Sunday, 3 April 2016

Chesterton versus Belloc - the good and bad types of Catholic Intellectual


The authors GK Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc are usually bracketed together - indeed, their friend and sparring partner George Bernard Shaw called them 'the Chesterbelloc' and described an imaginary beast of that name.

(There was, for several years, a kind of road-show travelling around England in which Belloc would Chair no-holds-barred but always good-natured (no-offence-taken) debates between GBS and GKC.)

But while GKC and HB were great friends and allies, and their Roman Catholicism and political views were almost identical, each man has a very different flavour: indeed each could be used to characterize a typical type of modern intellectual Roman Catholic.

To me Chesterton comes across as warm-hearted, sunny, positive - he seems like one of the most likeable men in the history of English literature, and the spirit of his writings breathes generosity. His writing pours-out like a volcano - unpremeditated, unrevised, of amazing evenness and high quality; tackling every subject, yet always the same in essence.

Belloc, on the other hand, has a hardness and a darkness about him. His writing (although also extremely abundant) often gives the impression of being worked-over and contrived. His best work is probably the light verse, especially the Cautionary Tales for Children, which are unsurpassed in their surreal fluidity, the brilliant humour and perfect technique... simply brilliant - but which are deliberately 'nasty'. Belloc's essays and best books like The Path to Rome and The Four Men are very fine - but strike me as unspontaneous, and hard edged - like a wood-cut, or perhaps a steel engraving.

Put simply, Chesterton represents a Merry England style of Roman Catholicism which brings to mind an idealized version of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales - or William Morris's News from Nowhere plus vulgarity and religion. For Chesterton, God is primarily about Love and Beauty.

That is, Chesterton dreamt of a colourful, semi-chaotic, lusty and noisy life of vivid and flawed characters engaged in all manner of activities - a society of people who often get carried away into extremes by their love of each other, and of beauty, science, medicine, learning and other positive things. But also a society in which there will be phases of reflection, repentance and renewal and unification of the apparent-chaos. However, Chesterton loves 'life' so much that he would not want unity at the cost of vigour, or love.

This Chestertonian vision is, indeed - for me, by far the most appealing vision of what Roman Catholicism could perhaps be.

And it is the basic vision to which adhere all whom I judge the best Roman Catholics that I 'know' (mostly as penfriends, authors, bloggers).

But the Bellocian type of Roman Catholic is also common among intellectuals, maybe commoner. It is a Roman Catholicism which is strong, hard, strict - and not so much warm as either hot or cold: it is the Roman Catholicism of Southern Europe of the past few centuries - harsh sun and black shadows; periods of routine and inertia interrupted by extreme violence.

Bellocism is, for me, that Catholicism of a man who is not naturally 'a good man', and who was not really motivated by love. Belloc held-onto to Roman Catholicism with a grip of iron and was valiant in the defence of Christendom; but I don't think he was motivated by love - rather (usually) by anger, irritability, and a strong streak of harsh authoritarianism enjoyed for its own sake.

The Belloc type of Roman Catholic is also common online - they get the greatest satisfaction, seem to take, indeed, a bitter delight, in excoriating other ('heretical') Christian denominations. These Bellocians seem attracted to Roman Catholicism primarily by its clarity: the authority structure, the uniquely comprehensive and logical theology, the apparent ability to provide a clear answer to any question.

Their general stance of Bellocians is what I term 'legalistic': their ideal is that God is primarily about power and truth in unity. The church understand this, and tells us exactly what it is essential to do (and not to do) in any circumstance, and therefore obedience is by far the most important Christian virtue. Their primary role in the Christian life is allying themselves with legitimate authority and against disobedience.

Now, of course, this characterization of legalism as 'Bellocian' is an unfair exaggeration; and Belloc the man in his later life practised a simple, humble faith which struck all who saw it as sincere. He also joined in with the Chestertonian hurly-burly lifestyle with vigour - albeit, there always sounds like an element of aggression in Belloc's 'noisyiness' - an element of attention-seeking and self-assertion which was absent from Chesterton (who, by contrast, seems innocent, schoolboyish, even when describing drunken revellings and hi-jinks).

But in his prime as a public figure, Belloc did indeed create the general impression I describe - and the, harsh, hard-eyed, cold-hearted legalistic style and emphasis is one which is all too common among those who describe themselves as traditionalist Roman Catholics.