Sunday, March 8, 1936

Book Review

Mr. Hilaire Belloc Argues Grandly
Athwart Modern Religious Pattern

Reviewed by W. J. CASH

THE BATTLEGROUND: Syria and Palestine.
By Hilaire Belloc. 327 pp. with 16
illustrations in aquatone and seven
maps. Philadelphia. Lippincott. $4.

Site ed. note: In 1936, Palestine was a British mandate and consisted of the territory which, after World War II, became the modern state of Israel.

This book is typical Belloc. Ostensibly, it is a sort of brief account of Syria and Palestine from the earliest time, built around the thesis that these countries, and particularly the former, have been "the place of meeting and of shock" for the forces which have determined the religious pattern of the Western world. But in reality it is, like all Mr. Belloc's previous histories and biographies, primarily a vehicle for the advancing of his Neo-Catholic prejudices--another charge in his life-long war against the modern temper.

Thus Mr. Belloc tells us, as he has told us a great many times before, that the source from which all cultures flow and "the basis of all historical sequence" is--religion. It is a dogma which seems to me to be as dubious as that of Mr. Belloc's pet enemies, the Marxists--as dubious as the dogma which has it that the source of all cultures and the sole determinant of historical sequence is economics. As I read the evidence, a far more tenable position is that the sources of cultures--the forces which have fashioned the stream of history--have been as various as the desires, the passions, the interests, and the aspirations of human kind: a definition which obviously includes much that is "bitter, ugly, unchristian, and immoral."

Truth and Holy Church

Thus again, Mr. Belloc tells us after his ancient manner, that there is such a thing as absolute truth, and that he is in possession of it by reason of his communion with Holy Church, the sole depository of it in this world. But that, of course, rests entirely on authoritarian pronouncement and the value which Mr. Belloc assigns to such pronouncement.

Once more, Mr. Belloc tells us, what he has told us to weariness long since, that everybody who disagrees with him, everybody who doubts the existence of design in the world and the ordering of human affairs, everybody who ventures to believe in, say, the notion that Genesis represents a binding together of two older and originally unrelated documents, or to question what he calls "marvels,"--that everybody who indulges in such heresies is a "fool," "a dull mind," or "stupid." I use his exact words in the connections.

Those False Scientists

And still once more Mr. Belloc tells us, as he has told us often, that science is a false prophet, and the scientists, and with them the scholars generally, are blockish pedants--gives us somehow to understand that he himself and those who agree with him are in possession of occult stores of knowledge which reduce those scientists and scholars to mere sophomores.

And finally, Mr. Belloc, as he has many times done, advises us that the rational faculty of the mind is one of practically no worth--and then proceeds to make use of it at great length to establish his position.

Maybe . . . He's Right!

Do I suggests, then, that Mr. Belloc's book ought to be pitched into the handiest ash-can? Far from it. I know of no recent book that I have enjoyed more. For one thing, and for all Mr. Belloc's claim to the possession of absolute truth, I'm pretty certain that the one thing which is certain in this world is that nothing is certain: and though the evidence seems to me to run against Mr. Belloc, though I formally dissent from his dogmas--yet, in the last analysis, it is entirely possible that he is right. Certainly, he argues for it with a tremendous cleverness.

For another thing, I think a great deal can be said for some of Mr. Belloc's incidental contentions. For instance, I agree that the older scholars went too far in their repudiation of traditional stories--that many of these are not mere myth-constructions but contain some essential kernel of historical truth.

For yet another thing, Mr. Belloc is an excellent historian. He has no such esoteric knowledge as he sometimes seems to pretend to, but he knows about as much about the field with which he is dealing as anybody else knows, and, if one makes proper allowance for the distortion due to his prejudices, the book is a perfectly sound account.

Beautiful Writing

And finally, it has what the work of so few historians has nowadays--great literary merit. The writing is the same smooth, beautifully imaginative medium his readers already know. And his account of the birth of the idea of the Unity of the Divine in Palestine, of its struggle against the gods of the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Tyrians, the Greeks, and the Romans, of the life and crucifixion of Jesus, of the triunmph of the Christian church in the West, of the rise of Islam and the Crusades, and finally of the modern Zionist movement and the passage of England and France toward a decisive contest with the Mohammedan world--all this is built up with the fine skill and gripping power of the best novels.

A Book To Be Read

The book ought to be read by everybody who has any interest in ideas or a taste for superior writing. It ought to be read by everybody who is interested in Palestine and Syria--and who isn't? It ought to be read by everybody interested in religion--and particularly by the Protestants, who will agree with Mr. Belloc as eagerly in some respects as they will dissent from him in others.

Framed Edition
[Go to Links-Page by Subject] [Go to Links-Page by Date] [Go to News--Framed Edition]
Links-Date -- Links-Subj.