One of the wonderful things about The Imaginative Conservative is the way in which it has become a powerful forum for thoughtful and thought-provoking writers to exchange thoughtful and thought-provoking ideas. There’s none of the knee-jerk and thoughtless reaction to events to be found on other cultural and political journals. Deo gratias! This does not mean, of course, that the writers for The Imaginative Conservative always agree with each other. Heaven forbid! Take, for instance, James Baresel’s recent essay, “Should Christians Romanticize the Middle Ages?”* It is thoughtful and thought-provoking to such an extent that it has provoked me into responding.
Mr. Baresel begins with a confession that he was once an ambivalent distributist but has now broken definitively with the distributist creed after making a conscientious study of it. Well, actually, he confesses that he has not made a conscientious study of it but only a conscientious study of “the broad cultural history which served as an influence on the development of distributism.” He makes it clear, therefore, that he is not critiquing the thing itself, having little interest in economics or political philosophy, but only the historical context surrounding it.
Since Mr. Baresel is not arguing against distributism, there is no need for me to defend it. I would, however, like to address Mr. Baresel’s historical arguments.
I would begin with a point of emphatic agreement. I couldn’t agree more that nobody should idealize the Middle Ages. If I ever did so, it was a very long time ago, and I have long since repented of the blunder. Indeed, I have written on numerous occasions that “progressives” make the mistake of idolizing or idealizing a non-existent Golden Age in the future; whereas, reactionaries make the mistake of idolizing or idealizing a non-existent Golden Age in the past. Both views are wrong because they are based upon an illusion—the illusion created by wishful thinking.
Continuing the points of agreement, I have nothing to add to what Mr. Baresel says about the Renaissance because what he says is perfectly correct. His discussion of certain aspects of Romanticism and the neo-medievalism that it spawned is also excellent. Indeed, he is to be thanked for giving us this panoramic overview of cultural and intellectual history. The problem arises when he seeks to associate Hilaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton too closely with the neo-medievalist, especially with the political manifestation of neo-medievalism in the nineteenth century.
Mr. Baresel commences his discussion with Augustus Pugin, architect (in both senses of the word) of the Gothic Revival. There is no really tangible connection between Belloc and the Gothic aesthetic of Pugin, and one can’t believe that one who loved Rome as Belloc did would sympathize with Pugin’s disdain for Romanesque architecture. Chesterton wrote occasionally and positively on Gothic architecture (and there’s nothing wrong or in the least neo-medievalist about admiring Gothic architecture), but it’s preposterous to suggest that he would have shared Pugin’s disdain for the Romanesque or Pugin’s reductionism or fundamentalism. In short, the connection between Pugin and the Chesterbelloc is tenuous to say the least.
Mr. Baresel proceeds to a discussion of John Ruskin. He emphasizes Ruskin’s love for the Gothic, enabling him to be labeled as a neo-medievalist, but fails to mention that Ruskin was also the foremost Victorian scholar of the Renaissance. This quibble aside, I don’t recall Belloc having the least interest in John Ruskin, and Ruskin certainly cannot be considered an influence on Belloc’s political thought. As for Chesterton, he writes about Ruskin in The Victorian Age in Literature in a manner that is not in the least flattering. Ruskin’s medievalism is described as being almost schizophrenic. Chesterton tells us that Ruskin “had a sort of divided mind; an ethical headache which was literally a ‘splitting headache’; for there was a schism in the sympathies.” The ultimate absurdity of Ruskin’s medievalism is encapsulated in Chesterton’s complaint that Ruskin “seemed to want all parts of the Cathedral except the altar.”
It is true that Chesterton is less dismissive of Ruskin’s political and economic views as he is of his medievalism, but he is certainly not endorsing them. He calls Ruskin “the second founder of Socialism,” a creed that Belloc and Chesterton were vociferous in opposing, and he says of Ruskin’s political argument that it “was not by any means a complete or unconquerable weapon.” This is scarcely an endorsement or the words of a disciple. Chesterton concedes that Ruskin was “seldom so sensible and logical (right or wrong) as when he was talking about economics.” Note the parenthesis.
Mr. Baresel then mentions Ruskin’s advocacy of the pre-Raphaelites, another neo-medievalist movement. Again, Belloc seems to show no interest whatsoever in the pre-Raphaelites. As for Chesterton, he writes of the pre-Raphaelites that “[t]hey used the medieval imagery to blaspheme the medieval religion.” Like Mr. Baresel, Chesterton also connects Ruskin with the pre-Raphaelites, specifically to the pre-Raphaelite poet Swinburne, though, once again, he is not impressed: “Ruskin’s dark and doubtful decision to accept Catholic art but not Catholic ethics had borne rapid or even flagrant fruit by the time that Swinburne, writing about a harlot, composed a learned and sympathetic and indecent parody on the Litany of the Blessed Virgin.”
Thus far, Mr. Baresel’s attempts to find Belloc and Chesterton and the distributism they espoused guilty by association with neo-medievalism is not really proving very successful. Still, let’s move on.
The next neo-medievalist to warrant Mr. Baresel’s attention is William Morris. “G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc … were, in fact, directly influenced by the thought of Morris.” So says Mr. Baresel. Belloc says otherwise, as does Chesterton. Let’s look at the facts.
It is true that, for the first time, there’s a link between Mr. Baresel’s menagerie of medievalists and Hilaire Belloc. There’s a letter by Belloc to Wilfrid Blunt, an extract of which I published in my biography of Belloc, in which Belloc asks Blunt to introduce him to William Morris. “He is a man for whom I have always had the greatest reverence in his writing, & whose work once all but converted me to approach the Great Beast of Socialism. I should much like to know him.” This is more promising from Mr. Baresel’s perspective. Here, we have a tangible connection between Morris’s socialism and its influence on Belloc. The problem is that Belloc had ultimately seen through and rejected Morris’s politics and was now labeling socialism as “the Great Beast,” which can hardly be termed an endorsement. The most interesting fact about this letter is that it dates from 1890, when Belloc was only nineteen or twenty years old. In other words, Belloc had already rejected Socialism in all its guises, including its neo-medievalist version, as a very young man, indeed as a teenager.
Chesterton writes at length about Morris in his book Twelve Types. Surely, this time Chesterton will betray himself as a neo-medievalist and a believer in Morris’s brand of romantic socialism. Not quite. Having discussed Morris’s admiration for the Middle Ages, his neo-medievalism, Chesterton states that “the men of the time of Chaucer had many evil qualities” (note the absence of any notion of a medieval Golden Age) and adds that they “would have laughed at the idea of dressing themselves in the manner of the bowmen at the battle of Senlac.” In other words, the real men of the Middle Ages, all miserable sinners like the rest of us, would have laughed at Morris’s neo-medievalist aesthetic, which sought “to turn life into an interminable historical fancy-dress ball.” But what of Morris’s socialism? Ironically, Chesterton dismisses it precisely because it lives in a mythical Golden Age and not in the real world: “This was the weak point in William Morris as a reformer: that he sought to reform modern life, and that he hated modern life instead of loving it.” Referring to the morality of the fairy story, Beauty and the Beast, Chesterton insisted upon “the eternal and essential truth that until we love a thing in all its ugliness we cannot make it beautiful”:
Modern London is indeed a beast, big enough and black enough to be the beast in Apocalypse, blazing with a million eyes, and roaring with a million voices. But unless the poet can love this fabulous monster as he is, can feel with some generous excitement his massive and mysterious ‘joie-de-vivre,’ the vast scale of his iron anatomy and the beating of his thunderous heart, he cannot and will not change the beast into the fairy prince. Morris’s disadvantage was that he was not honestly a child of the nineteenth century: he could not understand its fascination, and consequently he could not really develop it.
Lest the stunningly beautiful prose should blind us to what Chesterton is actually saying in this glorious passage, I’ll put it in plain and blunt English: Chesterton is saying that Morris’s socialism is doomed to fail because Morris was too much of a neo-medievalist. He was an escapist from the real world into an imaginary medievalist Golden Age, a fantasist who could not give battle to the Spirit of his age because he refused to engage with it, preferring the fantasy of an imagined past.
Are these assessments of Belloc’s and Chesterton’s engagement with the thought of William Morris evidence, as Mr. Baresel claims, that they were “directly influenced by the thought of Morris”? Insofar as one is influenced by the bad ideas of one person to formulate better ideas of one’s own, I suppose we could concede the point, but any suggestion that Belloc or Chesterton endorsed Morris’s ideas or that they were somehow disciples of his neo-medievalist socialism is, frankly, preposterous.
After this, Mr. Baresel claims that “Belloc’s interpretation of medieval life would seem to have more in common with Contrasts [a book by Augustus Pugin] than with actual history.” This is, quite frankly, silly. Belloc might be guilty of a bias towards France, a weakness in his work, but he is not a neo-medievalist of any stripe and has nothing to do with Pugin’s reductionist aesthetic.
Mr. Baresel sees the fact that some distributists have established small guilds as evidence of socialism. Indeed, the very word “guild” is used as a pejorative synonym for socialism, even though guilds and socialism have never coexisted and have little in common. Certainly, the distributists who established a community at Ditchling in Sussex, seeking to sever themselves from Big Government in a noble quest to live a free and simple life, were about as far from most people’s perception of socialism as one can imagine. One can accuse them of being the Catholic equivalent of the Amish, perhaps, but labeling them as socialists is absurd.
Mr. Baresel seeks to connect distributism to socialism by stating that some leading distributists had once been members of the avowedly socialist Fabian Society. This is akin to connecting conservatism to communism because some leading neo-conservatives had once been Trotskyites. The connection only holds if one can be a member of both camps simultaneously. If, on the other hand, one believes one thing and joins an organization and then rejects those beliefs and leaves the organization, he cannot be accused of still holding those beliefs. Since I speak as a former neo-Nazi, this particular point is worth stressing with particular vehemence!
Mr. Baresel accuses contemporary distributists of all sorts of things, but I’m not completely sure of their relevance to his thesis. Apparently, if Mr. Baresel is to be believed, Thomas Storck has condemned classical music concerts. This strikes me as odd, if it is indeed true, but I don’t see how it proves Mr. Storck to be a socialist. Philip Blond is accused of socialism for trying to wean the British Labour Party away from socialism—a forlorn cause to be sure but a noble one, as heroic as it is quixotic. The Distributist Review is considered socialist because it endorses Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement, which is described as “economically far-left.” I’m not sure what Mr. Baresel means by far-left or far-right, and I refuse to use such Enlightenment terminology, which has its roots in the secular fundamentalism of the French Revolution. Prior to all this nonsense of right and left, politics and economics used to be about right and wrong. I prefer the older moralistic terminology and not the new-fangled meaningless terminology. Perhaps this makes me a medievalist.
I will finish with Mr. Baresel’s final sentence, or rather with a rebuttal of it. Mr. Baresel rests his case thus: “It [distributism] originated, rather, as an interpretation and attempted application of such doctrines through the distorting lens of nineteenth-century romantic medievalism, one often linked to problematic ideas about aesthetics and dangerous theories of politics.”
Unfortunately, Mr. Baresel rests his case, but he has failed to make it. As we have seen, each of his connections is seen to be imaginary. There is no link between distributism and “the distorting lens of romantic medievalism” because the founding fathers of distributism, Hilaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton, had seen through the lens and exposed its distortions.
I will end as I began by stating emphatically that I am a distributist and even more emphatically that I don’t romanticize the Middle Ages. More to the point and more important, Hilaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton are both distributists and neither of them romanticize the Middle Ages.
Books by Joseph Pearce may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.
* Mr. Baresel’s essay may be found here.