Hilaire Belloc bought King's Land (in Shipley, Sussex), 5 acres and a working windmill for £1000 in 1907 and it was his home for the rest of his life. Belloc loved Sussex as few other writers have loved her: he lived there for most of his 83 years, he tramped the length and breadth of the county, slept under her hedgerows, drank in her inns, sailed her coast and her rivers and wrote several incomparable books about her. "He does not die that can bequeath Some influence to the land he knows, Or dares, persistent, interwreath Love permanent with the wild hedgerows; He does not die, but still remains Substantiate with his darling plains."

Search This Blog

Follow by Email

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

On the Fate of Academics, James V. Schall, S. J.

In the Dent 1957 enlarged edition of J. B. Morton's 1938 edition of Hilaire Belloc: Stories, Essays, and Poems, we find an excerpt from The Path to Rome. This edition identifies Belloc in the following manner: "Hilaire Belloc, born on 27th July 1870. Educated at The Oratory School, Edgbaston. After leaving school served as a driver in the 8th Regiment of French Artillery at Toul. Matriculated at Balliol College, Oxford, in January 1893 (Brackenbury History Scholar, and 1st Class in Honour History Schools in June 1895). Died in 1953." Between 1895 and 1953, nothing is mentioned. We find no reference to Belloc's stint in the House of Commons, nothing of his family, of his sailing, of Chesterton, of what he wrote. To the British mind, perhaps, all that is important about a life is the date of birth, the date of death, and, in between, what schools attended, what academic honours received, and in what regiment served, even if in a foreign army. Perhaps that is enough.

The eleven page extract from The Path to Rome, begins with Belloc, very hungry, just over a crest of the mountains. He is looking back down the Rhône Valley. He has managed to find an Inn called "The Bear," in the town of Ulrichen. Therein he is met by a middle aged lady, "one of the women whom God loves." Belloc addresses her in French. She answers him in a "rustic" version of the same tongue. She looks at him in the eye as she speaks to him.

It was this straight-forward, untroubled gaze that incited Belloc to thinking about academics, not his favourite folk, to say the least. "Beware of shifty-eyed people," he begins. Their nervousness reveals a kind of "wickedness." No doubt what will happen to the shifty-eyed. "Such people come to no good." Belloc then asks the most marvellous question -- he is speaking to himself, one of his "Lector"- "Auctor" passages. "Why the greatest personages stammer or have St. Vitus' dance, or jabber at lips, or hop in their walk, or have their heads screwed round, or tremble in the fingers, or go through life with great goggles like a motor car?" He adds, for emphasis, "Eh?"

We have all met the man with the goggles, the one with the hop in his walk, the one with his head screwed round. From them we never got a straight answer. "I will tell you," Belloc informs us why. We are hardly prepared for the reason he gives for such stammerers, jabbers, and hoppers. "It is the punishment of their intellectual pride, than which no sin is more offensive to the angels."

All of this began, recall, when Belloc met the lady with the clear gaze in the Great Bear Inn. Suddenly, we are confronted in this unlikely spot with intellectual pride, surely the sin of the fallen angels. Who are these prideful ones? They are the ones who do not notice all the wonder to be found about them. A human being is more than a mind. Unless he is more, his mind is quite a dangerous thing. The angels are pure spirits; we are the rational animals, body and soul.

Belloc describes the situation of the mind-only-gentleman in this fashion:
What! here are we with the jolly world of God all round us, able to sing, to draw, to paint, to hammer and build, to sail, to ride horses, to run, to leap; having for our splendid inheritance love in youth and memory in old age, and we are to take one miserable little faculty, our one-legged, knock-kneed, gimcrack, grumpy intellect, or analytical curiosity rather (a diseased appetite), and let it swell till it eats up every other function?
What does the sane man do when this happens? He yells, "Away with such foolery."

Who is it, we might ask, that thinks the world of God to be jolly, who sings, draws, paints, hammers, sails, rides horses, runs, leaps? Who has love in youth and memory in old age? Who tells us it is a "splendid inheritance"? Why, it is Belloc himself, of course, perhaps still a bit annoyed that he did not himself end up as a very pedant, though this is hard to imagine. He knew the dangers of his own "grumpy intellect," for it could lead him to this very pride from which he was perhaps saved when he could not stay at Oxford.

The "Lector" wants to get on with the walk and quit these dreary philosophical musings. But the "Auctor" has a few more things to say. He repeats, "Away with such foolery." He decides to explain the problems we have with the pedants. They "lose all proportion." Worse, "they can never keep sane in a discussion." Belloc gives us an amusing example. The pedants "go wild on matters they are wholly unable to judge, such as Armenian Religion or the Politics of Paris or what not."

A man with a steady and balanced mind, with a clear gaze, on the other hand, has three questions to ask that keep him sane. These are 1) "After all it is not my business." 2) "Tut! tut! You don't say so!". And 3) "Credo in Unum Deum Patrem Omnipotentem Factorem omnium visibilium et invisibilium." In these last lines from the Creed, Belloc thinks, all the analytical powers of the pedants, the professors, are jammed "into dustheaps," by comparison.

Belloc then stops to add, as if it is preposterous, "I understand that they (the professors) need six months' holiday a year." If Belloc had his preferences, he would give them "the whole twelve, and an extra day on leap years." If they are on vacation all year long, they cannot do much damage. The "Lector" is anxious to get back to the story of the woman in the inn. And Belloc is willing to return to her. In fact, he has never left her example in all this chiding of prideful academics who need six months' vacation a year. The sin of pride reminds him of the Day of Judgement. "(On this day), St. Michael weighs souls in his scales, and the wicked are led off by the Devil with a great rope, as you may see them over the main porch of Notre Dame (I will heave a stone after them myself I hope), all the souls of the pedants together will not weigh as heavy and sound as the one soul of this good woman at the inn." I saw Notre Dame a couple of times, but never noticed above the main porch the Devil with a great rope leading startled pedants to their doom. But, of course, I did not know Belloc then.

Belloc finally sat down to eat. The good lady brought him food and wine. He found the wine good. However, the food had in it a "fearful herb," a spice or scent, "a nasty one." "One could taste nothing else, and it was revolting; but I ate it for her sake." The whole point of the redemption may be in these lines.
"We have for our splendid inheritance, love in youth and memory in old age."

These are the things that the biographical sketch of Belloc did not mention. They do make it possible for us to say, with him, "Credo in unum Deum, Patrem Omnipotentem, Factorem omnium visibilium et invisibilium," for these are the things that confound the pedants and cause us to look "to see the jolly world of God all about us."

'Schall on Belloc' from Generally Speaking, October, 1996. James V. Schall, S. J.

No comments:

Post a Comment