Monday, March 28, 2011

Hilaire Belloc

He is one of the most important Catholic thinkers of the past century, and this new book, profiled in The Catholic Thing is one I also would recommend. Even though I have several of Belloc’s books—and his The Great Heresies is one every Catholic should read—having many of his most cogent thoughts in one place is a real treasure.

An excerpt.

“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.

“I also read his book 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.”