July’s Child: Hilaire Belloc’s Path to Rome

The Path to Rome is one of the most delightful and well-beloved travel books in the English language — the story of Hilaire Belloc, age 31, on a walk from southern France to the far-off city of Rome. Or perhaps of Hilaire Belloc on a romp through the English language. Or perhaps of Hilaire Belloc on a stroll through, a meditation upon, the hidden links of Europe to Christianity.

This is the story of a voyage into a man’s heart at a moment in which he is forging his own identity, as a writer and a man, a book that made him a celebrated literary figure and a new voice in cultural combat. Hilaire Belloc was born in France on July 27, 1870, and he died on July 16, 1953, when at the age of 82 he fell and struck his head on a fireplace at home in England. Of his more than 135 books, several celebrate the French Revolution of July 14, 1789. Argumentative and jovial, Belloc had the temperament of the summer’s heat. He was July’s child.

In the year of his birth, his parents carried him off to England, along the path of the Norman conquerors of 1066. Educated in England under Cardinal Newman at the Birmingham Oratory, then for several years an English journalist, Belloc returned to France for his year of military duty in 1891. Early and late, it was important to him to maintain his roots in France.

More than that, Belloc had in imagination recreated for himself a powerful link to the gnarled, stubborn, independent French peasantry who had been taught the arts of agriculture and the habits of civilization by Christian monks a thousand years earlier. From being wandering hunters and tribesmen, his ancestors (he imagined) had become independent farmers, stubbornly jealous of their land and its improvement through the ages, barely prosperous, but reliable, full of common sense, in touch with a life that offered simple sanity and unadorned realism.

In this imagined peasantry of the past, Belloc’s own equivalent of the “noble savage” that Rousseau had fantasized among the non-corrupted of the planet, Belloc built a stone fortress against the contrived wants and artifices of the “progressive” rich of the fin de siecle. Like many other artists and writers — those of Vienna in the same period, for example, although in their case mostly Jewish rather than Catholic — Belloc’s lifelong appeal was to the pre-modern sensibility of the villages of the past, a cry against modernity, an angular, crotchety, dashing, ribald, outrageous and stubborn resistance to the bourgeoisie and all their works and pomps.

Belloc was a foe of secularism, capitalist plutocracy, and in general the rich and the “progressive.” The peasantry of the Middle Ages inflamed his imagination and, in that same spirit, he was an ardent republican, as his many works on the French Revolution indicate.

What Belloc liked best about Catholicism was its fleshiness, its permanence, its matter-of-factness. The mortality of humans (including his own) abided with him like the sharp tang of autumn. A sense of dwelling within the larger perspectives of eternity and under the utter transcendence of God never left him, and the beauty that endures across generations seemed to him whisperings from that larger world. A good, solid Catholic priest, he thought, ought to be able to celebrate a Mass in a brisk 20 minutes — no fuss, no fanfare. Why should longer be required to catch the eternal in the present?

It was “at the very beginning of June, at evening,” not yet sunset, that Belloc “set out from Toul by the Nancy gate,” to follow the turns of the Moselle from Lorraine toward Switzerland, across the Alps and down through central Italy. The trip by foot took just under a month. At its end, he later learned, Pope Leo XIII had summoned him, but the message did not reach Belloc, who regretted for years that he had missed the opportunity to meet “the greatest pope since the Reformation.” In July, Belloc returned to England.

Belloc adorned the pages of his travel story with sketches he had made along the way. These supply abundant pleasures in themselves (here an unforgettable gateway, there an alpine vista, next the turn of a road among the trees), and some are topographical maps setting forth his route.

Not so long ago, another English journalist, historian, and artist, Paul Johnson, attempted to follow Belloc’s route. So grown up was it with highways, suburbs, and all the other “improvements” of modern life that Mr. Johnson found it impossible to see what Belloc had seen, or to retrace exactly the latter’s progress. So much for the “progress” Belloc had so long inveighed against! It was as if, mischievously, that lover of the ancient countryside had wished to leave a record in The Path to Rome of the beauty that was but would no longer be, and to set it down in cold type not long before it passed into eternal memory.

We should say at once that Belloc’s preface, justly famous, a preface to end all prefaces (“In Praise of This Book,” he calls it), is a tour de force: it marches the English language as it has never been marched before. Belloc then records unforgettable scenes and characters now famous in the literary imagination: the Commercial Traveller; the Wine Merchant of Brule; the Hungry Student; the little church of Undervelier, where all the citizens of the town, one hundred percent (no pluralism there!), attended Vespers, in a decisive moment in Belloc’s seIf-definition; and many more. Hardly a local wine or ale from Toul to central Italy goes unremarked; Belloc is partial to drinks whose origins go back to the Catholic era. Cigars are often smoked, cheese and bread often munched in slow reflection. Evenings and mornings, dews and rains, cloud formations and road surfaces are vividly remembered.

Often, too, Belloc seizes the reader by the collar and puts him in the scene, ascribes words and questions to him in direct voice. Writing so, Belloc allows his thought to be interrupted:

They cook worse in Undervelier than in any place I was ever in, with the possible exception of Omaha, Neb.

LECTOR: Why do you use phrases like “possible exception”?

AUCTOR: Why not?…

After his military service in France (1891-92), Belloc entered Balliol College, Oxford, finished with a brilliant first, was elected head of the student union but was not, as he had expected, elected a fellow of the college. Having insulted the dons — no more than a peasant-like bluntness, Belloc thought — he expected them (“noblesse oblige”) to honor his independence, as they did not. This deed left a lifelong sting of injustice in his flesh and a need to seek income elsewhere. He disliked this; writing for pay, he later wrote his son, is servile. Accordingly, Belloc had of necessity published books before The Path to Rome, including Verses and Sonnets (1895), The Bad Child’s Book of Beasts (1896), Danton (1899), and Robespierre (1901). Belloc loved public service, though, and being naturalized as a British citizen in 1902, he was elected a member of parliament in the Liberal Party for South Salford four years later. In politics as in the university, he was too brusque to linger long.

Although Belloc usually wrote for money, of The Path to Rome, he said, “It was the only book I wrote for love.” In marvelous irony (“and all these other things will be added unto you”), Path was the most financially successful of all his books. It has been reprinted again and again. One critic called it “quite the most sumptuous embodiment of universal gaiety and erratic wisdom that has been written.” It made Belloc’s literary reputation. He came to be seen in London with Shaw and Wells, Max Beerbohm and Joseph Conrad, and many other literary lights. He was opinionated; he was argumentative, boisterous, and good fun.

Belloc once sent out a Christmas card to this effect: “Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel, may all my enemies go to hell.” This did not mean that Belloc rejected the Christian commandment to love one’s enemies. Rather, as a first step in fulfilling it, Belloc wanted to make clear that he did have enemies, and what he thought of them, before yielding to grace.

Belloc was not a “pleasant character”; he was opposed to pleasant characters. Character, in his view, juts out; it ought to have sharp angles. Belloc was told, after his rejection at Oxford, that there was no point in applying for a university opening in Scotland; his being Catholic precluded any such appointment. Very well, then, Belloc was willing to defend himself by preemptive attack. He was not bitter. He was determined to give as good as he got, in self-respect. His real foe was secularism; of Protestantism he merely held a mutually adversarial opinion. No one could accuse him of ecumenism. His resistance to secularism was healthy; regarding Protestantism one might grant him self-defense. But there was, by contrast, no excuse for the anti-Semitism of his middle years, which was of an old-fashioned, crabby, tribal type. It remains a blotch upon his work.

Belloc, then, must be taken critically, as he fully expected to be. He would have been amazed to be taken literally. His often outlandish prejudices were written down with self-mockery and irony. That does not save him, especially these days, from censure. Throughout his life, Belloc was made to pay for being Catholic, and perhaps for being his provocatively crusty self. Instead of softening his edges, he sharpened them. He let his faults be highly visible. He would never have needed “sensitivity seminars” to learn to let his feelings “hang out.” He demanded judgment. He awaited judgment.

Together with G. K. Chesterton, his friend, whose illustrations often adorned Belloc’s later books as Belloc’s own adorned The Path to Rome, Belloc became one of George Bernard Shaw’s literary friends and ideological antagonists. The middle-class socialism Shaw stood for represented everything that the “Chesterbelloc” (as Shaw called them) stood against. The independent small farmer, owning his own land, close to the soil and out in God’s breezes, was the Chesterbelloc ideal. They abhorred the collectivism, electrification and “progress” Shaw stood for. In plutocratic capitalism and collectivist socialism alike, Belloc saw the horrors of The Servile State (1912), a book whose thesis bears extended comparison with Tocqueville’s warnings against the “new, soft despotism” that threatens democracies via the welfare state.

Few men did more to restore to England a sense of Europe, and to Europe a sense of its debts to the yeast implanted in northern Europe by the Latin Christian monks, who spread Christianity northwards, monastery by monastery. They it was who taught “scientific” farming, such as then it was, showing how “profits’ could raise whole regions beyond the bare level of subsistence. From this, cities sprang — and music, song and architecture. The daily Mass taught Europeans the value both of the independent person (such as the stubborn peasant) and of the goodness and joy of this temporary life on earth.

Belloc’s biographer A. N. Wilson accurately observes that one of the most decisive moments of Belloc’s life is recorded in The Path to Rome, in connection with his stay in Undervelier (whose cooking was so bad, but all of whose citizens — all of them — attended vespers in the parish church). Belloc is stunned:

At this I was very much surprised, not having been used at any time in my life to the unanimous devotion of an entire population, but having always thought of the Faith as something fighting odds, and having seen unanimity only in places where some sham religion or other glazed over our tragedies and excused our sins. Certainly to see all the men, women and children of a place taking Catholicism for granted was a new sight, and so I put my cigar carefully down under a stone on the top of the wall and went in with them. I then saw that what they were at was vespers.

All the village sang, knowing the psalms very well, and I noticed that their Latin was nearer German than French; but what was most pleasing of all was to hear from all the men and women together that very noble good-night and salutation to God which begins — “Te lucis ante terminum.”

My whole mind was taken up and transfigured by this collective act, and I saw for a moment the Catholic Church quite plain, and I remembered Europe and the centuries. Then there left me altogether that attitude of difficulty and combat which, for us others, is always associated with Faith. The cities dwindled in my imagination, and I took less heed of the modern noise. I went out with them into the clear evening and the cool. I found my cigar and lit it again, and musing much more deeply than before, not without tears, I considered the nature of Belief.

Catholicism, Chesterton once said, is a steak, a cigar, and a glass of stout: a sacramental religion that sees the presence of God in every concrete, individual, created thing. Belloc shared this enthusiasm for cigars, for ale, for vivid and singular humans and created things. (Instead of steaks, Belloc leaned to bread, chunks of which in his ripe old age he was never without, stuffed in the pockets of his old-man’s parlor robe). A man of nature, he sometimes relieved himself outside his country cottage, on the lawn. He glorified in the concreteness of the Catholic faith, its stimulation of the senses through color, incense, and the sonorous variety of ringing bells. The more he believed in spirit and transcendence, the more tightly he held to the joy of physical things, so as to approach God, until the end, as flesh and spirit both, awaiting the resurrection of both. Awaiting judgment.

For anyone who would like to think of it accordingly, then, The Path to Rome is for Belloc a pilgrimage toward at least three destinations. It is, of course, just as it announces itself, a delicious revel in the simple pleasures of the Moselle the Alps, and Tuscany, upon the long path toward primal Western origins in central Italy. The voyage, though, is inward. It is not an artist’s tour or archeologist’s or antiquarian’s. Belloc pays little homage to the great cities, the famous monuments or works of art along the way. He chooses to celebrate, rather, the way of life of the little people, not the sites beloved of tour books. Belloc imagines himself walking through a civilization, whose roots are local and quietly incarnated in its peasantry and craftsmen. (Every man, he believed, should find a way like them to work each day with his hands.) His is a walk through the ordinary civilization of Europe at its roots.

In addition, Belloc’s path is a meditative journey whose aim is to store up the intellectual energy necessary for a life’s work; to place himself in touch with ordinary, lived Christianity, without which the civilization of Europe is unintelligible. If human persons are not of eternal value in themselves, in their stubborn individuality, in their humbleness, what then do European commitments to republicanism and the rights of peoples mean? If humans have no insight, do not make choices, and do not laugh (for laughter is the sign of intelligence and freedom in the human race), then on what basis may we speak loftily of “the dignity of man”? There may be other ways to ground human dignity. But, surely, the Jewish and Christian belief in the covenants God stooped to offer poor human beings for their acceptance (or, alas, rejection) is the straightest path to understanding why European civilization, despite its savagery and bloodshed, has attached so high a value to every single person. For Belloc, Europe is the child of Christianity, and Christianity shows its incarnate flesh in Europe, as one day it will also in all cultures that will accept the yeast of its joyous, suffering-tempered vision. His long trek by foot across the Alps ascends and descends in the rhythm of his reflections upon the European idea.

Yet in still another dimension, Belloc’s Path is a voyage through the Catholic sensibility — stubbornly concrete, physical, ornery, joyous, paradoxical, both fantastical and down-to-earth — which Belloc was anxious for the Protestant culture (as he experienced it) of England to discern. Belloc wanted England to accept him on his terms, that is, Catholic terms. He wanted others to understand. Catholicism as he knew it is not only a set of abstract doctrines, such as the philosophers were fond of dissecting, but also a set of habits, sights, sounds, smells, imaginings, and feelings: a sensibility. The Faith becomes incarnate. It is as if Belloc’s motto were, not “Cogito, ergo sum” (Descartes’ “I am internally conscious, therefore I am”), but a rather more sensual: “Sentio, ergo sum” (“I touch, taste, see, hear, smell, therefore, I am.”) For Belloc, the consciousness permeating the senses includes intelligence, as pure intelligence does not include the senses.

That is why The Path to Rome has, for close to 90 years now, attracted ever new readers. It affords sensual pleasure, first of all, and brings to the sharpened senses of the reader the common joy of living. It also brings enlightenment, entrance into a way of life, a way of seeing, that unites senses and mind, memory and present. And entrance, too, into a mystery, the mystery of how Europe — and, by today, nearly the entire civilized world — has come to feel the reverberations of a destiny beyond any humans had ever dreamed of until the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob entered into covenant with such humble men and women as dwelt in the deserts surrounding Jerusalem. And gradually, then, with the humble peasants and craftsmen who dwelt along the Moselle, in the Alps, in central Italy, and, indeed, in Omaha, Neb., Lima, Peru, and Manila, the Philippines. Robert Speaight records a letter (1936) of Belloc’s:

I have never said that the Church was necessarily European. The Church will last forever, and on this earth, until the end of the world; and our remote descendants may find its chief membership to have passed to Africans or Asiatics in some civilization yet unborn. What I have said is that the European thing is essentially a Catholic thing, and that European values would disappear with the disappearance of Catholicism.

The “path to Rome” turns out to be Belloc’s voyage down the trail of Western civilization. University courses in “Western civ” that overlook it are the poorer. Readers who do not know it are in for several pleasant hours, and in their fermented memories will distill remembered scenes and characters forevermore.

Michael Novak

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Michael Novak held for many years the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and is now a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. He is a philosopher, theologian, and author, as well as the 1994 recipient of the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He has been an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. He has written over twenty-seven books on the philosophy and theology of culture, especially the essential elements of a free society. He also founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982.

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