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Past Present

“History . . . should above all explain: It should give ‘the how and the why.’ It is the business of history to make people understand how they came to be; what was the origin and progress of the state of which they form a part; what were the causes that influenced each phase of change from the beginning almost to our own time.”

—Hilaire Belloc, A Shorter History of England

The truth will set us free. So says Christ. If this is so, which of course it is, it follows that falsehood will enslave us. Falsehood in history prevents us from understanding our past and, in consequence, our present.

Properly understood, history is a chronological map that shows us not only where we have come from but also where we are and how we got here. It is also possible to project where we are likely to be going in the future by drawing the line of knowledge on the chronological map from where we have come from to where we are now and extending the line into the realm of future possibilities.

In this sense, history can be a prophet. It increases our knowledge of the past, present, and future. But this is true only if the chronological map is accurate. If it has been drawn by those with prejudiced perceptions or a biased agenda, it will succeed only in getting us lost. There are few things more dangerous than an inaccurate map, especially if we find ourselves in perilous terrain.

Perhaps at this juncture we need to proceed from Christ to Pilate. We need to pass from Christ’s assertion that the truth will set us free to Pilate’s question: What is truth? In the context of the study of history, the truth requires the knowledge of three distinct facets of historical reality: historical chronology, historical mechanics, and historical philosophy—i.e., when things happened, how things happened, and why things happened.

The last of these, though it is dependent factually on the other two, is the most important. If we don’t know why things happened, history remains devoid of meaning; it makes no sense. As such, historians must have knowledge of the history of belief. They must know what people believed when they did the things that they did in order to know why they acted as they did. They must have empathy with the great ideas that shaped human history, even if they don’t have sympathy with them.

This issue was addressed with great lucidity by Hilaire Belloc, perhaps the most important historian of the twentieth century (with the possible exception of Christopher Dawson):

“The worst fault in [writing] history . . . is the fault of not knowing what the spiritual state of those whom one describes really was. Gibbon and his master Voltaire, the very best of reading, are for that reason bad writers of history. To pass through the tremendous history of the Trinitarian dispute from which our civilization arose and to treat it as a farce is not history. To write the story of the sixteenth century in England and to make of either the Protestant or the Catholic a grotesque is to miss history altogether” (A Conversation with an Angel and Other Essays, Jonathan Cape, 166–7).

Clearly frustrated at this supercilious approach toward the past that blinded many historians, Belloc offers a practical example of its effects upon scholarship:

“There is an enormous book called volume 1 of A Cambridge History of the Middle Ages. It is 759 pages in length of close print. . . . It does not mention the Mass once. That is as though you were to write a history of the Jewish dispersion without mentioning the synagogue or of the British empire without mentioning the city of London or the Navy” (Letters from Hilaire Belloc, Hollis and Carter, 75).

In order to avoid the chronological snobbery that presumes the superiority of the present over the past and so causes this lack of proportion and focus, historians must see history through the eyes of the past, not the present. They must put themselves into the minds and hearts of the protagonists they are studying, and to do this adequately they must have knowledge of philosophy and theology in order to understand their own academic discipline and in order to remain disciplined in their study of it. An ignorance of philosophy and theology means an ignorance of history.

Belloc’s principal legacy as a historian falls into three areas: first, his seminal struggle with H. G. Wells over the “outline of history”; second, his groundbreaking refutation of the prejudiced “official” history of the Protestant Reformation; and, finally, his telescopic and panoramic study of the great heresies.

The War of the Words

Belloc’s exchanges with H. G. Wells over the latter’s publication of The Outline of History comprised one of the most controversial and notorious academic battles of the twentieth century. Belloc objected to his adversary’s tacitly anti-Christian stance, epitomized by the fact that Wells had devoted more space in his “history” to the Persian campaign against the Greeks than he had given to the figure of Christ.

But it was the underlying philosophy of materialistic determinism in Wells’s History that was most anathema to him. Wells believed that human “progress” was both blind and beneficial—unshakeable, unstoppable, and utterly inexorable. History was the product of invisible and immutable evolutionary forces that were coming to fruition in the twentieth century. Human history had its primitive beginnings in the caves but was now reaching its climax in the modern age with the final triumph of science over religion. The emergence of science from the ashes of “superstition” heralded a new dawn for humanity, a brave new world of happiness made possible by technology. Obviously, such an approach precluded any serious or objective consideration of the great ideas that had forged human history, since in Wells’s view, these ideas were shaped by the superstition and ignorance that had been superseded by humanity’s progress toward modernity.

Wells’s “outline” had been, to Belloc, like a red rag waved at a bull. Belloc charged, accusing Wells of prejudiced provincialism, claiming that “in history proper” Wells “was never taught to appreciate the part played by Latin and Greek culture and never introduced to the history of the early Church.” Furthermore, he suffered from “the very grievous fault of being ignorant that he is ignorant”: “He has the strange cocksuredness of the man who knows only the old conventional textbook of his schooldays and mistakes it for universal knowledge” (quoted in Michael Coren, The Invisible Man: The Life and Liberties of H. G. Wells, Jonathan Cape, 32).

The controversy reached a conclusion and a climax in 1926, when Belloc’s articles refuting Wells’s history were collected into a single volume and published as A Companion to Mr. Wells’s “Outline of History.” Wells responded with Mr. Belloc Objects, to which Belloc, determined to have the last word, replied with Mr. Belloc Still Objects. At the end of the controversy, Belloc claimed to have written over 100,000 words in refutation of the central arguments in Wells’s book. As such, Belloc could be likened not so much to a charging bull as to a biting bulldog that refuses to let go.

The lingering lesson of the war of words between Belloc and Wells is its exemplification of the fact that one’s philosophical presuppositions will invariably color one’s understanding of the “outline of history.” Belloc understood the beliefs of the past and so could discern why people acted as they did; he could see why things happened as well as when and how they happened. Wells, on the other hand, regarded the beliefs of the past as superstitious and dismissed them. His chronological snobbery prevented his analysis of history from rising above the when and how, and since the when and how are influenced—and perhaps determined—by the why, Wells’s understanding was inevitably deficient in these areas also.

It would take the horrors of the Second World War to open his eyes to the evils that could be unleashed by science in the service of “progressive” ideologies. Shaken out of his “progressive” dementia, Wells’s last book, written shortly before his death in 1946 and entitled, appropriately, The Mind at the End of Its Tether, was full of the desolation of disillusionment. In the end, Wells’s “progressive” optimism, already defeated in debate by Belloc, was defeated in reality by the march of history itself.

Reforming the Reformation

In the wake of the controversy with Wells, Belloc became increasingly preoccupied with historical questions. “In history we must abandon the defensive,” he wrote in 1924, at the height of the war with Wells. “We must make our opponents understand not only that they are wrong in their philosophy, nor only ill-informed in their judgment of cause and effect, but out of touch with the past, which is ours” (Pagan and Christian Rule, Longmans, Green and Co., ix).

From this time onward, Belloc’s historical work would be less concerned with European history than with the history of England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. There were notable exceptions, such as Joan of Arc (1929), Richelieu (1930), and Napoleon (1932), but in general Belloc concentrated his attention and passion on.aspects of English history. Commencing with the first of four volumes of A History of England, he also wrote books on many of the main characters and key events of the English Reformation. These included Oliver Cromwell (1927), James the Second (1928), How the Reformation Happened (1928), Wolsey (1930), Cranmer (1931), Charles the First (1933), Milton (1935), and Characters of the Reformation (1936).

In the preface to his Shorter History of England (1934), Belloc sought to explain why he thought that the study of the English Reformation deserved greater emphasis than had been customary. Explaining why he had given much more space to “the transformation of England through the total change of her religion in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries . . . than to the nineteenth,” he added that this was necessary “if one is to present a true scheme of the past: to present ‘the how and the why’” (8).

These general comments were expanded upon in the introductory chapter of Characters of the Reformation, in which Belloc insists that the English Reformation had a profound impact upon Christendom as a whole: “[The] severance of England from Europe and from Christendom was . . . the pivotal matter of the Protestant advance. On it the partial success of the religious revolution everywhere depended. Hence the necessity for beginning by an understanding of the English tragedy, failing which the disruption of Europe and all our modern chaos would never have appeared” (ibid., 13).

The importance of England’s break with Rome is made manifest by Belloc’s insistence upon its “pivotal” place in the “breakup” of Christendom:

“The breakup of united Western Christendom with the coming of the Reformation was by far the most important thing in history since the foundation of the Catholic Church fifteen hundred years before.

“Men of foresight perceived at the time that if catastrophe were allowed to consummate itself, if the revolt were to be successful (and it was successful), our civilization would certainly be imperiled and possibly, in the long run, destroyed.

“That is indeed what has happened. Europe with all its culture is now seriously imperiled and stands no small chance of being destroyed by its own internal disruption; and all this is ultimately the fruit of the great religious revolution that began four hundred years ago.

“This being so, the Reformation being of this importance, it ought to form the chief object of historical study in modern times, and its nature should be clearly understood even if only in outline” (ibid., 7).

The Great Heresies

If Belloc’s crusade to spread a true understanding of the Reformation was invaluable, so was his other great crusade in the field of history: his mapping (in Survivals and New Arrivals [1929] and The Great Heresies [1938]) of the war of ideas that had forged the history of Europe and beyond. It is in this sphere that we see Belloc the historian emerging as a prophet, particularly with regard to his warnings about the renewed threat of Islam.

It is, for instance, almost chilling that Belloc wrote of the lifting of the Muslim siege of Vienna “on a date that ought to be among the most famous in history—September 11, 1683” (The Great Heresies, Sheed and Ward, 85). It is a date that Christendom has forgotten, to its shame, but the militants of Islam apparently had remembered. “It has always seemed to me possible, and even probable, that there would be a resurrection of Islam and that our sons or our grandsons would see the renewal of that tremendous struggle between the Christian culture and what has been for more than a thousand years its greatest opponent” (ibid., 87). These words, written more than sixty years ago, went unheeded. Today they resound like the death-knell of Europe.

Belloc’s understanding of the past enabled him to see the future. Today, more than ever, our culture needs to heed his words. The evangelizing power of history is that it teaches us about ourselves and about those we need to evangelize. The more one understands history, the more one ceases to be Protestant, wrote Newman. It is equally true that the more one understands history, the more one ceases to be a liberal secularist.

“In such a crux there remains the historical truth: that this our European structure, built upon the noble foundations of classical antiquity, was formed through, exists by, is consonant to, and will stand only in the mould of the Catholic Church.

“Europe will return to the faith, or she will perish” (Europe and the Faith, Constable and Co., 192).

 

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