Hilaire Belloc was one of a rare breed, which today might be considered an endangered species. He was what was called a man of letters and a man who refused to be pigeonholed, who refused to be labeled, who refused to be restricted by any sphere of specialty. Mercifully, he lived in an age in which the mania for specialization had not yet triumphed; an age in which it was not yet necessary to kowtow before the ‘experts’ on any given subject; an age which had not yet suffered the disintegration caused by the compartmentalization of the academic disciplines into self-imposed excommunication from the wider world of academe; an age in which philosophers still knew theology, and in which historians still knew philosophy. He lived in an intellectually wealthier and healthier age.
He counted among his friends and enemies other men of letters who similarly refused to be pigeonholed. Amongst his contemporaries were George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells and G.K. Chesterton, each of whom wrote on anything and everything from philosophy and theology to history and politics. They expressed their ideas in fiction and non-fiction, in poetry and prose, in full-length books and in journalistic essays for the newspapers. To put the matter plainly, these men and others like them engaged the culture with the stimulating power of ideas. They sought to change society by changing the culture of ideas which informed society’s perception of itself. They were exciting men living in exciting times.
Hilaire Belloc is perhaps less known today than his talents merit. His influence, considerable in his own day, seems to have waned. Nonetheless, his wisdom and foresight appear today, sixty years after his death, to be almost prophetic in their sagacity and timeliness, particularly in the wake of the rise of Islam and the apparent triumph of liberal secularism and its destructive creed of moral relativism.
Mr. Belloc was born at La Celle Saint Cloud, twelve miles outside Paris, on July 27, 1870. His birth coincided with the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, forcing his parents to evacuate the family home a few weeks later. They fled to Paris to escape the advancing Prussian army and, as the Prussians prepared to lay siege to the French capital, the Bellocs managed to catch the last train to Dieppe, on the Normandy coast, from whence they sailed to the safety of England.
Mr. Belloc was educated in the benevolent shadow of the aging Cardinal John Henry Newman at the Oratory School in Birmingham and at Balliol College, Oxford. In June 1895, he crowned his exceptionally brilliant career at Oxford with a First Class Honours degree in History. In 1896, his first two books were published, Verses and Sonnets and The Bad Child’s Book of Beasts. The latter became an instant popular success prompting more of the same, including More Beasts (for Worse Children) in 1897 and Cautionary Tales for Children ten years later, in which the author’s indefatigable mirth is kindled by the kindergarten army of Matilda, who told such dreadful lies; Jim, who ran away from his Nurse, and was eaten by a Lion; and Algernon who played with a loaded gun, and, on missing his sister, was reprimanded by his father. Although these books for children (of all ages) are indubitably charming and enduringly funny, it is perhaps unfortunate that, for many, Mr. Belloc is remembered primarily for these relatively trivial sorties into children’s literature rather than for the vast body of work, transcending several genres, which represents his true and lasting legacy.
As a poet, Mr. Belloc ranks alongside the finest of the twentieth century: For sheer rambunctiousness, there is the riotous invective of ‘Lines to a Don,’ Mr. 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 Mr. Belloc’s scintillating ‘Tarantella.’
Mr. Belloc’s place amongst the twentieth century’s literary eminenti should not detract from his position as a scholar, particularly with regard to his reputation as a biographer and historian. His first biography, Danton, was published in 1899 and, thereafter, Mr. Belloc 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 Oliver Cromwell, James the Second, Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas Cranmer, Charles the First, and John 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, Mr. 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.”
In Survivals and New Arrivals (1929) and The Great Heresies (1938), Mr. Belloc mapped the war of ideas that had forged the history of Europe and beyond. It is in this sphere that we see Mr. Belloc the historian emerging as a prophet, particularly with regard to his warnings about the renewed threat of Islam. It is, for instance, almost chilling that Mr. Belloc wrote of the lifting of the Moslem 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. ‘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 sixty years ago, went unheeded. Today they resound like the death-knell of Europe.
Having discussed the multifarious talents of this remarkable man it should perhaps be noted that Mr. Belloc is more than a man of letters, more than a poet, or a novelist, or an historian, or a political thinker. Ultimately he deserves to be remembered for the gargantuan nature of his personality. In his case, to an extraordinary degree, it is the man himself who breathes life and exhilaration into the work. When he is writing at his best every page exudes the charisma of the author, spilling over with the excess of exuberance for which the man was famous amongst his contemporaries. From his legendary and fruitful friendship with G.K. Chesterton to his vituperative enmity towards H.G. Wells, Mr. Belloc always emerges as the sort of man who is often described as being larger than life. Strictly speaking, of course, no man is larger than life. In Mr. Belloc’s case, however, perhaps more than almost any other literary figure of his generation, the man can be considered truly greater than his oeuvre. As such, his greatest works are those which reflect his personality to the greatest degree. Whether he is loved or loathed, and he is loved or loathed more than most, he cannot be easily ignored.
1. The omission of Mr. Belloc’s significant contribution to the study of European military history and his work on the French Revolution does not signify a lack of appreciation by the present author of his importance in these areas.
2. Hilaire Belloc, Preface to Dom Hugh G. Bevenot, OSB, Pagan and Christian Rule, London, 1924, p.ix
3. Hilaire Belloc, The Great Heresies, London, 1938, p.85
4. Ibid., p.87