Hilaire Belloc’s 1901 Reflections on Belief and the Faith in his The Path to Rome (1902)

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                                     28 January 2019

St. Agnes (d. 304)

St. Peter Nolasco (d. 1256)

St. Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274)


A faithless man is a hopeless man is a loveless man.” (These are the solemn words of Father John Hardon, S.J., spoken with gravity to R.D. Hickson in the late 1980s and early 1990s)


“[I]n private [however] he [Belloc] would sometimes give vent to his irritation: ‘I have been having my bellyful of clerics lately. I always like to associate with a lot of priests because it makes me understand anti-clerical things so well….Caveant sacerdotes. [Let the priests be attentive, and carefully aware of us!] (Hilaire Belloc’s 9 November 1909 Private Letter to E.S.P. Haynes)

“After one such gathering [with priests], he [Belloc] arrived to lecture at Repton, and banging his hat down in the hall remarked to William Temple: ‘The Catholic Church is an institution I am bound to hold divine—but for unbelievers a proof of its divinity might be found in the fact that no merely human institution conducted with such knavish imbecility would have lasted a fortnight.’” (Robert Speaight, The Life of Hilaire Belloc (New York: Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, 1957), page 383—my clarifying brackets and emphases added


In a Swiss valley village in the Jura Alpine region while en route to Rome afoot in June of 1901, Hilaire Belloc had some sincerely wholehearted and profound reflections on the nature of Belief and on the matter of The Faith. What he so honesty considered at thirty years of age may well be of special moment to us yet today, for he dealt with timely as well as timeless things. Moreover, the beauty and reverence to be found in that little village of Undervelier, Switzerland enhanced Belloc’s own reflections and his vivid perceptions will still touch us deeply today, I believe.

Hilaire Belloc first sets the scene and tone that conduces to his deeper and sustained reflections:

Remembering him [that lax man he knew who was “given to drink”] and pondering upon the advantage of strict rule, I hung on to my cart [with the “boy in a waggon” pulling and leading him], taking care to let my feet still feel the road, and so passed through the high limestone gates of the gorge, and was in the fourth valley of the Jura [region of the Swiss Alps], with the fifth ridge standing up black and huge before me in the last of the daylight. There were as yet no stars.

There, in this silent place, was the little village of Undervelier, and I thanked the boy, and painfully approached the inn….1

When he yearningly entered a hospitable inn, he first “asked the woman if she could give me something to eat,”(155) and:

She said that she could in about an hour, using [an idiom], however, with regard to what it was I wanted to have, words I did not understand. For the French had become quite barbaric, and I was now indeed lost in one of the inner places of the world. (155-156—my emphasis added)

Desiring to relax a little while he waited, Belloc was able still to purchase there a cigar:

A cigar is, however, even in Undervelier, a cigar. One of these, therefore, I bought, and then I went out smoking it into the village square, and finding a low wall, leaned over it and contemplated the glorious clear green water tumbling and roaring along beneath it [the “low wall”] on the other side; for a little river ran through the village.

As I leaned there resting and communing I noticed how their church, close at hand, was built along the low banks of the torrent. I admired the luxuriance of the green grass these waters fed, and the generous arch of the trees beside it. The graves seemed set in a natural place of rest and home, and just beyond this churchyard was the marriage of hewn stone and water which is the source of so peculiar a satisfaction; for the church tower was built boldly right out into the [“torrent”] stream and the current went eddying round it. (156—my emphasis added).

We now are to be more deeply introduced to some of Belloc’s preparatory reflectiveness, here concerning the especially satisfying “marriage of hewn stone and [flowing] water”:

But why it is that strong human building when it dips into water should thus affect the mind I cannot say, only I know that it is an emotion apart to see our device and structure where it is most enduring come up against and challenge that element [strong flowing water, especially the sea] which we cannot conquer and which has always in it something of danger for men. (156-157—my emphasis added)

After briefly giving some illustrative and architectural examples, “a splendid thought of the Romans” (157)—such as the building of Venice and Le Mont St. Michel off the coast of Normandy, France—Belloc returns to his cigar and watchfulness of the hewn stone and the stream, and he soon hears something quite unexpected:

As I was watching that stream against those old stones, my cigar being now half smoked, a bell began tolling, and it seemed as if the whole village were pouring into the church. At this I was very much surprised, not having been used at any time of my life [of 30 years] to the unanimous devotion of an entire population, but having always thought of the Faith as something fighting odds, and having seen unanimity only in places where some sham religion or other glozed over our tragedies and excused our sins. Certainly to see all the men, women, and children of a place taking Catholicism for granted [reverently] was a new sight, and so I put my cigar carefully down under a stone at the top of the wall and went in [to the church] with them. I then saw that what they were at was Vespers. (157—my emphasis added)

Belloc was further astonished at how well the villagers knowingly sang, both the twilight hymn by Saint Ambrose of Milan, and also the words of the Psalms:

All the village sang, knowing the Psalms very well, and I noticed that their Latin [as spoken there “in one of the inner places of the world” (156)] was nearer German than French, but what was most pleasing of all was to hear from all the men and women together that very noble good-night and salutation to God which begins

Te, lucis ante terminam.”

My whole mind was taken up and transfigured by this collective act, and I saw for a moment the Catholic Church quite plain, and I remembered Europe, and the centuries. Then there left me altogether that attitude of difficulty and combat which, for us others, is always associated with the Faith. The cities dwindled in my imagination, and I took less heed of the modern noise. I went out [from the church] with them into the clear evening and the cool. I found my cigar and lit it again, and musing much more deeply than before, not without tears, I considered the nature of Belief. (158—my emphasis added)

Now will begin Belloc’s longer meditation on the nature of Belief, as such, and, then more specifically, on the Catholic Faith:

Of its nature it [i.e., “Belief”] breeds a reaction and an indifference. Those who believe nothing but only think and judge can not understand this [twofold act of belief: i.e., both a secure affirmation of something and a trust in the reliable testimony of someone]. Of its nature it [Belief] struggles with us [, however]. And we, we, when our youth is full on us invariably reject it and set out in the sunlight content with natural things. Then for a long time we are like men who follow down the cleft of a mountain and the peaks are hidden from us and forgotten. It takes years to reach the dry plain, and then we look back [and up] and see our home. (158-159—my emphasis added)

Then our Belloc—attentive, as well, to his own personal case—modestly meditates on the deeper causes of our freely chosen return to the Faith and all its firm and authoritative Belief:

What is it, do you think, that causes the return? I think it is the problem of living; for every day, every experience of evil, demands a solution. That solution is provided by the memory of the great scheme which at last we remember. Our childhood pierces through again…. But I will not attempt to explain it, for I have not the power; only I know that we who return suffer hard things; for there grows a gulf between us and many companions. We are perpetually thrust into minorities, and the world almost begins to talk a strange language; we are troubled by the human machinery of a perfect and superhuman revelation; we are over-anxious for its safety, alarmed, and in danger of [our] violent decisions.

And this is hard: that the Faith begins to make one abandon the old way of judging. Averages and movements and the rest grow uncertain. We see things from within and consider one mind or a little group as a salt or leaven. The very nature of social force seems changed to us. And this is hard when a man has loved common views and is happy only with his fellows.(159-160—my emphasis added)

Hilaire Belloc continues to specify how and why a delayed or belated return to the Faith presents us with difficult adjustments and additional, accepted challenges to our loyal integrity:

And this again is very hard, [namely,] that we must once more take up that awful struggle to reconcile two truths and to keep civic freedom sacred in spite of the organization of religion, and not to deny what is certainly true. It is hard to accept mysteries, and to be humble. We are tost as the great [medieval, philosophical and theological] Schoolmen were tost, and we dare not neglect the duty of that wrestling.

But the hardest thing of all is that it leads us away, as by a command, from all that banquet of the intellect than which there is no keener joy known to man. (160—my emphasis added)

As he still proceeds on his slow walk through the village of Undervelier with these poignant meditations in his heart, he continues his trenchant reflections about the burdensome magnitude of the Faith and thereby to be soon considering also the witness and experience of a great love:

I went slowly up the village place in the dusk, thinking of this deplorable weakness in men that the Faith is too great for them, and accepting it as an inevitable burden. I continued to muse with my eyes upon the ground….

There was to be no more of that studious content, that security in historic analysis, and that constant satisfaction of an appetite which never cloyed. A wisdom more imperative and more profound was to put a term to the comfortable wisdom of learning. All the balance of judgment, the easy, slow convictions, the broad grasp of things, the vision of their complexity, the pleasure in their innumerable life – all that had to be given up. Fanaticisms were no longer entirely to be despised, just appreciations and a strong grasp of reality no longer entirely to be admired.

The Catholic Church will have no philosophies. She will permit no comforts; the cry of the martyrs is in her far voice; her eyes that see beyond the world present us heaven and hell to the confusion of our human reconciliations, our happy blending of good and evil things. (160-161—my emphasis added)

In his elegiac and magnanimous wholeheartedness, Hilaire Belloc will now surprisingly conclude his memorable meditation upon loyal gratitude (also to his Balliol College at Oxford), and upon a severe personal tragedy, and yet upon a great love:

By the Lord! I begin to think this intimate religion as tragic as a great love. There came back into my mind a relic that I have in my house [in beloved Sussex]. It is a panel of the old door of my college [Balliol College], having carved on it my college arms. I remembered the Lion and the Shield, Haec fuit, Haec almae janua sacra domus. [That is: This was, this is still, the sacred door of my nourishing home—i.e., his alma mater.] Yes, certainly religion is as tragic as first love, and drags us out into the void away from our dear home. It is a good thing to have loved one woman from a child, and it is a good thing not to have to return to the Faith. (161—my emphasis added)

Again at the end of his reflections, we also recall Hilaire Belloc’s own earlier and still nourishing words: “It is hard to accept mystery, and to be humble.” (160—my emphasis added)

He has also elsewhere more than once pertly written that “the impatient rejection of mystery is one of the main marks of stupidity.” In his later Essays of a Catholic (1931), for example, Belloc says:

Now, Mr. Haldane’s interest in this is an excellent proof of his high intelligence. One of the main marks of stupidity is the impatient rejection of mystery; one of the first marks of good judgment, combined with good reasoning power, is the appetite for examining mystery.2


Almost a quarter of a century after his pilgrimage to Rome afoot in June of 1901, Hilaire Belloc published The Cruise of the Nona (1925),3 and therein he discussed, among other fundamental matters, his theme and thesis that “truth confirms truth.” That is to say, especially the insight that “All human conflict is ultimately theological.” (52—emphatic italics in the original)

Introducing the insight of Cardinal Manning, Belloc, now at fifty-five years of age, very gratefully also says:

There is another form of impressing the truth, and testifying to it, and doing good by it, which is the dogmatic assertion of truth by the old and the experienced and the revered, to the young….One was a sentence which Cardinal Manning said to me when I was but twenty years old [just ten years before his own pilgrimage path to Rome]….

The profound thing which Cardinal Manning said to me was this: “All human conflict is ultimately theological.”…

The saying of his (which I carried away somewhat bewildered) that all human conflict was ultimately theological, that is that all wars and revolutions and all decisive struggles between parties of men arise from a difference of moral and transcendental doctrine, was utterly novel to me. To a young man the saying was without meaning: I would have almost said nonsensical, save that I could not attach the idea of folly to Manning. But as I grew old it became a searchlight: with the observation of the world, and with continuous reading of history, it came to possess for me a universal meaning so profound that it reached to the very roots of political action, so extended that it covered the whole.4 (51-52—italics in the original; bold emphasis added)

May Hilaire Belloc be now for you what, for so long, he has been to me. And so abundantly.


© 2019 Robert D. Hickson

1Hilaire Belloc, The Path to Rome (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1902 and again in 1936), p. 155—my emphasis added. All further references will be placed in parentheses above, in the main body of the essay.

2Hilaire Belloc, Essays of a Catholic (Rockford, Illinois: TAN Books and Publishers, Inc., 1992—first published in 1931), page 209—my emphasis added. This passage comes from Chapter 13 as a response to J.B. S. Haldane (d. 1964), who was a scientist of considerable distinction, and with a highly gifted intellect.

3Hilaire Belloc, The Cruise of the Nona (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1925). See especially pages 51-52, concerning Henry Edward Cardinal Manning’s influential “searchlight” words to young Hilaire Belloc.

4Hilaire Belloc, The Cruise of the Nona (1925), pages 51-52).

Glimpses of H. Belloc’s Pluck and Youthfulness: G.K. Chesterton and The Path to Rome

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                              17 January 2019

Saint Anthony the Great (356)

Saint Benedict Center (Founded in 1949, 70 Years Ago)


“Oh, he didn’t believe

In Adam and Eve,

He put no faith therein!

His doubts began

With the fall of man,

And he laughed at original sin!”

(Hilaire Belloc, “Song of the Pelagian Heresy” (1911))


“Whatever are those keen lives which remain alive under memory—whatever is Youth—Youth came up the valley that evening, borne upon a southern air. If we deserve or attain beatitude, such things at last will be our settled state….This, then, was the blessing of Sillano, and here was perhaps the highest moment of those 700 miles….” (Hilaire Belloc, The Path to Rome (1902))


In 1916, G.K. Chesterton memorably told us how he first met Hilaire Belloc in London in 1900. He also chose to convey to us vividly the abiding impression which that first encounter had made upon him.1 It was a high tribute, and even a mirthful sort of warning!

If we now further consider Chesterton’s perceptive 1916 Introduction, we may also better understand and savor Belloc’s unique energy, stamina, and youthful spirit back in 1901 when, at thirty years of age, he made his pilgrimage (largely on foot) from France to Rome; a journey which he soon thereafter inimitably recorded and personally illustrated in his own variegated and unmistakably rumbustious 1902 book, entitled The Path to Rome.

Chesterton begins his Introduction with the following words:

When I first met Belloc he remarked to the friend who introduced us that he was in low spirits. His low spirits were and are much more uproarious and enlivening than anybody else’s high spirits. He talked into the night; and left behind in it a glowing track of good things. When I have said that I mean things that are good, and certainly not merely bons mots, I have said all that can be said in the most serious aspect about the man who has made the greatest fight for good things of all the men of my time. (vii—my emphasis added)

Giving us now some specific and vivid details, Chesterton thereby effectively proposes to support his high tribute of Hilaire Belloc, who soon became his good friend, as well:

We met between a little Soho paper shop and a little Soho restaurant [in London in 1900]; his arms and pockets were stuffed with French Nationalist and French Atheist newspapers. He wore a straw hat shading his eyes, which are like a sailor’s, and emphasizing his Napoleonic chin….The little restaurant to which we went had already become a haunt for three or four of us who held strong but unfashionable views about the South African War [the Second Boer War, 1899-1902], which was then in its earliest prestige….To understand how his [Belloc’s] Latin mastery, especially of historic and foreign things, made him a leader, it is necessary to appreciate something of the peculiar position of that [our own!] isolated group of “Pro-Boers.” We were a minority in a minority….But we might, in one very real sense be described as Pro-Boers. That is, we were much more insistent that the Boers were right in fighting than that the English were wrong in fighting. We disliked cosmopolitan peace almost as much as cosmopolitan war….and I myself had my own hobby of the romance of small things, including small commonwealths. But to all these [things and differences and nuances] Belloc entered like a man armed and as with a clang of iron. He brought with him news from the fronts of history;…that cynical Imperialism not only should be fought, but could be fought and was being fought [as against the unjust “Transvaal adventure” in South Africa then];….There were many other uses of his genius, but I am speaking of this first effect of it upon our instinctive and sometimes groping ideals. What he brought into our dream was this Roman appetite for reality and for reason in action, and when he came into the door there entered with him the smell of danger. (vii-ix—my emphasis added)

After this Chestertonian introduction, a thoughtful and sufficiently leisured reader might now well want to glimpse and savor a few vignettes from The Path to Rome2 as composed in 1901-1902 by its charming young author. I now propose, for example, his passages concerning his arrival in Flavigny early in the morning and exhausted from his 20-mile march from Toul, France (the starting point of his pilgrimage afoot); his considerations of the meaning of a Vow, just before arrival in the memorable village of Undervelier; and his appreciation of Sillano and spiritual childhood in a valley in Italy.

These passages will “warm hearts,” as my wife Maike just memorably said. And they may also, I hope, prompt some young Catholic graduate students—and prompt even some young Catholic Priests—whom I have recently met also to read The Path to Rome in its entirety, and at least once!

About the village Flavingny, Belloc says:

To return to Flavigny….But [by my digressions] I continue to wander from Flavigny. The first thing I saw as I came into the street [out of the forest] and noted how the level sun stood in a haze beyond,…was a cart drawn by a galloping donkey, which came at and passed me with a prodigious clatter as I dragged myself forward [in fatigue]. In the cart were two nuns, each with a scythe; they were going out mowing, and were up first in the village, as Religious always are. Cheered by this happy omen, but not yet heartened, I next met a very old man leading out a horse, and asked him if there was anywhere where I could find coffee and bread at that hour, and he shook his head mournfully….so I went on still more despondent till I came to a really merry man of about middle age who was going to the fields, singing, with a very large rake over his shoulder….And when I asked him how I should know the baker’s he was still more surprised at my ignorance, and said, “By the smoke coming from the large chimney.”….So I thanked him and went and found there a youth of about nineteen who sat at a fine oak table and had coffee, rum, and a loaf before him. He was waiting for the bread in the oven to be ready; and meanwhile he was very courteous, poured out coffee and rum for me and offered me bread.

It is a matter often discussed why bakers are such excellent citizens and good men. For while it is admitted in every country I was ever in that cobblers are argumentative and atheists (I except the cobbler under Plinlimmon, concerning whom I wish I had the space to tell you all here, for he knows the legend of the mountain), while it is public that barbers are garrulous and servile, that millers are cheats (we say in Sussex [my beloved home county in southern England along the sea] that every honest miller has a large tuft of hair on the palm of his hand), yet—with every trade in the world having some bad quality attached to it—bakers alone are exempt, and everyone takes it for granted that they are sterling: indeed there are some societies in which, no matter how gloomy and churlish the conversation may have become, you have but to mention bakers for voices to brighten suddenly and for a good influence to pervade every one. I say this is known for a fact, but not usually explained; the explanation is, that bakers are always up early in the morning [like the Nuns] and can watch the dawn, and that in this occupation they live in lonely contemplation enjoying the early hours.

So it was with this baker of mine in Flavigny, who was a boy. (40-43—my emphasis added)

A second vignette that Belloc presents to us—before he is to have his profound reflections and rare experiences in the village of Undervelier (155-161)—is about the meaning of a vow.

While I was occupied sketching the slabs of limestone [along a beautiful gap in the gorge], I heard wheels coming up behind me, and a boy in a waggon stopped and hailed me.

What that boy wanted to know was whether I would take a lift, and this he said in such curious French that I shuddered to think how far I had pierced into the heart of the hills, and how soon I might come to quite strange people. I was greatly tempted to get into his cart, but though I had broken so many of my vows one remained yet whole and sound, which was that I would ride upon no wheeled thing. Remembering this, therefore, and considering that the Faith is rich in interpretation, I clung on to the waggon in such a manner that it did all my work for me, and yet could not be said to be actually carrying me. Distinguo. The essence of a vow is its literal meaning. The spirit and intention are for the major morality, and concern Natural Religion, but when upon a point of ritual or of dedication or special worship a man talks to you of the Spirit and Intention, and complains of the dryness of the Word, look at him askance. He is not far removed from Heresy.

I knew a man once that was given to drinking, and I made up this rule for him to distinguish between Bacchus and the Devil. To wit: that he should never drink what has been made and sold since the Reformation—I mean especially spirits and champagne. Let him (I said) drink red wine and white, good beer and mead —if he could get it—liqueurs made by monks, and in a word, all those feeding, fortifying and confirming beverages that our fathers drank in old time; but not whisky, nor brandy, nor sparkling wines, not absinthe, nor the kind of drink called gin. This he promised to do, and all went well. He became a merry companion, and began to write odes. His prose clarified and set, that had before been very mixed and cloudy. He slept well; he comprehended divine things; he was already half a republican, when one fatal day—it was the feast of the eleven thousand virgins, and they were too busy up in heaven to consider the needs of us poor hobbling, polyktonous and betempted wretches of men—I went with him to the Society for the Prevention of the Annoyances of the Rich, where a certain usurer’s son was to read a paper on the cruelty of Spaniards to their mules. As we were all seated there around a table with a staring green cloth on it, and a damnable gas pendant above, the host of that evening offered him whisky and water, and, my back being turned, he took it. Then when I would have taken it from him, he used these words—“After all, it is the intention of a pledge that matters”; and I saw that all was over, for he had abandoned definition, and was plunged back into the horrible mazes of Conscience and Natural Religion.

What do you think, then, was the consequence? Why, he had to take some nasty pledge or other to drink nothing whatever, and became a spectacle and a judgment, whereas if he had kept his exact words, he might by this time have been a happy man.

Remembering him and pondering upon the adherence of strict rule, I hung on to my cart, taking care to let my feet still feel the road, and so passed through the high limestone gates of the gorge, and was in the fourth valley of the Jura, with the fifth ridge standing up black and huge before me against the last of the daylight. There were as yet no stars.

There, in this silent place, was the little village of Undervelier, and I thanked the boy, withdrew from his cart, and painfully approached the inn….(153-155—my emphasis added)

We now may consider the nuances and spirit of a third vignette. For, near the end of his pilgrimage, Belloc was to find a little valley and village in Italy, which, like Undervelier, especially touched his heart. It was the village of Sillano:

Crossing the Serchio [River] once more [while descending the hills of the Apennine ridge], … 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 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, I said to him—

Pater, habeo linguam latinam, sed non habeo linguam Italicam. …”

To this [request for help in translation] he replied, “Libenter,” and the people [hearing our discussion in Latin] revered us both. ….

And a little while after he [the priest] left for his house, but I went out on to the balcony, where men and women were talking in subdued tones. There, alone, I sat and watched the night coming into these Tuscan hills. ….

The fire flies darted in the depths of the vineyards and of trees below; then the noise of grasshoppers brought back suddenly the gardens of home [in Sussex], and whatever benediction surrounds our childhood. Some promise of eternal pleasures and of rest deserved haunted the village of Sillano.

In very early youth the soul can still remember its immortal habitation, and clouds and the edges of hills are of another kind from ours, and every scent and colour has a savour of Paradise. What that quality may be no language can tell, nor have men made any words, no, nor any music, to recall it—only in a transient way and elusive the recollection of what youth was, and purity, flashes on us in phrases of the poets, and is gone before we can fix it in our minds—oh! my friends, if we could but recall it! Whatever those sounds may be that are beyond our sounds, and whatever are those keen lives which remain alive there under memory—whatever is Youth—Youth came up that valley that evening, borne upon a southern air. If we deserve or attain beatitude, such things shall at last be our settled state; and their now sudden influence upon the soul in short ecstasies is the proof that they stand outside time, and are not subject to decay.

This, then, was the blessing of Sillano, and here was perhaps the highest moment of those 700 miles—or more [from Toul, France, his point of departure in Lorraine in eastern France]. (pp. 372-375—my emphasis added)


By way of conclusion, Hilaire Belloc also shows another side of his robustness and humor and deep insight when he surprises us again with an example of his own verse and commentary thereon:

When I got to the top of the ridge there was a young man chopping wood outside a house, and I asked him in French how far it was to Moutier. He answered in German, and I startled him by a loud cry, such as sailors give when they see land, for at last I had struck the boundary of the languages, and was with pure foreigners for the first time in my life. I also asked him for coffee, and as he refused it I took him to be a heretic and went down the road making up verses against all such, and singing them loudly through the forest that now arched over me and grew deeper as I descended.

And my first verse was—

“Heretics all, whoever you be,

In Tarbes or Nîmes, or over the sea,

You never shall have good words from me.

Caritas non conturbat me.”

If you ask me why I put a Latin line at the end, it was because I had to show that it was a song connected with the Universal Fountain and with European culture, and with all that Heresy combats. I sang it to a lively hymn-tune that I had invented for the occasion.

I then thought what a fine fellow I was and how pleasant were my friends when I agreed with them. I made up a second verse, which I sang even more loudly than the first; and the forest grew deeper, sending back echoes—

“But Catholic men that live upon wine

Are deep in the water [of Baptism], and frank, and fine;

Wherever I travel I find it so,

Benedicamus Domino.”

There is no doubt, however, that if one is really doing a Catholic work, and expressing one’s attitude to the world, charity, pity, and a great sense of fear should possess one, or, at least, appear. So I made up this third verse and sang it to suit—

“On childing women that are forlorn,

And men that sweat in nothing but scorn:

That is on all that ever were born,

Miserere Domine.”

Then, as everything ends in death, and as that is just what Heretics least like to be reminded of, I ended thus—

“To my poor self on my deathbed,

And all my dear companions dead,

Because of the love that I bore them,

Dona Eis Requiem.”

I say “I ended.” But I did not really end there, for I also wrote in the spirit of the rest a verse of Mea Culpa and Confession of Sin, but I shall not print it here. (pp. 164-166)

Nine years later, in his 1911 book The Four Men, our beloved Belloc—in the persona of a salty Sailor—also even composed, and then did sing aloud, “The Song of the Pelagian Heresy for the Strengthening of Men’s Backs and the very Robust Out-thrusting of Doubtful Doctrine and the Uncertain Intellectual.”3

For our further sobriety and jollification, and as a grateful viaticum, here is the first stanza (with chorus) of that robust and stout-hearted drinking song:

Pelagius lived in Kardanoel,

And taught a doctrine there,

How whether you went to Heaven or Hell,

It was your own affair.

How, whether you found eternal joy

Or sank forever to burn,

It had nothing to do with the Church, my boy,

But was your own concern. ….


Oh, he didn’t believe

In Adam and Eve,

He put no faith therein!

His doubts began

With the fall of man,

And he laughed at original sin!

May we too come to preserve—or recover and restore—such pluck and spiritual youthfulness. What we have is Nature, what we need is Grace. Gratia est Gloria incepta, Gloria est Gratia perfecta.

With gratitude to G.K.Chesterton, too, for helping us to savor the nuances of Hilaire Belloc once again, and now even more so.


© 2019 Robert D. Hickson

1G.K. Chesterton, “Introduction” (vii-xii) to the book by C.Creighton Mandell and Edward Shanks, Hilaire Belloc: The Man and His Work ( London: Methuen & CO. L.T.D., 1916), pp. vii-xii. All further references to this Introduction will be placed in parentheses above in the main body of this essay.

2Hilaire Belloc, The Path to Rome (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1936—the second edition of the original first edition of 1902). Further page references will be placed above in parentheses. This will include citations from pages 41-43; 152-155; and 371-375. In the CODA, I shall cite Belloc’s special verses on Heretics, from pages 164-166 of his 1902 book.

3Hilaire Belloc, The Four Men: A Farrago (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984—first published in 1911), pages 48-51.

G.K. Chesterton on “the New Sort of Cynic”

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                               18 December 2018

The Expectation of Mary

G.K. Chesterton on “the New Sort of Cynic”


“All this [fastidiousness] has ended in a sort of Manichean madness against the fundamental facts of life.” (G.K. Chesterton, Avowals and Denials (1934), p.171)


“People are positively nervous about mentioning duty or [informed] conscience or religion [hence sacred tradition and irreformable dogma], because of the high-strung and delicately poised sanity of the new sort of cynic….This is something more than a perversity; it is an inversion, and an inversion which amounts to a sort of mental malformation….The real and reasonable question of morality and immorality awaits discussion; and it will not be best discussed by [“the new type of sensitive”] epileptics, even if they are also cynics.” (G.K. Chesterton, Avowals and Denials, p. 171—my emphasis added)


“Those who are now called Pagans actually do what they themselves have chiefly blamed in the Puritans: they despise the body and all the affections that lie nearest to the body. Their aestheticism, more than any asceticism, has produced a repugnance for the real facts of life [like the birth and nurturing of children]….This is a new and curious philosophical phase. It may not yet be conscious. But for many it will be the final phase of that fury of fastidiousness which already rages in them against the mere mention of common affections or even natural habits….being unsatisfied even with the most harmless natural affections. (G.K. Chesterton, Avowals and Denials, p. 173-174—my emphasis added)


In his published 1934 essay—two years before his death—entitled “On the Touchy Realist,”i G.K. Chesterton, amidst some verbal antics, imparts to us a few unexpected insights about cynicism, and they may well shed light, as well, on some contemporary manifestations of soft mercy and sensitive forms of diversity and purportedly pastoral tenderness.

Chesterton begins his essay with a compact summary of his main thesis:

Not very long ago, men complained of the cynic, saying that he was hard and had no human feelings. Now they [the faithful, too?] are asked rather to respect the cynic, because his feelings are so soft and sensitive. (170)

About this new kind of sentimentalism, Chesterton then modestly adds:

This [phenomenon] is a curious change, but a real one, and one that has not been adequately noticed. There is a type of modern youth [or modern pastor?] which is cynical not because it is thick-skinned, but because it is thin-skinned [and “touchy”]. It has…the…tendency to shudder at anything conventional [or especially traditional?]….Indeed, the cynical youth [or a promiscuous libidinous prelate?] is in many ways very like the [sensitive] Victorian spinster, only not so self-controlled. (170—my emphasis added)

Attempting to understand this potential vulnerability and provocative weakness, Chesterton goes on to comment upon this arguably new kind of irrational cynicism:

It [this type of cynicism] has exactly the same tendency to shudder at anything conventional [much less traditional] as the Victorian spinster had to shudder at anything unconventional….There is, however, in his [the cynical youth’s] world of culture exactly the same fundamental weakness that really weakened the worst parts of the old world of convention. I mean, there is the horror of certain phrases as such, [a constricted ideological horror] of certain allusions and associations, without any real effort to reduce them to any system recognized by reason. The new type of sensitive [sic] is sickened by anything that he would call sentimental [e.g., a happy traditional family, the love of a mother, the protection of innocent children], just as the [touchy Victorian] spinster was [sickened] by anything she would call cynical. In both cases it is a matter of associations and not of analysis; and it matters more what words are used than what thought is presented. (170-171—my emphasis added)

Such a new cynicism thereby shows itself to be a form of sentimentalism, as well as a form of ideological irrationality. We probably already know that cramped ideological mentation is often “touchy,” if not fundamentally irrational. Unwilling to consider rational objections to its claims and “armed new doctrine,” an ideologue is often himself paradoxically “more discontented if he is not discontented.” (He is understandably agitated when he is uprooted—or when he is unrooted.)

With his artful tones of irony, Chesterton now proceeds to give some illustrative examples:

The truly refined [cynical] youth will turn pale at the mention of a mother’s love or be seriously unwell on hearing of a happy marriage….I know a distinguished lady who can hardly even hear the words “woman and children”…without being carried fainting from the room. People are positively nervous about mentioning [one’s] duty or conscience or religion, because of the high-strung and delicately poised sanity of the new sort of cynic [and decadent? or barbarian?]….If our [Victorian] aunts ought to have been able to hear about immorality without fainting, surely our [currently surviving, seemingly soft, if not decadent] nephews might brace themselves to hear about morality without throwing an epileptic fit. (171—my emphasis added)

After noting, by way of further example, that “there are…husbands who are too selfish or unsociable” and even saying that that fact is “so obvious that it has been satirized by all the satirists of human history,” (172) Chesterton makes some important distinctions and a contrast:

But the [new] modern thing that I mean carries with it quite a different [cynical] implication. It implies not that the fruit is sometimes rotten, but that the root is always rotten; and the further that feeling goes, the more it works backwards to the rottenness in the very roots of the tree of life. It rather resembles a sort of rage of amputation in a mad surgeon who has forgotten the difference between the malady and the man. There is nothing that needs a sense of proportion so much as amputation; and in this [mad] inhuman philosophy it [amputation] has gone far beyond the cutting off of the hand [as in the amputated right hand of the courageous Scaevola, circa 500 B.C.], or the plucking out of the eye, which symbolize the extremes of asceticism….Meanwhile the general stampede against nature goes on [as with the natural moral law]….(172-173—my emphasis added)

Chesterton will now take us to an even deeper consideration of these matters of the natural and the unnatural and the fact of evil:

The serpent always bites its own tail; and the whirlwind always turns upon itself; and all emanations of evil in history have always described this strange curve [turning upon itself] and [have] ended up by contradicting themselves. (174—my emphasis added)

To bolster his thoughtful and humane opinion that disproportionate and excessive fastidiousness and cynicism have grave and near incorrigible effects, Chesterton now has us consider other historical manifestations of excess:

The excess of Private Judgment [in Luther and other Protestants] ended in Prussianism; the excess of Prohibitionism and Puritanism [as in the U.S.A.] ended in a government of bootleggers and gangsters; the excess of cut-throat competition, born of the [British and Ricardo] Manchester School, ended in the universal tyranny of the Monopoly and the Trust. This is not the first time in history that the excess of Paganism has led to mere Pessimism, and its name now, like its name two thousand years ago, is, or ought to be, Manicheanism [as well as Gnosticism, a dark and chosen “escapist” religion, as well]….That was the frame of mind in which many men, in the age of St. Augustine, for instance, passed from a Greek glorification of nature to an Oriental glorification of nothing [i.e., an acknowledgement of final Nothingness]; because nature herself demanded sacrifice and life itself imposes limits. By ignoring limits, they lost all sense even of the limit that divides life and death, and finally [in despair?] found in death the only unlimited liberty [hence voluntary and permissible suicide]. That ancient and tragic transformation from the Pagan to the Manichee is passing through many minds [at least as of 1934], and fulfilling itself before our very eyes to-day; and whether there be any cure for it, deeper than the destruction [or self-destruction] itself, this is no place to inquire. (174-175—my emphasis added)

Have we, perhaps, now come to such a point where “we can tolerate neither our vices nor their remedies”? The historian Livy once thought this to be the case in Rome around 19 B.C. (in his Latin, he incisively said “nec vitia nostra nec remedia pati possumus”).

In a partial response, Chesterton himself has resolutely said: “But we can [and we should] protest against history and human experience being distorted by these fleeting fads and fashions.” (175—my emphasis added)

On the prior page of his essay, Chesterton had already given to us a well-rooted and memorable illustration of the recurrent historical excess displayed by “the Pessimism of Manicheanism” (and its closely related Gnosticism, which also essentially rejected the divine Creation of material Nature):

It [this “frame of mind,” this destructive phenomenon] appears at a point when men no longer distinguish between the leprosy that is devouring the life and the life which it devours; when their rage against the weeds that choke the flowers passes into a wild feeling that all flowers are weeds; when the tares and the wheat seem so hopelessly entangled that the demented farmer is more angry with the wheat than with the tares. (174—my emphasis added)

As it is with the cultivation of the soil, so is it with the cultivation of the soul. (Does not Christ’s own “Parable of the Sower” try to teach us that? It is His longest parable, as well: Matthew 13:1-23; Mark 4:1-20; Luke 8: 4-15.) By way of her stern rebuke, Dante’s beloved Beatrice—near the end of the Purgatorio—also tried to teach her yearning Pilgrim that a richer soil like loam needs to be more frequently and more attentively weeded (and pruned), so too with a richly gifted and endowed soul—for instance, like G.K. Chesterton’s!


Chesterton himself knew the dangers of tepidity and limpness and the inordinately soft corruptions of putative mercy. He also knew of the corrosive effects of cynicism and its selective slothful evasiveness of fundamental facts and purposes of life. Moreover, if he had been alive and active during the Second Vatican Council and its too often-deliquescent aftermath, he would have lucidly warned us—with characteristic and polite charity—about how certain excessive forms of sentimentalism are also an unmanly form of cynicism inattentive to the risks and results of our grace-extinguishing sins which lead us finally to “the corrosion of hopelessness.” Such presumption and despair—the two sins against hope—do not, however, display much softness or sensitivity or tenderness and diversity.

The robust former Jesuit priest, Father Vincent P. (“Pete”) Miceli, used to say to me (in his memorable New York accent): “We are to be the Church Militant, not the Church Milquetoast.”

The excesses of fastidiousness” and often “petulant undisciplined softness” shown by “the new sort of cynic” that our Chesterton has detected will only be exacerbated by subtle new (but still subversive) claims of “historical and cultural relativism” and of its closely related “nominalism.” Furthermore, they will also be aggravated by certain high-dialectical proposals for a developmental evolution of the Church’s once-irreformable dogma (as well as of broader doctrine), to include the Church’s longstanding traditional moral doctrine. That is to say, the sophistry and infidelity will advance by way of appeals for a “creative” and often Grace-Free “Integra Humana Progressio” and All That. As it now appears, this new orientation will also call for a new tenderness and a special sensitivity toward sustained turpitude and perversion and intrinsic acts of evil. The corruption of mercy is surely “a terrible thing to think upon” (in the robust sixteenth-century words of Father François Rabelais). “Touchy” feelings “so soft and sensitive” (170) also conduce to the effeminate.

We are indeed grateful to G.K. Chesterton for his helpful foresight and for his cautionary essay about “excess” concerning “corrosive cynicism” and other matters of moment to man. With his keen intellect and sincere heart—his “cor sincerum”—G.K. Chesterton vividly saw so much ahead of time.


© 2018 Robert D. Hickson

iG.K. Chesterton, “On the Touchy Realist,” in his anthology, entitled Avowals and Denials (London: Methuen & Co. LTD., 1934), pages 170-175 (Chapter XXIX). All references to this brief essay will henceforth be placed in parentheses above, in the main body of this text. The emphases that are added to Chesterton’s original pages will also be noted in the parentheses above. Italics are usually made by Chesterton, and will be so indicated.

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

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


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


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

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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now here we discover the first mark of the Barbarian.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


© 2018 Robert D. Hickson

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

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

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

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