A Form of Style Not to Be Despised: Evelyn Waugh’s Lactantius in Helena (1950)

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                                                    5 May 2019

Pope Saint Pius V (d. 1572)



But your question just now [said Marcias the Gnostic-Mystagogue, and Helena’s former tutor as a slave in Britain, but now a visiting savant from Marseilles]—‘When? Where? How do you know?’—was a child’s question.”

“That is why your religion [your current Gnostic religion] would never do for me, Marcias. If I ever found a teacher it would have to be one who called little children to him.” (Evelyn Waugh, Helena (1950), page 123—my emphasis added)


“[O! Lactantius,] I should not have asked [you]. All my life I have caused offence to religious people by asking questions. Good night, Lactantius.” (Evelyn Waugh, Helena, page 125—my emphasis added)


In the sixth chapter of his historical novel, Helena (1950),1 Evelyn Waugh introduces us memorably to the historical character, Lactantius (c. 250-c. 325), the early Christian Latin writer and occasional tutor who was also later to be an advisor to Emperor Constantine. However, at one point in his earlier life–while he was still in exile in Trier on the Moselle River—Lactantius conveys to the Empress Dowager Helena herself—who is not yet a Christian– his considered views on the mystery of martyrdom and on the lesser mysteries of forms of alluring language. He thus briefly considers the role of a writer as well as the enduring power (and regrettably abiding influence) of some eloquent, but specious, forms of prose style. He especially shows his own attentiveness to those writers who give the right form to the wrong thing, as well as those who give the wrong form to the right thing.

Leading up to Lactanius’ candid response, Helena—still an unbaptized non-Christian herself—shows compassion for him, and did it, unfortunately, in the presence of the trifling and quite characteristically superficial Minervina, Helena’s former daughter-in-law, as well:

“It’s funny, nowadays, how much talk there is everywhere about Christians. I don’t remember ever hearing of them when I was a girl in Britain [with Marcias as her tutor].”

We have our martyrs there too [said Lactantius]—before your imperial husband’s day of course. We are very proud of Alban [i.e., Saint Alban, the proto-martyr in Britain, circa 305 A.D.].”…

“It must be a sad time for your people [who are back in Nicomedia, southeast of Byzantium-Constantinople],” said Helena.

“Also a glorious time.”

“Really, Lactantius, what possible glory can there be in getting into the hands of the police?” said Minervina. “I never heard such affectation. If you feel like that I wonder you didn’t stay at home in Nicomedia. Plenty of glory there.” (115—my emphasis added)

In his humility and with modesty, Lactantius tried to answer the actual and implied questions posed by both of these prominent ladies—Empress Dowager Helena and Minervina, who, like Helena, is now also divorced, being the former wife (or concubine) of Constantine and the mother of Emperor Constantine’s own first son, Crispus. The refugee Christian scholar and writer thus says:

It needs a special quality to be a martyr—just as it needs a special quality to be a writer. Mine is the humbler rôle, but one must not think it quite valueless. One might combine two proverbs and say: ‘Art is long and will prevail.’ You see it is equally possible to give the right form to the wrong thing, and the wrong form to the right thing. Suppose that in the years to come, when the Church’s troubles seem to be over, there should come an apostate of my own trade, a false historian, with the mind of Cicero or Tacitus and the soul of an animal,” and he nodded towards the gibbon [that earlier-presented “Indian ape” (110)]2 who fretted his golden chain and chattered for fruit. “A man like that that might make it his business to write down the martyrs and excuse the persecutors. He might be refuted again and again but what he wrote would remain in people’s minds when the refutations were quite forgotten. That is what style does—it has the Egyptian secret of the embalmers. It is not to be despised.” (115-116—my emphasis added)

By contrast, we had already earlier been told by Evelyn Waugh’s narrator that:

Minervina yawned in Helena’s salon [both in Trèves (Trier on the Moselle) and in nearby Igal]. It was not what she [with her vague and emotional gnostic mysticism] was used to in the Middle East. Lactantius [being a Christian] shunned it. The celebrated man was ostensibly Crispus’s tutor, but lessons had never prospered and soon lapsed. It was all of a piece with [Emperor] Constantine’s vague conception of splendor to search out from obscurity the greatest living prose stylist and set him to teach the obstreperous little [eleven-years-old] prince his letters. Crispus now played all day long with boats and catapults and lorded it over his contemporaries, while Lactantius followed his own calling in his own quarters….He had outgrown ambition but he believed that it would not be convenient to be [at least at court] entirely forgotten. (112-113—my emphasis added)

Waugh further prepares us to appreciate Lactantius’ deeper insights about language and sophistry by first giving us the current context (and a little history) of his life:

The post suited him well [there in Trier on the Moselle River and nearby at Igal], for he was a Christian; he had got out of Nicomedia only just in time [amidst the lingering Diocletian persecutions of 303-305 A.D.]. Half his friends were caught in the latest wave of arrests and executions. Others of them [his other friends] turned up in Trèves from time to time with horrible stories. Refugees naturally headed there for it was one of the safest towns in the Empire, with a Bishop and countless priests going openly about their business. One was not starved of the sacraments in Trèves. What irked Lactantius was the lack of a theological library. The Bishop was an admirable man but his books were negligible. Lactantius had been unable to bring anything with him save his own manuscripts [e.g., the Institutiones Divinae—the Divine Institutes], and was thus left, with all his unrivalled powers of expression, rather vague about what to express; with, more than that, the ever-present fear of falling into error [such as Pre-Millennialism?]. (113—my emphasis added)

Waugh then gives us a further taste of Lactantius’ inspired views about language and literature:

He delighted in writing, in the joinery [as in fine cabinet-woodmaking] and embellishment of his sentences, in the high consciousness of high rare virtue when every word had been used in its purest and most precise sense, in the kitten games [sic] of syntax and rhetoric. Words could do anything except generate their own meaning. If only I were a little braver,” Lactantius sometimes thought, “if I had dared stay near the centre of things, across the Alps, I might have been a great writer.” (113-114—my emphasis added)

But, in contrast to Lactanius’ modest thoughts about excellence and about objective fame, we have, presented as a foil, the example of Minervina. For Trier, in addition to allowing the small but flourishing Christian cult, also

Teemed with mystagogues of one sort and another, and Minervina, who had formed a taste for such company in the Middle East [and in Bithynia, on the Black Sea in modern Turkey], had a coterie of them, which Helena deplored. Almost everything about Minervina was objectionable but Helena bore with her for the sake of Crispus [now eleven years of age].” (114—my emphasis added)


It was to Gnostic friends [such as Marcias, who is on the way from Marseilles] that Minervina now referred to when she said: “I shall be glad when we move back to town. I miss my Souls [sic].” (114—my emphasis added)

More and more Helena is sympathetically welcoming of, and drawn to, Christianity and away from vague emotional mysticisms and Gnostic abstractions and frigidities. At one point of her attempts to understand a visiting gnostic lecturer, Marcias, she had a germinating and a somewhat uncontrollable reaction:

Helena felt something shockingly unsuitable to the occasion take shape deep within herself and irresistibly rise; something native to her, inalienable, long overlaid, foreign to her position [as Empress Mother], to marriage and to motherhood, to the cares of her great household, the olive-presses and the almond picking; foreign to the schooling of thirty years, to the puzzled, matronly heads of the stuffy, steamy hall; something that smacked of the sea-mist and the stables and the salty tangles of a young red head [in her happy childhood home with her beloved father in Britain]. Helena fought it. She compressed herself in the chair, she bit her thumbs, she drew her scarf over her face, she ground he her heel against her ankle-bone, she tried furiously to cram her mind with all the sad things she knew—Minervina’s Bithynian accent and deserted Dido [as depicted in Virgil’s Aeneid, Book IV]–but without avail. Overborne, all the more audible for her efforts at suppression, Helena began to giggle. (120—my emphasis added).

At once Waugh deftly adds: “The infection did not spread.” (120)—somewhat surprisingly so, at first, but also revealingly so, given the nature of Marcias’ audience of enraptured ladies “absorbed” and “agog.” And even “happier [were] those who surrendered without resistance to the flood of [Marcias’s] buoyant speech and floated supine and agape; they were getting what they had come for.” (119—my emphasis added) Vague Sophistry and Soothing Sentimental Religion.



In Waugh’s historical novel, Helena and Lactantius are both depicted as critical of, and especially resistant to, the permanent temptation of Sophistry to the human mind. And this sustained resistance to various forms of specious Sophistry, as it turns out, further prepares Helena herself to become a faithful and resourceful Christian—and one who will then adventurously come to discover the Holy Cross in distant Jerusalem.

My beloved mentor, Josef Pieper, succinctly summarized the perennial twofold danger and seductive corruption of Sophistry: sophistry corrupts our access to reality and also corrupts our communication of that reality to another. And to do it in proportion!

The intermediate and preparatory chapter six of Evelyn Waugh’s cherished larger novel, Helena, conveys to us many other things of moment to man—and not just about the use and abuse of language.

May we now also come to read (or to read once again) and to savor Helena as a whole. And, like Evelyn Waugh himself, may we also come to read it affectionately aloud. Even to our children.


© 2019 Robert D. Hickson

1Evelyn Waugh, Helena (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1950). Chapter Six, where we shall meet Lactantius, is entitled “Ancien Régime.” All future references to Waugh’s novel will be from this text and placed in parentheses above in the main body of this essay.

2Evelyn Waugh also makes a subtle allusion here to the often-ironic and even mincingly sneering and depreciative historian, Edward GIBBON (d. 1794), the author of the 6-volume work, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, written 1776-1788.Waugh was likely also thinking of the memorable style of another anti-Christian Enlightenment thinker, namely Voltaire. Furthermore, before mentioning Lactantius’ own allusiveness to a chattering gibbon, Evelyn Waugh had deftly begun his book’s sixth chapter with these effectively preparatory words: “An Indian ape, the recent expensive present of a visiting diplomat, rattled his gold chain on the terrace. Helena threw him a plum.” (110)

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

Dr. Robert Hickson

       19 March 2019

Saint Joseph, “Virgo Pater Jesu



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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

“Am I in Switzerland?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not a head moved.

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

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

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

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

“He wants wine.”

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

“How much will you pay?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a wine!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our beloved Belloc immediately added:

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


© 2019 Robert D. Hickson

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

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

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                                        7 March 2019

Saint Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274)



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


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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


© 2019 Robert D. Hickson

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

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

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                                   28 February 2019

Pope Saint Hilary (d. 468)

Saint Romanus (d. 460)



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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or she would put her head in and say—

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

And my neighbor, a tourist, answered with decision

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you want?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What you like,” she said.

“What have you?” said I.

“Beer,” said she.

“Anything else?” said I.

“No,” said she.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


© 2019 Robert D. Hickson

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

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.