June 14, 2008

Schall on Hilaire Belloc

Interesting link:
"It is hard to accept mysteries, and to be humble," Belloc wrote. "We are tost as the great schoolmen were tost, and we dare not neglect the duty of that wrestling. But the hardest thing of all is that it leads us away, as by a command, from all that banquet of the intellect than which there is no keener joy known to man. I went slowly up the village place in the dusk thinking of this deplorable weakness in men that faith is too great for them...."

The wrestling, the command, no keener joy, the deplorable weakness -- the restlessness goes on, along the paths that lead to Rome.

Revelation is itself designed to make us, rather to incite us, to think about what does not originate within us. The very last discovery I ever want to make in this universe of Karl Popper's First, Second, and Third Worlds, is the discovery that I have created what there is. That, I think, would be the ultimate despair.

And so, rather, I believe in newness, in an infinity which does not originate within myself. Popper, in his own way, also caught some of this: "We may gain more knowledge from our children or from our theories than we ever imparted to them." Indeed, we receive more than we give, mostly. This is why, again, the only temptation worth worrying about is the one that would allow us to live only in our own world, closed off, perhaps forever, from a newness of which we are not the origin, but only the pale, yet sparkling images.

* * *

Belloc observes, "people always think that great wealth indicates something: Intelligence at the lowest and courtesy or some other virtue at the highest." But of itself great wealth neither indicates intelligence our courtesy. Belloc adds, that the Church soberly warns us about wealth: "Unless you use it with the greatest care and worry yourself to death about it, you are doing a direct injury to your fellow citizens." Belloc calls this simply "sound economics."

Then Belloc adds, in an example that probably does not follow, "Every time you (Baring) and I drink champagne, we are ultimately depriving some poor man of beer, and don't you forget it." This quip of Belloc, however, is not "sound economics." It is best forgotten. In a market economy, we are more likely to deprive a poor man of his beer if we do not drink champagne. But of course, Belloc adds, with some playfulness, that in fact, at that moment, at least, he does not like champagne. So on his own terms there is no danger in his drinking it and upsetting the flow of beer to the poor man, which beer, be it noted, Belloc thinks he has a perfect right to. Belloc's stomach is upset. Thus, he does not think that he likes any "wine" except "Herefordshire Cyder." Just why he calls "cyder", "wine", I am not sure, for surely Belloc of all people, with both French and English blood in his veins, knew the difference. He did not, consolingly, seem to worry about whether the champagne that he and Baring might drink would deprive the poor man of "Herefordshire Cyder."

"What is all of this leading up to?" you might ask. So far we see little of the devil here. But he is hanging around fuzzy ideas. Belloc continues, "As for the Church saying 'Don't exist,' that is the last of the series and is absolutely plumb flat contradictory." The Church cannot approve of something that is "absolutely plumb flat contradictory." Faith does not contradict reason, as Aquinas often put it. If you want to get Belloc's point, try to command something before it exists, not to exist. We do not have the power of existence as such in our arsenal. This is the great Thomist truth, the truth of existence. Existence is the Gift we do not give ourselves, but only receive it. This is why, from our side, to recall Belloc's friend Chesterton, gratitude is the first response to being.

Belloc sums up these teachings: "The Church does say definitely 'Don't kill'. She certainly thinks sex dangerous, she regards riches with the utmost suspicion. But existence she delights in and it is Catholic civilisation only that ever produces a strong sense of individual existence." This is the most marvelous of sentences. To delight in existence itself, this is the highest mark of sanity and reality. If we can delight in existence itself, we can, even more, delight in the tiny particular being that exists -- the "strong sense of individual existence."

In conclusion, Belloc gives us in 1911 a criterion against which to test his thesis: "Let a nation lose the Church, and it is bound to fall in time into Pantheism, or a denial of spiritual continuity, and the immortality of the soul." We no longer bury our dead. We kill our kind before they are born and hasten their ends when they are useless. We deny that past generations can bind us to anything, no Constitution, no natural law. We subsume all back into Earth and judge individual existence merely as a function of or threat to the Environment. We can no longer, it seems, smoke indoors or out of doors. We have reinvented prohibition and made killing the tiniest of our kind a "right."

Thus, with regard to economics, I do not see why the rich and the poor both cannot have either champagne, beer, or Herefordshire Cyder. And with regard to the Devil-worship, that Belloc worried about in Baring's letter, what Belloc caught was a rancid smell of the idea that existence itself is not good, and hence that life is not good, that sex is not good, that material things are not good. In the affirmation that the Church "delights in existence," he knew that, however gingerly we must sometimes treat them, because of what they are, all things, as it says in Genesis, are good. And we are to delight in them in their proper order.

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