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Joseph Hilaire Pierre René Belloc (July 27, 1870 – July 16, 1953) was an Anglo-French writer and historian. He was one of the most prolific writers in England during the early twentieth century. He is most notable for his Catholic faith which had an major impact on his writing and his association with G.K. Chesterton. He was also a Member of Parliament.
An 1895 graduate of Balliol College, Oxford, Belloc was a noted figure within the University, being President of the Oxford Union, the undergraduate debating society. He went into politics after he became naturalised.
Belloc wrote on many subjects, from warfare to poetry and many topics current in his day. He was closely associated with G. K. Chesterton; George Bernard Shaw coined the term Chesterbelloc for their partnership.
He was the brother of the novelist Marie Adelaide Belloc Lowndes. In 1896, he married Elodie Hogan, an American. They had five children before her 1914 death from influenza. His son Louis was killed in World War I. He suffered a stroke in 1941, and never recovered from its effects. He lived quietly at home in Guildford, England, until his death on 16 July 1953. At his funeral Mass, Monsignor Ronald Knox observed, "No man of his time fought so hard for the good things."
Asked once why he wrote so much, he responded, "Because my children are howling for pearls and caviar." Belloc observed that "The first job of letters is to get a canon," that is, to identify those works which a writer looks upon as exemplary of the best of prose and verse. For his own prose style, he claimed to aspire to be as clear and concise as "Mary had a little lamb."
Essays and travel writing
His best travel writing has secured a permanent following. The Path to Rome (1902), an account of a walking pilgrimage he made from central France across the Alps and down to Rome, has remained continuously in print. More than a mere travelogue, "The Path to Rome" contains descriptions of the people and places he encountered, his drawings in pencil and in ink of the route, humour, poesy, and the reflections of a large mind turned to the events of his time as he marches along his solitary way. At every turn, Belloc shows himself to be profoundly in love with Europe and with the Faith that he claims has produced it.
As an essayist he was one of a small, admired and dominant group (with Chesterton, E. V. Lucas and Robert Lynd) of popular writers. In the large he sometimes came across as too opinionated, and too dedicated a Catholic controversialist.
There is a passage in The Cruise of the Nona where Belloc, sitting alone at the helm of his boat under the stars, shows profoundly his mind in the matter of Catholicism and mankind; he writes of "That golden Light cast over the earth by the beating of the Wings of the Faith."
His "cautionary tales", humorous poems with an implausible moral, beautifully illustrated by Lord Basil Blackwood and later by Edward Gorey, are the most widely known of his writings. Supposedly for children, they, like Lewis Carroll's works, are more to adult and satirical tastes: Henry King, Who chewed bits of string and was early cut off in dreadful agonies. A similar poem tells the story of Rebecca, who slammed doors for fun and perished miserably.
The tale of Matilda who told lies and was burnt to death was adapted into the play Matilda Liar! by Debbie Isitt. Quentin Blake, the illustrator, described Belloc as at one and the same time the overbearing adult and mischievous child. Roald Dahl is a follower. But Belloc has broader if sourer scope:
It happened to Lord Lundy then as happens to so many men about the age of 26 they shoved him into politics ...
leading up to
we had intended you to be the next Prime Minister but three ...
Of more weight are Belloc's Sonnets and Verses, a volume that deploys the same singing and rhyming techniques of his children's verses. Belloc's poetry is often religious, often romantic; throughout The Path to Rome he writes in spontaneous song.
History, politics, economics
From an early age Belloc knew Henry Edward Cardinal Manning, who was responsible for the conversion of his mother to Roman Catholicism. Manning's involvement in the 1889 London Dock Strike made a major impression on Belloc and his view of politics, according to biographer Robert Speaight. Belloc described this retrospectively in The Cruise of the Nona (1925); he became a trenchant critic both of unbridled capitalism, and of many aspects of socialism.
With others (G. K. Chesterton, Cecil Chesterton, Arthur Penty) Belloc had envisioned the socioeconomic system of distributism. In The Servile State, written after his party-political career had come to end, and other works, he criticized the modern economic order and parliamentary system, advocating distributism in opposition to both capitalism and socialism. Belloc made the historical argument that distributism was not a fresh perspective or program of economics but rather a proposed return to the economics that prevailed in Europe for the thousand years when it was Catholic. He called for the dissolution of Parliament and its replacement with committees of representatives for the various sectors of society, an idea popular among Fascists under the name of corporatism.
With these linked themes in the background, he wrote a long series of contentious biographies of historical figures, including Oliver Cromwell, James II, and Napoleon. They show him as an ardent proponent of orthodox Catholicism and a critic of many elements of the modern world.
Outside academe, Belloc was impatient with what he considered to be axe-grinding histories, especially what he called "official history." Joseph Pearce notes also Belloc's attack on the secularism of H.G. Wells's popular Outline of History:
- Belloc objected to his adversary's tacitly anti-Christian stance, epitomized by the fact that Wells had devoted more space in his "history" to the Persian campaign against the Greeks than he had given to the figure of Christ.
- He wrote also substantial amounts of military history. In alternative history, he contributed to the 1931 collection If It Had Happened Otherwise edited by Sir John Squire.
One of Belloc's most famous statements was "the faith is Europe and Europe is the faith"; this sums up his strongly-held, orthodox Roman Catholic views, and the cultural conclusions he drew from them. Those views were expressed at length in many of his works from the period 1920–1940. These are still cited as exemplary of Catholic apologetics. They have also been criticised, for instance by comparison with the work of Christopher Dawson during the same period.
As a young man, Belloc lost his faith. Then came a spiritual event which he never discussed publicly, and which returned him to and confirmed him in his Catholicism for the remainder of his life. Belloc alludes to this return to the faith in a passage in The Cruise of the Nona.
Belloc's Roman Catholicism was uncompromising. He believed that the Roman Catholic Church provided hearth and home for the human spirit. More humorously, his tribute to Catholic culture can be understood from his well-known saying, "Wherever the Catholic sun does shine, there's love and laughter and red red wine." He had a disparaging view of the Church of England, and used uncharitable words to describe "heretics", such as, "Heretics all, whoever you be/.......You never shall have good words from me/ Caritas non conturbat me". Indeed, in his "Song of the Pelagian Heresy" he becomes quite strident, describing how the Bishop of Auxerre, "with his stout Episcopal staff/ So thoroughly thwacked and banged/ The heretics all, both short and tall/ They rather had been hanged".
Belloc's 1937 book The Crusades: the World's Debate made no pretence at being impartial. Despite being concerned with events more than eight centuries old, it took sides very vehemently, from the first page on. In his view, had the Crusaders captured Damascus, the Islamic World would have been cut in two and "bled to death of the wound" - which as Belloc explicitly stated, would have been a highly desirable and positive outcome.
Since the Crusaders missed that chance, Islam survived and eventually overwhelmed the Crusader bridgehead in the Middle East. For Belloc this was not a matter of old history: Islam continued to pose a dangerous threat. It still [ 2008 ] does. In The Great Heresies, Belloc argues that, although, "That [Islamic] culture happens to have fallen back in material applications; there is no reason whatever why it should not learn its new lesson and become our equal in all those temporal things which now alone give us our superiority over it -- whereas in Faith we have fallen inferior to it." It is fair to say that Islam is passionately supported while Christianity is slowly dying as a religious faith or even moral standard.
At the time of his writing, the Islamic world was still largely under the rule of the European colonial powers and the threat to Britain was from Fascism and Nazism. Belloc, however, considered that Islam was permanently intent on destroying the Church, as well as the West, which Christendom had built. In The Great Heresies (1938) Belloc grouped the Protestant Reformation together with Islam as one of the major heresies threatening the "Church Universal."
Belloc in that book cited the many beliefs and theological principles which Islam shares with Catholicism - and exactly which, in Belloc's view, identify it as a heresy. Where (in his view) Islam decisively diverges from Catholicism (and Christianity in general) is the "denial of the Incarnation and all the sacramental life of the Church that followed from it" - with Islam regarding Jesus as a human being, though honouring him as a Prophet.
Accusations of anti-Semitism
Accusations have been made and tend to be believed by people who have heard of him. This has practical effects. The Gutenberg Project has many of his books but not The Jews or The Servile State although it has Europe and the Faith. The claims do not survive a reading of his book, The Jews. Mr Belloc's view which he expounds there is that we should deal with them honestly and openly while they should do the same to us. He acknowledges that there are Jews, rich, powerful and manipulative who are not representative of the rest. He also says that there are Christians who are not a credit to civilization.
Hilaire Belloc's romantic novel Belinda (set at roughly the same time as Pride and Prejudice) is one of the very few literary references to Amschel Rothschild's ruining many English families by starting the rumour that Napoleon had won at Waterloo.
See also the "External links" section.
Amongst his many works are:
- Robespierre (1901)
- Marie Antoinette
- Richelieu (1929)
- James II
- Joan of Arc
- Miniatures of French History
- History of England
- One Everything (1909)
- The Jews
- The Cruise of the Nona
- The Four Men
- The Contrast
- Esta Perpetua
- How the Reformation Happened
- Survivals and New Arrivals
- Europe and the Faith
- Verses (1910)
- Sonnets and Verses (1923)