Why am I so obsessed by Hilaire Belloc?


It’s late October 2019. Time for re-reading The Four Men yet again is fast approaching. I want to get my series of writings on him done by Halloween.

Unless they are similarly obsessed I can’t imagine anybody being interested in any of this, or in my quest, on the face of it, anyway, one from which I ought to be alienated by what I take to be Belloc’s absurd abandonment of intelligence to God and Roman Catholicism which results in this kind of crazy thinking:-

Wouldn’t it be fun to come to life again and find all Europe organised under a Divine emperor… I guess that will come at last: but the restless inward flame of the Faith would gnaw it and stir it all the same. They of the Faith are not supported. We are rare, few and alone. It adds immensely to the difficulty of the defence. For, to have a society about one is to breathe an air. From that air we are cut off, and we lack its sustenance. The more glory…

[Of] …the Faith upon which the unseen, the unlikely, the unexperienced things depend… we have proof, which is the quality thereof: the revelation in it: the mixture of Authority, tenderness and exact adaptation – as from the very Author – and indeed thence it is: and these are its credentials. Or, alternatively, save for that vision all is void: but all cannot be void. Therefore in it is the guide. There are not many disputing for the Soul of Man. There are but two. The Faith and nothingness – unless we add a third, the puerilities like Bible stuff, or Islam, or Totems. It is all one doing: The Faith, the Incarnation, the Mass. Something has come down on to this miserable earth. Deus locutus. So I write, who am by nature quite impervious to Heavenly things – though I hope to have them later on. But I will defend the Truth.

Letter to Mrs. Raymond Asquith, King’s Land, December 17th, 1927
(Letters from Hilaire Belloc ed Robert Speaight)

Though he said he was possessed of a hard streak of scepticism, Hilaire Belloc was born into Roman Catholicism so that part of him, constantly managing to overcome the drive to consider things more closely under the banner of true scepticism, was dedicated to calling its Godlebegook ‘the source of Truth’. If he ever had a transformingly ‘religious experience’ of the transcendental spiritual variety, which might be said to have justified a belief in something of a Higher Nature, he kept quiet about it. But somewhere he does describe a priest whose ‘eyes were illuminated by the vision of something distant…’ Not heaven or God but kept vague, like running with the certainty that there certainly is something far greater than oneself as Meister Eckhart and Marcus Aurelius would have us understand. Belloc could have enhanced his sceptical bent by going that way. I argue that he does that unwittingly. But he abandons all reason.

In Maisie Ward’s Gilbert Keith Chesterton, Belloc is quoted as saying:-

I am by all my nature of mind skeptical… And as to the doubt of the soul I discover it to be false: a mood not a conclusion. My conclusion – and that of all men who have ever once seen it – is the Faith: Corporate, organised, a personality, teaching. A thing, not a theory… Grief has drawn the juices from it. I am alone, and unfed, the more do I affirm the Sanctity, the Unity, the Infallibility of the Catholic Church. By my very isolation do I the more affirm it…

An interesting distinction – ‘a mood not a conclusion’: scepticism, a mood dedicated to taking great care to look very closely at whatever it might be, a process of being & thinking in contrast to a fixed decision, conclusion or concrete belief; the latter saves the bother of thinking any more. Belloc understandably desires to escape the bitterness of the death of Elodie in 1914, two of his sons in WW1 & 2 and the deaths of friends but he chooses to consign himself to something which can be constructed as all-embracing invention; he installs a moody gap (or what Gurdjieff would call a ‘buffer’) between his natural scepticism and the retreat into what I would see as the complete pointlessness of a belief in Roman Catholicism – every bit as barmy as the man waving a BREXIT placard (2019) bearing the idiot slogan GIVE US OUR COUNTRY BACK… The abstract notion behind either set of sentimental concepts is the will o’the wisp. Belloc capitulated to an abstract absurdity in order not to have to think any more about it.

The question remains: why should I have been obsessed by him for nearly seventy years, so often reading The Four Men at the appropriate time of the year? Belloc also seems to have been partial to military escapades, having tried to get enlisted for World War 1, scorning the pacifism and vegetarianism I embrace as ways of being.

Belloc is trapped in Roman Catholicism and finds some kind of delight in others of his acquaintance becoming similarly trapped. Though he is very aware of our Being consisting of many separate parts, he would never have been able to make The Fourth Way because he is imprisoned in the way of the Monk, putting the way of the systematic Yogi on hold and diverting the way of the Fakir into keen walking and maritime excursions; he never made the pilgrimage to ‘Man Number Four’. He has an emotional attachment to Catholicism and his intellect and great devotion to action are not connected up – a state of unbalance. There’s a buffer between what I realise I relish in his writings – his radical political understandings and long bouts of what in fact amounts to self-remembering – and an unthinking submission to RCship which prevents him from obtaining the true balance of what Gurdjieff called the human Centres (neo-cortex, limbic and reptile brain functions). The true Myself synthesis of Grizzlebeard, Poet and Sailor – Intellect, Emotion and Action – is the message of The Four men. It may be possible that deep down Belloc understood all this for there is no reference to the Church as such in the Farrago.

In Hilaire Belloc, No Alienated Man, (1954) having asserted, promisingly, that ‘man is unified in his own [being] at one with the good things of this world – his habitation’, something that comes over to me fully in Belloc’s writings, Frederick Wilhelmsen (died in the wool Catholic apologist) sees the world at the same time as ‘a half promise of an eternal destiny and an image of human mortality’, the one presumably overcoming the other. Wilhelmsen seems as much of a divided person as Belloc: on the one hand his analysis of The Four Men is a brilliant study of Belloc’s Multiple-I’s; on the other he dumps it into the rigid straitjacket of Roman Catholicism.

NOTE: Frederick D Wilhelmsen (1923-21 May 1996) was a distinguished Roman Catholic philosopher, noted, both as a professor and as a writer, for his explication and advancement of the Thomistic tradition. He also was a political commentator, assessing American politics and society from a traditionalist perspective and a political thinker, addressing what he perceived to be the failings of secular-liberal democracy. He principally was a professor at the University of Dallas from 1965 to his death in 1996. He also taught at the University of Santa Clara, the Al-Hikma University in Baghdad, the University of Navarra in Pamplona, Spain, and lectured and taught classes at many other universities.

He was a prolific writer… He also was a founding editor of Triumph, a Roman Catholic monthly that sought the sacralization of American society. In addition to assessing American politics and society, he was inspired by and extensively reflected upon Spanish politics and society…

Wilhelmsen [apparently] enjoyed a lively friendship and correspondence with Marshall McLuhan, who spent time at the University of Dallas in the 1970s. I was keen on Marshall McLuhan’s perceptions back in the 1960’s.

I came across Hilaire Belloc for the very first time via The Four Men on a grey Sunday afternoon in 1951 when I heard its dramatic arrangement, as it says in Radio Times, Issue 1456 page 21, by Lord Duncannon adapted for broadcasting and produced by Norman Wright with men of Sussex and of Kent, a section of the BBC Men s Chorus, music composed and played at the piano by David Ponsonby

The adaptation for radio was first broadcast on 7th October 1951 at 6pm when the much-missed Third Programme started each day (its abandonment marked the beginning of the death of intellect in UK…) The BBC Genome Project tells me that the programme was repeated three times within that year, the last time being on Sunday 25 November 1951on the Home Service which is when I must have heard it and became entranced forever. It seems there is no extant recording of the programme which started my obsession.

I celebrate his energy. I think I’ve probably gone a little way towards something similar; his horror at the mechanised destruction of Sussex (Surrey and the world in general) is also something I share. I’m certain that, though he might at first have been intrigued, he would have been appalled at the computerisation of existence.

His daughter, Eleanor Jebb (1956):-

…He fitted in more doings and goings-on than any man on earth – it was prodigious – and his friends and family often dropped off from his restless energetic escapades as he went. They fell from sheer exhaustion, like tired flies back into the normal rut of dull mankind, marvelling at his disappearing figure…

Early on he relished the way a car gave him freedom, the way

…it enabled him to fit in even more than was his usual custom… but later [1923 or 24] he bitterly regretted the number of cars on the roads and said with ironic jest, “…the rich should have passed laws forbidding the tradesman and the poor to own cars!” And when they invaded the Shipley lanes of his parish and passed his house as part of daily life, he minded the new danger and disturbance… He said with mournful sorrow that a great doom had fallen upon beautiful Sussex, as it had now become the playground of London – but I don’t think he ever realized the extent to which that evil has gone. He enjoyed driving to the end, however, although he never cared for great speed, and even in those last few years of his wonderful life when he could go out so seldom, although it fatigued him enormously he enjoyed it and loved to see the Downs again of a clear day or notice the landmarks as of old.

In one of Robert Speaight’s collection of Edited Letters (number 130) there’s a real flavour, both in the breathless prose itself and the depiction of the hell for leather rush of things in which Belloc chose to involve himself. The letter is ‘to Maurice Baring, in the train, Salisbury (?) USA March 24th, 1923…’

…I have come out of the West. I left Chicago at midnight yesterday, to be in New York at midnight tonight – but the train is hours and hours late. All American trains are, nowadays. In Chicago I lectured to a big hall with 2000 people… In Chicago I heard, as I walked along the street at noon, a not unharmonious but very loud music. It was as of a huge piano (forte) played by steam. I looked round and saw an instrument of sorts on a trolley. The instrument was worked by a machine and the trolley was pulled by a gaily decked horse. It halted. A crowd gathered. The music ceased. A man on the trolley then shouted through a huge megaphone, “Vote for Dever for Mayor!” Three times turning to three different quarters of the heavens. Then the music began again and the horse moved on and the crowd followed, growing enormous. Chicago was full of memories of (1) Gilbert [Chesterton], (2) Mr Asquith, (3) Father Bernard Vaughan – all of whom they had heard. They were immediately expecting Paderewski and Conan Doyle, the Spook King.

In Chicago I shook hands, all at one go, with 22 nuns of the Immaculate Convent and 74 girls of the elder class. I said to each one in turn, “Pleased to met yer,” which is the formula. This is called Doing the Boob.

Two sandwiches and a bottle of ginger ale in the Railway station cost 3/- and the tip expected by the man who served them was 1/-.

I have been to Toronto, Montreal, Buffalo (where the girls come out tonight), Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, as well as Swanton, Springfield, Boston and New York.

I have spoken also to 6 schools privately and I have written 3 articles. Writing in America is impossible. One cannot construct a paragraph, one can only put one word in front of another. All Americans spend their time doing nothing in little jerks, and moving from place to place. All are happy, good-natured and simple. Most are yellow, but some are black: all have metal throats and loud voices and love to hear Trains, Electric bells and the hammering of iron: also stories of murders and especially murders of prostitutes. This fills the Press. But they also read of Labour MP’s going to Nancy Astor’s and picture them as rough men without collars and her as a Fairy-tale Princess with a crown on.

It is a blizzard one day with sawing air at -10° and next day a muggy warm at 6o°. Then snow again.

Mass is said quickly in the churches, all the Latin and the English prayers and the sermons and the hymns of the Children are American. I heard a lot of innocent Children sing the Stabat Mater in American:

Stairbaist Mairturr Dorlawrawser
Juxter Crutch’m Jackrimmawawzer etc

It moved me to tears of tenderness for I felt then the Faith to be truly universal. But if I had sung it, it would have moved them not to tears but laughter, for they find the European voice exceedingly comic. Everyone is very proud of having 2 Americans in the Oxford 8. The papers say Cambridge will win. Let it.

As a historian, Belloc was committed to the idea of lively history; it was necessary to vivify the historical past by standing in it. For him there’s an emotion that bubbles up when in a place where extraordinary historical events took place and people lived. It was like that when I climbed Liddington Hill and when I walked round The New Sea where Jefferies was. Somewhere Belloc refers approvingly to Jefferies’ apocalyptic After London in which the hero Felix sails over the swamp which gurgles with effluent from a submerged capital.

In The Absence of the Past an essay in the collection First and Last Things, Belloc writes:-

Touch that emotion [bubbling up from being in a historical context] ever so lightly and it tumbles into the commonplace, and the deadest of commonplace. Neglect it ever so little and the Present (which is never really there, for even as you walk across Trafalgar Square it is yesterday and to-morrow that are in your mind), the Present, I say, or rather the immediate flow of things, occupies you altogether. But there is a mood, and it is a mood common in men who have read and who have travelled, in which one is overwhelmed by the sanctity of a place on which men have done this or that a long, long time ago.

…Time does not remain, but space does, and though we cannot seize the Past physically we can stand physically upon the site, and we can have (if I may so express myself) a physical communion with the Past by occupying that very spot which the past greatness of man or of event has occupied.

I imagine that, during the writing of this essay, Belloc might have been walking through Surrey towards Sussex, his ‘paradise’:-

As you take the road to Paradise, about half-way there you come to an inn, which even as inns go is admirable. You go into the garden of it, and see the great trees and the wall of Box Hill shrouding you all around. It is beautiful enough (in all conscience) to arrest one without the need of history or any admixture of the pride of race; but as you sit there on a seat in that garden you are sitting where Nelson sat when he said good-bye to his Emma, and if you will move a yard or two you will be sitting where Keats sat biting his pen and thinking out some new line of his poem.

Though it would be meaningless to the thoughtless hoards rushing past in their automobiles on the main road to Worthing, it would have no meaning whatsoever, the place is sacred: one can step into the shoes of the poet (if not the other man particularly!) and muse a moment on mortality and the spirit of place. Belloc asks what this says about us as human beings: ‘…Why does the mere space remain and all the rest dissolve?’

And again:-

There is a lonely place in the woods of Chilham, in the County of Kent, above the River Stour, where a man comes upon an irregular earthwork still plainly marked upon the brow of the bluff. Nobody comes near this place. A vague country lane, or rather track, goes past the wet soil of it, plunges into the valley beyond, and after serving a windmill joins the high road to Canterbury. Well, that vague track is the ancient British road, as old as anything in this Island, that took men from Winchester to the Straits of Dover.

In his brilliant collection Hills and the Sea there’s an essay called A Sea Wall of the Wash. By his own example, I know what Belloc means by living history. I have sat in the garden of the inn under Box Hill and he will have walked over the great bridge of Sutton Bridge which replaced the old bridge in 1897, past the very house I live in, as I like to think, and round the hump of reclaimed land turning right where the so-called lighthouse is, not quite out to where the open sea is now, towards King’s Lynn. That knowledge gives me a feeling of excitement beyond the idea that the space remains while all the rest dissolves. It is a mental excitement.

Things live in the mind. History is a living event – one needs to assert it these days when Post-modernist wreckers are intent on telling us that we’ve come to the end of history so that the often quoted ‘learning from the lessons of the past’ can be safely ignored, as it always has been anyway.

But we must always remember, as Ouspensky points out, that

…we do not see things themselves at all. Plato’s allegory of the cave tells us that we see only the reflections [or shadows] of things, so that what we see has lost all reality. We must realise how often we are governed and controlled not by things themselves but by our ideas of things, our views of things, our picture of things, This is the most interesting thing. Try to think about it.

The inn under Box Hill, the ‘lonely place in the woods of Chilham’, and, though I can right now look up to see it, the road Belloc might have taken – all pictures in the mind and what took place variously there an even more remote pattern in the neurons. We play out time with its cardboard cutouts but we may live in the past to vivify the present and dig into the future.

Whenever I have gone to a great cathedral city – Salisbury springs to mind – I have felt the past and know that a certain reverence for it becomes part of who one attempts to be. The concept of The City is a personal construction transcending bricks & mortar; one is a personal monarch of all one surveys.

Wilhelmsen writes that for Belloc

… the older European Christendom, in its ideals and in the best of its actualities, [was] a truly human society, permeated from top to bottom with grace, and given direction and destiny by the Universal Faith. Personal perfection necessitates the communal act in which society is built as a home for man. The City of Man exists for the furthering of human perfection. The City must be personal: from this follows Belloc’s detestation of impersonal governments. The best government would be one personally exercised by all men, acting together for the common good. Where this democratic society is impossible of fulfilment, the community is best incarnated in a monarchy: one man sums up in himself a people, and one man is responsible to all.

…For Belloc democracy is less a static thing than something dynamic. The French erupting into the Revolution, organizing great armies and local governments almost overnight – such is democracy as Belloc sees it. It is the older ideal of the Citizen assuming personal responsibility… Belloc’s monarchy is one man, symbolizing a people and its traditions, exercising personal authority, responsible before the law, a public sacrifice to the land. He finds his best example in modern times in the United States of America: in the Office of the Presidency… [What would he have made of Trump?]

A personalist society, be it democratic or monarchical, will foster those occupations attached directly to fundamentally human needs. Man needs to build; he needs to plant and to plow, to make things with his hands, to incarnate his aspirations in song and the plastic arts; he needs to fight, and he needs to pray. The peasant, the artisan, the soldier, the scholar, the poet, the priest – these will dominate any humanist culture in Belloc’s sense of the term. A broad base of well-distributed property will lie under the whole economic organism, insuring the personal character of the res publica, stamping it with the mark of humanity.

[But now] …profit, not human perfection, is the bourgeois ideal. Viewed ideally, Belloc’s humanist society, on which he constructed his distributist economics, would be characterized by a rich multiplicity of functions rooted in fundamental human drives.

So far, so good. This sounds like an anarchist manfesto. Revolution and redistribution of wealth, small self-governing independent units. A true federalism. But Belloc can’t sustain a mental application to the complex re-arrangement that would be necessary. Throwing in the human sponge, he once more projects his astonishing sense of true humanity into something outside himself:-

The City of Man… is not of itself. It has no fully independent existence of its own, nor can it ever be a completely autonomous reality. For it to be at all, it must flourish within the higher City which is the City of God. Just as the individual man can find his natural perfection only by losing himself in Christ, so too can the community of all men find its soul only within the bosom of Christian Wisdom. Religious truth, absolute and unquestioned, not only guarantees but causes a God-oriented humanist culture to come into its own. The sacredness of the person and the eternal relationship he bears to God through Christ are truths of an order which is not human, but these truths act within the bowels of society as Divine Seeds, conceiving in time a temporal order both personal and free.

There is a City full, as are all Cities, of halt and maim, blind and evil and the rest: but it is the City of God … There are not two such cities on earth. There is One. Within that household the human spirit has roof and hearth. Outside it, is the night.

Essays of a Catholic Layman in England

And there he loses the plot. It’s not surprising that Wilhelmsen says that ‘…Belloc cannot speak to latter-day man…’ I’m not at all sure that he can even ‘…echo the suppressed conscience of those millions of silent men – the men who bend over nets and who rest on their plows and who say nothing – the men who still bear within themselves the dreams and passions of Christendom: the love of one’s own, the feel for the soil, the sense of arms [onward Christian soldiers!], the hunger for certitude. Belloc speaks for the underground of Europe…’ In these days of the demolition of the European Ideal I wonder what that particular abstraction is about. It would be nice to think that there could still be some large commitment that would serve to gather all humanity together in one great Brother& sisterhood but that’s just something that exists merely as a fancy picture in a golden frame.

Belloc looks forward to the time ‘…when New Man will have exhausted himself attempting to escape his destiny, when he will have tried all the doors leading nowhere, when he will have sickened of paper humanisms, [then he might] learn what it means to be a man…’

On the other hand, in spite of all the paradoxes and buffers, I still find Belloc a constant delight to read. It’s worth reading Wilhelmsen’s idea of ‘…the Future Place of Hilaire Belloc in English Letters’:-

He was the finest prose stylist of his generation. His art was a habit, possessed at the centre of his being by a man who was conscious of his own power. John Edward Dineen has noted how writers of such diverse interests and talents as Rupert Brooke, Ford Madox Ford and Max Beerbohm have paid homage to the literary genius of Hilaire Belloc. Baring’s famous tribute is well known: ‘grave prose like the mellow tones of a beautifully played cello… solemn, melancholy and majestic…’ Belloc’s prose at its finest was what great prose ought to be: a sensitive instrument adapted to express, with great precision and subtle nuance, the complex genius of its creator. His was an artistry that was largely unmannered, simple, sparing in metaphor, and still remarkably rich: a prose in a line that stretches back to the origins of classical English. ‘No man,’ says Lord Tweedsmuir, ‘has attained more perfectly to the ‘piety of speech’ of the seventeenth century; no man has written purer and nobler prose in the great tradition…’

One might indeed hope that ‘…Belloc’s prose, rooted as it was in the highest literary tradition, will be read as long as English prose is read by men trained in that great heritage…’ but I’m not sure that it might well not sink without trace; I doubt that anybody now at school will chance upon The Mowing of a Field and be so moved by the reading of it to go and dig his father’s allotment at six in the morning of a fine spring day.

Wilhelmsen says that ‘…Belloc often put forth the older ideal that prose should minister rigidly to meaning…’ and it’s true that ‘…he developed an unadorned, plain style as the apt instrument for the elucidation of his political and sociological ideas…’ But when it came to God and so on things came off the rails.

What is true though is that The Servile State is a very good example of what Wilhelmsen calls ‘Belloc’s working in a manner that is almost dry in its cold lucidity [where] the writing… is severely unrhetorical and refreshingly free from the unavoidable pedantries of contemporary academic prose…’ And his ‘lyricism is found perhaps at the height of its perfection in The Path to Rome…’

Wilhelmsen asks

In the light of such an incomparable artistic mastery, why is it that Belloc’s reputation has suffered so severely within the last fifteen years? Part of the neglect is probably due to the fate of his own generation. The whole Edwardian and Georgian period is engulfed under the snobbery of the avant-garde [which is where I pitch my tent!]. The heartiness, the zest for existence, the enormous Elizabethan interest in almost everything, the sheer magnificence of the Edwardians seem pretentious and a trifle adolescent to a youth who has aged young in an old world now dead. [Not true for me!] The Bellocs and Barings and Shaws, diving into the ocean fully clad in evening dress, seem somewhat beside the point to a generation embittered in the fires of World War II. The Belloc who carried burgundy through the streets of Rye tires the grim and somewhat desperate intellectual of the day.

I warm to both the eccentricity and what used to be called the avant garde – goodness knows what we’re at now in this era of Artificial Intelligence and buffoonery. The Pilgers and the Chomskys are derided – they are the defenders of an old sense of rootedness and ‘being at home’ with oneself – important beyond all else.

A change in fashion partially accounts for Belloc’s decline in popularity, but there is something deeper than mere fashion. If Belloc is not understood today, it may be because his own brand of Christian integration has become almost impossible of achievement at this late date in the disintegration of the Western World. Most of us are not rooted men; we do not live in a traditional culture, and to pretend to do so would be to fall into an archaic lie. The Christian living in the centre of an industrialized secularism has no Grizzlebeard. His Sailor is dead and his Poet is without sustenance. Belloc’s ‘corporate memories’, and Mr. Eliot’s ‘piety for the dead’, can be, at best, only truncated actualities and ideals impossible of immediate achievement. This is the age of ‘Unheimlichkeit’. Man is no longer at home.

Belloc’s political grasp of events is profound. The Servile State is as up to date now as it ever was. And read these passages from The Free Press (1918); they could have been written yesterday or even today:-

I say that our interest lies in the question of degree. It always does. The philosopher said : ‘All things are a matter of degree; and who shall establish degree?’ But I think we are agreed – and by ‘we’ I mean all educated men with some knowledge of the world around us – that the degree to which the suppression of truth, the propagation of falsehood, the artificial creation of opinion, and the boycott of inconvenient doctrine have reached in the great Capitalist Press for some time past in England, is at least dangerously high.

There is no one in public life but could give dozens of examples from his own experience of perfectly sensible letters to the Press, citing irrefutable testimony upon matters of the first importance, being refused publicity. Within the guild of the journalists, there is not a man who could not give you a hundred examples of deliberate suppression and deliberate falsehood by his employers both as regards news important to the nation and as regards great bodies of opinion.

It is bad enough to be governed by an aristocracy or a monarch whose executive power is dependent upon legend in the mass of the people; it is humiliating enough to be thus governed through a sort of play-acting instead of enjoying the self-government of free men.

It is worse far to be governed by a clique of Professional Politicians bamboozling the multitude with a pretence of ‘Democracy’. But it is intolerable that similar power should reside in the hands of obscure nobodies about whom no illusion could possibly exist, whose tyranny is not admitted or public at all, who do not even take the risk of exposing their features, and to whom no responsibility whatever attaches.

This Capitalist Press has come at last to warp all judgment. The tiny oligarchy which controls it is irresponsible and feels itself immune. It has come to believe that it can suppress any truth and suggest any falsehood. It governs, and governs abominably : and it is governing thus in the midst of a war for life.

Belloc’s political creed was based on the notion of Distributism. Joseph Pearce, author of a Belloc biography Old Thunder (2002) defines Distributism:-

Distributism is the name given to a socio-economic and political creed originally associated with G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc… Belloc was the propagator and populariser of the Church’s social doctrine of subsidiarity as expounded by Pope Leo XIII (1891), a doctrine that would be re-stated, re-confirmed and reinforced by Pope Pius XI in 1931 and by Pope John Paul II in 1991 …distributism is a derivative of the principle of subsidiarity… [which] rests on the assumption that the rights of small communities – e.g., families or neighbourhoods – should not be violated by the intervention of larger communities—e.g., the state or centralized bureaucracies. Thus, for instance, in practical terms, the rights of parents to educate their children without the imposition by the state of ‘politically correct’ school curricula would be enshrined by the principle of subsidiarity. Parental influence in schools is subsidiarist; state influence is anti-subsidiarist…

Distributism, on the other hand, is an awkward word and an awkward label. What exactly does it advocate distributing? Are not communists and socialists ‘distributists’ in the sense that they seek a more equitable distribution of wealth? Yet Belloc argues vehemently that distributism is radically at variance with the underlying ideas of communism and socialism. It is for reasons of clarity, therefore, that modern readers might find it useful to translate ‘distributist’ as ‘subsidiarist’ when reading Belloc’s critique of politics and economics… [especially] in The Servile State (1912) … Chesterton’s novel, ‘The Napoleon of Notting Hill’, is essentially a distributist parable.

… distributism became very influential in the period between the two world wars. At the peak of its influence, the Distributist League had branches throughout the length and breadth of the United Kingdom… there are parallels with the vision of ‘economics as if people matter’ outlined by the economist E. F. Schumacher in his bestselling book, Small is Beautiful.

In an ideal world every man would own the land on which, and the tools with which, he worked. In an ideal world he would control his own destiny by having control over the means to his livelihood. For Belloc, this was the most important economic freedom, the freedom beside which all other economic freedoms are relatively trivial. If a man has this freedom he will not so easily succumb to encroachments upon his other freedoms… every policy or every practice that leads to a reuniting of man with the land and capital on which he depends for his sustenance is a step in the right direction. Every policy or practice that puts him more at the mercy of those who control the land and the capital on which he depends, and therefore who control his labour also, is a step in the wrong direction. Practical politics is about moving in the right direction, however slowly.

I’m content to see this as practical anarchism.

‘I do not know,’ Belloc writes in The Restoration of Property, ‘whether it be possible to start even the beginnings of a change. I doubt heavily that it is possible to plant successfully even the small seedlings of economic freedom in our society, here, in England, today.’ But he continues: ‘What I certainly know is that, failing such a change, our industrial society must necessarily end in the restoration of slavery. The choice lies between property on the one hand and slavery, public or private, on the other. There is no third issue.’

And this is, of course, why I remain obsessed by Hilaire Belloc with all his lovely contradictions; he could not help being born a Roman Catholic, I suppose, but his political views are unassailable and from early on he was capable of entering into a completely different level of being, one where he was aware of the fact simply that there is something much larger than oneself which manifests itself in the very smallest grains of sand. In the essays and journey accounts he frequently comes unwittingly into this different level of being which I where I hope I may be said to meet him.

In an essay called On Coming to an End in the collection On Nothing (1908), Belloc presents us with accounts of the life and work of three men and asks at the end: ‘Which of these three knew best the nature of man and of his works, and which knew best of what nature was the end?’ We are challenged to think for ourselves.

I knew a man once in the Tourdenoise, a gloomy man, but very rich, who cared little for the things he knew. This man took no pleasure in his fruitful orchards and his carefully ploughed fields and his harvests. He took pleasure in pine trees; he was a man of groves and of the dark. For him that things should come to an end was but part of an universal rhythm ; a part pleasing to the general harmony, and making in the music of the world about him a solemn and, oh, a conclusive chord. This man would study the sky at night and take from it a larger and a larger draught of infinitude, finding in this exercise not a mere satisfaction, but an object and goal for the mind ; when he had so wandered for a while under the night he seemed, for the moment, to have reached the object of his being.

You can have money which may come to you purely by chance as it has done with me. But money is of no consequence provided you have a penny at the end of the month. ‘Gloomy’ this man was – seeming gloomy to the outside world because he was a person entirely to himself perhaps, taking no account of what Gurdjieff called A Influences – career, standing, fun, sport, ambition, possessions – that could account for the assessment of him as ‘gloomy’. I think I might be regarded as somewhat ‘gloomy’. But, oh, the ‘pleasure in pine trees’, groves and darkness, the being part of a ‘universal rhythm’, a great chord in the music of the world, part of Whitman’s ‘clef of the universe’, looking at the night sky and possessing a ‘draught of infinitude’ – the object of being, without any doubt.

While he may be locked in Emotional Centre, this first man seems to me to know exactly what life is about. And now for the second man.

And I knew another man in the Weald who worked with his hands, and was always kind, and knew his trade well; he smiled when he talked of scythes, and he could thatch. He could fish also, and he knew about grafting, and about the seasons of plants, and birds, and the way of seed. He had a face full of weather, he fatigued his body, he watched his land. He would not talk much of mysteries, he would rather hum songs. He loved new friends and old. He had lived with one wife for fifty years, and he had five children, who were a policeman, a schoolmistress, a son at home, and two who were sailors. This man said that what a man did and the life in which he did it was like the farm work upon a summer’s day. He said one works a little and rests, and works a little again, and drinks, and there is a perpetual talk with those about one. Then (he would say) the shadows lengthen at evening, the wind fails, the birds get back home. And as for ourselves, we are sleepy before it is dark.

Like the first man with the pine tree and the groves and the darkness, this one takes pleasure in things close at hand but he is primarily locked in Moving Centre, ‘would not talk much of mysteries’ but was practised in the sharpening of scythes and the art of thatching. A family man, believing that life was just a summer’s day work on the farm and humming a song. He does not seemingly look up at the stars.

I love to do brickwork, cementing is one of my joys, I mow the lawn to demonstrate the existence of an area of clarity in the centre of outside chaos. I begin to get conscious of bedtime at four in the afternoon. I watch with joy the day & night transit of gulls up and down the river. I don’t engage in unnecessary talking. My wife says she knows where I am in a supermarket because she can hear me whistling or humming.

And now for the third man. Remember that we are to think about this question! ‘Which of these three knew best the nature of man and of his works, and which knew best of what nature was the end?’

Then also I knew a third man who lived in a town and was clerical and did no work, for he had money of his own. This man said that all we do and the time in which we do it is rather a night than a day. He said that when we came to an end we vanished, we and our works, but that we vanished into a broadening light.

A man rich enough not to have to work for a living, ‘clerical’, meaning perhaps ‘a man of god’, cloistered, spending all his time thinking in dark night, dreaming that after death comes the light of everlasting day. Or just a pen-pusher who says to himself, ‘There Must Be Something More to Life than This…’ Above all, perhaps, just an idle candidate for the profession of Internal Considering.

Belloc doesn’t provide us with an answer to his question. He is quite likely the fourth man, the Observer. One who, like Myself in The Four Men, combines the qualities of the three men depicted here. The fourth man is the one who asks the question and has the intelligence to leave us to figure out the answer…

Man Number One, representative of the Emotional Centre, dreamy, is a version of Belloc himself whose ambition, so he declared at the age of 76, was ‘to [have been] a private gentleman. Lazing about doing nothing. Farm as a hobby perhaps. Keep someone to run it…’

Man Two (Moving Centre Man) works with his hands and, though part of the soil, would rather ‘hum songs’ than dream mysteries. In his biography, ANWilson points out that Belloc would often ‘…break into song, sometimes for the amusement of visitors, sometimes on impulse: either music-hall songs such as ‘Chase me, girls, I’ve got a banana!’ or French airs, or ditties of his own composing.

Reginald Jebb (son-in-law) said Belloc had ‘…a profound regard for the souls of those who had been dear to him in life and was constant in his observance of certain anniversaries. But this was a part of his make-up of which most of his acquaintances knew nothing, so vigorous were his reactions to current events and to material things. He was neither introspective, save occasionally when suffering physically, nor did he, as a rule, realize what was going on in other people’s minds, although he has made so many penetrating studies of the minds of historical characters. He frequently seemed to be uncertain of his age and would have overlooked his own birthdays had he not been reminded of them by others…’

Man Three seems abstracted from a life of action, introspective, quite as ‘gloomy’ as Man One, deeply aware of the passing of all things, unconcerned about normal conventions, in the Formatory (mechanical yes/no, black & white) part of Intellectual Centre.

Man Four, Myself (as in The Four Men) is a combination of the positive aspects all three men. I think that this is the conclusion we are intended to arrive at. Listen carefully to what you say about other people, says Gurdjieff, it’ll tell you a great deal about yourself. Myself is at one with the music of the spheres, handy at manual tasks and physical activity, observing the minutiae, capable of deep thinking, emotionally, physically and intellectually balanced, which is something to keep to yourself. And never mind God.

The Little Old Man , eponymous title of a beautiful essay in the collection On Everything (1909), doesn’t seem to care in the least about God. He projects nothing on to the things of the real world; they are just there and he had ‘a complete acquiescence in the soil and the air that had bred him’…

It was in the year 1888 (O noctes coenasque deum! – a tag [o nights & increases in god’s name!]) that, upon one of the southern hills of England, I came quite unexpectedly across a little old man who sat upon a bench that was there and looked out to sea.

Now you will ask me why a bench was there, since benches are not commonly found upon the high slopes of our southern hills, of which the poet has well said, the writer has well written, and the singer has well sung:-

The Southern Hills and the South Sea
They blow such gladness into me
That when I get to Burton Sands
And smell the smell of the home lands,
My heart is all renewed, and fills
With the Southern Sea and the South Hills.

True, benches are not common there. I know of but one, all the way from the meeting place of England, which is upon Salisbury Plain, to that detestable suburb of Eastbourne by Beachy Head. Nay, even that one of which I speak has disappeared. For an honest man being weary of labour and yet desiring firewood one day took it away, and the stumps only now remain at the edge of a wood, a little to the south of No Man’s Land.

Well, at any rate, upon this bench there sat in the year 1888 a little old man, and he was looking out to sea; for from this place the English Channel spreads out in a vast band 600 feet below one… The little old man treated my coming as though it was an expected thing, and before I had spoken to him long he assured me that this view gave him complete content.

It might have been Grizzlebeard… This essay is no doubt an imaginative construction but he is saying that at the age of 18 (Belloc was born in 1870) though the Little Old Man seemed wise, the full meaning of his words was lost on him. He is, of course, meeting up high above the sea with a sometime version of himself, appreciating him with hindsight.

“I could sit here,” he said, “and look at the Channel and consider the nature of this land for ever and for ever.” Now though words like this meant nothing in so early a year as the year 1888, yet I was willing to pursue them because there was, in the eyes of the little old man, a look of such wisdom, kindness, and cunning as seemed to me a marriage between those things native to the earth and those things which are divine. I mean, that he seemed to me to have all that the good animals have, which wander about in the brushwood and are happy all their lives, and also all that we have, of whom it has been well said that of every thing which runs or creeps upon earth, man is the fullest of sorrow. For this little old man seemed to have (at least such was my fantastic thought in that early year) a complete acquiescence in the soil and the air that had bred him, and yet something common to mankind and a full foreknowledge of death.

His face was of the sort which you will only see in England, being quizzical and vivacious, a little pinched together, and the hair on his head was a close mass of grey curls. His eyes were as bright as are harbour lights when they are first lit towards the closing of our winter evenings: they shone upon the daylight. His mouth was firm, but even in repose it permanently, though very slightly, smiled. I asked him why he took such pleasure in the view. He said it was because everything he saw was part of his own country, and that just as some holy men said that to be united with God, our Author, was the end and summit of man’s effort, so to him who was not very holy, to mix, and have communion, with his own sky and earth was the one banquet that he knew…

The Little Old Man is not holy in the orthodox religious sense but to feel part of sky and earth was a sufficient ‘enthusiasm’ (a word with θεος at its centre…) How far did Belloc see himself in him?

…he also told me (which cheered me greatly) that alone of all the appetites this large affection for one’s own land does not grow less with age, but rather increases and occupies the soul. He then made me a discourse as old men will, which ran somewhat thus:-

“Each thing differs from all others, and the more you know, the more you desire or worship one thing, the more does that stand separate: and this is a mystery, for in spite of so much individuality all things are one. . . . How greatly out of all the world stands out this object of my adoration and of my content! You will not find the like of it in all the world! It is England, and in the love of it I forget all enmities and all despairs.”

Things appear separate but in fact everything is connected, as Ouspensky says. Like Belloc himself , the Little Old Man is thoroughly connected with the unifying of the minutiae.

He then bade me look at a number of little things around, and see how particular they were : the way in which the homes of Englishmen hid themselves, and how, although a great town lay somewhat to our right not half a march away, there was all about us silence, self-possession, and repose. He bade me also note the wind-blown thorns, and the yew-trees, bent over from centuries of the south-west wind, and the short, sweet grass of the Downs, untilled and unenclosed, and the long waves of woods which rich men had stolen and owned, and which yet in a way were property for us all.

“There is more than one,” said I in anger, “who so little understands his land that he will fence the woods about and prevent the people from coming and going : making a show of them, like some dirty town-bred fellow who thinks that the Downs and the woods are his villa garden, bought with gold.

The little old man wagged his crooked forefinger in front of his face and looked exceedingly knowing with his bright eyes, and said : “Time will tame all that! Not they can digest the county, but the county them. Their palings shall be burnt upon cottage hearths, and their sons shall go back to be lackeys as their fathers were. But this landscape shall always remain.”

Then he bade me note the tides and the many harbours ; and how there was an inner and an outer tide, and the great change between neaps and springs, and how there were no great rivers, but every harbour stood right upon the sea, and how tor the knowledge of each of these harbours even the life of a man was too short…

Then when he had been silent for a little while he began talking of the roads, which fitted into the folds of the hills, and of the low, long window panes of men’s homes, of the deep thatch which covered them, and of that savour of fullness and inheritance which lay fruitfully over all the land. It gave him the pleasure to talk of these things which it gives men who know particular wines to talk of those wines, or men who have enjoyed some great risk together to talk together of their dangers overcome. It gave him the same pleasure to talk of England and of his corner of England that it gives some venerable people sometimes to talk of those whom they have loved in youth, or that it gives the true poets to mouth the lines of their immortal peers. It was a satisfaction to hear him say the things he said, because one knew that as he said them his soul was filled…

These truths and many more I should have learned from him, these extravagances and some few others I should have whimsically heard, had I not (since I was young) attempted argument and said to him : “ But all these things change, and what we love so much is, after all, only what we have known in our short time, and it is our souls within that lend divinity to any place, for, save within the soul, all is subject to time.”

Seek first to understand before ever trying to make yourself understood – Covey’s Fifth Habit. At 18, Belloc was too young to shut up his inner voice, his Inner Considering. It’s part of our very own self that projects what could be called ‘divinity’ into things – the little miracle of leaves on a tree preparing to drop into autumn. Never mind about God. Eternity is NOW.

He shook his head determinedly and like one who knows. He did assure me that in a subtle mastering manner the land that bore us made us ourselves, and was the major and the dominant power which moulded, us with firm hands, the day of our being and which designed and gave us, and continued in us, all the form in which we are.

“ You cannot tell this,” I said, “ and neither can I; it is all guesswork to the brevity of man.”

“You are wrong,” he answered quietly. “ I have watched these things for quite three thousand years.”

And before I had time to gasp at those words he had disappeared.

Belloc has been talking to himself as he might have been doing at Sillano – on the long Path a mere sixty miles from Rome :-

There alone I sat and watched the night coming up in these Tuscan hills. The first moon since the waning in Lorraine – (how many nights ago, how many marches!) – hung in the sky, a full crescent, growing into brightness and glory as she assumed her reign. The one star of the west called out his silent companions in their order; the mountains merged into a fainter confusion; heaven and the infinite air became the natural seat of any spirit that watched this spell. The fire-flies darted in the depths of vineyards and of trees below; then the noise of the grasshoppers brought back suddenly the gardens of home; and whatever benediction surrounds our childhood…

I’ve lost track of the source of the following but I like to think that Belloc is here addressing his very much younger self in a sort of celebration of the camera:-

In a garden which must I think lie somewhere apart and enclosed you come across the English grass in Summer beneath the shade of a tree. You were running, but your arms were stretched before you in a sort of dance and balance as though you rather belonged to the air and to the growing things around you and above you than to the earth over which you passed. You were three years old. As in jest, this charming vision was recorded by a camera which some guest had with him, a happy accident. … It so chanced that your figure, when the picture was printed, shone all around with light.

For me, ‘Hilaire Belloc’, name, man & concept, is always ‘shone around with light’…

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