Saturday, May 31, 2014

Civil Liberty

"IN PRACTICE the area of such “civil liberty” in a healthy and politically free State, the proportion of acts which the individual or the corporation may perform at will, without restriction by the State, is always very large. It always includes by far the greater part of one’s daily activities, at any rate in normal times; and we regard the extension of this “civil liberty,” quite apart from national or political liberty, as a good; we jealously watch encroachments upon it as dangerous, that is, as liable to produce great evil, for four reasons:─

"First, we know by our reason that the State is not an end in itself, but only exists for the happiness of the members—real bodies and soul—that make it up. Therefore each must have the power of testifying to the success or failure of state measures towards that end, and of himself furthering it.

"Secondly, we discover by experiment and from the example of history how necessary to the health of the State as a whole, how necessary to its vigorous common life, is this power of reaction within it.

"Thirdly, we all know that there is in human nature a defect of tyranny—the love of “running other people,” of seeing them obey you. Therefore the human agent of civil authority must be subject himself to restriction and limits as of appointment or custom.

"Lastly, one of the attributes of a conscious individual being is the desire and instinct, or what might be called (without too much exaggeration), the sheer necessity for self-expression. An undue restriction exasperates this instinct and forbids the satisfaction of this desire. In so much it warps and weakens and inflames the individual, makes him unhappy and defeats the end for which the State itself exists, which is the happiness of its members.

"Now civil liberty being of this nature, and being by common consent good, and any unnecessary loss of it an evil, it will at once be granted that the imposition of a special form of thought or philosophic expression upon the mass of free men against their will, is a restriction of the gravest kind. In common (and true) language, it is tyranny."

~Hilaire Belloc: from Religion and Civil Liberty.

Friday, May 30, 2014

"They cannot long remain apart from visions"

"THEN on the left you have all the Germanics, a great sea of confused and dreaming people, lost in philosophies and creating music, frozen for the moment under a foreign rigidity, but some day to thaw again and to give a word to us others. They cannot long remain apart from visions."

~Hilaire Belloc: The Path to Rome.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

On Unknown People

YOU WILL often hear it said that it is astonishing such and such work should be present and enduring in the world, and yet the name of its author not known; but when one considers the variety of good work and the circumstances under which it is achieved, and the variety of taste also between different times and places, one begins to understand what is at first so astonishing.

There are writers who have ascribed this frequent ignorance of ours to all sorts of heroic moods, to the self-sacrifice or the humility of a whole epoch or of particular artists: that is the least satisfactory of the reasons one could find. All men desire, if not fame, at least the one poor inalienable right of authorship, and unless one can find very good reasons indeed why a painter or a writer or a sculptor should deliberately have hidden himself one must look for some other cause.

Among such causes the first two, I think, are the multiplicity of good work, and its chance character. Not that any one ever does very good work for once and then never again─at least, such an accident is extremely rare─but that many a man who has achieved some skill by long labour does now and then strike out a sort of spark quite individual and separate from the rest. Often you will find that a man who is remembered for but one picture or one poem is worth research. You will find that he did much more. It is to be remembered that for a long time Ronsard himself was thought to be a man of one poem.

The multiplicity of good work also and the way in which accident helps it is a cause. There are bits of architecture (and architecture is the most anonymous of all the arts) which depend for their effect to-day very largely upon situation and the process of time, and there are a thousand corners in Europe intended merely for some utility which happen almost without deliberate design to have proved perfect: this is especially true of bridges.

Then there is this element in the anonymity of good work, that a man very often has no idea how good the work is which he has done. The anecdotes (such as that famous one of Keats) which tell us of poets desiring to destroy their work, or, at any rate, casting it aside as of little value, are not all false. We still have the letter in which Burns enclosed "Scots wha' hae," and it is curious to note his misjudgment of the verse; and side by side with that kind of misjudgment we have men picking out for singular affection and with a full expectation of glory some piece of work of theirs to which posterity will have nothing to say. This is especially true of work recast by men in mature age. Writers and painters (sculptors luckily are restrained by the nature of their art─unless they deliberately go and break up their work with a hammer) retouch and change, in the years when they have become more critical and less creative, what they think to be the insufficient achievements of their youth: yet it is the vigour and the simplicity of their youthful work which other men often prefer to remember. On this account any number of good things remain anonymous, because the good writer or the good painter or the good sculptor was ashamed of them.

Then there is this reason for anonymity, that at times─for quite a short few years─a sort of universality of good work in one or more departments of art seems to fall upon the world or upon some district. Nowhere do you see this more strikingly than in the carvings of the first third of the sixteenth century in Northern and Central France and on the Flemish border.

Men seemed at that moment incapable of doing work that was not marvellous when they once began to express the human figure. Sometimes their mere name remains, more often it is doubtful, sometimes it is entirely lost. More curious still, you often have for this period a mixture of names. You come across some astonishing series of reliefs in a forgotten church of a small provincial town. You know at once that it is work of the moment when the flood of the Renaissance had at last reached the old country of the Gothic. You can swear that if it were not made in the time of Francis I or Henry II it was at least made by men who could remember or had seen those times. But when you turn to the names the names are nobodies.

By far the most famous of these famous things, or at any rate the most deserving of fame, is the miracle of Brou. It is a whole world. You would say that either one transcendent genius had modelled every face and figure of those thousands (so individual are they), or that a company of inspired men differing in their traditions and upbringing from all the commonalty of mankind had done such things. When you go to the names all you find is that Coulombe out of Touraine began the job, that there was some sort of quarrel between his head-man and the paymasters, that he was replaced in the most everyday manner conceivable by a Fleming, Van Boghem, and that this Fleming had to help him a better-known Swiss, one Meyt. It is the same story with nearly all this kind of work and its wonderful period. The wealth of detail at Louviers or Gisors is almost anonymous; that of the first named perhaps quite anonymous.

Who carved the wood in St. James's Church at Antwerp? I think the name is known for part of it, but no one did the whole or anything like the whole, and yet it is all one thing. Who carved the wood in St. Bertrand de Coraminges? We know who paid for it, and that is all we know. And as for the wood of Rouen, we must content ourselves with the vague phrase, "Probably Flemish artists."

Of the Gothic statues where they were conventional, however grand the work, one can understand that they should be anonymous, but it is curious to note the same silence where the work is strikingly and particularly individual. Among the kings at Rheims are two heads, one of St. Louis, one of his grandson. Had some one famous sculptor done these things and others, were his work known and sought after, these two heads would be as renowned as anything in Europe. As it is they are two among hundreds that the latter thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries scattered broadcast; each probably was the work of a different workman, and the author or authors of each remain equally unknown.

I know not whether there is more pathos or more humour or more consolation in considering this ignorance of ours with regard to the makers of good things.

It is full of parable. There is something of it in Nature. There are men who will walk all day through a June wood and come out atheists at the end of it, finding no signature thereupon; and there are others who, sailing over the sea, come back home after seeing so many things still puzzled as to their authorship. That is one parable.

Then there is this: the corrective of ambition. Since so much remains, the very names of whose authors have perished, what does it matter to you or to the world whether your name, so long as your work, survives? Who was it that carefully and cunningly fixed the sights on Gumber Corner so as to get upon a clear day his exact alignment with Pulborough and then the shoulder of Leith Hill, just to miss the two rivers and just to obtain the best going for a military road? He was some engineer or other among the thousands in the Imperial Service. He was at Chichester for some weeks and drew his pay, and then perhaps went on to London, and he was born in Africa or in Lombardy, or he was a Breton, or he was from Lusitania or from the Euphrates. He did that bit of work most certainly without any consideration of fame, for engineers (especially when they are soldiers) are singular among artists in this matter. But he did a very wonderful thing, and the Roman Road has run there for fifteen hundred years─his creation. Some one must have hit upon that precise line and the reason for it. It is exactly right, and the thing done was as great and is to-day as satisfying as that sculpture of Brou or the two boys Murillo painted, whom you may see in the Gallery at Dulwich. But he never thought of any one knowing his name, and no one knows it.

Then there is this last thing about anonymous work, which is also a parable and a sad one. It shows how there is no bridge between two human minds.

How often have I not come upon a corbel of stone carved into the shape of a face, and that face had upon it either horror or laughter or great sweetness or vision, and I have looked at it as I might have looked upon a living face, save that it was more wonderful than most living faces. It carried in it the soul and the mind of the man who made it. But he has been dead these hundreds of years. That corbel cannot be in communion with me, for it is of stone; it is dumb and will not speak to me, though it compels me continually to ask it questions. Its author also is dumb, for he has been dead so long, and I can know nothing about him whatsoever.

Now so it is with any two human minds, not only when they are separated by centuries and by silence, but when they have their being side by side under one roof and are companions all their years.

~Hilaire Belloc

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

On Them

I DO NOT like Them. It is no good asking me why, though I have plenty of reasons. I do not like Them. There would be no particular point in saying I do not like Them if it were not that so many people doted on Them, and when one hears Them praised, it goads one to expressing one's hatred and fear of Them.

I know very well that They can do one harm, and that They have occult powers. All the world has known that for a hundred thousand years, more or less, and every attempt has been made to propitiate Them. James I. would drown Their mistress or burn her, but They were spared. Men would mummify Them in Egypt, and worship the mummies; men would carve Them in stone in Cyprus, and Crete and Asia Minor, or (more remarkable still) artists, especially in the Western Empire, would leave Them out altogether; so much was Their influence dreaded. Well, I yield so far as not to print Their name, and only to call Them "They", but I hate Them, and I'm not afraid to say so.

If you will take a little list of the chief crimes that living beings can commit you will find that They commit them all. And They are cruel; cruelty is even in Their tread and expression. They are hatefully cruel. I saw one of Them catch a mouse the other day (the cat is now out of the bag), and it was a very much more sickening sight, I fancy, than ordinary murder. You may imagine that They catch mice to eat them. It is not so. They catch mice to torture them. And what is worse, They will teach this to Their children─Their children who are naturally innocent and fat, and full of goodness, are deliberately and systematically corrupted by Them; there is diabolism in it.

Other beings (I include mankind) will be gluttonous, but gluttonous spasmodically, or with a method, or shamefacedly, or, in some way or another that qualifies the vice; not so They. They are gluttonous always and upon all occasions, and in every place and for ever. It was only last Vigil of All Fools' Day when, myself fasting, I filled up the saucer seven times with milk and seven times it was emptied, and there went up the most peevish, querulous, vicious complaint and demand for an eighth. They will eat some part of the food of all that are in the house. Now even a child, the most gluttonous one would think of all living creatures, would not do that. It makes a selection, They do not. They will drink beer. This is not a theory; I know it; I have seen it with my own eyes. They will eat special foods; They will even eat dry bread. Here again I have personal evidence of the fact; They will eat the dog's biscuits, but never upon any occasion will They eat anything that has been poisoned, so utterly lacking are They in simplicity and humility, and so abominably well filled with cunning by whatever demon first brought their race into existence.

They also, alone of all creation, love hateful noises. Some beings indeed (and I count Man among them) cannot help the voice with which they have been endowed, but they know that it is offensive, and are at pains to make it better; others (such as the peacock or the elephant) also know that their cry is unpleasant. They therefore use it sparingly. Others again, the dove, the nightingale, the thrush, know that their voices are very pleasant, and entertain us with them all day and all night long; but They know that Their voices are the most hideous of all the sounds in the world, and, knowing this, They perpetually insist upon thrusting those voices upon us, saying, as it were, "I am giving myself pain, but I am giving you more pain, and therefore I shall go on." And They choose for the place where this pain shall be given, exact and elevated situations, very close to our ears. Is there any need for me to point out that in every city they will begin their wicked jar just at the time when its inhabitants must sleep? In London you will not hear it till after midnight; in the county towns it begins at ten; in remote villages as early as nine.

Their Master also protects them. They have a charmed life. I have seen one thrown from a great height into a London street, which when It reached it It walked quietly away with the dignity of the Lost World to which It belonged.

If one had the time one could watch Them day after day, and never see Them do a single kind or good thing, or be moved by a single virtuous impulse. They have no gesture for the expression of admiration, love, reverence or ecstasy. They have but one method of expressing content, and They reserve that for moments of physical repletion. The tail, which is in all other animals the signal for joy or for defence, or for mere usefulness, or for a noble anger, is with Them agitated only to express a sullen discontent.

All that They do is venomous, and all that They think is evil, and when I take mine away (as I mean to do next week─in a basket), I shall first read in a book of statistics what is the wickedest part of London, and I shall leave It there, for I know of no one even among my neighbours quite so vile as to deserve such a gift.

~Hilaire Belloc

Sunday, May 11, 2014

On a Faery Castle

A WOMAN whose presence in English letters will continue to increase wrote of a cause to which she had dedicated her life that it was like that Faery Castle of which men became aware when they wandered upon a certain moor. In that deserted place (the picture was taken from the writings of Sir Walter Scott) the lonely traveller heard above him a noise of bugles in the air, and thus a Faery Castle was revealed; but again, when the traveller would reach it, a doom comes upon him, and in the act of its attainment it vanishes away.

We are northern, full of dreams in the darkness; this Castle is caught in glimpses, a misty thing. It is seen a moment-then it mixes once again with the mist of our northern air, and when that mist has lifted from the heath there is nothing before the watcher but a bare upland open to the wind and roofed only by hurrying cloud. Yet in the moment of revelation most certainly the traveller perceived it, and the call of its bugle-guard was very clear. He continues his way perceiving only the things he knows-trees bent by the gale, rude heather, the gravel of the path, and mountains all around. In that landscape he has no companion; yet he cannot but be haunted, as he goes, by towers upon which he surely looked, and by the sharp memory of bugle-notes that still seem to startle his hearing.

In our legends of Western Europe this Castle perpetually returns. It has been seen not only on the highlands of Ireland, of Wales, of Brittany, of the Asturias, of Normandy, and of Auvergne, but in the plains also, and on those river meadows where wealth comes so fast that even simple men early forget the visions of the hills. The imagination, or rather the speech, of our race has created or recognised throughout our territory this stronghold which was not altogether of the world.

Queen Iseult, as she sat with Tristan in a Castle Garden, towards the end of a summer night, whispered to him: "Tristan, they say that this Castle is Faery; it is revealed at the sound of a Trumpet, but presently it vanishes away," and as she said it the bugles rang dawn.

Raymond of Saragossa saw this Castle, also, as he came down from the wooded hills after he had found the water of life and was bearing it towards the plain. He saw the towers quite clearly and also thought he heard the call upon that downward road at whose end he was to meet with Bramimonde. But he saw it thence only, in the exaltation of the summits as he looked over the falling forest to the plain and the Sierra miles beyond. He saw it thence only. Never after upon either bank of Ebro could he come upon it, nor could any man assure him of the way.

In the Story of Val-ès-Dunes, Hugh the Fortinbras out of the Cotentin had a castle of this kind. For when, after the battle, they count the dead, the Priest finds in the sea-grass among other bodies that of this old Lord....

 ... and Hugh that trusted in his glass,
 But rode not home the day;
 Whose title was the Fortinbras
 With the Lords of his Array.

This was that old Hugh the Fortinbras who had been Lord to the Priest's father, so that when the battle was engaged the Priest watched him from the opposing rank, and saw him fall, far off, just as the line broke and before the men of the Caux country had room to charge. It was easy to see him, for he rode a high horse and was taller than other Normans, and when his horse was wounded....

 ... The girth severed and the saddle swung
 And he went down;
 He never more sang winter songs
 In his High Town.

In his High Town that Faery is
And stands on Harcourt Lea;
To summon him up his arrier-ban
His writ beyond the mountain ran.
My father was his serving-man;
Although the farm was free.
Before the angry wars began
He was a friend to me!

In his High Town that Faery is
And stands on Harcourt bay;
The Fisher driving through the night
Makes harbour by that castle height
And moors him till the day:
But with the broadening of the light
It vanishes away.

So the Faery Castle comes in by an illusion in the Ballad of the Battle of Val-ès-Dunes.

* * * * *

What is this vision which our race has so symbolised or so seen and to which are thus attached its oldest memories? It is the miraculous moment of intense emotion in which whether we are duped or transfigured we are in touch with a reality firmer than the reality of this world. The Faery Castle is the counterpart and the example of those glimpses which every man has enjoyed, especially in youth, and which no man even in the dust of middle age can quite forget. In these were found a complete harmony and satisfaction which were not negative nor dependent upon the absence of discord-such completion as criticism may conceive-but as positive as colour or as music, and clothed as it were in a living body of joy.

The vision may be unreal or real, in either case it is valid: if it is unreal it is a symbol of the world behind the world. But it is no less a symbol; even if it is unreal it is a sudden seeing of the place to which our faces are set during this unbroken marching of years.

Once on the Sacramento River a little before sunrise I looked eastward from a boat and saw along the dawn the black edge of the Sierras. The peaks were as sharp as are the Malvern from the Cotswold, though they were days and days away. They made a broad jagged band intensely black against the glow of the sky. I drew them so. A tiny corner of the sun appeared between two central peaks:-at once the whole range was suffused with glory. The sun was wholly risen and the mountains had completely disappeared,-in the place where they had been was the sky of the horizon.

At another time, also in a boat, I saw beyond a spit of the Tunisian coast, as it seemed a flat island. Through the heat, with which the air trembled, was a low gleam of sand, a palm or two, and, less certainly, the flats and domes of a white native village. Our course, which was to round the point, went straight for this island, and, as we approached, it became first doubtful, then flickering, then a play of light upon the waves. It was a mirage, and it had melted into the air.

* * * * *

There is a part of us, as all the world knows, which is immixed with change and by change only can live. There is another part which lies behind motion and time, and that part is ourselves. This diviner part has surely a stronghold which is also an inheritance. It has a home which perhaps it remembers and which certainly it conceives at rare moments during our path over the moor.

This is that Faery Castle. It is revealed at the sound of a trumpet; we turn our eyes, we glance and we perceive it; we strain to reach it-in the very effort of our going the doom of human labour falls upon us and it vanishes away.

It is real or unreal. It is unreal like that island which I thought to see some miles from Africa, but which was not truly there: for the ship when it came to the place that island had occupied sailed easily over an empty sea. It is real, like those high Sierras which I drew from the Sacramento River at the turn of the night and which were suddenly obliterated by the rising sun.

Where the vision is but mirage, even there it is a symbol of our goal; where it stands fast and true, for however brief a moment, it can illumine, and should determine the whole of our lives. For such sights are the manifestation of that glory which lies permanent beyond the changing of the world. Of such a sort are the young passionate intentions to relieve the burden of mankind, first love, the mood created by certain strains of music, and-as I am willing to believe-the Walls of Heaven.

~Hilaire Belloc

Saturday, May 10, 2014

On a Lost Manuscript

IF this page does not appal you, nothing will.

If these first words do not fill you with an uneasy presentiment of doom, indeed, indeed you have been hitherto blessed in an ignorance of woe.

It is lost! What is lost? The revelation this page was to afford. The essay which was to have stood here upon page 127 of my book: the noblest of them all.

The words you so eagerly expected, the full exposition which was to have brought you such relief, is not here.

It was lost just after I wrote it. It can never be re-written; it is gone.

Much depended upon it; it would have led you to a great and to a rapidly acquired fortune; but you must not ask for it. You must turn your mind away. It cannot be re-written, and all that can take its place is a sort of dirge for departed and irrecoverable things.

"Lugete o Veneres Cupidinesque," which signifies "Mourn oh! you pleasant people, you spirits that attend the happiness of mankind": "et quantum est hominum venustiorum," which signifies "and you such mortals as are chiefly attached to delightful things." Passer, etc., which signifies my little, careful, tidy bit of writing, mortuus est, is lost. I lost it in a cab.

It was a noble and accomplished thing. Pliny would have loved it who said: "Ea est stomachi mei natura ut nil nisi merum atque totum velit," which signifies "such is the character of my taste that it will tolerate nothing but what is absolute and full." ... It is no use grumbling about the Latin. The nature of great disasters calls out for that foundational tongue. They roll as it were (do the great disasters of our time) right down the emptiness of the centuries until they strike the walls of Rome and provoke these sonorous echoes worthy of mighty things.

It was to have stood here instead of this, its poor apologist. It was to have filled these lines, this space, this very page. It is not here. You all know how, coming eagerly to a house to see someone dearly loved, you find in their place on entering a sister or a friend who makes excuses for them; you all know how the mind grows blank at the news and all nature around one shrivels. It is a worse emptiness than to be alone. So it is with me when I consider this as I write it, and then think of That Other which should have taken its place; for what I am writing now is like a little wizened figure dressed in mourning and weeping before a deserted shrine, but That Other which I have lost would have been like an Emperor returned from a triumph and seated upon a throne.

Indeed, indeed it was admirable! If you ask me where I wrote it, it was in Constantine, upon the Rock of Cirta, where the storms come bowling at you from Mount Atlas and where you feel yourself part of the sky. At least it was there in Cirta that I blocked out the thing, for efforts of that magnitude are not completed in one place or day. It was in Cirta that I carved it into form and gave it a general life, upon the 17th of January, 1905, sitting where long ago Massinissa had come riding in through the only gate of the city, sitting his horse without stirrups or bridle. Beside me, as I wrote, an Arab looked carefully at every word and shook his head because he could not understand the language; but the Muses understood and Apollo, which were its authors almost as much as I. How graceful it was and yet how firm! How generous and yet how particular! How easy, how superb, and yet how stuffed with dignity! There ran through it, half-perceived and essential, a sort of broken rhythm that never descended to rhetoric, but seemed to enliven and lift up the order of the words until they were filled with something approaching music; and with all this the meaning was fixed and new, the order lucid, the adjectives choice, the verbs strong, the substantives meaty and full of sap. It combined (if I may say so with modesty) all that Milton desired to achieve, with all that Bacon did in the modelling of English.... And it is gone. It will never be seen or read or known at all. It has utterly disappeared nor is it even preserved in any human memory─no, not in my own.

I kept it for a year, closely filing, polishing, and emending it until one would have thought it final, and even then I continued to develop and to mould it. It grew like a young tree in the corner of a fruitful field and gave an enduring pleasure. It never left me by night or by day; it crossed the Pyrenees with me seven times and the Mediterranean twice. It rode horses with me and was become a part of my habit everywhere. In trying to ford the Sousseyou I held it high out of the water, saving it alone, and once by a camp fire I woke and read it in the mountains before dawn. My companions slept on either side of me. The great brands of pine glowed and gave me light; there was a complete silence in the forest except for the noise of water, and in the midst of such spells I was so entranced by the beauty of the thing that when I had done my reading I took a dead coal from the fire and wrote at the foot of the paper: "There is not a word which the most exuberant could presume to add, nor one which the most fastidious would dare to erase." All that glory has vanished.

I know very well what the cabman did. He looked through the trap-door in the top of the roof to see if I had left anything behind. It was in Vigo Street, at the corner, that the fate struck. He looked and saw a sheet or two of paper─something of no value. He crumpled it up and threw it away, and it joined the company which men have not been thought worthy to know. It went to join Calvus and the dreadful books of the Sibyl, and those charred leaves which were found on the floor where Chatterton lay dead.

I went three times to Scotland Yard, allowing long intervals and torturing myself with hope. Three times my hands thought to hold it, and three times they closed on nothingness. A policeman then told me that cabmen very rarely brought him written things, but rather sticks, gloves, rings, purses, parcels, umbrellas, and the crushed hats of drunken men, not often verse or prose; and I abandoned my quest.

There are some reading this who may think me a trifle too fond and may doubt the great glory to which I testify here. They will remember how singularly the things we no longer possess rise upon the imagination and enlarge themselves, and they will quote that pathetic error whereby the dead become much dearer to us when we can no longer smile into their faces or do them the good we desire. They will suggest (most tenderly) that loss and the enchantment of memory have lent a thought too much of radiance and of harmony to what was certainly a noble creation of the mind, but still human and shot with error.

To such a criticism I cannot reply, I have no longer, alas! the best of replies, the Thing Itself, the Achievement: and not having that I have nothing. I am without weapons. Who shall convince of personality, of beauty, or of holiness, unless they be seen and felt? So it is with letters, and if I am not believed─or even if I am─it is of little moment, for the beloved object is rapt away.

Its matter─if one can say that anything so manifold and exalted had a mere subject─its matter was the effect of the piercing of the Suez Canal upon coastwise trade in the Mediterranean, but it is profane to bring before the general gaze a title which can tell the world nothing of the iridescence and vitality it has lost.

I will not console myself with the uncertain guess that things perished are in some way recoverable beyond the stars, nor hope to see and read again the artistry and the result whose loss I have mourned in these lines; but if, as the wisest men imagine, there is a place of repose for whatever most deserves it among the shades, there either I or others worthier may read what will never be read by living eyes or praised by living lips again. It may be so. But the loss alone is certain.

~Hilaire Belloc: from On Nothing & Kindred Subjects

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Catholic Truth in History

I HAD almost written that history is the most important department of all education. To put this without modification would be, of course, to put it wrongly. The most important part is the teaching of dogma; next, and inextricably connected with it, the teaching of morals; next, the securing (and this is also connected with the teaching of dogma and morals) of continuous Catholic daily custom. History comes, of course, after all these. Any Catholic parent would much rather that his children grow up ignorant of history than ignorant of the Faith or of sound morals, or of Catholic custom and habit. Nevertheless, there is an aspect in which history may be called the most important of all subjects taught. And that aspect is precisely the purely scholastic aspect.

If I am sending my child to a school where he is taught positively certain things for a few hours a day, I may at a pinch guarantee his getting his religion and morals at home. But I cannot prevent his history being taught at the school, for history is regarded everywhere as part of the secular curriculum. And yet, upon what view of history he absorbs in youth depends a man's judgment of human life and of the community in which he will pass his days.

History is the memory of the State and at the same time the object-lesson of politics. It is by true history that men know what they really are. False history must make them think themselves different from what they really are. By history is the continuity of the State preserved and its character determined. Now history being of this supreme importance to philosophy, to one's whole outlook on life, and yet at the same time universally treated as a secular subject, you have meeting in it two issues, the conflict between which forms the great peril Catholics have to run in this country (England). History must have a philosophy. It must tend to praise or to blame. It must judge. There is no such thing as mere external history, for all history is the history of the human mind. Therefore, in anti-Catholic society history will be anti-Catholic. It will be anti-Catholic in the textbooks. It will be anti-Catholic in the examinations which Catholic youth has to pass. We are confronted in this country with the crucial difficulty of having to present the most important of human subjects, the one which, of temporal subjects, most affects the soul, with a machinery designed for the production of an anti-Catholic effect. . . .

Anti-Catholic Methods

First, let us examine in what way the anti-Catholic effect comes in. The great error of Catholics who would meet the opposing current is that they search out in the textbook which they must use, the sentences maligning particular Catholic characters, times, doctrines, or false statements with regard to particular events. But such passages are rare and are not essential.

The essentials of anti-Catholic history, the things which make it all anti-Catholic, are, first, the anti-Catholic selection of material; second, what is called the anti-Catholic tone; and third, the anti-Catholic proportion observed in the presentation of historical fact. I would like, with your permission, to enlarge upon these three points which are capital to our subject.

First, as to selection. The telling of any story whatever is a matter of selection. If you select so that the truth sought is not revealed, then your selection, though every fact you present be true, is in its sum-total an untruth. What facts we choose to tell, and in what order, determine the picture we present.

Now, as to tone. I would like to emphasize in this matter of tone in history something which a good deal of detailed work has taught me but which, I think, is not sufficiently appreciated. It is this: tone or atmosphere in history is not a vague unseizable thing. It does not escape analysis. You can, if you will carefully go through a passage, exactly noting the adverbs and adjectives used, the type of verb also, and even, sometimes, the substantives, put your finger upon what gives the particular tone and say: ''That was the way in which the lie was told."

Thirdly, proportion, the respective amount of space and weight given to various parts of your story, is the final element which determines the whole. It is not the same as selection. Two men may select the same dozen facts to relate and each relate them, yet arrange a very different proportion among them of length, emphasis and weight.

We are surrounded by an atmosphere of, and presented with the machinery of, anti-Catholic history; history which produces its anti-Catholic effect not so much by misstatement of fact—that is rare—as by anti-Catholic selection, anti-Catholic tone, and anti-Catholic proportion.

How To Meet Them

How are we to meet the evil? How are we to teach our Catholic youth true history, that is, Catholic history? For it behooves us to remember what in a Protestant country it is easy to forget: that the Catholic Church is not one of many opinions, but the truth. Its clergy are not part of the ''clergy of all denominations," but the priests of God with Sacramental power. What it says definitely on any matter is not, to use the modern jargon, a "subjective" truth; it is an objective truth. It is not the presentation of something in the mind. It is the presentation of something that would go on being there though all human mind were destroyed. And truth supports truth, as untruth supports untruth. Catholic truth is not something stuck into general history like a pin into a pin-cushion. It is part of the universal truth. The same attitude which makes a man deny the morality of divorce and affirm the morality of private property will make him tell the truth about history, when he comes to write it, in matters apparently remote from Catholic doctrine.

There is a Catholic truth about the Conquest of England, or the War of the Roses, or the Frankish Monarchy in Gaul, quite as much as there is Catholic truth about the Manichean heresy or the nature of the Reformation. By this I do not mean that in these temporal matters, dependent upon positive evidence, there will not the differences in judgment among the most learned of Catholic authorities. But I do mean that a whole library of different and conflicting books written by Catholics and dealing with the history of Europe would be Catholic in nature and would teach Catholic history; and that a similar collection of books written by anti-Catholics, however much they differed among themselves, would be anti-Catholic in tendency and produce an anti-Catholic effect upon the reader, and, so far as they indoctrinated the reader, would be indoctrinating him in lies.

Antagonistic Textbooks

Our first difficulty is the lack of textbooks. Here we may note a very deplorable accident of the immediate past. Ever since modern accurate detailed history began, pretty nearly every textbook of note has been written in direct antagonism of the Faith. Of the mass of Protestant work that goes without saying. All the German Protestant work and all the English Protestant work is anti-Catholic. The man who waved his arm at the British Museum and said: "Books written by dons to attack the Church" was exaggerating, but there was something in what he said. It is no answer to this truth to say that many of the writers are what is called "fair" to the Catholic Church. You cannot be called "fair" to the truth. The truth is not one of two interesting antagonists around whom you have to keep a ring. If you do not support it you cannot help attacking it. To talk of being "fair" to the Catholic Church in history is exactly parallel to talking of a judge being "neither partial on one side nor impartial on the other."

A Protestant historian is not to be commended, for instance, because he admits that many of the monasteries suppressed by Thomas Cromwell were well conducted. Rather is the Catholic historian to be commended who thoroughly exposes the ill-conduct of many of these monasteries, but who tells us what really happened. And what really happened was that the monastic institution was uprooted in England not because it had gone bad, nor because it was "outworn" not because it was unpopular, but because it was for the moment unfashionable in the smart intellectual world of that generation, because it was the chief defense of the Papacy and of unity of religion and, above all, because the King and the avaricious men who surrounded him wanted other people's goods. These three things combined explain that capital disaster in English history, the fiscal and territorial revolution of 1539. And if you do not put these three causes forward as the three great causes of the event, you are writing bad history.

It would be difficult to say why all the great textbooks since modern history began have been anti-Catholic, with the exception of Lingard, and even the great Lingard was influenced by the Protestant society in which he lived and for which he wrote. I can only connect so singular a phenomenon with the general story of Catholic academic work. The Church was, as it were, "taken aback" by the onslaught of skepticism in the eighteenth century. The French political system, the monarchy which was the chief defense of the Church, at that moment happened to be in decay, and when the storm blew that institution over, the scattered and defeated Catholic army of Europe took some time to rally. It did not really rally till our own time. There is also, probably, a large element of chance in the matter. Great historians are few, just as great poets are few.

At any rate, whatever the cause, there you have it. Every name you mention — Montesquieu, Mommsen. Michelet, Freeman, Stubbs, Treitschke, and a host of minor ones—tells the story of Europe and of his own country against the Church. The popular rhetorical historians do the same thing. The same is true of the dull and would-be accurate school-books. Green, who wrote for sale, leaves the innocent youth upon whom he imposed under the impression that all history led up to a Divine climax—the Protestant society of his common room. And there may be (I have not read them) other later textbooks continuing the- same tradition. The great compendiums, such as the "Oxford History," or the much superior Rambaud and Lavisse, are in the same boat.

~Hilaire Belloc: From the London "Tablet"

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Poem: My Own Country

I shall go without companions,
And with nothing in my hand;
I shall pass through many places
That I cannot understand
Until I come to my own country,
Which is a pleasant land.

The trees that grow in my own country
Are the beech tree and the yew;
Many stand together,
And some stand few.
In the month of May in my own country
All the woods are new.

When I get to my own country
I shall lie down and sleep;
I shall watch in the valleys
The long flocks of sheep,
And then I shall dream, for ever and all,
A good dream and deep.

~Hilaire Belloc

Friday, May 2, 2014

Poem: May

This is the laughing-eyed amongst them all:
My lady's month. A season of young things.
She rules the light with harmony, and brings
The year's first green upon the beeches tall.
How often, where long creepers wind and fall
Through the deep woods in noonday wanderings,
I’ve heard the month, when she to echo sings,
I've heard the month make merry madrigal.

How often, bosomed in the breathing strong
Of mosses and young flowerets, have I lain
And watched the clouds, and caught the sheltered song -
Which it were more than life to hear again -
Of those small birds that pipe it all day long
Not far from Marly by the memoried Seine.

~Hilaire Belloc

Share This