Thursday, March 15, 2018

Book Review: Essays of a Catholic by Hilaire Belloc

Essays of a Catholic by Hilaire Belloc

Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953) was the son of a French lawyer and an English suffragette. The family moved to England after the father's death in 1872. Hilaire became a great scholar and writer of books, poems, and essays. This volume of essays was compiled by Belloc and focuses on cultural and historical issues from his own perspective, often contrasting a Catholic position with contemporary thoughts and attitudes.

In many of the essays, he contrasts the Catholic and the Protestant cultures in Europe, especially in England. Education is a big concern, since the government funded and mandated primary schools also follow the government approved version of history that casts Catholics in a bad light and can (perhaps unintentionally) undermine their faith. Belloc notes that parents are the primary educators of their children and parents' rights should be primary. He also discusses the slim possibility of England as a whole converting back to Catholicism. He even recommends a return to Latin as an international language, especially in light of the complete failure of Esperanto, "which is about as much like a human language as a jigsaw puzzle is like a human face." [p. 238] The contrasts are interesting but feel a little dated.

He also provides a fascinating look at economic and scientific issues from a Catholic perspective. He disparages usury and shows an interesting, morally acceptable way for investors to make money. He demonstrates the pitfalls of capitalism and the complete unacceptability of socialism. His essay "Science as the Enemy of Truth" presents a brilliant condemnation of the "Modern Scientific Spirit" which he dissects in minute detail. The breadth of issues he deals with is impressive.

The joy of the book is in Belloc's precision of argument. He knows how to say exactly what he means  and to assess the relative value of arguments based in reason, speculation, and emotion. He is decisive without being condescending or insulting. He has both clarity and charity, a hard mixture to achieve. Some of his issues are less relevant today, but his intelligence and his attitude are an excellent example in our age of television- and Twitter-sized arguments.


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