In this much-debated Crisis Magazine classic, historian James Hitchcock explains why he doesn’t much care for Chesterton, Belloc or Lewis.
At an ecumenical conference, a Greek Orthodox bishop went around the breakfast table asking half a dozen people their favorite work of C. S. Lewis. There was animated discussion until my turn came, when I awkwardly confessed not to have read very much of that famous writer. My companions were certainly cordial, but more than once, on this and other occasions, it occurred to me that the single strongest thread that binds orthodox Christians of all denominations is their love of Lewis.
I must go further still and confess to a heresy that among some orthodox Catholics might be regarded as worse even than Unitarianism — I have never felt any strong attraction to the school of English Catholic thought whose leaders were G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc.
As a critic of their work my qualifications are certainly inadequate — I have not read more than a small fraction of their writings. But in a way that does have relevance — the fact that an author’s work does not produce a taste for still more is itself a critical judgment. I certainly do not deny that what these authors have to say is often true and good. But art is long, life short, and I long ago decided that I should study other things. (In writing this article I practiced sortes Virgilianae, opening at random books by and about these authors and taking samples. At no point did I feel compelled to revise my earlier impressions.)
Whether Lewis should be mentioned in the same breath with Chesterton and Belloc is itself a question I am not finally qualified to answer. But there are certain at least superficial resemblances, and many of the same people seem to be enthusiastic about all three.
A window into my misgivings about Belloc is the wonderful drinking song about the Pelagian heresy that my college friends and I sang lustily. A few years ago I sang it to myself in the magnificent church of St. Germain l’Auxerrois, in the shadow of the Louvre. The Pelagian heresy was resolved, the song tells us, when St. Germanus "thwacked and banged" the heretics with his crosier, until they finally saw the orthodox light.
Belloc was in part a historian, but in that role he seems to me like a man with a machine gun — by spraying shots everywhere he inevitably hit some of his targets, but many of his bullets went astray. He does not seem to have understood how historical judgments are formed, through patient sifting of evidence, and seemed rather to deduce them from his principles. For example, his summary of Pelagianism — "whether you rose to eternal joy or sank forever to burn had nothing to do with the faith, my boy, but was your own concern" — was wholly inaccurate.
The Pelagian controversy was perhaps the earliest instance of one of the most profound and vexing problems in all of theology — the relationship between grace and nature — and it called forth the most strenuous responses from no less than the great Augustine himself. Belloc managed to reduce it to the level of a cartoon. Obviously, serious writers should not be judged by their entertainments, but the song seems to me a distillation of Belloc’s characteristic attitudes.
Belloc’s aphorism "the faith is Europe, and Europe is the faith" is especially rejected in our time, and rightly so. As a judgment about the period 500-1500, it is defensible with numerous qualifications. For the period before and since it is willful blindness. But I have a sense that Belloc did not even care if it was an accurate summation of reality, so long as it served as a comforting conceit.
Since heretics are usually full of pride, it is generally necessary for church authorities to take disciplinary measures against them. But Belloc’s characteristic pugnaciousness confused practical steps to guard the Church’s integrity with what is ultimately the necessary responses to heresy. (Augustine makes no appearance in the song.)
Chesterton’s image of orthodoxy in its chariot, tenaciously holding tight the reins to forestall catastrophes right and left, has caught the imagination of many people, and it obviously identifies a truth. But there and elsewhere it seems to me Chesterton comes close to identifying truth with the banal, essentially pagan principle in medio stat virtus. Truth and virtue do always reside in the middle, in that purveyors of error can always conceive of yet more extreme positions on either side. But moderation in itself is a virtue only in relation to physical things. Spiritual goods, such as the virtue of charity, should be pursued immoderately.
It is the Catholic view that heretics seize a truth and enlarge and distort it to the point where it becomes an error, rather as a cancer cell expands and devours healthy cells. Faced with heresy the Church at its best does not merely say, "Pull the horses a little more to the right" but "Turn up the lamp, so the circle of light can be expanded and the faithful can see where the heretics have been blind."
Chesterton and Belloc’s approach to heresy was characteristically a dismissive wave of the hand, the implication that heretics are usually stupid or, more precisely, lacking a sense of balance. But in God’s providence even heretics serve his will, mainly by causing the Church to reflect all the more deeply on its own teachings. (Feminists have unintentionally inspired rich orthodox speculations about the meaning of sexuality.)
Their approach to apologetics seems to me primarily suited to the kinds of enemies they faced — shallow rationalists like G. B. Shaw and H. G. Wells.
Chesterton and Belloc presciently reacted to certain modern threats to faith whose full menace has only become apparent in our own day. Yet just as they tended to dispose of heresy with a wave of a hand or a thwack from an episcopal staff, they did not trouble really to understand the secular movements they so valiantly opposed.
Modern psychology is one example. Chesterton and Belloc often ridiculed it, and with good reason — in some ways it has done immense harm both to individuals and to the culture as a whole. But the most penetrating critiques have come from men like Karl Stern, Paul Vitz, and William Coulson, who understand it from the inside, can discriminate between its truths and its lies, and above all comprehend the reasons it came into being and the sources of its appeal. Chesterton and Belloc seem habitually to invite their readers to adopt an attitude of complacent insulation from modern realities, which are treated as so stupid that a few common-sense dicta could dispose of them.
Belloc’s song about Pelagius ends in the rousing, reassuring boast that "We who live in a sturdy youth and can still drink strong ale shall put it away to eternal truth, which always shall prevail." Oddly, or perhaps not so oddly, alcohol is another window into the reservations I am trying to explain.
I love white wine in an undiscriminating way — red gives me a headache. I like beer, but because of its heaviness I find a little goes a long way. I have no taste for whiskey or brandy, but I like to say I have given up martinis, meaning that I have given up vermouth — Beefeater’s over ice with a twist of lemon is still the perfect cold-weather drink, as gin and tonic is in the summer.
My mother drank very rarely, and my father not at all. He used to pretend that it was only because "I don’t like the taste," and I was in middle age before I realized that he was after all opposed on moral grounds, probably because his own father and grandfather had had serious drinking problems. While my father and mother were devout Catholics, my paternal grandfather and great-grandfather were both lapsed Protestants, a fact which has relevance to my thesis.
Belloc in particular, but the attitude seems to have extended to Lewis, celebrated drink, especially wine, as itself part of an authentically Christian attitude toward life. The reasons for doing so are obvious enough — at the Last Supper Jesus made wine sacred, just as at Cana he blessed its ordinary human consumption. But to see the wedding feast as Jesus somehow encouraging hearty good cheer seems to me grotesque; he does not do so anywhere else in the gospels.
As to the wine of the Eucharist, its very elevation to sacral status seems to draw an uncrossable line between sacrament and normal drinking. Surely Catholics ought to view alcohol as they do sex — something good and in context even sacred but a volatile, dangerous substance nonetheless, which easily plunges people into depravity.
It was typical of Belloc’s historical blindness that he seemed to equate teetotalism with Protestantism, as though Martin Luther’s problem, for example, had not been the opposite. Even the English Puritans used alcohol, merely condemning drunkenness. The "gloomy" England of Oliver Cromwell suppressed some blatantly immoral and inhumane customs of "merry England," and the anti-Puritan reaction in 1660 made it fashionable openly to flaunt Christian sexual morality.
Belloc also seems not to have understood that the "Puritan" teetotalers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries themselves had the best possible reasons for condemning drink. Few things in the history of the world have wreaked such havoc on individuals, on families, and on society as the unbridled use of alcohol, as every disinterested observer of British society in the nineteenth century saw very clearly. Although Belloc sneered at teetotalism as a Protestant or even secular obsession, the anti-alcohol movement was strong in Ireland, where "temperance" was in fact defined as abstinence by priests whose pastoral experience taught them that many people would not drink in moderation.
But if these blind spots in Chesterton and Belloc merely resulted from intellectual laziness, or were mere public rationalizations of private vices, they would be of little interest. From my own limited knowledge, I suspect that much more was involved.
At the same conference where I confessed my ignorance of Lewis, I observed to a Catholic philosopher that I find what I call "astringent Gallic" Catholicism — Francois Mauriac, Georges Bernanos, and others — more compelling. He showed his distaste: "I find the Diary of a Country Priest so depressing that I cannot finish reading it," whereupon a priest replied, "If you think that’s depressing, try reading Bernanos’s novel called Joy." Just so.
We are the resurrection people, as modern spiritual teachers never tire of reminding us, to the point where it is no longer appropriate to mourn at funerals and, some would have it, to display crucifixes in our churches. But both dogma and human experience tell us that there can be no resurrection unless there is death first, and in a way that is what I think is lacking in the kind of faith I am here criticizing.
It was of course not lacking on the doctrinal level. Chesterton, Belloc, Lewis, and others of their school had much to say about sin and death, reminding modern skeptics precisely of the unavoidable reality of those things. But it seems to me that in practice the faith they displayed to the world was by design relentlessly cheery, just as they fashioned relentlessly cheery public personae for themselves.
When Chesterton portrayed evil men, as the master criminal Flambeau, who was converted, or his adversary the detective, who became a criminal, they were never more than pasteboard cutouts. Father Brown’s victories over evil are usually facile, as in the famous scene where he unmasks Flambeau as an impostor priest by observing that "You disparaged reason; it’s bad theology." Has there never been a Catholic theologian who disparaged reason? Or, whatever theologians might say, have there never been priests who did so? The technique is not merely a way of resolving the plot of the story but a way of once again assuring the reader that through the eyes of faith the world is a tidy and controllable place, its mysteries readily penetrable by healthy common sense.
Lewis was a powerful theorist of evil, but he chose to portray it primarily in fantasies that, while they teach valuable theological lessons, do not touch directly the concrete, detailed evil in human souls.
In my limited experience, manic-depressives are often very devout, for obvious reasons — they undergo in their daily lives the dialectic of death and resurrection, of despair and salvation. Chesterton appears to have been prone to depression, and Lewis also had his private demons. I do not at all imply that they were deficient as human beings, somehow missing the tragic dimension of life. On the contrary, perhaps the harpies of personal anxiety pursued these men only too relentlessly. If so, they understandably found in their faith an antidote to such things, and they were eager to proclaim to the world the news that indeed there was such an antidote. In the process, however, I think they skewed the faith in certain ways.
During my intellectually formative years in the 1960s, many Christians were fascinated by existentialism, a movement whose very name seems to have all but disappeared. There was indeed much in existentialism that a Christian must reject, especially as it was expounded by its most famous spokesman, Jean-Paul Sartre. But I think Christians also had good reason for being fascinated with it and are intellectually poorer for having turned away from it. (Why is Gabriel Marcel now almost forgotten?)
Albert Camus’s The Plague remains one of the most illuminating encounters ever described between belief and unbelief in their starkest forms, just as the The Myth of Sisyphus accurately describes a spiritual universe without God. (Which of we laborers in today’s social and cultural vineyards does not often feel like Sisyphus, even to the point of affirming Camus’s surprising climactic line, "One must imagine Sisyphus happy"?)
Blaise Pascal, it seems to me, foresaw the existentialist dilemma three centuries before its time — the unquenchable human thirst for the infinite, yet our congenital inability to be satisfied, the tragic reality that makes the universe itself appear to conspire to deny us the fulfillment of our aspirations. Existentialism is important because, better than any other philosophy, it describes precisely the situation of mankind in need of a savior, and describes it in vivid and profound ways. Except for the professedly Christian existentialists, everyone in the movement agreed that there is no savior, nor can there be. But for that very reason it is a philosophy with which Christianity can and should make profound connections; it is a half-universe crying out for completion.
Again I am ignorant. Did Lewis comment on existentialism? It is easy to imagine what Chesterton would have said had he lived to see it. Both certainly made the same points intellectually, but in my experience they seldom let their reader see its living reality. Enter Bernanos. Enter Mauriac. Enter Sigrid Undset.
If Chesterton, Belloc, and Lewis did not really mean to suggest that the true Christian is the man who sits in his pub, a bowl of beer in one hand, a pipe in the other, laughing uproariously at the follies of those who lack faith, they certainly were guilty of marketing that image, and their admirers have done much to keep it polished.
The image is not mere superficial heartiness. Perhaps precisely because they sensed how easily psychic balance can be upset, these apologists fashioned a reassuringly comfortable kind of faith. Thus the believer must have a robust sense of humor and, fortified by unshakable divine truth, see the universe in an optimistic way. He is the man of common sense, of basic human decency, who has no need to study fancy theories, since he has never departed from rock-like mental healthiness. Whatever their historical reality, the Puritans were set up as a foil for this kind of faith, and alcohol came to be celebrated almost as a sacrament in itself because it sustained good cheer. But its price was to require the believer to avert his gaze from the most sordid and shocking human realities. Whatever faith is, it is surely not common sense, which some great saints (Teresa of Avila) have possessed abundantly and others (Francis of Assisi) seem to have totally lacked. Genuine faith will always be folly to the merely sensible.
Pelagius was a Briton, which is not the same as an Englishman. But, as someone observed in the heyday of existentialism, French philosophers were always discussing a man contemplating suicide, while English philosophers were more likely to be talking about someone baking a cake. When Lewis uses phrases like "tidying up" with respect to the moral life, he strikes exactly the wrong note.
But it would be facile in the extreme to suggest that this attitude is merely ethnic, as summed up in Napoleon’s sneer that the English are "a nation of shopkeepers." The heritage of Descartes might seem to reverse the roles, making the French into advocates of "common sense" and averse to strong emotion, but at least within French Catholicism such was not the case.
Perhaps it was the heritage of Jansenism, near whose borders the great Pascal habitually dwelt and which more than once he seems to have crossed, which accounts for this. But once again heresies are the occasion for the Church’s deepening its own self-understanding. Jansenism has been an unfashionable heresy in our time, when Pelagianism rules the day. But it reminds us how very far indeed we are from God, as our own experience also reminds us if we attend to it, and how badly we need help.
But English Catholicism has not been insensitive to this reality. Evelyn Waugh too suffered from personal demons that drove him to the point of despair and, as has been true of so many great comedians, it was precisely that blackness of soul which gave him his comic power. Ironically, it is somewhat muted in his "Catholic" novels beginning with Brideshead Revisited, but the prewar novels, the earliest of which were written while he was still a nonbeliever, are as ruthless a dissection of human folly as exists. Whatever Waugh may have intended, one can draw a line from A Handful of Dust to Brideshead to demonstrate why faith is necessary.
It has now become common to deny that Graham Greene was a Catholic novelist, especially given his own famous remark that "I am not a Catholic novelist but a novelist who happens to be a Catholic." But as Eliot advised, trust the tale, not the teller. Greene’s "Catholic" novels — The Heart of the Matter, The Power and The Glory, The End of the Affair, Brighton Rock look as Catholic now as they did in 1960.
Greene was a sinner indeed, or so his biographers now tell us, his obsessive sexual transgressions leading to the even greater sins that such transgressions inevitably spawn — lying, cruelty, betrayal. I think he lost his faith during the 1960s because he could no longer sustain the terrible contradiction between its teachings and his own behavior. But I think he did have faith, or at least understood what faith was, when he wrote the Catholic novels, and that understanding rose from his own deeply sinful nature. He too knew how far he was from the throne of grace, and in Brighton Rock presented one of the most horrifying pictures of evil ever painted. In The Power and the Glory the priest has a desperate need to obtain alcohol for its sacramental purpose, but it is also the cause of his own devastation. We are far from Chesterton’s jolly pub-goers.
Whatever affects Germanus’s crosier may have had on Pelagianism, that heresy is refuted in our time, very graphically, by Bernanos and Mauriac, Greene and Waugh, Undset and Flannery O’Connor. If God uses heretics for his purposes, he also uses nonbelievers, and Sigmund Freud, whatever else he may have done, surely put the Pelagian heresy to rest for all time.
I have a further confession — I am a pessimist by conviction, not by temperament. My natural inclination is to expect good, and I must remind myself that the lessons of history often teach otherwise.
For motives that remain finally their own, I think the apologists I am here criticizing recognized the dark realities of existence but wished to keep them discreetly veiled. But, as Christians hardly need reminding, optimism is not the same as hope and may even be its enemy. I reject the existentialist contention that everyone must personally experience angst in order to achieve authenticity; there are mysterious reasons any individual undergoes the dark night of the soul. But it is important that all Christians understand the terrors that give rise to despair, and harrowing indeed is the vocation of those who go down into the deep pit (as the Dies Irae calls it), if only in their imaginations, to retrieve its terrors for the rest of us.
James Hitchcock is professor of history at St. Louis University. This article originally appeared in the March 1996 issue of Crisis Magazine.