Wednesday, February 28, 2007

On the Place of Gilbert Chesterton in English Letters

by Hilaire Belloc



Chesterton's connection with the Faith is much the most important aspect of his literary life, and deserves more detailed treatment than any other part of his activities. I have already dealt with its general character. I would now like to deal with it in more detail as a special department of any rational enquiry into the work and effect of this great man.

Here I must begin by a statement so unusual that my readers may well think it extravagant. But unless that statement is made at the very beginning of this division all judgment on the man and his work falls out of proportion. This preliminary statement is an affirmation that the Catholic Church, its Creed and Doctrine, its action upon human life, its whole function is beyond comparison the most important fact not only in European history but in the modern world to-day.

My contemporaries are quite unfamiliar with this piece of common sense. All the more reason for insisting upon it.

Here an important distinction must be made between the importance of a religion and its truth. I suppose ninety-nine Englishmen out of a hundred (including the greater part of that very small body which is both English by race and Catholic by religion) will regard my affirmation here as a mere personal opinion and distorted at that. "The writer is himself a Catholic," they will say, "and therefore gives to the Catholic Faith and practice an importance which is not to be discovered in the real world. The Catholic Church is but one of many things in the society around us; to give it this overwhelming and unique value is to exaggerate absurdly its place and function. No one could hold such a view unless he accepted himself the Faith and doctrine in question, and to propound it for the acceptance of other men is ridiculous."

That, I say, is certainly the way in which nearly all Englishmen would regard the judgment that the Catholic Faith is the dominating fact, not only in the history of Europe (and therefore of the world)but in our own contemporary society.

Yet so it is; and by the extent to which a man recognises that truth you may test his knowledge or his ignorance upon the things of the present or the past. But the recognition of such a fact has nothing to do with the truth or falsehood of the Catholic claims. The Church claims to be in exclusive possession of the only philosophy which explains man's place in the Universe, reveals man's relation with his Creator and gives him a rational account of his own nature. Therefore Her Doctrine is absolute and in Her eyes unquestionable. But that claim is far from being universally accepted, it is for the greater part of men, even in this European civilisation of ours which was moulded by the Faith, inadmissible.

Granted. It is in the nature of things that such a claim must sound monstrous to all those who reject it. But that has nothing to do with the importance of the institution which makes the claim. Those minds (in this country the great majority) who can hardly conceive that the claim exists and who certainly never connect the Catholic Church with any universal philosophy are fundamentally ignorant. They do not know the world they are living in. They do not see things as they are.

As an example of such ignorance, you may take the common insistence upon race as the chief factor in human society. Those who advance the proposition that race determines everything are talking without a knowledge of their subject. Race is an important factor in the development of human things and of social arrangements, but it is not the dominant or central factor. The dominant and central factor is, and must always be, an accepted scheme of values, especially of moral values. And such schemes we call religions.

Those who understand public affairs even less than do the racialists will ascribe to nationality the same overwhelming role which the racialists attach to race. They are even more wrong than the racialists, for a common nationality does not bind men save where the nation is enshrined as an idol to be worshipped by all.

There are many who take up an even less intelligent position than do the nationalists, and who make their test nothing more fundamental than mere language. These will talk of "Anglo-Saxons" or "The English-speaking world"---such people may be earnestly recommended to travel.

When you go about the world and see men as they are, when you watch their groupings and what are called to-day their "reactions", you soon discover that the lines of cleavage among them follow the lines of religion: not necessarily of religion conscious and expressed, but of ultimate religious training and formation.

Your popular writer on political matters is not only ignorant of this but is at some pains to substitute false terms for the true ones. Rather than talk of Catholic and Protestant cultures in Europe, for instance, he will talk of Teutons and Latins. And his readers are at least as much out of touch with reality as himself---otherwise he would not be a popular writer. The man who perceives, defines and extends truths by the pen is more likely to be an unpopular writer.

There is a test immediately to hand by which we may judge the place of the Church in human society. It is an ephemeral test but a striking one. It is the test of war and peace.

Even the most cretinous must by now perceive that modern war may be the destruction of all our world. In terror at that prospect men seek remedies for the chaos or defences against it. The most absurd of such experiments was, I suppose, the so-called "League of Nations" which left Islam out of account and yet gave sovereign authority to Abyssinia. It was founded on a silly falsehood and was unworthy of the mighty fruit it has produced---which is no less than the mortal peril wherein we now stand.

Others would seek a defence against this peril of death by setting up one power stronger than the rest to be the universal master over all. Mr. Christopher Hollis, for instance, who is justly prominent among those who discuss international matters, has suggested (in a very remarkable article (4) to which too much attention can hardly be paid) that the natural candidate for such a paramount position is modern Prussianised Germany, on account of its numbers, its disciplined unity and what is called its "efficiency"---that is its reduction of human activity to mechanics.

Others have dreamt of a European unity to be restored in the Roman tradition, and this is the noble part of the Fascist extravagance. Others would prefer to live under the despotism of Moscow, enjoying all the delights and variety of Communism. Others more old-fashioned sigh for a strict alliance between Great Britain and the United States who should enjoy between them the domination of the world.

All these various reformers and Utopians omit what should surely be, according to all human experience, the one necessary spiritual foundation for unity, and that is a common religion.

This enormous omission, this flying in the face of common sense, may be excused in men and women who suffer from a general lack of experience and can conceive of no moral atmosphere save that which they breathed in early youth. Thus it has been very justly remarked of Mr. H. G. Wells (the most representative English writer of our time) that he is a Bible Christian who has lost his God. It may be similarly remarked of almost any common radical French politician taken at random from the rubbish heap of the now ruined French parliament that he is an anti-Catholic Catholic who has lost his Catholicism, and the same is true of fellow Masons in Rome and Madrid. It is strange but informing to discover that these wretchedly provincial attitudes of mind always think themselves universal, and nothing surprises world reformers of such a sort more than the discovery that other men differ from them. They are sure the benighted fellows can be easily set right by another little bout of propaganda.

Now it is, or should be, self-evident, that a religion accepted as universal settles the quarrel and it is the only conceivable force that can do so: hence the overwhelming interest which all reasonable men should attach to the religion which so proposes to be universal.

That one of Chesterton's innumerable pieces of work wherein the effect of the Faith is most evident is also his best piece of work. Of all his books it is by far the most profound and the most clear, and for my part I should like to make it a test of any man's critical sense to have him take up that last volume of Essays, not the very last, I think, but among the last which he published and which was given to the world under the title of "The Thing". (5)

"The Thing" first appeared nearly eleven years ago in the Autumn of 1929. I am curious and even meditative upon its probable fate. If it is read by the generation now rising, that will mean that England is beginning to think. If it is forgotten, that will mean that thought is failing; for nowhere had there been more thorough thinking or clearer exposition in our time.

To illustrate this I will break my general rule and admit a quotation from what is perhaps the chief essay in a work crowded with intellectual triumphs. I refer to the essay which bears the plain title "Why I am a Catholic":

"I would undertake to pick up any topic at random, from pork to pyrotechnics, and show that it illustrates the truth of the only true philosophy; so realistic is the remark that all roads lead to Rome. Out of all these I have here only taken one fact; that the thing is pursued age after age by unreasonable hatred that is perpetually changing its reason. Now of nearly all the dead heresies it may be said that they are not only dead, but damned; that is, they are condemned or would be condemned by common sense, even outside the Church, when once the mood and mania of them is passed. Nobody now wants to revive the Divine Rights of Kings which the first Anglicans advanced against the Pope. Nobody now wants to revive the Calvinism which the first Puritans advanced against the King. Nobody now is sorry that the Iconoclasts were prevented from smashing all the statues of Italy. Nobody now is sorry that the Jansenists failed to destroy all the dramas of France. Nobody who knows anything about the Albigensians regrets that they did not convert the world to pessimism and perversion. Nobody who really understands the logic of Lollards(a much more sympathetic set of People) really wishes that they had succeeded in taking away all political rights and privileges from everybody who was not in a state of grace. "Dominion founded on Grace" was a devout ideal; but considered as a plan for disregarding an Irish policeman controlling traffic in Piccadilly, until we have discovered whether he has confessed recently to his Irish priest, it is wanting in actuality. In nine cases out of ten the Church simply stood for sanity and social balance against heretics who were sometimes very like lunatics. Yet at each separate moment the pressure of the prevalent error was very strong; the exaggerated error of a whole generation, like the strength of the Manchester School in the 'fifties, or of Fabian Socialism as a fashion in my own youth. A study of the true historical cases commonly shows us the spirit of the age going wrong, and the Catholics at least relatively going right. It is a mind surviving a hundred moods.

"As I say, this is only one aspect; but it was the first that affected me and it leads on to others. When a hammer has hit the right nail on the head a hundred times, there comes a time when we think it was not altogether by accident. But these historical proofs would be nothing without the human and personal proofs, which would need quite a different sort of description. It is enough to say that those who know the Catholic practice find it not only right, but always right when everything else is wrong; making the Confessional the very throne of candour where the world outside talks nonsense about it as a sort of conspiracy; upholding humility when everybody is praising pride; charged with sentimental charity when the world is talking a brutal utilitarianism; charged with dogmatic harshness when the world is loud and louse with vulgar sentimentalism---as it is to-day. At the place where the roads meet there is no doubt of the convergence. A man may think of all sorts of things, most of them honest and many of them true, about the right way to turn in the maze at Hampton Court. But he does not think he is in the centre; he knows."

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