The Essays of Hilaire Belloc
A peculiar thrill of life is opening an old book that has hardly been read. What wisdom contained therein has found a home in so few readers? Why has fate chosen me for the discovery? On an early spring day, twenty-three years ago, the last Harvard student carried away Hilaire Belloc’s One Thing and Another from the shelf at Widener Library. The stamps in the inside back cover of the book disclose its sparse circulation since it arrived in 1956. Indeed, it has been checked out only once since the Johnson administration. I had the privilege of becoming the second soul at Harvard to discover Belloc in that time. Father James Schall recommended him to me, often calling Belloc the best essayist in the English language. If I have lived by one dictate in my extracurricular studies it is this: read Schall, and read what Schall reads.
This is indeed an adventure rarely practiced today. The democratic skeptic would try to deflate my exhilaration and insist that if a book isn’t being read, it isn’t worth reading. This is one of the egoistic heresies of our time. It reveals man’s swollen ignorance for the greatness of the past and nearsighted obsession with the mostly irrelevant minutiae of the near-past. Modern academics have most conspicuously tried to bury alive the great treasures of the Western Canon. Not nearly enough college students are aware of the erudition of Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Ethics because contemporary “business ethics” books seem more pertinent to graduates’ careers. Such a trend has been well documented. But in our fixation to timeliness we have also overlooked the hidden gems of authors left out of the now-deteriorating Canon. It may appear surprising that we can find great sentiments in works that history has not deemed “great,” but we should not let the pettiness of historical reputation become our master.
Few Belloc essays are explicitly about theology-even in his selections entitled “Immortality,” and “On Sacramental Things” he does not mention the Holy Sacraments or the promise of Heaven. He resists edifying his readers, even in the highest matters, choosing instead to entertain, perhaps if it is occasionally for his own amusement. But Belloc purposely informs us of how to realize that everything around us is a creation of God, that our lives have purpose beyond acquisition and survival, that there is glory in humanity that can only have come from a divine source. I am not sure what a “Christian worldview” is, and am often wary of using such a term. It seems excessively general-is it a doctrine or ideology? A particular theological perspective? A type of personality? Whatever it may be to contemporary theologians, I would like to suggest that we can find it in Belloc’s writing-that is, if we consider the term “Christian worldview” literally-discovering the joy of seeing the world with Christian, and particularly Catholic, eyes.
Cooking, sailing, and walking are among the seemingly humdrum aspects of life to which Belloc ascribes a certain sanctity. In “On Cooking,” he writes an entire essay on cook books, arguing that those which are successful identify a “trick” of preparing the dish in question. But then he goes on humorously to denounce cook books in his final paragraph, saying that if he ever was asked write a cook book he would “begin by telling [his] readers that the best meal in the world is bread, salt, wine, and an onion (which need no cooking).” At least, no one needs to tell us how to cook these basic foods, and thus we can avoid the irrelevance of consulting faux cooking expertise. Belloc self-deprecatingly concludes by drawing us back to the glory of preparing a meal: “Writing is a poor trade, but cooking is sacred. Any fool can write, but to cook…” The beauty is in the preparation of the food, not in the book which tells us how to do it. Belloc instructs us to find grandeur in cooking, but pettiness in the do’s and don’ts of instructions from a (likely) foolish human authority. The entirely human activity of writing may or may not relate to the glory of God, depending on the author. A greater authority, however, has given us food, and granted us the ability to create a meal. Cooking indeed is sacred.
Even the mundane exercise of walking is especially glorious for Belloc. In “On Walking,” he takes up an activity that everyone takes for granted, and explains how special it really is to walk. We are the only creatures which always ambulate on two feet despite the disadvantage that our center of gravity is maximized on four. Walking is natural to man, but only because we are not merely animals. In this sense, the very act of walking helps us address “the only important questions [man] can ask himself”- “what he is, whence he came, and whither he is going.” For the highest inquiries regarding our origin and our destiny can be symbolized in the walk, and Belloc takes up the way in which our nature and current existence prefigures our destiny: “What on earth persuaded the animal to go on like that? Or was it nothing on earth but something in heaven?”
Belloc’s perspective on walking-that it is a surprisingly natural activity for man-ultimately relates to our divinity as creations of God destined for eternal life. Our nature makes us who we are; we only have to discover it:
You certainly did not teach yourself to accomplish this marvel [of walking], nor did your nurse. There was a spirit within you that taught you and that brought you out; and as it is with walking, so it is with speech, and so at last with humour and with irony, and with affection, and with the sense of colour and of form, and even with honour, and at last with prayer.
The spirit within us-when we allow it to emerge-teaches us all that makes us human, and Belloc does not neglect to mention the distinctly human activity of prayer, which arises from that’s spirit’s divinity. However, these traits, “what man is,” in the questions with which Belloc begins the essay, are not ends in themselves:
By all this you may see that man is very remarkable, and this should make you humble, not proud; for you have been designed in spite of yourself for some astonishing fate, of which these mortal extravagances so accurately seized and so well moulded you to your being, are but the symbols.
Expect such eloquence in every Belloc essay. Our ability to walk, to speak, to laugh are not to be considered the ultimate goods for man. They are signs that we are “designed in spite of ourselves,” that we are divinely destined in spite of our mortality. However, we cannot be proudly content with our earthly actions. Belloc confirms this in the proceeding metaphorical discussion of walking with a purpose. He says that it “warps man’s soul” to walk without an object; walking for the sake of walking is detestable because it does not recognize an end above us which ought to be the motive in all of man’s actions. Belloc’s Christian mind rejects the materialism of those speed-walkers which we often see in today’s exercise-conscious world:
It has been so arranged that the moment we begin any minor and terrestrial thing as an object in itself, or with merely the furtherance of some other material thing, we hurt the inward part of us that governs all. But walk for glory or for adventure, or to see new sights, or to pay a bill or to escape the same, and you will very soon find how consonant is walking with your whole being.
Man’s mortal and immortal nature, symbolized in the surprise of our ability to walk, should not be considered a final good-our “whole being” is only satisfied if our nature serves a greater purpose, which is the true fulfillment of our nature. Belloc completes the analogy to our ultimate questions of existence by praising the act of walking away. The metaphor is delicate in this closing passage, as Belloc describes a place near the River Tyne where he remembers approaching the “wilderness into which you manfully turned the steps of your abandonment.” Only desolation is visible ahead as we must leave our memories behind us, but this is part of our destiny: “you are bound to forget, and it is your business to leave all that you have known altogether behind you, and no man has eyes at the back of his head-go forward!” This wilderness is, of course, the afterlife. Our purpose is indeed not in walking, but in walking away from earthly walking.
Belloc, an avid sailor, saw a similar destiny for himself in perhaps the most unexciting aspect of boating: dropping anchor. In “On Dropping Anchor,” Belloc compares the use of another man’s moorings with the surer conclusion of releasing one’s own anchor to arrive at the end of a journey. His description of heaven is in a picturesque cove, which is the most beautiful passage in Belloc’s essays:
I love to consider a place which I have never seen, but which I shall reach at last, full of repose and marking the end of those voyages, and security from the tumble of the sea. This place will be a cove set round with high hills on which there shall be no house or sign of men… The fairway into that haven shall lie behind a pleasant little beach of shingle, which shall run out aslant into the sea from the steep hill-side, and shall be a breakwater made by God… My anchor will go down into the clear salt water with a run…. And that will be the end of my sailing.
This quotation does not suffice: you really must read this entire essay. Belloc never lets go of the connection to the reality of his sailing, and this makes the metaphor all the more powerful: we can envision a lovely inlet on earth and yet recognize the divinity in its description.
The uproarious, quintessential Belloc essay is the prologue for a collection of his essays, entitled “On Nothing.” This is not a meditation on nihilism, as a postmodern mind might imagine. “Nothing” refers to something because it is the “tenuous stuff from which the world was made.” Yet he mocks the substance of Nothing, sarcastically saying: “Is it not that which Mankind, after the great effort of life, at last attains, and that which alone can satisfy Mankind’s desire?” Indeed, nothing on earth completely satisfies man, and with our mortal demise we are left with nothing. But Nothing-referring to the divine “stuff” of the universe-is actually our proper object which we hope to attain: “So excellent and final is it that I would here and now declare to you that Nothing was the gate of eternity, that by passing through Nothing we reached our every object as passionate and happy beings.” Belloc’s final word on Nothing is that men are not Nothing. Instead of relying on Genesis, Belloc insists on indirectly commenting on Christianity by discussing a thoroughly pagan interpretation of the creation of the world. For a Catholic to do this is indeed humorous, and we are supposed to laugh when he discusses the “Elder Elohim” and the “Makers of the World.” But his point is genuinely Christian. He says that the Elohim ran out of Nothing with which to make men, and settled on mud from which to create us. The earth and its animals may be “nothing,” but we are indeed something. Man is “nothing” in that our lives progress from ashes to ashes, but we ought not to disrespect our nature or purpose by believing it to be “nothing.” This is his criticism of the nihilists, describing them as “seeking for Truth in funny brown German Philosophies, Sham Religions, stinking bottles and identical equations.” The antithesis of the nihilist is someone who lies on his back in the Eynsham meadows thinking of Nothing, that is, in the sense that he is so enamored by the grandeur of the world, of music, of poetry, that the Nothing he contemplates is the very substance of the holiness that surrounds us.
Belloc mentions a great line of thinkers and Catholics to which tradition binds us, and relies on us to realize that he is speaking about the greatness of man in his discussion of “Nothing.” From the first man, “his descendants manfully continued to develop and to progress and to swell in everything, until from Homer we came to Euripides, and from Euripides to Seneca, and from Seneca to Boethius and his peers… and so upwards through James I of England… and on, on, to my Lord Macaulay, and in the very last reached YOU, the great summits of the human race and last perfection of the ages READERS OF THIS BOOK…” Including ourselves, these men and their legacies are not “nothing”-we should not fall into a historical abyss, just as Belloc should not do so.
Leave it to Belloc to consider “nothing” from a Christian perspective. He sees the hills, the English sky, the French terroir, the sea, and everything under the sun with his pious eyes, and, fortunately for us, avoids making “Christianity” a bombastic headline of each essay. We may learn from his humility. Perhaps he is the best Christian author for atheists to read.
Jordan D. Teti ’08, Editor-in-Chief, is a Government concentrator in Kirkland House.