The First Demon in Gerontius – Rationalism

In the Dream of Gerontius (1865) three demons approach the soul of Gerontius. Each demon proclaims an attitude that would gather the souls for hell, but the attitude is identifiable as a position men take on earth. The angel explains to Gerontius:

that sullen howl
Is from the demons who assemble there.
It is the middle region, where of old
Satan appeared among the sons of God,
To cast his jibes and scoffs at holy Job.
So now his legions throng the vestibule,
Hungry and wild, to claim their property,
And gather souls for hell. Hist to their cry.

There are three assaults by the demons. This post we shall examine the first demon. This demon exclaims:

Low-born clods
Of brute earth
They aspire
To become gods,
By a new birth,
And an extra grace,
And a score of merits,

As if aught
Could stand in place
Of the high thought,
And the glance of fire
Of the great spirits,
The powers blest,
The lords by right,
The primal owners,
Of the proud dwelling
And realm of light,—

Aside thrust,
Chuck’d down
By the sheer might
Of a despot’s will,
Of a tyrant’s frown,
Who after expelling
Their hosts, gave,
Triumphant still,
And still unjust,
Each forfeit crown

To psalm-droners,
And canting groaners,
To every slave,
And pious cheat,
And crawling knave,
Who lick’d the dust
Under his feet.

Rationalism is the attitude opposed to faith. At the beginning and the end of his outburst this demon scoffs at the humility that characterizes the faithful: “the crawling knave, Who licked the dust.” They are but  “pious cheats.” They are psalm droners, not interesting to the great intellects. The believers are not of the elite, they are “low born clods” who aspire to become gods — through faith or “new birth.” 

Not so the proud men of reason — the great spirits, the men of high thought. They are the Lords by right of the “proud dwelling” — academia and the realm of the mind. Their arrogant and contemptuous gaze burns like a “glance of fire.” Newman surely knew a few professors who claimed to own “the realm of light.”

But their hatred feeds on their envy of the saints. The rivalry is intense. Their entitlement is seen is their charge of the injustice by which they are dispossessed and “chucked down.” Our Lord would frequently speak about the kingdom belonging to the child and he would exult over the secrets being hidden from the proud as they were revealed to the “little ones.”

The rationalist professor refers to God as a tyrant, not as a Father (see Crossing the Threshold of Hope, in which Pope John paul says the original sin is to deny the fatherhood of God and thus seek to eradicate the “radiation of Fatherhood”). God is acknowledged only as “superior might” not as a superior wisdom.

The “crown” has been forfeit and given over to the pious cheat. So the demons now burn with an envious rage and must squint at life. They are locked in their proud kingdom. The wonder that leads to wisdom, the ability to be surprised by joy, the attitude of humble awe and gratitude for existence have escaped them. Thus, the angel formulates a very apt description of the existential being of the proud rationalist:

It is the restless panting of their being; Like beasts of prey, who, caged within their bars, In a deep hideous purring have their life, And an incessant pacing to and fro.


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