When Poets Tilted Right

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 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 Roman Catholic apologist of the first half of the 20th 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. He is also a reminder that in the first half of the 20th Century, popular culture was still in play for conservatives.

Other writers 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.

Chesteron 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, or of corporatist mammon.

And they were men of reason, men who believed that Christianity-and for these men in particular, the Roman 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 20th 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.

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.

We also 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.