Sunday, October 13, 2013


Surtout Point de Zèle

Samuel Butler (1835-1902), Alps and Sanctuaries of Piedmont and the Canton Ticino (New York: E.P. Dutton & Company, 1913), pp. 65-66:
All the time I was with him I felt how much I wished I could be a Catholic in Catholic countries, and a Protestant in Protestant ones. Surely there are some things which, like politics, are too serious to be taken quite seriously. Surtout point de zèle is not the saying of a cynic, but the conclusion of a sensible man; and the more deep our feeling is about any matter, the more occasion have we to be on our guard against zèle in this particular respect. There is but one step from the "earnest" to the "intense." When St. Paul told us to be all things to all men he let in the thin end of the wedge, nor did he mark it to say how far it was to be driven.
"Surtout point de zèle," said by Talleyrand, is translated by Hugh Percy Jones as "Above all, avoid zeal."

Id., pp. 67-68 (footnote omitted, ellipsis in original):
In the ages of faith, an ass dressed in sacerdotal robes was gravely conducted to the cathedral choir at a certain season, and mass was said before him, and hymns chanted discordantly. The elder D'Israeli, from whom I am quoting, writes: "On other occasions, they put burnt old shoes to fume in the censers; ran about the church leaping, singing, dancing, and playing at dice upon the altar, while a boy bishop or pope of fools burlesqued the divine service;" and later on he says: "So late as 1645, a pupil of Gassendi, writing to his master what he himself witnessed at Aix on the feast of Innocents, says—'I have seen in some monasteries in this province extravagances solemnised, which pagans would not have practised. Neither the clergy nor the guardians indeed go to the choir on this day, but all is given up to the lay brethren, the cabbage cutters, errand boys, cooks, scullions, and gardeners; in a word, all the menials fill their places in the church, and insist that they perform the offices proper for the day. They dress themselves with all the sacerdotal ornaments, but torn to rags, or wear them inside out; they hold in their hands the books reversed or sideways, which they pretend to read with large spectacles without glasses, and to which they fix the rinds of scooped oranges...; particularly while dangling the censers they keep shaking them in derision, and letting the ashes fly about their heads and faces, one against the other. In this equipage they neither sing hymns nor psalms nor masses, but mumble a certain gibberish as shrill and squeaking as a herd of pigs whipped on to market. The nonsense verses they chant are singularly barbarous:—
Haec est clara dies, clararum clara dierum,
Haec est festa dies festarum festa dierum.'"
Faith was far more assured in the times when the spiritual saturnalia were allowed than now. The irreverence which was not dangerous then, is now intolerable. It is a bad sign for a man's peace in his own convictions when he cannot stand turning the canvas of his life occasionally upside down, or reversing it in a mirror, as painters do with their pictures that they may judge the better concerning them. I would persuade all Jews, Mohammedans, Comtists, and freethinkers to turn high Anglicans, or better still, downright Catholics for a week in every year, and I would send people like Mr. Gladstone to attend Mr. Bradlaugh's lectures in the forenoon, and the Grecian pantomime in the evening, two or three times every winter. I should perhaps tell them that the Grecian pantomime has nothing to do with Greek plays. They little know how much more keenly they would relish their normal opinions during the rest of the year for the little spiritual outing which I would prescribe for them, which, after all, is but another phase of the wise saying—Surtout point de zèle.
Id., p. 69:
Surely truces, without even an arrière-pensée of difference of opinion, between those who are compelled to take widely different sides during the greater part of their lives, must be of infinite service to those who can enter on them. There are few merely spiritual pleasures comparable to that derived from the temporary laying down of a quarrel, even though we may know that it must be renewed shortly.

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