Hilaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton on the Need for Intellectual Magnanimity

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                                            14 April 2019

Palm Sunday

Saint Justin Martyr (d. 165)



“Political and social satire is a lost art [i.e.,“the great and civilised art of satire” (47)], like pottery and stained glass. It may be worth while to make some attempt to point out a reason for it.

“It may seem a singular observation to say that we are not generous enough to write great satire. This, however, is approximately a very accurate way of describing the case. To write a great satire, to attack a man so that he feels the attack and half acknowledges its justice, it is necessary to have a certain intellectual magnanimity which realises the merits of the opponent as well as his defects. This is, indeed, only another way of putting the simple truth that in order to attack an army we must know not only its weak points, but also its strong points.” (G.K. Chesterton, Varied Types (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1905), pages 47-48 my emphasis added.)


“For a man is angry at a libel because it is false, but at a satire because it is true.” (G.K. Chesterton, Varied Types, 1905, page 53)


“Nevertheless I will maintain that [as of 1929] this very powerful, distorted simplification of Catholic doctrine (for that is what Mahommedanism is) may be of high effect in the near future upon Christendom; and that, acting as a competitive religion, it is not to be despised.” (Hilaire Belloc, Survivals and New Arrivals (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1929), page 193—my emphasis added.


The granite permanence [of Islam]– [“and its apparently invincible resistance to conversion”]— is a most striking thing, and worthy of serious consideration by all those who meditate upon the spiritual, and, consequently, the social, future of the world. (Hilaire Belloc, Survivals and New Arrivals (1929), page 192—my emphasis added.


In 1900, during the contentious imperial Boer War in South Africa, G.K. Chesterton memorably first met Hilaire Belloc. It was in London at a little restaurant in Soho, and Chesterton manifoldly and greatly admired Belloc and his glowing goodness and vivid magnanimity. Less than five years later, moreover, Chesterton even published in his new anthology, called Varied Types,1 an essay entitled “Pope and the Art of Satire” which addressed some of the trenchant themes that both of them had wholeheartedly and robustly discussed through the night in 1900.

For example, Chesterton wrote:

England in the present season and spirit [circa 1903-1905] fails in satire for the simple reason that it fails in war: it despises the enemy. In matters of battle and conquest we have got firmly rooted in our minds the idea (an idea fit for the philosophers of Bedlam) that we can best trample on a people by ignoring all the particular merits which give them a chance of trampling upon us. It has become a breach of etiquette to praise the enemy; whereas, when the enemy is strong, every honest scout ought to praise the enemy. It is impossible to vanquish an army without having a full account of its strength. It is impossible to satirise a man without having a full account of his virtues. (48-49—my emphasis added)

After we consider some further insights in Chesterton’s 1905 essay on satire and virtue and various forms of warfare, we shall then present Hilaire Belloc’s own 1929 understanding of both “Explicit Materialism” and the challenging religion of Islam. The latter shows a patient and magnanimous and differentiated understanding of Islam as of 1929. Belloc will also clearly convey his insights on the deeper potential revival of Islam and on the character of its anticipated future challenge to the Catholic Faith and Catholic Church at large.

To give us a glimpse of Belloc’s glowing good of heart as Chesterton first saw it, we shall in a brief excursus first consider the sincere and honorable way—sometimes even an affectionate way—in which Hilaire Belloc magnanimously presents the “Explicit Materialists” of his boyhood and their yet surviving errors which could still come to constitute a peril to Catholicism. For it is so that Belloc magnanimously admired those candid materialists in their own “half truths,” and in part he admired them because of their own personal virtues of “simplicity and sincerity.”

Chesterton’s 1905 essay itself should certainly prompt us in 2019 to examine the public and private language of our own earnest, sometimes wanton, disputes—indeed as seen in the “decomposition of discourse” often found even in our Church and surrounding, self-sabotaging civil society. For, to what extent do we not also tend to “despise the enemy”?

Back in 1905 in the English society of the growing Empire, Chesterton already discerned some unwholesome decomposition of discourse, and he forthrightly, but generously, said:

It is too much the custom in politics to describe a political opponent as utterly inhuman, as utterly careless of his country, as utterly cynical, which no man ever was since the beginning of the world. This kind of invective may often have a great superficial success: it may hit the mood of the moment; it may raise excitement and applause; it may impress millions. But there is one man [at least] among all those millions whom it does not impress, whom it hardly ever touches; that is the man against whom it is directed. The one person [in this case] for whom the whole satire has been written in vain is the man whom it is the whole object of the institution of satire to reach….But behind all this he [the intended target] has his real weaknesses, the real ironies of the soul: behind all these ordinary merits lie the mean compromises, the craven silences, the sullen vanities, the secret brutalities, the unmanly visions of vengeance. It is to these that the satire should reach if it is to touch the man at whom it is aimed. And to reach these it must pass and salute a whole army of virtues. (49-50—my emphasis added)

Then, after citing some well known figures in British society and politics—such as Lord Randolph Churchill—who have all unjustly been the target of swollen invective, Chesterton says:

And here we have the cause of the failure of contemporary satire, that it has no magnanimity, that is to say, no patience. It cannot endure to be told that its opponent has his strong points, just as Mr. Chamberlain could not endure to be told that the Boers [of South Africa] had a regular army [and were thus menacingly disciplined and a threat]. It can be [delusively] content with nothing except persuading itself that its opponent is utterly bad or utterly stupid….This is the point in which all party invective fails. (51-52—my emphasis added)

In his conclusion, Chesterton will have us consider the variously gifted poet, Alexander Pope, and thus “how a great satirist approaches a great enemy” (53). After giving us some lines from Pope’s poem “Atticus”—a reference to the character of Joseph Addison himself—Chesterton comments:

This is the kind of thing [the “satire”] which really goes to the mark at which it aims. It is penetrated with sorrow and a kind of reverence, and it is addressed directly to a man. This is no mock-tournament to gain the applause of the crowd. It is a deadly duel by the lonely seashore.

In the current political materialism [however] there is [as of 1905] the assumption that, without understanding anything of his case or his merits, we can benefit [perhaps chasten] a man practically. Without understanding his case and his merits [moreover] we cannot even hurt him. (54-55—my emphasis added)

Hilaire Belloc’s Own Later 1929 Consideration of Explicit and Implicit Materialism2

Belloc begins his section on Materialism with these clarifying words:

As things now are [as of 1929] the survival of the Materialist cannot be long maintained.

Explicit Materialism—that is, the frankly stated philosophy that there are none save material causes, and that all phenomena called spiritual or moral are functions of matter—is now hardly heard.

But Implicit Materialism—that is, an underlying, unexpressed, conception that material causes explain all things—survives….

That Materialism as an explicit, openly affirmed philosophy is—for the moment—vanishing. (56-57—my emphasis added)

Amidst his thorough examination of varieties of Materialism, we suddenly find him presenting a personal note:

Let me digress to confess a personal weakness, at heart, for that old-fashioned Explicit Materialism. My leaning to it lies in this—that it was full of common sense and sincerity.

It was eminently right as far as it went….It was a half truth, squat and solid, but human and, in its exceedingly limited way, rational.

The Materialist of my boyhood [Belloc having been born in 1870] went his little way along that open road which we all must follow when we begin to philosophise. Day in and day out, from moment to moment, we are concerned with a patent chain of material cause and effect.

Of things not material we have knowledge in subtle ways [as with “the living principle” of “a soul” (62)]. (59—my emphasis added)

Our modest author will continue yet a little with his confession and humane words:

All around us and all around the Materialist areinnumerable examples—visible, tangible, real—of material causes apparently preceding every effect. The Materialist is the man who stops there, at a half truth which is a truth after all, and he grows no further. All that appeals to me. It reposes upon two great virtues: simplicity and sincerity. (60—my emphasis added).

Belloc characteristically thinks of the hospitality of inns as he tries to express his own cherished rootedness and deep affection:

I would rather pass an evening with a Materialist at an inn than with any of these sophists [i.e., those who are vaguely dialectical “grandiloquence” (60)] in a common room. Moreover, the Materialist fills me with that pity which is akin to love.

I mark him, in the chaos of our day, with a protective affection I want to shelter him from the shocks of his enemies and to tell him that, weak as they [these grandiloquent sophists] are, he is even weaker than they. I also want to tell him all the time what an honest little fellow he is [though still “my sturdy little dwarf”(60)]. For he is at least in touch with reality, as are we also of the Faith in a grander fashion. He tells the truth as far as he can see it, whereas most of those who sneer at him care nothing for the truth at all but only for their systems or their notoriety.

I have noticed this about such Explicit Materialists as are left—they are nearly always honest men, full of illogical indignation against evil, and especially against injustice. They are a generous lot, and they have a side to them which is allied to innocence.

Among the Survivals [those still abiding Opponents of the Faith], they now take a very small place. They feel themselves to be out of the running. Their hearts have been broken with abuse and insult and with base desertion by their friends….Therefore have most of them become apologetic. They commonly talk as an uneducated man among scholars….

Now I like that….

He will not have wholly disappeared before my death I hope—though I fear he will—for when he has I shall feel very lonely. (60-62—my emphasis added)

What an open-hearted and respectful friend and man our Belloc was.

And he imparts his final words with his inimitable nuances and elegiac tones:

Should he [the Explicit Materialist] die in my own time, which is likely enough, I will follow piously at his funeral, which is more than I will do for any of them [such as “The Pantheist” (62)].

But when he dies his works will live after him and in due time he will return. He [“the Explicit Materialist”] is irrepressible. He lurks in the stuff of mankind [i.e., as a permanent and recurrent temptation to man!]. (62—my emphasis added)

Hilaire Belloc’s 1929 Insights Concerning Islam:

In one portion of his section called “New Arrivals,”3 from pages 188-195, Belloc compactly presents his historical knowledge and special insights about the understandable challenge of Islam; and we therefore now propose to present some reality-revealing selections from Belloc’s unmistakably brilliant analyses and anticipations.

Belloc first gives us a framing context for his comments on Islam, having just spoken himself of the disordered nature and special peril of “Neo-Paganism”:

There remains, apart from the old Paganism of Asia and Africa, another indirect supporter of Neo-Paganism: a supporter which indeed hates all Paganism but hates the Catholic Church much more: a factor of whose now increasing importance [as of 1929] the masses of Europe are not as yet aware: I mean the Mahommedan religion: Islam.

Islam presents a totally different problem from that attached to any other religious body [including Judaism] opposed to Catholicism. To understand it we must appreciate its origins, character and recent fate [as of 1929]. Only then can we further appreciate its possible or probable future relations with enemies of the Catholic effort throughout the world. (188-189—my emphasis added)

After asking the question “How did Islam arise?” (189), Belloc proceeds to give us some trustworthy history:

It was not, as our popular historical text-books would have it, a “new religion.” It was a direct derivative from the Catholic Church [and also partly from Judaism]. It was essentially, in its origin, a heresy: like Arianism [or Nestorianism] or Albigensians….

The Arabs of whom he [“Mahomet”] came and among whom he lived were Pagan; but such higher religious influence as could touch them, and as they came into contact with through commerce and raiding, was Catholic [largely Nestorian]–with a certain mixture of Jewish [often syncretistic] communities. Catholicism had thus distinctly affected these few Pagans living upon fringes of the [Eastern Byzantine] Empire.

Now what Mahomet did was this. He took over the principal doctrines of the Catholic Church—one personal God, Creator of all things; the immortality of the soul; and eternity of misery or blessedness—and no small part of Christian morals as well. All that was the atmosphere of the only civilisation [until Persia later?] which had influence upon him and his. But at the same time he attempted an extreme simplification.

Many another heresiarch has done this, throwing overboard such and such too profound doctrines, and appealing to the less intelligent by getting rid of mysteries through a crude denial of them. But Mahomet simplified much more than did, say, Pelagius or even Arius. [For example:] He turned Our Lord into a mere prophet…; Our Lady, he turned into not more than the mother of so great a prophet; he cut out the Eucharist altogether, and what was most difficult in the matter of the Resurrection. He abolished the idea of priesthood: most important of all [in the “burning enthusiasm” of energetic practice], he declared for social equality among all those who should be “true believers” after his fashion. (189-190—italics in the original; my bold emphasis added)

We should now have a good idea about the irreconcilable doctrinal differences, and highly recommend a close, repeated and savored reading of all of Belloc’s pages on Islam (188-195).

After supplying more history and strategic geography and the like, Belloc offers another perspective:

For centuries the struggle between Islam and the Catholic Church continued. It had varying fortunes, but for something like a thousand years the issue still remained doubtful. It was not until nearly the year 1700 (the great conquests of Islam having begun long before 700) that Christian culture seemed—for a time—to be definitely the master.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the Mahommedan world fell under a kind of palsy. It could not catch up with our rapidly advancing physical science….under the Government of nominally Christian nations, especially of England and France.

On this account our generation came to think of Islam as something naturally subject to ourselves….That was almost certainly a mistake. We shall almost certainly have to reckon with Islam in the near future. Perhaps if we lose our Faith it will arise.

For after this subjugation of the Islamic culture by the nominally Christian had already been achieved, the political conquerors of that [Moslem] culture began to notice two disquieting features about it. The first was that its spiritual foundation proved immovable; the second that its [Islam’s own] area of occupation did not recede, but on the contrary slowly expanded. Islam would not look at any Christian missionary effort….

I think it true to say that Islam is the only spiritual force on earth which Catholicism has found an impregnable fortress. Its votaries are the one religious body conversions from which are insignificant. (190-192—my emphasis added)

To reinforce his last point, Belloc says: “This granite permanence is a most striking thing, and worthy of serious consideration by all who meditate upon the spiritual, and consequently, the social, future of the world.” (192—my emphasis added)

Belloc will now gradually lead us to a few other fresh insights and revelations of reality, especially the challenging examples of the “practice” of Islam:

The spiritual independence of Islam (upon which everything depends) is as strong as, or stronger than, ever. What affinities or support does this threat of Islam promise to the new enemies of Catholic tradition [such as the extension of “Neo-Paganism”(188)]….

Even those who are directly in contact with the great Mahommedan civilisation…are impressed…by its strength and apparently invincible resistance to conversion….

No considerable number of conversions to Mahommedanism from Christendom is probable. I do not say that such a movement would not be possible, for anything is possible in the near future, seeing the welter into which Christian civilisation has fallen. But I think it improbable, and even highly improbable, because Mahommedans advances in herd or mob fashion. It does not proceed, as the Catholic religion does, by individual conversions, but by colonisation and group movement.

But there are other effects which a great anti-Catholic force [like Islam] and the culture based upon it can have upon anti-Catholic forces within our own [geographis and cultural] boundaries.

In the first place it can act by example. To every man attempting to defend the old Christian culture by prophesying disaster if its [Christianity’s] main tenets be abandoned, Mahommedanism can be presented as a practical answer. (192-193—my emphasis added)

With his aptly concrete and representative specificity, Belloc will now vividly illustrate his challenging meaning concerning an effective act by example:

“You say monogamy is necessary to happy human life, and that the practice of polygamy, or of divorce (which is but a modified form of polygamy) is fatal to the State? You are proved wrong by the example of Mahommedanism.”

Or again “You say that without priests and without sacraments and without all the apparatus of your religion, down to the use of visible images, religion may not survive? Islam is there to give you the lie. Its religion is intense, its spiritual life permanent. Yet it has constantly repudiated all these things. It is violently anti-sacramental; it has no priesthood; it wages fierce war on all symbols in the use of worship.”

This example may, in the near future [as of 1929], be of great effect. Remember that our Christian civilisation is in great peril of complete breakdown. An enemy would say that it is living upon its past. (193-194—my emphasis added)

The West’s temporary advantage over Islam for a few centuries after 1700 was “accomplished by…a superiority in weapons and mechanical invention.” (194) Belloc also reminds us: “And that this superiority dates from a very short time ago.” (194)

By way of his final illustrations and suggestive analogies, Hilaire Belloc admirably but all-too-forebodingly concludes his magnanimous discussion of Islam, especially as a combined “New Arrival” in opposition to the Catholic Church and Faith:

Old people with whom I have spoken as a child could remember the time when the Algerian pirates were seen in the Mediterranean and were still a danger along its southern shores. In my own youth the decaying power of Islam (for it was still decaying) in the Near East was a strong menace to the peace of Europe. Those old people of whom I speak had grandparents in whose times Islam was still able to menace the West. The Turks besieged Vienna [in 1683] and nearly took it, less than a century before the American Declaration of Independence. Islam was then our superior, especially in military art. There is no reason why its recent inferiority in mechanical construction, whether military or civilian, should continuing indefinitely. Even a slight accession of material power would make the further control of Islam by an alien culture difficult. A little more and there will cease that which our time has taken for granted, the physical domination of Islam by the disintegrated Christendom we know. (194-195—my emphasis added)

All things considered, and despite some grim “reports from reality,” G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc have so generously and effectively encouraged our “intellectual magnanimity,” that we preserve it respectfully and also strengthen it in our loyal and often difficult searches for the truth in proper proportion and fairness.


© 2019 Robert D. Hickson

1G.K. Chesterton, Varied Types (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1905). The essay on satire and magnanimity and the gifted Catholic poet, Alexander Pope, is to be found on pages 43-55 of Chesterton’s anthology. All further references to “Pope and the Art of Satire” will now be from this edition and placed above in parentheses.

2Hilaire Belloc, Survivals and New Arrivals (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1929). As a “Survival,” Materialism will be examined on pages 56-62. As a “New Arrival,” Islam will then be examined on pages 188-195. All further references to Survivals and New Arrivals will be to this 1929 text and placed above in parentheses in the main body of this essay.

3Hilaire Belloc, Survivals and New Arrivals (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1929). See especially pages 188-195 on the likely arrivals of “Neo-Paganism” and “Islam”and their possible (but limited and expedient) “alliance” against a common enemy: the Catholic Church. Quotations will henceforth be from this 1929 book and placed in parentheses above in the main body of this essay.

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