Dr. Robert Hickson 8 July 2019
Saint Isabella of Portugal (d. 1336)
“What then is this thing Sloth which can merit the extremity of divine punishment? Saint Thomas’s answer is both comforting and surprising: tristitia de bono spirituali, sadness in the face of spiritual good. Man is made for joy in the love of God, a love which he expresses in service. If he deliberately turns away from that joy, he is denying the purpose of his existence. The malice of Sloth lies not merely in the neglect of duty (though that can be a symptom of it) but in the refusal of joy. It is allied to despair….Sloth is the condition in which a man is fully aware of the proper means of his salvation and refuses to take them because the whole apparatus of salvation fills him with tedium and disgust.” (Evelyn Waugh, The Essays, Articles, and Reviews of Evelyn Waugh—edited by Donat Gallagher (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1983), page 573—from an essay entitled “Sloth” on pages 572-576.)
In 1928, when he was fifty-eight years of age, Hilaire Belloc published his novel, Belinda: A Tale of Affection in Youth and Age.1 It was an intimate book that this magnanimous author himself especially cherished, since it was a moving depiction of human affection itself, and of the poignant possibility (or at least the sorrowful appearance) of its permanent loss.
By way of clarifying contrast, sixteen years earlier (when he was still a vigorous forty-two and only two years before the sudden and devastating death of his beloved wife Elodie) Belloc published The Four Men,2 wherein each of the four characters (personae) discussed “the worst thing in the world” (49).
One of the four composite and presented personae of Belloc himself –“Grizzlebeard” by name—gives his own considered and deeply stunning response to that searching question. We thus propose to examine Grizzlebeard’s experienced presentation of his own elegiac view, amidst the resistant—or even contradictory—replies of the Other Three Personae: namely, the Poet and the Sailor and Myself.
Let us now closely follow Grizzlebeard’s reflections, after his first contradicting the shallow—even flippant—prior words of both the Poet and the Sailor:
“You are neither of you right,” he said. “The worst thing in the world is the passing of human affection. No man who has lost a friend need fear death,” he said. (49—my emphasis added)
Now continues Grizzlebeard’s exposition:
Grizzlebeard (solemnly). “You [Sailor] talk lightly as though you were a younger man than you are. The thing of which I am speaking is the gradual weakening, and at last the severance, of human bonds. It has been said that no man can see God and live. Here is another saying for you, very near the same: No man can be alone and live. None, not even in old age.”….
Then Grizzlebeard went on:
“When friendship disappears then there is a space left open to that awful loneliness of the outside which is like the cold of space between the planets. It is an air in which men perish utterly. Absolute dereliction is the death of the soul; and the end of living is a great love abandoned.” (50—my emphasis added)
After Myself’s proposed qualification about the healing of the soul, our elder then responds and properly differentiates the situation, if the wounded soul be also deprived of grace:
Grizzlebeard (still more solemnly). “All wounds heal in those who are condemned to live, but in the very process of healing they harden and forbid renewal. The thing is over and done.” (50—my emphasis added)
Myself then speaks about the loss of honour as being worse than the loss of friends, which thus prompts the older man again to reply:
Grizzlebeard. “Oh, no. For the one is a positive loss [of a friend], the other imaginary [the possible enduring loss of honour]. Moreover, men that lose their honour have their way out by any one of the avenues of death. Not so men who lose the affection of a creature’s eyes. Therein for them, I mean in death, is no solution: to escape from life is no escape from that loss [of a friend’s affectionate eyes]. Nor of the many who have sought in death relief from their affairs is there one (at least of those I can remember) who sought that relief on account of the loss of a human heart.”….
Grizzlebeard. “You are both of you [Poet and Sailor] talking like children. The passing of human affection is the worst thing in the world….But the decay of what is living in the heart, and that numbness supervening, and that last indifference—oh! these are not to be compared for unhappiness with any other ill on this unhappy earth. And all day long and in every place, if you could survey the world from a height and look down into the hearts of men, you would see that frost stealing on.”(51-53—my emphasis added)
Perhaps analogously thinking of the traditional deadly vice of spiritual sloth (acedia)—which was known as a special danger to the elderly—Myself asks Grizzlebeard: “Is this a thing [such cold indifference or congealed estrangement] that happens, Grizzlebeard, more notably to the old?” (53)
“No. The old are used to it. They know it, but it is not notable to them. It is notable on the approach of middle age. When the enthusiasms of youth have grown either stale or divergent, and when, in the infinite opportunities which time affords, there has been opportunity for differences between friend and friend, then does the evil appear. The early years of a man’s life do not commonly breed this accident. So convinced are we then, and of such energy in the pursuit of our goal, that if we must separate we part briskly, each certain that the other is guilty of a great wrong. The one man will have it that some criminal [as in France with the Captain Alfred Dreyfus Affair] is innocent, the other that an innocent man was falsely called a criminal. The one man loves a war [such as the Boer War], the other thinks it unjust and hates it (for all save the money-dealers think of war in terms of justice). Or the one man hits the other in the face. These are violent things. But it is when youth has ripened, and when the slow processes of life begin, that the danger or the certitude of this dreadful thing appears: I mean the passing of affection. For the mind has settled as the waters of a lake settle in the hills; it is full of its own convictions, it is secure in its philosophy; it will not mould or adapt itself to the changes of another. And, therefore, unless communion be closely maintained, affection decays. Now when it [human affection] has decayed, and when at last it has altogether passed, then comes the awful vision of which I have spoken, which is the worst thing in the world.” (53-54—my emphasis added)
After some rather shallow comments insouciantly, and much less gravely, made by the Poet and by the Sailor, Myself again has some additionally helpful words to offer:
“You Poet and you Sailor, you are both of you wrong there. The thing [“the passing of human affection”] has been touched upon [“by the great poets” (54)], though very charily, for it is not a matter for art. It just skims the surface of the return of Odysseus [to his home in Ithaca], and the poet Shakespeare has a song about it which you have doubtless heard….Moreover, a [Sussex] poet has written of the evil thing in this very County of Sussex, in these two lines:
“’The things I loved have all grown wearisome, The things that loved me are estranged or dead.’” (55-56—my emphasis added)
After hearing just one word from that poetic couplet, Grizzlebeard has a further insight:
“’Estranged’ is the word: I was looking for that word. Estrangement is the saddest thing in the world….The reason that the great poets have touched so little upon this thing is precisely because it is the worst thing in the world. It is the spur to no good deed, nor to any strong thinking, nor does it in any way emend the mind. Now the true poets, whether they will or no, are bound to emend the mind; they are constrained to concern themselves with noble things. But in this [estrangement] there is nothing noble. It has not even horror nor doom to enhance it; it is an end, and it is an end without fruition. It is an end which leaves no questions and no quest. It is an end without adventure, an end complete, a nothingness; and there is no matter for art in the mortal hunger of the soul.” (56-57—my emphasis added)
Hilaire Belloc must have seen—and even tasted—the deep effects of this decay and passing of human affection. The evidence he must have beheld and wholeheartedly known in the lives of others, and maybe also in his own life.
Belloc knew himself, very sensitively,“the danger or the certitude of this dreadful thing” (54) of “the passing of human affection.” He also cherished good companionship and friendship and the warm and nourishing hospitality of inns.
If it be permitted to me to make a small concluding comment from my reading of Hilaire Belloc over many years—at least since 1971—I believe that Hilaire Belloc himself also came to be especially alert to the subtle danger of one of the Seven Deadly Sins: Acedia (Accidia)—i.e., Spiritual Sloth.
Our beloved Belloc thus also feared and protected himself mightily against that subtle, sabotaging danger of a “heavy worldly sadness in the face of spiritual good”—or, a growing “Tristitia de Bono Spirituali” in the discerning words of Saint Thomas Aquinas. Spiritual Sloth is also characterized by “a roaming unrest of spirit.” In other words, and in Saint Thomas’ compact but lucid Latin, spiritual sloth is marked by an uprooted (and also uprooting) “evagatio mentis.”
Spiritual Sloth, we should note, is therefore much more than mere laziness or weariness or a growing sense of futility, although we may now also perceive the peril of the luring temptations of the sorrow and sadness coming from the decay and then “the passing of human affection.” That is to say, even from Hilaire Belloc’s own abiding sorrow at the 1914 Candlemas Death of his Wife, Elodie, and then the death of two of his three sons, Louis and Peter—one in World War I and the latter in World War II. What a burden of loyal sorrow in his long fidelity! And yet he preserved his font of joy and his cherished friendships, with his gratitude always.
© 2019 Robert D. Hickson
1Hilaire Belloc, Belinda: A Tale of Affection in Youth and Age (Fitzwilliam, New Hampshire: Loreto Publication, 2014), 130 pages.
2Hilaire Belloc, The Four Men (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merill Company Publishers, 1912). All further page references to the book will be to this text and will be placed above in parentheses in the main body of this short essay.