Author’s Note on 18 May 2021: Hilaire Belloc’s 1920 book, while enduring the aftermath of World War I, will be a helpful political education for us as we study the instructive British history and apply it to our own situation in the United States. Belloc’s book on Kingship and Oligarchies and Aristocracy will include the 1649 English Regicide and the gradually corrupting consequences of that act upon an oligarchic, sometimes aristocratic institution, such as (and especially) the English House of Commons of which Belloc was once himself a member. This current essay was originally completed on 16 April 2013.
“And You Cannot Build Upon a Lie” (H. Belloc)—
When the Humbug Has Broken Down and the Sham Exposed
Dr. Robert Hickson
16 April 2013
Saint Bernadette Soubirous
Saint Benedict Joseph Labre
“But the answer to all this [“sort of hopeless feeling”] is that these growing evils (and they have almost reached that limit after which the State breaks down) are not inevitable and are not necessary—save [i.e., except, unless] under an anonymous system.” (Hilaire Belloc, The House of Commons and Monarchy, p. 181—my bold emphasis added; italics in the original)
“It is [in this context] far more important for us to see and admit what has happened than to discuss why it has happened. It is much more important to find out that your rudder has dropped off in the deep sea than to discover how it dropped off. Yet it may be of service to mention causes briefly before we proceed to the chances of the future.” (Hilaire Belloc, The House of Commons and Monarchy, p. 115—my bold emphasis added; italics in the original)
In 1920, ten years after Hilaire Belloc had stepped down from his four maturing years of publicly elected service in the House of Commons, he published a lucid book-length essay, entitled The House of Commons and Monarchy.1 It is a forthright and equitably proportioned work with a clearly stated thesis; and the development of Belloc’s presented evidence and argumentation will help us still better understand—even in the United States—many timely and timeless things of political and moral moment. For example, the reality of power, especially the formation, sustained moral authority, and gradual decay of a “new governing class” (39): indeed, a wealthy Oligarchy that had indispensably become a well-rooted Aristocracy, “after a sufficient tradition has confirmed them,” (47) even so as to become “a sacramental thing.”(39) Regrettably then, but truly, Belloc says, “one of the causes of the decline of Aristocracy” (179) is “the accumulation of…corruptions.” (179) Thus, Trust is broken; the earlier “general respect” (47) and the “ reverence upon which Aristocracy reposed,” vanish.
For it is so, he says, that
The characters [those enduring qualities] which keep an Aristocratic body in the saddle are easily recognized, though difficult to define. The first, undoubtedly, is dignity. The second, closely related to dignity, is a readiness in the individual to sacrifice himself for the good of the whole. The Aristocratic spirit demands in those who govern a readiness to suffer personal injury and loss for the sake not only of the State…but [for the sake] of the Aristocratic quality of the State, and in particular of the special Aristocratic organism [i.e., the House of Commons] to which the individual belongs. (85-86—my emphasis added)
However, when then later speaking of the growing “ineptitude” (88) of a governing class, and its selfish, even “ardent passion” to serve “personal safety” (89) rather than the larger Common Good (Bonum Commune), Belloc, by way of sharp contrast, also says:
When a governing clique ceases to be Aristocratic you feel it not only in specific indignities and particular buffooneries, or petty thefts; you feel it in a sort of insecurity [as well as an insufficiency]. The frantic efforts to conceal, the silly blushing denials, the haste to get away with the swag—all of these are the symptoms: and worst of all is the incapacity for sacrifice. (88-89—my emphasis added)
Furthermore, in Belloc’s words:
Lastly, from two most powerful sources, the Aristocratic State tends to suffer from Illusion, especially in its old age—and illusion is the most dangerous of all things. The two sources whence Illusion insinuates itself into the mood [or “atmosphere” (82)] of an Aristocratic State are, first, its internal security; and second, the legendary nature of the moral authority which the governing class exercises. (55—my bold emphasis added; italics in the original)
Belloc also came to believe that, in the House of Commons, there is “a lack of machinery for recuperation” (57) and, so: “They nourish Illusion to protect their decay.” (58—emphasis added) However, although it is so that “Parliaments must be Oligarchies;” (63) likewise “it is universally true of oligarchies that they cannot govern unless they are Aristocratic.” (64) Moreover, an “Aristocratic State demands Aristocratic Action and Temper both in those who govern and in those who are governed.” (63—my emphasis added) Such must be, in good times, the reciprocally nourishing political culture.
Belloc’s main thesis, in the light of earlier English history (especially since the Regicide of 1649) is, as follows: “The House of Commons was formed by, and is essentially part of, an Aristocratic State. England having ceased to be an Aristocratic State the House of Commons is ceasing to function.” (This clear formulation is repeated three times at the outset of his argument, i.e., on pages 4, 7, and 9.)
For, “the central institution of that Aristocratic England which the Reformation had made was [and still is] the House of Commons.” (63—my emphasis added) Speaking of the mid-seventeenth century in England and the contention between the newly strengthened vested interests and the Stuart King, he says:
The rising quarrel (confused in its eddies but clear in its main stream) produced the Civil Wars and the destruction of English kingship. The new Oligarchy [with the help of the martial Calvinist, Oliver Cromwell] put to death the last true Monarch in 1649 [Charles I]. His son [Charles II] came back eleven years later, but only as a salaried official…. But why was all this? Why should the supplanting after civil war of one form of government by another, of Monarchy by Oligarchy, have produced so large an effect and one of such advantage to national greatness and glory?….The masses grew more dependent, the rich more powerful and even immune; but of the external growth and wealth and dominion, and all that of which patriotic men are proud, there can be no doubt. (37-38—my emphasis added)
Belloc considers his own terse answer to the question (“And why?”) to be so important to his overarching argument that he puts his brevity in emphatic italics:
Essentially because the Oligarchy, which had thus seated itself firmly in the saddle after the destruction of the Monarchy, was growing (through the national sentiment and through the new religion on which that sentiment was based) into an Aristocracy. That is the point. That is the whole understanding of modern English history. As an ultimate result of the Reformation the Kings were broken and replaced by a Governing Class, of which the House of Commons was the [“sovereign”] organ. But that new governing class was not a mere clique, not a small minority merely seizing power. Men have never tolerated such usurpation. They have never allowed an irresponsible few to rule without moral sanction. It would be an insupportable rule….What had come, in the place of kingship, was an Aristocratic State, a State governed by an Oligarchy indeed, but by an Oligarchy which received the permanent and carefully preserved respect of its fellow-citizens. (38-39—my bold emphasis added; italics in the original)
Throughout the later parts of his book, Belloc shows how and why that indispensable and cherished respect gradually (and very consequentially) decayed—while emphasizing the stark fact that it had indeed happened!
In the remainder of this essay, I propose to give special accent to Hilaire Belloc’s articulate insights about general moral matters, to include the importance of virtuous, as well as vicious (or subtly degraded), moral character in members of a ruling Elite. For moral character also has social consequences, and, as Belloc has incisively written: “The statement that Parliaments are, or can be, democratic is a lie; and you cannot build build upon a lie.” (177—my emphasis added) Reform of a long-traditional Governing Class must come from deeper sources, from within and from without. In any case, it must be based on reality, on truth presented fully and in its proper proportions—even though, as Belloc knows well, there are always “critics of too much truth-telling,” (82) in spite of a “known internal breakdown” (82) of an “existing organ of government,” (82) such as the House of Commons. For, he had said: “It is always so when an institution breaks down. The crust survives by a few years the rotten interior.” (81)
Despite its special strengths, an Aristocratic State—in Belloc’s view—has its own special vulnerabilities:
An Aristocratic State is less able to reform itself than any other, and if its essential principle [deserved mutual respect, and even reverence] grows weak, it has the utmost difficulty in finding a remedy for its disease…. An Aristocratic State attacked in its vital principle has no medicinal rules, no formulae upon which to fall back for its healing. Its diseases [in the face of “civil dissension” and distrustful disrespect] are profoundly organic, never mechanical; for the whole action [and “temper”] of an Aristocracy is less conscious and less defined than that of a Democracy or Monarchy. (55)
There is “another element” in this matter of the “old age” of an Aristocratic State: the factor of “weariness” (97):
The weakening of contempt [for moral baseness, and for coarse and cunning “adventurers and rapscallions” (97)], this new intimate companionship with financial powers, not only ephemeral but base, comes in part from fatigue. And this we see in a process everywhere observable: which is the admixture of apology and impudence…. [For example,] to find a man or woman of the governing type (they no longer possess the governing power) apologizing for their frequentation of such and such a [plutocrat’s] house, for their acceptation of such and such an insult, and accompanying the apology with a phrase which admits their incapacity to stand firm. It is an attitude of drift and of lassitude in luxury: of a tired need for money. It is the very contrary of that atmosphere of discipline which all governing organs, Monarchic, Democratic, or Aristocratic, must maintain under peril of extinction. Next to this abandonment of principle, this loss of a stiffening standard round which the governing body could rally, and to which it could conform, we note [now, indeed, as of 1920] the disintegration of the governing body. That process has not yet gone very far, but it is going very fast. (97-98—my bold emphasis added; italics in the original)
As to another important quality of Elites, Belloc piquantly observed that, “at the time when the Aristocratic spirit was most vigorous,” (99) “we have seen, not only in our own, but in every other country,” that a “ ‘Representative’ Assembly” itself “does only work” (98-99) when it is
A body slowly renewed, and renewed largely by its own volition; that is largely co-opting [selecting and recruiting] its own membership as elder members drop out through age, glut of loot, fatigue, tedium, disgrace, or pension. But an organism of this kind, an instrument of government of this kind, a body comparatively small, in the main permanent, and continuous in action, is an Oligarchy by every definition of that term. (68—my bold emphasis added, italics in the original)
As such an Oligarchy itself develops slowly into a more “rooted” Aristocracy, “there is an aristocratic way of doing it and an unaristocratic way of doing it” (87), thus properly without any “undignified mountebank tricks” (85):
For instance, it is in the Aristocratic spirit that a member of the Government caught taking a bribe, or telling a public lie, should resign: and until quite lately such resignations were the rule. Another subtle character, and one very little recognized because it is so difficult to seize (yet its presence is powerfully felt), is the representative character of the Aristocrat properly so called…. A living Aristocracy is always very careful to be in communion with, actually mixed with, the mass of which it is itself the chief. It has an unfailing flair for national tradition, national custom, and the real national will. It has, therefore, as a correlative, an active suspicion of mere numerical and mechanical tests [and even mere financial tests?!] for arriving at that will. To take a practical example: an English governing class, which in the middle of the nineteenth century had given up riding horses or playing cricket, would have ceased to govern; but the extent of the franchise was indifferent to it. (86-87—my bold emphasis added; italics in the original)
On the premise that contrast clarifies the mind, we may see how our Belloc will first have us appreciate the earlier composite of Aristocratic qualities and dispositions, so as to enhance his insights about the drab or monochromatic sequels:
Under the old order the governing class maintained a certain hierarchy, and had a regular process of digestion and support [i.e., of incorporating recruitment and as patrons of a richer artistic culture]. The best example of this function in the old Aristocratic organism, the gentry, is its old attitude toward intelligence and creative power (intelligence and creative power are between them the mark of the arts)…. In an Aristocracy, while it still has its vigour, the Aristocratic organism recognizes and selects (though itself is not for the most part creative) true creative power around it. It recognizes above all proportion and order in creative power. It has an instinct against chaos in the arts. When what remains of a governing class seeks only novelty and even absurdity, or, what is worse still, a mere label, in its appraisal of creative power, it is a proof that the Aristocratic spirit has declined. The disintegration of the class that should govern is to be seen in another fashion: the substitution of simple, crude, obvious, and few passions for a subtle congeries of appetites. (98-99, 101-102—my bold emphasis added; italics in the original).
Acutely aware as he is of the (seductively specious, but deeply corrupt) Vitality of Mammon in the Decline of a State—as some of his richly differentiated essays also confirm—Belloc exemplifies in this 1920 book what these crude and coarse passions, or isolated and inordinate desires, actually mean:
Consider the passion for money. The necessity for wealth, position through wealth, the digestion of new wealth, all these are indeed native to the governing class of an Aristocracy. But they are native only as part of a much larger whole. Wealth thus sought in a strong governing class is subject to many qualifications, the desire is balanced against many other desires. When the attitude towards wealth becomes at once a principal thing and an isolated thing it is a proof, and a cause, of disintegration in a governing class; for instance, when wealth is divorced from manners, or is accepted or sought for at the expense of a grave loss of dignity. And what is true of the appetite for wealth is true of many other things, the appetite for physical enjoyment, the appetite for change, the appetite for new sensation (an appetite born of fatigue and accompanying not strength, but weakness). (102-103—my bold emphasis added; italics in the original).
Among “the Governed,” (107) there has also been “a portentous change” (118), as a result of the Industrial and French Revolutions:
These masses [of the Governed] have been born and have lived their lives utterly divorced from the remnants and even the tradition of the old Aristocratic organism….The new wealthy classes which might have imitated the [landed] squires of an older time, and which at first were largely assimilated into the governing class, do not live with their workmen. They fled the towns. They established colonies, as it were,…of luxurious houses [not yet “gated communities”] standing miles away from the workshops…., and the proletariat lived, grew, formed (or half formed) its political desires, nourished its bitterness, apart. No social condition more directly contrary to that of aristocracy can be imagined. And this is the immediate as well as the major cause of the phenomenon we are studying. This it is, the substitution of the new great towns for the old country sides as the determining body of society which has transformed the political [form] of England and of the Lowlands of Scotland. (118-119—my bold emphasis added; italics in the original)
Belloc, very importantly, then says that it was “not, indeed, anything material,” but “it was a spirit; the religion and philosophy of Industrial Capitalism” and “the outward effects of that religion acted as I have said.” (119) One stark result was that:
The great mass of the populace was left with no bands [no bonds] attaching it any longer to the form of the Aristocratic State….There you have the final condemnation to death of Aristocracy as a principle in this country, and with it a corresponding condemnation to death of the House of Commons. Side by side with the loss of the Aristocratic spirit in those who should have governed there has gone the loss of any desire for, and even the mere knowledge of, Aristocratic government in the mass who are governed. (119—my emphasis added)
Another result of this “binary” combination is that it “has left the House [of Commons] to-day bereft of moral authority.” For it is fundamentally true, as the Catholic Church well knows (and as Belloc himself often elsewhere quotes) that “without authority there is no life” (“sine auctoritate nulla vita”). Furthermore, says Belloc with a sense of irreversibility and even of a sort of tragic finality:
Even though the House of Commons were to become as clean as it is now corrupt, as nice as it is now nasty, as noble as it is now mean and petty, or as dignified as it is now vulgar and contemptible, this factor alone, the loss of the popular desire to be ruled by a few, would be fatal to its continued power. (120)
Even if the House of Commons “might (in part) revive its moral authority,” (132) “who on earth believes that such things will ever be done by the authority of the culprits themselves?” (132) For,
Though miracles certainly happen, yet the rarest of all miracles is a moral miracle of this kind. A rotten institution reforming itself, and not only reforming itself but being aided in its reformation by all its own corrupt members, servants, parasites, and masters [or “paymasters”], is a thing that history has never seen. History has seen plenty of men raised into the air, many walking on the water, and a few raised from the dead. But it has never seen an institution in the last stages of decay and still possessing nominal power, using that power to chastise and to reform itself. (132-133—my emphasis added)
Without having any utopian expectations, and knowing well the problems with historic or actual kingship, Belloc does nevertheless believe that a substantive improvement could be attained amidst this cumulatively grim state of affairs if a strong, virtuous, and intimately personal Monarchy were to be restored and again to control the Money Power, inasmuch as
The leading function of the Monarch is to protect the weak man against the strong, and therefore to prevent the accumulation of wealth in a few hands, the corruption of the Courts of Justice and [the corruption] of the sources of public opinion [ thus, the full range of “the Media”]. (178—my emphasis added)
As a counterpoint to this monarchical preference, Belloc admits that
A Democracy also, where it is active and real, can do all these things.2 You may see every one of these functions at work in a Swiss Canton, for instance. There you may see [legal] tribunals which dread public opinion, judges who are afraid of giving false judgments, laws which forbid too great an inequality of wealth, and the absence of any vast or sudden profits acquired through the cunning of one against the simplicity of many. But where very great numbers are concerned [as in a “numerous democracy”] all these functions are atrophied if you attempt to make them Democratic in their working; and in the absence of an Aristocratic spirit there is nothing but a Monarch to exercise them [the essential “functions” of just and equitable Governance]….He [the Monarch] knows that he is responsible. He cannot shift the burden to some anonymous or intangible culprit. (179-180—my emphasis added)
Earlier in the book, Belloc had especially noted, as one of the potential weaknesses of an Aristocratic country (even in its commendable vigor) is to see “how strangely deep in such a country is the worship of powerful men, and how rooted is the distaste in the masses for the responsibilities of government.” (79—my emphasis) He later adds a complementary reinforcement to his earlier wise insight:
Out of citizens who have always been passive of their nature [especially about the burdensome responsibilities of governance], and whose passivity was the very cause of Aristocracy among them, you will never get the Democratic spirit of corporate initiative, and of what is essential to Democratic institutions, a permanent, individual interest in public affairs. (176—my emphasis added)
After then returning to the matter of monarchy and briefly considering some of the prominent Kings (or Emperors) of history, our Belloc then tries to imagine any of these men in action today, if they were to be “placed at the head of the modern State,” (182)—and yet “not through their [virtuous] character, but [only] through the powers granted them by the constitutions of their times.” (181-182) Asking and happily (or impishly) answering his own question, he says:
What do you think would happen to the corrupt judges, to the politicians who take bribes, to the great trusts that destroy a man’s livelihood, to the secret financiers boasting that they control the State [“Le pouvoir sur le pouvoir”—in the oft-quoted words of Jacques Attali]? Their blood would turn to water. (182—my emphasis added)
Belloc often accents the danger of unaccountable finance and its corrupting Oligarchical power, especially to mislead “the remaining inheritors of the old Aristocratic position” (103) in “their now irretrievable mixture with international finance and consequent degradation of blood.” (104—my emphasis added) A few pages later, Belloc even says that, for the governed populace, as of 1920, “the [old] gentry no longer means anything to them,” (112) and even the idea of “one governing class is no longer within the vision of the governed” (112)—and “What may be left of such a class they merge in a general vision of excessive, unjust, and indeed malignant wealth.” (112—my emphasis added) That is to say, they are seen as if they were all merely detached and frigid Plutocrats or selfishly Squalid Oligarchs—inaccessible and also still immune from any just accountability in this world.
Hilaire Belloc always combated “an anonymous system,” and its evasive diffusion of personal responsibility and accountability, and he argued, instead, for the return of a Popular Monarchy as was known in historic Christendom, but now, as is just, in prudent view of unique modern conditions and technologies.
The House of Commons and Monarchy, by way of summary, began by showing how Kingship in England was first weakened by the monarchs themselves, to include Henry VII’s sly usurpation of the throne, and then especially the spiritual and temporal actions of Henry VIII, who more or less unwittingly helped create a new and powerful Oligarchy which materially profited from the general loot of the monasteries and monastery lands. That new landed Oligarchy gradually incorporated the merchant and professional elements—the lawyers and the financiers, for instance—and that Oligarchical power increasingly worked to weaken (and have leverage over) the Sovereign King, culminating in the Regicide of 1649: the execution of the Stuart King, Charles I. As the new Oligarchy—or somewhat differentiated, and rival, oligarchies—grew in power and influence, they also became more rooted and stable and continuous, until the Oligarchy became an Aristocracy and the Parliament effectively became the Sovereign, Aristocratic House of Commons. The gradual decay of that House of Commons showed once again the coarser qualities of an Oligarchy, now also containing various alien elements from the outside, as it were—to include the leverage and power of “the Money Power” (as Belloc elsewhere calls it): the Elements and Organs of Finance, to include International Finance—and the Power of the Public Media of Communications (the Press, as it was then known). Then came the further (often anonymous) Oligarchic Manipulations of what was increasingly (but misleadingly) called Democracy—a coarsening and deceptive and drifting development, for sure, which thereby called out, once again, for a restoration in principle, and establishment in actuality, of a sound and strong Personal Monarchy which was attentive to, and finally responsible for, the whole Bonum Commune—as a good Father would care and sacrifice for the common good of his whole family, for which he will finally be held strictly accountable, coram Deo. Before God, in the Final Verdict of Truth—at least in the Faith of a Catholic. And not only Belloc’s. “To whom much has been given, much will be required; to whom much has been entrusted, more [even more!] will be required.” (Luke 12:48)
In any case, Belloc saw the humbug and sham of so much of Modern Democracy, as did the honest French intellectual historian, François Furet, who also (like Belloc) wrote books on the French Revolution, one of which contained an important chapter, near the end of his text, on Augustin Cochin (1876-1916), the young French Catholic historian of the French Revolution who was killed on the battlefield of World War I. In that chapter, Furet said with unexpected candor: “Modern Democracy is based on [depends upon] a hidden oligarchy [“oligarchie cachée”], which is contrary to its principles, but indispensable to its functioning.”3 That is to say, though in even more trenchant words: “Modern Democracy is based upon a Deception.”
Moreover, since there are always “civil wars within the Revolution itself,” as the French Catholic scholar, Léon de Poncins, often noted, François Furet’s insight would be rendered even more perfectly if we put his singular “oligarchie cachée” into the plural, “oligarchies cachées.” For, there are, indeed, rivalries among the variously manifold and active oligarchies in their quests for advantage and power (as was so, historically, between the Girondins and the Jacobins and their respective Financiers), especially when it is for “Power without Grace.” (An acute phrase said more than once by Saint Helena in her candid, cautionary guidance to her own beset and perplexed (and as yet unbaptized) son, Emperor Constantine, amidst the deficiencies and delusions of his burdensome Rule, as so eloquently presented by Evelyn Waugh in his highly differentiated historical novel, Helena (1950). )
When we also recall the title of this essay, we may now appreciate a further nuance of meaning. To the extent that Modern Democracy itself is based upon Deception—indeed a deliberate deception of rival and often anonymous oligarchies—it is based upon a Lie. (And the greatest social effect of a Lie is that it breaks Trust, even the deepest Trust—as in an intimate Perfidy—and that deeply shattered trust is so hard to rebuild. Even with mercy and grace and “forgiveness from the heart,” wholehearted forgiveness.)
When the Humbug has broken down and the Sham exposed—whether about Democracy or Oligarchy or an Ecclesiastical Sophistry—we must still remember, in our sustained and faithful efforts at reconstruction, Hilaire Belloc’s own recurrent words: “And you cannot build upon a lie.” (177)
“The Moral is, it is forsooth: You mustn’t monkey with the Truth.”4
© 2013 Robert D. Hickson
1Hilaire Belloc, The House of Commons and Monarchy (London: George Allen & Unwin LTD.,1920), 188 pages. References to this text will henceforth be in parentheses in the main body of this essay. See also H. Belloc’s “The Decline of a State”( in First and Last, 1912); and “A Few Kind Words to Mammon”( in On, 1923).
2In an earlier footnote, on page 113, Belloc himself says: “The test of the Democratic temper is a popular craving to possess public initiative, and the test of Democratic government is the exercise of that initiative. Chance consultation by vote has nothing to do with Democracy.” The American Founding Fathers, in The Federalist Papers, also disapprovingly spoke of the instability and irresponsibility of mere “numerous democracy.” A rule by mere number and quantity, that is.
3François Furet, Penser la Révolution française (Paris: Gallimard, 1978), Part II, Chapter 3 (Augustin Cochin: la théorie du jacobinisme), p. 241. Another rendition of the French original is: “There is in all democratic power, a fortiori in all pure democratic power, a hidden oligarchy, which is at the same time contrary to its principles and yet indispensable to its functioning.” Augustin Cochin himself especially, and famously, studied those active leavens of the Revolution: the so-called associations or societies of thought (Sociétés de Pensée). These intellectually and operationally active groupings would also be properly considered as networks of little, though disproportionately influential, “oligarchies.”
4This is a close paraphrase of the two concluding lines from one of Hilaire Belloc’s own buoyant verses, entitled “The Example.” See, for example, Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Verses (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1941), pp. 402-407. The last two lines of that sprightly, cautionary verse are: “The Moral is (it is indeed!)/ You mustn’t monkey with the Creed.”