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)

Epigraphs

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“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.

–Finis–

© 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.

Recurrently Assessing the Battle-Situation of the Catholic Church: H. Belloc’s 1929 Insights

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                                         4 April 2019

Saint Isidore of Seville, Doctor of the Church (d. 636)

Saint Benedict the Moor, Franciscan Lay Brother (d. 1589)

Recurrently Assessing the Battle-Situation of the Catholic Church: H. Belloc’s 1929 Insights in Survivals and New Arrivals

Epigraphs

“Between the forms of attack on, or resistance to, the Faith which are retiring exhausted—Survivals—and new forms [of attack] not yet fully developed but only beginning to appear—New Arrivals—stand, at any one moment in history, the Main Opponents of the day.” (Hilaire Belloc, Survivals and New Arrivals (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1929 and 1992), pages 101 and 74, respectively—my emphasis added)

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Truth lies in proportion. It is proportion which differentiates a caress from a blow, a sneer from a smile. It is the sequence and the relative weight of doctrines, not the bald statement, that makes the contrast between what damns and what saves.” (Hilaire Belloc, Survivals and New Arrivals, 1929 and 1992), pages 158 and 119, respectively—my emphasis added)

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As for the ‘Modern Mind,’ nothing can deal with it but dissolution. It is like a huge heap of mud which can only be got rid of by slow washing away. It will be the last of the three [i.e., “Nationalism, Anti-Clericalism, and the Modern Mind”] to remain as a Survival.” (Hilaire Belloc, Survivals and New Arrivals (1992), page 78—my emphasis added)

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“Why is this mood [of the “unreasoning” Modern Mind] so dangerous to the Catholic Church?….But in what, we may ask, is it a peril? It is a peril because true faith is based upon reason, and whatever denies or avoids reason imperils Catholicism.” (Hilaire Belloc, Survivals and New Arrivals, 1929 and 1992 ), pages 147 and 111, respectively—my emphasis added)

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“The color in which the whole of the ‘Modern Mind’ is dyed is essentially stupidity: it will not thinkand that is a very strange weakness for anything which calls itself a ‘mind’!

If it were an active enemy, its lack of reason would be a weakness: being (alas!) not active, but a passive obstacle, like a bog, it is none the weaker for being thus irrational….There stands the ‘Modern Mind, a morass. (Hilaire Belloc, Survivals and New Arrivals, 1929 and 1992), pages 145-146, 153; and 110, 115 respectively—my bold emphasis added; italics in the original)

***

In his 1929 book dedicated to his beloved daughter Eleanor, Hilaire Belloc wrote out for her as well as for us some of his long-cultivated and still illuminating historical and theological insights on the old and new enemies of the Catholic Church and the Faith, entitled Survivals and New Arrivals.1 For example, he said in passing that, if the widespread Arian doctrinal challenge and martial-heretical movements had further permeated the lands and the seas and had been victorious, Europe itself would now (as of 1929) be a confident and powerful religious culture with qualities that were much closer to those of “Mohammedism” (Islam) than to those of orthodox Christianity. For, both Arianism and Islam deny the Incarnation and the personal divinity of Jesus Christ.

Moreover, even though he first published his insights in 1929, Belloc’s book still shows itself to be a farsighted presentation of what was likely soon to come to Europe and spread elsewhere.

This short essay therefore first proposes to present Belloc’s chosen categories of interpretation in his “examination of the battle’s phases” (2) against the Catholic Faith and Catholic Church (as an Institution with a divine foundation and a set of seven sacraments). Then we propose to examine a little more closely one example of the alleged “Main Opposition” against the Church, as of 1929: i.e., the case of the hypothetical “Modern Mind.”

We hope thereby to draw others to a close reading (and further savoring) of this brilliant book—it is a justly proportioned and generously fair-minded book—which could also be usefully applied, with some slight adjustments, to other historic institutions and religions, such as Calvinism and Islam, or even “the Masonic Corporation” and “ the Masonic Organization…organized like an army against the Church” (99).

At the very outset of his book, Belloc forthrightly says the following about the Church’s history, and her permanent combats with adversaries outside and also inside the Catholic Church:

But what has been more rarely undertaken [in studies of the Catholic Church], and what is of particular interest to our own day, is an examination of the battle’s phases. (2—my emphasis added)

Then Belloc presents to us a series of criteria and helpful standards of judgment, and does it subtly by way of his sets of linked and interdependent questions. For example:

Which of the attacks are getting old-fashioned? Which new offensives are beginning to appear, and from what direction do they come? Which are the main assaults of the moment? What is the weight of each, and with what success are they being received and thrown back?

I say this cataloging of the attacks in their order of succession, from those growing outworn in any period to the new ones just appearing, has been neglected. Yet to make such an appreciation should be of value. The situation of the Church at any one time can be estimated only by noting what forms of attack are failing, and why; with what degree of resistance the still vigorous ones are being combated; what novel forms of offensive are appearing. It is only so that we can judge how the whole position stood or stands in any one historical period. (2-3—my emphasis added)

Belloc approaches the deeper lucid structure of his book by presenting additional questions concerning the Church and in light of “Her unique character” (7):

There is, then, no man who cares to understand the character of the world but must acquaint himself with the situation of the Faith. What are its present enemies? What dangers beset it? Where and how is it checked? Where lies its opportunities for growth? These are the outstanding questions. Compared with a judgment upon the present situation of the Catholic Church, a judgment upon the rise and fall of economic systems or of nations is insignificant.

This is my postulate, and [at] the outset of my inquiry.

I have said that the situation of the Church at any moment (and therefore in our own time) is best appreciated by judging the rise and decline of the forces opposing Her at that moment.

Now these, when we pause to estimate the state of the battle in any one phase of it, fall into three fairly distinct groups. (7-8—my emphasis added)

It will be helpful to understand these three groups as he presents them in his own summary words:

There is, most prominent, what I will call the Main Opposition of the moment….At any moment there lie upon one side of the Main opposition old forms of attack [such as the early medieval danger of “a rationalizing movement from within, against the Sacramental mysteries and later against the Hierarchy” (8)] which are gradually leaving the field—I will call them The Survivals. There are, on the other side [of the Main opposition], new forms of attack barely entering the field. These I will call The New Arrivals (8—my emphasis)

After giving many examples of earlier main oppositions—such as “Heathen pirates of the north, and the eastern Mongol hordes” (8) as well as the martial forces of the Arians and of the later Mohammedans—he says the following:

The Survivals exemplify the endless, but always perilous, triumph of the Faith by their defeat and gradual abandonment of the struggle. A just appreciation of them makes one understand where the weakness of the main attack, which they preceded and in part caused, may lie. The New Arrivals exemplify the truth that the Church will never be at peace, and a just appreciation of them enables us to forecast in some degree the difficulties of tomorrow.

Between the two, Survivals and New Arrivals, we can more fully gauge the character of the Main Action and only in a survey of all three can we see how the whole situation lies. For such reasons is a survey of this kind essential to a full comprehension of the age. (8—my emphasis added)

A careful reading of his earlier historical analyses—full of specific details and vivid examples– will prepare us to appreciate the nuances of his important section on “The Modern Mind”–the third element of the Main Attack and Opposition, after the formidable facts of “Nationalism” (to include the endurance of Jewish Nationalism) and of “Anti-Clericalism” (as in the cases of France, Portugal, and Spain and Mexico in the early twentieth century).

For example, he asks: “Are there…contemporary conditions [as of 1929] which point to a future hostility to [various forms of] Nationalism [as of 1929]?” (88) He answers:

I think there are. Besides the Catholic Church there are two great international forces (not to quote more) which are already clearly apparent [as of 1929]. Once is that of Finance, the other is that of the Protest of the Proletariat against Capitalism; a protest which in its most lucid and most logical form is called Communism. Both of these [forces] are solvents to that religion of nationality which was universal before the Great War [1914-1918].

These two forces, International Finance and International Socialism, act after fashions often unexpected [as in the propaganda of “the big newspapers” (8)], and [often] more drastic….

But when you suppress a religious order, you have the opportunity to loot its property. Under the oligarchic Parliamentary system (strangely called “democracy”) the loot will go into the pockets of the politicians, the lawyers, and the hangers-on of both. The first taste of loot breeds an increasing appetite. (88, 97-98—my emphasis added)

Now we turn to his considerations of the hypothetical (still often professed) “Modern Mind”:

The third and far the most formidable element of Main Opposition to the Faith today, is what I propose to call by its own self-appointed and most misleading title: “The Modern Mind.”…

We note that it acts in a fashion wholly negative. It is not an attack but a resistance. It does not, like Anti-Clericalism, exercise an active effect opposed to religion, nor, like Nationalism, substitute a strong counter-emotion which tends to supplant religion. It rather renders religion unintelligible. Its effect on religion [hence on the Catholic Faith] is like that of an opiate on the power of analysis. It dulls the faculty of appreciation, and blocks the entry of the Faith. Hence its power. (105-106—my bold emphasis added, italics in the original)

Speaking again of the sapping importance of the third and final element of the then-current Main Opposition against the Faith, he says:

For, indeed, we are met at the outset of this, perhaps the most important section of our enquiry, by a difficulty which was not known in any other time than ours: that difficulty to which I have alluded, that this chief adverse condition we have to examine has no suitable name….Nevertheless,…it [“the Modern Mind”] is the word [that] its own votaries use.” (106-107—my emphasis added)

Belloc also warns us: “But everywhere it is of the same character, and everywhere, so far as its influence extends, it fills with despair those who attempt to deal with its fearful incapacities. (106—my emphasis added)

Yet, very soon after considering the difficulty of giving a “clear definition,”Belloc himself proposes “first to analyze its character,” that mark of the “Modern Mind”; and thus to postpone until later in his Chapter 4 an examination of “the causes of this philosophical disease—and it is an appalling one—which is affecting such a large numbers in our time [circa 1929]”(108):

Upon dissecting it we discover the “Modern Mind” to contain three main ingredients and to combine them through the force of one principle. Its three ingredients are pride, ignorance, and intellectual sloth; their unifying principle is a blind acceptance of authority not based on reason. (108—my emphasis added)

Belloc shows his magnanimity and sense of pathos when he adds a short note to the above characterization and statement of principle:

With most men who are afflicted [with the Modern Mind] the thing is not so much  a mixture of these vices as the mere following of [intellectual] fashion; but these vices lie at the root of the mental process in question.

As to the principle of blindly accepting an authority not based on reason, it runs through the whole base affair and binds it [like servitude] into one: Fashion, Print, Iteration, are the commanders abjectly obeyed and trusted.

Let us take a leading test: [for example] the attitude taken by the “Modern Mind” towards the supernatural….(108-109—my emphasis added)

A representative and fitting selection from Belloc’s examples and guiding interrogatives will aid us a little further in our understanding of “the horrible welter of the ‘Modern Mind’” (116) :

There stands the “Modern Mind,” a morass.

The great difficulty of the intelligent in dealing with this thing, whether they be Catholic or skeptical, is the lack of hold. It is like fighting smoke….

What are you to do with a man who always argues in a circle?….What do you do with a man who does not recognize his own first principles?….What are you to do with a man who uses the same word in different senses during the same discussion?….What do you do with a man who puts it forth as a foundation for debate that the human reason [logos] is no guide, and who then proceeds to reason through hundreds of pages on that basis? (115-116—my emphasis added)

(Do these comments and specific questions make anyone else think of the current Vatican and its ambiguous language? Perhaps we may honestly and reliably now recall some of the ongoing verbiage in the lengthy verbose Official Documents, partly deriving from the multiple and equivocal Bishops’ Conferences with their garrulous speeches, and the sometimes demeaning sermons from the higher Leadership, to include associated interviews with the Media given by the progressive, sometimes evasive, Prelates; and sometimes even to their artfully sophistical votaries and to their abrasively loud and voluble lay supporters of innovation against long-standing Tradition?)

In any case, Belloc reminds us: “the acceptance without question of such authority as it meets—especially that of print–‘blind faith‘ we have said, ‘divorced from reason‘–is the very mark of the ‘Modern Mind.’” (126—my emphasis added)

In this context Belloc also constructively speaks of our cultivating of “the faculty of distinction—[the faculty] of clarity in thought through analysis” (126—my emphasis) in contrast to the “sustainers” and “ill fruits” of the “Modern Mind.” On the premise that contrast clarifies the mind, he then additionally says:

Look around you and note the incapacity for strict argument, the impatience with exact definition, the aversion to controversyand the facility in mere affirmation [or “in mere assertion”]. (126—my emphasis added)

Near the beginning of his searching, candid and encouraging book, Hilaire Belloc would have us at the outset always remember something important and decisive, and then keep the proposed criterion in our hearts and in our enduring convictions:

As we proceed deeply and more deeply from cause to cause we discover that what gives its [specific] nature [thus a distinctive character] to a human group is its attitude towards the Last Things [“Death, Judgment, Heaven, Hell”]: its conception of the End of Man.

Even when a positive creed has lost it vigor and dwindled under indifference, its remaining effect upon the stuff of society remains profound.

Should any doubt this, let them mark the effects of the two contrasted religious cultures in the West: the Protestant and the Catholic; that proceeding from the schism in the sixteenth century, and that [“Catholic Thing”] which, in the sixteenth century, weathered the storm and maintained tradition.

All may [indeed] see the ease with which industrialism grows in a soil of Protestant culture, [and] the difficulty with which it grows in a soil of ancient Catholic culture.” (5—my emphasis added)

May we too be blessed to help cultivate the soil and defend the deep ancient culture of the Catholic Faith.

–Finis–

© 2019 Robert D. Hickson

1Hilaire Belloc, Survivals and New Arrivals (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1929—219 pages). This book was also later “retypeset and republished in 1992 by TAN Books and Publishers, Inc.” of Rockford, Illinois. For convenience of access to this 1929 book, we shall henceforth refer to the text and pagination of the 1992 TAN paperback edition of 167 pages. References to that 1992 paperback edition of Survivals and New Arrivals will also henceforth be placed above, in parentheses, in the main body of the essay.

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).)

An Introduction to Hilaire Belloc’s The Servile State (1912)

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                            15 November 2018

Saint Albert the Great (d. 1280)

Epigraphs

“The Reformers and the Reformed are alike making for the Servile State—I propose [therefore] in this [8th] section to show how the three interests which between them account for nearly the whole of the forces making for social change in modern England [as of 1912-1913] are all necessarily drifting towards the servile state….

“These three interests are, first, the socialist, who is the theoretical reformer working along the line of least resistance; secondly, the ‘practical man,’ who as a ‘practical’ reformer depends on his shortness of sight, and is therefore today a powerful factor….while the third is that proletarian mass for which the change is being effected, and on whom it is being imposed….

The second factor [, moreover,] in the change [i.e., both in the proposed and in the actually operating reforms in England] is the ‘practical man’; and this fool, on account of his great numbers and determining influence in the details of legislation, must be carefully examined….

“It is not difficult to discern that the practical man in social reform is exactly the same animal as the practical man in every other department of human energy, and [he] may be discovered suffering from the same twin disabilities which stamp the practical man wherever found: these twin disabilities are an inability to define his own first principles and an inability to follow the consequences proceeding from his own action. Both these disabilities proceed from one simple and deplorable form of impotence, the inability to think.

Let us help the practical man in his weakness and do a little thinking for him.” (Hilaire Belloc, The Servile State (London & Edinburgh: T.N. Foulis, 1912, 1913), Section Eight—pp. 121, 130-131—italics in the original; my bold emphasis added.)

***

“[Donec…] nec vitia nostra nec remedia pati possumus…. (“[Until we have reached such a point now that….] “we can tolerate neither our vices nor their remedies.” (Titi Vivi: Ab Urbe Condita by Livy, the Roman Historian, from his own Preface to his multi-volumed Histories) (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1974, p. 2.)

***

“If we do not restore the Institution of Property, we cannot escape restoring the Institution of Slavery; there is no third course.” (Hilaire Belloc’s own terse Epigraph to The Servile State—my emphasis added)

***

When The Servile State was first published in 1912, Hilaire Belloc was forty-two years of age and full of energy, due in part to his largely robust and astonishingly varied experiences over his formative years. His own 1912 book, moreover, at once prompted such a range of intelligent and unintelligent commentary—to include some grave misunderstandings—that Belloc in fairness decided to publish a second edition in 1913, only one year later, which contains his important, articulate expansion, by way of a new, nine-page Preface, simply called “Preface to [the] Second Edition.”

Our wholehearted and manfully compassionate author was attentive throughout his life and his writings—at least those I have come to know rather thoroughly down the years—to the always consequential combination of “Insecurity and Insufficiency,” which constitutes a challenging and an abiding vulnerability for any human being, and for his dependents in society. Throughout The Servile State, Hilaire Belloc especially considers and quite vividly shows to us the recurrent “economic factor” and how men and their families, whether organized or not, cope with insecurity and insufficiency; and, obversely, how they also strive to attain to and preserve a modest consolation, one which, with more stability, combines a more reliable continuity of “security and sufficiency.”

In Hilaire Belloc’s first main chapter on “Definitions,” he tells us what he means by a servile state or a servile status and basis:

My last definition concerns the Servile State itself, and since the idea is both somewhat novel and also the subject of this book, I will not only establish but expand its definition.

The definition of the Servile State is as follows:–

That arrangement of society in which so considerable a number of the families and individuals are constrained by positive law to labour for the advantage of other families and individuals [so] as to stamp the whole community with the mark [i.e., with the character and the status] of such labour we call THE SERVILE STATE.’…

A clear boundary exists between the servile and non-servile condition of labour, and the conditions upon either side of that boundary utterly differ one from the other. Where there is compulsion applicable by positive law to men of a certain status, and such compulsion enforced in the last resort by the powers at the disposal of the State, there is the institution of Slavery; and if that institution be sufficiently expanded the whole State may be said to repose upon a servile basis, and is a Servile State. (italics in the original)

G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc’s intimate long-standing friend, has some unexpected insights that will further help us approach the content and methods of The Servile State and to understand, a little better, what it is not. In his 1934 book of essays, entitled Avowals and Denials, Chesterton has composed a six-page essay “On Dogs with Bad Names,” which begins and then continues like this—in part so as to render, as well, a very gracious tribute to Hilaire Belloc:

A negative disadvantage attaches to almost any man who has a positive character or, what commonly goes with it and is even more important, positive convictions. A literary man, for instance, who has strong likes and dislikes, in the style of Dr. Johnson or [William] Cobbett or Coventry Patmore [the Poet], becomes so much more of a proverb or a joke that nobody can believe there is anything new to be learnt about him. Anything new that he does say is coloured, or rather discoloured, either by what people know he has said or by what people think he would say….

But, curiously enough, in the course of this [an attempted interpretation of H.G. Wells], Mr. Shaw [George Bernard Shaw, himself a committed Socialist and a trenchant Dramatist] had occasion to refer to Mr. Belloc, and said that the theory of the Servile State was only Herbert Spencer’s attack on Socialism. From which it was obvious that Mr. Shaw never read Mr. Belloc’s book on the Servile State, or he would have known that it is not an attack on Socialism, and that it has not the remotest resemblance to Herbert Spencer. But, just as Mr. Wells took it for granted that Mr. Shaw would write certain [erroneous] things about the Superman, so Mr. Shaw took it for granted that Mr. Belloc would write certain things about the Servile State….This curious, crooked doom, on strong characters with strong convictions, has pursued Mr. Belloc also in later times, [for example,] in connexion with his historical biographies.1

Hilaire Belloc, though it was largely unrecognized by George Bernard Shaw, has presented to us in a fresh—but realistic– way the long-standing, ancient history of the institution of slavery and of its protracted forms of servility, along with some of their later implications, to include, as of 1912, its drifting—or a sleepwalking–into servitude and some subtle and spreading forms of bondage (to include debt bondage); and it was just before the precarious outbreak of World War I.

But, Belloc makes no denunciation of Socialism or Collectivism, as such. Nor does he consider in his book whether the implantation of servility is, without any qualification, good or bad in itself. For, many persons may well accept certain forms of openly or subtly coercive servility if they (and their families) would thereby have more security and a greater sufficiency or perceived abundance. Rather, Belloc is proposing to show us analytically what is happening and how it is happening since the effective sixteenth-century looting in the monastic breakups and the greedy usurious dispossessions of other forms of Church property within “Christendom,” in “Catholic Civilisation” (Belloc’s own words).

Belloc also gives hints as to why—in the course of the Protestant reformations, especially in England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries—traditional Catholic Christendom became fractured and dissociated, and thus why the new Capitalist Overlords became a powerful class of oligarchs and plutocrats.

For those who may have preferred Socialism (along with the necessary operation of its indispensable Political Trustees and State Administrators), Belloc tried to convince them that, even collectively, they were not sufficiently able—directly or indirectly—to “confiscate” and “socialize” the inordinate cumulative wealth of the Big Capitalists (their land, stores, equipment-instruments, owed debt, varied finances along with usury, and the like). Nor does Belloc think that the State—to include a more “Collectivist State”—would be able “to buy out the Capitalists,” instead of “expropriating” them, as Belloc’s separate and extensive, analytical Appendix (in his Section VIII) proposes to show us, more fully.

After his giving us a principled description of how the ancient institution of slavery was, with the advent of Christianity, very gradually transformed over the years into a society (especially in Western Europe) of much greater “economic freedom,” not just as a putative increase of “political freedom,” Belloc then more explicitly shows us their changing forms of service and ownership, and the manifold increase of many co-operative associations (such as the protective and fair standard-setting array of Guilds), with their various and often seasonal connections with the Church. In contrast with later usurpations, confiscations, and the unaccountable monopolies or oligopolies and depleting forms of merciless usury (even for a non-productive loan, not just towards a productive loan), the high moral standards and ethos of Christendom (e.g., against inordinate greed and against unfair competition, as in the “leonine contracts”) were to become more respected and rooted, and they were gradually to spread in commerce and agriculture and the skilled crafts, as was also the case, somewhat, even with the military in the gradual Christianization of Warfare—until the retrograde story of Joan of Arc. Belloc considered that the fullest good fruits of Christendom were to be found to be gradually manifested from the tenth to the thirteenth centuries.

After presenting his account of the growing and more rooted economic virtues of Christendom, as it were, he later shows us in his book why such a civilization and culture would likely not come again in the Modern World, and certainly not in any rapid manner or hasty way. Belloc was also doubtful that citizens today (as of 1913) would even want to bear the various burdens and responsibilities of private (and small) ownership. Belloc wondered about the extent to which men and their families would still want to possess private property in land and for its productive agricultural uses and capital equipment. Therefore, he quite realistically expects that—at least in England—Modern Civilization and the mass of society would continue to drift into servitude, especially into the more permanent and permeating Servile State. Even the Legislature (Parliament) would promulgate laws and stifling regulations which would not favor small ownership.

A keen-minded (often slightly ironic) European friend of mine memorably said to me back in the late 1990s: “We are moving to a situation where there will be ‘Criminal Capitalism for the Elites and Socialism for the Masses.’” (He also saw that “organized crime is protected crime, protected by political and financial elites.”)

We then also proceeded to discuss a colleague and friend of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, and especially his friend’s books: namely Igor Shafarevich’s book, entitled (in English) The Socialist Phenomenon (1980), which was more revealingly entitled–in the original Russian—Socialism as a Manifestation of World History (1975). Furthermore, the mathematician Shafarevich’s deeply searching and uncommonly candid 1989 book in Russian, entitled Russophobia, was promptly translated into English by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and published by them on 22 March 1990. (JPRS-UPA-90-1990: pages 2-39—“Nationality Issues”—to include the phenomenon of “Jewish Nationalism”)

Belloc’s The Servile State and Shafarevich’s The Socialist Phenomenon and Russophobia could both be—and should be—fruitfully studied together and refreshingly counterpointed, which would also help restore the writings of the gifted Catholic historian, Augustin Cochin, who, as a young man, was to be killed in combat in 1916 on the battlefield in France in World War I. Cochin—often quoted by Shafarevich—had already brilliantly analyzed in his several learned books, not only the French Revolution, but also, especially, the nature and influential operations of oligarchs and the decisively formative networks of oligarchies (which sometimes includes influential plutocrats). He also knew of the frequent “civil wars” among certain sets of oligarchs, such as between the Girondins and the Jacobins, and within the Capitalists of High Finance, who were themselves, and significantly, not openly mentioned by Karl Marx in his own strategic and analytical writings. However, these civil wars within the Revolution are still ongoing against the Catholic Faith and the Catholic Church, and even against a diminishing remnant of what was once called Catholic Culture and Civilization.

As we in conclusion again consider the far-sightedness of Hilaire Belloc—and the abiding truths of his objective analyses—we realize that, in 1912, he saw the Catholic Church (with Pope Pius X in leadership) as a strong and deeply rooted Cultural Institution, and more. Were he writing today, however, he would likely be more reticent and cautious and even pessimistic about that once fortifying bulwark, the Catholic Church.

Were he writing today, he would also likely include an analytic section on the nature and servile effects of modern technologies—to include some “breakthrough technologies” and modern forms of our “electronic servitude.”

Belloc would also likely refer to two clear-minded and far-sighted American thinkers who flourished in the twentieth century: Albert Jay Nock (1870-1945) and James Burnham (1905-1987).

If Belloc had read and robustly discussed Nock’s Memoirs of a Superfluous Man (1943) in person, he would have likely also applied three fundamental socio-economic laws in the way Nock himself had so deftly applied them to many, not just to economic, aspects of human life and literature: namely, the Law of Diminishing Returns; Thomas Gresham’s Law (“bad money drives out good”—i.e., good, sound money); and Epstein’s Law (named after Nock’s friend): “the inherent tendency of human beings to satisfy their wants through the easiest means available,” and even with the dubious propensity and decision “to try to get something for nothing” and “with minimum impact on themselves” (in the words of Major General Mickey Finn).

Belloc would also have wanted to read and have discussions with James Burnham, a strategic-minded, lucid thinker and writer—a former Trotskyite who, near the end of his life, returned to his earlier-abandoned Catholic Faith. We would then have especially discussed James Burnham’s Suicide of the West: An Essay on the Meaning and Destiny of Liberalism (1964) and The War We Are In (1967). Belloc might also have wanted to examine with Burnham his own profound understanding of the growing “Managerial Revolution” as an equivocal development of Industrial Capitalism and its derivative, stifling bureaucratic and political society and civilization.

With such men Belloc would have had a recurrent feast. Such men, for sure, would have greatly enriched each other’s thought and conduct. Belloc never forgot Cardinal Henry E. Manning’s words to him in his youth: “Truth confirms truth” and “All human conflict is ultimately theological.”

In his own recurrent and searching Catholic reflections down the years, Hilaire Belloc might often likely have posed Livy’s own profound question. Have we come now to such a point where “we can tolerate neither our vices nor their remedies(“nec vitia nostra nec remedia pati possumus”)?

Just think of how Belloc would consider the growing problem of “opioids.”

What, if anything, will first need to be sufficiently restored? What, for example, are the preconditions to be established before our achieving a stable institution of well-divided, small property in society and the State?

In The Servile State, Belloc recurrently articulates as well as implies that, throughout civilisation and culture, there must first be a more secure and sufficient restoration of the Faith.

–Finis–

© 2018 Robert D. Hickson

This essay has been written in the form of a book-preface to a recently published German translation of Belloc’s 1912 book by Renovamen Verlag.

1G.K. Chesterton, Avowals and Denials (London: Methuen & Co. LTD, 1934), pp. 85, 88-89—my bold emphasis added; italics in the original. The essay “On Dogs with Bad Names” (Chapter XV) is to be found in its entirety on pp. 85-90.

Hilaire Belloc’s Grateful “Enchanted Pilgrimage”: Memorable Characters Whom He Met in The Path to Rome (1902)

Dr. Robert Hickson

       19 March 2019

Saint Joseph, “Virgo Pater Jesu

Epigraphs

***

“I found a kind of path, sideways on the face of the mountain [a part of the steep Jura-Range of Ridges], and I followed it till I came to a platform with a hut perched thereon, and men building. Here a good woman told me just how to go [on the steep descent to the river Doubs]. I was not to attempt the road to Brune-Farine—that is, “Whole Meal-Farm”–as I had first intended, foolishly trusting a map, but to take a gully she would show me, and follow it till I reached the river [in “the steep gorge of the Doubs” (132)]. She came out [of her hut], and led me steeply across a hanging pasture; all the while she had knitting in her hands, and I noticed that on the levels she went on with her knitting. Then, when we got to the gully, she said I had but to follow it. I thanked her, and she climbed [back] up to her home.

“This gully was the precipitous bed of a stream; I clanked down it—thousands of feet– warily; I reached the valley, and at last, very gladly,…I approached a town of village. It was St. Ursanne [in the Canton of Jura, Switzerland].” (Hilaire Belloc, The Path to Rome (1902, 1936), pages 134 and 132 —my emphasis added)

***

“I saw suddenly the wide lake of Bolsena all below [in the early twilight]. It is a great sheet like a sea; but as one knows one is on a high plateau, and as there is but a short dip down to it; and as it is round and has all about it a rim of low even hills, therefore one knows it for an old and gigantic crater now full of pure water; and there are islands in it and palaces on the islands. Indeed it was an impression of silence and recollection….

“I sat on the coping of a wall, drank a little of my wine, ate a little bread and sausage; but still song demanded some outlet in the cool evening, and companionship was more of an appetite in me than landscape. Please God, I had become southern and took [such] beauty for granted.

“Anyhow, seeing a little two-wheeled cart come through the gate, harnessed to a ramshackle little pony, bony and hard, and driven by a little, brown, smiling, and contented old fellow with black hair, I made a sign to him and he stopped.

“This time there was no temptation of the devil; if anything the advance was from my side. I was determined to ride, and I sprang up beside the driver. We raced down the hill, clattering and banging like a piece of [artillery] ordnance, and he, my brother, unasked began to sing. I sang in turn. He sang of Italy, I of four countries: America, France, England, and Ireland. I could not understand his songs nor he mine, but there was wine in common between us and salami and a merry heart, bread which is the bond of all mankind, and that prime solution [dissolvent] of ill-ease—I mean the forgetfulness of money. That was a good drive, an honest drive, a human aspiring drive, a drive of Christians, a glorifying and uplifted drive, a drive worthy of remembrance for ever. The moon has shone on but few [rides] like it though she is old; the lake of Bolsena has glittered beneath none [no such ride] like it since the Etruscans here unbended after the solemnities of a triumph. It [the downhill ride] broke my vow to pieces; there was not a shadow of excuse for this use of wheels: it was done openly and wantonly in the face of the wide sky for pleasure. And what is there else but pleasure, and to what else does beauty move on?” (Hilaire Belloc, (The Path to Rome, pages 419-421 —my emphasis added)

***

“It is the custom of many, when they get over a ridge, to begin singing. Nor did I fail, early as was the hour, to sing in passing this the second of my Apennine summits [in the north Italian chain of mountains]. I sang easily with an open throat everything I could remember in praise of joy; and I did not spare the choruses of my songs, being even at pains to imitate (when they were double) the various voices of either part….

“The oldest of my companions said he would put me on the way [to the mountain village of Collagna]. We went together in the half light by the lane that followed the crest of the hill, and we passed a charming thing, a little white sculpture in relief, set up for a shrine and representing the Annunciation….Then in a few hundred yards we passed another that was the Visitation, and they were gracious and beautiful…, and I saw that they stood for the five joyful mysteries….

Certainly these people [in the hill-hamlet of Ceregio, “blessed and secluded” (360)] have a benediction upon them, granted them for their simple lives and their justice. Their eyes are fearless and kindly. They are courteous, straight, and all have in them laughter and sadness. They are full of songs, of memories, of the stories of their native place; and their worship is conformable to the world that God made. May they possess their own land, and may their influence come again from Italy to save from jar, and boasting, and ineptitude the foolish, valourless cities, and the garish crowds of shouting men…And let us especially pray that the revival of the Faith may do something for our poor old universities.” (Hilaire Belloc, The Path to Rome, pages 344-345, 360-362—my emphasis added)

***

Just after Hilaire Belloc entered on foot into Switzerland in June of 1901 on his direct path to Rome on a pilgrimage that had started in Toul, France, he gratefully and graciously expressed a portion of his varied and inspiring experiences, and then hinted at some of his robust characterizations of that manifold (and sometimes perilous) adventure up until 29 June 1901, the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul:

This book [The Path to Rome (1902)]1 will never end if I were to attempt to write down so much as the names of a quarter of the extraordinary things I saw and heard on my enchanted pilgrimage, but let me at least [now] mention the Commercial Traveller from Marseilles [who is to be known henceforth by an historic and allusive Greek name, “the Phocean”]. (120-121—my emphasis added)

In honor of Hilaire Belloc, let us now select and savor some of his eloquently (often rumbustiously) expressed experiences in, or near, inns. And we shall start with “the Phocean” and consider the hospitable atmosphere of the inn where he was temporarily, but recurrently, lodged.

Belloc introduces us to this memorable and festive companionship and to his own perceptive description of that meeting which had occurred soon after he had crossed the Swiss frontier from near the border town of Delle in northeast France:

When I guessed that I had covered this mile [afoot from Delle] I saw a light in the windows on my left, a trellis and the marble tables of a café. I put my head in the door and said–

“Am I in Switzerland?”

A German-looking girl, a large heavy man, a Bavarian commercial traveller, and a colleague of his from Marseilles all said together in varying accents: “Yes.”

“Why, then,” I said, “I will come in and drink.” (120)

Thus it was that Belloc hospitably met and came to describe the “Phocean” from Marseilles:

He talked with extreme rapidity for two hours. He had seen all the cities in the world and he remembered their minutest details. He was extremely accurate, his taste was abominable, his patriotism large, his vitality marvellous, his wit crude but continual, and to his German friend, to the host of the inn, and to the blonde serving-girl, he was a familiar god. He came, it seems, once a year, and for a day he would pour out the torrent of his travels like a waterfall of guide-books (for he gloried in dates, dimensions, and the points of a compass in his descriptions), then he disappeared for another year, and left them to feast on the memory of such a revelation. (121—my emphasis added)

Belloc includes in his discerning perceptions a description of his own depletion and lameness:

For my part, I sat silent, crippled with fatigue, trying to forget my wounded feet, drinking stoup after stoup of beer and watching the Phocean. He was of the old race [from the earlier Greek colony of Marseilles] you see on [Greek] vases in red and black. Slight, very wiry, with a sharp, eager, but well-set face, a small, black, pointed beard, brilliant eyes like those of lizards, rapid gestures and a vivacity that played all over his features as sheet lightning does over the glow of midnight in June.

That delta of the Rhone [River] is something quite separate from the rest of France. It is a wedge of Greece and of the East thrust into the Gauls. It came north a hundred years ago and killed the monarchy [in the French Revolution of 1789]. It caught the value in, and created, the great [inordinately bloody] war song of the Republic.

I watched the Phocean. I thought of a man of his ancestry three thousand years ago sitting here at the gates of these mountains talking of his travels to dull, patient, and admiring northerners, and traveling for gain up to the Germanies, and I felt the changeless form of Europe under me like a rock.

When he heard I was walking to Rome, this man of information [,in order to help me,] turned off his flood into another channel, as a miller will send the racing water into a side sluice. (121-122—my emphasis added)

Our own vivacious English pilgrim will now give us a sense of the Phocean’s flowing observations and generously benevolent advice:

And he [the Phocean] poured out some such torrent as this:–

Do not omit to notice the famous view SE. [Southeast] from the Villa So and So; visit such and such a garden, and hear Mass in such and such a church. Note the curious illusion produced on the piazza of St. Peter’s by the interior measurements of the trapezium, which are so many yards and so many yards, ….” &c., and so forth…exactly like a mill.

I meanwhile sat on still silent, still drinking beer and watching the Phocean; gradually suffering the fascination that had captured the villagers and the German [Bavarian] friend. He was a very wonderful man.

He was also kindly, I found afterwards that he had arranged with the host to give me up his bed, seeing my weariness. For this, most unluckily, I was never able to thank him, since the next morning I was off before he or anyone else was awake, and I left on the table such money as I thought would very likely satisfy the inn keeper. It was broad daylight but not yet sunrise….(122-123—my emphasis added)

A little later in his book, Belloc shows another kind of reception at an inn, especially because of the hostess:

So before that last effort [to ascend and to cross the formidable mountain named the “Weissenstein”] which should lead me over those thousands of feet, and to nourish Instinct (which would be of use to me when I got into that impassible wood), I turned into the inn for wine.

A very old woman having the appearance of a witch sat at a dark table by the little criss-cross window of the dark room. She was crooning to herself, and I made the sign of the evil eye and asked her in French for wine; but French she did not understand….and [yet] she brought up a glass of exceedingly good red wine which I drank in silence, she watching me uncannily.

Then I paid her,…and she gave me a quantity of small change rapidly, which, as I counted it, I found to contain one [trifling] Greek piece of fifty lepta very manifestly of lead. This I held up angrily before her, and (not without courage, for it is hard to deal with the darker powers) I recited to her slowly [in ancient Greek] that familiar verse which the well-known Satyricus Empiricus was forever using in his now classical attacks…and…I intoned to her [that satirical line given in the written Greek script about money!]…and so left her astounded to repentance or to shame.

Then I went out into the sunlight, and crossing over running water put myself out of her power. (174-176—my emphasis added)

Earlier in The Path to Rome, Belloc had already presented us another awkward and provocative situation in an inn, in part dealing here with “rude peasants” and “the ox-man.” Such a vignette will remind us of other forms of less hospitable conduct that were shown to him, offsetting in part so many of the good adventures in inns that Pilgrim Belloc so gratefully encountered:

So I entered the “Sun” inn and saw there a woman sewing, a great dull-faced man like an ox, and a youth writing down figures in a little book. I said–

“Good morning, madam and sirs, and the company. Could you give me a little red wine?”

Not a head moved.

True I was very dirty and tired, and they may have thought me a beggar, to whom, like good sensible Christians who had no nonsense about them, they would rather have given a handsome kick than a cup of cold water. However, I think it was not only my poverty but a native churlishness which bound their bovine souls in that valley.

I sat down at a very clean table….I sat down at it, and said again, still gently–

“It is, indeed, a fine country this of yours. Could you give me a little red wine?”

Then the ox-faced man who had his back turned to me, and was the worst of the lot, said sulkily, not to me, but to the woman–

“He wants wine.”

The woman as sulkily said to me, not looking me in the eyes

“How much will you pay?”

I said, “Bring the wine. Set it here. See me drink it. Charge me your due.” (150-151—my emphasis added)

Based on these preparatory acts and facts, Belloc will now share with us—in some rather coarse language, but also humorous—how one must conduct oneself with such terse and viscous dolts:

I found that this brutal way of speaking was just what was needed for the kine and cattle of this pen. She skipped off to a cupboard and set wine before me, and a glass. I drank quite quietly till I had had enough, and asked what there was to pay. She said “threepence,” and I said “too much,” as I paid it. At this the ox-faced man grunted and frowned, and I was afraid; but hiding my fear I walked out boldly and slowly, and made a noise with my stick [my walking-staff] upon the floor of the hall without. Neither did I bid them farewell. But I made a sign at the house as I left it. Whether it suffered from this as did the house at Dorchester which the man in the boat caused to wither in one night, is more than I can tell. (151—my emphasis added)

Just before this drolly ironic passage with “the ox-man,” Belloc had had his own lengthy discourse (146-150) “On Benedictions” and on a “Theory of Blessings”! Here we may now also recall his condign earlier mention of a fitting “ferial malediction”!

Belloc’s later approach to, and presentation of the welcoming inn in “the dear village of Sillano” (372) will, for sure, restore us once again to a fuller thankfulness and reception of a deep benediction (371-375):

It was as though these high walls of Carrara [with its veins of marble], the western boundary of the valley [of Sillano itself], had been been shaped expressly for man, in order to exalt him with unexpected…shapes, and to expand his dull life with a permanent surprise. For a long time I gazed at these hills.

Then, more silent in the mind through their influence, I went down past the speech and companionship of the springs of the Serchio [River], and the chestnut trees were redolent of evening all around….Down still more gently through the narrow upper valley [of the Apennines] I went between the chestnut trees, and calm was my companion; and the love of men and the expectation of good seemed natural to all that had been made in this blessed place…..I passed by a wider path through the groves, and entered the dear village of Sillano, which looks right into the pure west. And the peaks [of the Apennines] are guardians all about it: the elder brothers of this remote and secluded valley.

An inn received me: a great kitchen full of men and women talking, a supper preparing, a great fire, meat smoking and drying in the ingle-nook, a vast timbered roof going up into darkness: there I was courteously received, but no one understood my language. Seeing there a young priest [“Presbytur sum” (373)], I said to him [in four lines of Belloc’s clear Latin—“Pater, habeo linguam latinam, sed non habeo linguam Italicam….” and about Belloc’s admitted need for a translator]. To this he replied “Libenter” [“Gladly”], and the people revered us both. (371-372—my emphasis added)

The immediately following and closely related presentation of “The Transfigured Valley” and “On Youth” (373-375)—which are to this writer both especially beautiful, as well as profound—may also remind us of an earlier passage (130-131) in The Path to Rome: on “The Erroneous Anarchist,” which also shows us the deep and sympathetic heart of Belloc the man. He will prepare and introduce the reader to the exiled anarchist with some comments and appreciations of wine:

As it was I entered Porrentruy soberly….I began to think of food and wine. I went to find the very first small guest-house I could find, and asked if they could serve me food….They could give me nothing but bread, yesterday’s meat, and wine….I paid before I ate….I say I paid. And had I had to pay twenty or twenty-three times as much it would have been worth it for the wine.

I am hurrying on to Rome, and I have no time to write a [Virgilian] georgic. But, oh! my little friends of the north;…do you know what is meant by the god [Bacchus]? Bacchus is everywhere, but if he has special sites to be ringed in and kept sacred, I say let there be Brulé, and the silent vineyard that lies under the square wood by Tournus…and this town of Porrentruy.

What a wine!

I was assured that it [the Porrentruy wine] would not travel. “Nevertheless, “ said I, “give me a good quart bottle of it, for I have to go far, and I see there is a providence for pilgrims.”…And I took my bottle of this wonderful stuff, sweet, strong, sufficient, part of the earth, desirable, and went up on my way to Rome.

Could this book be infinite, as my voyage was infinite, I would tell you about the shifty priest whom I met on the platform where a cliff overhands the valley, and of the Anarchist whom I met when [with my good wine] I recovered the highroad. (128-130—my emphasis added)

Then Belloc compassionately proceeds to tell us about this very same Anarchist:

He was a sad, good man, who had committed some sudden crime and so had left France, and his hankering for France all those years had soured his temper, and he said he wished there were no property, no armies, and no governments.

But I said we live as parts of a nation, and that there was no fate so wretched as to be without a country of one’s own—what else was exile which so many noble men have thought worse than death, and which all have feared? I also told him that armies fighting in a just cause were the happiest places for living, and that a good battle for justice was the beginning of all great songs; and a man on his own land was the nearest to God.

He therefore not convinced, and I loving and pitying him, we separated; I had no time to preach my full doctrine, but gave him instead a deep and misty glass of cool beer, and pledged him brotherhood, freedom, and an equal law. Then I went on my way, praying God that all these rending quarrels might be appeased. For they would certainly be appeased if we once again had a united doctrine in Europe, since economics are but the expression of the mind and do not (as the poor blind slaves of the great cities think) mould [mold] the mind….I will pray for all poor men when I get to St. Peter’s in Rome. (130-131—my emphasis added)

Then Belloc adds a searching insight about the Seven Capital Sins, the Seven Deadly Sins: “What is more, nothing makes property run into a few hands [organized, oligarchic hands] but the worst of the capital sins….(131) We think at once of pride, envy, avarice, sloth, lust, gluttony, and wrath.

We may also be refreshed by Hilaire Belloc’s words about “The Morning Mass” (46-48) and its fitting place on his Pilgrimage: “For what is a pilgrimage in which a man cannot hear a Mass every morning?” (46)

Our beloved Belloc immediately added:

Of all the things I have read about St. Louis [King Louis IX] which make me wish I had known him to speak to, nothing seems to me more delightful than his habit of getting Mass daily whenever he marched south [as on the Crusades, or nearby]. (46)

–Finis–

© 2019 Robert D. Hickson

1Hilaire Belloc, The Path to Rome (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, a 1936 replica of the first edition of 1902, but now with a retrospective, new 1936 preface by Belloc himself). All references will henceforth be to this 1936 edition, and the page references will be placed in parentheses above in the body of this essay.

Hilaire Belloc’s Getting Over the Alps into Italy in 1901: Helps and Perils on His March Afoot

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                                        7 March 2019

Saint Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274)

Epigraphs

***

“When you are high up [in this “knot of mountain ridges” (215)] on either wall you can catch the plan of all this, but to avoid a confused description and to help you [as inspired by Father Rabelais] to follow the marvellous Hannibalian and never-before-attempted charge and march which I made, and which, alas! ended only in a glorious defeatto help you to picture faintly to yourselves the mirific and horripilant adventure whereby I nearly achieved superhuman success in spite of all the powers of the air, I append a little map which is rough but clear and plain, and which I beg you to study closely, for it will make it easy for you to understand what next happened in my pilgrimage [to Rome].” (Hilaire Belloc, The Path to Rome (1902, 1936), pages 216-217—my emphasis added)

***

“But I was very hungry. The road falls quite steeply, and the Rhone [River], which it accompanies in that valley, leaps in little falls [waterfalls]….Altogether, I felt myself in the world again [having just crossed “a bridge” and seen “a priest” and “a child minding a goat” (232)], and as I was on a good road, all down hill, I thought myself capable of pushing on to the next village [“Ulrichen”]. But my hunger was really excessive, my right boot almost gone, and my left boot nothing to exhibit or boast of, when I came to a point where at last one looked down the Rhone valley for miles….At last, two miles farther [after passing Ehringen village], faint from lack of food, I got into Ulrichen, a village a little larger than the rest, and the place where I believed one should start to go either over the Gries [Pass] or the Nufenen Pass.” (Hilaire Belloc, The Path to Rome, pages 232-233—my emphasis added)

***

“In Ulrichen [in his Rabelaisian spirit once again] was a warm, wooden, deep-eaved, frousty, comfortable, ramshackle, dark, anyhow kind of a little inn called ‘The Bear.’ And entering, I saw one of the women whom God loves.

She was of middle age, very honest and simple in the face, kindly and good. She was messing about with cooking and stuff, and she came up to me stooping a little, her eyes wide and innocent, and a great spoon in her hand. Her face was extremely broad and flat, and I had never seen eyes set so far apart. Her whole gait, manner, and accent proved her to be extremely good, and on the straight way to heaven. I saluted her in the French tongue. She answered me in the same, but very broken and rustic, for her natural speech was a kind of mountain German. She spoke very slowly, and had a nice soft voice, and she did what only good people do, I mean, [she] looked you in the eyes as she spoke to you….

She put food before me and wine. The wine was good, but in the food was some fearful herb or other I had never tasted before—a pure spice or scent, and a nasty one. One could taste nothing else…; but I ate it for her sake.

Then very much refreshed, I rose, seized my great staff, shook myself and said, “Now it is about noon, and I am off for the frontier [with Italy to the south].”

At this she made a most fearful clamour, saying that it was madness, and imploring me not to think of it, and running out fetched from the stable a tall, sad, pale-eyed man who saluted me profoundly and [who] told me that he knew more of the mountains than any one for miles. And this by asking many afterwards I found out to be true. He said that he had crossed the Nufenen and the Gries whenever they could be crossed since he was a child, and [he said] that if I attempted it that day I should sleep that night in Paradise. (Hilaire Belloc, The Path to Rome, pages 233-234, and 236-237—my emphasis added)

***

One section of Hilaire Belloc’s recorded pilgrimage to Rome will especially help us to understand this versatile and vivid-souled man. His direct and manly attempt in mid-June of 1901 to cross over the stormy and still snowbound Gries Pass into Italy on foot will certainly cause us to reflect upon many matters of moment to man: to include some of our own perilous young adventures once; and the derivative “cautionary tales” we have also gratefully accumulated so as to tell and to help our own children and grandchildren—and to do it reliably and fostering a slow fruitfulness.

He was only thirty years of age when he made his largely direct march of over six hundred miles from Toul, France to Rome during the month of June in 1901. One year later he published his vivacious book about this pilgrimage, The Path to Rome.1 He presents many unforgettable perceptions and reflections, and he is so honest about his various attitudes of mind and candid moods, some of which are not entirely to be imitated in their grumpiness or despondency or extended sullenness. Belloc’s recurrent light irony and deft humor, however, should also encourage our own wholehearted pluck and spirit of grateful resilience.

As an aid to our deeper understanding of Belloc’s nuanced and concentrated pages (233-249), let us first note the suggestive variety of his own page-subtitles, which effectively constitute a sort of summary of his approaching “the enormous mountains” (254) and then nearly going up “over the crest of the Alps” (265), or through “the escarpment of the Alps” (257).

Belloc’s alluring shorthand list runs as follows: “The Second Good Woman”—“On the Mania of Universities”—“The Frightful Spice”—“The Impassable Hills”—“The School-Books” [of the Children]—“The Start”—“The Final Hollow”—“Doubt”—“All Snow”—“The Tourmente” [Storm]— “The Guide Despairs”—“His Dilemma”—“Defeat”—“The Retreat”—“We Reach Our Base”—“The Common Road” [hence, inescapably, “The Litany of the Vulgar”]. For “it is a bitter thing to have to give up [to surrender] one’s sword.” (249)

Let us now try to convey some of Belloc’s largesse to us, his recurrent festive communion and his perilous adventures—also his intermittent comic depictions (“…no one in the house [a large inn] understood me [my three languages, “French, English, and Latin”]—neither the servants nor any one; but the servants did not laugh at me as had the poor people near Burgdorf, they only stood round me patiently in wonder as cows do at trains.” (203-204—my emphasis added). Indeed looking at him with a bovine expression, as the Turks taught me to say, “like a cow watching the train go by”!

We propose now to consider Belloc’s famished arrival at “The Bear,” a small inn in Ulrichen:

And entering, I saw one of the women whom God loves….Her whole gait, manner, and accent proved her to be extremely good, and on the straight road to heaven….and she did what only good people do, I mean, [she] looked you in the eyes as she spoke to you….She put food before me and wine. The wine was good, but in the food was some fearful herb….; but I ate it for her sake.

Then, very much refreshed, I rose, seized my great staff, shook myself, and said, “Now it is about noon, and I am off to the frontier.”

At this she made a most fearful clamour, saying it was madness, and imploring me not to think of it, and running out fetched from the stable a tall, sad, pale-eyed man who saluted me profoundly and told me he knew more of the mountains than any one for miles. And this [fact and assessment] by asking many afterwards I found out to be true. He said that he had crossed the Nufenen and Gries [both of them high alpine crests and passes] whenever they could be crossed since he was a child, and that if I attempted it that day I should sleep that night in Paradise. (233-234, 236-237)

“This good woman at the inn” (236), in part due to her empathy, effectively saved Belloc’s life.

The rationale for Belloc’s postponing, or even canceling, his proposed climb over the Gries, much less the Nufenen, went something like this:

The clouds on the mountain, the soft snow recently fallen, the rain that now occupied the valleys, the glacier on the Gries, and the pathless snow in the mist on the Nufenen would make it sheer suicide for him [the mountain man], an experienced guide, and for me [Belloc] a worse madness. Also he spoke of my boots and wondered at my poor cotton coat and trousers and threatened me with intolerable cold….

Hearing all this I said I would remain—but it was with a heavy heart. Already I felt a shadow of defeat over me. The loss of time was a thorn….Stronger than… these [other] motives against delay was a burning restlessness that always takes men when they are on the way to great adventures.

I made him [the mountain guide] promise to wake me next morning at three o’clock, and, short of tempest, to try and get me across the Gries….Hence my bargain that at least he should show me over the Gries Pass, and this he said, if man could do it, he would do the next day; and I, sending my boots to be cobbled (and therby breaking another vow), crept up to bed, and all afternoon read [in French] the school-books of the children. (237-238)

Belloc himself promptly then wonders–given the presence of the Calvinist heresy in “the school-books of the children” (238)—how “so devout a household” (238) could adequately “combat the Calvinism” and those “standard” elements of “the Genevese civilisation.” He saw that there was at least some Catholic resistance by means of the religious “missions” and they also displayed “statues in their rooms, not to speak of holy water stoups.” (238)

While reflecting on such poignant things as the sound religious formation of the children, he ominously hears the foul weather outside his window and responsively comes to express himself, first with an allusion and epic amplitude, and then again in a Rabelaisian manner of splendid exaggeration:

The rain beat on my window, the clouds came lower still down the mountain. Then (as finely written in the Song of Roland [the Old French Epic about Charlemagne’s tragic rearguard on the mountainous marches of Spain while resisting the Mohammedans]), “the day passed and the night came, and I slept.” But with the coming of the small hours [3:00 A.M.], and with my waking, prepare yourselves for the most extraordinary and terrible adventure that befel me out of all the marvels and perils of this pilgrimage, the most momentous and the most worthy of perpetual record, I think, of all that has ever happened since the beginning of the world. (239—my emphasis added)

Now we may closely follow the narrative of this memorable and near tragic adventure.

We may fittingly begin with Beloc’s reveille and the promised summons:

At three o’clock [in the early morning] the guide [as promised] knocked at my door, and I rose and came out to him. We drank coffee and ate bread. We put into our sacks ham and bread, and he white wine and I brandy. Then we set out. The rain had dropped to a drizzle and there was not wind. The sky was obscured for the most part, but here and there was a star. The hills hung awfully above us in the night as we crossed the spongy valley. A little wooden bridge took us over the young Rhone [River], here only a stream, and we followed a path up into the tributary ravine which leads to the Nufenen and the Gries. In a mile or two [of the ascent] it was a little lighter, and this was as well, for some weeks before a great avalanche had fallen, and we had to cross it gingerly. Beneath the wide cap of frozen snow ran a torrent roaring….We went on in the uneasy dawn. The woods began to show, and there was a cross where a man had slipped from above that very April [two months earlier in 1901] and been killed. Then most ominous and disturbing, the drizzle changed to a rain, and the guide said it would be snowing higher up. (239-240)

After crossing a bridge, they “halted at a shed where cattle lie in the late summer when the snow is melted” (240) and they “rested a moment”:

But on leaving its shelter we noticed many disquieting things….First, all the bowl or cup below the [Gries and Nufenen] passes was a carpet of snow,…and all the passes and mountains, from top to bottom, were covered with very thick snow; the deep surface of it soft and fresh fallen. Secondly, the rain had turned to snow. It was falling thickly all around. Nowhere have I more perceived the immediate presence of great Death. Thirdly, it was far colder, and we felt the beginning of a wind. Fourthly, the clouds had come quite low down.

The guide said it could not be done, but I said we must attempt it. (240-241)

After what had already transpired and portended, one would have reasonably expected that Belloc would have accepted the guide’s experience and practical wisdom and turned to go now back down the mountain. Nonetheless, Belloc admits that he was still feisty and resolute about the mission:

I was eager, and had [surprisingly] not yet felt the awful grip of cold. We left the Nufenen on our left, a hopeless steep of new snow buried in fog, and we attacked the Gries. For half-an-hour we plunged on through the snow above our knees, and my thin cotton clothes were soaked. So far the guide knew we were more or less on the path, and he went on and I panted after him. Neither of us spoke, but occasionally he looked back to make sure I had not dropped out.

The snow began to fall more thickly, and the wind had risen somewhat. I was afraid of another protest from the guide, but he stuck to it well, and I after him, continually plunging through the soft snow and making yard after yard upwards. The snow fell more thickly and the wind still rose. (241-243)

Belloc will now help us understand the felt contrast between the “warm season” on an alp (“a slope of grass, very steep but not terrifying”) and a time of severe cold and growing wind:

Now, however, when everything was still Arctic it [a steep and slippery alp] was a very different matter. A sheer steep of snow whose downward plunge ran into the driving storm [called, locally, a “tourmente”] and was lost…[yet] had to be crossed if we were to go any farther; and I was terrified, for I knew nothing of climbing. The guide [,however,] said there was little danger,…or one might (much less probably) get over rocks and be killed. I was chattering a little with cold; but as he did not [not yet!] propose a return, I followed him….

We had been about twenty minutes crawling over that wall of snow and ice; and it was more and more apparent that we were in for danger. Before we had quite reached the farther side [of the alp], the wind was blowing a very full gale and roared past our ears….The rocks on the far side of the slope, rocks which had been our goal when we set out to cross it, had long ago disappeared in the continued rush of the blizzard. Suddenly as we were still painfully moving on [in the “whistling wind” whose combined heavy snow now “blinded us” (244)], stooping against the mad wind, these rocks loomed up over [us] as large as houses, and we saw them through the swarming snow-flakes as great hulls are seen through a fog at sea.

The guide crouched under the lee of the nearest [rock]; I came up close to him and he put his hands to my ear and shouted to me that nothing further could be done—he had to shout because in among the rocks the hurricane made a roaring sound, swamping the voice. (243-244)

After the guide himself seemed to despair, Belloc had to face a deepening dilemma as he considered their alternate courses of action, to include surrender:

I asked how far we were from the summit. He said he did not know where we were exactly, but that we could not be more than 800 feet from it. I was but that [far] from Italy and I would not admit defeat. I offered him all I had in money to go on, but it was folly in me, because if I had had enough to tempt him and if he had yielded we should both have died. Luckily it was but a little sum. He shook his head. He would not go on, he broke out, for all the money in the world. He shouted me to eat and drink, and so we both did.

Then I understood his wisdom, for in a little while the cold began to seize me in my thin clothes. My hands were numb, my face already gave me intolerable pain, and my legs suffered and felt heavy. I learnt another thing (which had I been used to mountains I should have known), that it was not a simple thing to return [downhill to the base and starting point below]. The guide was hesitating whether to stay in this rough shelter, or to face the challenges of the descent. This terror had not crossed my mind, and I thought as little of it as I could, needing my courage, and being near to breaking down from the intensity of the cold. (245)

Belloc then gives the reader a further glimpse of their combined and considered reasoning at this junction, which led to a fearsome decision, nonetheless:

It seems that in a tourmente (for by that excellent name do the mountain people call such a storm) it is always a matter of doubt whether to halt or to go back. If you go back through it and lose your way, you are done for. If you halt in some shelter, it [the storm] may go on for two or three days, and then there is the end of you.

After a little he decided to return, but he told me honestly what the chances were, and my suffering from cold mercifully mitigated my fear. But even in that moment, I felt in a confused but very conscious way that I was defeated.

I had crossed so many great hills and rivers, and pressed so well on my undeviating arrow-line to Rome, and I had charged this one great barrier manfully where the straight path on my pilgrimage crossed the Alps—and I had failed! Even in that fearful cold I felt it, and it ran through my doubt of return like another deeper current of pain. Italy was there, just above, right to my hand. A lifting of a cloud, a little respite, and every downward step [over the pass towards the south] would have been towards the sunlight. As it was, I was being driven back northward, in retread and ashamed. The Alps had conquered me. (245-246—my emphasis added)

After some dubious metaphorical or analogical words and such about the enduring “combat” against the Alps and “their immensity and their will” and “the inhuman guards that hold the gates of Italy” (246), Belloc tells us some more accessible and very vivid things about “The Retreat”:

Well, we returned. Twice the guide rubbed my hands with brandy, and once [on the descent] I had to halt and recover for a moment, failing and losing my hold. Believe it or not, the deep footsteps of our ascent were already lost and covered by the new snow since our halt, and even had they been visible, the guide would not have retraced. He did what I did not at first understand, but what I soon saw to be wise. He took a steep slope downward over the face of the snow-slope, and though such a pitch of descent a little unnerved me, it was well in the end. For when we had gone down perhaps 900 feet, or a thousand, in perpendicular distance, even I, half numb and fainting, could feel that the storm was less violent….

When we saw this, the guide said to me, “Hold your stick thus, if you are strong enough, and let yourself slide.” I could just hold it, in spite of the cold. Life was returning to me with intolerable pain. We shot down the slope almost as quickly as falling, but it was evidently safe to do so, as the end was clearly visible, and had no break or rock in it. (247-248)

After giving us more and very vivid details about the final part of their safe return, he also comes to return to the hospitable inn that he entered when he first arrived in Ulrichen—but, apparently, it was not to show any special or further gratitude. For he fails to mention the hostess, much less thank her for first rescuing him from his likely mortal peril. In any case, Belloc is now quite self-absorbed in his evident inability to surrender wholeheartedly and to accept defeat:

I re-entered “the Bear,” silent and angered, and not accepting the humiliation of that failure. Then, having eaten, I determined in equal silence [but without his even gratefully mentioning the presence of the “Good Woman”, nor her earlier and important rescuing-help given to him as a well-informed and sympathetic hostess!], to take the road like any other fool…like any tourist;…and not to look heaven in the face again till I was back, after my long detour [morally, too?], on the straight road again for Rome.

But to think of it! I who had all that planned out, and had so nearly done it! I who had cut a path across Europe like a shaft, and seen so many strange places— now have to recite all the litany of the vulgar; Bellinzona, Lugano, and this and that, which any railroad travelling fellow can tell you. Not till Como [and its very beautiful lake in Italy] should I feel a man again….

Indeed it is a bitter thing to have to give up one’s sword. (248-249—my emphasis added)

CODA

Despite the variously unexpected barriers and detours along the way, Hilaire Belloc heroically and gratefully accomplished his ardent intent and mission of arriving in Rome on 29 June 1901 for the High Feast of Saint Peter and Saint Paul—when the elderly Leo XIII was still the Pope; and it was to be just two years before the accession of Pope Saint Pius X on 4 August 1903, one year after Belloc’s The Path to Rome was memorably published concerning his own profound discoveries and deeper pilgrimage of faith.

–Finis–

© 2019 Robert D. Hickson

1Hilaire Belloc, The Path to Rome (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1902, 1936). All further references to this 1902,1936 edition will be placed above in parentheses in the body of this essay We shall now concentrate only on pages 233-249.

Hilaire Belloc on the Hospitality of Small Inns and their Surprises: On the Path to Rome

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                                   28 February 2019

Pope Saint Hilary (d. 468)

Saint Romanus (d. 460)

Epigraphs

***

“Upon my soul I believe such people are the salt of the earth. I bowed with real contrition, for at several moments I had believed myself better than they.” (Hilaire Belloc, The Path to Rome (1902))

***

“Nevertheless, I was so wrapped round with the repose of this family’s virtues that I fell asleep at once.” (Hilaire Belloc, The Path to Rome (1902))

***

“And I pitied her so much that I bought bread and wine off her, and I let her overcharge me, and went out in the afterglow with her benediction.” (Hilaire Belloc, The Path to Rome (1902))

***

Throughout his varied writings in prose and verse, Hilaire Belloc manifested a special affection for small inns, especially for the inimitable and recurrent hospitality of well-rooted, traditional inns. He also considered the decadence of that institution—those refreshing and reposeful inns—to be a sure sign of the decomposition of civilization.

When he was still thirty years old (in June of 1901) and making his adventurous “path to Rome” largely afoot—often wandering off the main paths and doing so during uncommon hours—he encountered small inns of different characters and cultures and customs. These often-restorative discoveries were for our beloved Belloc a great consolation and also a nourishing repose, especially when he was without sufficient wine and famished and physically fatigued or even, at times, gravely hindered by his own hobbling and blisters and torn boots.

In the first one hundred pages of The Path to Rome,1 Hilaire Belloc gives us, for instance, two interwoven and vivid examples of small inns that he had gratefully visited along the way (largely along the upstream route of the Moselle River flowing down from its mountain source at “the Ballon d’Alsace” (70) towards the south-east). He found those two inns during the first 80-100 miles of his pilgrimage from Toul, France in Lorraine whence he had so energetically begun his demanding journey afoot to Rome: “this great march” (70), as he called it. Belloc gives us character portraits and a fuller flavor of the hostess or host of the inn, as well as conveying the attitudes and atmosphere often radiantly generated by some of the occupants or the visiting diners then present at the little inn. Some of Belloc’s own evasive ruses, tall tales, and politely ironic excuses are depicted with charm. They are also, for sure, a balm to the reader!

Belloc will now introduce us to a rare view of beauty as it is to be seen from the high hill above the village of Archettes where he shall soon also discover and enter his first small inn:

When I reached it [“the brow of the hill”] I looked down the slope…and there was the whole valley of the Moselle at my feet.

As this was the first really great height, so this was the first really great view I met on my pilgrimage….Archettes, just below; …the dark pines on the hills, and the rounded mountains rising farther and higher into the distance until the last [mountain] I saw, far off to the south-east, must have been the Ballon d’Alsace at the sources of the Moselle—the hill that marked the first full stage in my journey and that overlooked Switzerland.

Indeed, this is the peculiar virtue of walking to a far place [like Rome], and especially of walking there in a straight line, that one gets these visions of the world from hill-tops.

When I call up for myself this great march I see it all mapped out in landscapes, each of which I caught from some mountain….The view here from the Hill of Archettes [is the first long view of the whole sequence]….They unroll themselves all in their order till I can see Europe, and Rome shining at the end. (69-71—my emphasis added)

This sense of geography and scale and proportion also prepares us better to savor the welcome little inn, beginning with its identifying sign, “The Trout Inn”:

So much for views. I clambered down the [steep] hill to Archettes and saw, almost the first house, a swinging board “At the sign of the Trout of the Vosges,” and as it was now evening I turned in there to dine.

Two things I noticed at once when I sat down to meat. First, that the people seated at that inn table were of the middle class of society, and, secondly, that I, though of their [social] rank, was an impediment to their enjoyment. For to sleep in woods, to march some seventy miles [from Toul], the latter part in a dazzling sun, and to end by sliding down an earthy steep into the road stamps a man with all that this kind of [“middle-class”] people least desire to have thrust on them. (71-72—my emphasis added)

With these last discerning perceptions and comments, Belloc will then make an extensive digression, to which we shall briefly return, namely his “Apology for the Middle Class”:

I say it roundly ; [for] if it were not for the punctiliousness of the middle-class in these matters [e.g., “cleanliness and clothes and social ritual” (72)] all our civilisation would go to pieces. They are the conservators and maintainers of the standard, the moderators of Europe, the salt of society….

I [myself] find it very hard to keep up to the demands of my colleagues [e.g., “cleanliness, order, decency, sobriety, and a steady temper” (73)], but I recognise that they are on the just side in the quarrel; let none of them go about pretending that I have not defended them in this book. (72-73—my emphasis added)

Now we shall see how deftly—in the imagined presence of the other guests at the small inn— Belloc brings out for his readers his own cunning “tall tale”; his imagined self-defense, with some delightfully imaginative forms of irony (and light sophistry), and with a winking impishness, to boot:

So I thought of how I should put myself right with these people [the middle-class diners]. I saw that an elaborate story [would not be suitable, nor would it work] (such as, that I had been set upon by a tramp who forced me to change clothes: that I dressed like this for a bet: that I was an officer employed as a spy, and was about to cross the frontier into Germany in the guise of a laborer: that my doctor forbade me to shave—or any other such rhodomontade); I saw, I say, that by venturing upon any such excuses I might unwittingly offend some other unknown canon of theirs deeper and more sacred than their rule on clothes; [for,] it had happened to me before now to do this in the course of explanations.

So I took another method, and said, as I sat down—

“Pray excuse this appearance of mine. I have had a most unfortunate adventure in the hills, losing my way and being compelled to sleep out all night, nor can I remain to get tidy, as it is essential that I should reach my luggage (which is at Remiremont) before midnight.”

I took great care to pay for my glass of wine before dinner with a bank note, and I showed my sketches to my neighbor to make an impression. I talked of foreign politics, of the countries I had seen, of England especially, with such minute exactitude that their disgust was soon turned to admiration. (73-74—my emphasis added)

May it be so that you are still imagining the details of that scene and laughing along with the rumbustious Belloc himself!

Now after his own dexterous tales, Belloc will introduce us to the hostess of the inn and he will fittingly show us a few of her own pert or feisty exchanges with the middle-class diners:

The hostess of this inn was delicate and courteous to a degree, and [she was] at every point attempting to overreach her guests, who, as regularly as she attacked, countered with astonishing dexterity.

Thus she would say: “Perhaps the joint would taste better if it were carved on the table, or do the gentlemen prefer it carved aside?”

To which a banker opposite me said in a deep voice: “We prefer, madame, to have it carved aside.”

Or she would put her head in and say—

“I can recommend our excellent beer. It is really preferable to this local wine.”

And my neighbor, a tourist, answered with decision

Madame, we find your wine excellent. It could not be bettered.”

Nor could she get around them on a single point, and I pitied her so much that I bought bread and wine off her to console her, and I let her overcharge me, and went out into the afterglow with her benediction, followed also by the farewells of the middle-class, who were now taking their coffee at little tables outside the house.

I went hard up the road to Remiremont. The night darkened. (75—my emphasis added)

Some time later, while on his demanding hike in the higher mountains with their panoramic views of beauty, Belloc feels somewhat overwhelmed and he admits his fatigue:

I tired of these immensities, and, feeling now my feet more broken that ever, I very slowly and in sharp shoots of pain dragged down the slope towards the main road: I saw just below me the frontier towns of the Prussians, and immediately within them a hut. To this I addressed myself.

It was an inn. The door opened of itself, and I found there a pleasant woman of middle age, but frowning. She had three daughters, all of great strength, and she was upbraiding them loudly in the German of Alsace and making them scour and scrub. On the wall above her head was a great placard [in witty and political French, under which was also the droll message in French of an “emblematic figure of a gallic cock”] which I read very tactfully, and in a distant manner, until she had restored the discipline of her family….

While I was still wondering at this epitome of the French people, and was attempting to combine the French military tradition with the French temper…, the hard-working, God-fearing, and honest woman that governs the little house [inn] and the three great daughters, within a yard of the frontier, and on top of this huge hill, had brought back all her troops into line and had the time to attend to me. (94-95—my emphasis added)

Belloc will now give us a further depiction of the small inn’s hostess:

This [belated attentiveness to me] she did with the utmost politeness, though cold by race [the Prussian?], and through her politeness ran a sense of what Teutons called Duty, which once would have repelled me; but I have wandered over a great part of the world and [along with the Catholic scholar, Josef Pieper] I know it now to be a distorted kind of virtue.

She was of a very different sort from that good [Lorraine-rooted] tribe of the Moselle valley beyond the hill; yet she was Catholic–(she had a little tree set up before her door for the Corpus Christi: see what religion is, that makes people of utterly different races understand each other; for when I saw that tree I knew precisely where I stood. So once all we Europeans [in Christendom] understood each other, but now we are divided by the worst malignancies of nations and classes, and a man does not so much love his own nation as hate his neighbors, and even the twilight of chivalry is mixed up with a detestable patronage of the poor. But as I was saying—) she also was a Catholic, and I knew myself to be with friends. (95-96—my emphasis added)

Belloc now says a little more about his hostess’ manner as an unmistakably robust Catholic:

She was moreover not exactly of—what shall I say?—not of those who delight in a delicate manner; and her good heart prompted her to say, very loudly—

“What do you want?”

I want a bed,” I said, and I pulled out a silver coin. “I must lie down at once.”

Then I added, “Can you make omelettes?”….

When, therefore, I asked this family-drilling, house-managing, mountain-living woman whether she could make omelettes, she shook her head at me slowly, keeping her eyes fixed on mine, and said in what was the corpse of French with a German ghost in it, “The bed is a franc.”

Motherkins,” I answered, “what I mean is that I would sleep until I wake, for I have come a prodigious distance and have last slept in the woods. But when I awake I shall need food, for which,” I added, pulling out yet another coin, “I will pay whatever you charge may be; for a more delightful house I have rarely met with. I know most people do not sleep before sunset, but I am particularly tired and broken.”

She showed me my bed then more kindly…. (96-98—my emphasis added)

Belloc will now gradually lead us to consider an unforgettable passage of courtesy and graciousness, after first presenting the situation and then another vivid and laconic exchange:

When I woke up, which was long after dusk, she gave me in the living room of the hut eggs beaten up with ham, and I ate brown bread and said grace.

Then (my wine was not yet finished, but it is an abominable thing to drink your own wine in another person’s home) I asked whether I could have something to drink.

“What you like,” she said.

“What have you?” said I.

“Beer,” said she.

“Anything else?” said I.

“No,” said she.

Why, then, give me some of that excellent beer.”

I drank this with delight, paid my bill (which was that of a labourer), and said good-night to them.

In good-nights they had a ceremony; for they all [four of them] rose together and curtsied. Upon my soul I believe such people to be the salt of the earth. I bowed with real contrition, for at several moments I had believed myself better than they. (98—my emphasis added)

These last words amongst his new Catholic friends give another glimpse of Hilaire Belloc’s deep soul and good heart—and humility.

After that gracious and unmistakably touching ceremony, Belloc at once modestly writes:

Then I went to my bed and they to theirs. The wind howled outside; my boots were stiff like wood and I could hardly take them off; my feet were so martyrised that I doubted if I could walk at all on the morrow. Nevertheless, I was so wrapped round with the repose of this family’s virtues that I fell asleep at once….

The morning outside came living and sharp after the gale—almost chilly. Under a scattered but clearing sky I first limped, then, as my blood warmed, strode down the path that led between the trees of the farther vale and was soon following a stream that leaped from one fall [waterfall] to another till it should lead me to the main road, to Belfort, to the Swiss whom I had never known, and at last to Italy [“and Rome shining at the end” (71)!]. (98-99—my emphasis added)

CODA

At the end of this essay, we propose to consider Hilaire Belloc’s brief, partly humorous, digression on wealth and the ways of the wealthy, and especially on the power and the illusions of luxury, as he presented them to us during his visit to Archettes, when he was attentive to the contrasting qualities of the honorable Middle Class (70-75). As is usually the case, our Belloc seeks to be fair:

And those who blame the middle-class for their conventions in such [personal] matters, and who profess to be above the care for cleanliness and clothes and social ritual which marks the middle-class, are either anarchists by nature or fools who take what is but an effect of their wealth for a natural virtue….

For the kind of man who boasts that he does not mind dirty clothes or roughing it [as in his desultory “vagabondism”], is either a man [as is “the barbarian”] who cares nothing for all that civilisation has built up and who rather hates it, or else (and this is much more common) he is a rich man, or accustomed to live among the rich, and can afford to waste energy and stuff because he feels in a vague way that more clothes can always be bought, that at the end of his vagabondism he can get elegant dinners, and that London and Paris are full of luxurious baths and barber shops. Of all the corrupting effects of wealth there is none worse than this, that it makes the wealthy (and their parasites) in some way divine, or at least a lovely character of mind, what is nothing but their power of luxurious living. Heaven keep us all from great riches—I mean from very great riches.

Now the middle-class cannot [as of 1902] afford to buy new clothes whenever they feel inclined, neither can they end up a jaunt by a Turkish bath and a great feast of wine. So their care is always to preserve intact what they happen to have, to exceed in nothing, to study cleanliness, order, decency, sobriety, and a steady temper, and they fence all this round and preserve it in the only way it can be preserved, with conventions [and traditions], and they are quite right. (72-73—my emphasis added)

Here too, even about Prussians, Hilaire Belloc attempts to be both forthright and fair-minded.

–Finis–

© 2019 Robert D. Hickson

1Hilaire Belloc, The Path to Rome (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1902, 1936). The second edition of 1936 contains a new four-page Preface (pp. vii-x) by Hilaire Belloc; but otherwise it is an exact replica of the original 1902 edition. All future page references will be to this edition, and will be placed in parentheses above in the main body of this essay.