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Belloc and Chesterton: Their Partial Reflections on The Revolution in France

Belloc and Chesterton: Their Partial Reflections on The Revolution in France

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This is an essay written in 1988 for APORTES, the prestigious Historical Journal in Spain. Professor Miguel Ayuso y Torres asked the author to submit an article for an edition dedicated to the French Revolution 200 Years Later.

The essay was translated into Spanish by Professor Miguel Ayuso y Torres. It came out in early 1990 in Spanish, but was never published in English. Professor Friedrich Wilhelmsen said that he considered this essay by far the best thing written of the difficult topic of Belloc, Chesterton, and the French Revolution.
This is an essay written in 1988 for APORTES, the prestigious Historical Journal in Spain. Professor Miguel Ayuso y Torres asked the author to submit an article for an edition dedicated to the French Revolution 200 Years Later.

The essay was translated into Spanish by Professor Miguel Ayuso y Torres. It came out in early 1990 in Spanish, but was never published in English. Professor Friedrich Wilhelmsen said that he considered this essay by far the best thing written of the difficult topic of Belloc, Chesterton, and the French Revolution.

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Categories:Types, Research, History
Published by: Saint Benedict Center on Aug 16, 2012
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07/31/2014

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Dr. Robert Hickson 3 June 1988 Saint Clotilde
Belloc and Chesterton:Their Partial Reflections on The Revolution in France
1This brief essay proposes to illuminate how Hilaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton came tounderstand the movement generally called “The French Revolution.”In what follows I shall try to advance our understanding of their deeper understandingof this truly premonitory Revolution in France. Even while indicating some of their blind spotsand partialities, I shall attempt to show why Belloc and Chesterton could reasonably consider that the French Revolution was not intrinsically anti-Catholic. That is to say, they did not believethat “the monster was in the doctrine,”
 per se
. Yet, said Belloc in his matured wisdom: “As isalways the case in great catastrophes, there was a 'time-lag' before the full effects were felt.”2 Moreover, lest one also be misled by “reading history backwards,” as well as notgrasping this “time-lag,” we must be more attentive to the subtle latencies and be moredisciplined and differentiated in our thinking. That is to say, in Belloc's own profound words:Till we have appreciated that [twofold truth], we cannot understandeither the confusion or the intense passions of the time....Now themost difficult thing in the world in connection with history, and therarest of achievement is the seeing of events as contemporaries sawthem, instead of seeing them through the distorting medium of our later knowledge.
We
know what was going to happen;contemporaries did not. The very words used to designate theattitude taken at the beginning of the struggle change theimeanings before the struggle has come to an end.3My thesis is that Belloc and Chesterton gradually came to understand the French
1First written in English in the summer of 1988 (published in Spanish in early 1990 in
 Aportes: Revista dehistoria contemporánea
, 12 (1990), pp. 58-62, transl. by Professor Dr. Miguel Ayuso y Torres). The essay'ssubtitle intentionally alludes to Edmund Burke's classic, early text,
 Reflections on the Revolution in France
 (1790).2Hilaire Belloc,
The Great Heresies
(Manassas, Virginia: Trinity Communications, 1987), p. 147. This book wasfirst published in 1938.3
 Ibid 
., pp. 126-127—emphasis is in the original.1
 
Revolution through the fuller implications of the principle of “
corruptio optimi pessima est 
,”especially when applied to the true theory of democracy, the Faith, and Catholic culture. Theycame to understand how the
cultus
informs the
cultura
, and how the deformation of the Catholic
cultus
produces an intimate, but long-unseen, deformation in the culture “through the graduallydisintegrating effect of a false philosophy.”4What Belloc said in 1911 about Rousseau applies, as well, both to himself and toChesterton, who largely followed Belloc's views on the French Revolution:But (as is so often the case with intuitions of genius) though hesaw not the whole of the evil, he had put his finger upon its centralspot, and from that main and just principle which he laid down --that under a merely representative system men cannot be reallyfree -- flow all those evils which we now know to attach to thismethod of government.5In his preface to his 1911 book,
The French Revolution
, Belloc had noted that he, “thewriter of these pages is himself a Catholic and in political sympathy strongly attached to the political theory of the Revolution.”6Moreover, he adds: “Such personal conditions have perhapsenabled him [
i.e.
, Belloc] to treat the matter more thoroughly than it might have been treated byone who rejected either Republicanism upon the one hand, or Catholicism upon the other.”7Lastly, he addresses the matter of prime importance concerning the French Revolution:Some years ago the paramount importance of the quarrel betweenthe Church and the Revolution might still have been questioned bymen who had no personal experience of the struggle, and of its vastresults. To-day the increasing consequences and the contemporaryviolence of that quarrel make its presentation an essential part of 
4
 Ibid.
, p. 147.5Hilaire Belloc,
The French Revolution
(London: Williams and Norgate, 1911), p. 27.6
 Ibid.
, pp. vii-viii. In describing this political theory, Belloc says: “This theory of political morals, though subjectto a limitless degradation in practice, underlies the argument of every man who pretends to regard the State as a business affecting the conscience of citizens. Upon it relies every protest against tyranny and every denunciationof foreign aggression.” (p. 14) With reference to this civil and temporal authority, Belloc adds: “Those words'civil' and 'temporal' must lead the reader to the next consideration; which is that the last authority of all does notreside even in the community” since “the ultimate authority in any act is God.” (p. 15)7
 Ibid.
, p. viii.2
 
any study of the period.8Later in his book, Belloc expresses a conclusion whose implications both he andChesterton came to appreciate even more fully:The reader must seize that moribund condition of the religious lifeof France upon the eve of the Revolution, for it is at onceimperfectly grasped by the general run of historians, and is also theonly fact which thoroughly explains what followed. The swoon of the Faith in the eighteenth century is the negative foundation uponwhich the strange religious experience of the French was about torise. France, in the generation before the Revolution, was passingthrough a phase in which the Catholic Faith was at a lower ebbthan it had ever been since the preaching and establishment of it inGaul.9Writing in 1925, fourteen years later, Belloc now more vividly appreciated CardinalManning's earlier words to him “that all human conflict is ultimately theological.”10Speaking of “the martyrdom of Irelandand “the tragedy played outbetween Ireland and Protestant,oligarchic England, Belloc also said: “I knew its roots as well as any man. I knew that the gulf was a gulf of religion.”11Belloc also recognized the potentially explosive presence of the wealthy, powerful, andhostile Huguenot oligarchy within Catholic France. Even in 1911, Belloc had noted how theFrench Revolutiontook place in a country which had, in the first place, definitelydetermined during the religious struggle of the sixteenth andseventeenth centuries to remain [unlike England] in communionwith Rome; and had, in the second place, admitted a very large andimportant body of converts to the doctrines of the Reformation. . . .[which] was a capital point in the future history of France .. . [
i.e.
,]the presence of a wealthy, very large, and highly cultivated body of dissentients [mostly Huguenots] in the midst of the nation. . . . and
8
 Ibid.
9
 Ibid.
, p. 231.10Hilaire Belloc,
The Cruise of the Nona
(London: Century Publishing, 1983), p. 55. This book was first publishedin 1925, partly as a record of a consolatory sailing voyage he made in the summer of 1914 after the death of hiswife, on 2 February 1914, on Candlemas.11
 Ibid 
., p. 43.3

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