The appearance last year of Old Thunder: a Life of Hilaire Belloc by Joseph Pearce, appreciatively reviewed in the Christmas 2002 issue of AD2000, was a timely reminder of the 50th anniversary of Belloc's death on 15 July 1953.
Hilaire Belloe's fame, whether as master of English writing, prose and verse, or champion of Catholicism, has not fared well during the intervening half-century. Here I shall be concerned mainly with the second aspect, his one-time prominence as a voice for the significance of "the Catholic thing" as a constitutive element of Western culture.
On reflection, reasons for some applying the depreciation "yesterday's man" to Belloc seem obvious enough.
First, and I think most significantly, for many today Belloc stands identified with a perception or expression of Catholicism which, rightly or wrongly, has been largely abandoned, if not derided. Vatican II, or what many are persuaded was "the spirit of Vatican II", is considered to have dismissed, as mistaken or worse, the understanding Belloc had of the "Catholic thing": "corporate, organised, a personality, teaching. A thing, not a theory. It." (Cited on p. 190 of Pearce's book).
This reaction, however, is, in my view, simply one of many indications of the historically unparallelled change which has affected nearly every aspect of modern culture, and especially the Catholic Church in its membership and social and cultural environment.
Belloc's Catholicism is objective and identifiable: "that Sufficient Community" (p. 216) and, by its internal logic, is exclusive of, indeed, in contradiction to many contemporary aspects of religious expression. Belloc is thought to have presented and exemplified a Catholicism, belligerent, arrogant and/or complacent. To use the current cant term, his tone and approach are triumphalistic (as might be inferred from something he liked to quote from the medieval Song of Roland: "Christians are right, pagans are wrong".
Second, he is considered to have limited his view to, indeed not to have been able to extend his view beyond, Catholicism's historical European limits. This impression may claim justification from his famous, now more likely to be considered notorious, declaration that "Europe is the Faith and the Faith is Europe" (pp. 187-188). I will admit that this expression for all its rhetorical pungency is weak in logic: in no sense, historically or theologically, can one postulate a complete identification of the two terms.
From the point of view of general cultural history, Belloc is also considered passé. "He was, without embarrassment, Europocentric in his values, a product of and one of the last voices for the traditional common European heritage - Classical/Christian Renaissance."
Prescinding from his historical and polemical writings, Belloc (especially the earlier Belloc), was an icon of the British Edwardian age, "the last of the giants of the golden age of English literature" (p. 284, quoting British newspapers on his death). His prose, with its elegance, force and simplicity, is that of an age before "management English" (Coulson), became the paradigm.
His verse exemplifies due reverence and respect for inherited traditional forms, which combined rhyme and reason with rhythm and imagery drawn from the common European cultural heritage of classicism; all seeming to represent an age far removed from the literary presuppositions of many at the present time.
However, what more particularly struck me again in reading Pearce's biogaphy is Belloc's prescience - he seems to have had an almost prophetic insight into the future, especially as this was to affect Western culture, Christianity and "the Catholic thing", more especially in the years following the Great Wars of the 20th century.
For example, writing while his impressions from a lecture tour in the USA in the 1920s were still vivid in his memory, he pointed out: "The essential point in the moral world is the cleavage between the Catholic Church and the rest ... [In the USA] you will have either Catholicism developed or a new religion" (p. 211). I think many would say that, with the implosion of Catholicism which has occurred in the latter half of the 20th century, this prophecy has been largely realised.
In commenting on his own dictum that "Europe is the Faith and the Faith is Europe", Belloc wrote: "I have never said that the Church is necessarily European. What I have said is that the European thing is essentially a Catholic thing and that European values would disappear with the disappearance of Catholicism" (p. 188).
To me this judgement is incontestable: any familiarity with the content of the media - aural, print, video, cinema, electronic - demonstrates the thesis.
In a famous summing-up as chairman of a public debate in 1927 between Chesterton and Shaw, Belloc pointed out the possible directions in which the world would develop. (I schematise his presentation):
* the industrial world would break down and lead to "the restoration of sane, ordinary values"; or
* it will break down and lead to nothing but a desert; or
* it will lead to the mass of men becoming contented slaves with a few rich men controlling them (p. 228).
I think readers would find it interesting to check this out against the daily news bulletins.
Finally, however, lest any one too quickly infer from these quotations that Belloc is no more than a particularly vociferous "prophet of doom", read this: "As for the Faith itself it stands immovable in midst of all such hostile things; they arise and pass before that majestic presence: Stat et stabit; manet et manebit; spectator orbis" (p. 239).
In one of Belloc's poems, quoted as what may be seen as a final summation of his life's efforts, we read:
I challenged and I kept the Faith
The bleeding path alone I trod,
It darkens. Stand about my wraith,
and harbour me, almighty God.
See also: The sound of thunder and laughter: Hilaire Belloc re-considered, by A.G. Evans - AD2000, December, 2002.