first sign of our declining faith – no longer do we trust in the Holy Spirit and the judgement of Christ – we presume to act on their behalf.

Making the Story True

“Pride” she [Isak Dinesen] once wrote in her notebook, “is faith in the idea that God had, when he made us. A proud man is conscious of the idea, and aspires to realise it.”

…she did write some tales about what must have been for her the obvious lesson of her youthful follies, namely, about the “sin” of making a story come true, of interfering with life according to a preconceived pattern, instead of waiting patiently for the story to emerge, of repeating in imagination as distinguished from creating a fiction and then trying to live up to it.

Hannah Arendt on Isak Dinesen

Pride is the first sin and yet it seems such a natural and unavoidable part of being human and of having some notion of our own purpose, destiny or value. In the Greek tradition pride is something proper – often it almost seems to be the point of everything – think of Ajax on the beach. But in the Jewish and Christian tradition pride is always problematic.

Elie Wiesel tells this Hasidic tale:

Just before he died, the Baal Shem told his disciples that the one among them who would teach them how to overcome pride would be his successor. The problem was put to each of them; the Maggid happened to be called first. His answer: Since pride is one of God’s attributes, man cannot uproot it entirely, all at once; it must be fought every day and at every moment. This reply was so favourably received, no one else was questioned.

I love this thought. It seems to truly capture what is necessary in pride, and yet, it properly puts pride in its place.

Part of what it takes to ‘fight pride every day and at every moment’ is also to be found in the idea of ‘letting the story emerge…’. The vanity of pride is not found so much in the fact that we value ourselves but in that we pretend to know what to value in ourselves – how to define the pattern of our own life. This is real vanity. Stories are not projects – they evolve and they are changed by the world and its contingencies.

We must live our lives with imagination. We must tell and listen to the stories. We are looking for meaning. But we must not force the story to come true or feel defeated when the story takes an unexpected turn. This is why proper pride is an act of faith, not knowledge; we must have faith in our value – but not pretend to know what that value actually is.

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