Hilaire Belloc’s The Great Heresies

Like so many other children of the British Empire, I was introduced to Hilaire Belloc by my mother, who read to me from his Cautionary Tales For Children snatches of his moralizing verses (“A trick that everyone abhors / In little girls is slamming doors”). There is, it strikes me now, a funny contrast between the fairly universal appeal of his popular verses and the very specific appeal of his writings, which, even in his own lifetime, cut heavily against popular opinion. Belloc was a Catholic in Protestant Britain, an anti-capitalist and an anti-socialist, and one of the last monarchists. His contemporaries – men like H.G. Wells and Bernard Shaw – looked to the future, to the untried and the novel, in the hopes of creating a better society; Belloc stubbornly looked to the past, to Catholicism and agrarianism. And yet he was also prescient: he was an early opponent of colonialism and imperialism, and sounded the warning about an impending persecution of European Jews as early as 1922 – though he himself harboured many of the prejudices that facilitated that persecution. The Great Heresies blends history, theology and philosophy to describe the four greatest threats to Catholicism, which Belloc, as a Catholic, necessarily takes to be the true faith.

In the hands of a lesser writer, a book about threats to Catholic dogma would probably interest no one outside the Catholic faith, but Belloc seized my attention almost from the first page, when he defines a heresy:

Heresy is the dislocation of some complete and self-supporting scheme by the introduction of a novel denial of some essential part therein.

I was struck by this definition because, secular-minded though I am, I have come to think of religion in exactly these terms, as “complete and self-supporting” schemes, collections of ideas resilient enough that they can survive into the future. He gives, as other examples of such schemes, Newtonian physics and Euclidean geometry, both of which are supported by a raft of interlinking propositions. Under such a definition, atheism does not constitute a heresy, nor, in Belloc’s mind, very much of a threat.

The denial of a scheme wholesale is not heresy, and has not the creative power of a heresy. It is of the essence of heresy that it leaves standing a great part of the structure it attacks. On this account it can appeal to believers and continues to affect their lives through deflecting them from their original characters. Wherefore, it is said of heresies that “they survive by the truths they retain.”

The “great heresies,” then, are Arianism – the denial of the divinity of Christ; Islam – which Belloc regards as a heresy because it is an adaptation and “perversion” of Catholic teaching; Albigensianism – a form of Manichaeism that associates the material with evil and the spiritual with godliness; and lastly Protestantism, the undermining of the authority of the Church and the elevation of individual Christians. The final chapter of the book, “The Modern Phase,” discusses not so much a heresy but a wholesale attack on religion itself, which Belloc rightly regards as a fight to the death: “The Modern Attack will not tolerate us. It will attempt to destroy us. Nor can we tolerate it. We must attempt to destroy it as being the fully equipped and ardent enemy of the Truth by which men live.”

I purchased this book out of particular interest for the chapters on Islam and modernity, but found even the more esoteric (to my mind) discussions of great interest. For example, in whatever cursory study I was given of the Reformation in my formal schooling, I conceived of the schism inaugurated by Martin Luther as being immediate and far-reaching, the cleaving of Christendom into two distinct orthodoxies. Not so, says Belloc:

For a whole lifetime after the movement called the “Reformation” had started (say from 1520 to 1600), men remained in an attitude of mind which considered the whole religious quarrel in Christendom as an Oecumenical one. They thought of it as a debate in which all Christendom was engaged and on which some kind of ultimate decision would be taken for all. This decision would apply to Christendom as a whole and produce a general religious peace.

That was not to be the case. “The reluctant resolve to make the best of the disaster does not become evident – as we shall see – till the Peace of Westphalia, 130 years after Luther’s first challenge, and the complete separation into Catholic and Protestant groups was not accomplished for another fifty years: say, 1690-1700.” He also points out something that is obvious only in retrospect: this very cleavage undermined the authority of religion in Europe:

It was obvious to the eye that European culture would in future be divided into two camps, but what only gradually entered the mind of Europe was the fact that on account of this permanent division, men were coming to regard religion itself as a secondary thing. Political considerations, the ambition of separate nations and separate dynasties, began to seem more important than the separate religions men professed. It was though people had said to themselves, not openly, but half-consciously, “Since all this tremendous fight has had no result, the causes which led to the conflict were probably exaggerated.”

A great many people in Europe now regard religion as not merely a “secondary thing” but a trivial thing. Belloc issues a warning to those who would disregard the subject of this book that applies equally to those dismissive of religion and theology – and I count my former self among that group: “Those who think that the subject of heresy may be neglected because the term sounds to them old-fashioned and because it is connected with a number of disputes long abandoned are making the common error of thinking in words instead of ideas.” If you profess to care about ideas, your are duty-bound to care about religion, and Belloc is as good a guide as I have encountered.