LinkedIn tracking pixel

Thoughts on Hilaire Belloc

Thoughts on Hilaire Belloc

Alberto M. Piedra Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus
The Institute Of World Politics

“Time after time mankind is driven against the rocks of the horrid reality of a fallen creation.  And time after time mankind must learn the hard lessons of history — the lessons that for some dangerous and awful reason we can’t seem to keep in our collective memory.”
– Hilaire Belloc

Belloc, together with Newman, Chesterton, and Waugh, were three of the principal writers of the Catholic literary revival during the early 20th century in England.1  The French born historian and essayist was a graduate of Balliol College at Oxford University. The College was founded in 1263 and considered a place where people of exceptional potential for study attended.2

The literary contribution of this man from Sussex is so great that a short essay like this one would fall short of the credit he deserves. It can probably be said that he is most remembered for his “light verse,” particularly his first book Verses and Sonnets, published in 1896. It was followed by the Bad Child’s Book of Beasts which satirized moralistic verse for children. Among his historical writings, the better known ones include: “Europe and the Faith” (1920), History of England in four volumes (1925-31), and a series of biographies ranging from James II (1928) to Wesley (1930).  Even his critics have admitted that he had the power to bring history to life.

Belloc was well versed with the thinking of Henry Edward Cardinal Manning and wholeheartedly embraced his dictum: “all human conflict is intrinsically theological.”3 He is considered as one of the most powerful influences working in favor of the truth. His Catholic faith had a strong influence on his work. He had a deep love for nature and in particular for the peaceful county of Sussex where he grew up.

Belloc loved Sussex, where he bought a working windmill in which he lived most of his life until his death.  He tramped the length and breadth of the County, he drank in the pubs, sailed her coast and wrote several books about her. As a tribute to his dear Sussex he wrote the following lines: “In this love he remains content until, perhaps, some sort of warning reaches him, that even his own County is approaching its doom. Then, believe me Sussex, he is anxious in a very different way; he would, if he could, preserve his land in the flesh, and keep it there as it is forever. But since he knows he cannot do that, ‘at least’ he says, ‘I will keep her image, and that shall remain.'”4  As a further remembrance of the Sussex he loved, he wrote the following: “He does not die that can bequeath Some influence on the land he knows. Or dares persistent interwreath love permanent with the wild hedgerows; He does not die but still remains in substantiate with is darling plains.”5 The English writer and poet does not hesitate to launch into a rich lyricism to describe the land he loves.

After reading these lines about Belloc’s travel experiences6 and his love for England, my mind went back to the years I spent at St. Edmund’s College, Old Hall Green, Ware in Hertfordshire; my frequent hikes in the surrounding countryside and the numerous sport facilities provided by the School and encouraged by the House Master. What particularly comes to my mind is the Henley Royal Regatta held annually on the River Thames where, at the Boat Races, crews from Oxford and Cambridge Universities competed for the well-earned trophy. We always cheered for Oxford (at least I did). The Regatta is regarded as part of the English social season and certain enclosures had strict dress codes. Vestiges of the Edwardian epoch were still to be seen in London literary circles and among the English upper classes. The idea of the English gentleman still prevailed, but as Belloc tells us: “The gentleman is generous and treats all men as his equals, especially those whom he feels to be inferior in rank and wealth.”7  Unfortunately, this was not always the case.

The two other events that I remember vividly are the garden party that took place during the early summer of 1937 when my parents came to visit us at school with tio Pedro, tia Elsa, tia Enriqueta and my faithful nanny, Rita.  It was a joyous occasion, for I had not seen my parents since December of the previous year. The other happy occasion was the day I was confirmed by Cardinal Hinsley at the beautiful Gothic Pugin chapel completed in 1853 and consecrated by Nicholas Cardinal Wiseman.8

Oscar Wilde was probably one of the most popular poets and playwrights of the Edwardian era in England, an epoch whose easy living overlapped into the early 1930s.  He was witty and consumed with an exuberant personality which caused him to lead a disastrous, extravagant life. I still remember how two of his plays (Lady Windermere’s Fan and The Importance of Being Earnest) were still to be seen in the theater district in the vicinity of Leicester Square.  During my stay in London, I was only permitted to see the Importance of Being Earnest and, of course, the pantomimes Peter Pan and Cinderella, the latter one at the Palladium.9 

In the well-read book The Path to Rome, Belloc describes his pilgrimage on foot from St. Cloud in France to Rome.  Michael Novak in his introduction to the book says the following, among many other favorable comments: “You are about to read one of the most delightful and well beloved travel books in the English language.10

Belloc argues in the Servile State (1912) that the development of capitalism was not a consequence of the Industrial Revolution but a consequence of the earlier dissolution of the monasteries in England. However, any attempt to destroy capitalism will inevitably result in a state controlled economy in which freedom will disappear and be replaced with the Servile State. If the Capitalist State is in an unstable equilibrium, as some economists claim, then there are only three sound arrangements which can replace it:  Slavery, Socialism, and Property.11 As slavery is out of consideration, Socialism may appear to be the solution, but to attempt to introduce such a type of Collectivism will only result in the servitude of the many and place the means of production in the hands of the privileged few (the new Class). The first case can be called the Distributive State whilst the other is outright Collectivism (State control). Those who favor the first course are the men who want to respect and preserve, if possible, the old forms of Christian European life.12 Belloc keeps repeating that if we do not maintain the Institution of Property, we cannot escape restoring the institution of slavery. In spite of Belloc’s support for Distributive Economics, he avoids explicitly backing the system.

George Orwell considers Belloc’s writings in the Servile State boring and concludes that the solution he suggests to the ills of Capitalism is impossible. However, he does not deny that the Servile State is slowly creeping its way back into our daily lives, a fact that Chesterton shares with Belloc. Robert Nisbet, contrary to Orwell’s opinion, writes that “…few people have doubted Hilaire Belloc’s contribution to the world of literature.”13

The brilliant Austrian economist Friedrich von Hayek praised the truth of Belloc’s prediction in his book The Road to Serfdom and quotes this phrase from the Anglo-French writer: “the control of production of wealth is the control of human life itself.”14 Modern man must become aware of this reality if he wants to avoid falling into the Servile State.

Belloc would argue that the only answer to the crisis that is threatening the very existence of Western culture is a return to the Catholic faith. The menace under which we lie may seem exaggerated to those who have not compared the lax ethical standards of today with the long centuries of accepted morals preceding it. This is no exaggeration. It is in due proportion and true. “We are in peril here and now of losing all that by which and for which our fathers lived, and which we still know to be though in apparently active dissolution, our inheritance.”15 It seems to be true that all the marvelous technological advances of the last eighty years, since Belloc wrote his book The Crisis of Civilization in 1937, have had no positive effect on the spiritual dimension of the West’s cultural heritage. If anything, there has been an ever deepening breakdown of ethical values.

In his treatment of what he calls Modernism and the danger it poses for the future of the traditional Christian concept of life, he wrote the book The Great Heresies. He claims that Islam, with its first furious cavalry charges springing from the desert, reinforced the tendency of Asia to reassert itself and finally conquer Europe and put an end to Christian hegemony. I wonder if, with the powerful rise of China in the 21st century, his treatment of Islam’s bellicose objectives would remain the same.

To make matters worse, the central point where Islam struck home with a mortal blow against Catholic tradition was a full denial of the Incarnation. Mohammed, continues Belloc, “did not merely take the first steps toward that denial, as the Arians and their followers had done; he advanced a clear affirmation, full and complete, against the whole doctrine of an incarnate God, He taught that Our Lord was the greatest of all the prophets, but still only a prophet: a man like other men. He eliminated the Trinity altogether.”16

The real danger for Christian civilization in the face of a rising religious Islam is the fact that “Cultures spring from religions; ultimately the vital force which maintains any culture is its philosophy, its attitude toward the universe; the decay of a religion involves the decay of the culture corresponding to it — we see that most clearly in the breakdown of Christendom today. The bad work begun at the Reformation is bearing its final fruit in the dissolution of our ancestral doctrines — the very structure of our society is dissolving.”17

The old Christian enthusiasm has been momentarily replaced by the enthusiasm for nationality, the religion of patriotism, but self-worship is not enough. The forces which are contributing to the destruction of our culture have a greater probability of succeeding than our old-fashioned patriotism.  In Islam, on the other hand, there has been no such dissolution of ancestral doctrine — nor anything corresponding to the universal break up of religion in Europe and, we may add, in the West.  The final fruit of this Islamic tenacity may be delayed but not permanently postponed.18

With respect to scientific knowledge, there is nothing inherent in Islam to make it incapable of modern science and modern war. This should be quite evident to anyone who has seen Islamic culture at work — a culture which may have fallen back in material applications but there is no reason to believe that it cannot become our equal in technological advancement which now alone gives us our superiority over it.  In the practice of faith, Christianity has fallen inferior to Islam.19

Belloc remind the West that it should not be misled by Islam’s fatal habit of perpetual civil division. This weakness of Islam has affected them in a negative way, but if Muslims suddenly unite under a charismatic leader, they have the possibility of accomplishing great things for the benefit of mankind. A unified Islam led by a well-intentioned leader may return greatness to Islam as it did in the age of Averroes (12th century AD).

Belloc warns us that our European culture, built upon the noble foundation of classical antiquity, will stand only in the mould of Christianity.

Let me conclude this brief essay with this quote from Belloc’s book Europe and the Faith:

“Europe will return to the Faith, or she will perish.
The Faith is Europe. And Europe is the Faith.”

1. Waugh is recognized as one of the great prose stylists of the English language in the 20th century. He wrote Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred and Profane Memoires of Captain Charles Ryder. It tells the story of a rapidly disappearing world of privilege.

2. Among the many prominent people attending Balliol College, the following can be mentioned: Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, the philosopher economist Adam Smith, the historian Arnold Toynbee and the novelist Aldous Huxley.

3. Henry Edward Cardinal Manning was a member of the Oxford movement, which sought a return of the Church of England to the high Church ideals of the 17th century. He converted to Catholicism based on his opposition to government interference in ecclesiastical affairs. He later became Archbishop of Westminster. See: British Cardinal written by the Editors of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

4. See: Hilaire Belloc, The Four Men: a Farrago. London: Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd, 1948. The book describes Belloc’s 140 km. long journey on foot across Sussex.

5. Belloc,ibid., p.809.

6. See: Hilaire Belloc, Places. London: Cassell and Company Ltd. 1942. See also: Belloc, Hills and the Sea, London: Merthuen Ltd., 1951.

7. Belloc, op.cit., Men, Gentleman, Language.

8. Cardinal Wiseman was the first bishop of Westminster upon the reestablishment of the Catholic diarchy in England and Wales in 1850. He wrote by far the most popular book that came from his versatile pen: Fabiola or the Christian persecution under Diocletian in the 300s AD.

9. Oscar Wilde’s well known Picture of Dorian Gray is a philosophical novel of a corrupt young man who keeps his youthful beauty, but a special painting gradually reveals his inner ugliness.

10. Hilaire Belloc, The Path to Rome, Washington, D.C. Regnery Gateway, 1987,  p.v

11. Hilaire Belloc, The Servile State, See: Section VI, The Capitalist State in proportion as it grows perfect it grows unstable. London: T. N. Foulis, 1912.

12. Hilaire Belloc, ibd. Section VI, pp. 73-74.

13. Hilaire Belloc, Economics for Helen, Foreword by Alberto M. Piedra, Norfolk, VA; HIS PRESS, 2004,  p.7.

14. Friedrich von Hayek, The Road to Serfdom. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1944.

15. Hilaire Belloc, The Crisis of Civilization, Rockford, Illinois: Tan Books and Publishers, Inc., 1937. p. 7.

16. Hilaire Belloc, The Great Heresies, Manassas, Virginia, Trinity Communications 1987, p.57.

17. Ibid., p.91.

18. Ibid., p.91.

19. Ibid., pp 91 92.