Hilaire Belloc bought King's Land (in Shipley, Sussex), 5 acres and a working windmill for £1000 in 1907 and it was his home for the rest of his life. Belloc loved Sussex as few other writers have loved her: he lived there for most of his 83 years, he tramped the length and breadth of the county, slept under her hedgerows, drank in her inns, sailed her coast and her rivers and wrote several incomparable books about her. "He does not die that can bequeath Some influence to the land he knows, Or dares, persistent, interwreath Love permanent with the wild hedgerows; He does not die, but still remains Substantiate with his darling plains."

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Saturday 19 May 2012

On disliking champagne but delighting in existence...

Belloc wrote a letter from King's Land to Maurice Baring on February 6, 1911 (to be found in Speaight's collection, Letters from Hilaire Belloc [London: Hollis & Carter, 1958]).. I am not just sure from whence Baring was writing to Belloc, but in his response, Belloc disagreed with something Baring said. In Baring's letter, Belloc found "a touch of Devil-worship about it," a serious concern indeed. Devil-worship evidently means ultimately denying that existence is good.

But to make his point, Belloc presented to Baring a sort of litany of "do's" and "don't's" to explain just how the Church itself acted in dealing with reality. For instance, the Church says simply as a command, "Don't kill." The Church does not say, "If you kill, regard it as a sacrament." However, in saying "Do not kill" there are exceptions. One exception is just war. There the Church blesses the banners of the Armies. Preventing killing is not murder.

The Church does not say, "Do not marry." Belloc observes that the Church has difficulty in dealing with normal human relations "in a prohibitive way." What the Church does say about the marriage is that it is "indissoluble." The Christian praise of the celibate life has nothing to do with whether "marriage is right or wrong," just as, Belloc adds in a striking comparison, preferring a professional to a conscript army tells us nothing about whether a given war is just or unjust.

Belloc sees the Church's teaching on celibacy in this manner: if you are going to deal with the "inner life," you best be celibate. The Church adds that if you are going to deal with the "inner lives of others and direct and administer them, you must really be celibate." Belloc adds that this last practice is not a dogma, but it is discipline. The relation between the celibate and married life is not a question of degree of holiness, but of "two different kinds of life, both approved." Because of its very nature of dealing with one's own and other's inner lives, one is more "spiritual than the other."

Nor does the Church say, "Do not be rich." She does warn that wealth is dangerous and can easily corrupt. This is merely a statement of observed fact. But as such, being rich tells us nothing of someone's "character." We cannot conclude from the fact that riches are dangerous to whether a given rich man is actually corrupt. He may be quite virtuous. When there is no Church present to counteract the normal false assumptions about riches, Belloc observes, "people always think that great wealth indicates something: Intelligence at the lowest and courtesy or some other virtue at the highest." But of itself great wealth neither indicates intelligence our courtesy. Belloc adds, that the Church soberly warns us about wealth: "Unless you use it with the greatest care and worry yourself to death about it, you are doing a direct injury to your fellow citizens." Belloc calls this simply "sound economics."

Then Belloc adds, in an example that probably does not follow, "Every time you (Baring) and I drink champagne, we are ultimately depriving some poor man of beer, and don't you forget it." This quip of Belloc, however, is not "sound economics." It is best forgotten. In a market economy, we are more likely to deprive a poor man of his beer if we do not drink champagne. But of course, Belloc adds, with some playfulness, that in fact, at that moment, at least, he does not like champagne. So on his own terms there is no danger in his drinking it and upsetting the flow of beer to the poor man, which beer, be it noted, Belloc thinks he has a perfect right to. Belloc's stomach is upset. Thus, he does not think that he likes any "wine" except "Herefordshire Cyder." Just why he calls "cyder", "wine", I am not sure, for surely Belloc of all people, with both French and English blood in his veins, knew the difference. He did not, consolingly, seem to worry about whether the champagne that he and Baring might drink would deprive the poor man of "Herefordshire Cyder."

"What is all of this leading up to?" you might ask. So far we see little of the devil here. But he is hanging around fuzzy ideas. Belloc continues, "As for the Church saying 'Don't exist,' that is the last of the series and is absolutely plumb flat contradictory." The Church cannot approve of something that is "absolutely plumb flat contradictory." Faith does not contradict reason, as Aquinas often put it. If you want to get Belloc's point, try to command something before it exists, not to exist. We do not have the power of existence as such in our arsenal. This is the great Thomist truth, the truth of existence. Existence is the Gift we do not give ourselves, but only receive it. This is why, from our side, to recall Belloc's friend Chesterton, gratitude is the first response to being.

Belloc sums up these teachings: "The Church does say definitely 'Don't kill'. She certainly thinks sex dangerous, she regards riches with the utmost suspicion. But existence she delights in and it is Catholic civilisation only that ever produces a strong sense of individual existence." This is the most marvelous of sentences. To delight in existence itself, this is the highest mark of sanity and reality. If we can delight in existence itself, we can, even more, delight in the tiny particular being that exists -- the "strong sense of individual existence."

In conclusion, Belloc gives us in 1911 a criterion against which to test his thesis: "Let a nation lose the Church, and it is bound to fall in time into Pantheism, or a denial of spiritual continuity, and the immortality of the soul." We no longer bury our dead. We kill our kind before they are born and hasten their ends when they are useless. We deny that past generations can bind us to anything, no Constitution, no natural law. We subsume all back into Earth and judge individual existence merely as a function of or threat to the Environment. We can no longer, it seems, smoke indoors or out of doors. We have reinvented prohibition and made killing the tiniest of our kind a "right."

Thus, with regard to economics, I do not see why the rich and the poor both cannot have either champagne, beer, or Herefordshire Cyder. And with regard to the Devil-worship, that Belloc worried about in Baring's letter, what Belloc caught was a rancid smell of the idea that existence itself is not good, and hence that life is not good, that sex is not good, that material things are not good. In the affirmation that the Church "delights in existence," he knew that, however gingerly we must sometimes treat them, because of what they are, all things, as it says in Genesis, are good. And we are to delight in them in their proper order.

 From Schall on Belloc, Generally Speaking, February, 1997.
(James Schall SJ - Georgetown University)

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