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If It Were a Novel, No One Would Believe It


Scenes from a history that never happened.

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guaraniThe New York State legislature meets in session.  People are milling about, talking about the Giants and complaining about the weather.  A typical day; and a lot of the people are speaking English, and a lot are speaking Iroquois, and some shift comfortably from one to the other, in mid-conversation.

"You're foolish to trade your pelts for fire-water, Joseph," says the English minister to the chief of the Huron.  "Your men get drunk, and the English ride you down like dogs."

"Sharp words, Black Robe.  But shall we drink only water?"

"What do the English drink, Joseph?"

"The thing they call tea."

"And they pay a hefty price for it too.  They bring it in ships from farther away than the rising sun."

"What is this to us, Black Robe?"

"Suppose our village could produce a drink, not like the fire-water, but strong, good, healthy, and sell it to the English, and break their trade with it?  Suppose we grow wealthy, and they pay us in real goods and not trash?"

Joseph narrows his eyes.  "I will speak to the elders, Black Robe.  You are a wise commander."

"Geronimo," says the president to the cunning old warrior, "we grant to you the entire territory of Arizona.  You will farm it, and raise cattle on it.  You will own it, and you will grow."

"What good is that to us?" says Geronimo.  "You make a promise, and you break it."

"Can you ride a horse, Geronimo?"

The old man snorts.

"He who can ride a horse, Geronimo, can attack invaders."

"With what weapons?"

"With guns."

"Even if the invaders are evil white men?"

"Will you?" says the president.

Those things never happened, in the United States.  But something like them did happen in Paraguay.

Know thine enemy

I must ask you, reader, to picture things that you likely have never seen; rainy jungles in the valleys of the great southern rivers, the Sao Francisco, the Plata; people dark of skin and tall, muscular, wearing little or nothing, with no writing, no farming, no herding, no towns, living from the bounty of fish and flesh and fruit that the wild earth provides, killing their babies when they believe there are too many; and Jesuit priests afire with the zeal to save souls.

That they overcame with courage, kindness, a model of a better life, and a firm commitment to virtue.

The Jesuit missionaries to the Guaraní had three main enemies to overcome.  The first and easiest was the brutality of the Guaraní.  That they overcame with courage, kindness, a model of a better life, and a firm commitment to virtue.  The second was the brutality of the land.  That they overcame with all the gathered skills of their far-flung order, wise in the features of God's world.  The third was the brutality of many of the Europeans, who often bound the natives to peonage, or obliterated them.  That's the old and sorry story of mankind, not peculiar to any race.  Give a man a stick and he'll beat his neighbor with it.

The Jesuits overcame that by the reductions of Paraguay.

Self-disciple, self-government

The reductions were so called because the Jesuits drew the native peoples back from the wilds into areas cleared for farming and herding, areas defensible against hostile tribes, including the civilized Europeans. 

So far I appear to be describing missions like the ones Saint Junípero Serra founded in California.  But there were some fascinating differences.

Some of these arose from the gifts of the Guaraní themselves.  Music, for one.  The Jesuit fathers perceived that the tribesmen loved music, so they taught them the harmonies of the Church — the hymns, the sung prayers of the Mass, the propers and collects of the seasons, and so on.  The Guaraní took to it with joy.  They became so proficient in the art of polyphony that Guaraní choirs sometimes traveled to Spanish cities for recitals.

Spanish kings had outlawed abuse of the indigenous peoples, but how could they enforce laws from thousands of miles away? The reductions, however, had more than a piece of paper for protection.  For the crown often contributed horses and weapons for their defense; and the Guaraní men did the work of good citizens in fending off encroachments from other tribes, Spanish criminals, and the hostile Portuguese.  Able men trained for combat in mock battles, especially as cavalry. Eventually they produced their own gunpowder.

Self-government requires that the self be governed. 

Self-government requires that the self be governed.  Any pagan philosopher could tell you that.  All the American founders agreed: liberty without virtue is but license, and license enslaves.  You can hope to run away from a vicious master.  You can never run away from yourself.

So the fathers built their evangelical work upon the solid stones of natural virtues.  They kept the Guaraní away from Spanish and Portuguese diseases, both microbial and moral.  They taught them the value of regular labor, and not by whips but by singing and celebration.  They encouraged healthy habits of leisure, of which there was quite a lot, because of Sundays and the wealth of feasts throughout the year: games for everybody, or exercises on horseback, or free time to go into the woods to hunt and trap.

Everybody got married, boys at age seventeen, girls at fifteen.  No infanticide, and no capital punishment.  Everywhere else, native tribes dwindled down to near extinction. But in the reductions, despite the periodic ravages of measles and smallpox, the Guaraní increased.  Witness that one of the two official languages in Paraguay is Guaraní, spoken by 90 percent of the people.

Two or three Jesuit fathers could never accomplish this against the will of the Guaraní, who outnumbered them a thousand to one.  The Guaraní themselves, every year, elected their own governors, who submitted to the spiritual direction and the pragmatic advice of the fathers.

I know of nothing like it in the history of mankind. 

Economic competition

The reductions were well-governed theocracies.  Work was regular and moderate, everybody was part of a big family, and all enjoyed the comforts and the unifying power of the Christian faith.  One observer said that hardly a mortal sin was ever to be known.

Such communities will prosper.  The Jesuits prevented the evil of out-of-wedlock childbirth by early marriage.  They prevented alcoholism by cultivating a tree whose leaves, roasted and then steeped in boiling water, produced a stimulating drink called mate, which became tremendously popular not only in the reductions but elsewhere in South America too.  It is the national drink of Paraguay.

They became so proficient in the art of polyphony that Guaraní choirs sometimes traveled to Spanish cities for recitals.

The reductions outdid the peon-tilled plantations of the Europeans in quantity, quality, and range of products.  They had orange groves in the middle of nowhere.  They had enormous herds — sometimes as many as 100,000 head of cattle.  The Guaraní men were wonderfully skilled artisans.  They became "carpenters, joiners, wood-turners, builders; others blacksmiths, goldsmiths, armorers, bell-founders, masons, sculptors, stone-cutters, tilemakers, house-painters, painters and gilders, shoemakers, tailors, bookbinders, weavers, dyers, bakers, butchers, tanners, instrument-makers, organ-­builders, copyists, and calligraphers" (The Catholic Encyclopedia).  Boys learned their trades from the men.

Why we cannot have good things

Moral probity makes for success, success breeds envy, and envy lights the tinder for calumny and violence.  That's what happened to the reductions, when in 1767, capitulating to vicious slanders, King Charles III expelled the Jesuits from the reductions, against the impassioned protests of the Guaraní.

I don't have the space here to describe what happened to the Guaraní thereafter, or how you can visit the ruins of the reductions now.  I'll make one comment alone.

People did not crucify Jesus because he was foolish, incompetent, and bad.  They crucified him because he knew their ways, he moved thousands of people, and he was holy.  People hate the Church not because she is like every other human institution, as in some ways she is — filled with sinners and hypocrites and fools.  You don't hate the post office.  People hate the Church not because she is like every other human institution as in some ways she is — filled with sinners and hypocrites and fools.  People hate the Church because she is holy.

The Jesuits were hated not because they failed to do the work of the Church, but because they succeeded.  If in this world people at the worst treat you as inoffensive and tolerable, then you cannot be doing the work of the Crucified.  Jesus himself said so.



Magnificat Anthony Esolen. "If It Were a Novel,  No One Would Believe It." Magnificat (November, 2018).

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The Author

esolen54smesolen7Anthony Esolen is a professor and writer in residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, in Warner, New Hampshire. He is the author of many books including: Life Under Compulsion: Ten Ways to Destroy the Humanity of Your Child, The Beauty of the Word: A Running Commentary on the Roman Missal, Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching, Reflections on the Christian LifeIronies of Faith: Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization, and is the translator of several epic poems of the West, including Lucretius' On the Nature of Things: de Rerum Natura, Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata, and the three volumes of Dante's Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. He is a graduate of Princeton and the University of North Carolina. Anthony Esolen is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

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