The Lord of the World by Robert Hugh Benson ought to be called The Lords of the World, since it features more than one. It’s an obscure book about a science fiction dystopia. It was published in 1907 and is perhaps the first modern science fiction dystopia novel. Despite its relative obscurity, it’s been recommended by both Pope Francis and Pope Benedict XVI. So, what’s it like?
In The Lord of the World, utopian society is not the result of a single technological breakthrough; it is not the work of a controlling religious group; and it is not a response to some post-apoctalyptic scenario, unlike the vast majority of modern dystopian tales. Instead, it is a natural elaboration of ideas current in 1907. This is why both Popes thought of this book as being particularly prophetic; whereas other dystopias have outlived their window of plausibility, The Lord of the World is simply a result of modern man achieving his goals. That is also why this book still feels relevant today.
Stuck in 1907
It’s startling to think what The Lord of the World predates. Nuclear weapons, airplanes, the space race, computers, videos, TV and both World Wars are all absent from this story because they haven’t come to pass yet. (Remember, it was written in 1907!)
This means that it gets a lot of technology details “wrong.” Occasionally it talks about vehicles moving 100mph, as if that were some great feat. The telegraph is the height of communications technology. Esperanto (an artificially developed late nineteenth century language) is the common language. Cities are constructed underground and rubber is used extensively to dampen noise. But unlike a great many sci-fi pieces, the technology is not a focus and doesn’t drive the plot – it subsists in the background. This makes the “wrong details” easy to ignore, particularly when they have the same effect as many of our actual technological breakthroughs.
The political landscape is also fascinating. The communist platform has triumphed in nearly all Western countries, but not in the Eastern countries where it actually took root. China and Japan merge their ruling dynasties and absorb Russia and India to form a super-Empire that is more religious than the godless, communist West. Thus a democratic, communist West faces off against a monarchist, imperial East.
The religious landscape is also fascinating. In the West, nearly all Protestant denominations have capitulated on key, traditional Christian doctrines. This results in the decline and disappearance of those denominations, as their members either cease to care about faith or join the Catholic Church, which alone holds to the faith of Christ. Most mainline Protestants become largely folded into the secular Humanism movement, leaving Catholics and secular humanists to battle for the soul of the West. In Benson’s mind, the Catholics also stand for political monarchism against the democracy of the humanists. He makes a point of having the exiled royal rulers of Europe present at the Pope’s Mass as faithful Catholics, while their democratic homelands develop in a way that is increasingly hostile to faith.
The Lord of the World’s divergences from the modern world are all firmly rooted in what was plausible in 1907. Every time I looked something up, there was some careful connection to technologies, movements and politics in 1907. The result feels plausible, even as it is technically wrong. It also provides a window into 1907 and the hopes and fears of Christians in that era. In that sense, it is history and science fiction.
Yet in a way, Benson’s novel is more prescient than dated. The major cities are all connected via well-established airway links that are easy to travel on. Bombs that can level cities exist even though they are not called nukes. Euthanasia is an accepted way of dealing with the old, dying or permanently depressed. Religion is shrinking due to growing apathy and to the way that humanism supplants Christian values secretly, without claiming to be an alternative religion. Those who remain interiorly Christian are fighting the modern consensus. This consensus doesn’t care to argue its own point of view so much as continually assert it. If this doesn’t sound familiar, it should, and not just in Catholic circles. I read this article from the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary that could equally have been describing the religious landscape of The Lord of the World or of contemporary Americans.
Most particularly, the “Humanism” that Benson sets up against the Christian faith feels exactly like the “secularism” arrayed against it today. They are not trying to be hostile to the Christian faith (at least until it is secure.) Jesus Christ is often quoted by them. They simply despise Christianity as a religion. Although they make half-hearted attempts to protect freedom of religion for Christians, they see religion as something violent and primitive. In contrast, they mean to seek world peace and to better the lot of mankind. They get the government to step in and run Euthanasia facilities because then it will be safer and cleaner than people working independently. (One thinks of some of the common arguments for abortion or injection sites.) They tout human technology and achievement and encourage humans to look to themselves for their own salvation. Once people abandon kings and nations, gods and religion, then they will have only a brotherhood of man rooted in universal values and achievements.
This is what makes the novel worth reading; as much as the setting may be different, the spirit of the age is one with our age.
The Lord of the World
The Lord of the World’s humanism eventually gives rise to a central, prominent figure who embodies the values of the movement. National ties dissolve. What remains of religious ties becomes insignificant. The movement transcends its political origins and becomes a universal religious movement that precisely inverts the Christian faith; denying God who became man in order to make mankind into god. Old churches are re-purposed so that people may worship human life; motherhood, fatherhood, reason and life itself. It is only then that the humanist movement reluctantly turns to coercion to bring the holdouts (Catholics) in line. This it must do. Due to the nature of its claims it must make some attempt to secure universal allegiance; that may require the euthanasia of some unhealthy elements. One of the main characters, though torn about this, feels that it is necessary.
Here the titular Lord(s) of the world enter. One is the antichrist; it is He who embodies the Spirit of the World and the humanist platform. The other is the Pope; it is He who received charge of the Church on earth and acts as the vicar of Christ. One is the avatar of mankind; the other, of God. The final moments of the world are a showdown between those two; and it is in that moment that God, who has been silent for the duration of the novel, finally acts.
Will The Lord of the World’s secular philosophy one day sound as absurd as a future with a merged Chinese/Japanese empire? Or will it, like euthanasia, atomic bombs and easy air travel, be familiar to us under a different name? Only God knows.
Verdict –Read this book.
Reasons to read:
Still amazingly relevant, despite being more than a century old.
Fascinating, well-considered future.
End time literature like “Left Behind” – but Catholic and well-written!
Two recent Popes have made reference to it.
Available as an eBook for free!
Some archaic language and occasional use of long Latin phrases may trouble the less scholarly.
Non-Catholic Christians may not appreciate Benson’s treatment of Protestants.