A Prophet for Our Times

Let me say a word on behalf of a book by some good friends. You’ll be glad I did, if you get it, since the subject is the inestimable Hilaire Belloc, the second but equal part of that great beast, the Chesterbelloc. He was also the co-creator of the concept “the Catholic thing” (as the late, great Ralph McInerny, one of the founders of this site, reminded us on this page in September 2008).

The book is The Essential Belloc: A Prophet for Our Times. It consists entirely (save for the general introduction, preface, and chapter intros) a collection of the writings and sayings of Belloc. My friends – Scott Bloch, Brian Robertson, and Father C. J. McCloskey – are the editors, not authors.

I did not come of age in a Catholic household, and having absorbed the prejudices of my culture, I thought of Belloc, if I thought of him at all, as I thought of Chesterton, that is, as a curmudgeon. This was a prejudice, rather than an opinion formed by reading him.  But I imagine it is still widespread in an American youth-culture, even among Catholics – when they have even heard of Belloc – not overly concerned with the four last things. At any rate, I came to him late, after years of practicing and teaching law in Washington, D. C.

The occasion was likely (I am not certain) a dinner put on by the Belloc Society of Washington, a miraculous thing all by itself, but also a club where men could smoke and drink. The founder of the society was, I believe, Scott Bloch, one of the editors. I came not having read Belloc much, if at all, but for the fellowship and the drink and the cigar-smoking, little knowing that this was a very Bellocian thing to do.

At any rate, imagine my astonishment when perhaps the greatest American Catholic essayist of our time, Father Jim Schall, came up to me at this dinner and said, “Belloc is the greatest essayist in English ever.” (Fr. Schall explains and amplifies this point and others in his preface to The Essential Belloc.) Then and there, I determined to read Belloc.

And I have, though I freely confess I haven’t read all he has written (he must have published well over sixty books), but what I did read arrested me.

Belloc was a historian with a concrete grasp of details. For the first time in my life, I understood how the geography of the Crusades (that is, the actual lay of the land) made it possible for a relatively small group of knights to hold Palestine and beyond (by controlling the key chokepoints of the ravines that ran down from the great highlands to the sea).   No one else had ever explained it as he did; such was the evocative power of his language that one could almost see it.

Hilaire Belloc: What man was ever more fully Catholic?

I also read his books The Great Heretics (not perhaps a happy term in these ecumenical days), and grasped, for the first time, that the intellectual vigor of Protestantism stems chiefly from John Calvin. Belloc’s treatment of Calvin was typical of him. He was generous in his evaluation of the greatness of the man, while he lamented that such greatness outside the Catholic Church inevitably lead to great error, and – this is the astonishing thing – he predicted that the entire dynamic future of Protestantism lay with the spiritual heirs of Calvin, as it has proven to be.

Likewise, at the height of European imperialism, when all thought Islam spent, Belloc, a wise student of history, knew the opposite was true. He saw that its spiritual power was not spent and that Islam’s subjugation to the West at that historical moment was entirely due to the West’s material superiority. He saw – and he said – that Islam would rise again, and, of course, he was right.

What man was ever more fully Catholic? As he said, the Church is “hearth and home” and “outside all is night.” But he also lamented, as do we all from time to time, “the Catholic Church is an institution I am bound to hold divine, but for unbelievers, here is proof of its divinity, that no merely human institution run with such knavish imbecility would have lasted a fortnight.” A bit harsh perhaps, but capturing the bewilderment of the faithful Catholic in Belloc’s age, and ours; a formulation that is, to put it mildly, memorable.

All this and more awaits you in The Essential Belloc. As the subtitle suggests, he is very much a man for our times. For those who have exhausted the corpus of his works (if any such hardy persons exist), they will find their favorite quotations and passages (for the book is not simply bon mots, but has many extended passages from his works). Those new to Belloc will meet a remarkable man, combative, yes, but in love with life and friendship and the whole Catholic thing.

William Saunders is Senior Vice President of Legal Affairs at Americans United for Life. A graduate of the Harvard Law School, he writes frequently on a wide variety of legal and policy issues.