The unimaginative always place a wall of separation between American and Europe, just as the naïve conservative will assume too readily points of unity where only superficiality exists. As the centennial of World War I is now upon us, a reflection on how the Atlantic world stood in the wake of that calamitous struggle is appropriate this week. Most works that have made an early appearance treat the origins or early stages of the War. Few look to the consequences. Hilaire Belloc’s The Contrast (1923) is a neglected study of America and Europe after the Great War.
The Contrast offered a simple thesis, one not entirely unique to Belloc, but rather in line with the longstanding tradition of political commentary penned by European travelers to America. That thesis, stated in the first chapter—“The Surprise”—is “that the New World is wholly alien to the Old.” Now by “alien,” Belloc did essentially mean poorer, inferior, or even less attractive. By “alien” Belloc meant that after the Great War it was a dangerous illusion to believe that a single and united modern society stretched across the Atlantic. The ties and similarities between London and Boston, Paris and Washington were deceptive. Tenuous similarities survived the passage from the Eighteenth to the Twentieth Century. The “remaining lessening bonds… mask[ed] the essential truth.” That truth was that Europe and America had drifted from one another, and did so in large part because they had both drifted from a common past. This was a point that Belloc increasingly argued over the subsequent decades. The contrast between Europe and America was, ironically, not that the eastern side of the Atlantic stood for the past and the tradition, while the far shores of the Americas stood for progress and the future, but that both were alienated from their common patrimony, and thus orphaned and nearly unrecognizable cousins. If the thesis was not entirely unique, the driving force of interpretation was. Belloc pressed the point again and again that if these differences were not understood, a cultural and economic disaster would arise in global politics during the twentieth century whose like was never known—a terrifying claim after the final cessation of the war to end all wars. How prescient.
Though it has been too little noted by biographers, America was a hidden spring behind much of the critical energy in Belloc’s life and thought. Belloc had traveled to America more times than most European writers, and had seen and reflected upon American culture and institutions more than most Americans. His wife, it must be recalled, was a Californian and in later years Belloc was fond of telling and retelling of his adventures across the American continent in search of his true love. Belloc had a passion for America—manifested sometimes positively, and sometimes negatively. The particular catalyst for The Contrast came from the series of American speaking engagements Belloc made in late 1922. In February and March of 1923 Belloc was traveling throughout the eastern United States. While in New York at the end of his journey, he had a kind of vision of the defining point of history—American or European:
The essential point in the moral world is the cleavage between the Catholic Church and the rest. In Europe this is so clear by this time that the continuance of our civilization in its worthy form depends upon Catholicism. I am not sure that is the case over here…you will either have a Catholicism developed or a new religion. And if you have a new religion you will have a totally different civilization from that of the Old World. (Letter to Carl Schmidt, March 27, 1923).
Past or future, Europe or the New World, all revolved around the related questions of whether a society would reject or accept the Catholic Faith, and how the Catholic Faith would drive down renewed roots in the modern age. The thoughts contained in that letter lay behind The Contrast and many of the subsequent books and articles Belloc would pen in the 1920s and ‘30s. America, because of its vigorous religious heritage was still attached to Europe. That attachment was fundamentally religious. Any understanding of Civilization which set aside religion was not only poor history in Belloc’s view, but a false and materialist ideology. Yet Belloc contended that a false understanding of what tied Europe and America together as parts of Western Civilization would not merely be an error of the Academy but, sooner or later, foster the very forces that would dissolve any real bond between the New and the Old World—or, more profoundly, between Man and his cultural and spiritual origins. Belloc would work this thesis out in greater detail fourteen years later, in The Crisis of Civilization—a book built around his lectures at Fordham University. It was in this later work that Belloc set out his hopeful strategy—hopeful in a Catholic and Bellocian sense: the defense of Western Civilization must be built around a defense of the Catholic Church and a program which reminded men of history, human nature and the effects of sin: “the strength of the trumps we hold is the consonance between Catholic morals (the fruit of Catholic doctrine) and the discoverable nature of man. Men can pragmatically discover that through the Faith human things return. Their despair in the absence of the Faith is the strongest asset we have.”
Again, it is not utterly unique to Belloc that he saw America standing at a crossroads of History (for herself and for Europe). What is unique was that Belloc saw, beneath even his own notions of the “alien” nature of America, something fundamentally Western in America. Indeed, his analysis of American government is singularly perceptive in that it argues that certain older ideals, though decreasingly apprehended in Europe, still informed the political traditions of the New World. In short, America was not merely a place of some minor developed political traditions. America was a land in which key western social principles were operative and vital—such political principles, desiccated in Europe, were still alive in America, though dressed in newer ceremonies and given new forms of expression. Thus, again, that they were alien to Europe had less to do with an American departure from historical origins, but rather the unraveling of Western culture on both sides of the Atlantic after the Reformation.
Like Chesterton, who also traveled through America during the 1920s, Belloc perceived transplanted ideals in America—taken from the ancient and medieval world. In particular, one sees this in his fondness for the executive power exercised at the Presidential and especially the local (state and urban) level, which he interpreted as the old monarchical principle regenerated. Also, there was a personal accountability in American political life that had long been smothered in Europe. There was a natural generosity and a willingness to express political life in broad corporate terms and a general suspicion against “big business” in America, reminiscent of the guild system. And central to Belloc’s analysis was his observation of the quasi-religious nature of the American constitution. Utterly unlike contemporary European politics, which could scarcely evince a stable constitution, Americans exhibited something classical and attractive to Belloc in their extreme reverence for their political constitution and the historical origins surrounding it.
In the final estimation, perhaps the most important observation Belloc made was upon the very telos or end of a political state—happiness. Belloc noted that wherever one traveled in the United States, one was struck by the utterly un-European happiness of the American people. “They are much happier” than Europeans; indeed, “they are the happiest…people in the modern world.” The cause for their cheerful disposition Belloc traced to American candor, the honest sociability of Americans: “the American people live in truth.” Whether this quality could endure, Belloc did not hazard to guess. He only stated that the normal course of societies is to move from “simplicity to doubt,” unless something “sublime” saves that society. I think that most contemporary readers would agree that since Belloc’s day a growing number of Americans have moved with haste towards skepticism, if not relativism—relaxed and jocular though it may be.
Sitting alongside the positive declarations of The Contrast are more critical judgments: to begin with, sharp remarks about Prohibition and the attendant lack of good wine and decent cuisine; the lack of privacy; literary sterility; geographic and cultural uniformity—but these are minor quibbles for Belloc and on certain points, he simply had not done his research (although a true Bellocian would say that the lack of Chambertin, his favorite wine and a symbol of all that was good, was in fact an ominous note).
What really was at the core of Belloc’s unease with America? Foremost was the particular kind of materialism of America. Belloc feared that that all-pervasive use of money as an index in America, when or if imported to Europe, would be detrimental, if not devastating. If anything, this materialism was the single greatest problem with the spread of American culture. It was a tension for America—but there Belloc suggests that it Catholics ever gained significant ownership of land and wealth, things could change for the better—but the new materialism was a greater problem for Europe, which had developed along such sufficiently different institutional and cultural lines that the import of a finance-centered ethos would prove overwhelming. It has certainly been my observation as a traveler to Europe over the past three decades that such a shift has now occurred. The crass American remains an embarrassing spectacle, but the materially rich and spiritual impoverished European has become ascendant. The former is comical, the later tragic.
It is interesting to note that Belloc sensed that Americans were, in fact, less susceptible to materialism, in part because they had less to lose, but in part because their generous and honest character gave them a youthful defense in the face of things. Belloc did not find Americans in most ways more materialistic than Europeans. Indeed, Belloc contended that the most vile quality of Mammon—the “feeling of genuine respect for a rich man and genuine contempt for a poor one”—was “less present in the United States than any other modern society.” What Belloc despised in American materialism was the flowering of crude Calvinism, which manifested itself in the belief “(1) that success in accumulation connotes effort upon the part of any man; (2) that American opportunity should make this equally possible for any man; and (3) that there is nothing else in the State either so easily measurable as the money-standard or so universally present.” Clear-headed Americans were aware of this flaw and excoriated it. The age that produced Babbit and The Great Gatsby was, in fact, particularly attuned, if insufficiently alarmed, to the problem that Belloc was trying to present to the European reader.
The lure of ready cash and material ease were not theoretical interests to Belloc. American wealth, in fact, attracted his attention on a personal level. Belloc’s newfound popularity after the First World War extended across the Atlantic and offered him certain comforts he had long sought. Indeed, it was the American literary world that bolstered Belloc’s financial position, giving him a modest economic stability. Americans purchased, and perhaps read, more of his books than the British, and Belloc was always quick to encourage his friends and family to keep an eye on the American book world. He was delighted, for example, when his daughter Elizabeth had some of her writing published in the United States. “I am glad you got your poem placed in America, and also an article. It is a great thing if one can get the American market, though it is very difficult indeed to understand the nature of it.” Belloc, always concerned about his family’s finances, believed that most of the potential in the American book market remained untapped. According to an anecdote set down by Robert Speaight (The Life of Hilaire Belloc, 1957), Belloc regularly groused, “there are 25,000,000 Catholics in the United States and none of them will buy my books.” The anecdote is worth repeating; although it flies in the face of what he stated in his letters, as well as the actual books sales, it does reveal Belloc’s ambivalent fascination with potential of the American market.
Belloc loved contrasts and definitions, and the clarity they brought. The method and structure behind The Contrast is typical of his mind. Indeed, we find evidence elsewhere of his proclivity to seek sharp counterparts between Europe and the rest of the world—the old and the new simply stood in contrast, nearly unintelligible to each other, but side by side divulging truths more clearly than when in isolation. Both cultures—New World and Old World—held Belloc’s attention, as they did Churchill’s. Indeed, the English colonial world, in general, provoked Belloc. In a revealing remark, Belloc once wrote to his friend James Allison, who was living in Australia:
Do you not find [a] contrast to the constraint of life here in England, where everything is designed for the control by the small rich class and their pleasure? Of course, we in England have the advantage of complete order and content after a fashion, but I get very tired of the lack of equality.
One can see what Belloc sought in a good society: the right balance between order and a sense of fairness. A similar admiration for the American social order, and the comparative honesty and fairness of the American, emerges throughout The Contrast.
Despite the expressive and optimistic outbursts in The Contrast—something unusual in Belloc’s social and political commentary—the work, true to its author, is tinged with sadness and concern: sadness for what may be only a passing phase in American society, and concern for the future of both the United States and Europe. In drawing to his conclusion, Belloc raised his voice to a prophetic tenor. His gaze fixed fast on America’s growing will for intervention, especially in Europe. It is worth recalling here the final two paragraphs of The Contrast, both to give conclusion to Belloc’s analysis, but also to present some counter-factual vision of history. For we should remember that the way things did turn out was not the way things had to turn out after the First World War. Belloc’s views were not those of the majority, but they were not his alone. They serve as a reminder that determinism of any political camp should not be permitted to colonize our imaginations. Belloc thought that the Wilsonian tide which was drawing Americans away from their older domestic tranquility surged against the natural and historical direction of the American character. “There is an instinctive sagacity in the American attitude, so far preserved, of keeping aloof from the affairs of Europe,” he notes, continuing:
All those who wish the United States well at heart can do no more than repeat the phrase of their great founder, and assure them that the first duty of their rulers is to keep free from all entanglement with the subtleties, the angers, the ultimate conflicts of our own culture.
They saved us in the War. We owe them great debts deliberately undertaken when they were still neutral. Let us pay them, and not whine for assistance.
We of Europe shall solve our own problems; probably by the restoration of the civilised South and West to its proper headship over the rest of the European unity. Things return to their origins, and our Roman unity should revive.
But the process whereby that peace shall be accomplished is not one which could be understood from the standpoint of the United States; it is our own affair; we alone understand it. And let me add this: every public man from Europe, especially every professional politician, who approaches the people of the United States, begging them to interfere in our affairs, is a liar, and knows that he is a liar; his motive for lying is either a desire for self-advertisement and for the limelight (a common motive with politicians) or the nobler motive of patriotism. But be the motive high or low, the inducement offered, the flattering phrases chosen, are lies.
When the power of the United States is thus invoked, it is invoked in order to help one competing European unit against another—France against England, or England against France, bankers against farmers, or farmers against bankers, or what not—and the fine phrases about peace and justice and humanity and civilisation, and the rest of it, are hypocrisy and poison.
Belloc was, in some respects—and contrary to his own protestations—a very perceptive commentator on the American character, a sort of modern Tocqueville. His hopefulness about an independent European character being restored was, if not less perceptive, certainly less prophetic—or at least, less prophetic for the twentieth century. Of course, Belloc realized this as the years passed; and his sadness over the utter failure of Europeans to embrace their cultural patrimony and stand independently explains his later sympathy for Franco and Salazar, and his initial interest in Mussolini.
Ironically, the history of The Contrast is itself a commentary on another contrast, on an enduring and very real contrast between Europeans and the English. Belloc had written the book so that English and Continental Europeans could better understand the emerging power in the modern world—but Belloc seemed momentarily to forget how very different these two groups, in fact, are. The Contrast’s target audience was English and European, but—as was increasingly the case—the readers and buyers of his books were American. Europeans showed little interest in coming to understand America, or at least little interest in hearing Belloc’s opinions on the matter. In contrast, Belloc’s book immediately went through two consecutive printings in the United States. It was reprinted by the Arno Press in the 1970s, and I have no doubt the book will once again be reprinted under the auspices of an American publisher. Whether this is a comment on the provincialism of secular European elites or popular American self-absorption, or a little of both, is left to the reader’s determination. Belloc gave his own assessment in 1942, nearly two decades later, in a letter to his daughter Elizabeth. Remarking on the unfolding war, he said “people must have found out by this time that Americans do not understand Europe. Neither do we understand Americans; but we are less tempted to attempt it than they are to attempt understanding us.” Belloc had proved to be one of the exceptions to this rule.
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