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.


AnteB said...

Insigthful as always, Charlton.

I find the atmosphere in the discussions in much of the Orthosphere and Bonald´s site to be quite difficult. Maybe I´m sensitive but for me the faith that they preach is despair inducing. I don´t think I could carry such a faith. Even Bonald himself, the most generous of the writers there, seems obliged to preach a very harsh faith because thats what the Church teaches.

I hope that you´re not disheartened by the "harassment" you receive by some of the commenters there. It is like some of them only comment in order to attack you. But there are a lot of people that like your writings.

AnteB said...

Insigthful as always, Charlton.

I find the atmosphere in the discussions in much of the Orthosphere and Bonald´s site to be quite difficult. Maybe I´m sensitive but for me the faith that they preach is despair inducing. I don´t think I could carry such a faith. Even Bonald himself, the most generous of the writers there, seems obliged to preach a very harsh faith because thats what the Church teaches.

I hope that you´re not disheartened by the "harassment" you receive by some of the commenters there. It is like some of them only comment in order to attack you. But there are a lot of people that like your writings.

Bruce Charlton said...

@AnteB - Thank you.

I know so many good, warm-hearted, love-motivated 'Chestertonian' Roman Catholics that I am never seriously tempted to reject Roman Catholicism - despite the sneering and beady-eyed unChristian example of too many self-styled traditionalist RCs online.

A look at my bookshelves (and knowledge of my personal biography) would emphasize my positive regard for Roman Catholicism - despite that (after very serious investigation) I concluded a few years ago it was 'not for me'.

i would be really delighted by a powerful (Chestertonian) Roman Catholic revival in Southern and Central Europe and the Anglo-sphere - although I see no signs of one at present.

But I was in Spain last week (I have been vising for more than two decades) and the legacy of that style of Roman Catholicism - enforced by the state - has been an almost instant and very complete collapse of Christianity as soon as the crushing foot was removed from the collective windpipe...

Spain is now profoundly unreligious and hedonistic society with near complete degree of self-chosen sterility and no sense of purpose or appreciation of higher things.

(Although the Spanish themselves, as human beings, are fine people - much friendlier and more honest towards tourists on average than the English!).

Geir said...

I agree with you the way you characterize Chesterton and Belloc. Belloc, however, was humorous, as I think lies in all he writes, and he had this dark humour that is most obvious, as it is enough to read the novels that Chesterton illustrated to get an impression of a darker and not as fluid Wodehouse. His Mercy of Allah (1922) is a masterpiece of dark humour. Belloc, however, was often, but not always, too hasty with his books, which he churned out for money. He could have used more research. However, he writes with a clarity about religion and history that I love, as for instance in The Great Heresies (1938). Chesterton is phenomenal, period. I am on my road to either Catholisism or Eastern Orthodoxy and both have their strong and weak sides, but who am I to speak?

Hoyos said...

I really like this and I have a theory (always dangerous words)...

Chesterton is most attractive to we who have spent too long in Bellocian circumstances.

The Christian life is supposed to be characterized by right functioning brains, guts, and heart, colloquially speaking. Small "o" orthodox Christianity in the west has frequently been defective in matters of heart. Christianity is supposed to be characterized by joy, freedom in Christ, and the knowledge that we get to experience God on easy terms (a lot of people balk at this last one, but Jesus said it Himself and it would be hard to contradict biblically). The strength of God and love toward us is supposed to enable us to even experience joy in temptation!

If any of us went to a church where we got that message I would be surprised. Chesterton has that message without retreating into either heterodoxy or a soft immorality. If there is any defect in Chesterton, it's only when he leaves his metier when discussing some aspects of politics or economics. Even then I don't think many of us would whine too much if we lived in a distributist society.

One of the reasons that we're weak socially as Christians is that we are weakened personally by wandering around with a busted heart. The only verse about the heart myself and most of compatriots knew about the heart is that it was deceitful above all things. I was 26 before I heard the message that God cares about the desires of my heart or that what I wanted mattered at all.

We're entering a dark period where the Bellocian strain is gaining strength on the alternative right. Men are choosing strains of Christian belief based on whether it is stark, not whether it is true. I remember getting an incredibly negative reaction when I suggested that freedom was a good thing theologically, and we're starting to reject the healthy personalism of Christianity less for hedonistic individualism, as we feared, and more for a restrictive tribalism.

Valkea said...

Could it be that this harsh legalistic mindset results from the following: Jesus talked a lot, but his words were not meant to cover everything. Jesus referred to Old Testament, and said their teachings are essential. Jesus also said that one must listen to the teachings of Fariseus', but not follow their acts. The teachings of Fariseus were later compiled to Palestian and Babylonian Talmuds. If people try to strech the words of Jesus to everything, to many places where they dont give answers, this leads to failure and frustration. It is then compensated by harsh legalism. We could exaggerate this mental picture by imagining a Christian trying to lay down traffic rules according to the words of Jesus.

So paradoxically by using Old Testament and Babylonian Talmud more as guides and legal advice, by becoming partly more legalistic, the need for harshness and authoritarianism is reduced. Also the Talmud mostly doesnt give one strict law / issue, but a range of legal views, often 3-5 legal views, so the Talmud allows a lot of freedom to beat according to situations, requirements and needs, thus reducing harshness.

I understand that Catholic Church has the Catechism and the teachings of Church Fathers / Saints to complement the teachings of Jesus, but I also often see the words of Jesus spread too far, or used ignorantly in the wrong way, especially not understanding the words in the larger context, which give them their real meaning and reasonableness.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Geir - Yes, I have read quite a lot of Belloc, and with enjoyment - including at least two full biographies. So I don't dismiss him!

Bruce Charlton said...

@Hoyos - Yes. It seems to me that many of the Alt Right (both secualr and some Catholic) appear set to embrace the other major monotheism, and I am not really sure why they do not.

@Valkea - My main theory is related to the philosophical/ metaphysical basis of mainstream Christianitry - which renders it *prone* to collapsing into cold-hearted legalism in order to avoid apostasy/ liberalism/ worldly slackness.

This is one major reason why I consider myself theoretically a Mormon - because the CJCLDS is able (most of the time) to be warm-hearted and at the same time and without tension also strict and devout but without legalism - and I think the ultimate reason for this is the different underpinning metaphysics.

However, a Chestertonian Roman Catholicism could no doubt achieve the same - by a shift of emphasis.

Seeker said...

The lovable Father Brown - the best of priests. To read the stories is to feel more sure of God.

"What we all dread most," said the priest in a low voice, "is a maze with no centre. That is why atheism is only a nightmare."

Father Brown, The Head of Caesar


David Balfour said...

Maybe I am just a simple man at heart but it sometimes seems to me so simple at root. It seems that the book of life forms a deeper lesson than scrolled words on paper from any source ever really can reveal.

God is love and love is God, they dance each time we pray. If we feel and know love in our hearts and minds, if we walk in the spirit of love, if we cherish our being and that of our brothers and sisters in love, if we defend with the strength of love, forgive with the softness of love and yearn for and humbly seek the wisdom of love to know the difference between these two things then we can smile into the darkness for it shall not hold any victory over the spirit of enduring love. Love giveth it's spirit to the meek and makes brave lions, to the hearts that live and breath it.

Sometimes I imagine the big bang that created the universe as an explosion of love into the darkness soon to be light. I imagine the Nirvana of the Buddhists as a frozen smile of God. I see the same love in the smile of a child, an elderly couple holding hands, a swan landing on a cool silvered river surface and the joyful love of a dog returning a ball to his master in a field of damp spring grass. And that is just the miraculous story of living love I saw today. Tomorrow is another day and love will dance forever and ever. I smile back at the many smiles of God in great an small things both.

AureliusMoner said...

Well, the better you get to know both authors, the more you'll understand that the difference is not that sharp - and you even hint that you already have some inkling of this.

It seems to me that your view of the men is at least as colored by your own personality as theirs. I wouldn't say Chesterton's God is primarily about "love and beauty," though it seems natural to me that you, and other, nice Mormon types would read him that way. For me, Chesterton's approach to God is mostly about the mirthful adventure of truth. For me, the sharpness and clarity and rationality of Chesterton is also quite pronounced. Chesterton had a bit of an effeminate quality - a manly heart, to be sure, but generally a softer body and manner of life.

Belloc is indeed a man with a keener edge, a more masculine comportment and lifestyle. I think a large part of this boils down to their personalities. I think an huge, additional factor, is the cultural background of each man. Belloc shared half of this with Chesterton, but the French half of his patrimony was freshly immolated by the humanist revolution. The Protestant nations have tended to be carried merrily along by liberalism, not even knowing when they are subscribing to it. The revolution had to be forced upon Catholic countries with more violence; there is thus a serious, dark and bitter streak through the Catholic experience of the past few centuries, since they have seen the decomposition of Europe with a keener eye, for far longer than the Protestant nations did. Now the liberal rot is so far advanced, that even Protestants and other secular types are starting to embrace reactionary ideas that were but recently only found amongst Catholics.

Yet, many even of us "harsh" Catholics have our merry side; indeed, this mirth sometimes leads us to taste the bitter more keenly, as well. You have to consider the forum, too; it's the internet and often there is debate going on. People who know me personally find me to be remarkably easy-going, cheerful almost to a fault, and keen on the good cheer and splendor in the celebration of the rites and feasts of the Church. Yet, I easily shift into a more sober and austere approach on certain topics. While I certainly see the difference in Chesteron and Belloc's personalities, I see essentially the same thing at play in both of them, and would in no wise consider either of them to be a "bad" type of Catholic intellectual.

Bruce Charlton said...

@AM - I don't find much to disagree with in your comments in the sense that you seem to have explained rather than refuted the difference I was discussing.

I do not know your work, but the Bellocian people I am referring to are not so much bad Catholic intellectuals, as not Christians - at least, not in their public personae.

Note: Although I greatly like and admire 'nice Mormon types' I personally am neither nice nor a Mormon.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Thu - Thanks for your comment - but you might recall, I don't publish on that subject.

Andrew said...

Certainly Christ warned us against that sort of thing specifically! So many critiques of the religious errors of His day.

Perhaps we can see where there error springs from among the alt-right, it is sort of the exact opposite of many of the modern/post Vatican II errors. It is a grasping (how to remain faithful to a church whose leaders don't seem so faithful?) well perhaps we grasp onto these strict rules. Some of Seraphim Rose's writings almost seem to lead that way in his critiques of modern Orthodoxy, but it sounds like he remained a very charitable person and avoided going down those roads.

Then there seems to be an overcompensation - a posturing - already one feels somewhat ostracized or attacked within ones own church, and than moving to attacking all outside. Perhaps it is to defend ones own position or to fight internal doubts sowed by those trials by launching attacks against others...

Certainly these are difficult times, for all Christians! Almost any youth who wants or starts to seek Christianity must work hard to find it, to get past the most obvious or error-prone secularized expressions. It may be a process that can cause scars.

Bonald said...

It's an amazing coincidence that you wrote this right when you did, Dr. Charlton. I had just been thinking about the difficulties of Catholics with my psychological profile. I'm an almost cartoonish extreme of the Belloc type: tribal, putting an extremely high value on logical consistency, attracted to authoritarianism, practicing a religion by force of will that doesn't come naturally to me. Indeed, I positively enjoy not pretending to love people I don't know, and then I congratulate myself on my honesty. Now, put like that, it does rather sound like the Church would be better off without me. On the other hand, the Belloc-type's virtues are real virtues, albeit ones denigrated by today's Church. Loyalty is a real virtue, a real aspect of love, even though its critics dismiss it as "tribalism". A demand for logical consistency is part of a commitment to honesty and the truth. I freely admit that the Catholics who do it all because they love Jesus are the better sort, but some of us don't have that sort of motivation inside of us. We should allow ourselves to be animated by the best motivations we have, and it would be good for the Church to ratify this. On the other hand, we Bellocian Catholics should admit that we are the inferior type of Catholic. Given our love of "brutal" honesty, this is a sort of humble admission of which we are capable (especially if we get to use harsh words like "inferior").

Today's Catholicism is an odd thing. It tries to be, or at least to sound, Chesteronian, but it all comes off feeling fake, rather like bureaucratic directives instructing all employees to be "creative" and to "think outside the box". Priests always harping on the words "joy" and "joyful" is one example of this that really grates on me. Everything to do with God or Christ is "joyful". Last Easter, the deacon giving the homily even insisted that we find "joy" in the passion narrative. Some people naturally rebel against this.

Joseph A. said...

With Bonald, I am more of a Belloc man, myself. I'm not RC, but I appreciate the hard-nosed love of truth -- and contempt of contemporary fashion -- that the Bellocians manifest. Also, I agree with AM that Chesterton strikes me as a bit womanish -- almost like a frumpy, scolding school marm when he criticizes Nietzsche, for instance. The German may have been wrong about some things, but I find him an incredibly insightful soul in perceiving and in rejecting the ugliness of the modern world. Chesterton didn't seem to grasp that. In defending human dignity, he is an apologist for the herd -- as a herd. Compare Chesterton's defense of ordinary man to C.S. Lewis' celebration of domestic life when he writes about his re-evaluation of Dickens (I forget where) or in that splendid passage in The Great Divorce when he mentions the coming of the Lady . . . Sarah Smith, who lived at Golders Green (an unforgettable literary scene that I'll always cherish). We can come to see God's majesty and the splendor of creation in simple people and in everyday life without bowing down to the idols of democracy. Ennoble the profane -- don't tear down the noble. Lewis did the former. Chesterton . . . Maybe, I would evaluate him differently if I did not live in an age of Idiocracy. In his own time, when many intellectual fashions were watered down √úbermensch fantasies, Chesterton's stance was perhaps bold and prophetic. After the triumph of fanatical flattening, though, he just strikes me as a chump championing a good deal of what I hate about the contemporary West -- a sans-culottes with a rosary.