Tuesday, April 21, 2015
Belloc's Strengths and Weaknesses
That thesis drives his selection of characters: neither Martin Luther nor John Calvin have a chapter to themselves. Belloc selects instead, on the Continent for example, Ferdinand II, Holy Roman Emperor, Gustavus Adolphus, and Cardinal Richelieu. The first tried to reunite Germany under Catholicism and failed; the second was the brilliant general who thwarted that attempt; the third was the éminence grise who aided the second to prevent German unity at the expense of French hegemony, and thus continued the break up of Christendom.
Because of the second part of his thesis, Belloc profiles almost all the important figures of the English Reformation era: Henry VIII, More, Cranmer, Cromwell, Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Mary Stuart, Mary Tudor, Elizabeth, etc. He also includes figures from the early Stuart era, two philosophers (Descartes and Pascal) and two more combatants: William of Orange and Louis XIV.
In each chapter, Belloc examines the personality of the individual he is profiling. His analysis of Henry VIII's character, for example, explains more than the usual attempt to trace a change in his personality. He identifies Henry's main characteristic as "an inability to withstand impulse; he was passionate for having his own way." Belloc notes that all those who helped Henry get his way (Wolsey, Cromwell, Anne Boleyn) flattered and led him until he grew tired of their control over him and destroyed them. Belloc thinks that only Catherine of Aragon loved and respected Henry but even she did not attempt to influence him in matters of self-control. As Belloc notes, she was so simple, direct, and straightforward that she did not understand intrigue: "She neither made scenes, nor intrigued to recover her position," Belloc states. She remained adamant that she would never respond to any other title than Queen of England, but she did not know how to manipulate others to achieve her goals.
Belloc's interpretation stresses power and authority above theology and reform. While I agree with him that many political leaders took advantage of the religious divisions and debates for their own purposes, I think he goes too far in not considering the need for reform. The absence of any consideration of reform is a weakness in his study as it means he leaves out the great reformers like St. Ignatius of Loyola, Pope St. Pius V, and Reginald Cardinal Pole. Over-emphasizing the political aspects of the Reformation era leads Belloc's selection of characters to be unbalanced and incomplete. The latter should have been part of the survey of English Reformation characters.
One extraordinary aspect of his view of the Reformation is that he places more blame on the Catholic rulers who failed to uphold Christendom because they wanted power and to prevent others from having power. Thus, Belloc blames Richelieu and Louis XIV for interfering with the efforts of Ferdinand II and later rulers to bring religious unity to Germany, fearing German unity meant French weakness. He also laments Louis XIV revocation of the Edict of Nantes because it thwarted the progress being made in France toward peace and unity.