An Introduction to Hilaire Belloc’s The Great Heresies (1938)

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                                6 November 2018

Saint Leonard of Limoges (d. 559)

Crusader Saint Leonard of Reresby in Yorkshire (d. circa 1260)

The Day of Death of Josef Pieper (d. 1997)

 

In 1938, Hilaire Belloc was still in his full intellectual and spiritual maturity when he came to publish his lucid book on The Great Heresies. This book, appearing shortly before the outbreak of World War II, presents Belloc when he was sixty-eight years of age, and it entered the public only two years after the death of his beloved friend G.K. Chesterton, and three years before the unexpected and utterly shattering death of his youngest son Peter, on 2 April 1941. Peter died in uniform, but not yet in combat, and he had suddenly contracted pneumonia while on duty and in training as a soldier in the expanding war. (Belloc had already lost, and with great and almost irreparable grief, both his cherished wife Elodie on 2 February 1914 (on Candlemas) and then his eldest son Louis, who was an aviator killed in combat in France late in World War I; and whose body was never to be found, despite the intensive and extensive efforts of many men, including Belloc’s intimate and resourceful friend, Major Maurice Baring.) Moreover, very soon after his son Peter’s death, Hilaire Belloc had his first of several strokes. Some of his intellectual powers, even from the outset, then began to wane, and he lived largely like that until his death on 16 July 1953. Such are the poignant circumstances framing, and partly surrounding, this book and its remarkably sustained vitality.

In some selected passages here, however, we shall give representative glimpses of our beloved Belloc’s differentiated and eloquent learning, and many instances of his mental acuity, as well as his deep and sincere Catholic Faith. He also especially shows us his capacity, without equivocation, to define his important conceptual terms, such as “heresy,” in addition to “capitalism.”

As he wrote in his own introductory chapter: “There is no end to the misunderstandings which arise from the uncertain use of words.” Therefore, at the beginning of his book, Belloc helps us understand what he means by “heresy.” He defines it as “the dislocation of some complete and self-supporting scheme [—“the various parts of which are coherent and sustain each other”—] by the introduction of a denial of some essential part therein….such that if you but modify a part the whole is put out of gear…..” Heresy, therefore, is “the warping of a system by ‘exception’: by ‘picking out’ [from “the Greek verb ‘Haireo‘”] one part of the structure.” It is, in Belloc’s eyes, the essence of a heresy “that it leave standing a great part of the structure it attacks.” Therefore, “it is said of heresies [thus even of the challenge of Islam] that “they survive by the truths they retain.” Hilaire Belloc has an historical interest in heresy, inasmuch as it does not only affect the individual, but “all society.”

It is in this sense that, for example, the debate about Arianism is not “a mere discussion of words,” but, rather, the Arian world would turn more out “like a Mohammedan world than what the European world actually became.” Words affect worlds. To affirm doctrine has an effect on society. This is what Belloc holds, since “Human society cannot carry on without some creed, because a code and a character are the product of a creed.” It is one of Hilaire Belloc’s own borrowed insights that “all human conflict is ultimately theological” (a profound insight by Cardinal Manning spoken to Belloc, who was often later to quote it – see Belloc’s great book, The Cruise of the Nona, for Manning’s searchlight insights!), and that no society has ever endured – “or ever can endure” – without some form of religion. Because, as Belloc puts, it “there can be no body of morals without doctrine, and if we agree to call any consistent body of morals and doctrine a religion, then the importance of heresy as a subject will become clear.”

It is only a deeply religious and moral man like Hilaire Belloc himself who is able to present these thoughts and to point to them. A thoroughly secularized world like the post-modern West is barely capable of grasping it. But it will certainly profit from Belloc’s own insights. Because we might easily say that, still today, there is a creed that is dominating society – it is just simply a creed without God and thus without a deeper set of binding moral laws.

As some put it into a motto “Ohne Glaube, keine Kultur,” [“without faith, no culture”] our author also explains: “The study of successive Christian heresies, their characters and fates, has a special interest for all of us who belong to the European or Christian culture, and that is a reason that ought to be self-evident—our culture was made by a religion. Changes in, or deflections from, that religion necessarily affect our civilization as a whole.”

Belloc proposes to give a further rationale for his selective book when he says that it is important to give clear definitions. Definitions set limits, and therefore make an analysis easier. And he rightly points out that “unfortunately, in the modern world [as of 1938] the habit of such a definition has been lost; the word ‘heresy’…is no longer applied to cases which are clearly cases of heresy and ought to be treated as such.”

Later in the book, Hilaire Belloc gives us an example of what he means when insisting upon giving clear definitions: “But to another man, the term ‘capitalism’ may mean simply the right to private property; yet to another it means industrial capitalism working with machines, and contrasted with agricultural production. I repeat, to get any sense into the discussion [of ‘financial capitalism,’ for example], we must have our terms clearly defined.” That is to say: only if we describe realities with clear definitions can we make decisions as to what we wish to encourage or to combat.

Speaking further about capitalism, Belloc points to the danger of a relativistic approach: “Terms are used so loosely nowadays, there is such a paralysis in the power of definition, that almost any sentence using current phrases may be misinterpreted.” For different people, for example, the word “capitalism” would mean different things to different men. It means to one group of writers (what I must confess it means to me when I use it) ‘the exploitation of the masses of men still free by a few owners of the means of production, transport, and exchange.’” Belloc himself then comments on why this sort of capitalism is destructive: “When the mass of men are dispossessed—own nothing—they become wholly dependent upon the owners; and when those owners are in active competition to lower the cost of production the mass of men whom they exploit not only lack the power to order their own lives, but [they] suffer from want [insufficiency] and insecurity as well.” I think we could say here that Belloc considers such a form of capitalism a “heresy.”

His attempt is to clear our minds of cant and to give such clear definitions that we are able to discern what we would like to fight for and what not. What Belloc tries to tell us with these examples is that, by treating cases of heresy with clear definitions, we would thereby protect those codes and morals that are pertinent for a flourishing society. When we let down our guard, relativism will creep in and undermine all of society, as can be seen today. In this sense, Hilaire Belloc can be seen as a prophet for our time.

Josef Pieper, the great German Catholic philosopher who himself held Hilaire Belloc in high esteem, was later to write a book about Missbrauch der Sprache, Missbrauch der Macht (Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power, first published in 1974) that can be seen in connection with Belloc’s attempt at carefully studying the language that is being used and whether it is helping at revealing reality, or, on the contrary, at concealing it. Pieper himself saw how the abuse of language was often a tool for manipulation – and, as we could say with Hilaire Belloc, the spreading of heresy.

Let us here consider two examples of what Belloc treats as heresy: Communism and divorce. First, he says about Communism: “For instance, there is abroad today a denial of…the right to own property….Communism is as much a heresy as Manichaeism.”

Secondly, he adds: “The same is true of the attack on the indissolubility of marriage….but a heresy it clearly is because its determining characteristic is the denial of the Christian doctrine of marriage and the substitution therefore of another doctrine, to wit, that marriage is but a contract and a terminable contract [as distinct from a sacred irreversible vow to God and a Sacrament].” The denial of any doctrine as such, says Belloc, should also be treated as heresy.

In conclusion, Belloc sums up the situation of his time – and, we could add, also of our own time – as follows: “We are living today under a regime of heresy with only this to distinguish it from the older periods of heresy, that the heretical spirit has become generalized and appears in various forms….because the tide [of “the modern attack”] which threatens to overwhelm us is so diffuse.”

We are thus living in a time of the regime of generalized heresy. Persecution is not far away, Belloc adds, in “the conflict between that modern anti-Christian spirit and the permanent tradition of the Faith.” It is thus that Belloc shows himself as a traditionalist who stands against the relativisms and heresies of his time, holding on to eternal truths about God and man.

Here, we might refer to another example from his book. When speaking about the “problem of evil” – a reality that often nowadays is being shunned, as well – we all are faced with the question of the universe and of our existence. Belloc says that when “we watch the human race trying to think out for itself the meaning of the universe, or accepting Revelation thereon, or following warped and false partial religions and philosophies, we find it always at heart concerned with that insistent question: ‘Why should we suffer? Why should we die?’” [Italics in the original]

As Father John A. Hardon, S.J., a great dogmatic theologian and personal friend, often used to say to me in person: “We are only as courageous as we are convinced.” When we have clear definitions – and subsequently clear aims and convictions, also about eternal life – we will be able to face today’s challenges to our societies, even if it means suffering or death.

To return to Hilaire Belloc’s The Great Heresies. He, writing as a Catholic author, highlights the fact that the Catholic Church answers that question of suffering and death. He speaks about “a prime truth of the Catholic Church itself, which has shortly been put in this form: ‘The Catholic Church is founded upon the recognition of pain and death.’ In its more complete form the sentence should run ‘The Catholic Church is rooted in the recognition of suffering and mortality and her claim to have provided a solution for the problem they present [i.e., ‘the mystery of evil’]’.” The Church’s solution and answer stands in contrast to those of other worldviews and religions that give at times very different answers, with deep consequences for the respective societies.

The reader may now better see the designed development of Belloc’s artfully presented sequence of seven chapters, especially now for us to savor those vivid chapters three to seven: the Arian Heresy; The Great and Enduring Heresy of Mohammed; the Albigensian Attack; What Was the [Protestant] Reformation?; and The Modern Phase [also called “The Modern Attack”]. These have each been attacks in the past from which we still can learn much for today and for the future.

When one reflects upon the various heresies that Belloc depicts in his book, one realizes that all of them in common—to include the persistent Islam—essentially deny (and always destructively target) the following doctrines and their derivatives: the Incarnation (and thus full Divinity of Our Lord); the doctrine of the Holy Trinity; a divinely founded authoritative Church and its central, universal Spiritual Authority; the seven Sacraments; and thus the unique Priesthood of Christ with its absolving and sacrificing duties, for example, in Sacramental Penance and in the Holy Mass.

We may later more specifically consider, especially when we have more leisure than now, the doctrines of the Gnostic-Albigensians and the various Protestant doctrinal positions, and what the Protestants commonly react to. He shows how consequential the Protestant revolt was for the European civilization. For example, on the first two pages of his sixth chapter (What Was the Reformation?), Belloc writes:

Though the immediate fruits of the Reformation decayed, as had those of many other heresies in the past, yet the disruption it had produced remained and the main principle—reaction against a united spiritual authority—so continued in vigour as both to break up our European civilization in the West and to launch at last a general doubt, spreading more and more. None of the other heresies did that, for they were each definite. Each had proposed to supplant or to rival the existing Catholic Church; but the Reformation movement [as “opponents of central authority”] proposed rather to dissolve the Catholic Church—and we know what measure of success has been attained by that effort! (my emphasis added)

Or, as one could put it: “Ideas have consequences.”

One of Belloc’s two longest chapters is on Islam—the “Mohammedan Heresy” and the “Mohammedan Attack”—which religion he considers to be a “permanent rival to us”: “It is, as a fact, the most formidable and persistent enemy which our civilization has had, and may at any moment [from his vantage point in 1938] become as large a menace in the future as it has been in the past.”

Others, such as Arnaud de Lassus, have also considered Islam as both as a Christian Heresy and as a Jewish Heresy, given Islam’s protracted experiences intermingling with both learned Nestorian (Heretical) Christians and also with variously practicing Jews in the Arabian Peninsula. (Belloc, however, does not go into this deeper history that Arnaud de Lassus was manifoldly able to study.)

Moreover, learned and reverent Muslims I have known down the years have very confidently expressed to me their principled view that Islam, as a third and final Revelation, has corrected the errors and distortions of both the Jewish Revelation and the Christian Revelation. Such a belief and such practical martial orientation certainly give much vigor to their spreading religion and to their strategic and tactical initiatives of conquest. Belloc himself, in his book, again and again tries to understand how and why Islam has endured so long—and his considered reflections should be of special interest to the reader.

In light of the current conflicts arising between Islam and Christian communities throughout the world – with Islam mostly being the aggressor – Hilaire Belloc’s considerations and analysis will be of great help to today’s readers in grasping the deeper underlying theological divisions. The creed of each religion does form societies and their conduct toward other societies. A thorough study of Islam would help the West to assess in a more fruitful way how to respond to this religion in a just and protective manner. By eliding over religious differences, one would only elide over that part within the religions that can potentially lead to serious conflict. Our forefathers knew that.

As I have been re-reading my recent and many notes on The Great Heresies, I have also been thinking of Thucydides and his great unfinished epic and tragic history about the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.), to include the very consequential Destruction of Athens. One could spend two full academic semesters at a university discussing and savoring in depth and detail with good students each of these two books.

Belloc and Thucydides were both also steeped in the epics and tragedies of Homer and his memorably presented tragedy of the Destruction of Troy and some of its consequences; and Belloc could himself artfully present some some larger dangers or actualities of Tragedy in History, to include the struggles and near subversion of the Catholic Faith and Holy Church. There is also a great abundance of truth and goodness and beauty in Hilaire Belloc’s epic book on the great heresies, and thus also on the contrasting and abiding wisdom of the Catholic Church’s formative orthodoxy.

The Catholic poet John Dryden (d. 1700) once gratefully described the poetry of Geoffrey Chaucer (d. 1400) as a presentation of “Goddes good foison”—“God’s good abundance.” So, too, is it the case with Hilaire Belloc’s rare and sustained abundance, and his candid Catholic spirit. May his lucid and often chivalrous book now also reach and deeply touch many German and Austrian readers.

 

APPENDIX

For our further reflections and convenience, this 7-page essay’s original version is placed below. For, it contains a considerable expansion of the epigraphs as well as many eloquent passages from Belloc’s own formidable book, The Great Heresies (1938).

An Introduction to Hilaire Belloc’s The Great Heresies (1938)

Epigraphs

“In the case of this great struggle [with ‘The Albigensian Heresy’] we must proceed as in the case of all other examples [of heresies] by first examining the nature of the doctrine which was set up against the body of truth taught by the Catholic Church.

The false doctrine of which the Albigensians were the main example has always been latent among men in various forms, not only in the civilization of Christendom but wherever and whenever men have had to consider the fundamental problems of life…By what its effects were when it was thus at its highest point of vitality we can estimate what evils similar doctrines do whenever they appear. For this permanent trouble of the human mind has swollen into three waves during the Christian period, of which three the Albigensian episode was only the central one….

“What is the underlying motive power which produces heresies of this kind?

“To answer that main question we must consider a prime truth of the Catholic Church itself, which has shortly been put in this form: ‘The Catholic Church is founded upon the recognition of pain and death.’ In its more complete form the sentence should run ‘The Catholic Church is rooted in the recognition of suffering and mortality and her claim to have provided a solution for the problem they present [i.e., ‘the mystery of evil’].’ The problem is [also] generally known as ‘The problem of evil.’

“How can we call a man’s destiny glorious and heaven his goal and his Creator all good as well as all powerful when we find ourselves subject to suffering and to death?….

“Nearly all young and innocent people are but slightly aware of this problem….But sooner or later every human being who thinks at all, everyone not an idiot, is faced by this Problem of Evil; and as we watch the human race trying to think out for itself the meaning of the universe, or accepting Revelation thereon, or following warped and false partial religions and philosophies, we find it always at heart concerned with that insistent question: ‘Why should we suffer? Why should we die?’” (Hilaire Belloc, The Great Heresies (1938), Chapter 5 (The Albigensian Attack); my bold emphasis added; italics in the original)

***

“There was one more ally to Arianism [i.e., to ‘the Arian Heresy’] through which it [the spreading heresy] almost triumphed—the Army.

In order to understand how powerful such an ally was we must appreciate what the Roman Army meant in those days and of what it was composed….

“The Army was the true cement, to use one metaphor, the framework to use another metaphor, the binding force and the support and the very material self of the Roman Empire in that fourth century; it had been so for centuries and was to remain so for future generations.

It is absolutely essential to understand this point, for it explains three-fourths of what happened, not only in the case of the Arian heresy but of everything else between the days of Marius [d. 86 B.C.] (under whose administration the Roman Army first became professional), and the Mohammedan attack upon Europe, that is, from more than a century before the Christian era to the early seventh century. The social and political position of the Army explains all those seven hundred years and more.

The Roman Empire was a military state. It was not a civilian state. Promotion to power was through the Army. The conception of glory and success, the attainment of wealth in many cases, in nearly all cases the attainment of political power, depended on the Army in those days, just as it depends upon money-lending, speculation, caucuses, manipulation of votes, bosses and newspapers nowadays.” (Hilaire Belloc, The Great Heresies (1938)–Chapter 3 (The Arian Heresy); my bold emphasis added; italics in the original)

***

Terms are used so loosely nowadays, there is such a paralysis in the power of definition, that almost any sentence using current phrases may be misinterpreted. If I were to say, ‘slavery under capitalism,’ the word ‘capitalism’ would mean different things to different men. It means to one group of writers (what I must confess it means to me when I use it) ‘the exploitation of the masses of men still free by a few owners of the means of production, transport, and exchange.’ When the mass of men are dispossessed—own nothing—they become wholly dependent upon the owners; and when those owners are in active competition to lower the cost of production the mass of men whom they exploit not only lack the power to order their own lives, but [they] suffer from want [insufficiency] and insecurity as well.

“But to another man, the term ‘capitalism’ may mean simply the right to private property; yet to another it means industrial capitalism working with machines, and contrasted with agricultural production. I repeat, to get any sense into the discussion [of ‘financial capitalism,’ for example], we must have our terms clearly defined.” (Hilaire Belloc, The Great Heresies (1938), Chapter 7 (The Modern Phase)—the last chapter of the book, my emphasis added)

***

In 1938, Hilaire Belloc was still in his full intellectual and spiritual maturity when he came to publish his lucid book on The Great Heresies. This book, appearing shortly before the outbreak of World War II, presents Belloc when he was sixty-eight years of age, and it entered the public only two years after the death of his beloved friend G.K. Chesterton, and three years before the unexpected and utterly shattering death of his youngest son Peter, on 2 April 1941. Peter died in uniform, but not yet in combat, and he had suddenly contracted pneumonia while on duty and in training as a soldier in the expanding war. (Belloc had already lost, and with great and almost irreparable grief, both his cherished wife Elodie on 2 February 1914 (on Candlemas) and then his eldest son Louis, who was an aviator killed in combat in France late in World War I; and whose body was never to be found, despite the intensive and extensive efforts of many men, including Belloc’s intimate and resourceful friend, Major Maurice Baring.) Moreover, very soon after his son Peter’s death, Hilaire Belloc had his first of several strokes. Some of his intellectual powers, even from the outset, then began to wane, and he lived largely like that until his death on 16 July 1953. Such are the poignant circumstances framing, and partly surrounding, this book and its remarkably sustained vitality.

In the three extended Epigraphs above, however, we are given representative glimpses of our beloved Belloc’s differentiated and eloquent learning, and many instances of his mental acuity and his deep and sincere Catholic Faith. He also especially shows us his capacity, without equivocation, to define his important conceptual terms, such as “heresy,” in addition to “capitalism.”

As he wrote in his own introductory chapter: “There is no end to the misunderstandings which arise from the uncertain use of words.” Therefore, at the beginning of his book, Belloc helps us understand what (with the help of our many ellipses) he means by “heresy”:

We must begin by a definition, although definition involves a mental effort and therefore repels.

Heresy is the dislocation of some complete and self-supporting scheme [—“the various parts of which are coherent and sustain each other”—] by the introduction of a denial of some essential part therein….such that if you but modify a part the whole is put out of gear….

Heresy means, then, the warping of a system by “exception”: by “picking out” [from “the Greek verb ‘Haireo‘”] one part of the structure; and [it] implies that the scheme is marred by taking away one part of it, denying one part of it, and either leaving the void unfilled or filling it with some new affirmation….

The denial of a scheme wholesale is not heresy, and has not the creative power of a heresy. It is of the essence of heresy that it leave standing a great part of the structure it attacks [e.g., the “religious structure of doctrine”]. On this account it can appeal to believers and continues to affect their lives through deflecting them from their original character. Wherefore, it is said of heresies [thus even of the challenge of Islam] that “they survive by the truths they retain.”….thus…the value of heresy as a department of historical study….

So much for the general meaning and interest of that most pregnant word “Heresy.” Its particular meaning (the meaning in which it is used in this book) is the marring by exception [some objection] of that complete scheme, the Christian religion….

Because heresy, in this particular sense (the denial of an accepted Christian doctrine) thus affects the individual, it affects all society, and when you are examining a society formed by a particular religion you necessarily concern yourself to the utmost with the warping or diminishing of that religion. That is the historical interest of heresy. That is why anyone who wants to understand [for example] how Europe came to be, and how its changes have been caused, cannot afford to treat heresy as unimportant….

A man who thinks, for instance, that Arianism is a mere discussion of words, does not see that an Arian world would have been much more like a Mohammedan world than what the European world actually became. He is much less in touch with reality than was [Saint] Athanasius when he affirmed the point of doctrine to be all important….

Indeed there is no denying it. It is mere fact. Human society cannot carry on without some creed, because a code and a character are the product of a creed….

Heresy, then, is not a fossil subject. It is a subject of permanent and vital interest to mankind because it is bound up with the subject of religion, without some form of which no human society has ever endured, or ever can endure….

There can be no body of morals without doctrine, and if we agree to call any consistent body of morals and doctrine a religion, then the importance of heresy as a subject will become clear, because heresy means nothing else than “the proposal of novelties in religion by picking out from what has been the accepted religion some point or other, denying the same or replacing it by another doctrine hitherto unfamiliar.”

The study of successive Christian heresies, their characters and fates, has a special interest for all of us who belong to the European or Christian culture, and that is a reason that ought to be self-evident—our culture was made by a religion. Changes in, or deflections from, that religion necessarily affect our civilization as a whole. (Italics in the original; my bold emphasis added–all of these interwoven words are from Hilaire Belloc’s own considerably important first chapter, entitled, “Introduction: Heresy.”)

Belloc now proposes to give a further rationale for his selective book:

The best way of understanding the subject [of the succession of Christian heresies] is to select a few prominent examples, and by the study of these to understand of what vast import heresy may be.

Such a study is easier from the fact that our fathers recognized heresy for what it was, gave it in each case a particular name, subjected it to a definition and therefore to limits, and made its analysis easier by such a definition.

Unfortunately, in the modern world [as of 1938] the habit of such a definition has been lost; the word “heresy”…is no longer applied to cases which are clearly cases of heresy and ought to be treated as such.

For instance, there is abroad today a denial of…the right to own property….Communism is as much a heresy as Manichaeism….The same is true of the attack on the indissolubility of marriage….but a heresy it clearly is because its determining characteristic is the denial of the Christian doctrine of marriage and the substitution therefore of another doctrine, to wit, that marriage is but a contract and a terminable contract [as distinct from a sacred irreversible vow to God and Sacrament].

Equally, ….because they [certain supposed Christians] deny certitude from Authority, which doctrine is a part of Christian epistemology, they are heretical. It is not heresy to say that reality can be reached by experiment, by sensual perception and by deduction. It is heresy [however] to say that reality can be attained from no other source.

We are living today under a regime of heresy with only this to distinguish it from the older periods of heresy, that the heretical spirit has become generalized and appears in various forms….because the tide [of “the modern attack”] which threatens to overwhelm us is so diffuse….

The conflict between that modern anti-Christian spirit and the permanent tradition of the Faith [may well also become] acute through persecution…. (Italics in the original; my bold emphasis added)

The reader may now better see the designed development of Belloc’s artfully presented sequence of seven chapters, especially now for us to savor those vivid chapters three to seven: the Arian Heresy; The Great and Enduring Heresy of Mohammed; the Albigensian Attack; What Was the [Protestant] Reformation?; and The Modern Phase [also called “The Modern Attack”].

When one reflects upon the various heresies that Belloc depicts in his book, one realizes that all of them in common—to include the persistent Islam—essentially deny (and always destructively target) the following doctrines and their derivatives: the Incarnation (and thus full Divinity of Our Lord); the doctrine of the Holy Trinity; a divinely founded authoritative Church and its central, universal Spiritual Authority; the seven Sacraments; and thus the unique Priesthood of Christ with its absolving and sacrificing duties, for example, in Sacramental Penance and the Holy Mass.

We may later more specifically consider, especially when we have more leisure than now, the doctrines of the Gnostic-Albigensians and the various Protestant doctrinal positions, and what the Protestants commonly react to.

For example, on the first two pages of his sixth chapter (What Was the Reformation?), Belloc writes:

Though the immediate fruits of the Reformation decayed, as had those of many other heresies in the past, yet the disruption it had produced remained and the main principle—reaction against a united spiritual authority—so continued in vigour as both to break up our European civilization in the West and to launch at last a general doubt, spreading more and more. None of the other heresies did that, for they were each definite. Each had proposed to supplant or to rival the existing Catholic Church; but the Reformation movement [as “opponents of central authority”] proposed rather to dissolve the Catholic Church—and we know what measure of success has been attained by that effort! (my emphasis added)

One of Belloc’s two longest chapters is on Islam—the “Mohammedan Heresy” and the “Mohammedan Attack”—which religion he considers to be a “permanent rival to us”: “It is, as a fact, the most formidable and persistent enemy which our civilization has had, and may at any moment [from his vantage point in 1938] become as large a menace in the future as it has been in the past.”

Others, such as Arnaud de Lassus, have also considered Islam as both as a Christian Heresy and as a Jewish Heresy, given Islam’s protracted experiences intermingling with both learned Nestorian (Heretical) Christians and also with variously practicing Jews in the Arabian Peninsula. (Belloc, however, does not go into this deeper history that Arnaud de Lassus was manifoldly able to study.)

Moreover, learned and reverent Muslims I have known down the years have very confidently expressed to me their principled view that Islam, as a third and final Revelation, has corrected the errors and distortions of both the Jewish Revelation and the Christian Revelation. Such a belief and practical martial orientation certainly give much vigor to their spreading religion and to their strategic and tactical initiatives of conquest. Belloc himself, in his book, again and again tries to understand how and why Islam has endured so long—and his considered reflections should be of special interest to the reader.

As I have been re-reading my recent and many notes on The Great Heresies, I have also been thinking of Thucydides and his great unfinished epic and tragic history about the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.), to include the very consequential Destruction of Athens. One could spend two full academic semesters at a university discussing and savoring in depth and detail with good students each of these two books.

Belloc and Thucydides were both also steeped in the epics and tragedies of Homer and his memorably presented tragedy of the Destruction of Troy and some of its consequences; and Belloc could himself artfully present some some larger dangers or actualities of Tragedy in History, to include the struggles and near subversion of the Catholic Faith and Holy Church. There is also a great abundance of truth and goodness and beauty in Hilaire Belloc’s epic book on the Great Heresies, and thus also on the contrasting and abiding wisdom of formative Orthodoxy.

The Catholic poet John Dryden (d. 1700) once gratefully described the poetry of Geoffrey Chaucer (d. 1400) as a presentation of “Goddes good foison”—“God’s good abundance.” So, too, is it the case with Hilaire Belloc’s rare and sustained abundance, and his candid Catholic spirit. May his lucid and often chivalrous book now also reach and deeply touch many German and Austrian readers.

–Finis–

© 2018 Robert D. Hickson

(This introductory essay will shortly be published by Renovamen Verlag as a preface to the German translation of Hilaire Belloc’s The Great Heresies (1938).)

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