Saturday 8 April 2006

Hilaire Belloc

[From my review, awaiting publication, of Fr Ian Ker's 'The Catholic Revival in English Literature, 1845-1961.]

Fr Ker does describe Belloc’s The Path to Rome as "a minor classic", but Belloc as "neither a major writer nor a figure of the intellectual stature of Newman or even Chesterton." In fact, Belloc is one of the greatest of unsung prophets, simply because anyone who did not know otherwise would see or hear his name and assume him to have been French.
Belloc’s views on England’s and Britain’s proper relationship with the Continent and with Latin culture could not be more timely. Nor could be his subtle insights into Islam. And nor could be his trenchant critique both of capitalism and of state socialism, now that almost no one in the political or intellectual classes seems to remember that the Conservative, Liberal and Labour traditions all arose out of classically Christian critiques both of Whiggery and of Marxism.
Furthermore, as Fr Ker points out, Belloc’s "verses for children" are "incomparable". In this age of children’s literature’s prominence, these works are vital ancillaries in one of the great cultural battles in Anglophonia and beyond.
All in all, so much for Belloc as "neither a major writer nor [comparatively speaking] a figure of intellectual stature." But what of that which Fr Ker nevertheless has to say about him? That, too, gives the lie to any assertion about Belloc’s relative minority.
On the contrary, Belloc’s analysis of the Reformation anticipates that of Duffy and Scarisbrick in our own time. His view of capitalism as a consequence of Protestantism in general and of Calvinism in particular is now widely shared, and probably always has been at an intuitive or popular level. That the rise of the absolutist state was a result of the Protestant, followed by the Catholic, princes’ casting off of the authority of Christendom, is an idea now attaining much wider prominence: the ‘sovereign state’ (its ‘sovereignty’ first princely, then popular) is a parody of the Body of Christ.
If The Path to Rome is "a minor classic", then The Servile State is surely a very major classic, of vast contemporary importance. And as for Belloc’s insights into the religious roots of all culture and conflict, one is left marvelling that his name is not on every lip in the present global situation.

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