Culture Warrior: Reading Belloc Today

In 1920, shortly after the Great War, Hilaire Belloc wrote to his good friend Professor J.S. Phillimore:

Every bit of work done for the Faith is of enormous importance at this moment, and though there is not the least chance yet of England’s conversion—many disasters must come upon her first—still the immediate future is going to be chaos of opinion, and in that chaos the order, the civility of the Faith will make a deep impression if it is presented, but it has to be presented . . . we can spread the mood that we are the bosses and the chic and that a man who does not accept the Faith writes himself down as suburban. Upon these amiable lines do I proceed.

Today, as we witness the possible disintegration of the Church of England in the wake of its decision to ordain women, Belloc’s half-jocular challenge takes on a new relevance. The Anglican decline, along with the much-publicized conversion of the Duchess of Kent (the first member of the royal family to convert in years), has even prompted British writer Paul Johnson to speculate about the possibility of a “mass movement” to Rome. If the unthinkable actually happens and England returns to the Faith of its great saints and martyrs More and Beckett, the Brits would do well to turn (return) to the writings of a man who spent the better part of his very public life inveighing against the anti-Catholic mythology which, he contended, formed the basis of British cultural identity.

Numerous explanations have been offered for the strange neglect that Belloc’s work has suffered from since his death in 1953. Regarded by contemporaries as a master of English prose and poetry, he is little read today, even among Catholics. Some attribute this to his irascibility on the Jewish question, others to his sloppiness as a historian. Belloc’s career is sometimes viewed as the tragedy of a great writer who let his love for controversy overwhelm his early literary promise, spending his declining years flailing away at the opponents of institutional Catholicism to the point where he became a sad parody of himself, fighting to stay solvent by pumping out highly biased and unscholarly works of history and controversy that had less and less impact on his contemporaries as his antiquated views became increasingly irrelevant. There is, however, another, more interesting view of the matter.

Before the death of his wife Elodie in 1914, Belloc wrote relatively little directly about the Church, although his work certainly reflected a distinctly Catholic sensibility. At the age of 44, he had already written most of the work on which his literary reputation rests, from books that celebrated the last vestiges of old Europe like The Path to Rome and The Four Men, to seminal works of political theory such as The Servile State and The Party System; from the innovative and evocative historical studies of the French Revolution to the exquisite essays included in On Nothing and Kindred Subjects and Hills and the Sea; from the accomplished serious verse to the delightfully wicked poems for children in Bad Child’s Book of Beasts and Cautionary Tales.

The simultaneous cataclysms of Elodie’s death and the devastation of the Great War produced a marked change in the character of Belloc’s writing. While some of his subsequent work was produced at his leisure and to his taste—one thinks particularly of The Mercy of Allah, and the poignant romance Belinda—the much greater part of his writing in the 1920s and ’30s was indeed devoted to doing battle with the enemies of the Church. In work after work he would pound home to his English-speaking audience the message that European civilization had its origins in and continues to be sustained by the Catholic Faith. While the best of his pre-War writing was a celebration of the old European culture of Christendom that would be destroyed in the conflict of 1914-1918, his subsequent efforts would be directed towards explaining why the very continuance of Western civilization depended on a return to the Faith.

The moral and intellectual chaos into which Europe had been plunged lent the task a special urgency which made some of the books—dashed off in the heat of controversy—stylistically inelegant when compared with previous achievements. Belloc had no illusions about converting England (or the U.S.) in short order, but he felt that it was of primary importance to establish the intellectual and historical argument for an eventual Catholic resurgence in the moral vacuum produced by the War. The price he paid for his decision to lend his considerable talents and prestige to such a project was the ostracism of the literary world—where he was increasingly regarded as a bore and a repetitive crank—and a corresponding diminution of his reach among the general public, as he came to be thought of as an exclusively “Catholic” writer and found it difficult to get work with non-Catholic publishers and newspapers.

It would be somewhat ironic, then, if the books that restore Belloc to his rightful place in English letters are those which entailed the sacrifice of his literary reputation. Some of the best of these have just been re-issued by Tan Publishers, a small Catholic press that specializes in classic works of spiritual reading (most of them excellent). Reading them today, one is continually amazed by the extent to which Belloc’s analysis of the historical crisis of Western society retains its relevance. In the wake of communism’s demise, in fact, much of what was written off by critics in his own day as implausible nonsense, sounds eerily prophetic of the contemporary scene. He was almost alone, for example, in predicting the resurgence of the threat to the West from the Moslem world, a development he thought had only been averted by the West’s temporary advantages in technology. Similarly, between the World Wars, when the notion of empire still had great unifying force, Belloc’s notion that the West must return to its origins in the Faith, or die, sounded far-fetched to British ears. But now, as the liberated countries of Eastern Europe try to recover from the ravages of theoretical materialism without falling victim to an equally destructive practical materialism, and the consumer-driven societies search for something other than opposition to communism to fuel our moral energies, Belloc’s argument seems more plausible.

The nine books re-issued by Tan include an excellent representation of Belloc’s preoccupations in these last two decades of his career. There are the sweeping historical surveys of Christendom and its enemies: Europe and the Faith, The Great Heresies, The Crisis of Civilization; the studies of foundation events of that civilization at its most exalted point in the high Middle Ages: The Crusades, William the Conqueror; works concentrating on what Belloc regarded as the key event in the dissolution of Europe, the English Reformation: Characters of the Reformation, How the Reformation Happened; and those which take stock of the contemporary opponents of Catholicism: Survivals and New Arrivals, Essays of a Catholic. Of these, Europe and the Faith is perhaps the best known and least understood.

Belloc’s famous formulation, “The Faith is Europe and Europe is the Faith” seems, at first glance, to be the ultimate in shallow, chauvinistic Eurocentrism. But as one reads the elucidation of the theme in the book, one discovers that it is both subtle and profound. Briefly, it entails the idea that the occurrence of the Incarnation at the height of the Roman Empire was not arbitrary; just as grace perfects nature, Providence had ordained the establishment of Christendom on the traditions of law, philosophy, government, and military organization embodied in Rome. After these institutions underwent a purging of their pagan elements in the embattled Dark Ages, they were restored to new lustre in baptized Europe. Far from being the cause of the downfall of the Roman Empire, the Faith kept alive all that could be salvaged of a great, but already moribund, culture. The continuance of the resultant civilization and its institutions, which we have inherited, is contingent on its return to the Faith.

This identification of the fortunes of the historical Church with those of Europe is not to deny the possibility, indeed the reality, of the Church taking root in non-European pagan cultures, nor to say that a collapse of civilized life among the people who inhabit the geographical region within the boundaries of the old Empire spells doom for the Church (for Catholics that prospect is impossible). It does mean that the Church was established and grew, providentially, in the particular cultural context of Greco-Roman civilization, which is reflected in its language, liturgy, and theology. The fact that the Church may incorporate elements of any culture to communicate the truths of Faith to man does not change the reality that these marks of European civilization will form the structure on which any future development will be built, wherever it might occur—an important point to remember when grappling with the issue of “multiculturalism,” which is often only a veiled attack on what remains of the Christian tradition.

The works that address the opponents of Catholicism in the twentieth century—particularly Essays of a Catholic—remind us of another reason for Belloc’s neglect: many of his views simply do not fit conveniently into our contemporary political categories. But it would be inexcusably parochial to write them off as eccentric, as many are prone to do. He was a “monarchist” who believed in the necessity of strong central authority to prevent powerful moneyed interests from dominating the people’s will. And yet he saw that monarchical principle best reflected in the American chief executive, while he had nothing but contempt for the powerless monarchs of Britain. He believed communism and capitalism to be twin evils that were combining to destroy civilization, but his opposition to what he called “capitalism” was based on the fact that it encouraged the growth of government regulation of the economy to the advantage of powerful corporate concerns at the expense of small entrepreneurs. In fact, his thesis of a servile state, which provided security for the masses of men by requiring employers to meet certain minimum standards of insurance and benefits—a development he identified with the loss of freedom and the decline of the small businessman—could have been written with the current healthcare debate in mind.

Belloc was also among the first to identify that new, uniquely destructive force within the West which was not simply opposed to this or that theological or philosophical doctrine of the tradition—as were all previous menaces to civilization—but instead was at war with the common practice of men, with the culture itself. In Survivals and New Arrivals, he called this suicidal tendency “neo-paganism,” in order to distinguish it from the nobler paganism of the ancient world which, although despairing, sought to cheat the destructive mood of despair with the “opiates of beauty or of stoic courage.” Conversely, the new paganism, coming as it does after Revelation has provided the remedy to despair, “lives in despair as an atmosphere to be breathed, lives on it as a food by which to be nourished.” For prophetic insight, it’s hard to top this description of the coming cultural breakdown, written in 1929:

Some few deliberately detestable buildings and sculptures in our towns, (especially in our capitals): books, still somewhat eccentric, portraying every vice; the forced and still novel apology in speech for evil of every kind—preferably for the worst: all these are still no more than isolated, self-conscious insults and challenges . . . When it is mature we shall have, not the present isolated, self-conscious insults to beauty and right living, but a positive coordination and organized affirmation of the repulsive and the vile.

Belloc here could easily be describing elements of America circa 1993, the same culture that the Pope decried as the “culture of death” in his recent visit to Denver.

The two selections on the Reformation remind one that, for all the criticism of his method and bias, Belloc was in the forefront of breaking down the then-reigning Whig view of history in the English-speaking world. Some of his theses, although directly opposed to the orthodoxy of his day, are now widely accepted by scholars of the period: the vital importance of England’s apostasy to the success of the Reformation in permanently dividing Europe; that greed was a primary motive in the suppression of the monasteries during Henry VIII’s reign; that the “Glorious Revolution” was in fact a power grab by the landed aristocracy—Even more striking is the fact that Belloc’s historical method of “telling the story” has begun to displace the dry, documented, scientific method that was near-universal in his day. He refused to conform to contemporary notions of history as a disinterested study of societies from the outside looking in. Belloc thought that the notion of the impartial onlooker who records events without any attempt to integrate them into a coherent whole is not only dishonest—since the only way we understand events is according to the moral and intellectual criteria we have inherited from the Christian tradition—but ultimately foolish. The presentation of what he called “undigested detail” to the reader was not history but a pretentious display of “learning” fit only to impress other academics. True history, in his view, employs the techniques of the literary artist to bring the past alive through the vivid reconstruction of physical detail, mannerism, and contemporary sentiment, which is only possible by entering into the mentality of the time and place.

We should remember that Belloc’s understanding of the central events of Western history was influential outside of purely academic circles. Both Chesterton’s apologetics and Evelyn Waugh’s fiction were informed by a Bellocian worldview, a certainty that our civilization—as the product of the Catholic Church—depends for its very life and continued existence on the fortunes of Catholicism therein. The existence of journals such as Crisis testify to his success in the modest aim of securing an intellectual forum for the Catholic view of culture in the English-speaking world.

Whether his larger ambition—our civilization’s return to the Faith—will be accomplished is still in doubt. But we can be encouraged by a trend Belloc noticed in one of his last (and most prophetic) works, The Great Heresies:

the more powerful, the more acute, and the more sensitive minds of our time are clearly inclining toward the Catholic side . . .They are of course of their nature a small minority, but they are a minority of a sort very powerful in human affairs. The future is not decided for men by a public vote; it is decided by the growth of ideas. When the few men who can think best and feel most strongly and who have mastery of expression begin to show a novel tendency towards this or that, then this or that bids fair to dominate the future.

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