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Book review: Lord of the World

Benjamin Boivin

Thursday, October 7, 2021

From the original book cover of Robert Hugh Benson's Lord of the World (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
The utopia-dystopia nexus is a central theme of twentieth-century literature. Some of the most-read novels of our time are directly related to this tradition. We might think in particular of George Orwell's 1984, a profoundly political dystopia which brilliantly illustrates the worst excesses of totalitarianism, or Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, which parodies the utopian nature of futuristic science fiction novels (like the works of H.G. Wells) and tells of a world where material comfort and pleasure reign, leading to the enfeeblement of the human soul in an ocean of narcotic banality.
These works have become so well known, so deeply rooted in popular culture that they seem to have lost some of their vibrancy, or rather their ability to surprise. While this does not detract from their merit, other lesser known but equally fascinating works approach the question from sometimes very surprising perspectives.
Such is the case with Lord of the World, a dystopian novel written by the English Catholic priest Robert Hugh Benson, whose personal history resonates with that of the Oxford Movement and its most illustrious representative, St. John Henry Newman.
Benson came from a highly sophisticated background, heir to a family of prominent Anglican clergymen. His father was Archbishop of Canterbury, the highest ecclesiastical office in the Anglican Church, and it was by him that he was ordained to the priesthood in that Church in the late nineteenth century. After a lively intellectual journey, he converted and became a priest in the Catholic Church at the beginning of the following century.
In 1908, he published Lord of the World, by far his best known and most widely read work. It has been praised and described as prophetic by a number of thinkers in recent years, including Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Pope Francis, each of whom has highlighted its merits.
But what is this mysterious work about? Set at the beginning of the 21st century, it tells the story of Father Percy Franklin, a Catholic priest who lives in London, in a transformed Europe dominated by a form of secular humanism, freed from all metaphysical considerations and similar, in many respects, to the positivism characteristic of the thought of French philosopher Auguste Comte, where man has, so to speak, set himself up as his own god. The modern reader will also certainly recognize the universe in which we currently exist.
The world, politically divided into a European Confederation, an American Republic, and an Eastern Empire, is spiritually divided between the secular humanism mentioned above, the Eastern religions, and a wavering Catholicism – the only form of Christianity to have survived until now. Humanity lives under the threat of a confrontation between the European Confederation and the Eastern Empire, with the latter making notable advances.
On the one hand, we follow Father Percy, increasingly vulnerable as the position of Catholicism weakens. On the other hand, we learn about a set of figures involved in the administration of the socialist regime in place in England, all while a mysterious Senator Felsenburgh with peculiar gifts emerges from this tense human and geopolitical situation, claiming to bring peace while being given extraordinary powers over a troubled Europe.
Under the cover of futuristic literature and science fiction, Lord of the World approaches the deep questions of Christian eschatology and puts forward contradictory principles. Secular humanism, focused on worldly concerns and characterized by peculiar ritual practices – in a manner similar to the worst excesses of the French Revolution, is the adversary of a Catholicism which, isolated and weakened at the end of History, is called upon to resist it with limited means.
Benson's unique dystopian perspective here – far from technological or ecological angst – is essentially articulated around spiritual considerations. He will surprise some readers with his lucid yet pungent depiction of a certain humanism untethered from the principles that justify it, the principles of Christian anthropology.
Living as we do today at a time of great ecological, sanitary, and economic crises, the dystopian perspective is in the air of our time, a time very far removed from the decades of the second half of the 20th century, which were often marked in the West by an optimistic, even at certain times futuristic, state of mind. One of the merits of contemporary dystopian literature and its expressions in popular culture  is its ability to highlight what worries some and what delights others.
In Benson, a thinker defined by a Christian understanding of cosmology and of the future of the world – our transient home – man's spiritual peril seems to lie in the particular form of man's worship of man, a self-idolizing humanity. In a by-and-large secularized world, that is food for thought.

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