|Born||July 27, 1870
La Celle-Saint-Cloud, France
|Died||July 16 1953 (aged 82)
|Occupation||Writer, Member of Parliament (1906-1910)|
|Genres||Poetry, History, Essays, Politics, Economics, Travel literature|
|Spouse(s)||Elodie Hogan, 1896-1914|
Joseph Hilaire Pierre René Belloc (July 27, 1870 – July 16, 1953) was a French-born writer who became a naturalized British subject in 1902. He was one of the most prolific writers in England during the early twentieth century. He was a fierce proponent of Roman Catholicism, the "faith of Europe." Based on Christian principles he also championed distributivism, a "third-way" socio-economic theory that rejected the ownership of the means of production both by the state (socialism) and large corporations (corporate capitalism) in favor of a society of small entrepreneurs.
Recent biographies of Belloc have been written by A. N. Wilson and Joseph Pearce.
His mother Elizabeth Rayner Parkes (1829-1925) was also a writer, and a great-granddaughter of the English chemist Joseph Priestley. She married attorney Louis Belloc in 1867. In 1872, five years after they wed, Louis died, but not before he was wiped out financially in a stock market crash. The young widow brought her son Hilaire, along with his sister, Marie, back to England where he remained, except for his voluntary enlistment as a young man in the French artillery.
He was educated at John Henry Cardinal Newman's Oratory School and later served his term of military service, as a French citizen, with an artillery regiment near Toul in 1891. He was powerfully built, with great stamina, and walked extensively in Britain and Europe. While courting his future wife Elodie, whom he first met in 1890, the impecunious Belloc walked a good part of the way from the midwest of the United States to her home in northern California, paying for lodging at remote farm houses and ranches by sketching the owners and reciting poetry.
He was the brother of the novelist Marie Adelaide Belloc Lowndes. In 1896, he married Elodie Hogan, an American. They had five children before her 1914 death from influenza. His son Louis was killed in World War I. He suffered a stroke in 1941, and never recovered from its effects. He lived quietly at home in Guildford, England, until his death on July 16, 1953. At his funeral Mass, homilist Monsignor Ronald Knox observed, "No man of his time fought so hard for the good things."
A 1895 graduate of Balliol College, Oxford, Belloc was a noted figure within the University, having served as President of the Oxford Union, the undergraduate debating society. He later became a naturalized British citizen and went into politics.
From 1906 to 1910 he was a Liberal Party Member of Parliament for Salford South, but swiftly became disillusioned with party politics. During one campaign speech he was asked by a heckler if he was a "papist." Retrieving his rosary from his pocket he responded, "Sir, so far as possible I hear Mass each day and I go to my knees and tell these beads each night. If that offends you, then I pray God may spare me the indignity of representing you in Parliament." The crowd cheered and Belloc won the election.
His style during later life complemented the nickname he received in childhood, "Old Thunder." Belloc's friend, Lord Sheffield, described his provocative personality in a preface to The Cruise of the Nona.
In Belloc's novel of travel, The Four Men, the title characters supposedly represent different facets of the author's personality. One of the four improvises a playful song at Christmastime, which includes the verse:
It should be noted that the other characters regard the verse as fairly gauche and ill-conceived, so while part of Belloc may have agreed with this somewhat offensive song, it is not necessarily representative of Belloc's personality as a whole.
Belloc first came to public attention shortly after arriving at Balliol College, Oxford as a recent French army veteran. Attending his first debate of the Oxford Union Debating Society, he saw that the affirmative position was wretchedly and half-heartedly defended. As the debate drew to its conclusion and the division of the house was called, he rose from his seat in the audience, and delivered a vigorous, impromptu defense of the proposition. Belloc won that debate from the audience, as the division of the house then showed, and his reputation as a debater was established. He was later elected president of the Union. He held his own in debates there with F. E. Smith and John Buchan, the latter a friend. 
He was at his most effective in the 1920s, on the attack against H. G. Wells's Outline of History, in which he criticized Wells' secular bias and his belief in evolution by means of natural selection, a theory that Belloc asserted had been completely discredited. Wells remarked that "Debating Mr. Belloc is like arguing with a hailstorm." Belloc's review of Outline of History famously observed that Wells' book was a powerful and well-written volume, "up until the appearance of Man, that is, somewhere around page seven." Wells responded with a small book, Mr. Belloc Objects. Not to be outdone, Belloc followed with, "Mr. Belloc Still Objects."
G. G. Coulton, a keen and persistent academic opponent, wrote on Mr. Belloc on Medieval History in a 1920 article. After a long simmering feud, Belloc replied with a booklet, The Case of Dr. Coulton, in 1938.
Belloc was one of the Big Four of Edwardian Letters along with H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, and G.K. Chesterton, men who engaged in controversy and debate with one another for a generation or more.
For Belloc, the great question to be answered by every thinking man or woman is precisely, "What do you make of the Faith?" The answers that he and others gave to this question explain the battles he fought.
Belloc wrote on myriad subjects, from warfare to poetry and many topics current in his day. He was closely associated with G. K. Chesterton; George Bernard Shaw coined the term Chesterbelloc for their partnership.
His only period of steady employment was from 1914 to 1920 as editor of Land and Water, a journal devoted to the progress of the war. Otherwise he lived by his pen, and often felt short of money. Asked once why he wrote so much, he responded, "Because my children are howling for pearls and caviar." Belloc observed that "The first job of letters is to get a canon," that is, to identify those works which a writer looks upon as exemplary of the best of prose and verse. For his own prose style, he claimed to aspire to be as clear and concise as "Mary had a little lamb."
His best travel writing has secured a permanent following. The Path to Rome (1902), an account of a walking pilgrimage he made from central France across the Alps and down to Rome, has remained continuously in print. More than a mere travelogue, The Path to Rome contains descriptions of the people and places he encountered, his drawings in pencil and in ink of the route, humor, poesy, and the reflections of a large mind turned to the events of his time as he marches along his solitary way. At every turn, Belloc shows himself to be profoundly in love with Europe and with the Faith that he claims has produced it.
As an essayist he was one of a small, admired and dominant group (with Chesterton, E. V. Lucas and Robert Lynd) of popular writers, although he sometimes came across as too opinionated, and too dedicated a Catholic controversialist.
There is a passage in The Cruise of the Nona in which Belloc, sitting alone at the helm of his boat under the stars, shows profoundly his mind in the matter of Catholicism and mankind; he writes of "That golden Light cast over the earth by the beating of the Wings of the Faith."
His "cautionary tales," humorous poems with an implausible moral, beautifully illustrated by Lord Basil Blackwood and later by Edward Gorey, are the most widely known of his writings. Supposedly for children, they are, like Lewis Carroll's works, more to adult and satirical tastes: Henry King, Who chewed bits of string and was early cut off in dreadful agonies. A similar poem tells the story of Rebecca, who slammed doors for fun and perished miserably.
The tale of Matilda (who told lies and was burnt to death) was adapted into the play "Matilda Liar!" by Debbie Isitt. Quentin Blake, the illustrator, described Belloc as at one and the same time the overbearing adult and mischievous child. Roald Dahl is a follower. But Belloc has broader if sourer scope:
leading up to
Of more weight are Belloc's Sonnets and Verses, a much admired volume that deploys the same singing and rhyming techniques of his children's verses. Often religious, often romantic, and ever unique is Belloc's poetry; throughout The Path to Rome he bursts into spontaneous song, and snaps at the idea that he is falling into doggerel with his typical tongue-in-cheek aversion to intellectual pretension.
Three of his best known non-fiction works are The Servile State (1912), Europe and Faith (1920) and The Jews (1922).
From an early age Belloc knew Henry Edward Cardinal Manning, who was responsible for the conversion of his mother to Roman Catholicism. Manning's involvement in the 1889 London Dock Strike made a major impression on Belloc and his view of politics, according to biographer Robert Speaight. Belloc described this retrospectively in The Cruise of the Nona (1925); he became a trenchant critic both of unbridled capitalism, and of many aspects of socialism.
With others (G. K. Chesterton, Cecil Chesterton, Arthur Penty) Belloc had envisioned the socioeconomic system of distributism. In The Servile State, written after his party-political career had come to end, and other works, he criticized the modern economic order and parliamentary system, advocating distributism in opposition to both capitalism and socialism. Belloc made the historical argument that distributism was not a fresh perspective or program of economics but rather a proposed return to the economics that prevailed in Europe for the thousand years when it was Catholic.
Distributism, also known as distributionism and distributivism, is a third-way economic philosophy formulated by such Roman Catholic thinkers as Chesterton and Belloc to apply the principles of social justice articulated by the Roman Catholic Church, especially in Pope Leo XIII's encyclical Rerum Novarum and more expansively explained by Pope Pius XI's encyclical Quadragesimo Anno (On the Reconstruction of the Social Order) According to distributism, the ownership of the means of production should be spread as widely as possible among the general populace, rather than being centralized under the control of a few state bureaucrats (some forms of socialism) or wealthy private individuals (capitalism). A summary of distributism is found in Chesterton's statement: "Too much capitalism does not mean too many capitalists, but too few capitalists."
Essentially, distributism distinguishes itself by its distribution of property. Distributism holds that, while socialism allows no individuals to own productive property (it all being under state, community, or workers' control), and capitalism allows only a few to own it, distributism itself seeks to ensure that most people will become owners of productive property. As Belloc stated, the distributive state (that is, the state which has implemented distributism) contains "an agglomeration of families of varying wealth, but by far the greater number of owners of the means of production." This broader distribution does not extend to all property, but only to productive property; that is, that property which produces wealth, namely, the things needed for man to survive, including land, tools, etc.
Under such a system, most people would be able to earn a living without having to rely on the use of the property of others to do so. Examples of people earning a living in this way would be farmers who own their own land and related machinery, plumbers who own their own tools, software developers who own their own computer, etc. The "co-operative" approach advances beyond this perspective to recognize that such property and equipment may be "co-owned" by local communities larger than a family, e.g. partners in a business.
Distributism sees the trinitarian human family of one male, one female, and their children as the central and primary social unit of human ordering and the principal unit of a functioning distributist society and civilization. This unit is also the basis of a multi-generational extended family, which is embedded in socially as well as genetically inter-related communities, nations, etc., and ultimately in the whole human family past, present and future. The economic system of a society should therefore be focused primarily on the flourishing of the family unit, but not in isolation: at the appropriate level of family context, as is intended in the principle of subsidiarity. Distributism reflects this doctrine most evidently by promoting the family, rather than the individual, as the basic type of owner; that is, distributism seeks to ensure that most families, rather than most individuals, will be owners of productive property. The family is, then, vitally important to the very core of distributist thought.
With these linked themes in the background, he wrote a long series of contentious biographies of historical figures, including Oliver Cromwell, James II, and Napoleon Bonaparte. They show him as an ardent proponent of orthodox Catholicism and a critic of many elements of the modern world.
Outside academe, Belloc was impatient with what he considered to be axe-grinding histories, especially what he called "official history." Joseph Pearce notes also Belloc's attack on the secularism of H.G. Wells's popular Outline of History:
Belloc objected to his adversary's tacitly anti-Christian stance, epitomized by the fact that Wells had devoted more space in his "history" to the Persian campaign against the Greeks than he had given to the figure of Christ.
He wrote also substantial amounts of military history. In alternative history, he contributed to the 1931 collection If It Had Happened Otherwise edited by Sir John Squire.
One of Belloc's most famous statements was "the faith is Europe and Europe is the faith"; this sums up his strongly-held, orthodox Roman Catholic views, and the cultural conclusions he drew from them. Those views were expressed at length in many of his works from the period 1920-1940. These are still cited as exemplary of Catholic apologetics. They have also been criticized, for instance by comparison with the work of Christopher Dawson during the same period.
As a young man, Belloc lost his faith. Then came a spiritual event which he never discussed publicly, and which returned him to and confirmed him in his Catholicism for the remainder of his life. Belloc alludes to this return to the faith in a passage in The Cruise of the Nona.
Belloc's 1937 book The Crusades: the World's Debate made no pretense at impartiality. Despite addressing events that were more than eight centuries old, it took a highly partisan stance. In his view, had the Crusaders captured Damascus, the Islamic World would have been cut in two and "bled to death of the wound"– an outcome which Belloc explicitly stated would have been highly desirable.
Since the Crusaders missed that chance, Islam survived and eventually overwhelmed the Crusader bridgehead in the Middle East. For Belloc this was not a matter of old history: Islam continued to pose a dangerous present and future threat.
At the time of his writing, the Islamic world was still largely under the rule of the European colonial powers and the threat to Britain was from Fascism and Nazism. Belloc, however, considered that Islam was permanently intent on destroying the Church, as well as the West, which Christendom had built. In The Great Heresies (1938) Belloc grouped the Protestant Reformation together with Islam as one of the major heresies threatening the "Church Universal."
He compared many of the beliefs and theological principles which Islam shares with Catholicism–yet despite these similarities, or rather because of them, Belloc's views it as a heresy. It is in its view of Jesus that Islam decisively diverges from Catholicism (and Christianity in general), in the "denial of the Incarnation and all the sacramental life of the Church that followed from it." Islam regards Jesus as a human being, though honoring him as a Prophet.
In The Cruise of the Nona, Belloc reflected equivocally on the Dreyfus Affair after 30 years. For this reason among others, Belloc has been charged with anti-Semitism, and the issue of his attitude to Jews is still raised. For example, Norman Rose's book The Cliveden Set (2000) poses the question of whether Nancy Astor, a friend of Belloc's in the 1930s until they broke over religious matters, was influenced by him against Jews in general. He was repeatedly critical, from his days in politics onwards, of the influence some Jewish people had on society and the world of finance.
There are a number of grounds on which Belloc has been deemed by some to be anti-Semitic and not concerned to conceal his views.
On the other hand, Canadian broadcaster Michael Coren wrote:
Belloc's polemics did periodically drift into the realms of bigotry, but he was invariably a tenacious opponent of philosophical anti-Semitism, ostracized friends who made attacks upon individual Jews, and was an inexorable enemy of fascism and all its works, speaking out against German anti-Semitism before the National Socialists came to power.
Robert Speaight cited a letter by Belloc in which he pilloried Nesta Webster because of her accusations against "the Jews." In February 1924, Belloc wrote to an American Jewish friend regarding an allegedly anti-Semitic book by Webster. Webster had rejected Christianity, studied Eastern religions, accepted the Hindu concept of the equality of all religions and was fascinated by theories of reincarnation and ancestral memory. Belloc expressed his views very clearly:
"In my opinion it is a lunatic book. She is one of those people who have got one cause on the brain. It is the good old 'Jewish revolutionary' bogey. But there is a type of unstable mind which cannot rest without morbid imaginings, and the conception of a single cause simplifies thought. With this good woman it is the Jews, with some people it is the Jesuits, with others Freemasons and so on. The world is more complex than that."
Speaight also points out that when faced with anti-Semitism in practice—as at elitist country clubs in America before World War II—he voiced his disapproval. Belloc condemned Nazi anti-Semitism in The Catholic and the War (1940). Dennis Barton has defended Belloc at length. He notes that Belloc condemned wild accusations against the Jews, in his own book, The Jews.
Belloc's legacy is mixed. His social and economic views were predecessors to the "third way" ideas that would emerge briefly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, although they quickly fell out of favor as there proved to be no workable solutions that were not essentially capitalist. His religious views are now out of favor as are his anti-Semitic views.
All links retrieved January 18, 2013.
|Parliament of the United Kingdom|
James Grimble Groves
|Member of Parliament for Salford South
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