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

Dr. Robert Hickson

12 October 2020

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


“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.


© 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.

The Decline of a State and Power without Grace: Reflections of Hilaire Belloc and Evelyn Waugh

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                        23 April 2019 Saint George (d. 303)

Saint Adalbert of Prague (d. 997)



“’I know I am human. In fact I often feel [as the Emperor and still “an unbaptized convert” (138)] that I am the only real human….And that’s not pleasant at all, I can assure you. Do you understand at all, mother?’

‘Oh, yes, perfectly.’

‘What is it, then?’

Power without Grace,’ said Helena [the future Saint Helena].

‘Now you are going to start nagging about baptism again.’

‘Sometimes,’ Helena continued, ‘I have a terrible dream of the future. Not now, but presently, people may forget their loyalty to their kings and emperors and take power for themselves. Instead of letting one victim bear this frightful curse [of sustained ruling] they will take it all on themselves each one of them. Think of the misery of a whole world possessed of Power without Grace.’…

‘We talked of it years ago….I have always remembered your words [,Constantine]. You said: ‘If I wish to live, I must determine to rule.’ ‘

‘And that is true today.’ [said Emperor Constantine]

‘But, not without Grace, Constantine.’

‘Baptism. It always comes back to that in the end. Well, I’m going to be baptized, never fear. But not yet. In my own time. I’ve got other things to do before that…. [even though he was still “one indeed who was not yet formally admitted as a catechumen”! (138)]….’”

(Evelyn Waugh, Helena (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1950), pages 185-186—my bold emphasis added; italics in the original.)


In the inmost cell of the foetid termitary of power, Diocletian [Emperor Diocletian] was consumed by huge boredom and sickly turned towards his childhood’s home. He ordained a house of refuge on the [Dalmatian coast] shores of the Adriatic.” (Evelyn Waugh, Helena, page 100—my emphasis added)


“Everywhere Constantine prospered until he became blandly [and presumptuously or delusively?] aware that he was invincible….There were glimpses of [his son,] a nobler figure; young Crispus, all dash and fidelity, last warrior of the high Roman tradition on whose shield the fanciful might descry the fading blazon of Hector [of Troy]. Reports of him came to Helena….His name was remembered always at her palace Mass. For Helena had been baptized.

“None knows when or where. No record was made. Nothing was built or founded. There was no public holiday. Privately and humbly, like thousands of others, she stepped down into the font and emerged a new woman. Were there regrets for her earlier loyalty? Was she persuaded point by point? Did she merely conform to the prevailing fashion, lie open unresisting to Divine Grace and so without design become its brimming vehicle? We do not know. She was one seed in a vast germination. (Evelyn Waugh, Helena, page 132—my emphasis added)


“’I’m only teasing, Lactantius [said Helena, but before she herself became a Christian]. Of course I know why you are all so excited. I confess I am a little uneasy myself. It’s this story that is going around that my boy has turned Christian. Has he?’

‘Not exactly, ma’am, as far as we can learn. But he has put himself under the protection of Christ.’

‘Why will no one ever talk plain sense to me? Am I too stupid? It is all I have ever asked, all my life, a straight answer to a straight question; and I never get one….All I want is the simple truth. Why don’t you answer me?’

After a pause Lactantius said: ‘Perhaps because I have read too much. I’m not the person to come to with straight and simple questions, ma’am. I don’t know the answers [to your several questions]….We all have the chance to choose the Truth….As you know he [Constantine] has brought the Church into the open.’

‘Beside Jupiter and Isis and the Phrygian Venus.’ [said Helena]

Christianity is not that sort of religion, ma’am. It cannot share anything [of the sort] with anybody. Whenever it is free, it will conquer.’

‘Perhaps there was some point in the persecutions then.’

‘The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.‘ [said Evelyn Waugh’s Lactantius to an attentive and receptive Helena, though as yet unbaptized; Helena, pages 127-128]


Three years before World War I began, Hilare Belloc first published an essay entitled “The Decline of a State.”1 And this compact essay, full of fresh insights, unexpectedly concluded with a memorable and challenging sentence:

Those who have least power in the decline of a State are priests, soldiers, the mothers of many children, the lovers of one woman, and saints. (242)

After further reflecting upon Belloc’s selection of especially vulnerable persons in a time of decline and disorder, I recalled some passages from Evelyn Waugh’s historical novel, Helena (1950), especially two of Waugh’s formulations about the insufficiency of “Power”: Emperor Diocletian’s “foetid termitary of power”; and Emperor Constantine’s “Power without Grace” as also envisioned by his mother Helena in a future ochlocracy that is likewise trying to rule “without Grace”).

In this context, we may even slightly expand Belloc’s original phrase concerning the vulnerable: “Those who have least power [“Power without Grace”] in the decline of a State.”

With this slight amendment in mind, we now propose to examine Belloc’s essay more closely. It will be conducted “on the premise that sustained power without Grace is inherently selfsabotaging as presented by a ‘foetid termitary.’” (Waugh’s malodorous termite analogy is a vivid one, for sure.)

One of Belloc’s main contributions is his examination of the influence and destructive consequences of “two vices” (240)– “Avarice” and “Fear”– in the decline of a State, especially as practiced in “an oligarchic State, or aristocracy as it is called.” (237) For example, he says:

In the decline of a State, of whatever nature that State be [democratic, despotic, oligarchic, or aristocratic], two vices will immediately appear and grow: these are Avarice and Fear; and men will more readily accept the imputation of Avarice than of Fear, for Avarice is the less despicable of the two—yet in fact Fear will be by far the strongest passion of the time [i.e., during the time of a growing decline]. (240—my bold emphasis and italics added)

By way of clarifying contrast, Belloc elsewhere in his writings often accents the perilous combination of “insecurity and insufficiency” both of which all too often tend to increase the passions and the vices of Avarice and Fear.

Let us now consider some of Belloc’s framing introductory words to his analysis:

The decline of a State is not equivalent to a mortal sickness therein. States are organisms subject to diseases and to decay…; but they are not subject to a rhythmic rise and fall…. A State in decline is never a State doomed or a State dying. States perish slowly or by violence, but never without remedy and rarely without violence. (237—my emphasis added)

Belloc then refers to the “texture” (237) of a State and its decline, namely whether or not it is mostly democratic, despotic, oligarchic or aristocratic—or some combination of them. For example, and also promptly recalling his own England as of 1911, he says:

An oligarchic State, or aristocracy as it is called, will decline principally through two agencies which are, first, illusion, and secondarily, lack of civic aptitude. For an oligarchic State tends very readily to illusion, being conducted by men who live at leisure, satisfy their passions, are immune from the laws, and prefer to shelter themselves from reality. Their capacity or appetite for illusion will rapidly pervade those below them, for in an aristocracy the rulers are subjected to a sort of worship from the rest of the community, and thus it comes about that aristocracies in their decline accept fantastic histories of their own past, conceive victory possible without armies, wealth to be an indication of ability, and national security to be a natural gift rather that a [disciplined and virtuous] product of the [informed] will.(237-238—my emphasis added)

Now he passes on to the second factor (or “agency”) of a growing “lack of civic aptitude” in the decline of a State:

Such [oligarchic-aristocratic] communities further fail from a lack of civic aptitude…,which means that they deliberately elect to leave the mass of citizens incompetent and irresponsible for generations, so that, when any more strain is upon them, they look at once for some men other than themselves to relieve them, and [they] are incapable of corporate action upon their own account. (238—my emphasis added)

Belloc then touches upon real differences between “a great State or a small one” (238) and factors of “indifference, faction, ignorance, and private spite” (238). And States “rooted originally in commerce, in arms, or in production” whether…artisan or peasant-agricultural. He weighs and differentiates “the basis of the State” (239) more specifically and more concretely. These candid observations we recommend to the attention of the reader, that he may better savor the diversities.

It is fitting that we now further consider Belloc’s focused insights and his illustrations of “Avarice” and “Fear” and their sabotaging influences in a growing decline of a State.

First, Avarice, as a passion and vice, thus an habitual deadly sin, under conditions of decline:

Avarice will show itself not indeed in a mere greed of gain (for this is common to all societies whether flourishing or failing), but rather in a sort of taking for granted and permeation of the mere love of money, so that history will be explained by it, wars judged by their booty or begun in order to enrich a few, love between men and women wholly subordinated to it [money], especially among the rich: wealth made a test for responsibility and great salaries invented and paid to those who serve the State [a declining State, moreover]. This vice will also be apparent in the easy acquaintance of all who are possessed of wealth and their segregation from the less fortunate, for avarice cleaves society flatways, keeping the scum of it quite clear of the middle, the middle of it [society] quite clear of the dregs, and so forth. It is a further mark of avarice in its last stages that the rich are surrounded with lies in which they themselves believe. Thus, in the last phase [of avarice’s illusion], there are no parasites but only friends, no gifts but only loans, which are more esteemed favours than gifts once were. No one [is] vicious but only tedious, and no one a poltroon but only slack. (240-241—my emphasis added)

Although Belloc’s analysis is largely a secular analysis, Waugh’s Saint Helena—if not her son—would have detected new and crippling forms of Fear and of Cunning Carnal Prudence and Weakness without Grace. We may also consider the broken trust and increasing fears in our own society and decomposing civilization, at least as of April 2019:

Of Fear in the decline of a State it may be said that it is so much the master passion of such decline as to eat up all others. Coming by travel from a healthy State to one diseased, Fear is the first point you take. Men dare not print or say what they feel of the judges, the public governors, the action of the police, [of] the controllers of fortunes and of news….Under the influence of Fear, to tell the least little truth about him [“a powerful minister”] will put a whole assembly into a sort of blankness.

This vice [of Fear] has for its most laughable effects the raising of a whole host of phantoms [subtle deceptions, or sensate “fake news,” perhaps?], and when a State is so far gone that civic Fear is quite normal to the citizens, then you will find them blenching with terror at a piece of print, a whispered accusation [e.g., about the immunities of International High Finance or the Money-Laundering of International Drug-Money Networks]. (241-242—my emphasis added)

By way of concluding his selectively nuanced essay, Belloc gives a glimpse of those who darkly and dubiously flourish in times of a State’s disorder and decline, as well as those who preserve some kind of independence or a deeply suffering vulnerability:

Moneylenders under this influence [of Fear] have the greatest power, next after them, blackmailers of all kinds, and next after these [two manipulative niche-operatives] eccentrics who may [“but, not without Grace”] blurt or break out [from under the vicious influence and atmosphere of Fear].

Those who have least power [under these secular and graceless and debilitating conditions] in the decline of a State are priests, soldiers, the mothers of many children, the [loyal] lovers of one woman, and saints. (142—my emphasis added)

It was a wise man who said that “those who are themselves uprooted tend to uproot others.”

Hilaire Belloc’s 1911-1912 essay on “The Decline of the State” is certainly resonantly enhanced in its complemetarity and counterpoise with Evelyn Waugh’s 1950 vivid historical novel, Helena—a novel about the times of Emperor Diocletian and Emperor Constantine and a newly germinating and spreading Christianity that Waugh himself so deeply cherished. (It was the only one he ever read aloud to his own beloved children.) Would that we knew whether Hilaire Belloc, who died in July of 1953, read Waugh’s moving 1950 novel with its supernatural perspectives on the indispensability of Grace.

In the 1960s, while a military officer in Southeast Asia, I one day somehow formulated to myself a principle about the mysteriously Permissive Acts of Divine Providence that was especially then consoling to me. It was a correlative relative proposition that went like this:

The greater the evil that God allows, the greater the good He intends to bring out of it.”

The faithful Practical Application of that Principle and Correlative Proposition goes like this:

Therefore, here and now, I (we) must promptly collaborate with the Divine Intention and thus resourcefully and loyally try to bring about a GREATER good out of what God, and sometimes so mysteriously, has allowed to happen—also in combat and other forms of warfare!

These are difficult principles and codes to live by. But “we are only as courageous as we are convinced,” as Father John A. Hardon, S.J. himself once solemnly and very supportively said to me.


© 2019 Robert D. Hickson

1Hilaire Belloc, First and Last (London: Methuen & Co. LTD., 1912—the second edition; 1911 was the first edition), pages 237-242. All further page references will be to the text of the Second Edition, and placed in parentheses above in the main body of this essay.

An Introduction to Hilaire Belloc’s The Servile State (1912)

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                            15 November 2018

Saint Albert the Great (d. 1280)


“The Reformers and the Reformed are alike making for the Servile State—I propose [therefore] in this [8th] section to show how the three interests which between them account for nearly the whole of the forces making for social change in modern England [as of 1912-1913] are all necessarily drifting towards the servile state….

“These three interests are, first, the socialist, who is the theoretical reformer working along the line of least resistance; secondly, the ‘practical man,’ who as a ‘practical’ reformer depends on his shortness of sight, and is therefore today a powerful factor….while the third is that proletarian mass for which the change is being effected, and on whom it is being imposed….

The second factor [, moreover,] in the change [i.e., both in the proposed and in the actually operating reforms in England] is the ‘practical man’; and this fool, on account of his great numbers and determining influence in the details of legislation, must be carefully examined….

“It is not difficult to discern that the practical man in social reform is exactly the same animal as the practical man in every other department of human energy, and [he] may be discovered suffering from the same twin disabilities which stamp the practical man wherever found: these twin disabilities are an inability to define his own first principles and an inability to follow the consequences proceeding from his own action. Both these disabilities proceed from one simple and deplorable form of impotence, the inability to think.

Let us help the practical man in his weakness and do a little thinking for him.” (Hilaire Belloc, The Servile State (London & Edinburgh: T.N. Foulis, 1912, 1913), Section Eight—pp. 121, 130-131—italics in the original; my bold emphasis added.)


“[Donec…] nec vitia nostra nec remedia pati possumus…. (“[Until we have reached such a point now that….] “we can tolerate neither our vices nor their remedies.” (Titi Vivi: Ab Urbe Condita by Livy, the Roman Historian, from his own Preface to his multi-volumed Histories) (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1974, p. 2.)


“If we do not restore the Institution of Property, we cannot escape restoring the Institution of Slavery; there is no third course.” (Hilaire Belloc’s own terse Epigraph to The Servile State—my emphasis added)


When The Servile State was first published in 1912, Hilaire Belloc was forty-two years of age and full of energy, due in part to his largely robust and astonishingly varied experiences over his formative years. His own 1912 book, moreover, at once prompted such a range of intelligent and unintelligent commentary—to include some grave misunderstandings—that Belloc in fairness decided to publish a second edition in 1913, only one year later, which contains his important, articulate expansion, by way of a new, nine-page Preface, simply called “Preface to [the] Second Edition.”

Our wholehearted and manfully compassionate author was attentive throughout his life and his writings—at least those I have come to know rather thoroughly down the years—to the always consequential combination of “Insecurity and Insufficiency,” which constitutes a challenging and an abiding vulnerability for any human being, and for his dependents in society. Throughout The Servile State, Hilaire Belloc especially considers and quite vividly shows to us the recurrent “economic factor” and how men and their families, whether organized or not, cope with insecurity and insufficiency; and, obversely, how they also strive to attain to and preserve a modest consolation, one which, with more stability, combines a more reliable continuity of “security and sufficiency.”

In Hilaire Belloc’s first main chapter on “Definitions,” he tells us what he means by a servile state or a servile status and basis:

My last definition concerns the Servile State itself, and since the idea is both somewhat novel and also the subject of this book, I will not only establish but expand its definition.

The definition of the Servile State is as follows:–

That arrangement of society in which so considerable a number of the families and individuals are constrained by positive law to labour for the advantage of other families and individuals [so] as to stamp the whole community with the mark [i.e., with the character and the status] of such labour we call THE SERVILE STATE.’…

A clear boundary exists between the servile and non-servile condition of labour, and the conditions upon either side of that boundary utterly differ one from the other. Where there is compulsion applicable by positive law to men of a certain status, and such compulsion enforced in the last resort by the powers at the disposal of the State, there is the institution of Slavery; and if that institution be sufficiently expanded the whole State may be said to repose upon a servile basis, and is a Servile State. (italics in the original)

G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc’s intimate long-standing friend, has some unexpected insights that will further help us approach the content and methods of The Servile State and to understand, a little better, what it is not. In his 1934 book of essays, entitled Avowals and Denials, Chesterton has composed a six-page essay “On Dogs with Bad Names,” which begins and then continues like this—in part so as to render, as well, a very gracious tribute to Hilaire Belloc:

A negative disadvantage attaches to almost any man who has a positive character or, what commonly goes with it and is even more important, positive convictions. A literary man, for instance, who has strong likes and dislikes, in the style of Dr. Johnson or [William] Cobbett or Coventry Patmore [the Poet], becomes so much more of a proverb or a joke that nobody can believe there is anything new to be learnt about him. Anything new that he does say is coloured, or rather discoloured, either by what people know he has said or by what people think he would say….

But, curiously enough, in the course of this [an attempted interpretation of H.G. Wells], Mr. Shaw [George Bernard Shaw, himself a committed Socialist and a trenchant Dramatist] had occasion to refer to Mr. Belloc, and said that the theory of the Servile State was only Herbert Spencer’s attack on Socialism. From which it was obvious that Mr. Shaw never read Mr. Belloc’s book on the Servile State, or he would have known that it is not an attack on Socialism, and that it has not the remotest resemblance to Herbert Spencer. But, just as Mr. Wells took it for granted that Mr. Shaw would write certain [erroneous] things about the Superman, so Mr. Shaw took it for granted that Mr. Belloc would write certain things about the Servile State….This curious, crooked doom, on strong characters with strong convictions, has pursued Mr. Belloc also in later times, [for example,] in connexion with his historical biographies.1

Hilaire Belloc, though it was largely unrecognized by George Bernard Shaw, has presented to us in a fresh—but realistic– way the long-standing, ancient history of the institution of slavery and of its protracted forms of servility, along with some of their later implications, to include, as of 1912, its drifting—or a sleepwalking–into servitude and some subtle and spreading forms of bondage (to include debt bondage); and it was just before the precarious outbreak of World War I.

But, Belloc makes no denunciation of Socialism or Collectivism, as such. Nor does he consider in his book whether the implantation of servility is, without any qualification, good or bad in itself. For, many persons may well accept certain forms of openly or subtly coercive servility if they (and their families) would thereby have more security and a greater sufficiency or perceived abundance. Rather, Belloc is proposing to show us analytically what is happening and how it is happening since the effective sixteenth-century looting in the monastic breakups and the greedy usurious dispossessions of other forms of Church property within “Christendom,” in “Catholic Civilisation” (Belloc’s own words).

Belloc also gives hints as to why—in the course of the Protestant reformations, especially in England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries—traditional Catholic Christendom became fractured and dissociated, and thus why the new Capitalist Overlords became a powerful class of oligarchs and plutocrats.

For those who may have preferred Socialism (along with the necessary operation of its indispensable Political Trustees and State Administrators), Belloc tried to convince them that, even collectively, they were not sufficiently able—directly or indirectly—to “confiscate” and “socialize” the inordinate cumulative wealth of the Big Capitalists (their land, stores, equipment-instruments, owed debt, varied finances along with usury, and the like). Nor does Belloc think that the State—to include a more “Collectivist State”—would be able “to buy out the Capitalists,” instead of “expropriating” them, as Belloc’s separate and extensive, analytical Appendix (in his Section VIII) proposes to show us, more fully.

After his giving us a principled description of how the ancient institution of slavery was, with the advent of Christianity, very gradually transformed over the years into a society (especially in Western Europe) of much greater “economic freedom,” not just as a putative increase of “political freedom,” Belloc then more explicitly shows us their changing forms of service and ownership, and the manifold increase of many co-operative associations (such as the protective and fair standard-setting array of Guilds), with their various and often seasonal connections with the Church. In contrast with later usurpations, confiscations, and the unaccountable monopolies or oligopolies and depleting forms of merciless usury (even for a non-productive loan, not just towards a productive loan), the high moral standards and ethos of Christendom (e.g., against inordinate greed and against unfair competition, as in the “leonine contracts”) were to become more respected and rooted, and they were gradually to spread in commerce and agriculture and the skilled crafts, as was also the case, somewhat, even with the military in the gradual Christianization of Warfare—until the retrograde story of Joan of Arc. Belloc considered that the fullest good fruits of Christendom were to be found to be gradually manifested from the tenth to the thirteenth centuries.

After presenting his account of the growing and more rooted economic virtues of Christendom, as it were, he later shows us in his book why such a civilization and culture would likely not come again in the Modern World, and certainly not in any rapid manner or hasty way. Belloc was also doubtful that citizens today (as of 1913) would even want to bear the various burdens and responsibilities of private (and small) ownership. Belloc wondered about the extent to which men and their families would still want to possess private property in land and for its productive agricultural uses and capital equipment. Therefore, he quite realistically expects that—at least in England—Modern Civilization and the mass of society would continue to drift into servitude, especially into the more permanent and permeating Servile State. Even the Legislature (Parliament) would promulgate laws and stifling regulations which would not favor small ownership.

A keen-minded (often slightly ironic) European friend of mine memorably said to me back in the late 1990s: “We are moving to a situation where there will be ‘Criminal Capitalism for the Elites and Socialism for the Masses.’” (He also saw that “organized crime is protected crime, protected by political and financial elites.”)

We then also proceeded to discuss a colleague and friend of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, and especially his friend’s books: namely Igor Shafarevich’s book, entitled (in English) The Socialist Phenomenon (1980), which was more revealingly entitled–in the original Russian—Socialism as a Manifestation of World History (1975). Furthermore, the mathematician Shafarevich’s deeply searching and uncommonly candid 1989 book in Russian, entitled Russophobia, was promptly translated into English by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and published by them on 22 March 1990. (JPRS-UPA-90-1990: pages 2-39—“Nationality Issues”—to include the phenomenon of “Jewish Nationalism”)

Belloc’s The Servile State and Shafarevich’s The Socialist Phenomenon and Russophobia could both be—and should be—fruitfully studied together and refreshingly counterpointed, which would also help restore the writings of the gifted Catholic historian, Augustin Cochin, who, as a young man, was to be killed in combat in 1916 on the battlefield in France in World War I. Cochin—often quoted by Shafarevich—had already brilliantly analyzed in his several learned books, not only the French Revolution, but also, especially, the nature and influential operations of oligarchs and the decisively formative networks of oligarchies (which sometimes includes influential plutocrats). He also knew of the frequent “civil wars” among certain sets of oligarchs, such as between the Girondins and the Jacobins, and within the Capitalists of High Finance, who were themselves, and significantly, not openly mentioned by Karl Marx in his own strategic and analytical writings. However, these civil wars within the Revolution are still ongoing against the Catholic Faith and the Catholic Church, and even against a diminishing remnant of what was once called Catholic Culture and Civilization.

As we in conclusion again consider the far-sightedness of Hilaire Belloc—and the abiding truths of his objective analyses—we realize that, in 1912, he saw the Catholic Church (with Pope Pius X in leadership) as a strong and deeply rooted Cultural Institution, and more. Were he writing today, however, he would likely be more reticent and cautious and even pessimistic about that once fortifying bulwark, the Catholic Church.

Were he writing today, he would also likely include an analytic section on the nature and servile effects of modern technologies—to include some “breakthrough technologies” and modern forms of our “electronic servitude.”

Belloc would also likely refer to two clear-minded and far-sighted American thinkers who flourished in the twentieth century: Albert Jay Nock (1870-1945) and James Burnham (1905-1987).

If Belloc had read and robustly discussed Nock’s Memoirs of a Superfluous Man (1943) in person, he would have likely also applied three fundamental socio-economic laws in the way Nock himself had so deftly applied them to many, not just to economic, aspects of human life and literature: namely, the Law of Diminishing Returns; Thomas Gresham’s Law (“bad money drives out good”—i.e., good, sound money); and Epstein’s Law (named after Nock’s friend): “the inherent tendency of human beings to satisfy their wants through the easiest means available,” and even with the dubious propensity and decision “to try to get something for nothing” and “with minimum impact on themselves” (in the words of Major General Mickey Finn).

Belloc would also have wanted to read and have discussions with James Burnham, a strategic-minded, lucid thinker and writer—a former Trotskyite who, near the end of his life, returned to his earlier-abandoned Catholic Faith. We would then have especially discussed James Burnham’s Suicide of the West: An Essay on the Meaning and Destiny of Liberalism (1964) and The War We Are In (1967). Belloc might also have wanted to examine with Burnham his own profound understanding of the growing “Managerial Revolution” as an equivocal development of Industrial Capitalism and its derivative, stifling bureaucratic and political society and civilization.

With such men Belloc would have had a recurrent feast. Such men, for sure, would have greatly enriched each other’s thought and conduct. Belloc never forgot Cardinal Henry E. Manning’s words to him in his youth: “Truth confirms truth” and “All human conflict is ultimately theological.”

In his own recurrent and searching Catholic reflections down the years, Hilaire Belloc might often likely have posed Livy’s own profound question. Have we come now to such a point where “we can tolerate neither our vices nor their remedies(“nec vitia nostra nec remedia pati possumus”)?

Just think of how Belloc would consider the growing problem of “opioids.”

What, if anything, will first need to be sufficiently restored? What, for example, are the preconditions to be established before our achieving a stable institution of well-divided, small property in society and the State?

In The Servile State, Belloc recurrently articulates as well as implies that, throughout civilisation and culture, there must first be a more secure and sufficient restoration of the Faith.


© 2018 Robert D. Hickson

This essay has been written in the form of a book-preface to a recently published German translation of Belloc’s 1912 book by Renovamen Verlag.

1G.K. Chesterton, Avowals and Denials (London: Methuen & Co. LTD, 1934), pp. 85, 88-89—my bold emphasis added; italics in the original. The essay “On Dogs with Bad Names” (Chapter XV) is to be found in its entirety on pp. 85-90.