For nearly seventy years I’ve been what I suppose could be called a Belloc-fanatic. The question is – How could that be the case when he was a died-in-the-wool Roman Catholic, of an anti-pacifist, anti-vegetarian persuasion? I think I must have just relegated all that (on his account) to the category ‘unthink’, and (for myself) put what, in the Gurdjieff canon, is known as a ‘buffer’ between his collapse into flaccidity and his otherwise intellectual rigour & sensitivity. My enthusiasm for his political thinking, his energy and irony and actual closeness to things as they are (‘played on a blue guitar…’) remains intact in spite of…
I’ve been tracking Hilaire Belloc’s biographical details to find out how I could have been so besotted with his writing, the essays and especially The Four Men, which I have read practically every Halloween since the 1950’s, while he was so stuck in his religion. Of course he was born into it and so knew nothing else but, with the power of his thinking mind, he could have seen through it just as I got myself out of C of E-ness many years ago, admittedly not quite so difficult to do since it started with my parents simply wanting to get me out of the house on a Sunday morning. I think it’s significant that he was apparently remarkably reticent when it came to discussing his ‘religion’, perhaps because he did ‘lapse’ once – after that he simply continually asserted its ‘truth’ in the futile effort to make it come true.
Somewhat weary of the task of reading round the subject, rather than just walk away from it, I decided to re-read a single book of selected uncollected essays (One Thing and Another) in the hope of perhaps getting a quick flavour of the discrepancies that are obvious – the ones I’m used to but have not allowed to detract from my extreme enjoyment of almost everything I have read of his work, even when he does collapse into The Faith, as I see it.
In an essay in One Thing and Another on the death of his great friend GKChesterton, he writes:-
…He could not be anything but Catholic [so GKC said of himself]. The final step he took [becoming a Catholic] was in the same undeviating line as that which his vision had followed throughout his life.
Now the Catholic Church is the one window through which man may gaze upon reality in what concerns the most important of all things to man – the nature of man and his destiny. [Somebody] consonant through his very nature with the Faith; instinctively responding to it before it is acquired in its fullness, [endows you] with a faculty for reality.
Setting aside the exclusively male world in which Belloc, judging by his use of pronouns, appears to live , this is what Mr Gurdjieff would probably have called sinkrpoosarams – ‘belief in any old twaddle’. ‘Catholic Church’ is a meaningless abstraction which can’t possibly serve as ‘window’ on anything, unless it be made of frosted glass; ‘the nature of man and his destiny’ remains a mystery – nothing to do with ‘the Faith’ which is another meaningless abstraction, incapable in reality of endowing anybody with anything, except, perhaps, on a good day, a warm cosy feeling.
In another essay, On Immortality, he says he doesn’t expect that his views will influence anybody who is ‘not of my communion’; viz, a set of beliefs derived from an unthinking acceptance of a string of abstractions. How right he is! He is obliged to believe in immortality because, it seems, that is what Catholics do, according to some divine dictat.
The Catholic believes in the immortality of the human soul (and, for that matter, in the very existence of the human soul) on Authority. He may, indeed, discover the truth of Immortality by the use of his unaided reason, but in the main he believes it because he is told it is true by the voice of the Church; which, when it defines any one of the comparatively few but tremendous things which it has defined, is for him the voice of God. He is more certain of this than of anything except his own existence. He relies upon that Authority as the saintly old Bible Christian nurse who brought me up relied upon the Authority of James I’s English Bible.
The ‘voice of the Church’, the ‘voice of God’, the ‘Authority’ of the Bible… Abstraction piled upon abstraction. Whenever anybody resorts to the use of abstractions they get lost (and lose us) in a marshy fog of meaning; a little bit of what he calls ‘unaided reason’ (unaided by the Faith) might not come amiss, not in order to ‘discover’ the presupposed ‘truth of Immortality’ but to pick a few things apart with sensible scepticism (in its original meaning – to look very closely at…) For somebody already mired in abstractions, that’s an impossible task. But Belloc makes the outrageous claim that he has indeed ‘religiously’ used reason to get to where he is.
Having concluded by the use of observation and reason that the Church has this supreme power and right to teach, I accept what she teaches and trust her more than I do the evidence of my senses. Whether I can imagine the thing believed or not is to me of no intellectual consequence at all.
Discussion closed! Above all, it might be argued that reason ought to depend on the evidence of the senses. In spite of claiming somewhere else to be a confirmed sceptic, Belloc here rules out intellectual probity along with an empirical approach to the sticks & stones of things! And anybody who disagrees with his absurd angle on ‘reality’ – they can think what they like but they are to be discounted. The very curious thing (and the substance of this essay) is that the ‘evidence of his senses’, his grasp of the concrete, is, I think, precisely what I have always valued in his writing. It occasionally irks me (in an amused sort of way) that Belloc loses touch with himself (in self-forgetting) by unfolding the wrong kind of map.
I repeat, no one who is not a Catholic can be expected even to consider that position. If I am arguing whether an outline seen from far off at sea is a cloud or an island, I must not argue from the map if the man with whom I am arguing begins by telling me that he thinks the map has been made up out of somebody’s head and that, therefore, he will not accept its evidence. I might add, before leaving this point, that we Catholics believe our authority to be Divine from observation and reason [my emphasis!], because it fits in with every other thing that we know; while others [including myself of course!] reject what does not fit in with some preconceived theory based on [blind faith in] cause and effect.
To bolster up the requirement to believe in immortality, Belloc side-steps the simple idea that when the brain is dead ‘the man is dead’; in fact he invites us to ‘discard such irrelevant stuff and turn to the real arguments…’ citing, to begin with, Thomas Aquinas’ account of the three main arguments on which the immortality-denying fraternity rely:-
First, there is the undoubted truth that the soul exists in thinking. Now we think wholly under physical conditions. We cannot think without physical images in our minds; we receive all the food for thought through our senses. When, therefore, we are no longer in a position to do this, when physical conditions have ceased, thinking ceases; and, supposing a permanent cessation, the soul is not.
[Secondly,] whatever came out of nothingness may return to nothingness. Modern men do not put it that way, but they continually use the argument in another form. Our consciousness came out of unconsciousness. It ‘developed’ (as we say in modern language) out of an unconscious condition. Therefore it should reasonably return to that condition, or at least there would seem to be no reason why it should not.
[Thirdly,] that which appeals most strongly to my contemporaries, I think, …that things of a like origin and a like mode of action have presumably a like end. Our generation, our maintenance of life, are on the same model as those of the vegetable or the beast, or any other living thing. They grow old and decay, and so do we. They disintegrate to exist no longer; so shall we… A man is what he is by his character his thoughts, his inward disposition, and all that makes a self out of his mere flesh. Become a corpse, the form has disappeared; of that material, flesh, the essential to making of it a man exists no more.
Well done, Thomas Aquinas – in spite of himself, of course – of his Christian credentials! But Belloc asserts that none of these arguments survive the action of Faith in determining the existence of Immortality; they are just a matter of ‘probability’, not certainty, well, for everybody.
He agrees to ‘brush aside’, as intellectually unsustainable, the idea that people believe in Immortality merely as ‘consolation’, wishful thinking. the achieving of future ‘happiness’, the chance to meet those who have died before us. To sustain his belief-system, he must have some stronger argument for Immortality, always relying in any case, in the end, on the strongest foundation of ‘accepted doctrine’. The usual cop out: ‘if I can’t find a stronger argument, I’ll just re-assert the Faith…’
Belloc’s ‘compelling argument’ is apparently about
…the nature of man, which we all feel ourselves, which we all observe in others, and from which we cannot get away. He is not on the scale of this earth. He is paradoxically at once lower and higher than what is around him. He is also, can be also, worse and better, and that in a different mode from what is around him.
Such variation cannot possibly, Belloc says, be congruent with the idea that we are nothing but animals – implying beings without a god; we have a moral sense way beyond that of animals; we can make decisions about right & wrong, between good & bad. This, it seems, according to Belloc, must come from outside us.
We are not only moral beings but we are also possessed of ‘conscious intelligent personality’; we are able to ‘stand outside… consciousness, compare ideas and deal with conceptions not subject to space and time’. Standing outside consciousness is something that can only be effected by something that’s already outside it, so Belloc asserts.
Only [capital P] Personality [God?] will produce personality, something more personal, perhaps, not less. Admitting personality in man, personality [with a capital P] is behind the universe. The process of the universe has a meaning, the end of man becomes rational.
Even though such rationality fails to complete a human sense of being, leaving a few loose ends which are ‘…of infinitely greater import than the woven strands which build up the earthly life…’ God is a loose end?
In Testimony to Hilaire Belloc, Reginald Jebb, Belloc’s son-in-law refers in depth to a tempestuous argument with HG Wells on the subject of Natural Selection. When HG simply stopped corresponding, Belloc imagined he’d won his case; he had drowned HG with 70,000 words of self-justification. I would certainly have walked away from such a Catholic response to my own belief-system. But, for a while at least, I should like to have been able to have argued the case for being able to ‘stand outside consciousness’, not as some empty evidence for divine existence, but as a feature of the truly human ability to achieve Meta-I, the part of us that, with practice, can stand outside the way we are, ‘helicopter vision’ maybe. Without realising it, this is exactly what Belloc does very successfully as ‘Myself’ in The Four Men, which is why I regard it as such a sacred text!
He admits that he has put things in an abstract kind of way, but he imagines that he believes in the Truth of it all ‘…not as an abstraction but as part of a Divine philosophy wherein all is at accord. I feel, under the effect of the Faith, not only with emotion, but by the process of all my being and especially with the lucid cogitative part of myself…’
In stark contrast, Belloc wrote an extraordinary book called The Road, which was an absolute joy to read at last because page after page had to be cut with a sharp kitchen knife if you wanted to understand how he for sure, without any kind of obvious divine intervention, exercises to the full the ‘lucid cognitive part’ of himself. It was a book which was taken up by The British Reinforced Concrete Engineering Co. Ltd (!) who, in 1923, had
…recently become acquainted with the fact that Mr. Hilaire Belloc was engaged in the production of an essay on the history of British Roads. In numerous writings Mr. Belloc has treated various aspects of Road history, and his learning on the subject and his method of communicating it are in high repute among wide circles of readers. He is, in fact, an outstanding literary authority on the topic. It therefore seemed to the Company that if they could acquire the copyright of the work, in which Mr Belloc was treating the whole subject, not indirectly, but directly and systematically, and if they could issue this work to people who are professionally engaged in the construction of roads, a very considerable service would be done to the cause of road development in the country.
The future always becomes a little clearer if we thoroughly understand the past, and the Company feel that everybody who is giving much of his mind and life to road problems will be glad to have in his possession a book which brings out the historical and social, not to say the romantic, interest: which lies beneath the surface of the English highway. Mr. Belloc was accordingly approached on the subject: and agreed to sell the publishing rights of his work to the British Reinforced Concrete Engineering Co. Ltd., who now have great pleasure in issuing it to the surveying and civil engineering profession, believing that it will at once assist and beguile the work of those to whose hands the future of the English Roads, and with it much of the economic and social prosperity of the country, is largely entrusted.
Of course they were only in it for the money and Belloc did come to regret the destructive advance of the internal combustion engine and the motorways which he seems to be advocating 30 years before they began to happen around the time he died. But in 1923 he was wondering
…whether it is best to arrive at [a formula for the road] by a fully conscious, exact, and (as we say to-day) ‘scientific’ examination of all the conditions and a deliberate and immediate conclusion upon them. Should the road grow or should it be planned? The discussion is not idle. The clash of opinion upon it is at the root of the contrast between national systems, and a right answer will make all the difference between success and failure in our approach to a new road system such as is now upon us.
He thoroughly and absorbingly catalogues the growth of ancient trackways, Roman roads and their effect on the road system, the reasons for the changes which came about, the impact of the Turnpikes, Telford & Macadam and anticipates future needs. The ‘lucid cognitive part’ of himself (which presupposes that there are other parts of himself that are not quite so lucid) is here fully engaged. In fact Belloc asserts that ‘the first principle of all’ is ‘that the Road, like all other human institutions, is best made with brains…’ One would be hard put to it to prove that human brains are run on any kind of divine capital N Neuron system floating about in the sky somewhere. An Old Man in carpet slippers.
There is a Fifth Man who fails to manifest in that great book The Four Men. It is a part of Belloc which he keeps hidden inside his abstract world; it is an ‘I’ that plays no part in the journey across Sussex. This is a realisation that suddenly hits me (in ‘the lucid cogitative part’ of myself) with the full force of understanding: just as the Being-died-in-the-wool-Catholic-I fails to appear in The Four Men, in like manner I do not allow it to disrupt the strength of my feeling for Belloc whom I love in spite of… I put it in the silly brackets it deserves.
In an essay ‘On Walking’ (from One Thing and Another) – for ‘man’ read ‘we’ – Belloc in effect nicely guides us away from getting lost in abstractions (‘roads that lead nowhere’) though not in the end presumably from his One Road.
So long as man does [so long as we do] not bother about what he is [we are] or whence he [we] came or whither he is [we are… etc] going, the whole thing seems as simple as the verb ‘to be’; and you may say that the moment he does begin thinking about what he is (which is more than thinking that he is) and whence he came and whither he is going, he gets on to a lot of roads that lead nowhere, and that spread like the fingers of a hand or the sticks of a fan; so that if he pursues two or more of them he soon gets beyond his straddle, and if he pursues only one he gets farther and farther from the rest of all knowledge as he proceeds. You may say that and it will be true. But there is one kind of knowledge a man does get when he thinks about what he is, whence he came and whither he is going, which is this: that it is the only important question he can ask himself.
Embedded in this is a profound truth: if we go only down one cognitive road we limit the possibility of a Rich Picture. Belloc does offer us a very rich picture in spite of internal contradictions, in spite of his Being-died-in-the-wool-Catholic-I.
Gurdjieff’s initial question was: ‘What am I doing here?’ The only worthwhile question.
And this is where I stand: Belloc’s reverence for ‘things as they are’, the specificity of ordinariness, totally unconnected with anything remotely Divine, comes out in his lament for the passing of ‘all lovely things’ in the same essay:-
I very well remember an… inn which was native to the Chiltern Hills. This place had bow-windows, which were divided into medium-sized panes, each of the panes a little rounded; and these window-panes were made of that sort of glass which I will adore until I die, and which has the property of distorting exterior objects: of such glass the windows of schoolrooms and of nurseries used to be made. I came to that place after many years by accident, and I found that Orcus [god of the Underworld], which has devoured all lovely things, had devoured this too. The inn was [now] called ‘an hotel’, its front was rebuilt, the windows had only two panes each quite enormous and flat, one above and one below, and the glass was that sort of thick, transparent glass through which it is no use to look, for you might as well be looking through air.
All the faces were strange except that of one old servant in the stableyard. I asked him if he regretted the old front, and he said, “Lord, no!” Then he told me in great detail how kind the brewers had been to his master and how willingly they had rebuilt the whole place. These things reconcile one to the grave.
This brings Belloc to the conclusion that a powerful kind of walking is that which, as metaphor, results in ‘walking away from…’
Well, then, if walking, which has led me into this digression, prepares one for the inns where they are worthy, it has another character as great and as symbolic and as worthy of man. For remember that of the many ways of walking there is one which is the greatest of all, and that is to walk away. Put your hand before your eyes and remember… the places from which you have walked away, and the wilderness into which you manfully turned the steps of your abandonment.
In the 70,000 words of A Companion to Mr Wells’s Outline of History, as I’ve said that Jebb points out, Belloc spent much time countering Wells’ belief in Natural Selection and ‘the increasing abandonment (outside [Church] boundaries) of all transcendental belief…’ He is worried that Catholics will be ‘disturbed in their faith’ by Wells’ writing. Therefore he listed the names of around forty eminent ‘scientific’ authorities ‘with quotations from their works and documentation of the high places all of them held in scientific scholarship… who have left Darwinism [says Belloc] the wreck it is today…’ Jebb continues the defence of his father-in-law thus:-
The rest of Belloc’s Companion to the Outline of History… is concerned with Wells’s attempt to ridicule and disprove by history the whole Christian thesis. Never for a moment does he dispute Wells’s right to hold the views he did hold about religion; what he criticizes throughout and in great detail is his ignorance of the thing he is attacking and the muddle-headedness of his attack. He follows him relentlessly through all his arguments on the existence of God, the Fall of Man, the nature of religion, the Incarnation, the origins of the Church, and continues right up to the Reformation and its results. To all this destructive criticism Wells makes no reply in his pamphlet.
And after all that Belloc sums up:
One challenge after another – I know not how many in all, but certainly dozens on dozens – was put down by me clearly and, I hope, methodically throughout a series of articles originally twenty-eight in number, and of such volume that they still will form when rearranged a book not less than 70,000 or 80,000 words. Of all this great mass of destructive criticism which leaves his Outline limp and deflated, Mr Wells knows nothing. He leaves it unanswered because he cannot answer it.
Jebb concludes that his father-in-law ‘…scores a complete victory. His opponent, after failure in his defence of one position, declines battle and leaves the field…’
I can imagine Wells saying to himself, “Good God! Stuff this for a game of soldiers!” and adopting Belloc’s idea that the greatest of all ways of walking is to walk away… shrugging his shoulders with a ‘Right you are if you think so’ and making the conclusion that, as Ouspensky suggests, ‘one must never do anything unnecessary’ – like engaging in sterile argument.
Just walking away from anything that causes useless inner turmoil is a good thing to do!
The main way of calming the mind and putting it into a state of sublimity is, I find, to focus on the Specificity of the Ordinary, a phrase I invented when I was studying the way some of Iris Murdoch’s characters got themselves mentally out of their dreadful fixes. Here’s Belloc in a book of essays called Places demonstrating how it works. In AN EPISODE OF WAR at a time when, as a civilian, he was touring combat areas during World War I, he came upon a viewing platform with a large telescope turned on to the German lines below.
The platform was not visible to the enemy, of course. It was screened by heavy boughs; but the end of the telescope was clear of obstacles and they invited me to look through it. I did so. It was a bright summer’s day in a moment when everything was quiet on this sector, and I had before me a very vivid, highly coloured, little circular picture, magnified by I do not know how many diameters. I was watching a scene several miles away. And what I saw was a worthy German of middle-age dressed up in his field-grey, unarmed, and toiling painfully up a sandy path in the hills with two heavy pails full of water, grasped by the handle in each hand. The double burden balanced him, but it nearly overbalanced him as well. He stuck to his task manfully enough; then he put down the pails for a minute, mopped his forehead and puffed.
But he puffed in dumb-show, for not a sound could cross the intervening gulf of distance. He was Beyond the Veil. I watched him take his two pails up again and go round a bend in the path – and I never saw him again. I am no good at verbal suggestion and I despair of conveying to my reader how deeply this insignificant moment etched itself into my memory. I can see it now as intensely as I saw it then – the sunlight, the dark trees, the mountain path, the distant plain and the reservist in his field-grey. We were nothing to each other – but I hope he survived.
At this moment the colonel who was accompanying the civilian Belloc suggested he might like
…to see a tame bird which the men of a neighbouring post farther down the mountain, and on the sheltered side thereof, had trained to… sing for their entertainment. We walked some way downhill westward through the forest until we came to a high road where the motor was waiting for us. We went forward for a mile or two through the wood and the colonel got out at an open glade. He led me on about a couple of hundred yards to a place where I found a number of men gathered listening to the little beast on the bough. I know nothing about birds. I cannot tell you the name of this one. I did not find its song particularly pleasing; but what I did find pleasing was the innocent, childlike pleasure which all those warriors took in the performance ; and one of them on the edge of the group turned to me and asked with enthusiasm whether I did not think it wonderful for a man to have got a bird to be so familiar with his captors and so willing to sing for them.
I did. But I thought it much more wonderful that men who were but a few days before in the battle-line were thus taking their pleasure in the deep, silent woods, wherein from time to time sounded from far away a casual gun. I remember also how the silence was accompanied by the busy prattle of a mountain stream that came along tumbling and cascading through the sandy bed of the forest and making itself out to be the most important thing in the world.
Focus on ordinary things can suddenly take you out of time & place and into your very own unpurposeful, godless, self.
Incidentally, whilst, in general, Belloc seems to think of military exploits as being the most natural thing in the world, almost glorying in past battles, when he comments on the destruction of Arras he says: ‘And so it is all over the land where the insane vanity of barbarism destroys and destroys and destroys…’ Thus all war, all battles, no matter when or how.
There is a beautifully done example of the effect of steeping oneself in the Specificity of the Ordinary in Belloc’s very satisfying picaresque novel, The Girondin (1911).
After various lively adventures the Girondin, Boutroux, who has come down in the world, finds himself conscripted as a serjeant in the revolutionary army in 1792; he is asked to visit a château to ask the aging grey-haired mistress, the ‘Spinster de La Roche’, for horses that had been requisitioned by the army some time ago.
She was not tall nor large in body, and yet she was not frail: there was something of self-possession, if not in her soul, at least in her carriage, and a pretty dignity of movement. She was dressed all in black, with white lace at her throat and her wrists ; her hands, he thought as he watched her, were singularly small and strong. They were clasped before her. Her hair was grey, with touches of a whiter grey in it… Her face still wore that light ironic smile, and her eyes were very pleasing : they were black, and they had in them, as she watched him, an expression which provoked him not a little to know more of her.
She seeks to detain the unwilling Boutroux for the night. The visit turns out to be a very sensitive kind of loving relationship that has no fulfilment other than just being what it is – a sensitive exchange of words & closeness. The main detail that Boutroux carries away with him derives from an awareness of the Specificity of the Ordinary which presented me with this found haiku from an earlier part of the novel when he spends unspecified nights with a young woman with whom the reader imagines he might have attained a happy ending – which is not to be:-
the largeness of the world
After the visit to the château it’s like this, with a note of unexpressed regret at parting from Spinster de La Roche :-
That small enclosed park was fragrant in the August night – it was secluded. One might dream in it, in such a night, that there were no such things as grooming and marching and arms. There came from time to time a country noise from the distant village, the sharp bark of a dog, or the lowing of a beast in a stable: the faintest and most distant of those sounds could be heard through the clear summer air; and above them, shining through warm heaven, was a wilderness of stars.
And in the morning the army on the move goes
…past those same gates again. Boutroux saw the wrought-iron gates and the stone pillars, which had stood so strangely out under the lanterns in the night, now much older under the freshness of the new day; dead leaves were beginning to fall from the avenue of trees, for that tragic autumn had come early; the statued edge of the moat, and the ancient house behind it, carried upon them in the daylight every mark of decay. The shutters of it were closed fast; there was moss, and here and there a growth of yellow flowers upon the stonework of the walls. It was but a glimpse down the avenue as the regiment trotted past; in a moment the trees and the high park wall had cut off the sight. But in that moment there occurred to the young man’s mind a phrase : that things differ within and without, and that what they seem at night they seem not in the morning. He carried the phrase and the picture of that deserted and ancient place; he carried it within him for miles of hard going.
What more could one ever wish for? There is nothing more than the bark of a dog and the wilderness of stars, the dead leaves and the moss and the yellow flowers on the wall. No gods or transcendent abstract puffs of ultra-reality, no peculiar ‘loving’ based on the writhing of limbs, just a touch of a hand representing understanding or an arm in arm as though just walking down a village street.
But there are constant interruptions to the life of calm self-remembering. You can polish your ability to slip into the apprehension of small things that rescue you but distractions occur. How can we build a defence against attachment to distraction?
One can often still go off by a side-track to some little-known district and recover in part the atmosphere of [the Old Days]… One can have in many countrysides the full tradition of a quiet and happy civilisation with a prosperous agriculture for its background and a long tradition of architecture showing upon every side. But one cannot get away from the wireless or from the gramophone. You will suffer even in the remotest hamlets that assault on the nerves which is a permanent character of modern competitive publicity.
(From Places – ‘On Wandering’)
And so to the easy part – simply to acknowledge my being at one with Belloc’s political stance. In ‘The Modern Man’ (One Thing and Another) he writes in a way that could very well be describing the state of things today as we lurch (or sleep walk) towards full-grown fascism (August 2019) and ‘The Servile State’ (see https://wp.me/p1QjJc-47 ) :-
…those who control the means of production are creating an organization which will render their domination permanent. A test of all this may be discovered in the conception of ‘success’. That idea is now almost wholly confined to the attainment of a position among those who control the means of production and are to that extent secure.
The derivatives of this strong attitude of mind are as clear as the attitude itself; for instance, in my own trade of writing, success does not consist in writing well but in commanding large sums of money through one’s writing. Another derivative more profound in its effect is the sacramental feeling attaching to, not great wealth, not lumps of money, but the possession thereof. It has become difficult or impossible for the modern man to dissociate the conception of virtue and greatness from the possession of much wealth.
But the most practically important derivative of this attitude is the acceptation by the great mass of modern men of a quasi-servile position. The modem man demands, and is at peace in, the regular enjoyment of payments doled out to him by his economic masters at regular intervals – usually at the interval of one week. He is not controlled in his actions by the fear of any ultimate spiritual effect of his actions, but of their effect upon the likelihood of his maintaining or losing this livelihood. He has no objection to plutocracy – still less to its main instrument, a parliamentary system, the special mark of which is the destroying of direct popular action by the pretence of representation. The modern man… is willing to submit to the illusion that an assembly of professional politicians is in some mystical way a mirror of his own wilL Though they impose upon him (through the orders of their own financial masters or through their own private interests as rich men) laws which he has never demanded and which he even detests, he accepts the myth that he is only obeying laws he himself has made.
Now it should be clear to anyone who will think lucidly and coldly upon the direction in which all this must move that it is moving towards the re-establishment of slavery. Industrial capitalism, as we now. have it, the control of the means of production, distribution, and exchange (and the control of the modes therefore by which production, distribution, and exchange are conducted) by a few, must mean that the many are compelled to work for the profit of the few… To be compelled to work not at your own initiative but at the initiative of another is the definition of slavery…
Propose… economic freedom (which can only co-exist with private property well distributed) and [modern man] will tell you that the system is impossible, giving as his reasons all manner of external conditions (such as the rapidity of communication, the concentration of the banking system, the cost of great units of machinery), but having for his real reason the mere experience of his life. He has never known economic freedom. He has not seen it in action; and without experience of a thing, one cannot make a mental image of it.
All the forces of mass communication drive in the direction of brain-washing an unthinking populace into accepting the way things are; a vision of how things could be is denied them. The question What is life for? is never addressed or even asked. It’s not just that we are heading for slavery – it’s the decline of whatever we might once have valued as ‘civilization’. But spending huge amounts of money on advertising campaigns the commanding ogres offer a kind of abstract security to ordinary people who are driven to feel that the Servile State will save them thinking and they will be able to continue to enjoy the Bread & Circuses (Circuitry) offered to them. Uniformity is so comforting.
The loss of multiplicity involves sooner or later the death of artistic choice. It also involves sooner or later the lowering of energy. Social energy is a function of the zest for living. Under uniformity, imposed and controlled, the zest for living declines or disappears. If this is true of material activity, it is still more true of spiritual activity. Anyone may know how the modern man accepts universal statements [abstractions] even when they are flatly contradictory to his own experience. Any man may note by looking round him how this or that object is proposed for hatred or for affection and then – since there is no spontaneity in the emotion – a contradictory object may be imposed in place of the first: and so on indefinitely.
Belloc is happy to continue to make his point about the onset of the Servile State which is more or less where we are winding up, seemingly, for good in 2019.
Let me repeat therefore that definition without which all discussion of these affairs is meaningless: ‘We mean by capitalism a system under which wealth is produced by a mass of citizens, politically free but dispossessed, and these working for the profit of a far smaller number of effective owners and controllers of the means of production…’
It is no objection to this definition that a great number of dispossessed who are occupied in the production of wealth own something; they nearly all own the clothes they wear, and most of them own a few sticks of furniture. Great numbers own small units of capital, a few certificates, or a few shares, or a policy: but the governing condition of their lives is that they are working for the profit of other men and, further, are under the inhuman control of those other men…. Mere mechanical control exercised by anonymous wealth impersonally is not tolerable. It will kill itself and the society which it governs. Meanwhile it is an increasing plague…
There comes a point after which it cannot carry on, but must, in order that society shall survive, be transformed into one of two alternative types, the one fully servile, the other based on property. Either the mass of the proletarian workers must be compelled to work by force for the profit of others and under the control of wills not their own, or the motive of property must be restored whereby the man who works can profit directly from his own labour.
ONCE MORE in One Thing and Another
And the other thing about Hilaire Belloc’s writing is that it often makes me laugh! After much larking around in ‘Advice to a Young Man in the Matter of Wine’ in the same source, this is how he finishes and so shall I:-
As a man approaches death he will, if he is wise, recall the happinesses of his life and render thanks. In this list of blessings he will particularly remark the occasions of his coming upon unusual wine: wine of Olympus, or even wine of earthly content – which content can be stretched to an hour. No man can draw up in his mind a list of occasions on which he drank a wine which he had been told was good. It must taste good to leave any permanent inscription on the heart. It will be of no service to you to go up to the Lord God at your judgment, pulling your forelock and loping your knee, and saying: “Oh, Lord God, here is the list of wines I have been recommended by certain knowledgeable men: the Duke, the Master of St Beves, the Landlord of the Dragon” – and with that to pull out a roll-call of strange names and dates. No, a man is judged by his heart. And if your heart was not touched, then grandness will avail you nothing. But at your side a humbler little man, coming with a scrap of dirty paper, will say: “Lord God! Here I have written down with the stub of a pencil the name of the place called St Alery, where I drank I know not what wine which seemed to me divine; it was under the high but blunt and flattened hills of the Charollais.” That man will enter heaven because he told the truth
I’m with Hilaire Belloc
who sprayed the English
complacents with corrosive words
to eat away the rust of centuries
of smug: parliamentary democracy
represents not the country of hills
and valleys not the cottages
and the city streets
but capitalism & wealth;
its supposed incorruptibility is a lie –
bodies bought & sold to slavery
titles bartered for privilege –
we are not all in this together
liberal capitalism will never deliver
the Golden Age – it leads inexorably
towards the Servile State
in which the majority labour
for the good of a small minority
of wealthy owners in their gated domains
or for a government of technical experts
imposing technological solutions –
their expertise in spiritual bankruptcy
the future becomes a refuge for those
who cannot bear to face
the grandeur of the past
in the contingent tyranny of the present
4 thoughts on “On Being a Belloc Fanatic (R16)”
Having been raised as a Roman Catholic and having thus wasted 20 years of my youth being “taught” by, for the most part (there were a few remarkable exceptions), a sad coterie of hopelessly undereducated and highly deluded nuns and priests, I am now, as a friend of mine likes to put it, “an atheist, thank God!” So unfortunately, even your learned disquisition on the very Catholic Mr. Belloc will not convince me to read any of his books, Colin. But I was more than happy to read this wonderful essay, and especially the tragic all-too-true poem with which you concluded it.
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Thanks, Tom. You made me wonder why on earth I’ve spent so much time & effort trying to come to terms with the Belloc Thing!
I think that if in the early fifties I’d have become aware of Hilaire Belloc’s absurd bondage to ‘The Faith’ I would never have been driven to write this essay at all! It was sheer chance (like all of life) that one rather grey Sunday afternoon not long before he died I happened to hear a wireless broadcast of a version of his The Four Men and in some inexplicable way got utterly hooked – the memory of that occasion and the book itself (the same copy I acquired (by chance) in 1955) have been lodged in my soul (whatever that might be) ever since. My own ‘religious phase’ lasted around the same period: it started with my parents insisting on me going to Church of England Sunday School as early as 1947 and finished with my voluntary attendance at morning & evening services until I fully realised that my crush was not on God but on the mere look of a girl, a sort of Beatrice figure in the choir; my lucid cognitive self came into play and I packed in the whole charade but not before I understood the way in which one can dump one’s whole being in a goddish figment of the imagination. That was a valuable bit of learning.
By chance in a school book at a time when ‘essay-writing’ was still a fashionable educational pursuit (thank goodness!), I came across a lovely Belloc essay in 1953 called ‘The Mowing of a Field’ and I set about collecting everything he’d written and everything that had been written about him – the most recent acquisition only three weeks ago!
On the odd occasion when I now open a book of Belloc’s essays and read I know for sure that many of my thought patterns, politically, energetically and in relation to the ‘Specificity of the Ordinary’ derive from that early immersion in his writing. Hence my being driven to ask myself why I have always been so obsessed when I might have dismissed him completely by reason of his absurd Being-a-Catholic-I. He also wrote a brlliant big book called The Jews which causes people who clearly haven’t read it to call him an anti-semite – that’s another story! Writing my essay (or Glob) was a happy purgation.
Being extremely mistrustful of all labels and of the labelling process itself, I don’t call myself anything. It’s more important, as you know, I think, Tom, to consider what you do, how you endeavour to make things happen rather than what label you can stick on yourself. The current spectacle of damn fool politicians in this country swapping ‘allegiance’ from one political party to another in an effort to find a label that fits, or even inventing a new label, is comical if it weren’t so disruptive of proper intellectual consideration of the issues.
I did very briefly call myself an ‘atheist’ after stopping going to church to ogle the choir-lady. Then I called myself an agnostic till I realised that it wasn’t at all the case that I didn’t know, or wasn’t sure – I was absolutely certain that the god-myth was a human invention, a projection of the super-ego on to a universal plane (good old Freud!)
In later years, more linguistically inclined, it struck me forcibly that the word ‘atheist’ is absurd because it implies the very existence of something not to believe in.
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I’ve had a similar dilemma about the “agnostic / atheist” distinction. For many years, I resisted calling myself an atheist, much for the same reason as you – that in asserting the certainty of one’s belief that there is no god, one too easily ends up assuming a religious-like certainty in the correctness of one’s non-belief. And yet declaring myself an agnostic carried uncomfortable overtones of uncertainty, as if I couldn’t quite be sure that perhaps there was indeed a god. Recently, I’ve come to adopt Stephen Batchelor’s preferred term of “nontheist” – one who refuses to waste even a minute’s time on a question so meaningless as to whether or not god exists.
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Language is such an interesting feast of obfuscation!
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