Who Are the Barbarians?

The word ‘barbarian’ originated in ancient Greece. The barbarian (bàrbaros) was someone who spoke in a non-Greek language and, therefore, was unintelligible to the Greek ear. The term was specifically directed to Persians, Egyptians, Medes and Phoenicians. It was as though these so-called barbarians were simply uttering “bar-bar-bar”. Consequently, the barbarians were incoherent “babblers”. Late in the Roman Empire, the term applied to those who lacked Greek or Roman traditions, specifically to Goths, Huns, Vandals, and Saxons.

We have now come to think of barbarians as uncivilized, uncouth, and lacking appreciation for anything outside of their own insular frame of reference. Ironically, according to the modern usage of the term, the real barbarian was the ancient Greek or Roman since they shut themselves off from a broader awareness of things. The modern barbarian is one who regards anything outside of his own frame of reference as incoherent and consequently worthless. He is like the British soldiers during the India rebellion who defaced the Taj Mahal, or Oliver Cromwell going on a rampage, destroying numerous Catholic churches.

Photo by Simon Varsano, Lionsgate

Here we may ask the question, “Who is the barbarian? Does the word apply to the Catholic whose doctrine is regarded by many as unintelligible, or to those who do not make the effort to understand the richness of Catholic teaching? The word Catholic, meaning “universal,” would suggest that the true Catholic is interested in a wide variety of things. By the same token, the pro-life person, often denigrated as extremely narrow, is interested in defending the life of all human beings.

Alistair MacIntyre, in his book, After Virtue, contends that we are now in the same situation as the ancient Greeks and Romans. With regard to moral discourse, the new barbarians are those who neither speak nor understand the language of the moral tradition that has shaped the relatively humanitarian world we call Western civilization. They regard arguments put forward to defend traditional marriage, the dignity of life, the natural law, and even God’s existence as unintelligible. The late Rev. Richard John Neuhaus has added the statement that “Once anyone steps outside this [Western] tradition, then that person is considered a barbarian”. C. S. Lewis offered an antidote to the cultural blindness that forms the mind of the barbarian when he advised people “to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds . . . by reading good books”.

Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953), fittingly known as “Old Thunder,” dedicated a chapter called “The Barbarians” in his 1912 book, This That and the Other. He speaks about how we sit by and watch the barbarian and find his antics amusing. To our discredit, we tolerate that which we should oppose. “We are ticked by his irreverence,” he writes, “his comic inversion of our old certitudes and our fixed creeds refreshes us: we laugh. But as we laugh we are watched by large and awful faces from beyond: and on these faces there is no smile.”

In reading Belloc the spectacle of marches that promote the homosexual life-style come to mind. Their participants live off the capital derived from the very tradition they denounce. But they have no real contribution to make for a replacement. They are a spectacle cut off from both the past and the future. They demand attention but have nothing positive to offer.

Belloc, however, is more concerned about the factors that create a place for the barbarians. He recognizes that society is an organism and as such, it must be able to reject elements that are inimical to it. Therefore, he writes, “Whoever would restore any society which menaces to fall, must busy himself about the inward nature of that society much more than about its external dangers or the merely mechanical and numerical factors or peril to be discovered within it.”

Applying Belloc’s thinking to the present day world, a weakened society that cannot protect itself against harmful alien elements is like an organism with AIDS whose immune system is too enfeebled to reject harmful substances that attack it. The society that goes out of its way to invite harmful elements into its system is like a society afflicted with AIDS. Belloc’s comments, though penned in 1912, are valid for all times.

In returning to the question, “Who are the barbarians?” the answer devolves upon those who have cut themselves off from tradition and regard its contribution to religion, education, and morality as unintelligible. By contrast, the educated person, for whom Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Milton, Shakespeare, Bach, Beethoven, Newton, and Einstein are always relevant, is open to the great lessons of history. He is the person who does not allow himself to be limited by either time or space. Nor is his philosophy of life circumscribed by a slogan.

Hence, the person who ignores what science has to say about the nature of the unborn child and rationalizes his position solely on the basis of “choice,” would belong to the class of barbarians. Likewise, the reduction of marriage to sex, the dismissal of the natural law, and the disregard for the dignity of life is tantamount to a preference for the barbarian’s narrow habitat.

Because society functions as an organism, it must be nourished by what is healthy and it must safeguard itself against what is harmful. There is no middle ground. Human existence is inevitably a relentless moral drama. In his book, Christian Reflections, C. S. Lewis put this point in a theological context when he said the following: “There is no neutral ground in the universe: every square inch, every split second, is claimed by God and counterclaimed by Satan.”

Civilization, it may be said, is a race between education and barbarism. José Ortega y Gasset alluded to the barbarian assault on modern civilization in his book, The Revolt of the Masses (1931), when he referred to “the sovereignty of the unqualified”. We need a less affirmative attitude toward the barbarian than tolerance. At the moment we seem to be giving him supremacy.

Dr. Donald DeMarco is a Senior Fellow of Human Life International. He is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ontario, an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College in Cromwell, CT, and a regular columnist for St. Austin Review. His latest works, How to Remain Sane in a World That is Going Mad and Poetry That Enters the Mind and Warms the Heart are available through Articles by Don: