Thursday, December 31, 2015

On Immortality

HERE and there, scattered rarely among men as men are now, you will find one man who does not pursue the same ends as his fellows; but in a peculiar manner leads his life as though his eyes were fixed upon some distant goal or his appetites subjected to some constant and individual influence.

Such a man may be doing any one of many things. He may be a poet, and his occupation may be the writing of good verse, pleased at its sound and pleased as well by the reflection of the pleasure it will give to others. Or he may be devoted, and follow a creed, a single truth or a character which he loves, and whose influence and glory he makes it his business to propagate. Or he may be but a worker in some material, a carver in wood, or a manager of commercial affairs, or a governor and administrator of men, and yet so order his life that his work and his material are his object: not his gain in the end─not his appreciable and calculable gain at least─nor his immediate and ephemeral pleasures.

Such men, if you will examine them, will prove intent upon one ultimate completion of their being which is also (whether they know it or not) a reward, and those who have carefully considered the matter and give it expression say that such men are out a-hunting for Immortality.

Now what is that? There was a man, before the Normans came to England, who sailed from the highest Scandinavian mountains, I think, towards these shores, and landing, fought against men and was wounded so that he was certain to die. When they asked him why he had undertaken that adventure, he answered: "That my name might live between the lips of men."

The young, the adventurous, the admired─how eagerly and how properly do they not crave for glory. Fame has about it a divine something as it were an echo of perfect worship and of perfect praise, which, though it is itself imperfect, may well deceive the young, the adventurous, and the admired. How great to think that things well done and the enlargement of others shall call down upon our names, even when all is lost but the mere names, a continuous and an increasing benediction. Nay, more than this: how great to think of the noise only of an achievement, and to be sure that the poem written, the carving concluded, or the battle won, the achievement of itself, though the name of the achiever be perished or unknown, shall awake those tremendous echoes.

But wait a moment. What is that thing which so does and so desires? What end does it find in glory? It is not the receiver of the benefit; it will not hear that large volume of recognition and of salute. Twist it how you will no end is here, nor in such a pursuit is the pursuer satisfied.

It is true that men who love to create for themselves imaginary stuff, and to feed, their cravings, if they cannot with substance then with dreams, perpetually pretend a satisfaction in such acquirements which the years as they proceed tell them with increasing iteration that they do not feel. The young, the adventurous, the admired, may at first be deceived by such a glamour, and it is in the providential scheme of human affairs, and it is for the good of us all that the pleasing cheat should last while the good things are doing. Thus do substantial verse and noble sculpture and building whose stuff is lasting and whose beauty is almost imperishable, rise to the advantage of mankind─but oh! there is no lasting in the dream.

There comes a day of truth inwardly but ineradicably perceived, when such things, such aspirations, are clearly known for what they are. Of all the affections that pass, of all those things which being made by a power itself perishable, must be unmade again, some may be less, others more lasting, but not one remains for ever.

Nor is this all. What is it, I say, which did the thing and suffered the desire? Not the receiver, still less the work achieved, it was the man that so acted and so desired; and that part of him which was affected thus we call the Soul. Then, surely (one may reason) the soul has, apt to its own nature, a completion which is also a reward, and there is something before it which is not the symbol or the cheat of perfect praise, but is perfect praise; there is surely something before it which is not the symbol or the cheat of life, but life completed.

Now stand at night beneath a clear heaven solemn and severe with stars, comprehend (as the great achievement of our race permits us now to do) what an emptiness and what a scale are there, and you will easily discover in that one glance, or you will feel at least the appalling thing which tempts men to deny their immortality.

There is no man who has closely inquired upon this, and there is none who has troubled himself and admitted a reasonable anxiety upon it, who has not well retained the nature of despair. Those who approach their fellow-beings with assertion and with violence in such a matter, affirming their discovery, their conviction, or their acquired certitude, do an ill service to their kind. It is not thus that the last things should be approached nor the most tremendous problem which man is doomed to envisage be propounded and solved. Ah! the long business in this world! The way in which your deepest love goes up in nothingness and breaks away, and the way in which the strongest and the most continuous element of your dear self is dissipated and fails you in some moment; if I do not understand these things in a man nor comprehend how the turn of the years can obscure or obliterate a man's consciousness of what his end should be, then I act in brute ignorance, or what is much worse, in lack of charity.

How should you not be persuaded, ephemeral intelligence? Does not every matter which you have held closely enough and long enough escape you and withdraw? Is not that doom true of things which were knit into us, and were of necessity, so to speak, prime parts of our being? Is it not true of the network and the structure which supports whatever we are, and without which we cannot imagine ourselves to be? We ourselves perish. Of that there is no doubt at all. One is here talking and alive. His friends are with him: on the time when they shall meet again he is utterly not there. The motionless flesh before his mourners is nothing. It is not a simulacrum, it is not an outline, it is not a recollection of the man, but rather something wholly gone useless. As for that voice, those meanings in the eyes, and that gesture of the hand, it has suddenly and entirely ceased to be.

Then how shall we deny the dreadful conclusion (to which how many elder civilizations have not turned!) that we must seek in vain for any gift to the giver for any workers' wage, or, rather, to put it more justly, for a true end to the life we lead. Yet it is not so. The conclusion is more weighty by far that all things bear their fruit: that the comprehender and the master of so much, the very mind, suffers to no purpose and in one moment a tragic, final, and unworthy catastrophe agrees with nothing other that we know. It is not thus of the good things of the earth that turn kindly into the earth again. It cannot be thus with that which makes of all the earth a subject thing for contemplation and for description, for understanding, and, if it so choose─for sacrifice.

Those of our race who have deliberately looked upon the scroll and found there nothing to read, who have lifted the curtain and found beyond it nothing to see, have faced their conclusions with a nobility which should determine us; for that nobility does prove, or, if it does not prove, compels us to proclaim, that the soul of man which breeds it has somewhere a lasting home. The conclusion is imperative.

Let not any one pretend in his faith that his faith is immediately evident and everywhere acceptable. There is in all who pretend to judgment a sense of the doubt that lies between the one conviction and the other, and all acknowledge that the scales swing normally upon the beam for normal men. But they swing─and one is the heavier.

The poets, who are our interpreters, know well and can set forth the contrast between such intimations and such despair.

The long descent of wasted days
To these at last have led me down:
Remember that I filled with praise
The meaningless and doubtful ways
That lead to an eternal town.

Moreover, since we have spoken of the night it is only reasonable to consider the alternate dawn. The quality of light, its merry action on the mind, the daylit sky under whose benediction we repose and in which our kind has always seen the picture of its final place: are these then visions and deceits?

~Hilaire Belloc: in On Something.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Europe and the Faith: Chap. X. Conclusion

THE grand effect of the Reformation was the isolation of the soul.

This was its fruit: from this all its consequences proceed: not only those clearly noxious, which have put in jeopardy the whole of our traditions and all our happiness, but those apparently advantageous, especially in material things.

The process cannot be seen at work if we take a particular date─especially too early a date─and call it the moment of the catastrophe. There was a long interval of confusion and doubt, in which it was not certain whether the catastrophe would be final or no, in which its final form remained undetermined, and only upon the conclusion of which could modern Europe with its new divisions, and its new fates, be perceived clearly. The breach with authority began in the very first years of the sixteenth century. It is not till the middle of the seventeenth century at least, and even somewhat later, that the new era begins.

For more than a hundred years the conception of the struggle as an oecumenical struggle, as something affecting the whole body of Europe, continued. The general upheaval, the revolt, which first shook the West in the early years of the sixteenth century─to take a particular year, the year 1517─concerned all our civilization, was everywhere debated, produced an universal reaction met by as universal a resistance, for three generations of men. No young man who saw the first outbreak of the storm could imagine it even in old age, as a disruption of Europe. No such man lived to see it more than half way through.

It was not till a corresponding date in the succeeding century─or rather later─not till Elizabeth of England and Henry IV. of France were dead (and all the protagonists, the Reformers on the one side, Loyola, Neri, on the other, long dead) not till the career of Richelieu in the one country and the beginnings of an aristocratic Parliament in England were apparent, that the Reformation could clearly be seen to have separated certain districts of our civilization from the general traditions of the whole, and to have produced, in special regions and sections of society, the peculiar Protestant type which was to mark the future.

The work of the Reformation was accomplished, one may say, a little after the outbreak of the Thirty Years' War. England in particular was definitely Protestant by the decade 1620-1630─hardly earlier. The French Huguenot body, though still confused with political effort, had come to have a separate and real existence at about the same time. The Oligarchy of Dutch merchants had similarly cut off their part of the Low Countries from imperial rule, and virtually established their independence. The North German Principalities and sundry smaller states of the mountains (notably Geneva), had definitely received the new stamp. As definitely France, Bohemia, the Danube, Poland and Italy and all the South were saved.

Though an armed struggle was long to continue, though the North Germans were nearly recaptured by the Imperial Power and only saved by French policy, though we were to have a reflex of it here in the Civil Wars and the destruction of the Crown, and though the last struggle against the Stuarts and the greater general war against Louis XIV. were but sequels to the vast affair, yet the great consequence of that affair was fixed before these wars began. The first third of the seventeenth century launches a new epoch. From about that time there go forward upon parallel lines the great spiritual and consequent temporal processes of modern Europe. They have yet to come to judgment, for they are not yet fulfilled: but perhaps their judgment is near.

These processes filling the last three hundred years have been as follows: (1) A rapid extension of physical science and with it of every other form of acquaintance with demonstrable and measurable things. (2) The rise, chiefly in the new Protestant part of Europe (but spreading thence in part to the Catholic) of what we call today "Capitalism," that is, the possession of the means of production by the few, and their exploitation of the many. (3) The corruption of the principle of authority until it was confused with mere force. (4) The general, though not universal, growth of total wealth with the growth of physical knowledge. (5) The ever widening effect of skepticism, which, whether masked under traditional forms or no, was from the beginning a spirit of _complete_ negation and led at last to the questioning not only of any human institutions, but of the very forms of thought and of the mathematical truths. (6) With all these of course we have had a universal mark─the progressive extension of despair.

Could anyone look back upon these three centuries from some very great distance of time, he would see them as an episode of extraordinary extension in things that should be dissociated: knowledge and wealth, on the one hand, the unhappiness of men upon the other. And he would see that as the process matured, or rather as the corruption deepened, all its marks were pushed to a degree so extreme as to jeopardize at last the very structure of European society. Physical science acquired such power, the oppression of the poor was pushed to such a length, the reasoning spirit in man was permitted to attain such a tottering pitch of insecurity, that a question never yet put to Europe arose at last─whether Europe, not from external foes, but from her own inward lesion may not fail.

Corresponding to that terrible and as yet unanswered question─the culmination of so much evil─necessarily arises this the sole vital formula of our time: "Europe must return to the Faith, or she will perish."

* * * * *

I have said that the prime product of the Reformation was the isolation of the soul. That truth contains, in its development, very much more than its mere statement might promise.

The isolation of the soul means a loss of corporate sustenance; of the sane balance produced by general experience, the weight of security, and the general will. The isolation of the soul is the very definition of its unhappiness. But this solvent applied to society does very much more than merely complete and confirm human misery.

In the first place and underlying all, the isolation of the soul releases in a society a furious new accession of _force_. The break-up of any stable system in physics, as in society, makes actual a prodigious reserve of potential energy. It transforms the power that was keeping things together with a power driving separably each component part: the effect of an explosion. That is why the Reformation launched the whole series of material advance, but launched it chaotically and on divergent lines which would only end in disaster. But the thing had many other results.

Thus, we next notice that the new isolation of the soul compelled the isolated soul to strong vagaries. The soul will not remain in the void. If you blind it, it will grope. If it cannot grasp what it appreciates by every sense, it will grasp what it appreciates by only one.

On this account in the dissolution of the corporate sense and of corporate religion you had successive idols set up, worthy and unworthy, none of them permanent. The highest and the most permanent was a reaction towards corporate life in the shape of a worship of nationality─patriotism.

You had at one end of the scale an extraordinary new tabus, the erection in one place of a sort of maniac god, blood-thirsty, an object of terror. In another (or the same) a curious new ritual observance of nothingness upon every seventh day. In another an irrational attachment to a particular printed book. In another successive conceptions: first, that the human reason was sufficient for the whole foundations of human life─that there were no mysteries: next, the opposite extravagance that the human reason had no authority even in its own sphere. And these two, though contradictory, had one root. The rationalism of the eighteenth century carried on through the materialism of the nineteenth, the irrational doubts of Kant (which included much emotional rubbish) carried on to the sheer chaos of the later metaphysicians, with their denial of contradictions, and even of being. Both sprang from this necessity of the unsupported soul to make itself some system from within: as the unsupported soul, in an evil dream, now stifles in strict confinement and is next dissolved in some fearful emptiness.

All this, the first interior effect of the Reformation, strong in proportion to the strength of the reforming movement, powerful in the regions or sects which had broken away, far less powerful in those which had maintained the Faith, would seem to have run its full course, and to have settled at last into universal negation and a universal challenge proffered to every institution, and every postulate. But since humanity cannot repose in such a stage of anarchy, we may well believe that there is coming, or has already begun, yet another stage, in which the lack of corporate support for the soul will breed attempted strange religions: witchcrafts and necromancies.

It may be so. It may be that the great debate will come up for final settlement before such novel diseases spread far. At any rate, for the moment we are clearly in a stage of complete negation. But it is to be repeated that this breaking up of the foundations differs in degree with varying societies, that still in a great mass of Europe, numerically the half perhaps, the necessary anchors of sanity still hold: and that half is the half where directly by the practice of the Faith, or indirectly through a hold upon some part of its tradition, the Catholic Church exercises an admitted or distant authority over the minds of men.

The next process we note is─by what some may think a paradox─also due to the isolation of the soul. It is the process of increasing knowledge. Men acting in a fashion highly corporate will not so readily question, nor therefore so readily examine, as will men acting alone. Men whose major results are taken upon an accepted philosophy, will not be driven by such a need of inquiry as those who have abandoned that guide. In the moment, more than a thousand years ago, when the last of the evangelizing floodtide was still running strongly, a very great man wrote of the physical sciences: "Upon such toys I wasted my youth." And another wrote, speaking of divine knowledge: "All the rest is smoke."

But in the absences of faith, demonstrable things are the sole consolation.

There are three forms in which the human mind can hold the truth: The form of Science, which means that we accept a thing through demonstration, and therefore cannot admit the possibility of its opposite. The form of Opinion, which means that we accept a thing through probability, that is through a partial, but not complete demonstration, and therefore we do not deny the possibility of the opposite. The form of Faith, where we accept the thing without demonstration and yet deny the possibility of its opposite, as for instance, the faith of all men, not mad, in the existence of the universe about them, and of other human minds.

When acknowledged and defined Faith departs, it is clear that of the remaining two rivals, Opinion has no ground against Science. That which can be demonstrated holds all the field. Indeed, it is the mark of modern insufficiency that it can conceive of no other form of certitude save certitude through demonstration, and therefore does not, as a rule, appreciate even its own unproved first principles.

Well, this function of the isolated soul, inquiry and the necessity for demonstration for individual conviction through measurement and physical fixed knowledge, has occupied, as we all know, the three modern centuries. We all are equally familiar with its prodigious results. Not one of them has, as yet, added to human happiness: not one but has been increasingly misused to the misery of man. There is in the tragedy something comic also, which is the perpetual puzzlement of these the very authors of discovery, to find that, somehow or other, discovery alone does not create joy, and that, somehow or other, a great knowledge can be used ill, as anything else can be used ill. Also in their bewilderment, many turn to a yet further extension of physical science as promising, in some illogical way, relief.

A progression in physical science and in the use of instruments is so natural to man (so long as civic order is preserved) that it would, indeed, have taken place, not so rapidly, but as surely, had the unity of Europe been preserved. But the destruction of that unity totally accelerated the pace and as totally threw the movement off its rails.

The Renaissance, a noble and vividly European thing, was much older than the Reformation, which was its perversion and corruption. The doors upon modern knowledge had been opened before the soul, which was to enter them, had been cut off from its fellows. We owe the miscarriage of all our great endeavor in this field, not to that spring of endeavor, but to its deflection. It is a blasphemy to deny the value of advancing knowledge, and at once a cowardice and a folly to fear it for its supposed consequences. Its consequences are only evil through an evil use, that is, through an evil philosophy.

In connection with this release of powerful inquiry through the isolation of the soul, you have an apparently contradictory, and certainly supplementary effect: the setting up of unfounded external authority. It is a curious development, one very little recognized, but one which a fixed observance of the modern world will immediately reveal; and those who come to see it are invariably astonished at the magnitude of its action. Men─under the very influence of skepticism─have come to accept almost any printed matter, almost any repeated name, as an authority infallible and to be admitted without question. They have come to regard the denial of such authority as a sort of insanity, or rather they have in most practical affairs, come to be divided into two groups: a small number of men, who know the truth, say, upon a political matter or some financial arrangement, or some unsolved problem; and a vast majority, which accepts without question an always incomplete, a usually quite false, statement of the thing because it has been repeated in the daily press and vulgarized in a hundred books.

This singular and fantastic result of the long divorce between the non-Catholic mind and reason has a profound effect upon the modern world. Indeed, the great battle about to be engaged between chaos and order will turn largely upon this form of suggestion, this acceptation of an unfounded and irrational authority.

Lastly, there is of the major consequences of the Reformation that phenomenon which we have come to call "Capitalism," and which many, recognizing its universal evil, wrongly regard as the prime obstacle to right settlement of human society and to the solution of our now intolerable modern strains.

What is called "Capitalism" arose directly in all its branches from the isolation of the soul. That isolation permitted an unrestricted competition. It gave to superior cunning and even to superior talent an unchecked career. It gave every license to greed. And on the other side it broke down the corporate bonds whereby men maintain themselves in an economic stability. Through it there arose in England first, later throughout the more active Protestant nations, and later still in various degrees throughout the rest of Christendom, a system under which a few possessed the land and the machinery of production, and the many were gradually dispossessed. The many thus dispossessed could only exist upon doles meted out by the possessors, nor was human life a care to these. The possessors also mastered the state and all its organs─hence the great National Debts which accompanied the system: hence even the financial hold of distant and alien men upon subject provinces of economic effort: hence the draining of wealth not only from increasingly dissatisfied subjects over-seas, but from the individual producers of foreign independent states.

The true conception of property disappears under such an arrangement, and you naturally get a demand for relief through the denial of the principle of ownership altogether. Here again, as in the matter of the irrational _tabus_ and of skepticism, two apparently contradictory things have one root: Capitalism, and the ideal inhuman system (not realizable) called Socialism, both spring from one type of mind and both apply to one kind of diseased society.

Against both, the pillar of reaction is peasant society, and peasant society has proved throughout Europe largely coördinate with the remaining authority of the Catholic Church. For a peasant society does not mean a society composed of peasants, but one in which modern Industrial Capitalism yields to agriculture, and in which agriculture is, in the main, conducted by men possessed in part or altogether of their instruments of production and of the soil, either through ownership or customary tenure. In such a society all the institutions of the state repose upon an underlying conception of secure and well-divided private property which can never be questioned and which colors all men's minds. And that doctrine, like every other sane doctrine, though applicable only to temporal conditions, has the firm support of the Catholic Church.

* * * * *

So things have gone. We have reached at last, as the final result of that catastrophe three hundred years ago, a state of society which cannot endure and a dissolution of standards, a melting of the spiritual framework, such that the body politic fails. Men everywhere feel that an attempt to continue down this endless and ever darkening road is like the piling up of debt. We go further and further from a settlement. Our various forms of knowledge diverge more and more. Authority, the very principle of life, loses its meaning, and this awful edifice of civilization which we have inherited, and which is still our trust, trembles and threatens to crash down. It is clearly insecure. It may fall in any moment. We who still live may see the ruin. But ruin when it comes is not only a sudden, it is also a final, thing.

In such a crux there remains the historical truth: that this our European structure, built upon the noble foundations of classical antiquity, was formed through, exists by, is consonant to, and will stand only in the mold of, the Catholic Church.

Europe will return to the Faith, or she will perish.

The Faith is Europe. And Europe is the Faith.

~Hilaire Belloc

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

On Fame

FAME is that repute among men which gives us pleasure. It needs much repetition, but also that repetition honourable. Of all things desired Fame least fulfils the desire for it; for if Fame is to be very great a man must be dead before it is more than a shoot; he therefore has not the enjoyment of it (as it would seem). Again, Fame while a man lives is always tarnished with falsehood; for since few can observe him; and less know him, he must have Fame for work which he does not do and forego Fame for work which he knows deserves it.

Fame has no proper ending to it, when it is first begun, as have things belonging to other appetites, nor is any man satiated with it at any time. Upon the contrary, the hunger after it will lead a man forward madly always to some sort of disaster, whether of disappointment in the soul, or of open dishonour.

Fame is not to be despised or trodden under as a thing not to be sought, for no man is free of the desire of it, nor can any man believe that desire to be an imperfection in him unless he desire at the same time something greater than Fame, and even then there is a flavour of Fame certain to attach to his achievement in the greater thing. No one can say of Fame, “I contemn it”; as a man can say of titles, “I contemn them.” Nor can any man say of the love of Fame, “This is a thing I should cast from me as evil,” as a man can say of lust when it is inordinate, that is, out of place. Nor can any man say of Fame, “It is a little thing,” for if he says that he is less or more than a man.

The love of Fame is the mobile of all great work in which also man is in the image of God, who not only created but took pleasure in what he did and, as we know, is satisfied by praise thereof.

In what way, then, shall men treat Fame? How shall they seek it, or hope to use it if obtained? To these questions it is best answered that a man should have for Fame a natural appetite, not forced nor curiously entertained; it must be present in him if he would do noble things. Yet if he makes the Fame of those things, and not those things themselves his chief business, then not only will he pursue Fame to his hurt, but also Fame will miss him. Though he should not disregard it yet he must not pursue it to himself too much, but he will rightly make of it in difficult times a great consolation.

When Fame comes upon a man well before death then must he most particularly beware of it, for is it then most dangerous. Neither must he, having achieved it, relax effort not (a much greater peril) think he has done his work because some Fame now attaches thereto.

Some say that after a man has died the spreading of his earthly Fame is still a pleasure to him among greater scenes: but this is doubtful. One thing is certain, Fame is enjoyable in good things accomplished; bitter, noisome and poisonous in all other things—whether it be the Fame of things thought to be accomplished but not accomplished, or Fame got by accident, or Fame for evil things concealed because they are evil.

The judgment of Fame is this: That many men having done great things of a good sort have not Fame. And that many men have Fame who have done little things and most of them evil. The virtue of Fame is that it nourishes endeavour. The peril of Fame is that it leads men towards itself, and therefore into inanities and sheer loss. But Fame has a fruit, which is a sort of satisfaction coming from our communion with mankind.

They that believe they deserve Fame though they lack it may be consoled in this: that soon they shall be concerned with much more lasting things, and things more immediate and more true: just as a man who misses some entertainment at a show will console himself if he knows that shortly he shall meet his love. They that have Fame may correct its extravagances by the same token: remembering that shortly they will be so occupied that this earthly Fame of theirs will seem a toy. Old men know this well.  

~Hilaire Belloc: in This And That And The Other.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Ballade To Our Lady Of Czestochowa

Lady and Queen and Mystery manifold 
And very Regent of the untroubled sky, 
Whom in a dream St. Hilda did behold 
And heard a woodland music passing by: 
You shall receive me when the clouds are high 
With evening and the sheep attain the fold. 
This is the faith that I have held and hold, 
And this is that in which I mean to die. 


Steep are the seas and savaging and cold 
In broken waters terrible to try; 
And vast against the winter night the wold, 
And harbourless for any sail to lie. 
But you shall lead me to the lights, and I 
Shall hymn you in a harbour story told. 
This is the faith that I have held and hold, 
And this is that in which I mean to die. 


Help of the half-defeated, House of gold, 
Shrine of the Sword, and Tower of Ivory; 
Splendour apart, supreme and aureoled, 
The Battler's vision and the World's reply. 
You shall restore me, O my last Ally, 
To vengence and the glories of the bold. 
This is the faith that I have held and hold, 
And this is that in which I mean to die. 


Prince of the degradations, bought and sold, 
These verses, written in your crumbling sty, 
Proclaim the faith that I have held and hold 
And publish that in which I mean to die.

~Hilaire Belloc

The Black Madonna of Częstochowa, Poland. (Original painting)

See also, The Black Madonna of Czestochowa, a commentary by Zsolt Aradi.

Monday, December 7, 2015

On Bridges

STAND on the side of a stream and consider two things: the imbecility of your private nature and the genius of your common kind.

For you cannot cross the stream, you─Individual you; but Man (from whence you come) has found out an art for crossing it. This art is the building of bridges. And hence man in the general may properly be called Pontifex, or "The Bridge Builder"; and his symbolic summits of office will carry some such title.

Here I will confess (Individual) that I am tempted to leave you by the side of the stream, to swim it if you can, to drown if you can't, or to go back home and be eaten out with your desire for the ulterior shore, while I digress upon that word Pontifex, which, note you, is not only a name over a shop as "Henry Pontifex, Italian Warehouseman," or "Pontifex Brothers, Barbers," but a true key-word breeding ideas and making one consider the greatness of man, or rather the greatness of what made him.

For man builds bridges over streams, and he has built bridges more or less stable between mind and mind (a difficult art!), having designed letters for that purpose, which are his instrument; and man builds by prayer a bridge between himself and God; man also builds bridges which unite him with Beauty all about.

Thus he paints and draws and makes statues, and builds for beauty as well as for shelter from the weather. And man builds bridges between knowledge and knowledge, co-ordinating one thing that he knows with another thing that he knows, and putting a bridge from each to each. And man is for ever building─but he has never yet completed, nor ever will─that bridge they call philosophy, which is to explain himself in relation to that whence he came. I say, when his skeleton is put in the Museum properly labelled, it shall be labelled not Homo Sapiens, but Homo Pontifex; hence also the anthem, or rather the choral response, "Pontificem habemus," which is sung so nobly by pontifical great choirs, when pontifications are pontificated, as behooves the court of a Pontiff.

Nevertheless (Individual) I will not leave you there, for I have pity on you, and I will explain to you the nature of bridges. By a bridge was man's first worry overcome. For note you, there is no worry so considerable as to wail by impassable streams (as Swinburne has it). It is the proper occupation of the less fortunate dead.

Believe me, without bridges the world would be very different to you. You take them for granted, you lollop along the road, you cross a bridge. You may be so ungrateful as to forget all about it, but it is an awful thing!

A bridge is a violation of the will of nature and a challenge. "You desired me not to cross," says man to the River God, "but I will." And he does so: not easily. The god had never objected to him that he should swim and wet himself. Nay, when he was swimming the god could drown him at will, but to bridge the stream, nay, to insult it, to leap over it, that was man all over; in a way he knows that the earthy gods are less than himself and that all that he dreads is his inferior, for only that which he reveres and loves can properly claim his allegiance. Nor does he in the long run pay that allegiance save to holiness, or in a lesser way to valour and to worth.

Man cannot build bridges everywhere. They are not multitudinous as are his roads, nor universal as are his pastures and his tillage. He builds from time to time in one rare place and another, and the bridge always remains a sacred thing. Moreover, the bridge is always in peril. The little bridge at Paris which carried the Roman road to the island was swept away continually; and the bridge of Staines that carried the Roman road from the great port to London was utterly destroyed.

Bridges have always lived with fear in their hearts; and if you think this is only true of old bridges (Individual), have you forgotten the Tay Bridge with the train upon it? Or the bridge that they were building over the St. Lawrence some little time ago, or the bridge across the Loire where those peasants went to their death on a Sunday only a few months since? Carefully consider these things and remember that the building and the sustaining of a bridge is always a wonderful and therefore a perilous thing.

No bridges more testify to the soul of man than the bridges that leap in one arch from height to height over the gorge of a torrent. Many of these are called the Devil's Bridges with good reason, for they suggest art beyond man's power, and there are two to be crossed and wondered at, one in Wales in the mountains, and another in Switzerland, also in the mountains. There is a third in the mountains at the gate of the Sahara, of the same sort, jumping from rock to rock. But it is not called the Devil's Bridge. It is called with Semitic simplicity "El Kantara," and that is the name the Arabs gave to the old bridges, to the lordly bridges of the Romans, wherever they came across them, for the Arabs were as incapable of making bridges as they were of doing anything else except singing love songs and riding about on horses. "Alcantara" is a name all over Spain, and it is in the heart of the capital of Portugal, and it is fixed in the wilds of Estremadura. You get it outside Constantine also where the bridge spans the gulf. Never did an Arab see bridges but he wondered.

Our people also, though they were not of the sort to stand with their mouths open in front of bridges or anything else, felt the mystery of these things. And they put chapels in the middle of them, as you may see at Bale, and at Bradford-upon-Avon, and especially was there one upon old London Bridge, which was dedicated to St. Thomas a Becket, and was very large. And speaking of old London Bridge, every one in London should revere bridges, for a great number of reasons.

In the first place London never would have been London but for London Bridge.

In the second place, bridges enable the people of London to visit the south of the river, which is full of pleasing and extraordinary sights, and in which may be seen, visibly present to the eye, Democracy. If any one doubts this let him take the voyage.

Then again, but for bridges Londoners could not see the river except from the Embankment, which is an empty sort of place, or from the windows of hotels. Bridges also permit railways from the south to enter London. If this seems to you a commonplace, visit New York or for ever after hold your peace.

All things have been degraded in our time and have also been multiplied, which is perhaps a condition of degradation; and your simple thing, your bridge, has suffered with the rest. Men have invented all manner of bridges: tubular bridges, suspension bridges, cantilever bridges, swing bridges, pontoon bridges, and the bridge called the Russian Bridge, which is intolerable; but they have not been able to do with the bridge what they have done with some other things: they have not been able to destroy it; it is still a bridge, still perilous, and still a triumph. The bridge still remains the thing which may go at any moment and yet the thing which, when it remains, remains our oldest monument. There is a bridge over the Euphrates─I forget whether it goes all the way across─which the Romans built. And the oldest thing in the way of bridges in the town of Paris, a thing three hundred years old, was the bridge that stood the late floods best. The bridge will remain a symbol in spite of the engineers.

Look how differently men have treated bridges according to the passing mood of civilization. Once they thought it reasonable to tax people who crossed bridges. Now they think it unreasonable. Yet the one course was as reasonable as the other. Once they built houses on bridges, clearly perceiving that there was lack of room for houses, and that there was a housing problem, and that the bridges gave a splendid chance. Now no one dares to build a house upon a bridge, and the one proceeding is as reasonable as the other.

The time has come to talk at random about bridges.

The ugliest bridge in the world runs from Lambeth to the Horseferry Road, and takes the place of the old British trackway which here crossed the Thames. About the middle of it, if you will grope in the mud, you may or may not find the great Seal of England which James II there cast into the flood. If it was fished up again, why then it is not there. The most beautiful bridge in London is Waterloo Bridge; the most historic is London Bridge; and far the most useful Westminster Bridge. The most famous bridge in Italy to tourists is the old bridge at Florence, and the best known from pictures the Bridge of Sighs in Venice. That with the best chance of an eternal fame is the bridge which carries the road from Tizzano to Serchia over the gully of the muddy Apennines, for upon the 18th of June, 1901, it was broken down in the middle of the night, and very nearly cost the life of a man who could ill afford it. The place where a bridge is most needed, and is not present, is the Ford of Fornovo. The place where there is most bridge and where it is least needed is the railway bridge at Venice. The bridge that trembles most is the Bridge of Piacenza. The bridge that frightens you most is the Brooklyn Bridge, and the bridge that frightens you least is the bridge in St. James's Park; for even if you are terrified by water in every form, as are too many boastful men, you must know, or can be told, that there is but a dampness of some inches in the sheet below. The longest bridge for boring one is the railway bridge across the Somme to St. Valery, whence Duke William started with a horseshoe mouth and very glum upon his doubtful adventure to invade these shores─but there was no bridge in his time. The shortest bridge is made of a plank, in the village of Loudwater in the county of Bucks, not far from those Chiltern Hundreds which men take in Parliament for the good of their health as a man might take the waters. The most entertaining bridge is the Tower Bridge, which lifts up and splits into two just as you are beginning to cross it, as can be testified by a cloud of witnesses. The broadest bridge is the Alexandre III Bridge in Paris, at least it looks the broadest, while the narrowest bridge, without a shadow of doubt, is the bridge that was built by ants in the moon; if the phrase startles you remember it is only in a novel by Wells.

The first elliptical bridge was designed by a monk of Cortona, and the first round one by Adam....

But one might go on indefinitely about bridges and I am heartily tired of them. Let them cross and recross the streams of the world. I for my part will stay upon my own side.

~Hilaire Belloc

Part of Old Westminster Bridge, by Samuel Scott.
Oil on canvas, c. 1750; Tate Gallery, London.

Monday, November 30, 2015

On Death

I knew a man once who made a great case of Death, saying that he esteemed a country according to its regard for the conception of Death, and according to the respect which it paid to that conception. He also said that he considered individuals by much the same standard, but that he did not judge them so strictly in the matter, because (said he) great masses of men are more permanently concerned with great issues; whereas private citizens are disturbed by little particular things which interfere with their little particular lives, and so distract them from the general end.

This was upon a river called Boutonne, in Vendée, and at the time I did not understand what he meant because as yet I had had no experience of these things. But this man to whom I spoke had had three kinds of experience; first, he had himself been very probably the occasion of Death in others, for he had been a soldier in a war of conquest where the Europeans were few and the Barbarians many! secondly, he had been himself very often wounded, and more than once all but killed; thirdly, he was at the time he told me this thing an old man who must in any case soon come to that experience or catastrophe of which he spoke.

He was an innkeeper, the father of two daughters, and his inn was by the side of the river, but the road ran between. His face was more anxiously earnest than is commonly the face of a French peasant, as though he had suffered more than do ordinarily that very prosperous, very virile, and very self-governing race of men. He had also about him what many men show who have come sharply against the great realities, that is, a sort of diffidence in talking of ordinary things. I could see that in the matters of his household he allowed himself to be led by women. Meanwhile he continued to talk to me over the table upon this business of Death, and as he talked he showed that desire to persuade which is in itself the strongest motive of interest in any human discourse.

He said to me that those who affected to despise the consideration of Death knew nothing of it; that they had never seen it close and might be compared to men who spoke of battles when they had only read books about battles, or who spoke of sea-sickness though they had never seen the sea. This last metaphor he used with some pride, for he had crossed the Mediterranean from Provence to Africa some five or six times, and had upon each occasion suffered horribly; for, of course, his garrison had been upon the edge of the desert, and he had been a soldier beyond the Atlas. He told me that those who affected to neglect or to despise Death were worse than children talking of grown-up things, and were more like prigs talking of physical things of which they knew nothing.

I told him then that there were many such men, especially in the town of Geneva. This, he said, he could well believe, though he had never travelled there, and had hardly heard the name of the place. But he knew it for some foreign town. He told me, also, that there were men about in his own part of the world who pretended that since Death was an accident like any other, and, moreover, one as certain as hunger or as sleep, it was not to be considered. These, he said, were the worst debaters upon his favourite subject.

Now as he talked in this fashion I confess that I was very bored. I had desired to go on to Angouléme upon my bicycle, and I was at that age when all human beings think themselves immortal. I had desired to get off the main high road into the hills upon the left, to the east of it, and I was at an age when the cessation of mundane experience is not a conceivable thing. Moreover, this innkeeper had been pointed out to me as a man who could give very useful information upon the nature of the roads I had to travel, and it had never occurred to me that he would switch me off after dinner upon a hobby of his own. To-day, after a wider travel, I know well that all innkeepers have hobbies, and that an abstract or mystical hobby of this sort is amongst the best with which to pass an evening. But no matter, I am talking of then and not now. He kept me, therefore, uninterested as I was, and continued:

"People who put Death away from them, who do not neglect or despise it but who stop thinking about it, annoy me very much. We have in this village a chemist of such a kind. He will have it that, five minutes afterwards, a man thinks no more about it." Having gone so far, the innkeeper, clenching his hands and fixing me with a brilliant glance from his old eyes, said:

"With such men I will have nothing to do!"

Indeed, that his chief subject should be treated in such a fashion was odious to him, and rightly, for of the half-dozen things worth strict consideration, there is no doubt that his hobby was the chief, and to have one's hobby vulgarly despised is intolerable.

The innkeeper then went on to tell me that so far as he could make out it was a man's business to consider this subject of Death continually, to wonder upon it, and, if he could, to extract its meaning. Of the men I had met so far in life, only the Scotch and certain of the Western French went on in this metaphysical manner: thus a Breton, a Basque, and a man in Ecclefechan (I hope I spell it right) and another in Jedburgh had already each of them sent me to my bed confused upon the matter of free will. So this Western innkeeper refused to leave his thesis. It was incredible to him that a Sentient Being who perpetually accumulated experience, who grew riper and riper, more and more full of such knowledge as was native to himself and complementary to his nature, should at the very crisis of his success in all things intellectual and emotional, cease suddenly. It was further an object to him of vast curiosity why such a being, since a future was essential to it, should find that future veiled.

He presented to me a picture of men perpetually passing through a field of vision out of the dark and into the dark. He showed me these men, not growing and falling as fruits do (so the modern vulgar conception goes) but alive throughout their transit: pouring like an unbroken river from one sharp limit of the horizon whence they entered into life to that other sharp limit where they poured out from life, not through decay, but through a sudden catastrophe.

"I," said he, "shall die, I do suppose, with a full consciousness of my being and with a great fear in my eyes. And though many die decrepit and senile, that is not the normal death of men, for men have in them something of a self-creative power, which pushes them on to the further realisation of themselves, right up to the edge of their doom."

I put his words in English after a great many years, but they were something of this kind, for he was a metaphysical sort of man.

It was now near midnight, and I could bear with such discussions no longer; my fatigue was great and the hour at which I had to rise next day was early. It was, therefore, in but a drowsy state that I heard him continue his discourse. He told me a long story of how he had seen one day a company of young men of the New Army, the conscripts, go marching past his house along the river through a driving snow. He said that first he heard them singing long before he saw them, that then they came out like ghosts for a moment through the drift, that then in the half light of the winter dawn they clearly appeared, all in step for once, swinging forward, muffled in their dark blue coats, and still singing to the lift of their feet; that then on their way to the seaport, they passed again into the blinding scurry of the snow, that they seemed like ghosts again for a moment behind the veil of it, and that long after they had disappeared their singing could still be heard.

By this time I was most confused as to what lesson he would convey, and sleep had nearly overcome me, but I remember his telling me that such a sight stood to him at the moment and did still stand for the passage of the French Armies perpetually on into the dark, century after century, destroyed for the most part upon fields of battle. He told me that he felt like one who had seen the retreat from Moscow, and he would, I am sure, had I not determined to leave him and to take at least some little sleep, have asked me what fate there was for those single private soldiers, each real, each existent, while the Army which they made up and of whose "destruction" men spoke, was but a number, a notion, a name. He would have pestered me, if my mind had still been active, as to what their secret destinies were who lay, each man alone, twisted round the guns after the failure to hold the Bridge of the Beresina. He might have gone deeper, but I was too tired to listen to him any more.

This human debate of ours (and very one-sided it was!) is now resolved, for in the interval since it was engaged the innkeeper himself has died.

~Hilaire Belloc: from On Nothing & Kindred Subjects.(1908)

Saturday, November 28, 2015

"The family"

“THE family is the true unit of the state, and is more important than the state. The state exists for the family, not the family for the state. Property is necessary for its normal and healthy being.”

~Hilaire Belloc: in The Way Out.


Saturday, November 7, 2015

The Autumn And The Fall Of Leaves

IT IS not true that the close of a life which ends in a natural fashion─life which is permitted to put on the pomp of death and to go out in glory─inclines the mind to repose. It is not true of a day ending nor the passing of the year, nor of the fall of leaves. Whatever permanent, uneasy question is native to men, comes forward most insistent and most loud at such times.

There is a house in my own county which is built of stone, whose gardens are fitted to the autumn. It has level alleys standing high and banked with stone. Their ornaments were carved under the influence of that restraint which marked the Stuarts. They stand above old ponds, and are strewn at this moment with the leaves of elms. These walks are like the Mailles of the Flemish cities, the walls of the French towns or the terraces of the Loire. They are enjoyed to-day by whoever has seen all our time go racing by; they are the proper resting-places of the aged, and their spirit is felt especially in the fall of leaves.

At this season a sky which is of so delicate and faint a blue as to contain something of gentle mockery, and certainly more of tenderness, presides at the fall of leaves. There is no air, no breath at all. The leaves are so light that they sidle on their going downward, hesitating in that which is not void to them, and touching at last so imperceptibly the earth with which they are to mingle, that the gesture is much gentler than a salutation, and even more discreet than a discreet caress.

They make a little sound, less than the least of sounds. No bird at night in the marshes rustles so slightly; no man, though men are the subtlest of living beings, put so evanescent a stress upon their sacred whispers or their prayers. The leaves are hardly heard, but they are heard just so much that men also, who are destined at the end to grow glorious and to die, look up and hear them falling.

* * * * *

With what a pageantry of every sort is not that troubling symbol surrounded! The scent of life is never fuller in the woods than now, for the ground is yielding up its memories. The spring when it comes will not restore this fullness, nor these deep and ample recollections of the earth. For the earth seems now to remember the drive of the ploughshare and its harrying; the seed, and the full bursting of it, the swelling and the completion of the harvest. Up to the edge of the woods throughout the weald the earth has borne fruit; the barns are full, and the wheat is standing stacked in the fields, and there are orchards all around. It is upon such a mood of parentage and of fruition that the dead leaves fall.

The colour is not a mere splendour: it is intricate. The same unbounded power, never at fault and never in calculation, which comprehends all the landscape, and which has made the woods, has worked in each one separate leaf as well; they are inconceivably varied. Take up one leaf and see. How many kinds of boundary are there here between the stain which ends in a sharp edge against the gold, and the sweep in which the purple and red mingle more evenly than they do in shot-silk or in flames? Nor are the boundaries to be measured only by degrees of definition. They have also their characters of line. Here in this leaf are boundaries intermittent, boundaries rugged, boundaries curved, and boundaries broken. Nor do shape and definition ever begin to exhaust the list. For there are softness and hardness too: the agreement and disagreement with the scheme of veins; the grotesque and the simple in line; the sharp and the broad, the smooth, and raised in boundaries. So in this one matter of boundaries might you discover for ever new things; there is no end to them. Their qualities are infinite. And beside boundaries you have hues and tints, shades also, varying thicknesses of stuff, and endless choice of surface; that list also is infinite, and the divisions of each item in it are infinite; nor is it of any use to analyse the thing, for everywhere the depth and the meaning of so much creation are beyond our powers. And all this is true of but one dead leaf; and yet every dead leaf will differ from its fellow.

That which has delighted to excel in boundlessness within the bounds of this one leaf, has also transformed the whole forest. There is no number to the particular colour of the one leaf. The forest is like a thing so changeful of its nature that change clings to it as a quality, apparent even during the glance of a moment. This forest makes a picture which is designed, but not seizable. It is a scheme, but a scheme you cannot set down. It is of those things which can best be retained by mere copying with a pencil or a brush. It is of those things which a man cannot fully receive, and which he cannot fully re-express to other men.

It is no wonder, then, that at this peculiar time, this week (or moment) of the year, the desires which if they do not prove at least demand─perhaps remember─our destiny, come strongest. They are proper to the time of autumn, and all men feel them. The air is at once new and old; the morning (if one rises early enough to welcome its leisurely advance) contains something in it of profound reminiscence. The evenings hardly yet suggest (as they soon will) friends and security, and the fires of home. The thoughts awakened in us by their bands of light fading along the downs are thoughts which go with loneliness and prepare me for the isolation of the soul.

It is on this account that tradition has set, at the entering of autumn, for a watch at the gate of the season, the Archangel; and at its close the day and the night of All-Hallows on which the dead return.

~Hilaire Belloc: from Hills and the Sea.

Autumn, by Frederic Edwin Church.
Oil on canvas, 1875; Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.

Thursday, October 29, 2015


A COUPLE of generations ago there was a sort of man going mournfully about who complained of the spread of education. He had an ill-ease in his mind. He feared that book learning would bring us no good, and he was called a fool for his pains. Not undeservedly─for his thoughts were muddled, and if his heart was good it was far better than his head. He argued badly or he merely affirmed, but he had strong allies (Ruskin was one of them), and, like every man who is sincere, there was something in what he said; like every type which is numerous, there was a human feeling behind him: and he was very numerous.

Now that he is pretty well extinct we are beginning to understand what he meant and what there was to be said for him. The greatest of the French Revolutionists was right ─ "After bread, the most crying need of the populace is knowledge." But what knowledge?

The truth is that secondary impressions, impressions gathered from books and from maps, are valuable as adjuncts to primary impressions (that is, impressions gathered through the channel of our senses), or, what is always almost as good and sometimes better, the interpreting voice of the living man. For you must allow me the paradox that in some mysterious way the voice and gesture of a living witness always convey something of the real impression he has had, and sometimes convey more than we should have received ourselves from our own sight and hearing of the thing related.

Well, I say, these secondary impressions are valuable as adjuncts to primary impressions. But when they stand absolute and have hardly any reference to primary impressions, then they may deceive. When they stand not only absolute but clothed with authority, and when they pretend to convince us even against our own experience, they are positively undoing the work which education was meant to do. When we receive them merely as an enlargement of what we know and make of the unseen things of which we read, things in the image of the seen, then they quite distort our appreciation of the world.

Consider so simple a thing as a river. A child learns its map and knows, or thinks it knows, that such and such rivers characterize such and such nations and their territories. Paris stands upon the River Seine, Rome upon the River Tiber, New Orleans on the Mississippi, Toledo upon the River Tagus, and so forth. That child will know one river, the river near his home. And he will think of all those other rivers in its image. He will think of the Tagus and the Tiber and the Seine and the Mississippi ─ and they will all be the river near his home. Then let him travel, and what will he come across? The Seine, if he is from these islands, may not disappoint him or astonish him with a sense of novelty and of ignorance. It will indeed look grander and more majestic, seen from the enormous forest heights above its lower course, than what, perhaps, he had thought possible in a river, but still it will be a river of water out of which a man can drink, with clear-cut banks and with bridges over it, and with boats that ply up and down. But let him see the Tagus at Toledo, and what he finds is brown rolling mud, pouring solid after the rains, or sluggish and hardly a river after long drought. Let him go down the Tiber, down the Valley of the Tiber, on foot, and he will retain until the last miles an impression of nothing but a turbid mountain torrent, mixed with the friable soil in its bed. Let him approach the Mississippi in the most part of its long course and the novelty will be more striking still. It will not seem to him a river at all (if he be from Northern Europe); it will seem a chance flood. He will come to it through marshes and through swamps, crossing a deserted backwater, finding firm land beyond, then coming to further shallow patches of wet, out of which the tree-stumps stand, and beyond which again mud-heaps and banks and groups of reeds leave undetermined, for one hundred yards after another, the limits of the vast stream. At last, if he has a boat with him, he may make some place where he has a clear view right across to low trees, tiny from their distance, similarly half swamped upon a further shore, and behind them a low escarpment of bare earth. That is the Mississippi nine times out of ten, and to an Englishman who had expected to find from his early reading or his maps a larger Thames it seems for all the world like a stretch of East Anglian flood, save that it is so much more desolate.

The maps are coloured to express the claims of Governments. What do they tell you of the social truth? Go on foot or bicycling through the more populated upland belt of Algiers and discover the curious mixture of security and war which no map can tell you of and which none of the geographies make you understand. The excellent roads, trodden by men that cannot make a road; the walls as ready loopholed for fighting; the Christian church and the mosque in one town; the necessity for and the hatred of the European; the indescribable difference of the sun, which here, even in winter, has something malignant about it, and strikes as well as warms; the mountains odd, unlike our mountains; the forests, which stand as it were by hardihood, and seem at war against the influence of dryness and the desert winds, with their trees far apart, and between them no grass, but bare earth alone.

So it is with the reality of arms and with the reality of the sea. Too much reading of battles has ever unfitted men for war; too much talk of the sea is a poison in these great town populations of ours which know nothing of the sea. Who that knows anything of the sea will claim certitude in connexion with it? And yet there is a school which has by this time turned its mechanical system almost into a commonplace upon our lips, and talks of that most perilous thing, the fortunes of a fleet, as though it were a merely numerical and calculable thing! The greatest of Armadas may set out and not return.

There is one experience of travel and of the physical realities of the world which has been so widely repeated, and which men have so constantly verified, that I could mention it as a last example of my thesis without fear of misunderstanding. I mean the quality of a great mountain.

To one that has never seen a mountain it may seem a full and a fine piece of knowledge to be acquainted with its height in feet exactly, its situation; nay, many would think themselves learned if they know no more than its conventional name. But the thing itself! The curious sense of its isolation from the common world, of its being the habitation of awe, perhaps the brooding-place of a god!

I had seen many mountains, I had travelled in many places, and I had read many particular details in the books ─ and so well noted them upon the maps that I could have re-drawn the maps ─ concerning the Cerdagne. None the less the sight of that wall of the Cerdagne, when first it struck me, coming down the pass from Tourcarol, was as novel as though all my life had been spent upon empty plains. By the map it was 9000 feet. It might have been 90,000! The wonderment as to what lay beyond, the sense that it was a limit to known things, its savage intangibility, its sheer silence! Nothing but the eye seeing could give one all those things.

The old complain that the young will not take advice. But the wisest will tell them that, save blindly and upon authority, the young cannot take it. For most of human and social experience is words to the young, and the reality can come only with years. The wise complain of the jingo in every country; and properly, for he upsets the plans of statesmen, miscalculates the value of national forces, and may, if he is powerful enough, destroy the true spirit of armies. But the wise would be wiser still if, while they blamed the extravagance of this sort of man, they would recognize that it came from that half-knowledge of mere names and lists which excludes reality. It is maps and newspapers that turn an honest fool into a jingo.

It is so again with distance, and it is so with time. Men will not grasp distance unless they have traversed it, or unless it be represented to them vividly by the comparison of great landscapes. Men will not grasp historical time unless the historian shall be at the pains to give them what historians so rarely give, the measure of a period in terms of a human life. It is from secondary impressions divorced from reality that a contempt for the past arises, and that the fatal illusion of some gradual process of betterment of "progress" vulgarizes the minds of men and wastes their effort. It is from secondary impressions divorced from reality that a society imagines itself diseased when it is healthy, or healthy when it is diseased. And it is from secondary impressions divorced from reality that springs the amazing power of the little second-rate public man in those modern machines that think themselves democracies. This last is a power which, luckily, cannot be greatly abused, for the men upon whom it is thrust are not capable even of abuse upon a great scale. It is none the less marvellous in its falsehood.

Now you will say at the end of this, Since you blame so much the power for distortion and for ill residing in our great towns, in our system of primary education and in our papers and in our books, what remedy can you propose? Why, none, either immediate or mechanical. The best and the greatest remedy is a true philosophy, which shall lead men always to ask themselves what they really know and in what order of certitude they know it; where authority actually resides and where it is usurped. But, apart from the advent, or rather the recapture, of a true philosophy by a European society, two forces are at work which will always bring reality back, though less swiftly and less whole. The first is the poet, and the second is Time.

Sooner or later Time brings the empty phrase and the false conclusion up against what is; the empty imaginary looks reality in the face and the truth at once conquers. In war a nation learns whether it is strong or no, and how it is strong and how weak; it learns it as well in defeat as in victory. In the long processes of human lives, in the succession of generations, the real necessities and nature of a human society destroy any false formula upon which it was attempted to conduct it. Time must always ultimately teach.

The poet, in some way it is difficult to understand (unless we admit that he is a seer), is also very powerful as the ally of such an influence. He brings out the inner part of things and presents them to men in such a way that they cannot refuse but must accept it. But how the mere choice and rhythm of words should produce so magical an effect no one has yet been able to comprehend, and least of all the poets themselves.

~Hilaire Belloc: in First and Last

Monday, October 5, 2015

"The Catholic Church"

"THE Catholic Church is an institution I am bound to hold divine — but for unbelievers a proof of its divinity might be found in the fact that no merely human institution conducted with such knavish imbecility would have lasted a fortnight."

~Hilaire Belloc

(Quoted by biographer Robert Speaight, in The Life of Hilaire Belloc.)

Saturday, October 3, 2015


LOOK, how those steep woods on the mountain's face 
Burn, burn against the sunset; now the cold 
Invades our very noon: the year's grown old, 
Mornings are dark, and evenings come apace. 
The vines below have lost their purple grace, 
And in Forreze the white wrack backward rolled, 
Hangs to the hills tempestuous, fold on fold, 
And moaning gusts make desolate all the place.

Mine host the month, at thy good hostelry, 
Tired limbs I'll stretch and steaming beast I'll tether; 
Pile on great logs with Gascon hand and free, 
And pour the Gascon stuff that laughs at weather; 
Swell your tough lungs, north wind, no whit care we, 
Singing old songs and drinking wine together.

~Hilaire Belloc

Early October in the Pyrenees.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

The Reward Of Letters

IT HAS often been remarked that while all countries in the world possess some sort of literature, as Iceland her Sagas, England her daily papers, France her prose writers and dramatists, and even Prussia her railway guides, one nation and one alone, the Empire of Monomotopa, is utterly innocent of this embellishment or frill.

No traveller records the existence of any Monomotopan quill-driver; no modern visitor to that delightful island has come across a litterateur whether in the worse or in the best hotels; and such reading as the inhabitants enjoy is entirely confined to works imported by large steamers from the neighbouring Antarctic Continent.

The causes of this singular and happy state of affairs were unknown (since the common histories did not mention them) until the recent discovery by Mr. Paley, the chief authority upon Monomotopan hieratic script, of a very ancient inscription which clearly sets forth the whole business.

It seems that an Emperor of Monomotopa, whose date can be accurately fixed by internal evidence to lie after the universal deluge and before the building of the Pyramid of Cheops, was, upon his accession to the throne, particularly concerned with the just repartition of taxes among his beloved subjects.

It would seem (if we are to trust the inscription) that in a past still more remote the taxes were so light that even the richest men would meet them promptly and without complaining, but this was at a period when the enemies of Monomotopa were at once distant and actively engaged in quarrelling among themselves. With sickening treachery these distant rival nations had determined to produce wealth and to live in amity, so that it was incumbent upon the Monomotapans not only to build ships, but actually to provide an army, and at last (what broke the camel's back) to establish fortifications of a very useless but expensive sort upon a dozen points of their Imperial coast.

Under the increasing strain the old fiscal system broke down. The poor were clearly embarrassed, as might be seen in their emaciated visages and from the terrible condition of their boots. The rich had reached the point after which it was inconvenient to them to pay any more. The middle classes were spending the greater part of their time in devising methods by which the exorbitant and intempestive demands of the collectors could be either evaded or, more rarely, complied with. In a word, a new and juster system of taxation was an imperative need, and the Emperor, who had just ascended the throne at the age of eighteen, and whom a sort of greenness had preserved from the iniquities of this world, was determined to effect the great reform.

With the advice of his Ministers (all of whom had had considerable experience in the handling of money), the Emperor at last determined that each man and woman should pay to the State one-tenth and no more of the wealth which he or she produced; those who produced nothing it was but common justice and reason to exempt, and the effect of this tardy act of justice upon the very rich was observed in the sudden increase of the death-rate from all those diseases that are the peculiar product of luxury and evil living. Paupers also, the unemployed, cripples, imbeciles, deaf mutes, and the clergy escaped under this beneficent and equable statute, and we may sum up the whole policy by saying that never was a law acclaimed with so much happy bewilderment nor subject to less expressed criticism than this.

It was, moreover, easy to estimate in this new fashion the total revenue of the State, since its produce had been accurately set down by statisticians of the utmost eminence, and one of these diverse documents had been taken for the basis of the new fiscal regime.

In practice also the collection was easy. Overseers would attend the harvest with large carts, prong the tenth turnip, hoick up the tenth sheaf of wheat, bucket out the tenth gallon of ale, and so forth. In the markets every tenth animal was removed by Imperial officers, every tenth newspaper was impounded as it left the press, and every tenth drink about to be consumed in the hostelries of the Empire was, after a simulacrum of proffering it, suddenly removed by the waiter and poured into a receptacle, the keys of which were very jealously guarded.

It was the same with the liberal professions: of the fee received by a barrister in the Criminal Courts a tenth was regularly demanded at the door when the verdict had been given and the prisoner whom he had defended passed out to execution. The tenth knock-out in the prize ring received by the professional pugilist was followed by the immediate sequestration of his fee for that particular encounter, and the tenth aria vibrating from the lips of a prima donna was either compounded for at a certain rate or taken in kind by the official who attended at every performance of grand opera.

One form of wealth alone puzzled the beneficent monarch and his Napoleonic advisers, and this was the production (for it then existed) of literary matter.

At first this seemed as simple to tax as any one of the other numerous activities upon which the Emperor's loyal and loving subjects were engaged. A brief examination of the customs of the trade, conducted by an army of officials who penetrated into the very dens and attics in which Letters are evolved, reported that the method of payment was by the measurement of a number of words.

"It is, your Majesty," wrote the permanent official of the department in his minute, "the practice of those who charitably employ this sort of person to pay them in classes by the thousand words; thus one man gets one sequin a thousand, another two byzants, a third as much as a ducat, while some who have singularly attracted the notice of the public can command ten, twenty, nay forty scutcheons, and in some very exceptional cases a thousand words command one of those beautiful pieces of stiff paper which your Majesty in his bountiful provision tenders to his dutiful subjects for acceptance as metal under diverse penalties. The just taxation of these fellows can therefore be easily achieved if your Majesty, in the exercise of his almost superhuman wisdom, will but add a schedule to the Finance Act in which there shall be set down fifteen or twenty classes of writers, with their price per thousand words, and a compulsory registration of each class, enforced by the rude hand of the police."

The Emperor of Monomotopa immediately nominated a Royal Commission (unpaid), among whose sons, nephews, and private friends the salaried posts connected with the work were distributed. This Commission reported by a majority of one ere two years had elapsed. The schedule was designed, and such litterateurs as had not in the interval fled the country were registered, while a further enactment strictly forbidding their employers to make payment upon any other system completed the scheme.

But, alas! so full of low cunning and dirty dodges is this kind of man (I mean what we call authors) that very soon after the promulgation of the new law a marked deterioration in the quality of Monomotopan letters was apparent upon every side!

The citizen opening his morning paper would be astonished to find the leading article consist of nothing more original than a portion of the sacred Scriptures. A novel bought to ease the tedium of a journey would consist of long catalogues for the most part, and when it came to descriptions of scenery would fall into the most minute and detailed category of every conceivable feature of the landscape. Some even took advantage of the new regulation so far as to repeat one single word an interminable number of times, while it was remarked with shame by the Ministers of Religion that the morals of their literary friends permitted them only to use words of one syllable, and those of the shortest kind. And this they said was the only true and original Monomotopan dialect.

Such was the public inconvenience that next year a sharper and much more drastic law was passed, by which it was laid down that every literary composition should make sense within the meaning of the Act, and should be original so far as the reading of the judge appointed for the trial of the case extended. But though after the first few executions this law was generally observed, the nasty fellows affected by it managed to evade it in spirit, for by the use of obscure terms, of words drawn from dead languages, and of bold metaphor transferred from one art to another, they would deliberately invite prosecution, and then in the witness-box make fools of those plain men, the judge and jury, by showing that this apparently meaningless claptrap could, with sufficient ingenuity, be made to yield some sort of sense, and during this period no art critic was put to death.

Driven to desperation, the Emperor changed the whole basis of the Remuneration of Literary Labour, and ordered that it should be by the length of the prose or poetry measured in inches.

This reform, however, did but add to the confusion, for while the men of the pen wrote their works entirely in short dialogue, asterisks, and blanks, the publishers, who were now thoroughly organized, printed the same in smaller and smaller type, in order to avoid the consequences of the law.

At this last piece of insolence the Emperor's mind was quickly decided. Arresting one night not only all those who had ever written, but all those who had even boasted of letters, or who were so much as suspected by their relatives of secretly indulging in them, he turned the whole two million into a large but enclosed area, and (desiring to kill two birds with one stone) offered the ensuing spectacle as an amusement to the more sober and respectable sections of the community.

It is well known that the profession of letters breeds in its followers an undying hatred of each against his fellows. The public were therefore entertained for a whole day with the pleasing sight of a violent but quite disordered battle, in which each of the wretched prisoners seemed animated by no desire but the destruction of as many as possible of his hated rivals, until at last every soul of these detestable creatures had left its puny body and the State was rid of all.

A law which carried to the universities the rule of the primary schools—to wit, that men should be taught to read but not to write—completed the good work. And there was peace.

~Hilaire Belloc: from First and Last

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