We all do it, of course. Imagine whom from history we would like to meet and whom we would like on our side in these profoundly addled times. As a writer, I look to the literary world. C.S. Lewis for his pristine logic and camaraderie, G.K. Chesterton for his wit and wisdom. But for sheer hardness and toughness of argument and character, it would be Hilaire Belloc.
Belloc was born in 1870 in La Celle St. Cloud near Paris, during one of the fiercest and most relentless thunderstorms the area had ever seen and as a result. he was known as, “Old Thunder” in his family. The sobriquet stayed with him because of his passion and style. Educated in England at the Oratory School in Birmingham and later at Balliol College Oxford, he became famous as a debater.
Basil Joseph Mathews wrote a first-hand account of the young Belloc in argument: “It was one of those rare nights in the Oxford Union when new men are discovered. Men whispered to each other of the future Gladstone and Dizzy whom Oxford was to give to the nation. No one would be fool enough to speak after such brilliant rhetoric … Suddenly, a young man rose and walked to the table. He was broad of shoulder and trod the floor confidently. A chin that was almost grim in its young strength was surmounted by a large squarely-built face. Over his forehead and absurdly experienced eyes, dark hair fell stiffly. As he rose, men started up and began to leave the house. At his first sentence, they paused and looked at him – and sat down again. By the end of his third sentence, with a few waves of his powerful hands, and a touch of unconscious magnetism and conscious strength, Mr. Hilaire Belloc held his audience breathless.”
Author and Catholic activist Gregory McDonald knew Belloc and described him as “the most ruthless, effective and unforgiving writer of polemic and sustainer of argument and debate, whom I have ever encountered. He was a combination of bulldog and bloodhound – once he got his teeth into you, he never let go and once he had your scent, he never gave up.”
Anecdotes about his rude behaviour are legion, as are stories of his verbal skill. His friend and biographer J.B. Morton, however, wrote in more defensive terms, that, “The point I would make is that Belloc dominated not by insensitive loudness, but by the force of his character. He talked with authority and his presence suggested authority.”
Belloc wrote l56 books and pamphlets during his long and opinionated career, was elected a member of Parliament, served in the French artillery and spearheaded, with G.K. Chesterton, Catholic letters and literature for almost half a century. He was a poet, a novelist, an essayist, a historian and an editor.
The Bad Child’s Book of Beasts was published in 1896, The Path to Rome in 1902 and The Party System, with Chesterton’s brother Cecil, in 1911. The following year saw The Servile State, in 1920 came Europe and the Faith and Belinda in 1928. There were also biographies of Oliver Cromwell, James II, Napoleon and various other historically significant figures, books on the Crusades, the Reformation and the history of his church.
This is important. His church. The central feature of the man’s life and work was not a defence of country or party or person, but of the Roman Catholic church. Indeed, he despised parties and the party system and realized that much of the parliamentary game was a sham and a digression from the deeper issues. In this, as with so many aspects of public life, he was acutely perceptive and predictive. His books on Islam, for example, speak of the clash of civilizations that would transform Europe, generations before the onset of mass Muslim immigration into the West.
He wrote of the Jewish people and, painful as it is to admit, some of his comments about Jews scream, rather than explain. Yet, when Hitler rose to power, Belloc was vehement in his denunciation of Nazism and, if his book entitled The Jews, written in 1922, is read carefully, it proves that he was never an anti-Semite in the established sense. He did, however, sometimes allow his own sense of certainty to overwhelm greater truths and a basic Christian humility.
Not always humble, but invariably correct. He saw the threat of eugenics and abortion, was sharp and clear about the coming modernist attack on concepts of right and wrong and the rape of culture by moral relativism. He wrote of these monsters long before any other author of note. He wrote and he warned: “We sit by and watch the Barbarian, we tolerate him; in the long stretches of peace we are not afraid. We are tickled by his irreverence, his comic inversion of our old certitudes and our fixed creeds refreshes us; we laugh. But as we laugh, we are watched by large and awful faces from beyond: and on those faces there is no smile.”
Belloc died in 1953, an isolated and somewhat neglected figure. It is no mere coincidence that the renewal of interest in the man comes as we face the great and grand crisis of the new age. Belloc gone, but Belloc triumphant and Belloc more relevant than ever before.
Michael Coren, the author of numerous literary biographies, is a columnist with Sun Media and host of Michael Coren Live on the Crossroads Television System.