NL XLIII: The Second Barbarism: The ‘Albigensian Heresy’

Index to this series

Summary. Suppose your society has certain rites and customs, perceived as essential to its functioning. When some persons among you reject those rites and customs, what are you going to do? Persecution would be the normal response of a society that aimed to preserve itself. In the example to be considered here, the society is medieval Christendom, where

  • buildings called churches were customarily the abode of friendly spirits, and
  • the rite of swearing an oath was a sign of special commitment.

Oaths and churches were rejected by persons called Paulicians, or Bogomils, or Albigensians. Their beliefs were Manichaean. These persons were persecuted so successfully that we do not understand them very well. Therefore we must leave open the question of whether they were barbarists.

Here I am going to review, among other things,

  • what it means to fight barbarism;
  • the response to German bombardment described in Goodbye, Mr. Chips;
  • what Jesus Christ says about swearing;
  • how the United States accommodates various beliefs (as by allowing affirming instead of swearing, or allowing Muslims to swear on a Quran);
  • the threat of a lying President;
  • the threat of ignoring climate change;
  • the etymology of heresy;
  • the discussion of mythos and logos in Pirsig.

Fire temple, Yazd, Iran, September 2012. See “Duty to Nature

It is the early 1940s. To finish off the New Leviathan with Chapter XLV, Collingwood will study the current attack on European civilization by the Germans. In Chapter XLII, he analysed the external attack by the Saracens; in Chapter XLIV, he will take up the external attack by the Turks; now, in Chapter XLIII, the topic is an an internal attack by a religious belief. All earlier attacks having failed, we may expect the current attack to fail, at least if we respond properly.


To a supposed attack on civilization, the proper response is a civilized response; but we must understand this properly. In Chapter XXVI, Collingwood explained democracy and aristocracy as abstractions. The doctrinaire democrat (26. 1) or aristocrat (26. 11) treats these abstractions falsely (26. 17), as “mutually independent and hostile entities” (26. 19). In Chapters XXIX and XXX, Collingwood warned against pacifism; we might call this a false abstraction of civility. Civilization “promises” peace and plenty (40. 12), as a “by-product or consequence” of law and order (40. 17). Part of the work of peace is distinguishing (40. 47)

  • the “man [sic] with a grievance” (40. 37), who can still co-operate with society (40. 39), from
  • the “gangster” (40. 35), who cannot (40. 4).

Civilization is an infinitely adaptable process that seeks agreement, where this can be had, while recognizing that it cannot always be had:

30. 98. Non-agreement is inevitable where each party takes his [sic] own view of a problem arising out of the relation between them (29. 55). This non-agreement is ‘hardened into disagreement’ (29. 53) by being treated in an eristic spirit. Disagreement cannot be directly reduced to agreement; for where there is real disagreement, though one party is prepared to argue the disagreement away, the trouble consists in the fact that the other will not argue. He will not listen to reason. He must be reduced to the state of a man ready to listen to reason before the dialectic can begin.

In 1942, the Germans were being reduced to reason, but it would take three more years of war.

In Chapter XLIII now, Collingwood will make use of information in J. B. Bury’s edition of Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. This edition having been conveniently published online by the Liberty Fund, in its Online Library of Liberty, I pause to note that Collingwood’s language of agreement and cooperation is used also by Ludwig von Mises (who was eight years Collingwood’s senior), in a quotation on the Library’s homepage. “Society is co-operation; it is community in action,” says Mises. But then he continues, “To say that Society is an organism, means that society is division of labour.” This sounds like a justification of social stratification. Maybe not; what matters is the meaning intended by the words. The Liberty Fund seems to make a fetish of liberty, in false abstraction; the logo of the Fund is the cuneiform expression of the Sumerian word that is understood to mean liberty. According to the “About” page of the Library’s website,

Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established in 1960 to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals. The Foundation develops, supervises, and finances its own educational activities to foster thought and encourage discourse on enduring intellectual issues pertaining to liberty.

With whom is this discourse to be encouraged? Who or what is perceived as a threat to the ideal of a free and responsible society? I shall not pursue those questions here. I do appreciate the Fund’s convenient digitizing of books.

Affirming and Swearing

In 1942, the Germans were an external threat to the rest of Europe, as the Saracens of Chapter XLII had been a threat to the whole of Europe. Now, in Chapter XLIII, Collingwood alludes to Jesus of Nazareth, though not as a threat. He was however an internal threat, either to the Roman Empire or to the Jews, according to mythology. According to himself, as reported in Matthew 5:

17 Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.

He proceeds with several examples (examined further in “Antitheses”) of how Jewish law should be internalized:

  1. Refrain not only from killing, but even from being angry.
  2. Refrain not only from adultery, but even from looking on a woman, if it is to lust.
  3. Not only ensure that a divorce is properly done, but don’t do it at all (saving for the cause of fornication).
  4. Refrain not only from forswearing yourself, but from swearing at all.
  5. Not only limit retribution to an eye for an eye, but resist not evil.
  6. Love not only your neighbor, but your enemy.

I say these are examples of what should be internalized; but once they are written down, they can be externalized, or formalized, or falsely abstracted. Thus a man’s obligation not to look at women as sex-objects becomes an obligation not to look at women at all, outside his family; and this gets turned into a woman’s obligation to cover herself up. This idea will reappear below. Meanwhile, in the present context, let us consider the fourth commandment on the list.

33 Again, ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time, Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths:

34 But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God’s throne:

35 Nor by the earth; for it is his footstool: neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King.

36 Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black.

37 But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.

Taken in false abstraction, the words of the Christ mean for us never to say, “I swear.” This false reading by doctrinaire Christians is accommodated in America, where one is allowed to affirm one’s assertions, rather than swear. According to Article II of the Constitution of the United States of America,

Before [the President] enter on the Execution of his Office, he shall take the following Oath or Affirmation:—“I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

An even broader accommodation is being made now, when fealty is given to a President who has mouthed the words of his oath, but with no conception of their meaning. He is a gangster with no regard for the truth, no regard for anything but what he perceives as his own gain. A recent addition to his gang, the newest Supreme Court justice, has shown the same disregard. The United States is thus under internal attack.

Other persons thought the country was under attack when a Muslim, Keith Ellison, was elected to Congress in 2006 and performed his ceremonial swearing-in using Thomas Jefferson’s copy of the Quran.

Collingwood briefly interprets the quoted passage from the Sermon on the Mount:

43. 49. So the injunction: ‘Swear not at all’ (Matt. v. 34) can be easily twisted into a prohibition of all such customs and usages as depend on the distinction between a man’s word and his oath; a prohibition that impoverishes his discourse by banishing from it (to take one example) whatever is not intended to be ‘taken seriously’.

This suggests the question of how seriously to take Collingwood. I have proposed taking him as we ought to take Plato, who wrote dialogues, not categorical doctrines.

What is the Threat?

In 2018, the world is under threat by climate change; or not this, but a refusal to recognize what we can do about it; and not even this exactly, since the insistence that “all of us” must act can be used as a distraction. I don’t eat meat, I don’t own a car, I haven’t been in an airplane in months; it would be good if everybody lived as simply; but this cannot be expected, any more than weight-loss through dieting can be expected. (George Monbiot notes that people in the UK are fatter now than when we were young, not because they exercise less, or consume more calories, but because more sugar is added to the food that they are sold.) Even if everybody did live more simply than I (as do most people do on earth, and not by choice), this would not be enough for the planet, as long as economic “growth” was a proxy for a healthy society, while national wealth was used for weapons of war.

Meanwhile, some Europeans and some Americans perceive immigration as the threat they are under. In America, Spanish-speakers are a threat; on both sides of the Atlantic, Muslims are a threat.

Muslims were also a threat, historically, as in Chapter XLII of the New Leviathan,; but the threat died away when the Saracens were defeated, at Constantinople in the East and Tours in the West. They became more civilized.

The Germans themselves have been seen as a perennial threat; for the barbarian hordes that overran the Western Roman Empire are called Germans. This can be taken for reassurance, as it is by James Hilton in Goodbye, Mr. Chips, “written in London during a foggy week of November, 1933.” In Chapter XV of the story, when the year is 1918, and German bombs are falling around an English school, the title character has his boys reading Julius Caesar on the Gallic Wars.

The explosions still continued deafeningly; the whole building shook as if it were being lifted off its foundations. Maynard found the page, which was some way ahead, and began, shrilly:—

Genus hoc erat pugnaethis was the kind of fightquo se Germani exercuerant—in which the Germans busied themselves. Oh, sir, that’s good—that’s really very funny indeed, sir—one of your very best—”

Laughing began, and Chips added: “Well—umph—you can see—now—that these dead languages—umph—can come to life again—sometimes—eh? Eh?”

Reading Caesar on the Germans was a way to get through an aerial bombardment by the Germans. But they were different Germans. In this Heraclitean world of change, there are no permanent savages or barbarists, whether they constitute a nation or a religion.

Hilton, Goodbye, Mr. Chips

Good and Evil

In Chapter XLIII of the New Leviathan, we are nominally considering the so-called Albigensian heresy. The term is a misnomer.

  • The Albigensians are “more properly, though less politely, known” as Bogomils (43. 19). They may also descend from the Paulicians, though Collingwood does not name them.
  • What the Bogomils believe is not a heresy, in the sense of being merely an unorthodox version of Christianity.
  • Though their belief was popular around Albi in France, it did not originate there or even in Europe (43. 12).

Though the “Albigensian heresy” disguised itself as Christian, it was Manichaeism (43. 13).

43. 14. The difference, if I may dare to put briefly what calls for much subtlety, is that for the Manichee good and evil are equal and opposite, each utterly and eternally antagonistic to the other; for the Christian, good is stronger and, so to speak, older than evil. The struggle between good and evil, which both believe to be real, is for the Manichee a struggle that can never have an ending; for the Christian it must end in the victory of the good. From this pregnant principle many consequences arise.

One missing subtlety concerns this “victory of the good.” We can expect no final victory on earth:

30. 8. The Yahoo is always with us; that is why hopes for the abolition of war are vain.

Meanwhile, in the words of Plato’s Meno that we have been using since Chapter XXIV, “The Body Politic, Social and Non-Social”: while Christianity is dialectical, Manichaeism is eristical (43. 15).

The Etymology of Heresy

Collingwood proceeds to a somewhat obscure discussion of words as such. The first part may seem plain enough:

43. 16. This is why it is straining a word to speak of the Albigensian ‘heresy’. The thing was not a heresy. ‘Heresy’ is the Greek for ‘choice’, in the special case where choosing is choosing to think, and ‘my heresy’ or ‘what I choose to think’ is peculiar in being what few other people think.

More precisely, the word heresy is used in English for a certain choice in thinking. The word is first attested in English before 1225, in the Ancrene Riwle, as on page 82 of the Camden Society edition of 1853 (edited by James Morton):

Eresie, God beo iðoncked, ne rixleð nout in Engelond.
Heresy, God be thanked, prevaileth not in England.

There are nine English manuscripts of the Guide for Anchoresses, and they vary; in the 2000 edition of Robert Hassenfratz, the sentence in question is given as,

Heresie, Godd have thonc, ne rixleth nawt in Englelond.

In Anglo-Norman French, heresie is attested in 1119, in Le Bestiaire de Philippe de Thaun. The word comes as if from heresia; but this is unattested in Latin, where the word is heresis. This is a transliteration of the Greek αἵρεσις, which is the abstract noun derived from αἱρεῖν, meaning to take; the middle voice of the verb means to take for oneself, and thus to choose. Adding prefixes, we obtain ἀνθυφαιρεῖν, meaning to engage in the alternating subtraction that constitutes the Euclidean Algorithm; I looked at this in “The Facebook Algorithm” and “The Geometry of Numbers in Euclid.”

Compact OED entry "Heresy"

The OED lists occurrences of αἵρεσις in the New Testament, along with its translations in the various English editions; the word can be seen as sect, party, and faction, as well as heresy. However, in earlier Greek, αἵρεσις need not be the taking of a thought; it may be the taking of a town, as when Darius takes Babylon at the beginning of Book IV of the Histories of Herodotus. In Plato’s Phaedrus (256c), αἵρεσις is used to describe a particular course of action, “that which is by the many accounted blissful,” or the bodily congress of two persons, who, if nobler, would only sit talking about philosophy when they got together. In this instance, the term αἵρεσις, in the accusative case αἵρεσιν, would seem to be a cognate object, since it is the object of εἱλέσθην, the third-person dual aorist middle form of αἱρέω.

For us, a heresy is an example of a school of thought that one may choose to join. However, as sketched above, Manichaeism allows for no choice. You are on one of two sides, which are eternally at war; there is no provision for persuading one side to join the other, even for some limited purpose, as in a truce for burying the dead. I think Collingwood means something like that, with his florid yet nebulous prose:

43. 17. Imagine that someone were to say: ‘You must not, shall not choose. No choice is open to you. Either accept our doctrine exactly as it stands, or else …’ Yes? Or else what? The man is speaking foolishly; he is pretending to confront you with an alarming alternative when in fact no alternative is offered. He is bluffing. There is no purgatory for repentance, no hell for punishment; nothing but the emptiness of a mind that pretends to have something to say and has nothing.

43. 18. That is what Albigensianism is; not a heresy, but a megalomania.

Today megalomania is called narcissistic personality disorder, and it afflicts certain chief executives, as we have noted.


The Albigensians were persecuted by the Church. The Manichees before them were persecuted under Emperor Diocletian, though he was not even a Christian (43. 26)—he persecuted Christians too.

Collingwood defends persecution in principle. He explains its meaning in a footnote, in case “Some readers may possibly be unfamiliar with some of the following facts.” In ancient times, when there was no distinction between church and state, persecution was

simply society carrying out the duty of educating its members in their religion; if necessary by forcible means and on the person of a recalcitrant pupil.

As a non-persecuting religion, early Christianity was a novelty. Spinoza would later make “the classical restatement of a case for toleration.” Meanwhile, confronting “the Bogomil danger,” Christianity became persecuting.

This is a standard development, seen in Islam and even Buddhism: once a religion becomes established and habitual, it becomes persecuting. I note two recent examples of academic persecution in the United States.

  1. A law professor at the University of Oklahoma called Brian McCall has resigned from his position as associate dean for academic affairs, because of controversy arising from his writing in a book,

    Women must veil their form to obscure its contours out of charity towards men. To know that women in pants have this effect on men and to wear them is thus a sin against charity as well as modesty.

    (Sources: Adam Troxtell in the Norman Transcript, Rod Dreher in the American Conservative.)

  2. A professor of American culture at the University of Michigan called John Cheney-Lippold is being “disciplined” (by ineligibility for a salary increase this year, and ineligibility for a sabbatical for two years) for having withdrawn his agreement to write a student a letter of recommendation, once he learned that the student was applying to go to Israel. The professor had previously declared support for the BDS movement. (Sources: the Michigan Daily, the Washington Post.)

I am not going to analyze these examples further.

The Sanctity of the Oath

The only reason that Collingwood gives for seeing the Bogomils as a threat is their refusal to swear oaths.

43. 33. Let us assume it for a fact that medieval Christianity was based on the sanctity of the oath. I do not mean that it was based on assuming that oaths were not in fact sometimes, or even frequently, violated; I mean that it was based on assuming a certain hesitation or unwillingness to violate them.

This unwillingness was emotional. It was stronger in a man [sic], “in proportion as he was a relatively well-brought-up, decent, god-fearing man” (43. 35). However, the details of the up-bringing matter (43. 36).

Mythos beer at the Piraeus, July 7, 2007

The mythos matters, in the terminology of Robert Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (Chapter 28):

Mythos is the sum total of the early historic and prehistoric myths which preceded the logos. The mythos includes not only the Greek myths but the Old Testament, the Vedic Hymns and the early legends of all cultures which have contributed to our present world understanding. The mythos-over-logos argument states that our rationality is shaped by these legends, that our knowledge today is in relation to these legends as a tree is in relation to the little shrub it once was.

We may suggest then that Collingwood compares two mythoi:

43. 4. For example, Bogomils regarded churches as the abode of evil spirits (43. 19, § 4). Christians regarded them as the abode of spirits friendly to man, though, no doubt, to be approached with caution.

The reference here is to a quotation of the Bogomil doctrines listed by Bury in his edition of Gibbon. Collingwood does not spell out how a specific tradition about churches affects the sanctity of an oath. However, there is additional information:

43. 45. The Bogomil system of conduct, as we happen to know, was hostile to this distinction between a man’s word and his oath. This emerged from the testimony of the ‘Cathari’, or arch-members of the sect, giving evidence before the Inquisition that ‘any oath, true or false, is unlawful’ (Guiraud, op. cit., p. 360).

The reference is to the contribution by Jean Guiraud to the third volume of European Civilization: Its Origin and Development, edited by Edward Eyre (Oxford, 1934–9). Collingwood has already said of Guiraud,

43. 24. That the Inquisition ‘did not punish for the sake of punishing’, whatever that means, but used force to resist the force of a well equipped and formidable adversary whose attacks would doubtless have proved fatal, Monsieur Guiraud may be admitted to have proved.

The adversary here is the Bogomils. As an Anglican, Collingwood has suggested ironically that Guiraud might have referred to what Bury says about the Bogomils, “but for the inexpediency of referring readers to writers who have the enormous prestige of a Bury but are not Roman Catholics” (43. 23).

If swearing an oath is unlawful, what value can the testimony of a Cathar have?

43. 46. Even if we did not possess this testimony, or disbelieved it, the same inference would emerge from what we know of the Bogomils.

We said that Albigensianism disguised itself as Christian. The words quoted earlier from the Sermon on the Mount can evidently assist in this disguise. Pirsig remarks on the importance of words in the West, and implicitly on the importance of the oath:

One finds that in the Judeo-Christian culture in which the Old Testament “Word” had an intrinsic sacredness of its own, men are willing to sacrifice and live by and die for words. In this culture, a court of law can ask a witness to tell “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God,” and expect the truth to be told. But one can transport this court to India, as did the British, with no real success on the matter of perjury because the Indian mythos is different and this sacredness of words is not felt in the same way.

India obviously functions independently today, with populations of Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and Sikhs. However, I draw this list of confessional groups (which leaves out the Parsees and no doubt others) from a recent article called “Sexual violence is India’s new normal” (by Mari Marcel Thekaekara in the Guardian Weekly, 17.08.18).

Collingwood closes his own chapter with sympathy for the Bogomils, because they failed (43. 52), or rather their creed was “stamped out” (43. 5).

43. 51. Through the mists of antiquity it seems to have been a barbarism, in particular a religion of a Manichean sort existing in a Christian world. If it was a barbarism, it was the only one known to us whose career came to an end in early and complete failure.

Since the mindset called Manichean has persisted in persons like George W. Bush, perhaps Collingwood’s point is that there are no surviving Manichean sects (as far as he knows), even though some heresies, such as Papism in England, do survive.

I have heard rumors of a connection between the historical Manichean sect of Paulicians and the Alevis of Turkey today. Gibbon may give some substance to the rumors, referring to

the revolt of Carbeas, a valiant Paulician, who commanded the guards of the general of the East. His father had been impaled by the Catholic inquisitors; and religion, or at least nature, might justify his desertion and revenge. Five thousand of his brethren were united by the same motives; they renounced the allegiance of anti-christian Rome; a Saracen emir introduced Carbeas to the caliph; and the commander of the faithful extended his sceptre to the implacable enemy of the Greeks. In the mountains between Siwas and Trebizond he founded or fortified the city of Tephrice, which is still occupied by a fierce and licentious people, and the neighbouring hills were covered with the Paulician fugitives, who now reconciled the use of the Bible and the sword. During more than thirty years, Asia was afflicted by the calamities of foreign and domestic war; in their hostile inroads the disciples of St. Paul were joined with those of Mahomet …

Gibbon wrote in the eighteenth century. The mountains between Siwas and Trebizond (Sivas and Trabzon) continued to be occupied by a fierce people (I don’t know about their licentiousness); in the 1930s, they staged the Dersim rebellion against the Turkish state.

Gibbon sees the Bogomils, the Paulicians, as having lived on in the Reformation:

The visible assemblies of the Paulicians, or Albigeois, were extirpated by fire and sword; and the bleeding remnant escaped by flight, concealment, or Catholic conformity. But the invincible spirit which they had kindled still lived and breathed in the Western world. In the state, in the church, and even in the cloister, a latent succession was preserved of the disciples of St. Paul; who protested against the tyranny of Rome, embraced the Bible as the rule of faith, and purified their creed from all the visions of the Gnostic theology. The struggles of Wickliff in England, of Huss in Bohemia, were premature and ineffectual; but the names of Zuinglius, Luther, and Calvin are pronounced with gratitude as the deliverers of nations.

Scholarship in these matters continued after Gibbon. Thus Collingwood could conclude,

43. 57. In consequence we know too much about the Bogomils to be content with a Gibbonesque, eighteenth-century picture of them as simple, philosophically minded innocents; but only very little too much.

No doubt we know even more now, though perhaps without having greater approval of persecution.

Etymological Sources

Etymological dictionaries

  1. The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (1971).
  2. Jean Dubois, Henri Mitterand, and Albert Dauzat, Dictionnaire d’Étymologie (Paris: Larousse, 2001).
  3. T. F. Hoad (editor), The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology (1986).
  4. Walter W. Skeat, Concise Etymological Dictionary of the English Language (New York: Perigee Books, 1980).

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