The other day I noticed that my Muse, who had long been ailing, silent and morose, was showing signs of actual illness.
Thus begins Belloc's essay "On the illness of my Muse."
I'm sure some of you will be able to relate to that.
The essay describes his Muse's terrible state and Belloc is compelled to call for a specialist doctor:
The great specialist approached with a determined air the couch where the patient lay, awoke her according to the ancient formula, and proceeded to question her upon her symptoms. He soon discovered their gravity, and I could see by his manner that he was anxious to an extreme. The Muse had grown so weak as to be unable to dictate even a little blank verse, and the indisposition had so far affected her mind that she had no memory of Parnassus, but deliriously maintained that she had been born in the home counties—nay, in the neighbourhood of Uxbridge. Her every phrase was a deplorable commonplace, and, on the physician applying a stethoscope and begging her to attempt some verse, she could give us nothing better than a sonnet upon the expansion of the Empire. Her weakness was such that she could do no more than awake, and that feebly, while she professed herself totally unable to arise, to expand, to soar, to haunt, or to perform any of those exercises which are proper to her profession.
I also discovered this next essay "On a House" recently and only include this passage because it amuses me:
The fire-place and the mantelpiece were of white marble and had on them two white vases picked out in bright green, a clock with a bronze upon it representing a waiter dressed up partly in fifteenth-century plate and partly in twelfth-century mail, and on the wall were two Jewish texts, each translated into Jacobean English and illuminated with a Victorian illumination. One said: “He hath prevented all my ways.” The other said: “Wisdom is better than Rubies.” But the gothic “u” was ill made and it looked like “Rabies.”
Wisdom is certainly better than Rabies.
I have a few of Belloc's books and have read a few others and will happily recommend the following: The Servile State, The Free Press, The Crusades, How the Reformation Happened, Survivals and New Arrivals, The Path to Rome, The Great Heresies. Belloc wrote a large number of books, but one of my friends cautioned me that many were pot boilers. The man had to earn a living. But so far my favourite book is simply his collection of essays Essays of a Catholic published by TAN Press. I had thought my copy of this book, with all my pencil markings in it, was irretrievably lost, but St. Anthony found it for me. Here is one of my favourite essays:
What on earth could he be thinking?
This is his summary of the essay:
Science cannot be opposed to truth, for it is no less than a part of truth itself, as discovered in a particular sphere. But those who practice physical science may have a corporate spirit which is warped, opposed to true philosophy and therefore to beauty and to goodness. That is exactly what has happened in the development of physical science and of the so-called "scientific" criticism of documents during the last two centuries. The misfortune has happened because the advance in scientific method came after the break-up of Europe and of our common religion. The Process is now reaching its climax in an effort to persuade men against the belief in a beneficent conscious omnipotent Creator, the moral sense and the freedom of the will.
Some of the highlights of that essay for me are those things which I had observed or experienced myself:
On seeing a passage beginning, "Science has proved . . ." or "There is no scientific evidence for . . ." or "Examined in a strictly scientific spirit . . ." and so forth, men are becoming more and more predisposed to quarrel with what follows. They are filled with an "I know all about that!" feeling. On hearing of some method that it is "Scientific" they are at once prepared to find it leading to ridiculous conclusions. They do not feel instructed; they feel warned. Habits of eating, clothing and everything else suggested in the name of "Science" they constantly discover to be inhuman, degrading or simply silly. The term "Scientific" applied to some recommended habit is beginning to have something grotesque about it...
Further, this word "Science" and its derivatives is beginning to be associated with unreliability. The high priests of science yesterday loudly affirmed as eternal truth what today they have to be silent upon because it has been proved false. Yet the new supplanting doctrine is as loudly affirmed today as was the discredited one yesterday-----and as it will itself be denied again tomorrow.
Just think of all the "diets" you've outlived!
The modern scientific spirit as applied to daily practice, to life, and to letters, and, above all, to religion, is the enemy of truth...The Modern Scientific Spirit being the enemy of truth, is the enemy of right living and of human happiness, and if it is not tackled, humbled and set right, will lead us to misery.
Ask some faithful Catholic mothers what they think of the doctors and nurses who attended them during pregnancy and childbirth!
For more essays online see this page. On my computer, at least, the webpage is a mess, so I apologise if that's true for you too.
I'm not necessarily endorsing the site, but this is a handy page.
Belloc is not everyone's cup of tea, of course, but I certainly enjoy reading him, especially since he writes so clearly. His histories are also very enjoyable and he expresses his ideas very well, I think. For example, to give the reader an idea of what was happening at any given time, he will often use phrases such as “in the space of one life time” (roughly 70 years) or “for the greater part of a working life time” (roughly 40-50 years). This kind of expression really helps to give a sense of how things must have seemed to the people of that era. One gets a sense of how different things were for the grandchildren in an era and how much changed from the time of their grandparents' youth.
Some other favourites in his collection of Essays are as follows:
The conversion of England would seem impossible of attainment. If it is to be attained it can only be attained by recognizing the nature of the obstacles to it, much the strongest of which is the patriotism of the English people; the Faith is in their eyes alien and therefore something inferior as well as something to be hated. Approach through the gentry is no longer possible, for the gentry have ceased to govern, our efforts must be upon the bulk, the chaotic masses of town population. Such small chance as it has lies in two forms of action-----exposing the insufficiency and absurdity of the official anti-Catholic history and philosophy-----that is, undermining the opponent-----and, on the positive side, creating a fashion in favor of the Faith, or at any rate of sympathy with the Faith.
I think parts of this essay are even applicable to the various English speaking countries we come from or live in and I think it would be worthwhile for any of us to read it, especially the fourth section. It is not relevant in its entirety, of course, but some parts are definitely applicable and others are at least interesting. For example, the part which describes why it is so hard to convince an Englishman to convert from the Church of England to the Catholic Faith is probably still exactly applicable.
I was initially very skeptical about Belloc's claim that Englishmen are very imaginative and emotional, but am now almost wholly convinced it is so, for example, with regard to their views on animals. I'm inclined now to think the whole “stiff upper lip” phenomenon is entirely due to the need to keep such strong passions under control, for fear of being even more volatile than either the Irish or Italians!
The thesis that the Catholic Church is incompatible with the Modern State is in part true. Three fundamental reasons are urged to show this incompatibility. The first-----that the Catholic section of a state claims the right to destroy all religious bodies in disagreement with it-----is unsound, being based on a misconception which can only arise from an ignorance both of Catholic doctrine and of the history of Catholic peoples.
But the other two reasons given are sound: one is that obedience to an external authority is contrary to that ideal of citizenship, which in the Modern State is based upon two ideas-----that each citizen individually forms his decision and that a majority of these decisions binds all; the other is that the claims of the Church tend to conflict with the similar claims of the modern laical, absolute State. Hitherto the truth of these two reasons has been masked by the fact that the bulk of Catholic moral teaching has been retained in non-Catholic states. But this is changing, and conflict will result.
Does this sound at all familiar?
The right of the parent over the child is prior to the right of the State. Where the State compels the parent to send its child to an institution which he must attend for many hours of the day and by which his mind cannot but be formed at the most critical period in its development, the parent has a right to demand of the State that the institution shall be of a kind he approves of. In the particular case of the Catholic parent living under the authority of an anti-Catholic state such as England, the members of the Catholic body have a full political right to claim that the whole expense incurred in the compulsory education of their children shall be defrayed by the State but shall be in Catholic hands-----subject of course to the condition that money levied for a particular purpose must be spent on that purpose and that money levied for education must be spent on education.
Whether it be possible in practice to obtain the whole of this rightful claim has nothing to do with its righteousness. We must always present the full claim and never compromise on it as a principle, whatever we may have to accept in practice. By steady insistence on the full and reasonable right, we can familiarize opponents with the idea of that right. The current and meaningless phrase, that "sums paid out of public funds must remain under public control" is as easy to expose as any other parrot-cry. The Catholic schools have a rightful claim to complete independence from the anti-Catholic state under which they exist. To talk of "neutrality" in this connection is silly or false, according to the character of the man who uses the word.
Our civilization developed as a Catholic civilization. It developed and matured as a Catholic thing. With the loss of the Faith it will slip back not only into Paganism, but into barbarism with the accompaniments of Paganism, and especially the institution of slavery. It will find gods to worship, but they will be evil gods as were those of the older savage Paganism before it began its advance towards Catholicism. The road downhill is the same as the road up the hill. It is the same road, but to go down back into the marshes again is a very different thing from coming up from the marshes into pure air. All things return to their origin. A living organic being, whether a human body or a whole state of society, turns at last into its original elements if life be not maintained in it. But in that process of return there is a phase of corruption which is very unpleasant. That phase the modern world outside the Catholic Church has arrived at.
This article by a friend of mine will certainly give you an idea of some of Belloc's faults, if you didn't already know them, while also giving reasons to think that “Belloc still matters.” I highly recommend reading the whole thing.
R.J. Stove: Why Belloc Still Matters.
An author too robust and significant to be wholly un-personned can still be marginalized…
If Belloc’s entire literary merit lies in his having catered to the A.A. Milne and Edward Lear demographic, we need no more bother ourselves with his wider aims than seek deep epistemological insight from re-reading about Pooh Bear or The Dong With The Luminous Nose...
Malcolm Muggeridge complained, “although he has written about religion all his life, there seemed to be very little in him.” Six years before the Latin Mass’s recent anti-Belloc enfilade, St. Louis University’s James Hitchcock (in the May 1996 issue of Crisis) likened Belloc to “a man with a machine gun—by spraying shots everywhere he inevitably hit some targets, but many of his bullets went astray.”
Far worse indictments follow, but then were are told why, after all, Belloc still matters:
What case for the defense can outweigh it? There actually exist two such cases: first, Belloc’s daunting percipience; second, his equally daunting versatility as a poet.
Given Belloc’s prophetic skill, it comes as a severe jolt to recollect that he was born back in 1870. (He died in 1953, but a stroke robbed him of his authorial powers in 1942.) Almost every major political trend of the last hundred years—whether the Third Reich, or the bipartisan welfarism familiar from our own experience, or the socialization of agriculture, or incessant Middle East massacres, or the spirit of jihad, or the willful confusion between legitimate private enterprise and piratical paper-shuffling, or the sexual revolution, or mad-scientist genetic technology—Belloc predicted. His output retains an immediacy for our time that is impossible to discern in most of his journalistic confreres. At a time when H.G. Wells, John Dewey, and Bertrand Russell counted as forward-looking thinkers—while notching up an almost 100 percent failure rate when it came to even the least contentious prophesying about global trends five weeks, let alone five years, down the track—Belloc plodded on, fortified by nothing more glamorous than preternatural energy and a worldview too European and synoptic to countenance the least parochialism. Plodding of that type seldom facilitates benignity, genial tolerance towards opponents, or leisurely musings on the joys of artistic creation. Nor does life in the House of Commons, where Belloc sat for four dispiriting years (1906-1910) as a maverick Liberal parliamentarian.
Little wonder that Belloc at times bullied when he should have insinuated, at times cut corners on fine detail when he should have checked and rechecked a specific datum.
I can't end this without at least some small offering from his marvellous Cautionary Tales:
Young Algernon, the Doctor’s Son,
Was playing with a Loaded Gun.
He pointed it towards his sister,
Aimed very carefully, but Missed her!
His Father, who was standing near,
The Loud Explosion chanced to Hear,
And reprimanded Algernon
For playing with a Loaded Gun.
If you have happily (or begrudgingly) read this offering, I thank you! I hope it has done some justice to a man I look up to and even consider to be a spiritual father.
Blessings to all this Eastertide!
—Louise is an Australian homeschooling mother of six, currently living in Texas.