Hilaire Belloc was born on July 27, 1870. To commemorate and celebrate the 150th anniversary of Belloc’s birth, Joseph Pearce, author of Old Thunder: A Life of Hilaire Belloc, was interviewed by Jan Franczak for the Polish journal, PCh24. This is the first publication of the interview in English.
Jan Franczak: Hilaire Belloc seems to remain in the shadow of Chesterton, although as a writer he was no less prolific than the author of Orthodoxy. Robert Speaight, in The Life of Hilaire Belloc, quoted Sir John Squire saying that “the man who attempts to survey the writings of Belloc will think he is undertaking to write the literary history of a small nation.” In Poland most of the important works by Chesterton have been translated; Belloc is still practically not known, or known by few readers. It doesn’t seem to be better in the English-speaking world, does it?
Joseph Pearce: I think it would be fair to say that Belloc is still living in the shadow of his good friend, G.K. Chesterton, though he has emerged somewhat from that shadow in more recent years. When George Bernard Shaw labeled Chesterton and Belloc, taken together, as a mythical beast called the “chesterbelloc,” he was acknowledging that the two were seen synonymously and side by side, as equals, in terms of literary stature and cultural influence. It is, therefore, strange and somewhat unjust that Belloc has waned while Chesterton has waxed. As I have sought to show in my own writings, they are comrades in arms who should once again be seen as equals.
Franczak: Talking about writers “living in the shadow” … The truth is that in the shadow of these two towering figures is hidden the third prolific writer (and a polyglot) who was a friend of theirs and was not mentioned by Mr. Shaw. And as Chesterton he was a convert to the Catholic faith…
Pearce: You presumably mean the great and unjustly neglected Maurice Baring, who was a great friend of both Belloc and Chesterton, and who was immortalized with his two friends in Sir James Gunn’s wonderful group portrait, “A Conversation Piece.” To my mind, Baring is one of the finest novelists of the past century, as well as being a very fine poet. His novels were bestsellers between the two world wars, in France as much as in England. Several of these, especially C, Cat’s Cradle and Robert Peckham, are classics of 20th century Catholic fiction.
Franczak: So we have three writers who could provide enough literature for three small nations. Let’s add that they would be Catholic nations (two of them converted on the way). Not too bad as for the Catholic revival in Great Britain. Let’s hope we will have an opportunity to talk about Baring and Chesterton some time in the future, but let’s concentrate on Belloc.
Whenever I look at photos of Belloc, he reminds me of a heavyweight boxer. He was a fierce polemicist and defender of the Faith. However, on the other hand, he had a very romantic soul and a specific sense of humor, if we take into account his poems for children. And the story of his love for Elodie, his wife, is both romantic and tragic at the same time.
He was a poet, a novelist, a historian, a journalist, a Catholic apologist … Which part of his literary heritage is still relevant to us?
Pearce: All of it, though especially his poetry, his historical works, and his role as a Catholic apologist.
As a poet, Belloc ranks alongside the finest of the 20th century. For sheer rambunctiousness, there is the riotous invective of “Lines to a Don,” Belloc’s vituperative riposte to the don “who dared attack my Chesterton”; for sheer indefatigable vigour, there is the romp and stomp of “The End of the Road”; for a doom-laden sense of the decay of England, there is the knell of “Ha’nacker Mill”; for the mystical sense of the exile of life, there is the Yeatsian yearning betwixt faith and faerie that is hauntingly evoked in “Twelfth Night”; for the dance of melancholy and mirth amid “the ruines of time” there is the hip, hop, clap of Belloc’s scintillating “Tarantella.”
Franczak: Which of Belloc’s historical works are particularly important?
Pearce: Many of them. Too many to mention. He wrote so many biographies of historical figures. His first biography, Danton, was published in 1899 and, thereafter, he would continue to write biographies of historical figures, specializing particularly, though by no means exclusively, in the figures of the English Reformation. These included studies of Cromwell, James the Second, Wolsey, Cranmer, Charles the First, and Milton. He also published panoramic studies of the whole period, such as How the Reformation Happened and Characters of the Reformation, as well as a four-volume History of England.
His principal legacy as an historian falls into three areas. First is his seminal struggle with H.G. Wells over the “outline of history”; second, his groundbreaking refutation of the prejudiced “official” history of the Reformation; and finally his telescopic and panoramic study of the “great heresies.”
In order to avoid the chronological snobbery that presumes the superiority of the present over the past and which causes a lack of proportion and focus, Belloc believed passionately that historians must see history through the eyes of the past, not the present. They must put themselves into the minds and hearts of the protagonists they are studying; and to do this adequately they must have knowledge of philosophy and theology in order to understand their own academic discipline and in order to remain disciplined in their study of it. An ignorance of philosophy and theology means an ignorance of history.
“In history we must abandon the defensive,” he wrote in 1924. “We must make our opponents understand not only that they are wrong in their philosophy, nor only ill-informed in their judgement of cause and effect, but out of touch with the past: which is ours.”
Franczak: And you also mentioned his role as a Catholic apologist….
Pearce: In Survivals and New Arrivals (1929) and The Great Heresies (1938), Belloc mapped the war of ideas that had forged the history of Europe and beyond. It is in this sphere that we see Belloc the historian emerging as not merely a Catholic apologist but as a prophet, particularly with regard to his warnings about the renewed threat of Islam. It is, for instance, almost chilling that Belloc wrote of the lifting of the Muslim siege of Vienna “on a date that ought to be among the most famous in history–September 11, 1683.” It is a date that Christendom has forgotten, to its shame, but which the militants of Islam had apparently remembered, as the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 illustrated all too clearly. “It has always seemed to me possible, and even probable, that there would be a resurrection of Islam and that our sons or our grandsons would see the renewal of that tremendous struggle between the Christian culture and what has been for more than a thousand years its greatest opponent.” These words, written more than 80 years ago, went unheeded. Today they resound like the death-knell of Europe.
Franczak: It was exactly his prophecy about Islam that made me start reading his books. I was thunderstruck. I couldn’t believe someone could possibly predict our future so well in 1938. And it wasn’t his only prophecy that seems to be fulfilling right now. I’m thinking about his predictions of the future attacks against the Church in the same book, The Great Heresies. Especially when he says in the last part, called “The Modern Phase,” that “the modern attack will not tolerate us. It will attempt to destroy us.” And then he adds, “Nor can we tolerate it. We must attempt to destroy it as being the fully equipped and ardent enemy of the Truth by which men live. The duel is to the death.” I have an impression it’s happening right now in front of our eyes. Maybe the epidemic has made it even more visible. So perhaps it’s high time to rediscover his books and find out what else he had to tell us almost a century ago.
Pearce: Belloc’s analysis of “the modern phase” of the perennial struggle between the forces of light and life, i.e., the Church, and those of darkness and death is indeed very powerful and prescient. I would also recommend the section on the “Modern Mind” in his book Survivals and New Arrivals. Belloc’s understanding of intellectual history and the clash of cultures, especially with respect to the history of Christendom, is simply astonishing. For this reason, his books The Great Heresies and Survivals and New Arrivals should be on every Catholic’s reading list. I have likened his approach to that of a tank which relentlessly trundles across the landscape of the centuries, systematically crushing every error in its path.
Franczak: However it will be honest to say that Belloc wasn’t always as prophetic in his insights as when he wrote about Islam or the future attack on the Catholic Church. I mean his articles for Land and Water during World War I. They even made a laughing stock out of him, finally. You show it in his biography, Old Thunder: A Life of Hilaire Belloc. What happened then? Was he much better at predicting the distant future than the immediate one?
Pearce: That’s a great question! There are two problems associated with Belloc’s writing on World War I. The first is his Francophilia and his disdain and distaste for all things German in general, and all things specifically Prussian in particular. He saw the spirit of Prussian militarism and imperialism as the curse of his age, or at least one of the primary curses of an age blighted with multifarious curses. Having been born in the year of the Franco-Prussian War, which forced his family into exile, Belloc had good reason to be suspicious of Prussian militarism, but he allowed his love for his native France and his prejudice against Prussia to cloud his judgment of the war. He was too partisan and therefore too jingoistic to be able to see the issues clearly. The other reason for his poor judgment was that his knowledge of military history, which was truly expansive, did not take into account the new technological face of warfare. His analysis of military strategy was more suited to the Napoleonic War of a century earlier than to the situation in the trenches and the industrial methods of warfare it introduced. In short and in sum, he was too biased to be objective and too rooted in an antiquated past with respect to military history to be relevant.
Franczak: Hilaire Belloc could be one of the patrons of European unity. But I think it’s unlikely he would support the European Union in its present shape, although he predicted that one day European countries would try to achieve the unity destroyed by the Protestant revolt. His vision of Europe was completely different than the vision of Euro-bureaucrats. In his book Europe and the Faith, which was published exactly 100 years ago, two years after World War I, he stated, “The Church is Europe: and Europe is the Church.” His words are no less, but even more controversial, now than they were at the time he wrote them. At the end of the same book he added, “Europe will return to the Faith, or she will perish.” Would Belloc vote in favor of Brexit then? He thought that if not for England Europe would have probably maintained its unity.
Pearce: Belloc would have been utterly disgusted with the secular fundamentalism of the EU and would probably have seen it as a demonic parody of the “Europe of the Faith” which he envisaged. I can’t help but believe that he would be in favour of the dismantling of the corrupt and anti-Christian EU. As a man who considered himself a patriot of Sussex (a county on England’s south coast), as some of his finest poetry and his wonderful book The Four Men illustrate, he believed in loyalty to Shire-like and Shire-sized cultural entities, all of which are part of Europe insofar as they are part of Christendom. He would have been horrified at the thought that Sussex could have been ruled from Brussels, especially as he resented its being ruled from London!
I’m afraid the so-called modern Europeans wouldn’t understand his attitude at all: born in France, bearing a French name, a patriot of Sussex and an Englishman to the core, a man lamenting the destruction of European unity by the Protestant revolt and loving Europe as nobody else and a politician–horribile dictu!–showing his rosary at an election meeting. For them being European means forgetting their national identity.
Franczak: On the other hand Belloc would have been no less horrified by the attitude of some Catholic hierarchs who celebrated the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, wouldn’t he?
Pearce: Belloc and his good friend Chesterton, in line with the great popes who were their contemporaries, from Leo XIII to Pius XI, had a great understanding of the danger posed to the Church and to society by the heresy of modernism. It was Chesterton who said that we don’t want a Church that will move with the world but a Church that will move the world. Catholic orthodoxy moves the world; modernist heresy moves with the world. The former serves the Heiliger Geist; the latter serves the Zeitgeist. Nobody gets to heaven by serving the Zeitgeist! Belloc, as a servant of the Holy Spirit and as an indomitable enemy of the Spirit of the Age, is a soldier of Christ, a warrior of the Church Militant, in the perennial war with the Lord of the World. For this reason, he is a witness to the truth and an ally of all true Christians who still believe and proclaim what the Church and the saints have always believed and proclaimed. I would rather be in Belloc’s shoes at the Final Judgment than in the shoes of those modernist bishops who pay lip service to the Church while bending the knee to the Lord of the World. The only thing worse than a wolf in sheep’s clothing is a wolf in shepherd’s clothing!
Franczak: Talking about modernism. It seems that in our time we are witnessing an eclipse of reason. Belloc wrote in his book The Catholic Church and History (1926), “I am writing not for modernists–that is, not for people who think that a proposition can be both true and untrue at the same time–but for men of sane tradition who admit logic as a court of final appeal in things of the mind. For we Catholics regard reason as supreme in its own sphere and will admit nothing contrary to reason.” His words remind me of quite similar ones by Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, who said in his book Old Errors and New Labels (1931), “The Church is accused of being the enemy of reason; as a matter of fact, she is the only one who believes in it.” Could we say that for Belloc the Catholic Church was the sole defender of sanity and reason?
Pearce: As a man who had a deep understanding of the Faith, Belloc knew that the Catholic Church has always insisted on the indissoluble marriage of faith and reason. Faith which divorces itself from reason becomes numinous nonsense; reason which divorces itself from faith becomes irrational nonsense. Hence our age of Pride, boasting of its supposed rationalism, has descended into a radical relativism in which each of us can “self-identify” as anything we like (a man, a woman, a horse, a bicycle), irrespective of any constraints imposed by physical reality. Such irrational “rationalism” leads ultimately to nihilism and to the despair which is its consequence. Those who don’t commit suicide, either as individuals or as societies, will rebound from this nihilistic nonsense and come to their senses. Once this happens, those seeking common sense will discover the union of fides et ratio to be found in the teachings of the Church, and they will discover it to be an oasis in the desert offering life-giving water and life-giving reason. They will discover, in fact, that sanity and sanctity are synonymous.
Franczak: In one of your essays you quoted Belloc saying, “One thing in this world is different from all others. It has a personality and a force. It is recognized, and (when recognized) most violently loved or hated. It is the Catholic Church. Within that household the human spirit has roof and hearth. Outside it, is the Night.” Would it be then right to say that for Belloc the sheer existence, uniqueness of the Catholic Church–despite her human flaws, and with some priests following the footsteps of Judas–was one of the most important proofs of the truth of the Catholic faith?
Pearce: Belloc saw the Church in its fullness and in supernatural terms. He saw it as the Mystical Body of Christ, not merely on earth and in time, but also in purgatory and heaven, beyond time. He saw the Church as all faithful Catholics must see it: as the Church Triumphant in heaven, the Church Suffering in purgatory, and the Church Militant in time and space. When we see and understand the Church in this supernatural sense, it is easy to see that the gates of hell will not prevail. This is why the Church is the one thing in this world which is different from all other. This is why it has a personality and a force. It is the personality of Christ and the force of His Kingship. This is why it is either loved or hated, as Christ Himself was either loved or hated. And this is why the Church is the household of the human spirit. It is Home. Outside of the Church is indeed the Night, an eternal homelessness.
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