Who Are the Barbarians of Today?

Harsha Walia, a month after she called for Catholic churches to be burned “down,” resigned from her post as executive director of a Canadian civil rights group after a public outcry. She sparked an online fury in calling for violence against Catholic churches stating “Burn it all down.” Nonetheless, her approval of violence was not without support from the legal profession.

Rebel News founder Ezra Levant, in a FOX News interview hosted by Tucker Carlson, stated that the multitude of arson attacks on churches in Canada is Canada’s “Black Lives Matter” movement and called out the nation’s top leaders for their near silence regarding the burnings. Carlson has said that “all of a sudden Canada looks a lot like the Soviet Union.”

It is significant that people who profess to support human rights today can think along the lines of barbarians. George Will wrote Statecraft as Soulcraft (1983) in response to what he termed the “slow-motion barbarization” that he perceived in American politics. There are barbarians operating among us who are arrayed in sheep’s clothing and supposedly represent honorable interests. 

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The word “barbarian” originated in ancient Greece. The barbarian (bàrbaros) was someone who spoke in a non-Greek language that 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 Goths, Huns, Vandals, and Saxons. 

In A.D. 410, the barbarians sacked Rome. St. Augustine wrote his monumental De Civitate Dei (The City of God) to defend Christianity from the charge that she was responsible for the calamity. “Here, then,” wrote Augustine, “is this Roman republic, ‘which has changed little by little from the fair and virtuous city it was, and has become utterly wicked and dissolute.’ It is not I who am the first to say this, but their own authors, from whom we learned it. . .and who wrote it long before the coming of Christ. You see how [the Romans] were swept away as by a torrent; and how depraved by luxury and avarice the youth were” (Book II, Ch. 19). We could use another Augustine to answer the false claim that Canadian Catholics are today’s real barbarians.  

We have now come to think of barbarians as uncivilized, uncouth, and lacking appreciation for anything outside of their own insular frame of reference. In hindsight, according to the modern usage of the term, the real barbarian of antiquity 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 Indian rebellion who defaced the Taj Mahal, or Oliver Cromwell who went on a rampage, destroying numerous Catholic churches.

Here we may ask the question, “Who is the barbarian of today?” 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. 

Alasdair 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 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 lifestyle 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 either by time or space. Thomas Sowell has put the matter in a nutshell: “Each new generation is in effect an invasion of civilization by little barbarians, who must be civilized before it is too late.”

[Photo Credit: Ontario Provincial Police]


  • Donald DeMarco

    Donald DeMarco is professor emeritus of Saint Jerome’s University and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary. He is a regular columnist for the Saint Austin Review and the author, most recently, of Reflections on the Covid-19 Pandemic: A Search for Understanding.

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