When Poets Tilted Right

Old Thunder: A Life of Hilaire Belloc by Joseph Pearce (Ignatius, $24.95)

When people today think of Hilaire Belloc, if they think about him at all, they are likely to think of him within one of three, usually not overlapping, categories. The politicos remember him as the author of The Servile State, a prescient warning about the coming of the socialist (and corporatist) welfare state. The literati are apt to think of him as the author of satirical verse — such as The Bad Child's Book of Beasts — or of books like The Path to Rome. And to the religiously minded, he is the more belligerent half of the "Chesterbelloc" — along with G. K. Chesterton, the most popular and influential Catholic apologist of the first half of the twentieth century.

Belloc was all these things and more. He was an adventurer who served in the French Army — and in Britain's parliament, as a Liberal member who urged his constituents to vote Conservative. He wrote reams of journalism and more than a hundred books — and good books many of them are too, books both prophetic (he predicted the present resurgence of Islam) and historical that are still of compelling interest. He was a personality, wit, and speaker his contemporaries put on a parallel with Dr. Johnson — and who was an Englishman of Churchill's generation who married a Californian (and tramped across America to get to California and back as part of his wooing). But equally important with this, he is a reminder that in the first half of the twentieth century, popular culture was still in play for conservatives. We hadn't yet been driven from the field — and Belloc was one of our best combatants.

Others that we might think of in a similar light are Rudyard Kipling, G. K. Chesterton, Evelyn Waugh, T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, Roy Campbell, and J. R. R. Tolkien. Joseph Pearce, author of this latest biography of Hilaire Belloc, Old Thunder, has written about several of these figures (and others, including Solzhenitsyn). What unites them is a fundamentally religious view of the world and its affairs.

Chesterton and Belloc, Waugh and Campbell were all drinking men, men of conviviality. They shared Walter Bagehot's belief that conservatism is the philosophy of enjoyment. They were all men who believed in the primacy of free human relationships. They believed in the absolute primacy of the family, of independently held property, of the small farmer and the small businessman, and of the Church — and defended them against the reforming busybodies who worked through government and fed the ever-increasing and overweening powers of the state. And they were men of Reason, men who believed that Christianity — and for these men in particular, the Catholic Church — provided the only coherent, reasoned answer to the world.

To adopt a title of Chesterton's, to them Christianity was "the outline of sanity." It was part of their artistic mission to re-call the West to that sanity from the political, intellectual, artistic, and moral chaos of the twentieth century. As Belloc famously said: "Europe will return to the Faith, or she will perish. The Faith is Europe. And Europe is the Faith."

This uncompromising message made an enormous impact. Chesterton (himself a convert) and Belloc played a tremendous role in winning many of England's best literary minds to the Faith (a story that Pearce has told in a previous book, Literary Converts). And while today it is hard to think of many conservative writers who have much impact on the culture, Belloc was a hero to young writers in his own time, and respected even by those on the Left with whom he was frequently in animated public debate.

Pearce's book provides a useful outline — and it can really be no more than that, given his subject's prolific literary efforts — of Belloc's career. But Old Thunder provides another thought: namely, how we can try to win back the culture with new Hilaire Bellocs — men who will pick up the literary-cultural-political banner (and the Faith) and lead it to victory today.

To that end, one could conclude that we need to restore a classical curriculum to our schools. Belloc was educated by Cardinal Newman at his Oratory School in Birmingham, England, and was reading Greek and Latin classics in what we would consider early elementary school. To win the culture, we need a generation that knows what culture is; that is trained to appreciate classical art and reason, and to recognize that truth is beauty, and beauty is truth. Secondly, we need to restore theology to the curriculum. Cardinal Manning once told Belloc that "all human conflict is ultimately theological." Belloc believed that to be a great truth, and it is one of the reasons why Belloc hasn't dated: because his thinking is rooted in the profound and eternal questions — and answers.

Finally, we need to remind ourselves, if we forget, that the culture matters. It is an oft-quoted phrase of Shelley's that poets are the true legislators of mankind. The "poets," we should remember, used to be conservative. We need to make them so again, because nothing is more powerful in shaping how we live than how we train and stock our imagination and our reason. And stocking them with the best of Hilaire Belloc, to which Old Thunder is a guide, is a very good thing indeed.

January 8, 2003