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 which influenced each phase of change from the beginning almost to our own time.
– Hilaire Belloc¹
The truth will set us free. So says Christ. Yet 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.
Perhaps at this juncture we need to proceed from Christ to Pilate, 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, namely 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 whole 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.²
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 ….³
In order to avoid the chronological snobbery that presumes the superiority of the present over the past and which 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; 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.
Hilaire Belloc’s principal legacy as a historian falls into three areas. First, is his seminal struggle with H. G. Wells over the “outline of history”; second, his groundbreaking approach to the history of the Reformation; and finally his telescopic and panoramic study of the great ideas that have shaped history. In addition, as a man of omnivorous taste and multifarious talent, he also wrote on French and European history, military history, economic history, and English history. Since such a panoramic scope is too broad to be covered adequately in a solitary essay, we’ll be focusing on Belloc’s famous, or notorious, battle with H. G. Wells.
Belloc’s war of words with H. G. Wells over the latter’s publication of The Outline of History was 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’ History which was most anathema to him. Wells believed that human “progress” was both blind and beneficial; unshakeable, unstoppable, and utterly inexorable. He believed that 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,⁴ he said, 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’ view, these ideas were shaped by the superstition and ignorance that had been superseded by humanity’s “progress” towards modernity.
Wells’ Outline had been, to Belloc, like a red rag to a bull. It was, therefore, no great surprise that he charged. Belloc accused 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 only knows the old conventional text-book of his schooldays and mistakes it for universal knowledge.”⁵ The controversy reached a conclusion and a climax in 1926, when Belloc’s articles refuting Wells’ 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.
The lasting legacy and 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, as such, 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.
Belloc’s war with Wells also represented an encapsulation and embodiment of the clash between “progress” and tradition, a clash which was summarized succinctly by the poet, Roy Campbell:
The orgy of irresponsible innovations and inventions—which … now threatens to become a Gadarene stampede of headlong and irresistible impetus—was regarded as something beneficial and called “progress,” which it certainly is, being downhill and completely without brakes: the most rapid and disastrous “progress” ever witnessed.⁶
Campbell’s words had the benefit of hindsight, being written in 1949, a quarter of a century after the Belloc-Wells controversy, and a few short years after the fruits of “progress” had led to the atrocities of Hitler and Stalin and the dropping of nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Belloc had foreseen that a credulously optimistic faith in “progress” could lead to “sheer darkness” and “strange things in the dark,” whereas Wells believed that “darkness” was a thing to be found in the “dark ages” of the past and the future held the promise of “enlightened” scientific thinking. 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’ 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’ “progressive” optimism, already defeated in debate by Belloc, was defeated in practice by reality itself.
In the wake of the controversy with Wells, Belloc became increasingly preoccupied with historical questions. “In history we must abandon the defensive,” he had written 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.”⁷
Hilaire Belloc shows us that a true vision of the past enables us to understand the present. It situates us; it orientates us. Today, more than ever, our culture needs to heed the humanizing power of history.