I just finished another of Belloc’s books, Characters of the Reformation. He published it in 1936, and his view of nationalism had shifted by that time from what it was when he wrote the two previous books I’ve read by him, Danton: A Study (1899) and The Jews (1922). In the earliest book he had treated nationalism as a great social and moral advance destined to stand as the basis of our civilization for centuries to come. In the second he treated it as basic and unavoidable, but idealized it less and saw that the conflict between gentile and Jew, which he thought national in character, might once again lead to catastrophe. In the final book he treated European nationalism as a pathological consequence of the disastrous breakup of European civilization resulting from the Protestant Reformation that had led to the end of a settled international structure of legitimacy that once limited raw aggression.
His views might have changed, but not the fact that he was right. Or so he seems to have thought. His manner and style are very much the same in all three books: simple, clear and argumentative, always trying to reduce events to a few basic principles, always striving to stand accepted interpretations on their head. All that makes him bracing to read, and it often makes him illuminating or even right. He spends a lot of his book on the Reformation talking down stories like the Black Legend that were spread by Protestants and the English about the Catholics and continentals, and there’s certainly a lot about those stories that needs talking down. As to England itself he argues that the Reformation was mostly the work of rich men who needed to justify their theft of Church lands, and that the Tudors, while energetic, intelligent and personally interesting, were in fact weak rulers dominated by their advisors, sexual passions, and various physical and psychological disorders.
It seems to be true, as he says, that most Englishmen didn’t want to stop being Catholic, and the change was carried forward against their will. How far the point can be pushed I don’t know. In at least one case, his treatment of Pascal as the source of modern emotionalism in religion, he does distort and flatten out a situation in the interests of telling his story. Others will have to say how far that tendency vitiates his treatment of other issues.
To my mind Pascal’s point is simply that the modern understanding of knowledge and reason pushed by Descartes and others is inadequate for our needs, so it’s crazy to accept it and rationally necessary to accept a broader understanding of what makes sense. Belloc agrees, of course. He says, for example, that “there is no rational process by which the reality of the external universe can be discovered; all we know is that it can be confidently affirmed … Your plain man, who is made in the image of God and who, so long as his reason and conscience are not warped, is on the right lines, has no patience with any denial of it.” Pascal in contrast says “The heart has its reasons of which the head knows nothing.” For some reason Belloc doesn’t like Pascal’s way of putting it. He seems to think that an implicit appeal to a truck driver in a bar punching a pencil-necked Cartesian geek in the nose for being a jerk is better than Pascal’s willingness to take the Cartesion rationalist view as a starting place and showing how it is internally inadequate to our experience. To each his own, I suppose.