Sunday, February 25, 2007

Chesterton, Belloc and the Academy

by Ellen Rice

Researching this issue has proven that Chesterbelloc societies are big news today, and nearly every area of the country has one. Actually, their presence contrasts with an unbelievable non-story, the appalling absence of Chesterton and Belloc where one would most expect to find them. They are totally unrepresented in the twentieth-century academy!

Their absence is partly explained by the proliferation of academic nerds whose collective memory only extends back to the Vietnam era. To give the nerds their due, it would be hard to pigeonhole Chesterton and Belloc within the straits of the modern curriculum. Are these guys philosophers? Historians? Literary figures? Economists? Or simply journalists?

Where and how they should be “read” leads to a bigger question: Is there a place for studying the generalist within the academy? Or is a diploma only to be granted for mastering technical expertise in one specialized area? It is the huge question plaguing the modern Enlightenment university.

It seems foreign to us to take seriously anyone who has an opinion about everything, no matter how well-founded each opinion might be. It used to be, but is no more, that generalists were called philosophers. Aristotle, for instance, wrote about science, politics, logic, ethics, and poetics. Moderns conceive of philosophy in terms of metaphysics, ethics, epistemology — yet forget that the root of the word is philosophia: “love of wisdom.” Philosophy departments usually present the history of thought in a smorgasbord instead of providing a unified backbone for a general outlook on reality.

Belloc and Chesterton challenge the atomization of study into disciplines which are then divided into substrata. In a world where a person can only speak out on a subject in which he holds a PhD, Chesterton and Belloc had the seeming nerve to speak out on nearly everything. And as other writers in this issue argue, they had a knack for being downright prophetic on nearly every topic they tackled.

The secret to their successful generalism is not unlike Aristotle’s own. Chesterton and Belloc took the world at face value, rather than trying to codify it into something weird. They were not above common sense. One wonders whether Kant’s sociopolitical commentary would have been quite so arresting and relevant.

In addition, Chesterton and Belloc’s Catholicism demanded the integration of every facet of human life into the one eternal reality of salvation, and both men generally rose to the challenge. It is impossible for a good Catholic to be anything other than a generalist. Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium provide every Catholic the ground-level principles needed for formulating an opinion about every aspect of life. Catholics made over into the image of Christ see life with the eyes of the Magisterium and of the Teacher Himself. If Catholicism is not a general outlook on life, I don’t know what is.

Since Chesterton and Belloc possessed the Catholic principles needed to make our outlook on life stable, consistent and true, why should we shy away from their resulting opinions? What these Catholic generalists beautifully express certainly will not hurt any of us in forming a Catholic outlook on all matters of daily life. (Which is, after all, what we are called to do.) This generalism is what might be termed Catholic culture.

If the academy ever needed to offer Catholic cultural formation, it needs to today.

Ellen Rice is assistant editor of Catholic Dossier.
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