Archbishop Viganò: Restore Christianity with Good Literature

Note: this essay has first been published at and is re-printed here with kind permission.

by Dr. Maike Hickson

Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò has recently written a preface for a book, Gratitude, Contemplation, and the Sacramental Worth of Catholic Literature, a collection of essays written by my husband Dr. Robert Hickson over the course of several decades. Being a distillation of his life work, this new book aims at presenting to the readers a whole set of inspiring books – most of them Catholic – that can help us restore a Catholic memory. That is to say, these books can help us revive a sense of Catholicity that comes to us from time periods and regions where the Catholic faith was an integral part of the state and society, from a lived faith.

We are very grateful to Archbishop Viganò for his preface, which highlights the importance of culture – and importantly, literature – for the revival of Christianity, and therefore we decided to publish it here (see full text below). His comments aim at turning our minds to the future, preparing the ground for a time where Christ again will reign in the heart and minds of man. His preface is therefore a sort of manifesto of faith and hope, and a wonderful instruction for us on how to go about preparing the ground for Christ.

The Italian prelate and courageous defender of the faith points to the importance of having a memory of our Catholic culture. “Memory,” he writes, “is a fundamental element of a people’s identity, civilization and culture: a society without memory, whose patrimony consists solely of a present without a past, is condemned to have no future. It is alarming that this loss of collective memory affects not only Christian nations but also seriously afflicts the Catholic Church herself and, consequently, Catholics.” The lack of culture among Catholics today, he adds, is “not the result of chance, but of systematic work on the part of those who, as enemies of the True, Good and Beautiful, must erase any ray of these divine attributes from even the most marginal aspects of social life, from our idioms, from memories of our childhood and from the stories of our grandparents.”

Describing this cultural tabula rasa that has taken place among Catholics, Archbishop Viganò goes on to say that “Reading the pages of Dante, Manzoni or one of the great Christian writers of the past, many Catholics can no longer grasp the moral and transcendent sense of a culture that is no longer their common heritage, a jealously guarded legacy, the deep root of a robust plant full of fruit.”

On the contrary, he explains, “in its place we have a bundle of the confused rubbish of the myths of the Revolution, the dusty Masonic ideological repertoire, and the iconography of a supposed freedom won by the guillotine, along with the persecution of the Church, the martyrdom of Catholics in Mexico and Spain, the end of the tyranny of Kings and Popes and the triumph of bankers and usurers.”

Archbishop Viganò clearly shows us that he understands the concept of a “cultural revolution” as developed by the Communist philosopher Antonio Gramsci, who aimed at winning the minds of the people by influencing and dominating their culture.

This cultural – and with it spiritual – empoverishment among Catholics, according to the prelate, “has found significant encouragement also among those who, within the Catholic Church, have erased 2,000 years of the inestimable patrimony of faith, spirituality and art, beginning with a wretched sense of inferiority instilled in the faithful even by the hierarchy since Vatican II.” It was the very hierarchy of the Church – together with many simpler clergymen – who helped promote such a devastation of the art within the realm of the Catholic Church. Let us only think of the modern churches, altars, and of modern church music!

With powerful words, Archbishop Viganò describes how this destruction is ultimately aimed at God Himself: “Certainly, behind this induced amnesia, there is a Trinitarian heresy. And where the Deceiver lurks, the eternal Truth of God must be obscured in order to make room for the lie, the betrayal of reality, the denial of the past.” In light of this analysis, it nearly seems to be a counter-revolutionary act to revive Catholic literature, Catholic music, Catholic architecture.

Explains the prelate: “Rediscovering memory, even in literature, is a meritorious and necessary work for the restoration of Christianity, a restoration that is needed today more than ever if we want to entrust to our children a legacy to be preserved and handed down as a tangible sign of God’s intervention in the history of the human race.”

It is in this context that he kindly mentions the “meritorious work” of this new book, praising its “noble purpose of restoring Catholic memory, bringing it back to its ancient splendor, that is, the substance of a harmonious and organic past that has grown and still lives today.” He adds that “Robert Hickson rightly shows us, in the restoration of memory, the way to rediscover the shared faith that shapes the traits of a shared Catholic culture.”

Dr. Hickson’s new book was published last month and contains 25 essays on many different Catholic authors, such as Hilaire Belloc, G.K. Chesterton, Maurice Baring, Evelyn Waugh, Josef Pieper, George Bernanos, Ernest Psichari, Father John Hardon, S.J., L. Brent Bozell Jr., and, last but not least, the Orthodox Christian authors Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. The themes of this book are war and peace, justice, the Catholic vow, saints, friendship, chivalry, martyrdom and sacrifice, just to name a few. The essays of the book were written from 1982 until 2017, the first being an essay where Hickson developed the concept of “sacramental literature” and the importance of “restoring a Catholic memory.” Anthony S. Fraser, the son of the famous Catholic convert and traditionalist, Hamish Fraser, kindly had edited the essays for his friend, before he so suddenly died on August 28, 2014, the Feast of St. Augustine of Hippo. May his soul rest in peace. We thank you, Tony!

Here is the full preface written by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò:

Memory is a fundamental element of a people’s identity, civilization and culture: a society without memory, whose patrimony consists solely of a present without a past, is condemned to have no future. It is alarming that this loss of collective memory affects not only Christian nations, but also seriously afflicts the Catholic Church herself and, consequently, Catholics.

This amnesia affects all social classes and is not the result of chance, but of systematic work on the part of those who, as enemies of the True, Good and Beautiful, must erase any ray of these divine attributes from even the most marginal aspects of social life, from our idioms, from memories of our childhood and from the stories of our grandparents. The Orwellian action of artificially remodeling the past has become commonplace in the contemporary world, to the point that a class of high school students are unable to recognize an altarpiece depicting a scene from the life of Christ or a bas-relief with one of the most revered saints of the past. Dr. Robert Hickson calls this inability “deficiency of dogmatic understanding”, “Catholic illiteracy of pestilential proportions”.

Tabula rasa: millions of souls who only twenty or thirty years ago would have immediately identified the Baptism of the Lord in the Jordan or Saint Jerome or Saint Mary Magdalene are capable of seeing only two men along a river, an old man with a lion and a woman with a vase. Reading the pages of Dante, Manzoni or one of the great Christian writers of the past, many Catholics can no longer grasp the moral and transcendent sense of a culture that is no longer their common heritage, a jealously guarded legacy, the deep root of a robust plant full of fruit.

In its place we have a bundle of the confused rubbish of the myths of the Revolution, the dusty Masonic ideological repertoire, and the iconography of a supposed freedom won by the guillotine, along with the persecution of the Church, the martyrdom of Catholics in Mexico and Spain, the end of the tyranny of Kings and Popes and the triumph of bankers and usurers. A lineage of kings, saints, and heroes is ignored by its heirs, who stoop to boasting about their ancestors who were criminals, usurpers, and seditious traitors: never has falsification reached the point of such incomprehensible perversion, and it is evident that the desire to artificially create such ancestry is the necessary premise for the barbarization of the offspring, which is now practically accomplished.

We must also recognize that this removal has found significant encouragement also among those who, within the Catholic Church, have erased two thousand years of the inestimable patrimony of faith, spirituality and art, beginning with a wretched sense of inferiority instilled in the faithful even by the Hierarchy since Vatican II. The ancient apostolic liturgy, on which centuries of poetic compositions, mosaics, frescoes, paintings, sculptures, chiseled vases, illuminated chorales, embroidered vestments, plainchants and polyphony have been shaped, has been proscribed. In its place we now have a squalid rite without roots, born from the pen of conspirators dipped in the inkwell of Protestantism; music that is no longer sacred but profane; tasteless liturgical vestments and sacred vessels made of common material. And as a grey counterpoint to the hymns of St. Ambrose and St. Thomas, we now have poor paraphrases without metrics and without soul, grotesque paintings and disturbing sculptures. The removal of the admirable writings of the Fathers of the Church, the works of the mystics, the erudite dissertations of theologians and philosophers and, in the final analysis, of Sacred Scripture itself – whose divine inspiration is sometimes denied, sacrilegiously affirming that it is merely of human origin – have all constituted necessary steps of being able to boast of the credit of worldly novelties, which before those monuments of human ingenuity enlightened by Grace appear as miserable forgeries.

This absence of beauty is the necessary counterpart to an absence of holiness, for where the Lord of all things is forgotten and banished, not even the appearance of Beauty survives. It is not only Beauty that has been banished: Catholic Truth has been banished along with it, in all its crystalline splendor, in all its dazzling consistency, in all its irrepressible capacity to permeate every sphere of civilized living. Because the Truth is eternal, immutable and divisive: it existed yesterday, it exists today and it will exist tomorrow, as eternal and immutable and divisive as the Word of God.

Certainly, behind this induced amnesia, there is a Trinitarian heresy. And where the Deceiver lurks, the eternal Truth of God must be obscured in order to make room for the lie, the betrayal of reality, the denial of the past. In a forgery that is truly criminal forgery, even the very custodians of the depositum fidei ask forgiveness from the world for sins never committed by our fathers – in the name of God, Religion or the Fatherland – supporting the widest and most articulated historical forgery carried out by the enemies of God. And this betrays not only the ignorance of History which is already culpable, but also culpable bad faith and the malicious will to deceive the simple ones.

Rediscovering memory, even in literature, is a meritorious and necessary work for the restoration of Christianity, a restoration that is needed today more than ever if we want to entrust to our children a legacy to be preserved and handed down as a tangible sign of God’s intervention in the history of the human race: how much Providence has accomplished over the centuries – and that art has immortalized by depicting miracles, the victories of the Christians over the Turk, sovereigns kneeling at the feet of the Virgin, patron saints of famous universities and prosperous corporations – can be renewed today and especially tomorrow, only if we can rediscover our past and understand it in the light of the mystery of the Redemption.

This book proposes the noble purpose of restoring Catholic memory, bringing it back to its ancient splendor, that is, the substance of a harmonious and organic past that has grown and still lives today, just as the hereditary traits of a child are found developed in the adult man, or as the vital principle of the seed is found in the sap of the tree and in the pulp of the fruit. Robert Hickson rightly shows us, in the restoration of memory, the way to rediscover the shared faith that shapes the traits of a shared Catholic culture.

In this sense it is significant – I would say extremely appropriate, even if only by analogy – to have also included Christian literature among the Sacramentals, applying to it the  same as action as that of blessed water, the glow of the candles, the ringing of bells, the liturgical chant: the invocation of the Virgin in the thirty-third canto of Dante’s Paradiso, the dialogue of Cardinal Borromeo with the Innominato, and a passage by Chesterton all make Catholic truths present in our minds and, in some way, they realize what they mean and can influence the spiritual life, expanding and completing it. Because of this mystery of God’s unfathomable mercy we are touched in our souls, moved to tears, inspired by Good, spurred to conversion. But this is also what happens when we contemplate an altarpiece or listen to a composition of sacred music, in which a ray of divine perfection bursts into the greyness of everyday life and shows us the splendor of the Kingdom that awaits us.

The author writes: “We are called to the commitment to recover the life and full memory of the Body of Christ, even if in our eyes we cannot do much to rebuild that Body”. But the Lord does not ask us to perform miracles: He invites us to make them possible, to create the conditions in our souls and in our social bodies so that the wonders of divine omnipotence may be manifested. To open ourselves to the past, to the memory of God’s great actions in history, is an essential condition for making it possible for us to become aware of our identity and our destiny today so that we may restore the Kingdom of Christ tomorrow.

+ Carlo Maria Viganò
Titular Archbishop of Ulpiana
Apostolic Nuncio

28 August 2020
Saint Augustine
Bishop, Confessor, and Doctor of the Church

G.K. Chesterton’s 1920 Insights on “The Story of the Vow”

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                                                   11 July 2020

Saint Pius I (d. 167)

Saint Benedict of Nursia (d. 543)

The Hicksons’ Sacramental Anniversary


The civilisation of vows was broken up when Henry the Eighth broke his own vow of marriage. Or rather, it was broken up by a new cynicism in the ruling powers of Europe, of which that was the almost accidental expression in England. The monasteries, that had been built by vows, were destroyed. The guilds [of the pledged craftsmen and tradesmen], that had been regiments of volunteers, were dispersed. The sacramental nature of marriage was denied; and many of the greatest intellects of the new movement, like Milton [the poet John Milton], already indulged in a very modern idealisation of divorce.” (G.K. Chesterton, The Superstition of Divorce (London: Chatto & Windus, 1920), page 96—my emphasis added.)


“Such, in very vague outline, has been the historical nature of vows; and the unique part they played in that medieval civilisation out of which modern civilisation rose—or fell.” (G. K. Chesterton, The Superstition of Divorce (1920), page 93—my emphasis added.)


“But when this saner view of history is realised, there does remain something more mystical and difficult to define. Even heathen things are Christian when they have been preserved by Christianity. Chivalry is something recognisably different even from the virtus of Virgil. Charity is something exceedingly different from the plain pity of Homer.” (G.K. Chesterton, The Superstition of Divorce (1920), page 86—my emphasis added.)


In 1920, two years before he was received into the Catholic Church at forty-eight years of age, G.K. Chesterton published a book entitled The Superstition of Divorce,1 in which there is to be refreshingly found a variegated and unexpected twenty-page chapter entitled “The Story of the Vow.”

It is our intention in this brief essay to concentrate on some parts of that one chapter so that we may better understand and circulate Chesterton’s reviving insights on the meaning of a vow, and on some of the consequences of a vow, as distinct from a mere contract or an unfair “leonine contract.” For, it is so that a vow is not always a solemn act and grave promise made also as an irreversible promise to God. But sometimes it is: for example, as is the case in a sacramental marriage or in a sacred calling to the religious life, as in the pledges of a monk, or those of a knight.

Moreover, says Chesterton:

The whole of what we call chivalry was one great vow. Vows of chivalry varied infinitely from the most solid to the most fantastic; from a vow to give all the spoils of conquest to the poor to a vow to refrain from shaving until the first glimpse of Jerusalem. As I have remarked, this rule of loyalty, even in unruly exceptions which proved the rule, ran through all the romances [as with beloved Don Quixote!] and songs of the troubadours; and there were always vows even when they were very far from being marriage vows….

I mean here to emphasise the presence, and not even to settle the proportion, of this new notion [of vows] in the middle ages….When we come to workmen and small tradesmen, we find the same vague yet vivid presence of the spirit that can only be called the vow. In this sense there was a chivalry of trades as well as chivalry of orders of knighthood. (89-91—my emphasis added)

Returning to another portion of his earlier analogies with the classical pagan world, Chesterton says:

Even our patriotism [now] is something more subtle than the undivided love of the city [like Athens]; and the change is felt in the most permanent things, such as the love of landscape [in Belloc’s Sussex and the Sea!] or the love of woman.

To define the differentiation in all these things will always be hopelessly difficult. But I would here suggest one element in the change [from the Ancient World] which is perhaps too much neglected: the nature of a vow.

I might express it by saying that pagan antiquity was the age of status; that Christian mediævalism was the age of vows; and that sceptical modernity has been the age of contracts; or rather has tried to be, and has failed.

The outstanding example of status is slavery. (86-87—my emphasis added)

Later alerting us to the consequential breakup of families (and hence to the wounding of the vulnerable little children), Chesterton had also earlier warned us of something else: “The point is that every philosophy of sex must fail which does not account for its ambition of fixity, as well as for its experience of failure.” (83—my emphasis added) For, as he later also politely and quite fairly adds:

The point here, however, is that the trade and craft [guilds] had not only something like the crest [of aristocratic heraldry], but something like the vow of knighthood. There was in the guildsman the same basic notion that belonged to knights and even to the monks. It was the notion of the free choice of a fixed estate. [That is to say, with reference to the free choice of the knight or the monk: “He is not bound to be bound” (83)!] We can realise the moral atmosphere if we compare the system of Christian guilds, not only with the [unfree] status of the Greek and Roman slaves, but with such a scheme as that of the Indian castes. The oriental caste has some of the qualities of the occidental guild; especially the valuable quality of tradition and the accumulation of culture. (91-92—my emphasis added)

As Chesterton said about the slow transition from pagan antiquity to a wider Christian civilisation: “It marks at least a special stage of transition that the form of freedom was essential to the fact of service, or even of servitude. In this way it is not a coincidence that the word homage actually means manhood.” (89—my emphasis added)

Looking back at all of this evidence, Chesterton said:

But we can never judge it [the idea of the vow] fairly till we face, as I have tried to suggest, this main fact of history: that the personal pledge, feudal or civic or monastic, was the way in which the world did escape from the system of slavery in the past. For the modern break-down of mere contract leaves it still doubtful [as of 1920] if there be any other way of escaping it [i.e., an effective, even subtle, form of slavery] in the future.

The idea, or at any rate the ideal, of the thing called the vow is fairly obvious. It is to combine the fixity that goes with finality with self-respect that only goes with freedom. (94—my emphasis added)

In light of Henry the Eighth’s and John Milton’s sense of marital license, Chesterton said:

The progress of this sort of emancipation advanced step by step with the progress of that aristocratic ascendancy which has made the history of modern England [along with an inordinate dominance by the money power with “the sign of golden usury” (91)]; with all its sympathy with personal liberty, and all its utter lack of sympathy with popular life. Marriage not only became less of a sacrament but less of a sanctity. It threatened to become not only a contract, but a contract that could not be kept [as with “no-fault divorce” today]….It began with divorce of a king; and it is now ending in divorces for a whole kingdom.

The modern era that followed can be called the era of contract; but it can still be called the era of leonine contract. The nobles of the new time first robbed the people, and then offered to bargain with them. It would not be an exaggeration to say that they first robbed the people, and then offered to cheat them….The object of the whole process was to isolate the individual poor man in his dealings with the individual rich man; and then offer to buy and sell with him, though it must be himself that was bought and sold. (96-98—my emphasis added)

Moreover, says Chesterton, and in an increasingly earnest way:

Unless the tendency [as seen from the vantage point of 1920] be reversed, he [the vulnerable and isolated poorer man] will probably become admittedly a slave [also in debt-bondage and facing usurious compound interest]. That is to say, the word slave will never be used, for it is always easy to find an inoffensive word; but he will be admittedly a man legally bound to certain social service, in return for economic security. In other words, the modern experiment of mere contract has broken down….The substitute for it may be the old one of status; but is must be something having some of the stability of status. So far history has found only one way of combining that sort of stability with any sort of liberty. (98—my emphasis added)

Now Chesterton comes to his main concern in his entire book on the family and divorce:

There is only one form of freedom that they [the “captains of industry” (99) and theirs managerial elites] tolerate; and that is the sort of sexual freedom that is covered by the legal fiction of divorce.

If we ask why this liberty is alone left, when so many liberties are lost, we shall find the answer in the summary of this chapter. They are trying to break the vow of the knight as they broke the vow of the monk. They recognise the vow as the vital antithesis to servile status; the alternative and therefore the antagonist. (99-100—my emphasis added)

Now returning to the sanctity of marriage, Chesterton becomes even more specific and robustly affirmative, ending his Chapter 3 with a deft and realistic literary allusion about one of those gravely ill effects of one conspicuous historical form of slavery:

Marriage makes a small state within the state, which resists all such [inordinate and intrusive] regimentation. That [marital] bond breaks all other [lesser positive-law] bonds; that [marital] law is found stronger than all later and lesser laws.

They [the modern state] desire the democracy to be sexually fluid, because the making of small nuclei is like the making of small nations. Like small nations, they are a nuisance to the mind of imperial scope….

It is so difficult to see the world in which we live [in 1920], that I know that many will see all I have said here of [often camouflaged] slavery as a nonsensical nightmare. But if my association of divorce with slavery seems only a far-fetched and theoretical paradox, I should have no difficulty in replacing it by a concrete and familiar picture. Let them merely remember the time when they read “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” and ask themselves whether the oldest and simplest of the charges against slavery has not always been the breaking up of families. (100-101—my emphasis added)

In this context it was also significant for a just and magnanimous man like G.K. Chesterton to discover that the printed subtitle of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1851-1852 widely influential pre-war novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is Life Among the Lowly.

The novel’s subtitle also recalls G.K. Chesterton’s keenly discerning and paradoxical wit in his Orthodoxy: “Without humility you can’t enjoy anything, even pride.”

We may better now also appreciate what Chesterton’s dear friend Hilaire Belloc had published eight years earlier in his 1912 book, which was also subtly entitled The Servile State.


© 2020 Robert D. Hickson

1 G.K. Chesterton, The Superstition of Divorce (London: Chatto & Windus, 1920), containing 151 pages in length overall, with five chapters and a brief conclusion. All future references to this book, especially to Chapter 3 (“The Story of the Vow”) will be placed in parentheses above in the main body of this essay and commentary.

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

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                                            14 April 2019

Palm Sunday

Saint Justin Martyr (d. 165)



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

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


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


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


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


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

For example, Chesterton wrote:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Belloc begins his section on Materialism with these clarifying words:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now I like that….

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

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

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

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

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

Hilaire Belloc’s 1929 Insights Concerning Islam:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


© 2019 Robert D. Hickson

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

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

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

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

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                              17 January 2019

Saint Anthony the Great (356)

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


“Oh, he didn’t believe

In Adam and Eve,

He put no faith therein!

His doubts began

With the fall of man,

And he laughed at original sin!”

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


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


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

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

Chesterton begins his Introduction with the following words:

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

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

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

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

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

About the village Flavingny, Belloc says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crossing the Serchio [River] once more [while descending the hills of the Apennine ridge], … I passed by a wider path through the groves, and entered the dear village of Sillano, which looks right into the pure west. And the peaks are guardians all about it: the elder brothers of this remote and secluded valley.

An inn received me: a great kitchen full of men and women talking, a supper preparing, a great fire, meat smoking and drying in the ingle-nook, a vast timbered roof going up into darkness: there I was courteously received, but no one understood my language. Seeing there a young priest, I said to him—

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

And my first verse was—

“Heretics all, whoever you be,

In Tarbes or Nîmes, or over the sea,

You never shall have good words from me.

Caritas non conturbat me.”

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

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

“But Catholic men that live upon wine

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

Wherever I travel I find it so,

Benedicamus Domino.”

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

“On childing women that are forlorn,

And men that sweat in nothing but scorn:

That is on all that ever were born,

Miserere Domine.”

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

“To my poor self on my deathbed,

And all my dear companions dead,

Because of the love that I bore them,

Dona Eis Requiem.”

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

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

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

Pelagius lived in Kardanoel,

And taught a doctrine there,

How whether you went to Heaven or Hell,

It was your own affair.

How, whether you found eternal joy

Or sank forever to burn,

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

But was your own concern. ….


Oh, he didn’t believe

In Adam and Eve,

He put no faith therein!

His doubts began

With the fall of man,

And he laughed at original sin!

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

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


© 2019 Robert D. Hickson

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

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

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

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

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                               18 December 2018

The Expectation of Mary

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


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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


© 2018 Robert D. Hickson

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

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

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


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


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

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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now here we discover the first mark of the Barbarian.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


© 2018 Robert D. Hickson

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

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

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

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