Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Soul Provider

Books in Review

By Robert R. Reilly from the November 2010 issue of The American Spectator

The Essential Belloc: A Prophet for Our Times
Edited by Scott Bloch, Rev. C. John McCloskey, and Brian Robertson
(Saint Benedict Press, 270 Pages, $17.95)

As its title suggests, The Essential Belloc: A Prophet for Our Times is a 270-page chrestomathy of Hilaire Belloc's writings. It is edited by three worthies: Scott Bloch, Rev. C. John McCloskey, and Brian Robertson, and published by the Saint Benedict Press. It pulls from more than threescore works by Belloc and covers almost every subject imaginable with an extraordinary jeu d'esprit, to say nothing of the joie de vivre which underlies it all.

What can one say of a book that advises "Never warm Red wine"? One simply embraces it. One takes it as an authority. One brings it to restaurants to show to misguided sommeliers who serve room-temperature cabernet or zinfandel that curdles in the glass at 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Belloc (1870-1953) was a prophet for our time because he must have sensed this abuse of the grape as a growing threat within the very heart of Western civilization. As a well-balanced man, he also cautioned against over-chilling white wine, as it kills the taste. However, lovers of Champagne will be discomfited by his warning, "Never to drink what has been made and sold since the Reformation." At least this would get rid of rum colas and other soft-drink pollutions.

There are other gustatory admonitions that deserve consideration: "if you use processed salt you do so at your peril." Also, do not complain about hard Parmesan "rancid in bottles." "You think it is hard from birth? You are mistaken. It is the world that hardens the Parmesan." Or this very human touch: "Be content to remember that those who can make omelettes properly can do nothing else."

But I am cheating here, succumbing to the temptation to keep quoting from the book because what Belloc says is so delicious. One wants to share it, which is why we should be so grateful to these editors for doing just that. In the preface, Fr. James Schall states that we are ineluctably charmed by Belloc, whom he calls the greatest essayist in the English language, because he delights in existence itself. That includes everything. And it is why everything for him is an adventure-wine, food, people, history, places, travel, God, and, generally, how the world works.

Few have written with such sweep and passion about the thrill of Christian orthodoxy, because it is orthodoxy, Belloc says, that sees things as they are, accepts them for what is. As he wrote, "The Catholic Church is the exponent of Reality." What's more, he states that "To-day, in the twentieth century, Catholics are the only organized body consistently appealing to the reason..." Belloc was the poet of reason in Christendom. His orthodoxy sings. In these pages, there is much praise of Christendom, and he energetically defends its defense, including the Crusades.

How ought one to read this book? That depends. I thought I would simply dip into it for occasional refreshment, a bon mot or two, an aper├žu here and there, but found myself devouring whole sections at a sitting. This was especially so with the chapter of selections on Islam. In it, Belloc earns the subtitle's description of him as prophetic. Read: "there are signs enough in the political heavens today of what we may have to expect from the revolt of Islam at some future date perhaps not far distant."

No one was as prescient in this matter as was Belloc, who also correctly diagnosed the West's main vulnerability: "Those who direct us and from whom the tone of our policy is taken have no major spiritual interest.… Islam has not suffered this spiritual decline… and [in this] lies our peril." I could not think of a better description of the Obama administration than this, though I admit failure in this regard is bipartisan. It is, unfortunately, as Belloc feared, a sign of our declining civilization. Islam has preserved its soul. We have not preserved ours.

As a champion of Christendom, Belloc is also wonderfully politically incorrect. Consider his treatment of this touchy topic: "In what measure Islam affected our science and our philosophy is open to debate. Its effect has been, of course, heavily exaggerated, because to exaggerate it was a form of attack upon Catholicism." Exactly.

Belloc also fights for the faith. One can only lament at the impoverished discourse today between our nouveau atheists and their opponents. Both sides could be vastly improved by Belloc's rhetoric. Consider what he accomplishes in these few sentences: "For if God is not, then all falsehoods, though each prove the rest false, are each true, and every evil is its own good, and there is confusion everywhere. But if God is, then the world can stand." How is that for a two-sentence lesson in apologetics?

IN THIS BROAD collection, there is something to delight or irritate just about everyone. I for one would like to send every libertarian I know Belloc's remark that "A conversion to the Catholic culture is necessary to the restoration of economic freedom because economic freedom was the fruit of that culture in the past." Are you with me, Ron Paul?

Of course, Belloc was not perfect. He said some kind things about Jean-Jacques Rousseau (though they are not included in this volume) and the French Revolution. Across from my house, the county park is deliberately kept in a state of disrepair, infested with poison ivy and decaying trees, as a tribute to Rousseau's advancement of the "state of nature" as superior to man's molestation of it (meaning forestry). Good for organic matter and bugs; bad for man (and my children).

But this is carping in comparison to the genius set forth in this invaluable volume. In closing, I return to the subject of adult beverages and succumb once again to quoting Belloc, who undertook to advise an alcoholic that he should drink only wine and mead. As a consequence, "all went well. He become a merry companion, and began to write odes. His prose clarified and set, that had before been very mixed and cloudy. He slept well; he comprehended divine things." Alas, this man drank again of post-Reformation spirits, which he had forsworn, and had, as a consequence, to give up all drink. He "became a spectacle and a judgment, whereas if he had kept his exact word he might by this time have been a happy man." And so will be you if you buy and abide by this book. 

- Robert R. Reilly is the author of The Closing of the Muslim Mind (ISI books).

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