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Why Belloc Still Matters, by R.J. Stove

An author too robust and significant to be wholly un-personned can still be marginalized. Consider this elegant pasquinade, which years ago won a parody-contest award in Britain’s New Statesman and which employs the same rhyme scheme and meter as Hilaire Belloc’s own “The chief defect of Henry King”:

The chief defect of dear Hilaire
Was not the clothes he used to wear, 
The curious hat and monstrous cloak,
Paraded as some kind of joke.
No, Hilaire’s fault, and well he knew it,
Was, all he did, he’d overdo it…
There’s more—he held the strongest views
On politicians, and on Jews,
Such as, today, might give one cause
To think of Race Relations Laws.
But that of Belloc is the worst
That can be said.
His comic verse,
His Cautionary Tales, his Peers,
His Beasts will last for countless years,
Delighting readers old or young
Who share Hilaire’s adopted tongue.

Well, that’s put Dear Hilaire back in his box, hasn’t it? 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. But then the New Statesman has never claimed theological expertise. Others, who do possess such claims, and who in many instances share Belloc’s Catholicism, have been at least as hostile. 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.” This allegation can at any rate be argued over, unlike certain antics of the occasional self-confessed Belloc fan. (Such as John Anderson, who passed as the doyen of Australian philosophy during the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s and who labored with surrealistic persistence to reinterpret Belloc’s Servile State as a sacred text for antipodean atheist head-kickers. When Belloc’s friends included historical illiterates like Anderson, he hardly needed foes.)

How stands the case for the prosecution? In particular, was G.M. Trevelyan, Regius Professor of History at Cambridge 1927-1940, justified in having flatly called Belloc “a liar”?

Occasionally, alas, yes. Belloc confided as much himself, to a co-religionist at that: the British historian, newspaperman, and editor Douglas Woodruff. While going several debating rounds in print against his merciless ultra-Protestant detractor, the once-celebrated controversialist G.G. Coulton, Belloc came out with one assertion so breathtakingly implausible that it moved Woodruff to inquire, “But is it true?” “Oh, not at all”, Belloc retorted. “But won’t it annoy Coulton?” Such a deliberate, impolitic falsehood clearly sprang from insensate bravado rather than from malice. It is doubtful, moreover, whether the historian who hastily and occasionally deceives others is half as dangerous as the historian who consistently and lucratively deceives himself. (Many a reader obligated to plow through the unrelenting sanctimony of more recent and more fashionable gurus than Belloc—Arthur Schlesinger expounding the immaculate conception of JFK; Eric Hobsbawm assigning a similar redemptive role to the proletariat; Francis Fukuyama hyperventilating about free-market dogma’s limitless appeal to any polity, however Lower Slobbovian—must have felt increasingly inclined to welcome from these sources an honest lie or two.) Still, Belloc’s mendacity at that juncture defies excuses and leaves behind a singularly nasty odor.

An even graver sin, curiously slighted by Belloc’s most recent biographers, A.N. Wilson (Hilaire Belloc, 1984) and Joseph Pearce (the shorter, more reverential Old Thunder: A Life of Hilaire Belloc, 2002), occurs repeatedly in Belloc’s analyses of the French Revolution. Notwithstanding the fervor with which pope after pope—especially, in Belloc’s youth, St. Pius X—had declared support for Jacobins and indeed Girondins to be incompatible with the most basic Christian decency, Belloc remained as eupeptic as any Charles James Fox about the entire pageant of French politics from the Bastille’s fall via Robespierre to Napoleon. Revolutionary genocide against the Vendéens and Chouans scarcely touched Belloc’s consciousness. On his last (1937) tour of the U.S., he accused Americans of wanting to hear “48,376,277 times…that war is all wrawng and why cahunt everyone in Yurrup live peaceably same as us; that Religion don’t count same as it useter ’cos there’s more enlight’nment now.” So he could perceive, and denounce, lunatic world-saving Wilsonian optimism when it fell from his hosts’ lips. Why that optimism somehow became acceptable when the increase in “enlight’nment” had been effected by the guillotine, instead of by American presidential overreach, Belloc never explained.

This all amounts to a grim indictment. 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.

Read the complete article in The Imaginative Conservative

Sté­phane Cour­tois, Jean-​Pierre Des­chodt, Yo­lène Di­las-​Ro­che­rieux (dir.) : Dé­mo­cra­tie et Ré­vo­lu­tion. Cent ma­ni­festes de 1789 à nos jours, by Chris­tophe Ré­veillard

A pro­pos de Sté­phane Cour­tois, Jean-​Pierre Des­chodt, Yo­lène Di­las-​Ro­che­rieux (dir.), Dé­mo­cra­tie et Ré­vo­lu­tion. Cent ma­ni­festes de 1789 à nos jours, Cerf/Presses uni­ver­si­taires de l’ICES, coll. Dé­mo­cra­tie ou to­ta­li­ta­risme, 1 195 p., 2012, 42 €.

Il s’agit dans cet ou­vrage de l’étude de cent ma­ni­festes fon­da­teurs, in­édits, ou­bliés ou aty­piques, les­quels consti­tuent le ré­su­mé de deux cents ans d’his­toire des idées po­li­tiques. Leur na­ture est ex­trê­me­ment di­verse mais leur objet unique : Dé­cla­ra­tion des droits de l’homme et du ci­toyen, ma­ni­festes com­mu­nistes et so­cia­listes, tracts anar­chistes, ma­ni­festes es­thé­tiques Dada ou fu­tu­ristes, pro­grammes d’Hit­ler et de Mus­so­li­ni, en­cy­cliques de Pie XI, dé­cla­ra­tions de la Guerre froide, charte al­ter­mon­dia­liste, ma­ni­festes fé­mi­nistes, des Frères mu­sul­mans, de la contre-​culture ha­cker ou trans­hu­ma­niste… De­puis la Ré­vo­lu­tion fran­çaise, deux mots, deux no­tions, deux grands cou­rants de pen­sée et d’ac­tion hantent le monde, tan­tôt na­vi­guant de conserve, tan­tôt s’af­fron­tant vio­lem­ment : dé­mo­cra­tie et ré­vo­lu­tion.

Read the complete article in Revue Catholica

Know Your Gnostics: Eric Voegelin & the Neoconservative Disease, by Gene Callahan

Eric Voegelin often is regarded as a major figure in 20th-century conservative thought—one of his concepts inspired what has been a popular catchphrase on the right for decades, “don’t immanentize the eschaton”—but he rejected ideological labels. In his youth, in Vienna, he attended the famous Mises Circle seminars, where he developed lasting friendships with figures who would be important in the revival of classical liberalism, such as F.A. Hayek, but he later rejected their libertarianism as yet another misguided offshoot of the Enlightenment project. Voegelin has sometimes been paired with the British political theorist Michael Oakeshott, who greatly admired his work, but he grounded his political theorizing in a spiritual vision in a way that was quite foreign to Oakeshott’s thought. Voegelin once wrote, “I have been called every conceivable name by partisans of this or that ideology… a Communist, a Fascist, a National Socialist, an old liberal, a new liberal, a Jew, a Catholic, a Protestant, a Platonist, a neo-Augustinian, a Thomist, and of course a Hegelian.”
But whatever paradoxes he embodied, Voegelin was, first and foremost, a passionate seeker for truth. He paid no attention to what party his findings might please or displease, and he was willing to abandon vast amounts of writing, material that might have enhanced his reputation as scholar, when the development of his thought led him to believe that he needed to pursue a different direction. As such, his ideas deserve the attention of anyone who sincerely seeks for the origins of political order. And they have a timely relevance given recent American ventures aimed at fixing the problems of the world through military interventions in far-flung regions.
Voegelin was born in Cologne, Germany in 1901. His family moved to Vienna when he was nine, and there he earned a Ph.D. in political science in 1922, under the dual supervision of Hans Kelsen, the author of the constitution of the new Austrian republic, and the economist Othmar Spann. He subsequently studied law in Berlin and Heidelberg and spent a summer at Oxford University mastering English. (He commented that his English was so poor when he arrived that he spent some minutes wondering why a street-corner speaker was so enthusiastic about the benefits of cheeses, before he realized the man was preaching about Jesus.) He then traveled to the United States, where he took courses at Columbia with John Dewey, Harvard with Alfred North Whitehead, and Wisconsin with John R. Commons, where he said he first discovered “the real, authentic America.”
Upon returning to Austria, he resumed attending the Mises Seminar, and he published two works critical of the then ascendant doctrine of racism. These made him a target of the Nazis and led to his dismissal from the University of Vienna after the Anschluss. As with many other Austrian intellectuals, the onslaught of Nazism made him leave Austria. (He and his wife managed to obtain their visas and flee to Switzerland on the very day the Gestapo came to seize his passport.) Voegelin eventually settled at Louisiana State University, where he taught for 16 years, before coming full circle and returning to Germany to promote American-style constitutional democracy in his native land. The hostility generated by his declaration that the blame for the rise of Nazism could not be pinned solely on the Nazi Party elite, but must be shared by the German people in general, led him to return to the United States, where he died in 1985.
During his lifelong search for the roots of social order, Voegelin came to understand politics not as an autonomous sphere of activity independent of a nation’s culture, but as the public articulation of how a society conceives the proper relationship of its members both to one another and to the rest of the cosmos. Only when a society’s political institutions are an organic product of a widely shared and existentially workable conception of mankind’s place in the universe will they successfully order social life. As a corollary of his understanding of political life, Voegelin rejected the contemporary, rationalist faith in the power of “well-designed,” written constitutions to ensure the continued existence of a healthy polity. He argued that “if a government is nothing but representative in the constitutional sense, a [truly] representational ruler will sooner or later make an end of it… When a representative does not fulfill his existential task, no constitutional legality of his position will save him.”
For Voegelin, a truly “representative” government entails, much more crucially than the relatively superficial fact that citizens have some voice in their government, first of all that a government addresses the basic needs of “securing domestic peace, the defense of the realm, the administration of justice, and taking care of the welfare of the people.” Secondly, a political order ought to represent its participants’ understanding of their place in the cosmos. It may help in grasping Voegelin’s meaning here to think of the Muslim world, where attempts to create liberal, constitutional democracies can result in Islamic theocracies instead: the first type of government is “representative” in the narrow, constitutional sense, while the second actually represents those societies’ own understanding of their place in the world.
Voegelin undertook extensive historical analysis to support his view of the representative character of healthy polities, analysis that appeared chiefly in his great, multi-volume works History of Political Ideas—which was largely unpublished during Voegelin’s life because his scholarship prompted him to change the focus of his research—and Order and History. This undertaking was more than merely illustrative of his ideas, since he understood political representation itself not as a timeless, static construct but as an ongoing historical process, so that an adequate political representation for one time and place will fail to be representative in a different time or for a different people.
Read the complete article in The Imaginative Conservative

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