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."

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Thursday 11 June 2015

The Neglected Genius of Hilaire Belloc...

Hilaire Belloc was one of a rare breed, which today might be considered an endangered species. He was what was called a man of letters and a man who refused to be pigeonholed, who refused to be labeled, who refused to be restricted by any sphere of specialty. Mercifully, he lived in an age in which the mania for specialization had not yet triumphed; an age in which it was not yet necessary to kowtow before the ‘experts’ on any given subject; an age which had not yet suffered the disintegration caused by the compartmentalization of the academic disciplines into self-imposed excommunication from the wider world of academe; an age in which philosophers still knew theology, and in which historians still knew philosophy. He lived in an intellectually wealthier and healthier age.

He counted among his friends and enemies other men of letters who similarly refused to be pigeonholed. Amongst his contemporaries were George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells and G.K. Chesterton, each of whom wrote on anything and everything from philosophy and theology to history and politics. They expressed their ideas in fiction and non-fiction, in poetry and prose, in full-length books and in journalistic essays for the newspapers. To put the matter plainly, these men and others like them engaged the culture with the stimulating power of ideas. They sought to change society by changing the culture of ideas which informed society’s perception of itself. They were exciting men living in exciting times.

Hilaire Belloc is perhaps less known today than his talents merit. His influence, considerable in his own day, seems to have waned. Nonetheless, his wisdom and foresight appear today, sixty years after his death, to be almost prophetic in their sagacity and timeliness, particularly in the wake of the rise of Islam and the apparent triumph of liberal secularism and its destructive creed of moral relativism.

Mr. Belloc was born at La Celle Saint Cloud, twelve miles outside Paris, on July 27, 1870. His birth coincided with the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, forcing his parents to evacuate the family home a few weeks later. They fled to Paris to escape the advancing Prussian army and, as the Prussians prepared to lay siege to the French capital, the Bellocs managed to catch the last train to Dieppe, on the Normandy coast, from whence they sailed to the safety of England.

Mr. Belloc was educated in the benevolent shadow of the aging Cardinal John Henry Newman at the Oratory School in Birmingham and at Balliol College, Oxford. In June 1895, he crowned his exceptionally brilliant career at Oxford with a First Class Honours degree in History. In 1896, his first two books were published,Verses and Sonnets and The Bad Child’s Book of Beasts. The latter became an instant popular success prompting more of the same, including More Beasts (for Worse Children) in 1897 and Cautionary Tales for Children ten years later, in which the author’s indefatigable mirth is kindled by the kindergarten army of Matilda, who told such dreadful lies; Jim, who ran away from his Nurse, and was eaten by a Lion; and Algernon who played with a loaded gun, and, on missing his sister, was reprimanded by his father. Although these books for children (of all ages) are indubitably charming and enduringly funny, it is perhaps unfortunate that, for many, Mr. Belloc is remembered primarily for these relatively trivial sorties into children’s literature rather than for the vast body of work, transcending several genres, which represents his true and lasting legacy.

As a poet, Mr. Belloc ranks alongside the finest of the twentieth century: For sheer rambunctiousness, there is the riotous invective of ‘Lines to a Don,’ Mr. Belloc’s vituperative riposte to the don ‘who dared attack my Chesterton’; for sheer indefatigable vigour, there is the romp and stomp of ‘The End of the Road’; for a doom-laden sense of the decay of England, there is the knell of ‘Ha’nacker Mill’; for the mystical sense of the exile of life, there is the Yeatsian yearning betwixt faith and faerie that is hauntingly evoked in ‘Twelfth Night’; for the dance of melancholy and mirth amid ‘the ruines of time’ there is the hip, hop, clap of Mr. Belloc’s scintillating ‘Tarantella.’

Mr. Belloc’s place amongst the twentieth century’s literary eminenti should not detract from his position as a scholar, particularly with regard to his reputation as a biographer and historian. His first biography, Danton, was published in 1899 and, thereafter, Mr. Belloc would continue to write biographies of historical figures, specializing particularly, though by no means exclusively, in the figures of the English Reformation. These included studies of Oliver Cromwell, James the Second, Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas Cranmer, Charles the First, and John Milton. He also published panoramic studies of the whole period, such as How the Reformation Happened and Characters of the Reformation, as well as a four volume History of England. His principal legacy as an historian falls into three areas. First is his seminal struggle with H.G. Wells over the ‘outline of history’; second, his groundbreaking refutation of the prejudiced ‘official’ history of the Reformation; and finally his telescopic and panoramic study of the ‘great heresies’.[1]

In order to avoid the chronological snobbery that presumes the superiority of the present over the past and which causes a lack of proportion and focus, Mr. Belloc believed passionately that historians must see history through the eyes of the past, not the present. They must put themselves into the minds and hearts of the protagonists they are studying; and to do this adequately they must have knowledge of philosophy and theology in order to understand their own academic discipline and in order to remain disciplined in their study of it. An ignorance of philosophy and theology means an ignorance of history.

‘In history we must abandon the defensive,’ he wrote in 1924. ‘We must make our opponents understand not only that they are wrong in their philosophy, nor only ill-informed in their judgement of cause and effect, but out of touch with the past: which is ours.’[2]

In Survivals and New Arrivals (1929) and The Great Heresies (1938), Mr. Belloc mapped the war of ideas that had forged the history of Europe and beyond. It is in this sphere that we see Mr. Belloc the historian emerging as a prophet, particularly with regard to his warnings about the renewed threat of Islam. It is, for instance, almost chilling that Mr. Belloc wrote of the lifting of the Moslem siege of Vienna ‘on a date that ought to be among the most famous in history—September 11, 1683’.[3] It is a date that Christendom has forgotten, to its shame, but which the militants of Islam had apparently remembered. ‘It has always seemed to me possible, and even probable, that there would be a resurrection of Islam and that our sons or our grandsons would see the renewal of that tremendous struggle between the Christian culture and what has been for more than a thousand years its greatest opponent.’[4] These words, written more than sixty years ago, went unheeded. Today they resound like the death-knell of Europe.

Having discussed the multifarious talents of this remarkable man it should perhaps be noted that Mr. Belloc is more than a man of letters, more than a poet, or a novelist, or an historian, or a political thinker. Ultimately he deserves to be remembered for the gargantuan nature of his personality. In his case, to an extraordinary degree, it is the man himself who breathes life and exhilaration into the work. When he is writing at his best every page exudes the charisma of the author, spilling over with the excess of exuberance for which the man was famous amongst his contemporaries. From his legendary and fruitful friendship with G.K. Chesterton to his vituperative enmity towards H.G. Wells, Mr. Belloc always emerges as the sort of man who is often described as being larger than life. Strictly speaking, of course, no man is larger than life. In Mr. Belloc’s case, however, perhaps more than almost any other literary figure of his generation, the man can be considered truly greater than his oeuvre. As such, his greatest works are those which reflect his personality to the greatest degree. Whether he is loved or loathed, and he is loved or loathed more than most, he cannot be easily ignored.

Joe Pearce

First published by The Imaginative Conservative

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.


1. The omission of Mr. Belloc’s significant contribution to the study of European military history and his work on the French Revolution does not signify a lack of appreciation by the present author of his importance in these areas.

2. Hilaire Belloc, Preface to Dom Hugh G. Bevenot, OSB, Pagan and Christian Rule, London, 1924, p.ix

3. Hilaire Belloc, The Great Heresies, London, 1938, p.85

4. Ibid., p.87

Tuesday 2 June 2015

Joe Pearce - Belloc, Tolkien and Distributism...

In a very interesting interview in Catholic World Report, Jay W. Richards, co-author of The Hobbit Party, a new book examining the political thought of J. R. R. Tolkien, sought to distance Tolkien from the political views of G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. Whilst paying lip service to the romantic aspirations of distributism, the political creed advocated by Belloc and Chesterton, Richards suggests that the devil is in the practical details of distributism:

''The difficulty, we think, is that Belloc in particular didn’t simply offer an appealing ideal. He proposed some very specific policies to bring about a distributist society, and he did so with economic ideas that we think were in some ways mistaken. For instance, in his Essay on the Restoration of Property, Belloc wrote that “the effort at restoring property will certainly fail if it is hampered by a superstition against the use of force as the handmaid of Justice.” In contrast, in “The Scouring of the Shire,” Tolkien describes a group of bossy outsiders who have infiltrated the Shire, “gatherers and sharers . . . going around counting and measuring and taking off to storage,” supposedly “for fair distribution.” It’s not a complimentary picture. Given Tolkien’s views about the use of coercive power to achieve presumably laudable goals, it’s hard to imagine him signing off on the details of Belloc’s program.''

After admitting that the question of distributism is “complicated”, Richards concludes that “in order to glean wisdom from Tolkien’s economic views … it’s better to describe Tolkien’s views on their own terms rather than to identify them with those of other thinkers, such as Chesterton and Belloc.”

I am quite frankly perplexed by Richards’ line of reasoning. In “The Scouring of the Shire,” the hobbits, like good Bellocian distributists, are certainly not “hampered by a superstition against the use of force as the handmaid of Justice.” On the contrary, they are all too ready to take up arms to restore the distributism that the Shire had enjoyed prior to their departure. How on earth, or in Middle-earth, can the hobbits’ restoration of the property of the Shire, using all necessary force, be seen to contradict Belloc’s advocacy of exactly the same thing in his Essay on the Restoration of Property?

Apart from the self-contradictory nature of Richards’ efforts to distance Tolkien from Belloc, Richards himself openly advocates “the use of force as the handmaid of Justice” in his strident defence of Tolkien’s adherence to Just War theory.

At this point we are becoming somewhat confused. Not only does Tolkien agree with Belloc’s position but so does Richards!

We have to dig beneath the incoherent surface to understand what Richards is trying to say. His argument is not with the use of force per se but with the use of economic force. As an adherent to the nonsensical creed of the free market libertine, Richards advocates the legitimacy of using force of arms to restore property taken unjustly but not the force of law. It is legitimate to kill people and to drop bombs in order to restore property to its rightful owners but it is not legitimate to enact laws to do so.

Belloc advocates legal intervention to restore justice in the economy, such as, for instance, proactive measures to assist small businesses to gain and retain a place in the marketplace in the face of efforts by large corporations to exclude them from it. Richards makes the all too common and naive mistake of equating Belloc’s political philosophy with that of socialism and then, having done so, states, quite correctly, that Tolkien was not a socialist. The fact is that Belloc opposed the way in which both socialism and globalist capitalism concentrate property into the hands of a privileged few, i.e. politicians and plutocrats. The answer to this injustice was to promote small businesses and to use the power of politics to do so. Such political intervention is not liked by free market libertarians who seem to believe that it’s better to have the world run by global corporations who have free rein (and reign) to use and abuse their economies of scale to monopolize control of the market.

Richards’ reasoning is simple and simplistic. He begins by demonstrating that Tolkien disapproves of socialism, the “gatherers and sharers … going around counting and measuring and taking off to storage,” supposedly “for fair distribution.” He then suggests that Belloc’s advocacy of distributism is itself socialist, even though Belloc always vehemently attacked socialism. The problem seems to be that Richards does not make the essential and crucial distinction between socialist “redistribution of wealth” and the restoration of widely distributed private property which the distributists advocate. Whereas socialists believe that private property is bad and that it should be controlled by the state, distributists believe that private property is good and that it should therefore be restored to as many people as possible as a defence against the power of the state. It is simply incorrect to equate or conflate these diametrically opposed philosophies.

It is also curious that Richards is keen to quote Tolkien’s opposition to socialism but neglects to mention his graphic depiction, a few pages later, of the ravages inflicted by the laissez faire capitalism of the industrial revolution:

''It was one of the saddest hours in their lives. The great chimney rose up before them; and as they drew near the old village across the Water, through rows of new mean houses along each side of the road, they saw the new mill in all its frowning and dirty ugliness: a great brick building straddling the stream, which it fouled with a streaming and stinking outflow. All along the Bywater Road every tree had been felled.''

As they crossed the bridge and looked up the Hill they gasped. Even Sam’s vision in the Mirror had not prepared him for what they saw. The Old Grange on the west side had been knocked down, and its place taken by rows of tarred sheds. All the chestnuts were gone. The banks and hedgerows were broken. Great wagons were standing in disorder in a field beaten bare of grass. Bagshot Row was a yawning sand and gravel quarry. Bag End up beyond could not be seen for a clutter of large huts.

As a boy, Tolkien had lived in the “rows of new mean houses along each side of the road”, i.e. the slums, of industrialized Birmingham, which, as the second largest city in England, had been, until the advent of the industrial revolution, a small Warwickshire village. Describing himself in one of his letters as “a hobbit,” Tolkien preferred what Birmingham had been in its pre-industrial past to what it had become in the wake of the advent of laissez faire economics. Like William Blake, who had lamented the “dark satanic mills,” and Gerard Manley Hopkins, who had bemoaned the industrial “smudge” that man had left on Creation, Tolkien preferred agrarian sanity and simplicity to the poisonous fruits of so-called economic “progress.”

And as for the necessity of the so-called “force” of economic intervention to restore productive property to those who have been dispossessed by the onslaught of laissez faire, Tolkien would have agreed with Chesterton. “The foundation of the true doctrine of progress is that all things tend to get worse,” wrote Chesterton. “Man must perpetually interfere to resist a natural degeneration; if man does not reform a thing Nature will deform it. He must always be altering the thing even in order to keep it the same.” Chesterton used the example of a gatepost to illustrate this point, stating that we cannot preserve a gatepost by leaving it alone. If we leave it alone we will be leaving it to rot. If we wish to preserve the gatepost we have to be continually painting it. The sort of intervention that Belloc was advocating was of this sort. To conserveculture or property we must actively oppose those forces that seek to undermine it; to restore culture or property, once it is lost, we must be actively engaged in defeating those forces that have dispossessed us of it. Doing nothing, leaving things be, “laissez faire”, is not an option for the true conservative or distributist because it ensures the destruction of all that is worthy of conservation and restoration. It is in this context that we must understand Belloc’s advocacy of the use of force “as the handmaid of Justice,” It is also in this context that we must understand the hobbits’ use of force in achieving the restoration of property in the Shire.

It is true, as Dr. Richards maintains, that Tolkien never seems to have called his own political philosophy by the admittedly ugly name of “distributism.” It is equally true, however, that Shire economics and distributist economics are essentially synonymous. When all is said and done, economic sanity by any other name still smells as sweet!

This article was first posted on The Imaginative Conservative.

Joseph Pearce is a Senior Contributor at The Imaginative Conservative. He is writer in residence and director of the Center for Faith and Culture at Aquinas College in Nashville, Tennessee. His works include: G.K. Chesterton: Wisdom and Innocence, Literary Converts, Tolkien: Man and Myth, Solzhenitsyn: A Soul in Exile, The Quest for Shakespeare and Old Thunder: A Life of Hilaire Belloc. He is the series editor of the Ignatius Critical Editions, and editor of the St. Austin Review. Mr. Pearce has hosted two television series for EWTN on Shakespeare’s Catholicism.