Robert Hickson: Sentimentalists and Barbarians — Contrasting Thoughts of Hilaire Belloc in 1912 and G.K. Chesterton in 1934

12 October 2018 Our Lady of the Pillar (40 A.D.)
General Robert E. Lee (d. 1870)

Epigraphs

“The Barbarian hopes—and that is the very mark of him—that he can have his cake and eat it too. He will consume what civilisation has slowly produced after generations of selection and effort but he will not be at the pains to replace such goods nor indeed has he a comprehension of the virtue that has brought them into being. Discipline seems to him irrational, on which account he is for ever marvelling that civilisation should have offended him with priests and soldiers.” (Hilaire Belloc, “The Barbarians,” Chapter XXXII from his anthology This That and the Other (1912))

***

“The Barbarian wonders what strange meaning may lurk in the ancient and solemn truth, ‘Sine Auctoritate nulla vita‘ [‘Without Authority there is no life’].

“In a word, the Barbarian is discoverable everywhere in this that he cannot make; that he can befog or destroy, but that he cannot sustain; and of every Barbarian in the decline or peril of every civilisation exactly that has been true.” (Hilaire Belloc, “The Barbarians,” Chapter XXXII from his anthology This That and the Other (1912))

***

Just lately [around 1933], and at historical intervals, he [the Teuton] becomes the bear-garden [not beer-garden] German…and [I] would prefer to avoid his embrace. For the embraces of bears…are apt to show that over-emphasis, or excess of pressure, which is the fault of the German temperament. Now…there has been an increasing impression on sensitive and intelligent minds that [as of the 1930s] something very dangerous has occurred. A particular sort of civilisation has turned back towards barbarism….Never be merely on the side of barbarism, for it always means the destruction of all that men have understood, by men who do not understand it [also in the Church if there be the crude destruction of Sacred Tradition and Dogma, as is so today]. That is the sense in which a detached and dispassionate person, watching that strange turn of the tide in the centre of tribal Germany, will be disposed to suspect a tragedy.” (G.K. Chesterton, “On the Return of the Barbarian,”Chapter VII from his 1934 anthology Avowals and Denials (London: Methuen & Co. LTD., 1934))

***

“Oddly that [“racial mass solidified”] is the advantage of hypnotism [and thus of “a hypnotic faith”]. That is the charm of illusion and the compelling power of unreality….That is the advantage of being a sentimentalist. You only remember what you like to remember. It is also the advantage of being a barbarian…The danger of the emergence of anything really barbaric in the world is that we do not know what it [or even a pope?] will do next, or where it will turn up at last….Now Barbarism is a beast [like “a runaway horse”], and has the nature of a beast….But in all these [varied “movements among Teutons…or Turks or Mongols or Slavs”] we can mark the moment of history when men turned back towards it [“Barbarism”], and delayed for centuries the civilization of mankind. What is really disquieting about this new note of narrow nationalism and tribalism [in Germany] in the north [Prussia, especially] is that there is something shrill and wild about it, that has been heard in those [earlier] destructive crises of history….All these things have a savour of savage and hasty simplification,… which, when taken altogether, give the uncomfortable impression of wild men who have merely grown weary of the complexity that we call civilization.” (G.K. Chesterton, “On the Return of the Barbarian,” Chapter VII from his 1934 anthology Avowals and Denials—my emphasis added)

***

In a posthumously published, undated collection of Hilaire Belloc’s essays, One Thing and Another (1956),i one may alertly note the title of Chapter XXXV—“The Barbarians”—and rightly see it as a companion piece or a deepened counterpoint to Belloc’s more widely known and somewhat longer 1912 essay, which is also entitled “The Barbarians.”

One paragraph from his posthumously published 1956 book will give us, at the outset, a good sense of his lucidity and farsightedness:

We to-day in what used to be called Christendom are slipping down the same slope [as our Roman ancestors]. Our leaders become more indifferent to culture, the organized masses grow less susceptible to the leadership of men trained in a high tradition, the area of freedom grows rapidly less, the great mass of men suffer an increasingly servile condition. The relation between the mass of men and their labour is inhuman and the relation between the mass of men and their economic masters has also lost its own human savour. Men will accept subjection when it is connected with loyalty and humour and the air of domesticity; they will not accept it when it is mechanical and therefore hopeless. (204—my emphasis added)

By way of contrast, in 1934, two years before his own death, G.K. Chesterton wrote in his Avowals and Denialsii a set of short sentences that, as is so often the case, have caused others to ponder afresh his subtle and fuller meanings, and his abiding charity—even toward the Germans:

That is the charm of illusion and the compelling power of unreality….That is the advantage of being a sentimentalist. You only remember what you like to remember. It is also the advantage of being a barbarian. (16—my emphasis added)

Chesterton’s use of the word “advantage” in this context seems to imply a privileged advantage that maneuvers (and even exploits) others, but is nonetheless blinkered and even somewhat constricted. However, Chesterton has here expressed his possible meanings in a politely ironic way. If, perhaps, his “advantage” likewise subtly implies a dubious and unfair or even a merely temporary advantage, his word “advantage” further conveys itself as a subtle substitute for the word “temptation.” That is to say, “Taking unfair advantage is itself an alluring (even permanent) temptation.” (For, a temptation wouldn’t be a temptation if it weren’t attractive.) Moreover, not all such attractive “advantages” are themselves wholesome and presented in proper proportion, just as a tendentiously constricted and over-simplified, armed “ideology” is often not very healthy, nor abidingly just. Such armed and all-too-constricted ideologies have also been memorably called those “mind-forged manacles” (as expressed by the poet William Blake in his own verse, entitled “London”).

In any case, what has especially prompted me to greater reflection was Chesterton’s own unusual coupling of “the sentimentalist” and “the barbarian.” That has caused me to return, first of all, to Hilaire Belloc’s essay, “The Barbarians” (1912), which is to be found in his own pre-World War I anthology, This and That and the Other.

Moreover, in addition to Hilaire Belloc’s earlier 1912 essay, “The Barbarians,”iii we may also now fruitfully consider, even as an ongoing clarifying contrast, his brief posthumously published 3-page essay, which is also entitled “The Barbarians.”iv Belloc deftly begins his 3-page essay, as follows:

It is a pity that true history [including ecclesiastical history] is not taught in schools. If it were, People would understand much better the history of what is passing in their own time. For instance, the dangers which are now threatening European civilization are of the same sort in part with those which threatened and at last undermined the old pagan civilization of Rome.

That civilization was not destroyed by invaders, it was never defeated in a decisive battle. What happened to it was that it was undermined from within by the very same forces which are destroying the supports of our own traditional culture. (203—italics in the original; bold emphasis added).

Moreover, says Belloc, as he remains especially loyally attentive to one of his own recurrent themes, namely about the destabilizing binary combination of “insecurity and insufficiency”:

Those [undermining] forces are the forces of contrast between well-being and indigence, coupled with the contrast between freedom and servitude [today to include “electronic servitude,” as well] and enforced by the contrast between human and inhuman relations. When a large number of men are compelled to labour by a small number of men, when their labour is passed under inhuman conditions and the sense of servitude inseparable from the enforcement of labour in any form, they end by driving the masses subject to such disabilities to rise against their wrongs. But in doing this, the rebels [and barbarians] may well act blindly, for the very conditions of their subjection forbid them the culture that would enable them to act wisely. They are impelled not only by the desire for freedom but by the hatred of those who exploit them and who enjoy a freedom of security and substance denied to themselves. They [such effectively unreconciled and vengefully germinating barbarians] are filled also with a general hatred; a love of destruction for its own sake. (203—italics in the original; bold emphasis added)

In Belloc’s eyes, such are the inclinations and even the entrenched habits of the recurrent barbarian, as his own circumambient society (in the pagan empire of Rome) “was accumulating these same evils in its old age.” (203)

Belloc’s special attentiveness to the organized pagan Roman military institution will help us further understand how the barbarian elements were consequently to develop:

The organized armed force upon which everything depended was more and more recruited from men not possessed of the full Roman civilization, but either born outside the boundaries of the Empire or settled within them and yet not fully digested into the general culture. Soldiers of such a kind tended to take things more and more into their own hands and be officered by people like themselves. The men who watched the general breakdown of society in the West saw what was passing before them as a social revolution—and they were right. (204—my emphasis added)

Belloc then contrasts our current situation with the tragedy of the ancient decomposition:

But though the parallel between our present entry into general revolution is singularly like the entry of our fathers into the Dark Ages, there is one disturbing difference between the two tragic epochs, making our peril far more tragic than theirs.

This difference does not come from the triumphs of what is called “Science” in the art of destroying mankind, nor does it lie in the use of this or that instrument of war. It was possible to exterminate one’s fellow beings by the myriad and to unpeople the whole of a vast country when men [like the Mongols] had nothing more than bows and sharp blades to do it with. Mesopotamia was thus destroyed.

No, the difference between our father’s [sic] entry into their Dark Ages and our own is this: there inhabited [in] an increasing number of men during the fourth and fifth centuries [A.D.] a certain spirit or philosophy which was capable of saving all that could be saved of the old culture. There was a new religion abroad [i.e., the Catholic Faith]–well-organized, universal, and definitive. By this instrument [i.e., the Sacramental Catholic Church, also an Ecclesia Militans] our civilization was saved half-way down the slope. It did not recover the fullness of its ancient [pagan] glory, but it survived and rose again after a long ordeal of nearly five hundred years. The eleventh century was a daybreak, and the twelfth was a morning, and the thirteenth was a glorious day. (204-205—my emphasis added)

Hilaire Belloc will now end his articulate perceptive insights with a somewhat bleak and sobering assessment of the dimming down of the ancient Traditional Faith and that yet very robust Faith’s own abiding challenge to all of us still:

We [of the West] have with us now no such saving influence. There is, indeed, a sort of new miasmic philosophy drifting about [as is so with the syncretistic ecumenisms?], but morally it is of the basest [sort] and intellectually contemptible, not even capable of definition. It will not be able to insure its own survival as a mood [much less as a conviction!], let alone the survival of our inheritance [to include our sacred inheritance]. You may see its fruits in the works of modern men: their building, their daubs [i.e., their purported arts of painting], their obscenity of prose, their deafness to harmony and rhythm, and their blindness to beauty. We of to-day have no chance of survival, save by reaction, by the restoration of ancestral things [hence divinely revealed Sacred Tradition]. But among these [restorations] we must include a passion for social justice and an establishment of human relations between man and man. Otherwise we shall not only perish but perish in hypocrisy, and therefore despair. (205—my emphasis added)

Although we are not sure when Belloc first composed his fine three-page essay posthumously published in 1956, we are certain that he published his ten-page article on “The Barbarians” two years before the outbreak of World War I. From this latter composition of 1912 we also have much to learn.

Belloc often openly said that for us human beings “truth resides largely in proportion.” Therefore, we should not be surprised to find that, in the opening sentence of his 1912 essay and with his characteristic integrity, Belloc uses the more abstract word for “proportion,” i.e.,“analogy” (273):

The use of analogy [Greek and Latin “analogia,” that is to say, “proportion”], which is so wise and necessary a thing in historical judgment, has a knack of slipping into the falsest forms. (273—my emphasis added)

Then Belloc aptly discusses “the Barbarian invasions” (273) into the Roman lands and Empire:

When ancient civilisation broke down its breakdown was accompanied by the infiltration of barbaric auxiliaries into the Roman armies, by the settlement of Barbarians (probably in small numbers) upon Roman land, and, in some provinces, by devastating, though not usually permanent, irruptions of barbaric hordes.

The presence of those foreign elements, coupled with the gradual loss of so many arts, led men to speak of “the Barbarian invasions” as though they were the principal cause of what was in reality no more than the old age and fatigue of an antique society. (273—my emphasis added)

Belloc then applies this brief insight to our actual situation in Europe as of 1912:

Upon the model of this conception [of the illusory and the true causes of a larger peril], men, watching the dissolution of our own civilisation to-day [1912], or at least its corruption, have asked themselves whence those Barbarians would come that should complete its final ruin….For though the degradation of human life in the great industrial cities of England and the United States was not a cause of our decline, it was very certainly a symptom of it [of our decline]. Moreover, industrial society, notably in this country [of England] and in Germany, while increasing rapidly in numbers, is breeding steadily from the worst and most degraded types.

But the truth is that no such mechanical explanation will suffice to set forth the causes of a civilisation’s decay. (273-274—my emphasis added)

A related insight, perhaps another helpful analogy, might be: “There are no technical solutions to moral problems.” But now our Belloc, in pursuit of some of the true causes, will employ another analogy, as it were: the metaphor of a slowly weakened immune system. It is, for sure, “a terrible thing to think upon” (Rabelais) when one candidly beholds—as is the case today—an ongoing and self-sabotaging “cultural immune system.” For, such self-sabotage constitutes a “provocative weakness” (Fritz Kraemer) and it becomes a tacit invitation and allure to the barbarians from without, and from within. Such is also the current situation (and plight) of the Roman Catholic Church.

Belloc continues his consideration of the deeper causes of a civilization’s decay, and as well as some corrective remedies:

Before the barbarian in any form can appear in it [i.e., in a specific civilization], it must already have weakened. If it cannot absorb or reject an alien element it is because its organism has grown enfeebled, and its powers of digestion and excretion are lost or deteriorated; and whoever would restore any society which menaces to fall, must busy himself about the inward nature of that society [to include a religious society, such as the Jesuits and the larger Holy See] much more than about its external dangers or the merely mechanical and numerical factors of peril to be discovered within it.

Whenever we look for “the barbarians,”…we are [often] looking rather for a visible effect of disease than for its source.

None the less to mark those visible effects is instructive, and without some conspectus of them it will be impossible to diagnose the disease. A modern man may, therefore, well ask where the [Modernist?] barbarians are that shall enter into our inheritance, or whose triumphs [over the doctrinal and liturgical Sacred Tradition?] shall, if it be permitted, at least accompany, even if they cannot effect, the destruction of Christendom.(275-276—my emphasis added)

It should be remembered that Hilaire Belloc wrote these words during the anti-Modernist Reign of Pope Pius X (1903-1914).

Belloc then chooses to clarify a little more the concept and the reality of “Christendom”:

With that word “Christendom” a chief part of the curious speculation [about the fact of civilizational decay] is at once suggested. Whether the scholar hates or loves, rejects or adopts, ridicules or admires, the religious creed of Europe, he must, in any case, recognise two prime historical truths. The first is that that creed which we call the Christian religion was the soul and meaning of European civilisation during the period of its active and united existence. The second [historical truth] is that wherever the religion characteristic of a people has failed to react against its own decay and has in some last catastrophe perished, then that people has lost, soon after, its corporate existence….

Christendom was Christian, not by accident or superficially, but in a formative connection….It is equally true that a sign and probably a cause of a society’s end is the dissolution of that causative moral thing, its philosophy or creed. (276-277—my emphasis added)

After his remarks about the former “religious creed of Europe,” he becomes more specific about Europe’s vulnerability and plight in the year 1912:

Now here we discover the first mark of the Barbarian.

Note that in the peril of English society today [as of 1912] there is no positive alternative to the ancient philosophical tradition of Christian Europe. It [the current English society] has to meet nothing more substantive than a series of negations, often contradictory [as with the subtle Hegelian Dialectic], but all allied in their repugnance to a fixed certitude in morals.

So far has this process gone [as in the Catholic Church today, in 2018] that to be writing as I am here in public, not even defending the creed of Christendom, but postulating its historic place, and pointing out that the considerable attack now carried on against it [i.e., the Christian Creed] is symptomatic of the dissolution of our society, has about it something temerarious and odd. (277-278—my emphasis added)

We are then asked to look at, and also allowed to consider, some of the “secondary effects” and other principles (or causes) of disorder or dissolution, especially to “consider how certain root institutions native to the long development of Europe [e.g., Marriage and Property, to include the possibility of Private Property] and to her [arguably unique] individuality are the subject of attack, and [we should] note the nature of the attack.” (278—my emphasis added)

Belloc’s argumentation and propositions continue, as follows, especially about one’s effectively accepting and inwardly appropriating the criteria, often the very language, of the attacker or subverter:

It is certain that if the fundamental institutions of a polity are no longer regarded as fundamental by its citizens, that polity is about to pass through the total change which in a living organism we call death….

Our peril is not that certain men attack the one or the other [i.e., upon property or marriage] and deny their moral right to exist. Our peril is rather that, quite as much as those who attack, those who defend [them] seem to take for granted the relativeness, the artificiality, the non-fundamental character of the institution which they are apparently [but lukewarmly?] concerned to support.

See how marriage is defended [in 1912, to boot!]. To those who would destroy it under the plea of its inconveniences and tragedies, the answer is no longer made that, good or ill, it is an absolute and intangible. The [often tepid and lax] answer made [to the potential destroyers of marriage] is that it is convenient, or useful, or necessary, or merely traditional.

Most significant of all, the terminology of the attack is on the lips of the defense, but the contrary is never the case. Those opponents of marriage…will never use the term “sacrament,” yet how many for whom marriage is still a sacrament will forgo the pseudo-scientific jargon of their opponents? (278-280—my emphasis added)

After his few further points of lucid discussion about “the threat against property” (280) and about those who believe themselves “superior to reason” (281) and thus “free to maintain that definition, limit, quantity and contradiction are little things which he [“the Barbarian”] has outgrown” (281), Belloc will give us two very discerning and memorable paragraphs:

The Barbarian hopes—and that is the very mark of him [and also the mark of the Sentimentalist!]—that he can have his cake and eat it too. He will consume what civilisation has slowly produced after generation of selection and effort [as with the cultivation of a great musical culture and enduring literature, and good wine and cheese, or the well-rooted vines of olives] but he will not be at the pains to replace such goods nor indeed has he a comprehension of the virtue that has brought them into being. Discipline seems to him irrational, on which account he is for ever marvelling that civilisation should have offended him with priests and soldiers….

In a word, the Barbarian is discoverable everywhere in this that he cannot make; that he can befog or destroy, but that he cannot sustain; and of every Barbarian in the decline or peril of every civilisation [and even of even the Catholic Church?] exactly that [crippled and parasitic manifestation of incapacity] has been true. (281-282—italics in the original; my bold emphasis added)

Belloc concludes his searching and sobering essay with the following words:

He [the Barbarian], I repeat, is not an agent, but merely a symptom. It is not he [the Barbarian] in his impotence that can discover the power of disintegrate the great and ancient body of Christendom, but if we come to see him him triumphant we may be certain that that [weakened] body [of Christendom]…is furnishing him with sustenance and forming for him a congenial soil—and that is [or would be!] as much as to say that we are dying. (283—my emphasis added)

May the cultural immune system and the human elements of the Church Militant and the Corpus Christi Mysticum today (in 2018) not be so weakened and destructively self-sabotaging, as if we are dealing with a subtle “auto-immune disease.”

May G.K. Chesterton’s own characteristic charity and insights refresh us now at the end of our essay’s presentation, also of his “On the Return of the Barbarian” and on the Barbarian’s own recurrently discoverable and minatory traits:

That is the [sound] sense in which a detached and dispassionate person, watching that strange turn of the tide [in all of Germany itself after the vengefully unjust 28 June 1918 Treaty of Versailles and even condignly continuing up to the early 1930s] in the centre of tribal Germany, will be disposed to suspect tragedy. The Germans have done many things that many of us may think right, but there is nothing to hold them back from doing anything that all of us think wrong….The danger of the emergence of anything really barbaric in the world is that we do not know what it will do next, or where it will turn up at last; just as we do not know whether a runaway horse will be stopped [or where]….What is really disquieting about this new note of narrow nationalism or tribalism in the north [especially Prussia] is that there is something shrill and wild about it, that has been heard in those destructive crises in history. There are many marks by which anybody of historical imagination can recognize the recurrence [of barbarism]…—all these things have a savour of savage and hasty simplification, which, …when taken altogether give an uncomfortable impression of wild [though at times very disciplined!] men who have merely grown weary of the complexity that we call civilization. (17-18—Chapter VII—my emphasis added)

In his essay, Chesterton first introduced us to these grave developments with politeness and with charitable charm, not with any stridency nor depreciative condescension:

The common garden German may be described as a beer-garden German. As such I love and embrace him. Just lately, and at historic intervals, he becomes a bear-garden German. As such I regard him with a love more mystical and distant, and would prefer to avoid his embrace. For the embraces of bears, even in the most festive and…illuminated bear-gardens, are apt to show that over-emphasis, or excess of pressure, which is the fault of the German temperament.

Now, ever since Herr Hitler began to turn the beer-garden into a bear-garden [in the 1920s and early 1930s], there has been an increasing impression on sensitive and intelligent minds that something dangerous has occurred. A particular sort of civilization has turned back towards barbarism….But that is the advantage of hypnotism. That is the charm of illusion and the compelling power of unreality. The Germans, not being realistic [here], have already forgotten that they were defeated ten years ago [in World War I]; but they still remember vividly that they were victorious [against Austria and then France some] fifty years ago [circa 1860-1870]. That is the advantage of being a sentimentalist. You only [selectively] remember what you like to remember. It is also the advantage of being a barbarian. (16-17—my emphasis added)

Just as Belloc said that the Barbarian effectively wants his cake and wants to eat his cake concurrently, too, he is also shown to deny or defy, quite emotionally, the foundational “principle of non-contradiction,” as does the subversive, occult Hegelian Dialectic. If something is itself and is not itself at the same time, then what is an identity? Thus the revolutionary slogan:“Solve et coagula.”

–Finis–

© 2018 Robert D. Hickson

iHilaire Belloc, “The Barbarians,” in One Thing and Another (London: Hollis & Carter, 1956), pages 203-205 (Chapter XXXV). See also Hilaire Belloc, “The Barbarians,” in This That and the Other (1912), pages 273-283 (Chapter XXXII).

iiG.K. Chesterton, “On the Return of the Barbarian,” Chapter VII of his book, Avowals and Denials (London: Methuen & Co. LTD., 1934), pp.16-18. Page references will be placed above in the main body of this text, in parentheses.

iiiSee H. Belloc, This and That and The Other (Freeport, New York: Books for Libraries Press, 1968—an exact reprint of Belloc’s original 1912 book). Belloc’s essay “The Barbarians” is to be found in Chapter XXXII, on pages 273-283. All future references to this text will be placed in parentheses above in the main body of this essay.

ivSee Hilaire Belloc, “The Barbarians,” which is to be found Chapter XXXV of his anthology, One Thing and Another (London: Hollis & Carter, 1956). This 1956 book is subtitled “A Miscellany from his Uncollected Essays selected by Patrick Cahill.” All further references will be from this text—pages 203-205—and placed in parentheses in the main body of this essay above.