BELGIUM AND THE BELGIANS
AN ADDRESS BY THOS. O'HAGAN, LITT.D.
Before the Empire Club of Canada, Toronto, April 22, 1915
Mr. PRESIDENT AND GENTLEMEN,--I am very grateful to you, Mr. President, for the kind manner in which you have been pleased to introduce me, and to you, the members of the club, for the cordiality with which you have been pleased to receive my presentation.
Just exactly three years ago, at your invitation, I broke bread at your table and shared in your friendly hospitality. The subject of my address upon that occasion was that great master of fiction, Charles Dickens. It was the Dickens' Centenary Year. I then came to you from the great throbbing and seething city of Chicago. I now come to you after a brief residence at the capital of the American Republic, with its legislative atmosphere whence the current of its political life courses to the most distant and remote outposts of that great nation.
The subject of my address is one which makes appeal to humanity. It is the story of a little kingdom--a small people before whom last July there lay two courses-the one leading to peace, preservation, and dishonour, the other leading to the horrors and devastations of the most unhallowed war that has ever enveloped the world. Brave little Belgium chose the latter drew its sword in the face of brutal tyranny, and elected to lose everything but honour. The world has applauded its course, and you do well to applaud it also.
Let me say that I do not intend in my address today to deal with Belgium and its people either academically or historically. I simply desire to convey to you the impression which this little country and its progressive people made upon me when I first visited it in the summer of 1900, and again while I sojourned at its chief university as a student in 1903.
You have all no doubt noticed the wonderful persistence of race characteristics down the centuries. Strabo, the old Greek historian and geographer, who was born about the middle of the first century B.C., in dealing with the Spain of his time gives us a very accurate characterisation of the Spaniard of today. The Teuton of our day will be found as to character fairly well depicted in the pages of Germania, by Tacitus, while Julius Caesar in his Commentaries throws much light upon the character of the Celt and Belgian of our time.
In his very opening chapter of the Bellum Gallicum Caesar tells us that all Gaul was in his day divided into three parts, inhabited respectively by the Aquitanians, the Celts, and the Belgians; and of the latter he says, "Horum omnium fortissimi sunt Belgae," "Of all these the Belgians are the bravest." How true! Is not this a characterisation of the Belgians of today.
As I have already stated, my first visit to Belgium was in the summer of 1900. I was very anxious to gain some knowledge of these Belgian people who had done so much in the Middle Ages for industrial and commercial Europe--whose chief cities in those days, Bruges and Louvain, were great centres of industrial activity and commerce through which flowed much of the wealth of Europe.
In a study of the Belgian people you are at a loss first to understand why they are so many-sided in their genius and gifts, but when you realise that here the Celtic character with all its imagination and idealism has blended with the practical, orderly, and progressive spirit of the Teuton, the versatile character of the Belgian is easily understood.
Belgium, as you know, is a limited monarchy. Its constitution stipulates for freedom of conscience, of education, of the press, and the right of meeting. Its legislating body is made up of two chambers--an upper house and a lower house. Seven members constitute its cabinet, each member receiving about $4000 dollars.
There is practically manhood suffrage in Belgium. Every young man of twenty-five years of age has the right to vote, and when he reaches thirty-five, if he is married and pays five francs direct taxation, he is given an additional vote. Two other votes may be added because of official status or diplomas.
Education is now compulsory by law. First come the municipal or elementary schools, then what are known as " Les Ecoles moyens " or middle schools, then the Athenees, which correspond to the Gymnasiums in Germany, the Lycees in France, and the grammar schools in England, and finally the four universities of Liege, Ghent, Brussels, and Louvain. The first two are state institutions, the latter two free.
Belgium stands high in the matter of education, the attendance of students at its universities being the largest in proportion to its population of any country in Europe. After Belgium ranks Norway in this respect.
The population of Belgium is made up of French and Flemish, almost equally divided, the Flemish being a little in excess. Both Flemish and French are taught in the schools, the parent having the right to say in what language his child shall receive instruction.
Seeing that I spent some time in one of Belgium's renowned universities, Louvain, now, alas, in ruins, I feel sure that the members of the Empire Club will be pleased to learn something of the character of this renowned seat of learning something of the spirit which has marked this the first and greatest of the Catholic universities of Europe.
As you know, Louvain was founded early in the fifteenth century. In the history of mediaeval universities Louvain comes after Bologna, Paris, Oxford, Cambridge, Montpelier, Salamanca, and Heidelberg. Early in the sixteenth century when humanism had passed from Italy to Northern Europe, and had found a fostering home at Oxford and Louvain, a warm friendship grew up between that great English humanist Sir Thomas More and the renowned scholar and leader of the humanists of Europe, Erasmus, who at this time occupied a chair in the university of Louvain. In these two great scholars the humanism of England and the humanism of Belgium were united.
Louvain University also resembled Oxford and Cambridge in the number of its colleges. In truth in the eighteenth century Louvain had forty-two colleges, while Oxford had but eighteen. It is worth noting here also that it was not an uncommon thing for some renowned scholar early in the sixteenth century to spend six months of the year lecturing at Oxford, and six months at Louvain.
But I make no doubt that it is with the Louvain as I knew it in 1903 that you are most interested. In the sixteenth century Louvain rivalled Paris as a great seat of learning. It had in those days an enrolled studentship of six thousand, hailing from well nigh every Europe a country, attending its lectures. When I attended: its courses in 1903 it had between two and three thousand registered students. Its courses are splendidly organised, and I do not know of a weak department in the university. Of course its philosophical department is most renowned.
Early in the nineties of the last century Pope Leo XIII., desirous of establishing a great school for the study of scholastic philosophy, selected Louvain, and here was established a philosophical institute at the head of which was placed an erudite and saintly young priest, Mgr. Mercier, the present fearless and distinguished Cardinal of Malines. Pope Leo wished to see the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas studied in conjunction or side by side with the modern sciencesphysics, cosmology, chemistry, etc.--and Louvain presented every opportunity for the carrying out of this wish. I had the pleasure and privilege of following Mgr. Mercier's course in psychology when at Louvain, and I remember well the fine personality of the man. He was beloved, I was going to say worshipped, by his students. He is the kind of man you make saints, heroes, and martyrs out of.
I may say that Louvain looks much more to England and France for its ideals of scholarship than it does to Germany. It has never as yet been inoculated with German " Kultur." This, by the way, reminds me of the absurd claim put forth by Germany that it possesses a monopoly of the culture of Europe. Culture or a monopoly of it does not belong to any country. Culture belongs to humanity. A nation may die, but what is valuable in its culture remains. The ancient Greek nation is no more, but Greek culture remains, and is as potent today in the civilisation and refinement of nations as it was when Leonidas held back the Persian hordes at the Pass of Thermopylae.
But pray do not mistake my words. I am not making an attack upon the German people. If they were a great people before the war they are a great people today. In some things they easily lead Europe. In organisation and municipal government, for instance. But they by no means possess a monopoly of the world's culture.
The university of Louvain, which was the pride of the Catholic world--indeed the pride of all scholars Catholic and nonCatholic--lies today in ashes, because of Prussian ideals of warfare. Its greaty university library of 250,000 volumes, rich in mediaeval history and literature, with some 400 invaluable manuscripts, is no more. The Prussian torch and brand have done the work.
Is it any wonder that we her alumni who walked her classic walks and knelt at her classic shrines, and drank her classic wines, should burn with indignation at this outrage of Prussian soldiery:
A shrine where saints and scholars met And held aloft the torch of truth Lies smouldering 'neath fair Brabant's skies, A ruined heapwar's prize in sooth 1 The Pilates of Teutonic blood That fired the brand and flung the bomb Now wash their hands of evil deed, While all the world stands ghast and dumb.
Is this your culture, sons of Kant,
And ye who kneel 'round Goethe's throne?
To carry in your knapsacks death?
To feel for man nor ruth nor moan?
What 'vails it now your mighty guns
If God be mightier in the sky?
What vail your cities, walls, and towers
If half your progress be a lie?
The smoking altars, ruined arch
Of ancient church and Gothic fane
Have felt the death stings of your shells
And speak in pity thro' Louvain.
Wheel back your guns, your howitzers melt,
Forget your World Power's cursed plan,
And sign in peace and not in blood
Dread Sinai's pact 'twixt God and Man!
By the way, I cannot fully agree with the opinion expressed some time ago by the distinguished lecturer Mr. Cowper Powyes, that if Schopenhauer, Heine, Goethe, and Nietzsche were living today they would not be ranged with Germany in this war. Schopenhauer was a very prince of German pessimistic philosophers, and pessimism makes for barbarism, which is the very keynote of the German strife waged today. Heine, of Jewish extraction and German birth, turned his back both on Judea and Germany, but he had no love for England. Goethe, it is true, refused to write war songs when Napoleon was devastating his native country, alleging that he had more interest in humanity than he had in war. As to Nietzsche, he was a moral anarchist, and would have put dynamite any time under Noah's Ark. The havoc of war would have delighted his heart.
We fortunately who have been reared amid English institutions can well distinguish the English ideal of freedom from the German ideal. We know and appreciate the privilege of living in a " land where girt with friend or foe a man may speak the thing he will." With us the doctrine of the divine right of kings is no more, for, in the words of Tennyson, we reverence both our conscience and our king.
But to return to Belgium, I have forgotten to speak of the greatest figure in that brave little land today. I refer to Albert, King of Belgium. You know the history of this bravest and most democratic of sovereigns. When a young man, and little dreaming that he would ever ascend the throne of his uncle, King Leopold IL, he made a tour of the world, and spent some time in the United States, and it is said did newspaper work as a reporter on a Minneapolis paper. No need to depict his character here. As an American journalist said to me some time ago, no matter what great generals may accomplish in the field King Albert is sure to emerge from this war with the greatest glory. May I then close this address with this tribute to the brave, noble, and fearless King, who at the head of his people is fighting for the preservation of his Kingdom.
I TAKE OFF MY HAT TO ALBERT
Albert, King of Belgium, is the hero of the hour; He's the greatest king in Europe, he's a royal arch and tower; He is bigger in the trenches than the Kaiser on his throne, And the whole world loves him for the sorrows he has known: So I take off my hat to Albert.
Defiance was his answer to the Teuton at his gate, Then he buckled on his armour and pledged his soul to fate; He stood between his people and the biggest Essen gun, For he feared not shot nor shrapnel as his little army won: So I take off my hat to Albert.
King of Belgium, Duke of Brabant, Count of Flanders all in one; Little Kingdom of the Belgae starr'd with honour in the sun 1 You have won a place in history, of your deeds the world will sing, But the glory of your nation is your dust-stained fearless King: So I take off my hat to Albert.