Hilaire Belloc’s 1936 Insights on “The Modern Man”

Dr. Robert Hickson

12 October 2020

Our Lady of the Pillar (36 A.D.)

Epigraphs

“Lest my title should mislead I will restrict it by definition.” (Hilaire Belloc, Who Own America? (1936, 1999), page 431.)

***

“That this new worship is vigorous and real may be proved by the test of sacrifice: that which a man worships is that for which he will sacrifice not only his comfort but, in extreme cases, his life.” (Hilaire Belloc, Who Owns America?, pages 434-435—my emphasis added.)

***

“Social energy is a function of the zest for living…The remedy can only be found in a change of philosophy; that is, of religion….But those that see this are few….But it is also their duty not to deceive themselves upon the conditions of their task….that the difficulty is increasing and that therefore they must bear themselves as must all those who attempt a creative effort at reform: that is, as sufferers who will probably fail.” (Hilaire Belloc, Who Owns America?, pages 440-442—my emphasis added.)

***

In 1936, when he was sixty-six years of age, Hilaire Belloc accepted an invitation to write an essay entitled “The Modern Man,” which was the final essay of a 21-chapter book, entitled Who Owns America?A New Declaration of Independence,1 a sequel to the 1930 Agrarian Manifesto, I’ll Take My Stand—The South and the Agrarian Tradition, as written by twelve prominent southern authors.

We propose now to consider Belloc’s mature essay on the modern man more closely in order to understand its own principles and then, fittingly, also to apply his gracious insights still today, though some of them may seem to be a little too ethereal for us, and impractical. Yet Belloc, as a Distributist, robustly stands between large-scale corporate, industrial capitalism and large state socialism and with both their own managing oligarchs (including the money power and financiers). For Belloc always tried to keep a proper proportion and humane scale of things in human affairs (not just in the economy). The test of humane scale was always a good criterion to aid and to measure his responsible judgments.

Belloc starts off by focusing on the limits and proportions of his analysis:

I write not of contemporary man in his infinite variety nor even of the modern European, but of the modern man under industrial capitalism—man as he has been formed through long association and particularly as he has been formed in Great Britain; but not Ireland save in the industrialist northeast corner of that island. (431)

Moreover, as Belloc’s special differentiations more concretely continue to develop, he says:

I write of modern man as you see him today [in year 1936—three years before the outbreak of World War II], not only in the streets of [the cities, variously named]…but in the villages; for the whole of our State has by this time arrived at much the same type of citizen (if citizen he can be called). The countryman has become a townee: to put it more elegantly, he has “acquired the urban mind.”

So defined, the modern man would seem to have three characteristics. (431-432—my emphasis added)

In an abbreviated manner, Belloc first summarizes those three characteristics, and then elaborates:

First, he has lost the old doctrinal position on transcendental things….Second, as a consequence of this [loss] he has lost his economic freedom, or, indeed, the very concept of it [economic freedom]. Third, there has been produced in him, by the loss of economic freedom, coupled with the loss of the old religious doctrines, an interior conception of himself which molds all his actions.

Let us develop these three characteristics and see how they are worked up to make the subject of our inquiry: the matter of the modern capitalist State. (432—my emphasis added)

It will be especially fruitful of truth for us if we now examine Hilaire Belloc’s candid assessment of England’s selective religious history and its present situation just before the Second World War, where Belloc will lose another son, Peter, in 1940. (Belloc’s eldest son, Louis, an aviator, was lost in 1918 near the end of the war, and his body was never recovered.)

Belloc now reveals a few other personal matters (without mentioning the loss of his beloved wife Elodie on 2 February 1914, on the Feast of Candlemas, just before the outbreak of World War I):

With all those of my own generation (I am in my sixty-sixth year) I knew extremely well an older generation which was in all ranks of society fixed upon certain transcendent doctrines chosen out of the original [Catholic] body of Christian doctrines inherited from the conversion of the Roman Empire and its development in the Middle Ages, though England has been changed in its religious attitude by the great philosophic revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and was positively a Protestant country (as she still is negatively a Protestant country). Those ancient doctrines which were retained were strongly and, I repeat, always universally held. They include the doctrines of free will, the doctrine of the immortality of the soul (that is, a permanent personality) surviving death forever; the doctrine of the Incarnation—that is, the doctrine that God had become Man—which gave to the personality of man an infinite value since it was so regarded by its Creator; and the doctrine of eternal reward and punishment—reward for right and punishment for wrong-doing. (432-433—my bold emphasis added; italics in the original)

Belloc, as we shall see, is also especially attentive to the sometimes dire and disordered consequences after just one or more of these above certitudes and affirmations are no longer believed to be true and, therefore, binding.

There is also the matter of one’s sense of honor and moral code, or what Belloc calls, traditionally, “a certain code” (433):

There was also retained a certain code in declaring what was right and what was wrong; for instance, if you had a wife still living it was wrong to marry another wife. It was wrong to take away another man’s property in order to advantage your self. It was wrong for a public man to take a bribe and so forth, or to blackmail and so forth. (433)

Being an honest man himself, Belloc anticipates and answers some objections to his own position:

It may be objected by some that the old religious doctrines have been retained into our own day [1936]; no: not by the average man as doctrines—that is, certitudes. Some parts have been retained, but not the same parts by the mass of men. You will still find a minority attached to one or the other of these doctrines. There is a large body which still holds to the doctrine of immortality divorced from the conception of eternal punishment for wrong-doing—and indeed from any punishment other than that suffered in this life.

The doctrine of the Incarnation has gone by the board. You may count up a large number of men and women who still maintain it, but most of these are in the minority—a small minority—of educated men, at least, outside the Catholic body. Most of them, moreover (outside the Catholic body), hold it as an opinion, not as a certitude; moreover, they give to it, each of them, any interpretation they choose, while the masses around them have stopped thinking of the thing altogether, let alone holding it even as an opinion. What does remain of it is a sort of vague aroma which concedes that a long-dead individual who may or may not have really existed and who is, anyhow, long dead, provided an excellent model for conduct. This model is again a figment of the individual’s imagination supported occasionally by fragmentary recollections of ancient documents in themselves fragmentary. (443-434—my emphasis added, in order to help sharpen for us Belloc’s own very fine irony!)

Before moving on to examine his characterizing “second point, the political consequences of a change of religion,” (435—emphasis added) Belloc logically considers, by way of further preparation, “the doctrine of free will” (434):

The doctrine of free will, though inseparable from practical action, has been battered down. The conception of inevitable tendencies, of an inevitable chain of cause and effect, has superseded it. The code of right and wrong has gone, too, and with it, necessarily, the conception of eternal reward and eternal punishment. (434—my emphasis added)

After further lines of argument, Belloc then says: “with the loss of this old religion, the modern man has also lost the obvious truth that a culture is based upon the philosophy it holds.” (435—my emphasis added) For example:

If you believe in the transcendent importance and permanence of personality (that is, the immortality of the soul) and in the supreme sanctions attaching to a particular code of morals (that is, heaven and hell), you act more or less accordingly, by which it is not meant that an ideal is reached or even maintained, but that it remains an ideal and, therefore, permeates society. Thus, a man today [1936] most evil in other respects will not [usually] betray his own country nor deny the validity of its laws, though he will deny the divine authority lying behind those conceptions. (435—my emphasis added)

For the remainder of his essay (436-442), Belloc will concentrate on the last of his three specified characteristics of modern man upon which he has already so openly focused. In his introductory words Belloc now says:

As to the third characteristic, which is the most practically important for our analysis, the effect of all these [characteristics and grave losses!] on modern man’s conception of himself, it has by this time become glaringly apparent.

We note in the first place that with a loss of the sense of free will the modern man has lost the sense of economic freedom. We notice that temporal good has taken the place of other values. We note that a moral code, including property as a right—not as a mere institution—has disappeared. (436—italics in the original; bold emphasis added)

Just as now (in the year 2020) thoughtful and attentive people properly fear being, or becoming, dependently ensnared in some kind of manipulated “technological servitude,” so, too, did Hilaire Belloc warn against (and himself fear) the inhuman scale of servility and the dreaded combination of “insufficiency and insecurity” (438) where a man thereby dependently, if not desperately, surrenders his own economic freedom in order to have more economic security as well as to his having more of a sufficiency of wealth and protective insurance.

The proper way to face the combined risk of “insecurity and insufficiency” is a theme, or even the pervasive “sub-text,” throughout the last part of Belloc’s essay. The temptation to surrender remains: to sacrifice one’s modest integrity and economic freedom for the sake of more stably gaining a more guaranteed security and sufficiency—even for one’s family, for example, despite the further surrender and loss of a more humane scale of life, without any coarsening oligarchic over-centralization. In this light, let us consider Belloc’s own progression of words and insights.

Speaking of the growing ill consequences of “unlimited competition” as if it were itself a destructively wielded “sword,” Belloc resorts to an unexpected, yet helpful, metaphor:

The profound truth contained in the phrase “they that take the sword [of “unlimited competition”] shall perish by the sword” is no where more clearly apparent than here. Temporal good means in practice, wealth, and the pursuit of wealth as an end, and as almost the only end, has resulted in the destruction of all those safeguards whereby the individual wealth of the many was guaranteed. As a consequence there has arisen, through the action of unlimited competition, a polity in which a few control the means of production and the many have become wage-slaves under those few. Whether the few who control the means of production will form a stable class or no may be debated. In the immediate past and on into our own day the pursuit of wealth as the supreme god has made even the wealth of the most wealthy unstable. But there are signs that this state of affairs is ending and that the strongest of those who control the means of production are creating an organization [financial, with debt bondage and management, too?] which will render their domination permanent.

A test of all this may be discovered in the conception of “success.” That idea is now almost wholly confined to the attainment of a position among those who control the means of production and are to that extent secure. (436-437—my emphasis added)

After speaking of “the strong attitude of mind” (437), Belloc speaks of several “derivatives” of this overall “attitude.” He gives several concrete examples, and then says, indeed:

It has become difficult or impossible for the modern man to dissociate the conception of virtue and greatness from the possession of much wealth.

But the most practically derivative of this attitude is the acceptation by the great mass of modern men of a quasi-servile position….To be secure in the reception of these [“regular enjoyment of payments”] is his chief aim, the loss of such support his chief dread. The modern man is not controlled in his actions by the fear of any ultimate spiritual effect of his actions, but of their effect upon the likelihood of his maintaining or losing this livelihood which he enjoys at the will of his economic masters….(through the orders of their own financial masters…). (437-438—my emphasis added)

After he discusses “plutocracy” and the instrumental “parliamentary system” and its ways of thwarting “direct popular action by the pretense of representation” and other “illusions” to which the modern man “submits,” Belloc candidly says:

Now it should be clear to anyone who will think lucidly and coldly upon the direction in which all this must move that it is moving toward the establishment of slavery. Industrial capitalism, as we now have it [in 1936], the control of the means of production, distribution, and exchange (and the control of the modes, therefore, by which production, distribution, and exchange are conducted) by a few, must mean that the many are compelled to work for the profit of the few. When this state of affairs has produced INSUFFICIENCY and INSECURITY, the obvious remedies, if we proceed upon the line of least resistance, would be found in giving to the dispossessed (who have come to form the vast majority of those who were formerly economically free) security and sufficiency on condition that they work under the orders of the few.

To be compelled to work, not by your own initiative, but at the initiation of another, is the definition of slavery.

Whether slavery shall come first in the form of slavery to the State before it arrive at the final and natural and stable form of slavery to individuals—slavery it still is, and the modern man accepts such slavery in the unshakable belief that it is in the nature of things. (438-439—my emphasis added)

Throughout his writings, also in this essay, Belloc emphasizes his incisive presupposition that “economic freedom…can only coexist with private property well distributed.” (439—my emphasis added) But, he also argues that the modern man doubts the validity of such a well-reasoned claim:

He will tell you that the system is impossible, giving as his reasons all manner of external conditions (such as the rapidity of communication, the concentration of the banking system, the cost of great units of machinery, and so forth), but having for his real reason the mere experience of his life. He has never known economic freedom. He has not seen it in action; and without experience of a thing, one cannot make a mental image of it. (439)

Moreover, as Belloc summarizes: not only is it so that “modern man is heading for slavery,” (439) but it is also a fact that “he is heading for the consequent decline of our civilization.” (439)

In conclusion, Hilaire Belloc briefly, but elegiacally, mentions first the degrading effects of “the modern mind” and then the proposed reforms and remedies that are fittingly to be nobly attempted now, without self-deception, and in the face of our approaching servitude and our declining civilization:

It is customary to ascribe to the influence of the press the cause of this development [a coming slavery and the companion decline of our civilization], but….the press in its present degradation…is but a function of the modern mind….

The few who have perceived these truths, the few who can contrast the modern man [and contrast the current man in 2020] with the immediate ancestry of his age, but have forgotten, know that the remedy can only be found in a change of philosophy; that is, of religion. They know further that the material test of this change and at the same time the prime condition which would foster the change would be the reinstitution of private property and its extension to a determining number of the community.

But those who see this are few. It is their duty to work upon the lines which their knowledge of the trouble suggests, but it is also their duty not to deceive themselves upon the conditions of their task….Therefore they must bear themselves as must all those who attempt a creative effort at reform [in religion and philosophy, too]: that is, as sufferers who will probably fail.

Such are Hilaire Belloc’s memorable elegiac tones, along with his characteristically poignant, but also very realistic, ending.

He braces us lesser men for the protracted combat—with robustness, and without sentimentality.

What we have is Nature, what we need is Grace.


–FINIS–

© 2020 Robert D. Hickson

1See the 1999 re-print of the 1936 original text of Who Owns America? (Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, 1999, 1936). Hilaire Belloc’s essay, “The Modern Man,” will be found on pages 431-442 (Chapter 21) of the ISI text. Henceforth, all references to this 1936 essay (from the Houghton Mifflin Company, originally) will be placed above in parentheses in the re-printed text of this brief essay and appreciative commentary.

Another Memoir of a Slow Learner: The Judeo-Masonic Yoke as an anti-Catholic Tradition

Dr. Robert Hickson

8 October 2020

Saint Bridget of Sweden (d. 1373)

Epigraphs

“Exoteric, as distinct from esoteric, relates in part to external reality in contrast to a person’s own thoughts, interpretations, and feelings. It is knowledge that is public, as distinct from being provocatively secretive or cabalistic. Exoteric knowledge need not be knowledge that comes easily or, as it were, automatically. But it should be ascertainable, knowable, and communicable, not only for an elite. In the exoteric, there is no secret doctrine. However, exoteric knowledge presented quite openly can also easily be or seem to be a provocative weakness and appear even so weak that it is provocative to others, and hence even sometimes be deceitfully exploited by others. The Catholic Faith is intimately exoteric. ” (The fruit, in part, of R.D. Hickson’s searching 1974 conversations in Spain with Philosophy Professor Frederick Wilhelmsen (1923-1996)—in a close paraphrase of his vivid and formative insights.)

***

“You do not understand, Hickson. The greatest censorship is self-censorship.” Such were the words of the Russian-Soviet historian Alexander Moiseyevich Nekrich spoken to me in person in the late 1970s, after he was allowed to leave the USSR permanently in 1976. (He was Jewish, I believe, at least ethnically so, but I am not certain.)

The atrophying effects of such an extended self-censorship caused me later to open myself once again to some deeper reflections about secrecy and the occult.

For example, there is a story told to me by an academic philosopher and a native of Lebanon who later converted from his atheism and became a Catholic monk. It was a story about a close Lebanese friend of his father and about a secret that this good friend told him one night at great peril to himself.

This friend of his father wanted to give the young man a warning as well as present to him a piece of little-known, sometimes dangerous truth. This senior man had become a Mason and had gradually advanced “all the way to the top” (his words)—unlike the young man’s own father who had earlier entered, but soon left, Masonry and he did it quietly and from one of the lower ranks and the lower hierarchical orders of “White Masonry.”

The essential and consequential insight which was presented and further explained by the senior occult Mason was as follows: “Masonry is a Gentile front and instrument for Zionism.” (I copy the words exactly, and without further commentary here.) The senior Mason asked for a promise that the young man would never reveal his formidable words, nor their informed source, until he had died. (The young scholar, a future Catholic monk, faithfully kept his solemn promise to his father’s dear friend.)

Many other sources down the years—but not to be discussed here—have shown the close association of Jewry and Freemasonry. However, there usually seems to be genuine fear and a considerable self-censorship connected with any deeper discussion of such a theme and palpable set of historical facts, even if such a discussion only wants to examine these strategic and collaborative matters in the time since the 1789 French Revolution itself, and therefore the additionally consequential and public 1791 and 1806 Emancipations of the Jews—first by the Jacobins and then by Napoleon himself before he went east on military conquest. In any case, whatever one is allowed (or effectively not allowed) to examine and candidly to discuss in public is certainly a sign of real power. Important discourse is often then constricted, or at least attenuated.

Was there ever such a thing as “The Judeo-Masonic Yoke” and to what extent has it been growing and consolidating itself, in order to reform (or to weaken and then punish) its own traditional adversaries such as the traditional Catholic Church? But, our resultant and protracted self-censorship about such matters distorts and atrophies our own perception of reality. Do we agree?

However, I remember the post-Vatican II years of 1969-1971 and the then widely permitted and candid discussions and even published books about “The Myth of the Judeo-Christian Tradition”1 and, especially then prevailing Jewish indignation about the demeaning or trivializing “hyphen” in the very concept and implications of “the Judeo-Christian Tradition”—at least as the learned Hebrews saw it to be so. The hyphenated yoke, as it were, did not at all please them, because the components placed together under the same yoke were arguably themselves moving in very different directions, and with incommensurate purposes and irreconcilable goals. The modern Jews and the modern Christians (especially traditional Catholics) were still too divided and not sufficiently compatible. This is entirely understandable. But, what happened to ongoing “dialogue” and so-called “ecumenism”? What about the more tolerant recommendations and declarations of Vatican II (1962-1965), not only Nostra Aetate (28 October 1965), among other quite progressive conciliar texts?

But it is also understandable—especially for earlier Catholics—that, under the long reign of Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903), both Masonry and the public conduct of modern Judaism were closely observed and critiqued, and quite separately so. They were certainly not yet to be combined and examined together as under one yoke, as in the concept and proposed reality of “Judeo-Masonry,” which is at least an improvement over the misleading notion of “Judeo-Christian.”

In 1884, moreover, Pope Leo XIII had promulgated Humanum Genus (20 April 1884), his Encyclical that was largely a stern condemnation of Masonry and its occult operations and advanced secrecy. Then, in 1890, about a hundred years after the 1789 beginning of the French Revolution, Pope Leo allowed and encouraged the authoritative Jesuit Journal, La Civiltà Cattolica to publish a three-part analysis entitled “The Jewish Question in Europe”—which was openly defending public justice and mercy, and is usefully structured in three parts: “The Causes; The Effects; The Remedies.”

Much has happened since that restive century after the French Revolution, and especially after the effects of its own revolutionary understanding of “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.” Yet the traditional Catholic Faith and her Irreformable Doctrine and aspirational Moral Life of Virtue still remain entirely exoteric. That is to say, there is no secret doctrine in the Catholic Faith; the Church is not in any essentially fundamental way esoteric. Moreover, we Catholics have no supplementary nor complementary Talmud or Kabbala. Nor any other secret doctrines or societies. Are we thereby finally considered to be fools, deluded fools?

Nonetheless, while we are remaining and truly being inwardly and sincerely exoteric it is often an exploitable burden, and not an advantage in the operations of a strictly human history. Our forthright doctrinal and moral openness sometimes constitutes even a grave vulnerability and disadvantage.

We must thus learn to suffer well. But this cannot be so without our first (and indispensably) embracing the Cross, and then also without our own generous receptions of the exoteric sources of sanctifying Divine Grace, unto the possibility of Vita Aeterna and its Beatitude—if we do not freely and finally defect.


–FINIS–

© 2020 Robert D. Hickson

1See, for example, Arthur A. Cohen, The Myth of the Judeo-Christian Tradition (New York: Harper & Row, 1969, 1971).

The Concept and Reality of a Prolonged Self-Censorship and Its Effects: Alexander Nekrich’s Germinal Insights in the 1970s

Dr. Robert Hickson

29 September 2020

Saint Michael the Archangel

Epigraphs

“The censor’s sway is felt most acutely in the social sciences, especially in the sphere of history. Soviet censorship begins in the head of the historian.” (Alexander Nekrich, “Rewriting History” (1980)—my emphasis added)

***

“For the conscientious researcher, work loses all point if the censor asks him not only to delete this or that fact, but also to reach conclusions that are acceptable in the current political scene. And this is where self-censorship comes into play, the most important forms of censorship in socialist society. Self-censorship exerts a profound influence not only on the quality of the research done, but also on the researcher himself. If censorship is an essential element of the structure of the USSR,…then self-censorship is an essential quality of Homo Sovieticus—especially the sub-species of writer[s?] specialising in history and social and political sciences…. Usually the author is governed by self-censorship and the censors.” (Alexander Nekrich, “Rewriting History” (1980)—my emphasis added)

***

It was from Alexander Nekrich, a Russian emigre and former Soviet historian—who once was an esteemed member in the Soviet Academy of Sciences and History—that I first heard of the word and special concept of “self-censorship.” And then, with his further brief help, I more gradually came to understand some of the atrophying consequences of any protracted self-censorship, as distinct from more obvious and forthright public censorship.

An analogy might be helpful here. If an arm-muscle is inside of a plaster cast for too long, it starts to shrink or shrivel up due to the lack of exercise and of nourishment. So too comes the diminishment or attenuation of the higher range of human faculties when they, too, are deprived of sufficient exercise and nourishment.

One of my most precious forms of admiration and gratitude for Aristotle is to be seen especially in one of his definitions of happiness: “happiness is the exercise of the full range of human faculties along lines of excellence [i.e., virtue].” (I cannot now find the source of those words I once read and memorized at once.)

In the latter part of the 1970s, Professor Alexandr Nekrich visited the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and gave a learned talk. After this talk I had occasion to speak with him, just the two of us. In my callowness I asked this solemnly earnest man what it was like to be an historian in the Soviet Academy of Science when the past is, as it were, always changing in accordance with the Dialectic—dialectical materialism and historical materialism, with its varying and desirably safe temporary interpretations. How, I added, did you enduringly live with such censorship? Professor Nekrich looked at me gravely and said : “You are naive. The greatest censorship is self-censorship.” And he told me more. I do not know why he opened up to me. Perhaps because he knew that I was a military officer.

We discussed the elements of fear and trust and how they shaped the protective resort to self-censorship. I then remarked that such self-censorship would also likely lead to the atrophy of human faculties.

Professor Nekrich then became interested in my word “atrophy” in this context of censorship, although he knew at once of the Greek roots and etymological meaning of that vivid word. I then used a more arcane expression—“atrophying self-censorship”—and he was pleased with it, and said that he would make use of it. Thus we started to consider how that concept could—and should—be applied effectively. We agreed that one of the ill fruits of prolonged self-censorship was the subtle atrophy of one’s indispensable human faculties, leading to a kind of paralysis and debilitation.

I was never to see Alexander Nekrich again, but I shall always remember his earnest and contemplative face and searching questions and insights, to include his mention of the important “SECOND Nazi-Soviet Pact,” which got him into trouble with the censors and supporters of Stalin. I later learned that he (with Mikhail Heller) wrote a lengthy book entitled Utopia in Power (1985) about the 1917-1985 history of the Soviet Union. Only recently, however, was I to discover that Nekrich also wrote an earlier 5-6 page essay on censorship, in 1980, and entitled “Rewriting History” (as translated by Marjorie Farquharson in Index on Censorship 4/1980) which is still to be found on the Internet. It would be of worth to read and discuss that essay still. But a few words now might be apt given the spreading autocratic and enforced rules about protective masks and social distancing and confusing “lockdowns” and all that. Fear and distrust abound, it seems, and so does increasing self-censorship.

One may recall that one test of real power—as distinct from mere formal power—is who controls what may be said, and what may not be said, in public.

As in the former Soviet Union, some things are so taboo that one may not even say that they are taboo.

François Furet, for example, once said that “modern democracy is dependent upon a hidden oligarchy which is contrary to its principles, but indispensable to its function.” That is to say, modern democracy is based on a deception. However, who would be able and allowed to discuss that matter in depth and openly? What would the oligarchs permit? And, specifically, who are they?

Solzhenitsyn urged us “not to live the lie” and also warned us “not to participate in the lie.”

Nekrich warns us to be careful about the destructive and abiding effects of too much and deceitful “self-censorship.” It is a form of living the lie. And the greatest effect of the lie is the breaking of trust—even the most intimate trusts. And once they are broken, they are so hard to repair and re-build.

For sure, Dr. Alexandr Moiseyevich Nekrich (1920-1993) has incipiently inspired us to consider more deeply the phenomenon of “atrophying self-censorship” and some of its formidable ramifications.

What is happening today, not just in the United States but throughout the world, even the manifestations of chaos and censorious “democratic despotism,” may be correctively helped along a little by Nekrich’s own illuminating experiences in the Soviet Union and his later insightful, articulate writings as a 1976 Russian emigre. He is a sobering guide for us, as his 1980 essay on “Rewriting History” will confirm.1 We should study and savor that compact 1980 essay further, and in the light of current and recurring events.

–FINIS–

© 2020 Robert D. Hickson

1https://marjoriefarquharson.blog/2020/03/31/rewriting-history-by-alexander-nekrich-1980/

Memoirs of a Slow Learner and a Deficient Fruit Inspector

Dr. Robert Hickson 21 September 2020

Saint Matthew (d. 65)

Epigraphs

“Who were exempt from taking the 1910 Antimodernist Oath, why, and since when? Were the Vatican II Fathers themselves and their Advisors (Periti) also exempt, or did some of them gravely and consequentially perjure themselves?”

***

“What are the actual repercussions and some further implications of 17 July 1967: Pope Paul VI’s formal rescinding and abrogation of the Antimodernist Oath?”

***

Some time ago when I spoke to a friend of mine about my recurrent “reflections on life from the vantage point of a mere fruit inspector,” I should have fittingly added also another small truth: my persistent desire someday to present mine own “memoirs of a slow learner.”

For, after graduating as a new second-lieutenant in the Corps of Engineers from West Point on 3 June 1964, I lived largely out of the country, or in secluded military training, up until January of 1971. It was then that I unexpectedly returned to a civilian Graduate School at the University of North Carolina in the same State as Fort Bragg, North Carolina, at which military post I was first formed as a young Army Special Forces Officer, and was thus to be a recipient of the cherished “three-prefix” to my MOS in 1966, after I had first attended parachute and ranger schools (where a 7-prefix and a 8-prefix were, respectively, to be added first to my main “Military Occupational Specialty” (MOS)). In 1966, however, there was not yet—not until 8 April 1987, some twenty years later—a special military branch set aside and designated for Army Special Forces overall. And so, before 1987, the “three-prefix” was the designator to be found in one’s personnel records, along with our patched green berets.

During all this very active time (1962-1971), the deep contrasts of foreign strategic and religious cultures influenced me greatly and prompted me to wonder about many fundamental things, and these things were often matters of moment to man. Although I was then still very innocent and ignorant, I had a strong and vivid sense of adventure—and an unquenched propensity to ask searching, sometimes uncomfortable, questions. I thereby gradually came to understand some things about the Church, too.

Now, for instance, I am still gradually learning many important things about the 1962-1965 Second Vatican Council of the Catholic Church and its equivocal earlier preparations and its confusing aftermath. Here, too, I have been, alas, a deficient “Fruit Inspector” and am still a “Slow Learner.”

For instance, in late July of 1967, I was returning from Istanbul to New York City by way of a civilian ship, from my one-year military assignment in Turkey, with visits to Greece, Turkey’s own opponent also on the eastern flank of NATO, to include the contested divided island of Cypress.

Earlier in July of 1967, on page one of The New York Times near the bottom of the page, Tad Szulc contributed a special 17 July report from Rome published on 18 July 1967 and with the following headline: “Pope Said to Cancel Antimodernist Oath; Pope Paul Said to Abrogate Antimodernist Oath.” And this is what he said in his first paragraph from Rome, which was dated 17 July 1967: “Pope Paul VI was reported today to have ordered the abrogation of the oath against modernism that Roman Catholic priests and ecclesiastical officials have been obliged to take for the last 57 years [i.e., since its promulgation by Pope Pius X on 1 September 1910].”

It was only later that I heard of, and then considered the implications of, this 17 July 1967 promulgated recension and abrogation of that solemn Oath established by Pope Pius X in 1910.

Shortly after this Roman act, the lax and rebellious Land O’ Lakes Conference in Wisconsin (20-23 July 1967) took place. Its own final Statement about academic freedom and authority was signed and promulgated on 23 July 1967, which was only a few days before Pope Paul VI went to Turkey.

Pope Paul VI came to visit Turkey from 25-26 July 1967, and he was on one of his further missions of diplomacy and so-called ecumenism, first of all with the Greek Orthodox Patriarch Athenagoras, and then also briefly with the government of the Turks.

Paul VI was meeting Athenagoras for the second time. He had first met Athenagoras in Lebanon, and both meetings were importantly arranged by Dr. Charles Malik, a prominent Lebanese academic and diplomatic figure, also as Lebanese ambassador to the U.S. and at the United Nations. (Dr. Malik was an Orthodox Christian and academic philosopher, but, despite his abiding Catholic sympathies, he never became a Roman Catholic after Paul VI’s words to him privately and personally—i.e., that it was sufficient for him to believe in the Council of Florence, 1431-1449; and so he did not need to convert.1)

It was in such a lax and softly tolerant way that the revolutions of 1968 were gradually fomented. I came to believe that, without the optimistic and selectively merciful Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) and its immediately applied aftermath (late 1965-early 1968), there would not have been the widespread revolutions of May 1968 and thereafter. In late 1968 and 1969, I saw some of the violence in Japan after I had returned from Vietnam. The Socialists in Japan were, surprisingly, even more radical and violent than the Communists.

It was in 1969 that Paul VI’s revolutionary New Order of the Mass was promulgated and then gradually spread throughout the world. In June of 1968, Paul VI also published his partly attenuated and yet still widely criticized Encyclical Humanae Vitae.

But, it was very soon after Paul VI became pope in the middle of June 1963 that he quietly first lifted (on 5 July 1963) the ban and in 1966 introduced the spreading allowance of priestly officiating at cremations for human bodies after death. There is always both a Slow Path as well as a Fast Path in a Revolution. And we must also closely follow the Language as well as the Money.

We may look at the itch for a novel use of words—for example, “dialogue” and “ecumenism” (or syncretism? perhaps as a subtle relativism?) and “evolution” (that is, an “ongoing Revelation”?, or the “Evolution of Dogma” instead of affirming the just permanence of “irreformable doctrine”?).

So much has changed since that Summer of 1962 when I, at a callow nineteen years of age, first returned to West Point from our memorable German Exchange Program abroad, just before the October 1962 beginning of Vaticanum II amidst the threats in Berlin and risks of nuclear war, not only in Cuba.

Soon I was to hear (or read) such things as: “our result is more process”; “God needs us to complete Himself”; and “They have asked the Blessed Mother to leave the Marriage Feast of Cana”—“and they did not even give her the time to say: ‘Vinum non habent‘”—i.e., “they have no wine.”

It is as if the Blessed Virgin Maria were a multi-layered obstacle (“obex”) to a Grand Ecumenism!

It is true, I have often learned some deeper truths by carefully inspecting the fruits of new or alien ideas and actions and strategic networks and attitudes. But too often, alas, I have been a slow learner.

CODA

In the context of this brief essay, I also wanted to recommend to our readers that they revisit my 7 October 2019 reflections on the words of Cardinal Walter Brandmüller concerning the Oath against Modernism: https://ordodei.net/2019/10/08/the-oath-against-modernism-1910-1967-and-cardinal-walter-brandmullers-recent-words/

–FINIS–

© 2020 Robert D. Hickson

1Charles Malik told this whole “ecumenical” scandal to his intimate boyhood, Lebanese friend, Brother Francis Maluf, M.I.C.M. (Dr. Fakhri Maluf), who, in turn, told the whole story to me in person. Malik never formally converted.

Maurice Baring’s Multi-Faceted 1912 Travelogue: Round the World in Any Number of Days

Dr. Robert Hickson

9 September 2020

Saint Peter Claver, S.J. (d. 1654)

Epigraphs

“Shortly afterwards [on 21 June 1912], he started on his tour round the world [until October of 1912], the result of which was what seems to me one of the most enchanting, also one of the most unusual travel-books ever written: Round the World in Any Number of Days.” (Dame Ethel Smyth, Maurice Baring (London: William Heinemann LTD, 1938), page 42—my bold emphasis added.)

***

“In October of the same year (1912) The Times sent him to the Balkans, where war had broken out. I think this persistence of newspaper editors in using Baring as War Correspondent is impressive and creditable to both parties….One may conclude it was not only on account of his vivid narrative style, but also because of his enterprise and reliability, that he was once more sent to the seat of war by the foremost English Journal.” (Dame Ethel Smyth, Maurice Baring (1938), pages 42-43—my bold emphasis added.)

***

“And I, for one, in any case, felt that come what might, I had had my dream. I had had a glimpse of Eden, a peep into the earthly paradise.” (Maurice Baring, Round the World in Any Number of Days (London: William Heinemann LTD, 1926), page 97—my emphasis added.)

***

It should be of worth to us yet today to see some of the nourishing perceptiveness and insights of Maurice Baring in his 1912 travel writings less than two years before the outbreak of World War I. Although Baring’s vivid and varied record of his five-month trip was first published in the United States in 1914, we shall now refer to, and often to quote, only from a later publisher’s unified and final 1926 English edition, which is still entitled: Round the World in Any Number of Days.1

From June to October 1912, Maurice Baring (1874-1945) first sailed east from England to Naples, Italy, on to India and Ceylon, then on to Australia and New Zealand, and briefly (but very movingly) through Roratonga and Papeete, Tahiti (mindful also of the beautiful Marquesas Archipelago) and onward to San Francisco, and then winding up by train coming down the Hudson River Coast into New York City (and Long Island), from which he sailed back to England, in order to begin his mission to the Balkans as a trusted War Correspondent.

After this brief introduction and partial summary, let us first consider how Baring concretely presents a fresh mango as it was recommended to him in Ceylon so as to alleviate the “damp heat that saps your very being” (38):

It is when you are dressed for dinner and you come down into the large high dining-room, full of electric fans, that you realize that it is impossible to be cool. It is an absorbing, annihilating damp heat that saps your very being.

The first thing to do is to eat a mango. Will it be as good as you are told it is? Yes, it is better. At first you think it is just an ordinary apricot and then you think it is a banana; no, fresher; a peach, a strawberry, and then a delicious, sharp, fresh, aromatic after-taste comes, slightly tinged with turpentine, but not bitter. Then you get all the tastes at once, and you know that the mango is like nothing else but its own incomparable self.

It has all these different tastes at once, simultaneously. In this it resembles the beatific vision as told of by St. Thomas Aquinas. The point of the beatific vision, says St. Thomas, is its infinite variety. (38—italics in the original)

Baring then immediately elaborates upon his unusual analogy of Beatitude’s “infinite variety” with the concurrent variety of tastes accessible to one who is savouring a fresh mango:

So that those who enjoy it [i.e., the vision of beatitude] have at the same time the feeling that they are looking at a perfect landscape, hearing the sweetest of music, bathing it a cold stream on a hot day, reaching the top of a mountain, galloping on grass on a horse that isn’t running away, floating over tree-tops, reading very good verse, eating toasted cheese, drinking a really good cocktail [or wine!]—and any other nice thing you can think of, all at once. The point, therefore, of the taste of the mango is its infinite variety. It was probably mangoes which grew in Eden on the Tree of Knowledge, only I expect they had a different kind of skin then, and were without that cumbersome and obstinate kernel which makes them so difficult to eat. (38-39—italics in the original; my bold emphasis added)

Such a perceptive and extended passage on beatitude and a mango fruit is a representative instance of Baring’s multi-faceted and unusual pre-World War I travelogue. And there is more to come.

For example, Maurice Baring—the Russian scholar and linguist—then freshly mentions the reliable reports or realities of “ghosts at sea” and he modestly says:

But I have spoiled that story. I have merely told the bare facts; what you want is the whole thing: the dialogue, the details; the technical terms. Ghosts at sea are more frightening than ghosts on shore, but I think the worst of all ghosts are river ghosts or, for instance, the ghosts that haunt the rivers of Russia. They have green, watery eyes, hair made of weeds, and they laugh at you when they see you and then you go mad. This naiad ghost is called Russalka. I have never seen one or any other ghost either, but I have once in the company of a friend [Hilaire Belloc] heard a ghost sing. (47—italics in the original; my bold emphasis added)

Baring at once adds a footnote to this passage in the 1926 edition, where he now more revealingly says: “Now that the age of reticence has gone his name [my friend] can be mentioned. It was H. Belloc.” (47—my emphasis added)

Throughout his Round the World, Maurice Baring mentions and quotes his friend Hilaire Belloc, as well as G.K. Chesterton, and even Dr. Samuel Johnson, the noted, often witty, Lexicographer. For example, Baring says:

So that one wonders [at times] how it happens that any one goes to sea [and thereby also then has “the possibility of drowning”!]; and one is inclined almost to agree with Dr. Johnson’s opinions on the subject.

“A ship,” he said, “is worse than a gaol [jail]. There is in a gaol better air, better company, better conveniences of every kind, and a ship has the additional disadvantage of being in danger [as in drowning!]. When men come to like a sea-life they are not fit to live on land.”

“Then,” said [James] Boswell, “it would be cruel in a father to breed his son to the see.”

It would be cruel,” said Johnson, “in a father who thinks as I do. Men go to sea before they know the unhappiness of that way of life; and when they come to know it, they cannot escape from it, because it is then too late to choose another profession, as, indeed, is generally the case with men when they have once engaged in any particular way of life.” (52—my emphasis added)

In view of these wholehearted and differentiated words, Baring soon again quotes Dr. Johnson who also sincerely said: “Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier or not having been at sea.” (58)

Maurice Baring also shows his sincere admiration of the poet and scholar, Andrew Lang (59-61).

We thus propose to give only a selection of Baring’s thoughts. First of all, Baring gives us the context for his subsequent personal words about the Scottish poet, scholar, and translator, Andrew Lang himself, who had just died in July of 1912 (having been born in Scotland in 1844):

And yet it happens that many writers [like Belloc and Baring themselves!] write books on different subjects. Andrew Lang, for instance; at Fremantle [a port-city on the west coast of Australia] we heard the sad news of his death. Personally I knew him slightly and he had shown me much kindness. Also we had corresponded about a ghost story. I have literally fed on his books since I was fifteen. When a boy awakens to a love of literature and his enthusiasm for a number of authors is kindled to a white-hot pitch, he wishes to see that enthusiasm confirmed and justified in the writings of older men, and he turns to the critics. The critics pull his favourite poets to pieces, and sniff, and cavil, and patronize, and analyze, and damn with faint praise, and dissect, and blame, and make reservations, and deal out niggard approval. Nothing is so trying to the young as the jaded palate of elder critics. But in Andrew Lang’s criticism (so lightly and beautifully put, so unpedantic and so easy) the boy will find the enthusiasm he expects. (59—my emphasis added)

Baring then remembers other examples of Lang’s admirable qualities:

In a letter to me Andrew Lang once said he appreciated all the poets from Homer to Robert Bridges, with the exception of Byron. I’m sorry he didn’t like Byron. But I didn’t like Byron as a boy, and it was as a boy that Andrew Lang what I most needed, praise of my favourites—Shelley, Keats, William Morris, Dumas; of all the poets I had just discovered and the romantics in whom I was revelling, and of French verse into the bargain.

As a boy, when I began to read the critics, I found that they despised French verse, and I wondered. But Andrew Lang was my solace. He understood. He knew the language….You must be used to the sound of French to appreciate French verse….

Andrew Lang is an author who spent the large capital of his wit, his learning, his wide sympathies, royally and generously without stint; he was a master of English prose, and some of the best pages he ever wrote were flung into leaders in the Daily News….He had a fine and rare appreciation of the world’s good verse; he could write ghost stories, fairy tales, doggerel; he was a supreme dialectician, an amusing parodist, a prince of letter-writers, as well as a poet;—perhaps he was of all things a poet. The following translation [by Andrew Lang] of Rufinus’ lines to Rhodocleia, sending her a wreath, is a good example of his verse. He has turned an exquisite Greek poem into an exquisite English poem: [then the full poetic translation is actually provided on page 61]….

Practically I saw nothing of Australia, but I suppose there is no harm in writing these notes—the mere rough impressions of a fugitive traveller. (59-61—my bold emphasis added)

Such is Maurice Baring’s sincere forthrightness and his modesty.

In September of 1912, Baring was in Wellington, the capital of New Zealand, and we hear about someone he memorably met:

One of the most interesting people I have met here is a French lady of the highest culture and education, Soeur Marie Joseph, who is at the head of a Home of Compassion for derelict children. She went out to the Crimean War [1853-1856] under Florence Nightingale and looked after the wounded on the battlefield that knew nothings of anaesthetics. She told me that sometimes the doctors, after a day of surgical operations, would be drunk with the fumes of the blood. The wounded had to be tied down to be operated on, and sometimes, where this was not practicable, people had to sit on them.

Soeur Marie Joseph is very fond of New Zealand. She came out, attracted by what she heard of the [native] Maoris, and she knew the Maoris with an intimate thoroughness. She has a great admiration for them; and she gave me many instances of their chivalry and nobility of character….This morning at one of the Catholic churches here the priest preached a most interesting sermon….I have had a glimpse of New Zealand, such as no books and no pictures could give me, and I have consequently enriched my store of experience and extended the frontiers of my outlook. (85-86—my emphasis added)

In mid-September 1912, Baring arrived first in Roratonga en route to Tahiti, and noticed, among other distinctive qualities, that the Tonga natives spoke with special tones:

Their voices are in harmony with the liquid musical quality of their language, which consists of soft open vowels. It is, I suppose, the most melodious of all human languages….

I bathed in the sea, and then…I went on board once more. From Roratonga it only takes two days to get to the island of Tahiti [in French Polynesia], and the steamer anchored at Papeete [the capitol of French Polynesia] on Friday, September 20 [1912].

Roratonga gives you a kind of foretaste of the whole charm and beauty of the South Seas. It is the appetizer, …not the whole meal. Tahiti is the whole thing; the real thing, the thing that one has dreamt about all one’s life; the thing which made Stevenson [Robert Louis Stevenson] leave Europe for ever. All tellers of fairy tales, and all poets from Homer downwards, have always imagined the existence of certain Fortunate islands [“the Happy Isles”] which were so full of magic and charm that they turned man from his duty and from his tasks, labour, or occupation in which he was engaged, and held him a willing captive, who would not sell his captivity for all the prizes of the busy world. (90-91—my emphasis added)

After Baring’s further presentations of Tahiti’s allurements (or perilous temptations?), he says:

I cannot imagine anything more ideal than to possess a schooner fitted with a small motor in case of calm, and to cruise [under sail] about the waters between Tahiti and the Marquesas [the archipelago], which, one is told, are the most beautiful of all….They are things to be seen; they are places to be seen and lived in; not to be written about. The pen can give no idea of their charm….Loath as I was to go, at the end of twenty-four hours I felt it was a good thing that I was going, otherwise I should have been tempted to remain there for the rest of my life….

We left Tahiti in the afternoon, when the greater part of the population came down to the wharf to see us off. We left feeling like Ulysses [Odysseus] when he was driven by force (or by Penelope’s letters) from the island of Calypso. And I, for one, in any case, felt that come what might, I had had my dream. I had had a glimpse of Eden, a peep into the earthly paradise. (95-97—my emphasis added)

Before leaving these varied and inviting samples of Maurice Baring’s 1912 travelogue, I propose to present one scene from his brief time in San Francisco:

The next night I left San Francisco for Chicago. Before leaving San Francisco, I had a dinner at a restaurant called the “New Franks” [run by “a Dalmatian” with “a French cook or cooks”]. It is a small restaurant, and it provides the best food I have ever eaten anywhere….I was not hungry the night I went to the New Franks. I was not inclined to eat, but the sheer excellence of the cooking there excited my greed, and bade my appetite rise from the dead….And I had never tasted anything so good in my life [not even a mango!]….

The trouble about small restaurants, when they are excellent, is, that they become well known, and are then so largely patronized that they become large and ultimately bad.

Once I was walking in Normandy with a friend [perhaps Hilaire Belloc?], and we stopped in a very small town to have luncheon at an hotel. We asked if there was any wine. Yes, there was some wine, some Burgundy, some Beaune. We tried a bottle, and it surprised us. Surprise is, in fact, a mild word to describe the sharpness of our ecstasy.

“Is not this wine very good?” we asked of the host.

“Yes, sirs,” he answered, “it is very good. It is very old, but there is not much of it left.”

Now, my friend was a journalist, who writes about French towns and French wines in the English Press.

Whatever happens,” I said to him, “if you write about this town and about this wine, which I know you will do, you must not divulge the name of the town.”

He agreed. He wrote an article about the town, he grew lyric over the wine, and looted all the poets of the world from Homer downwards for epithets and comparisons fit for it. He did not mention the name of the place.

The year after he returned to the same place and ordered a bottle of the Burgundy. There was no more left. Some English gentlemen, the host told him, had come on purpose from England to finish it.

Now, I am sure some very intelligent man, and a man who was passionately fond of good wine, read the article and guessed, from the description, the whereabouts of the little French town and the precious liquid.

The moral of this is: “Don’t tell secrets in the newspapers; don’t even tell half a secret.”

The evening I left San Francisco I had a small adventure. I asked a man the way to some street. He told me the way, and then, catching hold of my arm, he said, “You will stand me a drink.”….Then he said, “I’m a bum….I’m a booze-fighter.” He added with engaging frankness that he was half drunk: an under-statement. (114-118—my emphasis added)

Such is the richness and variety of Maurice Baring’s writing, even his travel writing on the eve of the coming and soon spreading War.

God’s good foison” – “God’s good abundance”—is what the Catholic poet, John Dryden (d. 1700), once generously said of the earlier Catholic poet, Geoffrey Chaucer (d. 1400).

Such an abundance also characterizes the writing and the heart of Maurice Baring, who, three years before his 1912 voyage, became a Roman Catholic. It was on 1 February 1909 that he was received into the Church, on the Vigil of Candlemas.

–FINIS–

© 2020 Robert D. Hickson

1 See, first of all, Maurice Baring, Round the World in Any Number of Days (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company—The Riverside Press Cambridge, October 1914), 248 pages. The final 1926 edition, with longer dedications added, is published, as follows: Maurice Baring, Round the World in Any Number of Days (London: William Heinemann LTD, 1926 ), pages v-xv, and 1-140. Illustrations are by Basil Blackwood; and Dedications are now to his close friend, Dame Ether Smyth, Doctor (and Composer) of Music; and to his valorous Companion in World War I, Major Bowman, D.S.O., M.C. Henceforth, all references to and quotations of Baring’s text will be to the 1926 edition, and placed above in parentheses in the main body of this brief essay. We shall now accent a representative selection of Baring’s insights.

Maurice Baring, One of God’s Gentlemen, Presents Xantippe: The Wife of Socrates

(Author’s Note: This 2017 essay on Maurice Baring is intended to be a fitting sequel to the recently posted essay on Max Beerbohm’s Parody of some of Maurice Baring’s subtle writings. This essay shows the deep character of Maurice Baring himself, as well as presents an instance of his gifted writing on certain personalities from the Classical Ancient World of Greece.)

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                                                      9 June 2017

Feast of Mary Mother of Fair Grace

Saint Columba (Saint Columbkille) (d. 597)

Maurice Baring, One of God’s Gentlemen, Presents Xantippe:

The Wife of Socrates

Epigraphs

“On the eve of Candlemas 1909, I was received into the Catholic Church by Father Sebastian Bowden at the Brompton Oratory [in London and on 1 February]: the only action in my life which I am quite certain I have never regretted. Father Sebastian began life as an officer in the Scots Guards. He had served as A.D.C. [Aide-de-Camp] under the same chief and at the same time as my uncle, Lord Cromer. He lived all the rest of his life at the Oratory and died in 1920. He was fond even in old age of riding about London on a cob [his small horse of sturdy build]. His face was stamped with the victory of character over all other elements. He was a sensible Conservative, a patriot, a prime example of an English gentleman in mind and appearance; a prince of courtesy, and a saint; and I regard my acquaintance with him and the friendship and sympathy he gave me as the greatest privilege bestowed on me by Providence.” (Maurice Baring, The Puppet Show of Memory, (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1922), pp. 395-396—my emphasis added)

***

“That night [17 May 1915]…there was a rumour that B.K. [Major Basil Barrington-Kennett] had been killed. The next day the rumour was confirmed.

If ever a man deserved a soldier’s death, to die leading his men and the men of his own regiment into battle, it was B.K. But of all the bitter losses one had to bear throughout the war, it was, with one exception [i.e., his cherished long-time friend, Auberon “Bron” Herbert, Captain Lord Lucas, d. 3 November 1916 at age 40; and to whom, in 1909, Baring had dedicated his parodic Dead Letters (1911)], this particular loss I felt most, minded most, resented most, and found most difficult to accept.

He [“B.K.”] was not an old friend of mine. I had never seen him before the war. But he was bound up with every moment of my life during the first months of the war, and I had got to know him intimately and to admire him more than others and to delight in his company more than in that of others….But when this particular piece of news [about his death] came I felt the taste of the war turn bitter indeed, and apart from any personal feelings, one rebelled against the waste which had deprived, first the Flying Corps and then the Army, of the services of so noble a character. He was the most completely unselfish man I have ever met: a compound of loyalty and generosity and a gay and keen interest in everything life has to offer.

Not long ago I heard a little boy of eight years old asked if he knew what the word gentleman meant. He said, ‘Yes, of course.’ On being pressed for a definition he said: ‘A gentleman is a man who loves God very much and has beautiful manners.’ This definition exactly fitted B.K.” (Maurice Baring, R.F.C., HQ.–1914-1918 (London: G. Bell and Sons, 1920), pp. 92-93—my emphasis added)

***

“He [General Éduard de Castelnau, 1851-1944] seemed to belong to a nobler epoch than ours [circa 1914-1918], to be [himself] a native of the age of chivalry, of that time [in the 13th Century] when Louis IX, who is known as Saint Louis, dispensed justice under a spreading oak-tree. He had the easy familiarity, the slight play of kindly irony, the little ripple of humour, the keen glance, the foresight and forethought, that politesse du cœur [that deep and sincere politeness of heart], that complete remoteness from what is common, mean, base, self-seeking, which are the foundation and substance of God’s gentlemen.” (Maurice Baring, R.F.C., HQ.—1914-1918, p. 273—my bold emphasis added; italics in the original)

***

This short essay proposes to consider, not only the above-mentioned Major B.K. and General de Castelnau, but also Maurice Baring himself, as “one of God’s gentlemen,” as one whose own generous and chivalrous character is marked by a sincere, deep, and guileless politesse de cœur, even as he presents to us now the volubly scolding (sometimes shrewish) wife of Socrates, Xantippe. Under her eloquent reproaches Socrates himself is shown to be a man of a few words, maybe for a good reason, inasmuch as he expectantly approaches the end of his earthly life, which is already forebodingly endangered—though seemingly unnoticed by his discouraged and hot-tempered wife. (In 399 B.C., five years after the humiliating defeat and capitulation of Athens in the devastating Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.) in which he had earlier been a combatant, Socrates himself, after his trial, was to die.)

Baring first published this charming character portrayal of Xantippe and her husband in 1911, three years before the Great War of 1914-1918 was to break out, and only some two years after he had become a Catholic. The Xantippe portrayal was then again later published in his book’s set of 23 short literary presentations, entitled Diminutive Dramas,1 where Baring’s characteristic magnanimity recurrently showed itself. And he expressed it often with “a play of kindly irony” and a warmly sustained, flowing “ripple of humour”—as we may soon come to see, especially if we were–with only two reciters– to read with a fittingly swift pace the entire short play aloud. (Recently, and in the presence of our two young children at home, my German wife herself expressively read the lines and convincingly played Xantippe —with me as the taciturn, somewhat intimidated Socrates in the background as a foil—and she thereby heartily evoked the joy and smiles of the astounded children!)

Now we should present Baring’s own description of the Scene at the opening of the Play:

“A room in SOCRATES’ house. XANTIPPE is seated at a table [in Athens], on which an unappetizing meal, consisting of figs, parsley, and some hashed goat’s meat, is spread.” (177)

We should remember the goat’s meat is, purportedly, one of Socrates’ favorite dishes, at least in Xantippe’s estimation. As Socrates (S) enters his home, Xantippe (X) has the first comment (177):

X: “You’re twenty [sic] minutes late.”

S: “I’m sorry, I was kept—”

X: “Wasting your time as usual, I suppose, and bothering people with questions who have something better to do than to listen to you. You can’t think what a mistake it is by going on like that. You can’t think how much people dislike it. If people enjoyed it, or admired it, I could understand the waste of time—but they don’t. It only makes them angry. Everybody’s saying so.”

S: “Who’s everybody?

X: “There you are with your questions again. Please don’t try to catch me out with those kind of tricks. I’m not a philosopher. I’m not a sophist. I know I’m not clever—I’m only a woman. But I do know the difference between right and wrong and black and white, and I don’t think it’s very kind of you, or very generous either, to be always pointing out my ignorance, and perpetually making me the butt of your sarcasm.”

S: “But I never said a word.”

X: “Oh, please, don’t try to wriggle out of it. We all know you’re very good at that. I do hate that shuffling so. It’s so cowardly. I do like a man you can trust—and depend on—who when he says Yes means Yes, and when he says No means No.”

S: “I’m sorry I spoke.”

X: “I suppose that’s what you call irony. I’ve no doubt it’s very clever, but I’m afraid it’s wasted on me. I should keep those remarks for the market-place and the gymnasia and the workshops. I’ve no doubt they’d be highly appreciated there by that clique of young men who do nothing but admire each other. I’m afraid I’m old-fashioned. I was brought up to think that a man should treat his wife with decent civility, and try, even if he did think her stupid, not to be always showing it.” (177-178—my emphasis added)

Baring’s tonal words show Xantippe to be a more sympathetic figure than we might have originally thought to be so.

In reply to Xantippe’s last set of words, Socrates can only say: “Have I by a word or hint ever suggested that you were stupid?” The pathos now grows.

X: “Oh, of course not—never. However, we won’t discuss that. We will change the subject, if you don’t mind.”

S: “But really—”

X: (ignoring the interruption). Please give me your plate. I will help you to the goat.”

S: “None for me, thank you, to-day”

X: “Why not? I suppose it’s not good enough. I’m afraid I can’t provide the food you get at your grand friends’ houses, but I do think it’s rather cruel of you to sneer at my poor humble efforts.” (178—my emphasis added)

Socrates goes on to reveal only the fact that he is not very hungry: “I’ve really got no appetite for meat to-day. I’ll have some figs, if you don’t mind.” (179) And Xantippe immediately responds:

X: “I suppose that’s the new fad, not to eat meat. I assure you people talk quite enough about you as it is without your making yourself more peculiar. Only yesterday Chrysilla was talking about your clothes. She asked if you made them dirty on purpose. She said the spots on the back couldn’t have got there by accident. Every one notices it—every one says the same thing. Of course they think it’s my fault. No doubt it’s very amusing for people who don’t mind attracting attention and who like being notorious: but it is rather hard on me. And when I hear people saying ‘Poor Socrates! it is a shame that his wife looks after him so badly and doesn’t even mend his sandals‘–I admit I do feel rather hurt. However, that would never enter into your head. A philosopher hasn’t time to think of other people. I suppose unselfishness doesn’t form part of a sophist’s training, does it?

[SOCRATES says nothing, but eats first one fig and then another.]

X: “I think you might at least answer when spoken to. I am far from expecting you to treat me with consideration or respect; but I do expect ordinary civility.”

[SOCRATES goes on eating figs in silence.]

X: “Oh, I see, you’re going to sulk. First you browbeat, then you’re satirical. Then you sneer at the food, and then you sulk.” (179—my bold emphasis added; italics in the original)

Baring’s presentation now moves on to the specific discussion of food, but only after Socrates shows no larger response to his wife’s more capacious comments. The only reply Socrates chooses to make to her is somewhat impersonal, as well as brief: “I never said a word against the food.” (180—my emphasis added) Nor does Socrates ever thank her for being a good cook who tries to please him!

We may now imagine the different emphases and tones of voice that might be fittingly expressed by the actors in this continuing and somewhat one-sidedly animated dialogue, if this deftly written little domestic drama were also to be performed on stage. Xantippe now resumes (with a touch of irony) her own more loquacious and more differentiated response to her terse husband:

X: “You never said a word against the food. You only kept me waiting nearly half an hour for dinner—not that that was anything new—I’m sure I ought to be used to that by now—and you only refused to look at the dish which I had taken pains to cook with my own hands for you.”

S: “All I said was I wasn’t hungry—that I had no appetite for meat.”

X: “You’ve eaten all the figs. You’ve got quite an appetite for those.”

S: “That’s different.”

X: “Oh, that’s different, is it? One can be hungry enough to eat all the fruit there is in the house, which I was especially keeping for this evening, but not hungry enough to touch a piece of meat. I suppose that’s algebra.”

S: “You know I very rarely eat meat.”

X: “Really? I hadn’t noticed it. I always hear of your eating meat in other people’s houses; but my poor cooking is not good enough for you. I’m sorry, but I can’t afford those spicy messy dishes. If I had a husband who had a real profession, and worked, and did something useful to earn his living and support his house and home, it would be different; only I think the least you could do is not to sneer at one when one is only trying to do one’s best.” (180—my emphasis added)

To this cascade of words and spousal reproaches Socrates only says: “I very rarely eat meat anywhere now.” Perceiving this rarity of meat to be a nutritional deficiency in her husband, Xantippe finds new grounds for her sharp solicitousness:

X: “That’s why you’re looking so ill. All the doctors say it’s a mistake. Some people can do without meat. They don’t need it—but a man who works with his brain like you ought to eat nourishing food. You ought to force yourself to eat meat, even if you don’t feel inclined to.”

S: “I thought you said just now that I did nothing.”

X: “There you are, cross-examining me like a lawyer, and tripping me up. I’ve no doubt it’s very amusing for a professional philosopher to catch out a poor ignorant woman like me. It’s a pity your audience isn’t here. They would enjoy it. However, I’m afraid I’m not impressed. You can twist my words into anything you like. You can prove I meant black when I said white, but you know perfectly well what I mean. You know as well as I do that your eccentricity has made you thoroughly unpopular. And what I say is, it’s just these little things that matter. Now put all that nonsense away and have some goat.”

S: “No, thank you. I really can’t.”

X: “It’s excellent goat, and there’s some garlic in the sauce. I hate garlic, and it’s there on purpose for you—

S: “Oh!”….

X: “I suppose you had dinner before you came here [i.e. came home], or you’re going to have dinner somewhere else presently.”

S: “I haven’t touched food since I left the house.”

X: “Then it’s quite ridiculous your not eating [even if it were, perhaps, on the threshold of death?]. Let me give you some goat at once.”

S: “I couldn’t, really. Besides, I must go in a minute.” (180-182—my emphasis added)

As we approach the end of Maurice Baring’s diminutive dramatic depiction, we must also consider now the implicit presence of dramatic irony and pathos. For, without Xantippe’s adequate knowledge, Socrates may actually be preparing to leave home in order to face his stern Athenian accusers and, perhaps, never to come home again. Let us therefore consider some of Baring’s sudden hints, or subtle clues.

S: “…Besides, I must go in a minute.”

X: “There! I knew it! You’re going out to dinner.”

S: “You’re mistaken, Xantippe.”

X: “You’d far better tell me the truth at once. I’m quite certain to find it out sooner or later. You can’t think how foolish it is to tell lies and then to be found out afterwards. You can’t think how much a woman despises a man for that—you couldn’t do anything more foolish.”

S: “I promise you by all the gods that I’m not going to dine elsewhere. [A true fact; but what of import are you not telling your wife?!]

X: “I suppose you don’t expect me to fall into that trap! Swearing by all the gods, when every one in Athens knows you are a professed atheist—when you do nothing but mock the gods from morning to nightand, what’s far worse, make other people mock them too; when I scarcely like to have a slave [a possible informant or spy!] in the house because of your impiety—and your blasphemy.” (182—my emphasis added)

Maurice Baring, in this last passage, deftly has Xantippe herself make many of the same charges that are later made by Socrates’ own three accusers, who then successfully condemn him to death.

Moreover, immediately after Xantippe’s grave and bulging charges against her husband, Socrates, in an understated way, merely says to her: “I really think you are rather unfair, Xantippe. You will be sorry for this some day.” (182—my emphasis added)

X: “Then may I ask where you are going?”

S: “I’ve got an important engagement.”

X: “And with whom?”

S: “I would rather not say, for your sake.”

X: “That’s very clever and ingenious to put it on me. But I’m tired of being bullied. Even a worm will turn, and I demand to be treated just for once like a human being, and with the minimum of courtesy and frankness. I don’t ask for your confidence [trust], I know that would be useless. But I do ask to be treated with a grain of straightforwardness and honesty. I insist upon it. I have borne your sneers, your sarcasm, and your sulkiness, your irritability, your withering silence, quite long enough. I will not put up with it any longer.” (182-183—my emphasis added)

After this scorching and humiliating indictment of Socrates’ character and the very conduct of his domestic life with her (without even mentioning their three sons), Socrates decides to open up to her a little:

S: “Very well. Since you will have it, I have been impeached by Lycon, Meletus, and Anytus [Socrates’ three primary Athenian accusers] on some ridiculous [sic] charge, the result of which, however, may be extremely serious—in fact it may be a matter of life and death—and I am obliged to appear before them at once.”

X: “Oh dear, oh dear! I always said so. I knew it would come to this! This is what comes of not eating meat like a decent citizen!” [Xantippe bursts into tears.] —Curtain.—The End (183—my emphasis added)

Socrates was then to face his stern accusers at the public trial in 399 B.C., and he defended himself at some length, but in a not very conciliatory way. He was thus finally condemned to death, and, after thirty days, he drank the hemlock.

After now knowing of, and even having read large portions of, this charming diminutive drama by Maurice Baring, we might also come especially to appreciate and savor a magnificent student “blooper” on an academic test concerning Socrates: “Socrates died of an overdose of wedlock.”

Maurice Baring would have cherished this “blooper,” and I like to think that he might even have composed it himself when he was an antic young student. For, even then, he was known for his magnanimous parodies. He also had a keen sense of pathos (as in the case of Xantippe), and it is to be especially seen in his ennobling elegiac verses and in most of his later heart-searching novels.

CODA

Since Maurice Baring especially admired (and desired to imitate) the moral character and chivalrous standards of the French General Éduard de Castelnau (1851-1944), I propose to end this essay with Baring’s own slightly expanded presentation of that great and deeply admired man, part of which has already been revealed in our Epigraphs above, at the beginning of this essay; but it is worthy of our now repeating Baring’s memorable articulation of those inspiring interwoven qualities:

May 26, 1918….Headquarters, 8th Brigade [in France]….

We [General Trenchard and I] saw General de Castlenau [sic–Castelnau] too, who is charming….Our unique and undefined position [in France] depended, as far as practical results were concerned, entirely on the goodwill of the French. Luckily this goodwill was given to us in an overflowing measure by General de Castelnau, the commander of the Group of Armies of the East. He and the General [Trenchard, for whom Major Baring was the beloved and trusted Aide-de-Camp] understood each other at once after their first conversation.

General de Castelnau’s name and exploits need no comment [at least not in 1918 Europe]. They will be written, and are already written in gold, in the history of France, and in the Gesta Dei per Francos [the Epic High Deeds of God as Enacted by and through the Franks], as the victor of the Grand Couronné and the restorer of the situation at Verdun. But it is perhaps permissible to say a word or two about his personality.

He seemed to belong to a nobler epoch than ours, to be a native of the age of chivalry, of that time when Louis IX [of France], who is known as Saint Louis, dispensed justice under a spreading oak-tree. He has the easy familiarity, the slight play of kindly irony [like Baring with his depiction of Xantippe and Socrates!], the little ripple of humour, the keen glance, the foresight and forethought, that politesse du cœur, that complete remoteness from what is common, mean, base, self-seeking, which are the foundation and substance of God’s gentlemen. His white hair, his keen eyes, his features, which looked as if they had been cut by a master-hand out of a fine block of granite, radiated goodness and courage and cheerfulness, a salt-like sense, and a twinkling humour. And his smile went straight to your heart, and made you feel at home, comfortable, easy and happy. When one had luncheon with him and the orderly said luncheon was ready he used to say:

“A cheval, Messieurs [To Horse, Gentlemen!],

and throughout his conversation there was always a rippling current of good-humoured, delicate and keen chaff [reminding one of Maurice Baring’s “Xantippe and Socrates”]. To hear him talk was like reading, was to breathe the atmosphere in which classic French was born, racy, natural, idiomatic, and utterly free from anything shoddy, artificial or pretentious. He was the salt of the earth, and one felt that if [Edmund] Burke had met him he would have torn up his dirge of the death of the Age of Chivalry [to be found in Burke’s classic 1790 Reflections on the Revolution in France], for there [in May of 1918] it [the chivalry] was alive and enjoying life and making others enjoy it. (Maurice Baring, R.F.C., H.Q.—1914-1918 (1920), pages 272-274—my emphasis added)

Is it not desirable that we too try to hold ourselves to the chivalrous standards of General de Castelnau?

May we too–like the generous and magnanimous Maurice Baring himself in his own discerningly compassionate (and comic) depiction of Xantippe (and her laconic husband)—show ourselves to be “one of God’s gentlemen.” Fittingly, we should thus recall how “a little boy of eight years old” himself memorably defined a gentleman: “A gentleman is a man who loves God very much and has beautiful manners.”

Recognizing that courtesy itself is a form of charity, Baring’s beloved friend Hilaire Belloc even wrote in one of his short poems entitled “Courtesy” that “the Grace of God is in Courtesy.”

Maurice Baring’s own deep politesse du cœur was so admirably able to encounter and depict with chivalrous compassion—and with “a ripple of good humour”—the challenges of those increasingly isolated and poignantly elegiac characters: voluble Xantippe and her tersely Philosophizing Husband.

–FINIS–

© 2017 Robert D. Hickson

1Maurice Baring, Diminutive Dramas (London: William Heinemann LTD., 1925), 183 pages. The last of the twenty-three dramatic sketches is entitled “Xantippe and Socrates” (Chapter XXIII, pp. 177-183). Although the book was originally published in late December 1910-early January 1911, it was published again in 1919, and then once again in 1925, by W. Heinemann, as part of “The Works of MAURICE BARING: Collected Uniform Edition.” All further references will be to that 1925 edition of Diminutive Dramas, and the pages quoted will be placed in parentheses above in the main text. In this context, Baring’s Dead Letters—a charming 1910 set of parodies—should also be savored, especially two of them: “From the Mycenae Papers” and “Lady Macbeth’s Trouble.” Maurice Baring, Dead Letters (New York: Doubleday, Page & Company 1925), pp.1-7 and 95-99. See too Paul Horgan, Maurice Baring Restored: Selections from His Work (1970).

Max Beerbohm’s Charming 1950 Parody on Maurice Baring: “All Roads—” As a Christmas Garland Woven for His Gifted Friend

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                                             14 August 2020

The Vigil of the Assumption of Mary

Saint Eusebius (d. 357)

Saint Maximilian Kolbe (d. 1941)

Epigraphs

“Publisher’s 1950 Note: A Christmas Garland was, when it was first published [in 1912], acclaimed by many writers as the best book of prose parodies in the English language. We venture to think that it still holds this pride of place. A parody on a certain M**R*C* B*R*NG [Maurice Baring] is now included.” (London: William Heinemann, 1950)

***

“Despite the last sentence in the foregoing [Rapallo, 1912] note, I did, in recent years, write one other parody, ‘All Roads–‘. It amused and pleased my old friend, the brilliant, the greatly gifted Maurice Baring. Had he not liked it [Baring was to die on 14 December 1945], I would not include it in this later [1950] edition.” (Max Beerbohm’s own 1949 Rapallo Postscript to the 1950 Heinemann London edition—my emphasis added.)

***

Maurice Baring [d. 1945] had already variously presented his own subtle and multiple talents in writing charming parodies, and it may be seen even in his set of what he called “diminutive dramas.” One may see it, for example, in the deft ironic domestic discourse between an earnest, sometimes shrewish, wife and her meditative, ironical philosopher husband, such as Socrates. That little drama is to be found (and to be read aloud and likely further cherished) in the drama of “Xantippe and Socrates” which is still to be highly recommended to everyone. One may see its subtle presentation in the final chapter of a larger collection in Baring’s 1925 versatile book, entitled Diminutive Dramas (London: William Heinemann LTD., 1925—in Chapter XXIII, on pages 177-183, will be found that timely and timeless little gem, “Xantippe and Socrates.”)

***

As a literary gift to his friend Maurice Baring, Max Beerbohm decided to tell a tale about a young man in the British diplomatic service in Rome who, with the help of a haunting young woman he never spoke to, overcame his longstanding displeasure with Christmas. He was then never to see her again.

Here is how Beerbohm’s narrator, partly aware of Baring’s earlier biography, begins his tale:

Michael Forster reached Rome in the first week of December and drove straight to the Embassy. Every one there was very kind to him. It was rather like being a new boy at a public school and not being bullied. All the same, he could not help wishing himself back at Copenhagen, or at Berne, where he had felt life-sized. Rome dwarfed him. She seemed to say to him, “If you want monuments, look around you! You will know that though you are twenty-five years old you are nobody—and never will be anybody though you live to be a hundred.” But at any rate he was not dreading the advent of Christmas.

Year after year, he had dreaded it ever since his childhood.1

Beerbohm’s hyphenated title, “All Roads–”, may well evoke the saying that “All Roads Lead to Rome”—and maybe also implicitly to the Catholic Faith. However, Beerbohm is more enigmatic when, right under the parody’s title is a chapter heading, namely “Chapter V.” as if there are earlier parts of the prose parody, as well as later ones, too. But let us pass on now to some other and more vivid matters.

After describing an ambiguous (partly unhistorical) set of incidents with Michael’s specially cherished German governess, “Fräulein Schultz” (57, 58), “and though he forgot all about her soon after she went to be a governess somewhere else, he never lost his dislike of Christmas.” (58—my emphasis added)

Nonetheless, “he was glad to be transferred to Rome” (58), but it was:

Not that he had yet felt any definite wavering in regard to the Church in which he had been baptised and confirmed. He was still a Protestant. But he had long since ceased to protest day in, day out, and the prospect of seeing a Christmas passed over lightly was one of the things that cheered him on his journey south….and it was a blow to him when one day Sainson, the Second Secretary, said, “Of course, the Chief will be giving the usual beano [noisy, festive] dinner on Christmas night.” (58—my emphasis added)

“Michael, at this news,” realized that he lacked a born and “real vocation for diplomacy, but he did manage to think out a plausible excuse, and on Christmas night, after he had dressed, he slipped out and dined in an obscure little restaurant in the Via Golfango.” (58—italics in the original)

A new character now comes into the tale, “a friend of his family,” the one who had recommended to him the little restaurant and he will now introduce him to a remarkable woman in her seventies:

When he [Michael] was half-through his meal [Pierre] Frénard himself came in and joined him at his table. Later, while they sat over their coffee, Frénard said he thought of going on to Mme. Yakovlev’s [still on that Christmas night].

Michael asked, “Who is Mme. Yakovlev?”

Frénard laughed and said, “Oh, she’s one of those women who know everybody. Fancy anyone not knowing her. You had better come with me. This is one of her Soirs. She has two a week….”

“Tell me about her,”said Michael.

“There’s not much to tell,” answered Frénard….“Her father was very poor, an Irish landowner, living mostly at home in a tumble-down castle, but sometimes travelling. From one of his journeys he brought back a bride—a young Turkish lady, a niece of Mustapha Pasha. There was one child of the marriage, a daughter; she was christened Clara. Both parents died when she [Clara] was twelve years old. She was then brought up by an aunt in Scotland. The aunt had been a devout Catholic, but there was some kink in her, and she was now a Presbyterian. The girl was not at all happy with her. She ran away when she was sixteen [four years later] and became a postulant in an Ursuline Convent near Glasgow. But she found she had no real vocation.” (59-60—my emphasis added)

After the narrator presents a wide range and variety of her mixed international life (60), we are then told that “Sergius Yakovlev, her third husband, was a trusted adviser of [Tsar] Alexander the Third….She and he [Sergius] are said to have been quite happy while he lived. Anyhow, she never married again. She settled in Rome….She was seventy-three last June. She knows a great deal but seldom says very much. What she says has point.” (60—my emphasis added)

Later at Mme. Yakovlev’s salone, “Michael was piloted by Frénard to Mme. Yakovlev and presented to her. Somehow he had expected her to be tall, but she was quite short.” (61) She asked him a question about a certain “Septimus Forster whom she had known in Algiers” (61), but:

Before he could think of an answer, he had to make way for another fresh arrival. He felt that he had not made a good impression. But afterwards Frénard told him that Mme. Yakovlev had liked him very much. (61-62)

Michael was now suddenly to glimpse the haunting young woman who was to influence him so greatly:

In one of the groups [of “fresh arrivals”] nearest to him he saw a young woman whose face was familiar to him, though he was sure he had never seen her before, and though she was unlike any one he had ever seen….She seemed utterly remote from the group she stood in….How was she here? How could she be? That she was a musician, and an exquisite one, Michael was sure. Her eyes and her hands proclaimed that. (62)

As part of Beerbohm’s deft artfulness, our minds are then presented with a contrasting human form, the robust Jorton himself, another family relation and indeed another “fresh arrival”:

While Michael gazed and wondered, the vast bulk of Professor Jorton suddenly interposed itself between him and the unknown [young woman], and he was affectionately hailed in the booming voice of the famous Alpine climber and Egyptologist, who was an old friend of the [Michael Forster] family and one of his Godfathers. That Jorton should be here was natural enough, for in spite of all his peaks and papyri he was the most social of men, and no capital city was complete without him. Michael felt sure he could learn from Jorton something about the identity of the young woman. (62-63—my emphasis added)

Now we are to hear a part of Professor Jorton’s biographical report on young Eleanor d’Urutsia:

“I don’t wonder that you’re struck by her. Eleanor d’Urutsias don’t grow on every bush….She married out of the schoolroom, as it were. She was only sixteen when young Fernand d’Urutsia came over to London….He was quite poor, and so was she, but they were ideally happy. He died on the first anniversary of their wedding, at Qualva, a fishing-village near Biarritz. It was feared that she would lose her reason. But she is ‘of the stuff that can affront despair.’ She withdrew into solitude for three years—no one knows where. Probably in some conventual [religious] institution, for she became passionately dévote when she was received into the Roman communion. She is now twenty years old….She is very musical. She used to sing charmingly. She plays her own accompaniments. I hope she will sing to-night. Shall I present you to her?

Ah, not to-night,” said Michael. “Not here in this crush.” (63—my emphasis added)

But Michael Forster could not keep his eyes off her, and he began to have some affectionate illusions: “With his eyes fixed on her again, he knew in his heart that somehow, mysteriously, not yet, but not a long while hence, his life would be linked with hers.” (64—my emphasis added)

How will Max Beerbohm now deftly, and even elegiacally, present the three concluding paragraphs of his tale, while keeping in mind the large corpus of Maurice Baring’s prose and verse?

After speaking with some of the new arrivals, Michael became more at ease as he spoke to an international set of expressive visitors:

Then he was aware that something was happening. There was movement in the group around Mme. [Eleanor] d’Urutsia, and a murmur of excitement throughout the room, and then a deep hush, as she passed slowly to the pianoforte.

Michael had known that if she sang it would be unlike any singing that he had heard. But he had not known how utterly unlike it would be. The song itself [touching upon the Nativity] was one he had often heard, and had not cared for—Weber’s setting of Bérenger’s “Noel.” She transported it into some sphere of unconjectured beauty in which one could only hold one’s breath, and marvel as best one might. (64—my emphasis added)

The last paragraph of the nuanced prose parody is well worth our repeated savoring and our poignant ironical reflections which distil some of Maurice Baring’s own deeply elegiac themes and also his noble perceptions of human sorrows:

The [musical] notes came and went without melancholy as one knows it, without gaity as one could recognise it, but with an ethereal mingling of both these moods. And they seemed to come not from in the room. One seemed to hear them wafted from a great distance, across the waters of a great lake. This made Michael all the more certain in his heart that his future was indissolubly one with the future of Eleanor d’Urutsia. As it happened, he never saw her again. But she had entirely conquered his dislike of Christmas. He was destined to love it ever after. (65—my emphasis added)

CODA

In his own 1935 novel Darby and Joan, Maurice Baring has memorably said, first through the words of a Catholic priest, that “the acceptance of sorrow is the secret of life.” (Our Lady must have deeply known that intimate wisdom– also at that first Christmas.)

Let us consider what Maurice Baring himself wrote in 1935, in Darby and Joan:2

“One has to accept sorrow for it to be of any healing power, and that is the most difficult thing in the world.”

“I didn’t think about it in that way. I don’t think I rebelled against it, because I thought my father was happier dead and at peace, than alive and in pain; but I was just stunned. Apart from that, I have not experienced real sorrow; only disappointment and disillusion.”

“A priest once said to me, ‘When you understand what accepted sorrow means, you will understand everything. It is the secret of life.’”

For our sake now at the end of Max Beerbohm’s warm, often comic, partly exaggerated parody of a friend’s writing and literary style, we may now appreciate, a little, what comes from Maurice Baring’s own sincere heart and its depth.

Such are also the graceful and subtly allusive developments in Max Beerbohm’s interwoven 1950 Christmas Garland, especially his artful parody, “All Roads–” by M**R*CE B*R*NG.

–FINIS–

© 2020 Robert D. Hickson

1Max Beerhohm, “All Roads–”, one of eighteen portraits in A Christmas Garland (London: William Heinemann, 1950), page 57—my emphasis added. Henceforth, all references will be to this text of “All Roads–” and placed above in parentheses in the main body of this brief essay and commentary. Moreover, G.K. Chesterton has a parodic portrait entitled “Some Damnable Errors about Christmas” starting on page 47; and Hilaire Belloc is also parodied by Beerbohm in a portrait merely entitled “On Christmas”–by “H*l**r* B*ll*c starting on page 147. Baring, Belloc, and Chesterton are together once again!

2Maurice Baring, Darby and Joan (London: William Heinemann, 1935), page 178—italics are in the original.

Josef Pieper on the Sophist Phenomenon and Its Recurring Temptations

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                                                2 August 2020

Our Lady of the Angels

Saint Alphonsus Liguori (d. 1787)

Saint Peter Julian Eymard (d. 1868)

Epigraphs

“What indeed did Plato have against the sophists? His objection could tentatively be summed up in these brief terms: corruption of the word—you are corrupting the language! Still the core of the matter is not yet identified with this. The specific threat, for Plato, comes from the sophists’ way of cultivating the word with exceptional awareness of linguistic nuances and utmost formal intelligence, from their way of pushing and perfecting the employment of verbal constructions to crafty limits, thereby—and precisely in this—corrupting the meaning and the dignity of the very same words.” (Josef Pieper, Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power, pages 14-15.)

***

“This timeless character of the sophistic phenomenon, transcending any particular age, prompted certain important, indeed disturbing, comments by Hegel….He called the sophists of Socrates’ time ‘extremely refined and learned people’; but such praise…sounds somewhat ambiguous. It is precisely such learned refinement and unmoored questioning that plucks apart any object and dialectically discredits everything; it is such ‘refined reasoning’…—an expression repeatedly used by Hegel [“gebildetes Raisonnement”]–that poses the true danger. It almost inevitably leads us, says Hegel, to the conviction that everything can be justified if we look hard enough for reasons. To quote Hegel: ‘You need not have advanced very far in your learning in order to find good reasons even for the most evil of things. All the evil deeds in this world since Adam and Eve have been justified with good reasons.’ Hegel, therefore, sees here a danger clearly intrinsic to the human mind, being part of its nature, a danger that can perhaps be overcome but never entirely avoided.” (Josef Pieper, Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power, pages 8-9—my bold emphasis added)

***

“It is one of my favorite questions in tests…: Can a lie be taken as communication? I tend to deny it. A lie is the opposite of communication. It means specifically to withhold the others’ share and portion of reality, to prevent his participation in reality. And so: corruption of the relationship to reality, and corruption of communication—these evidently are the two possible forms in which the corruption of the word manifests itself.” (Josef Pieper, Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power, page 16—my emphasis added)

***

Josef Pieper published a short book in English in 1992 that is subtly entitled Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power.1 Because of its timelines, as well as its timelessness, I propose to consider the first section of that profoundly insightful book, which was first published in German in 1974 and which will now be found on pages seven to thirty-nine of the 1992 English translation, almost twenty years later.

The first page of Dr. Pieper’s 32-page enquiry clearly discloses his thesis and its motivation:

The topic of this essay can also be stated as “the abuse of language in its relation to the abuse of power.” I intend to approach this subject from two different directions: though they are two distinct considerations, I shall nonetheless try to show their intrinsic connection.

One of these considerations is a phenomenon of classical antiquity [Socrates, Plato, Gorgias, Protagoas, Aristotle and such]….To be sure, historicity…is not my concern in this. It is rather Plato’s position—and this indeed is the other [second] consideration—which shall be taken as a paradigm showing, I believe, something directly relevant for us and our own situation today [also in 2020 A.D.]. The case can be made that Plato recognized, identified, and battled in the sophistry of his time a danger and a threat besetting the pursuits of the human mind and the life of society in any era….

Anything that may at first sound like a mere critique of the present, aimed at our own situation, should also be taken as pointing to a timeless temptation that since the beginning of history has always required mankind’s resistance and will require it forever. This [is the] timeless character of the sophistic phenomenon, transcending any particular age…. (7-8—my emphasis added)

In their own respective meditations, both Plato and Josef Pieper are persistently attentive to “the art of twisting words” (7) and “the sophistry of [our own] day” (7) and the concealed disguises of some “such learned refinement” (8) and “such a deceptive illusion” (19) as is characteristically hidden as part of “the sophist mentality” (10).

Pieper’s meditation of thirty-two pages deserves to be slowly and carefully read so as to savor his multiple interrelations and enduring substance. For example: “the incommensurability” (11) of money and spirit (or of money and mind); “the sophists’ way of cultivating the word” (14); “to know reality with the aim of communication” (16); “the sophists’ rhetoric, that artistry with words” (16-17); “verbal artistry and linguistic form” (18) which are “nevertheless sham and foul” (19)—that is to say, “unless the linguistic artist [is also] a speaker of truth” (19). Pieper raises good questions such as the recurrent “by what standard?” (12) and comes even to ask: “To what purpose are you in this world?” (48—my emphasis added). Therefore, in this context: “What is it that makes the sophists so dangerous?” (34—my emphasis added).

And we wonder: “what is a well-ordered language?” (36) Dare we say in response that: “a language is well ordered when its words express reality with as little distortion and as little omission as possible”? (36—my emphasis added)

Continuing his fresh perceptions and keen discernments, Pieper says such additionally challenging things as: he who “explicitly disregards reality ceases to have communication” (20-21) and thus one must fittingly be “explicitly committed to the truth” (20-21); by way of contrast,“flattery intends not to communicate, but to manipulate” (22-23) while often “having an ulterior motive” (23) such as “domination” and especially by deftly flattering our pride. Moreover, as Pieper then properly counter-argues and contends: “Academic must mean anti-sophistic” (38) and we must be found “taking an anti-sophistic stance” (35). Moreover, as others also say: “The lingo of the revolution is a form of modern sophistry.” (32—my emphasis added) And Pieper even later refers to “the jargon of the revolution” (39) as a form of “bondage,” as well. That is to say, the jargon-lingo of the revolution itself appears to be the cramped and stifling product of self-deluded, fevered opinions and “mind-forged manacles.”

After such a selective summary of Josef Pieper’s variety and compactness—and of his multiple challenges to us—it is fitting that we now return to an examination of some of Dr. Pieper’s longer passages. For example:

Word and language, in essence, do not constitute a specific or specialized area; they are not a particular discipline or field. No, word and language form a medium that sustains the common existence of the human spirit as such….And so, if the word becomes corrupted, human existence itself will not remain unaffected and untainted.

What, however, does “corrupting the word” mean?….Human words and language accomplish a twofold purpose….Since this accomplishment is twofold, we may already here suspect that the word’s degeneration and corruption can also be twofold. First, words convey reality. We speak in order to name and identify something that is real, to identify it [something] for someone, of course—and this points to the second aspect in question, the interpersonal character of human speech. (15—italics in the original; my bold emphasis added)

After some further observations about Socrates and Gorgias the Sophist, Dr. Pieper says:

And with this we have identified the other [the second] aspect of the corruption of the word: the destruction of its nature as communication….The very moment, as I have stated, that someone in full awareness employs words yet explicitly disregards reality, he in fact ceases to communicate anything to the other. This the reader may more or less have accepted. But an instrument of power? Is this not too strong and too overbearing an expression? It really implies that from one moment to the next the human relationship between the speaker and the listener changes….From that moment on, to be precise, all conversation ceases; all dialogue and all communication comes to an end. But what, then, is taking place? The very question is answered by Socrates with an old-fashioned term: flattery….

What, then, is flattery?….The decisive element is this: having an ulterior motive [not the truth]….What I say to him is designed to get something from him!….He [the seeming conversational partner] has become for me an object to be manipulated, possibly to be dominated, to be handled and controlled….I concentrate on his weaknesses and on those areas that may appeal to him—all in order to manipulate him, to use him for my purposes….The word is perverted and debased [i.e., such “sophisticated language, disconnected from the roots of truth” (20)] to become a catalyst, a drug, as it were, and is as such administered. Instrument of power may still seem a somewhat strong term; still, it does not seem so farfetched any longer. (20-23—italics in the original; my bold emphasis added)

Moving forth some seven illuminating pages, Pieper resumes some of his earlier thoughts:

Be that as it may—this much remains true: wherever the main purpose of speech is flattery, there the word becomes corrupted, and necessarily so. And instead of genuine communication, there will exist something for which domination is too benign a term; more appropriately we should speak of tyranny, of despotism. On the one side there will be sham authority, unsupported by any intellectual superiority, and on the other a state of dependency, which again is too benign a term. Bondage would be more correct….[That is,] a pseudoauthority [in combination with]…a state of mental bondage.

Plato evidently knew what he was talking about when he declared the sophists’ accomplished art of flattery to be the deceptive mirage of the political process, that is, the counterfeit usurpation of power. (29-30—italics; my bold emphasis added)

Moreover, a few pages later, Pieper chooses to make a clarifying interim summary once again;

The common element in all of this is the degeneration of language into an instrument of rape. It does contain violence, albeit in latent form….This lesson, in a nutshell, says: the abuse of political power is fundamentally connected with the sophistic abuse of the word, indeed, finds in it the fertile soil in which to hide and grow and get ready, so much so that the latent potential of the totalitarian poison can be ascertained, as it were, by observing the symptom of the public abuse of language….The relationship based on mere power, and thus the most miserable decay of human interaction, stands in direct proportion to the most devastating breakdown in orientation toward reality.

I spoke [earlier] of public discourse becoming “detached from the notions of truth and reality.” This brief characterization may still be too mild; it does not yet express the full measure of devastation breeding within the sophistic corruption of the word. (32-33—my bold emphasis added)

With a glance to contemporary societies in the twentieth century, Josef Pieper adds a note or so:

It is entirely possible that the true and authentic reality is being drowned out by the countless superficial information bits noisily and breathlessly presented in propaganda fashion. Consequently, one may be entirely knowledgeable about a thousand details and nevertheless, because of ignorance regarding the core of the matter, remain without basic insight. This is a phenomenon in itself already quite astonishing and disturbing….“a fundamental ignorance [said Arnold Gehlen], created by technology and nourished by information.” But, I wanted to say, something more discouraging is readily conceivable as well: the place of authentic reality is taken over by a fictitious reality;…a pseudoreality, deceptively appearing as being real, so much so that it becomes almost impossible any more to discern the truth.

Plato’s literary activity extended over fifty years, and time and again he asked himself anew: What is it that makes the sophists so dangerous? Toward the end he wrote one more dialogue, the Sophist, in which he added a new element to his answer: “The sophists,” he says, “fabricate a fictitious reality.”….This Platonic nightmare, I hold, possesses an alarming contemporary relevance. For the general public is being reduced to a state where people not only are unable to find out about the truth but also become unable even to search for the truth because they are satisfied with deception and trickery that have determined their convictions, satisfied with the fictitious reality created by design through the abuse of language. This, says Plato, is the worst that the sophists are capable of wreaking upon mankind by their corruption of the word.

There is now the ancient saying, corruptio optimi pessima, “the best, corrupted, becomes the worst”….Plato is not simply taking an anti-sophist stance….his unwavering strong opposition…[is] in view of this own position regarding the overriding importance of the good that is endangered and threatened by the sophists. With this, indeed, we touch on those most basic convictions relative to the value and meaning of human existence as such. (33-34—italics; my bold emphasis added)

With his characteristic politeness, Josef Pieper inserts his further good words near the end of his essay: “the well-ordered human existence…is essentially based on the well-ordered language….when its words express reality with as little distortion and as little omission as possible.” (36—my emphasis added)

–FINIS–

© 2020 Robert D. Hickson

1Josef Pieper, Abuse of Language, Abusive of Power (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1992). The German text was first published in 1974, and then again in 1988; and the original German title was: Mißbrauch der Sprache, Mißbrauch der Macht. The second portion of Josef Pieper’s longer 47-page book in its entirety is entitled “Knowledge and Freedom” and is to be found on pages 41-54, although it will not be discussed in this essay. With one exception (48), all future references will be to the pages 7-39, and placed above in parentheses in the main body of this brief essay.

G.K. Chesterton’s 1920 Insights on “The Story of the Vow”

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                                                   11 July 2020

Saint Pius I (d. 167)

Saint Benedict of Nursia (d. 543)

The Hicksons’ Sacramental Anniversary

Epigraphs

The civilisation of vows was broken up when Henry the Eighth broke his own vow of marriage. Or rather, it was broken up by a new cynicism in the ruling powers of Europe, of which that was the almost accidental expression in England. The monasteries, that had been built by vows, were destroyed. The guilds [of the pledged craftsmen and tradesmen], that had been regiments of volunteers, were dispersed. The sacramental nature of marriage was denied; and many of the greatest intellects of the new movement, like Milton [the poet John Milton], already indulged in a very modern idealisation of divorce.” (G.K. Chesterton, The Superstition of Divorce (London: Chatto & Windus, 1920), page 96—my emphasis added.)

***

“Such, in very vague outline, has been the historical nature of vows; and the unique part they played in that medieval civilisation out of which modern civilisation rose—or fell.” (G. K. Chesterton, The Superstition of Divorce (1920), page 93—my emphasis added.)

***

“But when this saner view of history is realised, there does remain something more mystical and difficult to define. Even heathen things are Christian when they have been preserved by Christianity. Chivalry is something recognisably different even from the virtus of Virgil. Charity is something exceedingly different from the plain pity of Homer.” (G.K. Chesterton, The Superstition of Divorce (1920), page 86—my emphasis added.)

***

In 1920, two years before he was received into the Catholic Church at forty-eight years of age, G.K. Chesterton published a book entitled The Superstition of Divorce,1 in which there is to be refreshingly found a variegated and unexpected twenty-page chapter entitled “The Story of the Vow.”

It is our intention in this brief essay to concentrate on some parts of that one chapter so that we may better understand and circulate Chesterton’s reviving insights on the meaning of a vow, and on some of the consequences of a vow, as distinct from a mere contract or an unfair “leonine contract.” For, it is so that a vow is not always a solemn act and grave promise made also as an irreversible promise to God. But sometimes it is: for example, as is the case in a sacramental marriage or in a sacred calling to the religious life, as in the pledges of a monk, or those of a knight.

Moreover, says Chesterton:

The whole of what we call chivalry was one great vow. Vows of chivalry varied infinitely from the most solid to the most fantastic; from a vow to give all the spoils of conquest to the poor to a vow to refrain from shaving until the first glimpse of Jerusalem. As I have remarked, this rule of loyalty, even in unruly exceptions which proved the rule, ran through all the romances [as with beloved Don Quixote!] and songs of the troubadours; and there were always vows even when they were very far from being marriage vows….

I mean here to emphasise the presence, and not even to settle the proportion, of this new notion [of vows] in the middle ages….When we come to workmen and small tradesmen, we find the same vague yet vivid presence of the spirit that can only be called the vow. In this sense there was a chivalry of trades as well as chivalry of orders of knighthood. (89-91—my emphasis added)

Returning to another portion of his earlier analogies with the classical pagan world, Chesterton says:

Even our patriotism [now] is something more subtle than the undivided love of the city [like Athens]; and the change is felt in the most permanent things, such as the love of landscape [in Belloc’s Sussex and the Sea!] or the love of woman.

To define the differentiation in all these things will always be hopelessly difficult. But I would here suggest one element in the change [from the Ancient World] which is perhaps too much neglected: the nature of a vow.

I might express it by saying that pagan antiquity was the age of status; that Christian mediævalism was the age of vows; and that sceptical modernity has been the age of contracts; or rather has tried to be, and has failed.

The outstanding example of status is slavery. (86-87—my emphasis added)

Later alerting us to the consequential breakup of families (and hence to the wounding of the vulnerable little children), Chesterton had also earlier warned us of something else: “The point is that every philosophy of sex must fail which does not account for its ambition of fixity, as well as for its experience of failure.” (83—my emphasis added) For, as he later also politely and quite fairly adds:

The point here, however, is that the trade and craft [guilds] had not only something like the crest [of aristocratic heraldry], but something like the vow of knighthood. There was in the guildsman the same basic notion that belonged to knights and even to the monks. It was the notion of the free choice of a fixed estate. [That is to say, with reference to the free choice of the knight or the monk: “He is not bound to be bound” (83)!] We can realise the moral atmosphere if we compare the system of Christian guilds, not only with the [unfree] status of the Greek and Roman slaves, but with such a scheme as that of the Indian castes. The oriental caste has some of the qualities of the occidental guild; especially the valuable quality of tradition and the accumulation of culture. (91-92—my emphasis added)

As Chesterton said about the slow transition from pagan antiquity to a wider Christian civilisation: “It marks at least a special stage of transition that the form of freedom was essential to the fact of service, or even of servitude. In this way it is not a coincidence that the word homage actually means manhood.” (89—my emphasis added)

Looking back at all of this evidence, Chesterton said:

But we can never judge it [the idea of the vow] fairly till we face, as I have tried to suggest, this main fact of history: that the personal pledge, feudal or civic or monastic, was the way in which the world did escape from the system of slavery in the past. For the modern break-down of mere contract leaves it still doubtful [as of 1920] if there be any other way of escaping it [i.e., an effective, even subtle, form of slavery] in the future.

The idea, or at any rate the ideal, of the thing called the vow is fairly obvious. It is to combine the fixity that goes with finality with self-respect that only goes with freedom. (94—my emphasis added)

In light of Henry the Eighth’s and John Milton’s sense of marital license, Chesterton said:

The progress of this sort of emancipation advanced step by step with the progress of that aristocratic ascendancy which has made the history of modern England [along with an inordinate dominance by the money power with “the sign of golden usury” (91)]; with all its sympathy with personal liberty, and all its utter lack of sympathy with popular life. Marriage not only became less of a sacrament but less of a sanctity. It threatened to become not only a contract, but a contract that could not be kept [as with “no-fault divorce” today]….It began with divorce of a king; and it is now ending in divorces for a whole kingdom.

The modern era that followed can be called the era of contract; but it can still be called the era of leonine contract. The nobles of the new time first robbed the people, and then offered to bargain with them. It would not be an exaggeration to say that they first robbed the people, and then offered to cheat them….The object of the whole process was to isolate the individual poor man in his dealings with the individual rich man; and then offer to buy and sell with him, though it must be himself that was bought and sold. (96-98—my emphasis added)

Moreover, says Chesterton, and in an increasingly earnest way:

Unless the tendency [as seen from the vantage point of 1920] be reversed, he [the vulnerable and isolated poorer man] will probably become admittedly a slave [also in debt-bondage and facing usurious compound interest]. That is to say, the word slave will never be used, for it is always easy to find an inoffensive word; but he will be admittedly a man legally bound to certain social service, in return for economic security. In other words, the modern experiment of mere contract has broken down….The substitute for it may be the old one of status; but is must be something having some of the stability of status. So far history has found only one way of combining that sort of stability with any sort of liberty. (98—my emphasis added)

Now Chesterton comes to his main concern in his entire book on the family and divorce:

There is only one form of freedom that they [the “captains of industry” (99) and theirs managerial elites] tolerate; and that is the sort of sexual freedom that is covered by the legal fiction of divorce.

If we ask why this liberty is alone left, when so many liberties are lost, we shall find the answer in the summary of this chapter. They are trying to break the vow of the knight as they broke the vow of the monk. They recognise the vow as the vital antithesis to servile status; the alternative and therefore the antagonist. (99-100—my emphasis added)

Now returning to the sanctity of marriage, Chesterton becomes even more specific and robustly affirmative, ending his Chapter 3 with a deft and realistic literary allusion about one of those gravely ill effects of one conspicuous historical form of slavery:

Marriage makes a small state within the state, which resists all such [inordinate and intrusive] regimentation. That [marital] bond breaks all other [lesser positive-law] bonds; that [marital] law is found stronger than all later and lesser laws.

They [the modern state] desire the democracy to be sexually fluid, because the making of small nuclei is like the making of small nations. Like small nations, they are a nuisance to the mind of imperial scope….

It is so difficult to see the world in which we live [in 1920], that I know that many will see all I have said here of [often camouflaged] slavery as a nonsensical nightmare. But if my association of divorce with slavery seems only a far-fetched and theoretical paradox, I should have no difficulty in replacing it by a concrete and familiar picture. Let them merely remember the time when they read “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” and ask themselves whether the oldest and simplest of the charges against slavery has not always been the breaking up of families. (100-101—my emphasis added)

In this context it was also significant for a just and magnanimous man like G.K. Chesterton to discover that the printed subtitle of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1851-1852 widely influential pre-war novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is Life Among the Lowly.

The novel’s subtitle also recalls G.K. Chesterton’s keenly discerning and paradoxical wit in his Orthodoxy: “Without humility you can’t enjoy anything, even pride.”

We may better now also appreciate what Chesterton’s dear friend Hilaire Belloc had published eight years earlier in his 1912 book, which was also subtly entitled The Servile State.

–FINIS–

© 2020 Robert D. Hickson

1 G.K. Chesterton, The Superstition of Divorce (London: Chatto & Windus, 1920), containing 151 pages in length overall, with five chapters and a brief conclusion. All future references to this book, especially to Chapter 3 (“The Story of the Vow”) will be placed in parentheses above in the main body of this essay and commentary.

H. Belloc’s 1910 Sense of “Sacramental Things”: The Revival of the Past as a Vivid and Abiding Presence

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                                                  29 June 2020

Feast of Saints Peter and Paul (d. 67 AD)

Hilaire Belloc’s Final Arrival Afoot in Rome (1901)

Epigraphs

“But whatever prompts the adventure [in the night] or the necessity, when the long burden [of the night] has been borne,…while all the air, still cold, is full of the scent of morning;…when in the end of that miracle the landscape is fully revealed,…then the great hill before one,…towering at last into the peaks and crests of the inaccessible places, gives a soul to the new [newly revealed] land….The sun, in a single moment and with the immediate summons of a bugle-call, strikes the spear-head of the high places [as in the Alps!], and at once the valley…is transfigured, and with the daylight all manner of things have come back into the world….

Livelihood is come back with the sunlight, and the fixed certitudes of the soul; number, and measure and comprehension have returned, and a just appreciation of all reality is the gift of the new day. Glory (which, if men would only know it, lies behind all true certitude) illuminates and enlivens the seen world, and the living light makes of the true things now revealed something more than truth absolute; they [these very providential things] appear as truth acting and creating.” (Hilaire Belloc, “On Sacramental Things,” from his 1910 anthology, On Something, pages 260-261—my emphasis added.)

***

“And there lies behind it [i.e., “the first shaft of the sun”], one is very sure, an infinite progress of such exaltations [after “the long night” (265)], so that one begins to understand…what has been meant by those great phrases which still lead on, still comfort, and still make darkly wise, the uncomforted wondering of mankind. Such is the famous phrase: ‘Eye has not seen nor ear heard, nor can it enter into the heart of man what things God has prepared for those who serve Him.’” (Hilaire Belloc, “On Sacramental Things,” in On Something, pages 261-262—my emphasis added)

***

“To consider such things is a sacramental occupation. And yet the more I think of them the less I can quite understand in what elements their power consists….There is a resurrection, and we are refreshed and renewed. But why all these things are so neither I nor any other man can tell.” Hilaire Belloc, “On Sacramental Things,” page 257 and 265—my emphasis added)

***

While still an adventurous young man in his thirties, Hilaire Belloc wrote a moving and grateful short essay on the mediation and mystery of “sacramental things.” His vivid perceptions of the manifold world of the senses so often led him to deeper and abiding contemplative insights and sustaining nourishments.

For example, here is how, with examples, Belloc begins his grateful essay “On Sacramental Things”1:

It is good for a man’s soul to sit down in the silence by himself and to think of those things which happen by some accident to be in communion with the world….They will comfort him; they will prove a sort of solace against the expectation of the end….

A woman smiling at a little child, not knowing that others saw her, and holding out her hands towards it, and in one of her hands flowers; an old man, lean and active, with an eager face, walking at dusk upon a warm and windy evening westward towards a clear sunset below dark and flying clouds;….a deep, strong tide running back to the sea, going noiselessly and flat and black and smooth, and heavy with purpose under an old wall; the sea smell of a Channel [an English Channel] seaport town; a ship [under sail] coming up at one out of the whole sea when one is in a little boat and is waiting for her, coming up at one with her great sails merry and every one doing its work, with the life of the wind in her, and a balance, rhythm, and [a] give in all that she does which marries her to the sea….(257-258—my emphasis added)

Belloc then decides to add some technical sailing details and, with it, some implied history:

Whether it [the arriving sailboat] be a fore and aft rig and one sees only great lines of the white, or a square rig and one sees what is commonly and well called a leaning tower of canvas, or that primal rig, the triangular sail [the lugsail], that cuts through the airs of the world and clove a way for the first adventurers, whatever its rig, a ship so approaching an awaiting [small] boat from which we watch her is one of the [sacramental] things I mean.

I would that the taste of my time [around 1910 and just before world War I] permitted a lengthy list of such things: they are pleasant to remember! They do so nourish the mind! (258—my emphasis added)

Among others of Belloc’s more intimately and allusive wishes to have now openly recalled, he includes now some of his special, personal combinations, namely:

A glance of sudden comprehension mixed with mercy and humour from the face of a lover or a friend;…[also a] chief and most persistent memory, a great hill when [as on his 1901 long foot-path to Rome] the morning strikes it and one sees it up before one round the turning of a rock after the long [mountain] passes and despairs of the night.

When a man has journeyed and journeyed through those hours in which there is no colour or shape,…and when, therefore, the waking soul is bewildered or despairs, the morning is always a resurrection—but especially when it [the morning] reveals a height in the sky.

This last picture I would particularly cherish, so great a consolation is it, and so permanent a grace does it lend later to the burdened mind of man. (258-259—my emphasis added)

After his additional descriptions of, for example, “so many rivers crossed, and more than one of them forded in peril” (259), Belloc also acknowledges more broadly the fuller proportions and accents of human communion:

So much, then, is conveyed by a hill-top at sunrise when it comes upon the traveller or the soldier after the long march of a night, the bending of the shoulders [with a heavy rucksack], and the emptiness of the dark.

Many other things put one into communion with the whole world….

Apart from landscape other things belong to this contemplation [of sacramental things]: Notes of music, and, stronger even than repeated and simple notes of music, a subtle scent and its association, a familiar printed page [verse or prose]. Perhaps the test of these sacramental things is their power to revive the past [to include the sacred, inasmuch as Belloc had also just candidly spoken of “the Faith, the chief problem of this world.” (263—emphasis added)].

There is [for example also] a story translated into the noblest of English writing by Dasent [Sir George Webbe Dasent, circa 1860]. It is to be found in his Tales from the Norse. It is called “The Story of the Master Maid.” (263—my emphasis added, to include those additional emphases placed inside the subordinate, clarifying brackets.)

It is now fitting, I believe, to present Hilaire Belloc’s entire eloquent summary of this poignant Norse tale of loyalty and deep love and the final fruits of a sincere vow, once forgotten and broken, but touchingly later restored:

A man had found in his youth a woman on the Norwegian hills: this woman was faëry, and there was a spell upon her. But he won her out of it in various ways, and they crossed the sea together, and he would bring her to his father’s house, but his father was a King. As they went over-sea together alone, he said and swore to her that he would never forget how they had met and loved each other without warning, but by an act of God, upon the Dovrefjeld. Come near his father’s house, the ordinary influences of the ordinary day touched him; he bade her enter a hut and wait a moment until he had warned his father of so strange a marriage; she, however, gazing into his eyes, and knowing how the divine may be transformed into the earthly, quite as surely as the earthly into the divine, makes him promise that he will not eat human food. He sits at his father’s table, still steeped in her and the seas. He forgets his vow2 and eats human food, and at once he forgets [his vow].

Then follows much for which I have no space, but the woman in the hut by her magic causes herself to be at last sent for to the father’s palace. The young man sees her, and is only slightly troubled as by a memory which he cannot grasp. They talk together as strangers; but looking out of the window by accident the King’s son sees a bird and its mate; he points them out to the woman, and she says suddenly: “So was it with you and me high up upon the Dovrefjeld.” Then he remembers all. (264-265—my emphasis added)

After contemplating Belloc’s deftly crafted and heart-piercing well-told-tale, we are more fully prepared for his immediately final summary paragraph on the Mediation and Mystery of Sacramental Things—perhaps even as “External Channels of Grace” as Father John A. Hardon, S.J. (d. 30 December 2000) would often solemnly say to us. Analogously, Hilaire Belloc here humbly says:

Now that [Norse] story is a symbol, and tells the truth. We see some one thing in this world, and suddenly it becomes particular and sacramental; a woman and a child, a man at evening, a troop of soldiers; we hear notes of music, we smell the smell that went with a passed time, or we discover after the long night a shaft of light upon the tops of the hills at morning: there is a resurrection, and we are refreshed and renewed.

But why all these things are so neither I nor any other man can tell. (265—my emphasis added)

The Mystery abides. Yet we also remember the words “Sapientis Ordinare”—it is characteristic of a wise man to give order to things—perhaps even unto the “sacramental things.’

With his own special gifts, and as our guide, Saint Thomas Aquinas always strove to remain proportionally attentive to both Ordo et Mysterium. He humbly believed and trusted that reality as such is knowable and intelligible, and yet unfathomable.

–FINIS–

© 2020 Robert D. Hickson

1Hilaire Belloc, “On Sacramental Things,” (pages 257-265 in full), the essay being from Belloc’s own 1910 anthology, entitled On Something (London: Methuen & Co. LTD, 1910). The first passage of citation above is from pages 257-258—my emphasis added. All further citations to the Belloc essay will also be placed above in parentheses in the main body of this short essay and brief commentary.

2 Hilaire Belloc’s intimate friend, G.K. Chesterton, wrote his own profound chapter VII, entitled “The Story of the Vow,” and it is especially worthy of a savouring and close reading. It is a chapter (chapter seven) in Chesterton’s own 1920 book, The Superstition of Divorce.