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).)