BELLOC-On Nothing & kindred subjets
Title: On Nothing & Kindred Subjects
Author: Hilaire Belloc
TO MAURICE BARING
King's Land, December the 13th, 1907
My dear Maurice,
It was in Normandy, you will remember, and in the heat of the year,
when the birds were silent in the trees and the apples nearly ripe,
with the sun above us already of a stronger kind, and a somnolence
within and without, that it was determined among us (the jolly
company!) that I should write upon Nothing, and upon all that is
cognate to Nothing, a task not yet attempted since the Beginning of
Now when the matter was begun and the subject nearly approached, I
saw more clearly that this writing upon Nothing might be very grave,
and as I looked at it in every way the difficulties of my adventure
appalled me, nor am I certain that I have overcome them all. But I
had promised you that I would proceed, and so I did, in spite of my
doubts and terrors.
For first I perceived that in writing upon this matter I was in
peril of offending the privilege of others, and of those especially
who are powerful to-day, since I would be discussing things very
dear and domestic to my fellow-men, such as The Honour of Politicians,
The Tact of Great Ladies, The Wealth of Journalists, The Enthusiasm
of Gentlemen, and the Wit of Bankers. All that is most intimate and
dearest to the men that make our time, all that they would most defend
from the vulgar gaze,--this it was proposed to make the theme of a
In spite of such natural fear and of interests so powerful to detain
me, I have completed my task, and I will confess that as it grew it
enthralled me. There is in Nothing something so majestic and so high
that it is a fascination and spell to regard it. Is it not that
which Mankind, after the great effort of life, at last attains, and
that which alone can satisfy Mankind's desire? Is it not that which
is the end of so many generations of analysis, the final word of
Philosophy, and the goal of the search for reality? Is it not the
very matter of our modern creed in which the great spirits of our
time repose, and is it not, as it were, the culmination of their
intelligence? It is indeed the sum and meaning of all around!
How well has the world perceived it and how powerfully do its
legends illustrate what Nothing is to men!
You know that once in Lombardy Alfred and Charlemagne and the Kaliph
Haroun-al-Raschid met to make trial of their swords. The sword of
Alfred was a simple sword: its name was Hewer. And the sword of
Charlemagne was a French sword, and its name was Joyeuse. But the
sword of Haroun was of the finest steel, forged in Toledo, tempered
at Cordova, blessed in Mecca, damascened (as one might imagine) in
Damascus, sharpened upon Jacob's Stone, and so wrought that when one
struck it it sounded like a bell. And as for its name, By Allah!
that was very subtle---for it had no name at all.
Well then, upon that day in Lombardy Alfred and Charlemagne and the
Kaliph were met to take a trial of their blades. Alfred took a pig
of lead which he had brought from the Mendip Hills, and swiping the
air once or twice in the Western fashion, he cut through that lead
and girded the edge of his sword upon the rock beneath, making a
Then Charlemagne, taking in both hands his sword Joyeuse, and aiming
at the dent, with a laugh swung down and cut the stone itself right
through, so that it fell into two pieces, one on either side, and
there they lie today near by Piacenza in a field.
Now that it had come to the Kaliph's turn, one would have said there
was nothing left for him to do, for Hewer had manfully hewn lead,
and Joyeuse had joyfully cleft stone.
But the Kaliph, with an Arabian look, picked out of his pocket a
gossamer scarf from Cashmir, so light that when it was tossed into
the air it would hardly fall to the ground, but floated downwards
slowly like a mist. This, with a light pass, he severed, and
immediately received the prize. For it was deemed more difficult by
far to divide such a veil in mid-air, than to cleave lead or even
I knew a man once, Maurice, who was at Oxford for three years, and
after that went down with no degree. At College, while his friends
were seeking for Truth in funny brown German Philosophies, Sham
Religions, stinking bottles and identical equations, he was lying on
his back in Eynsham meadows thinking of Nothing, and got the Truth
by this parallel road of his much more quickly than did they by theirs;
for the asses are still seeking, mildly disputing, and, in a cultivated
manner, following the gleam, so that they have become in their Donnish
middleage a nuisance and a pest; while he--that other--with the Truth
very fast and firm at the end of a leather thong is dragging her
sliding, whining and crouching on her four feet, dragging her reluctant
through the world, even into the broad daylight where Truth most hates
He it was who became my master in this creed. For once as we lay
under a hedge at the corner of a road near Bagley Wood we heard far
off the notes of military music and the distant marching of a
column; these notes and that tramp grew louder, till there swung
round the turning with a blaze of sound five hundred men in order.
They passed, and we were full of the scene and of the memories of
the world, when he said to me: "Do you know what is in your heart?
It is the music. And do you know the cause and Mover of that music?
It is the Nothingness inside the bugle; it is the hollow Nothingness
inside the Drum."
Then I thought of the poem where it says of the Army of the Republic:
The thunder of the limber and the rumble of a hundred of the guns.
And there hums as she comes the roll of her innumerable drums.
I knew him to be right.
From this first moment I determined to consider and to meditate upon
Many things have I discovered about Nothing, which have proved it--to
me at least--to be the warp or ground of all that is holiest. It is
of such fine gossamer that loveliness was spun, the mists under the
hills on an autumn morning are but gross reflections of it; moonshine
on lovers is earthy compared with it; song sung most charmingly and
stirring the dearest recollections is but a failure in the human
attempt to reach its embrace and be dissolved in it. It is out of
Nothing that are woven those fine poems of which we carry but vague
rhythms in the head:--and that Woman who is a shade, the Insaisissable,
whom several have enshrined in melody--well, her Christian name, her
maiden name, and, as I personally believe, her married name as well,
is Nothing. I never see a gallery of pictures now but I know how the
use of empty spaces makes a scheme, nor do I ever go to a play but I
see how silence is half the merit of acting and hope some day for
absence and darkness as well upon the stage. What do you think the
fairy Melisende said to Fulk-Nerra when he had lost his soul for her
and he met her in the Marshes after twenty years? Why, Nothing--what
else could she have said? Nothing is the reward of good men who alone
can pretend to taste it in long easy sleep, it is the meditation of
the wise and the charm of happy dreamers. So excellent and final is
it that I would here and now declare to you that Nothing was the gate
of eternity, that by passing through Nothing we reached our every
object as passionate and happy beings--were it not for the Council
of Toledo that restrains my pen. Yet ... indeed, indeed when I think
what an Elixir is this Nothing I am for putting up a statue nowhere,
on a pedestal that shall not exist, and for inscribing on it in
letters that shall never be written:
So I began to write my book, Maurice: and as I wrote it the dignity
of what I had to do rose continually before me, as does the dignity
of a mountain range which first seemed a vague part of the sky, but
at last stands out august and fixed before the traveller; or as the
sky at night may seem to a man released from a dungeon who sees it
but gradually, first bewildered by the former constraint of his
narrow room but now gradually enlarging to drink in its immensity.
Indeed this Nothing is too great for any man who has once embraced
it to leave it alone thenceforward for ever; and finally, the
dignity of Nothing is sufficiently exalted in this: that Nothing is
the tenuous stuff from which the world was made.
For when the Elohim set out to make the world, first they debated
among themselves the Idea, and one suggested this and another
suggested that, till they had threshed out between them a very
pretty picture of it all. There were to be hills beyond hills, good
grass and trees, and the broadness of rivers, animals of all kinds,
both comic and terrible, and savours and colours, and all around the
ceaseless streaming of the sea.
Now when they had got that far, and debated the Idea in detail, and
with amendment and resolve, it very greatly concerned them of what
so admirable a compost should be mixed. Some said of this, and some
said of that, but in the long run it was decided by the narrow
majority of eight in a full house that Nothing was the only proper
material out of which to make this World of theirs, and out of
Nothing they made it: as it says in the Ballade:
Dear, tenuous stuff, of which the world was made.
And again in the Envoi:
Prince, draw this sovereign draught in your despair,
That when your riot in that rest is laid,
You shall be merged with an Essential Air:--
Dear, tenuous stuff, of which the world was made!
Out of Nothing then did they proceed to make the world, this sweet
world, always excepting Man the Marplot. Man was made in a muddier
fashion, as you shall hear.
For when the world seemed ready finished and, as it were,
presentable for use, and was full of ducks, tigers, mastodons,
waddling hippopotamuses, lilting deer, strong-smelling herbs, angry
lions, frowsy snakes, cracked glaciers, regular waterfalls, coloured
sunsets, and the rest, it suddenly came into the head of the
youngest of these strong Makers of the World (the youngest, who had
been sat upon and snubbed all the while the thing was doing, and
hardly been allowed to look on, let alone to touch), it suddenly
came into his little head, I say, that he would make a Man.
Then the Elder Elohim said, some of them, "Oh, leave well alone!
send him to bed!" And others said sleepily (for they were tired),
"No! no! let him play his little trick and have done with it, and
then we shall have some rest." Little did they know!... And others
again, who were still broad awake, looked on with amusement and
applauded, saying: "Go on, little one! Let us see what you can do."
But when these last stooped to help the child, they found that all
the Nothing had been used up (and that is why there is none of it
about to-day). So the little fellow began to cry, but they, to
comfort him, said: "Tut, lad! tut! do not cry; do your best with
this bit of mud. It will always serve to fashion something."
So the jolly little fellow took the dirty lump of mud and pushed it
this way and that, jabbing with his thumb and scraping with his
nail, until at last he had made Picanthropos, who lived in Java and
was a fool; who begat Eoanthropos, who begat Meioanthropos, who
begat Pleioanthropos, who begat Pleistoanthropos, who is often mixed
up with his father, and a great warning against keeping the same
names in one family; who begat Paleoanthropos, who begat Neoanthropos,
who begat the three Anthropoids, great mumblers and murmurers with
their mouths; and the eldest of these begat Him whose son was He,
from whom we are all descended.
He was indeed halting and patchy, ill-lettered, passionate and rude;
bald of one cheek and blind of one eye, and his legs were of
different sizes, nevertheless by process of ascent have we, his
descendants, manfully continued to develop and to progress, and to
swell in everything, until from Homer we came to Euripides, and from
Euripides to Seneca, and from Seneca to Boethius and his peers; and
from these to Duns Scotus, and so upwards through James I of England
and the fifth, sixth or seventh of Scotland (for it is impossible to
remember these things) and on, on, to my Lord Macaulay, and in the
very last reached YOU, the great summits of the human race and last
perfection of the ages READERS OF THIS BOOK, and you also Maurice,
to whom it is dedicated, and myself, who have written it for gain.
Among the sadder and smaller pleasures of this world I count this
pleasure: the pleasure of taking up one's pen.
It has been said by very many people that there is a tangible pleasure
in the mere act of writing: in choosing and arranging words. It has
been denied by many. It is affirmed and denied in the life of Doctor
Johnson, and for my part I would say that it is very true in some rare
moods and wholly false in most others. However, of writing and the
pleasure in it I am not writing here (with pleasure), but of the
pleasure of taking up one's pen, which is quite another matter.
Note what the action means. You are alone. Even if the room is
crowded (as was the smoking-room in the G.W.R. Hotel, at Paddington,
only the other day, when I wrote my "Statistical Abstract of
Christendom"), even if the room is crowded, you must have made
yourself alone to be able to write at all. You must have built up
some kind of wall and isolated your mind. You are alone, then; and
that is the beginning.
If you consider at what pains men are to be alone: how they climb
mountains, enter prisons, profess monastic vows, put on eccentric
daily habits, and seclude themselves in the garrets of a great town,
you will see that this moment of taking up the pen is not least
happy in the fact that then, by a mere association of ideas, the
writer is alone.
So much for that. Now not only are you alone, but you are going to
When people say "create" they flatter themselves. No man can create
anything. I knew a man once who drew a horse on a bit of paper to amuse
the company and covered it all over with many parallel streaks as he
drew. When he had done this, an aged priest (present upon that occasion)
said, "You are pleased to draw a zebra." When the priest said this the
man began to curse and to swear, and to protest that he had never seen
or heard of a zebra. He said it was all done out of his own head, and
he called heaven to witness, and his patron saint (for he was of the Old
English Territorial Catholic Families--his patron saint was Aethelstan),
and the salvation of his immortal soul he also staked, that he was as
innocent of zebras as the babe unborn. But there! He persuaded no one,
and the priest scored. It was most evident that the Territorial was
crammed full of zebraical knowledge.
All this, then, is a digression, and it must be admitted that there
is no such thing as a man's "creating". But anyhow, when you take up
your pen you do something devilish pleasing: there is a prospect
before you. You are going to develop a germ: I don't know what it
is, and I promise you I won't call it creation--but possibly a god
is creating through you, and at least you are making believe at
creation. Anyhow, it is a sense of mastery and of origin, and you
know that when you have done, something will be added to the world,
and little destroyed. For what will you have destroyed or wasted? A
certain amount of white paper at a farthing a square yard (and I am
not certain it is not pleasanter all diversified and variegated with
black wriggles)--a certain amount of ink meant to be spread and
dried: made for no other purpose. A certain infinitesimal amount of
quill--torn from the silly goose for no purpose whatsoever but to
minister to the high needs of Man.
Here you cry "Affectation! Affectation! How do I know that the
fellow writes with a quill? A most unlikely habit!" To that I answer
you are right. Less assertion, please, and more humility. I will
tell you frankly with what I am writing. I am writing with a
Waterman's Ideal Fountain Pen. The nib is of pure gold, as was the
throne of Charlemagne, in the "Song of Roland." That throne (I need
hardly tell you) was borne into Spain across the cold and awful
passes of the Pyrenees by no less than a hundred and twenty mules,
and all the Western world adored it, and trembled before it when it
was set up at every halt under pine trees, on the upland grasses.
For he sat upon it, dreadful and commanding: there weighed upon him
two centuries of age; his brows were level with justice and
experience, and his beard was so tangled and full, that he was
called "bramble-bearded Charlemagne." You have read how, when he
stretched out his hand at evening, the sun stood still till he had
found the body of Roland? No? You must read about these things.
Well then, the pen is of pure gold, a pen that runs straight away
like a willing horse, or a jolly little ship; indeed, it is a pen so
excellent that it reminds me of my subject: the pleasure of taking
up one's pen.
God bless you, pen! When I was a boy, and they told me work was
honourable, useful, cleanly, sanitary, wholesome, and necessary to
the mind of man, I paid no more attention to them than if they had
told me that public men were usually honest, or that pigs could fly.
It seemed to me that they were merely saying silly things they had
been told to say. Nor do I doubt to this day that those who told me
these things at school were but preaching a dull and careless round.
But now I know that the things they told me were true. God bless
you, pen of work, pen of drudgery, pen of letters, pen of posings,
pen rabid, pen ridiculous, pen glorified. Pray, little pen, be
worthy of the love I bear you, and consider how noble I shall make
you some day, when you shall live in a glass case with a crowd of
tourists round you every day from 10 to 4; pen of justice, pen of
the saeva indignatio, pen of majesty and of light. I will
write with you some day a considerable poem; it is a compact between
you and me. If I cannot make one of my own, then I will write out
some other man's; but you, pen, come what may, shall write out a
good poem before you die, if it is only the Allegro.
* * * * *
The pleasure of taking up one's pen has also this, peculiar among
all pleasures, that you have the freedom to lay it down when you
will. Not so with love. Not so with victory. Not so with glory.
Had I begun the other way round, I would have called this Work, "The
Pleasure of laying down one's Pen." But I began it where I began it,
and I am going on to end it just where it is going to end.
What other occupation, avocation, dissertation, or intellectual
recreation can you cease at will? Not bridge--you go on playing to
win. Not public speaking--they ring a bell. Not mere converse--you
have to answer everything the other insufficient person says. Not
life, for it is wrong to kill one's self; and as for the natural end
of living, that does not come by one's choice; on the contrary, it
is the most capricious of all accidents.
But the pen you lay down when you will. At any moment: without
remorse, without anxiety, without dishonour, you are free to do this
dignified and final thing (I am just going to do it).... You lay it
To begin at the beginning is, next to ending at the end, the whole
art of writing; as for the middle you may fill it in with any rubble
that you choose. But the beginning and the end, like the strong
stone outer walls of mediaeval buildings, contain and define the
And there is more than this: since writing is a human and a living
art, the beginning being the motive and the end the object of the
work, each inspires it; each runs through organically, and the two
between them give life to what you do.
So I will begin at the beginning and I will lay down this first
principle, that religion and the full meaning of things has nowhere
more disappeared from the modern world than in the department of
For a Guide Book will tell you always what are the principal and
most vulgar sights of a town; what mountains are most difficult to
climb, and, invariably, the exact distances between one place and
another. But these things do not serve the End of Man. The end of
man is Happiness, and how much happier are you with such a
knowledge? Now there are some Guide Books which do make little
excursions now and then into the important things, which tell you
(for instance) what kind of cooking you will find in what places,
what kind of wine in countries where this beverage is publicly
known, and even a few, more daring than the rest, will give a hint
or two upon hiring mules, and upon the way that a bargain should be
conducted, or how to fight.
But with all this even the best of them do not go to the moral heart
of the matter. They do not give you a hint or an idea of that which
is surely the basis of all happiness in travel. I mean, the art of
gaining respect in the places where you stay. Unless that respect is
paid you you are more miserable by far than if you had stayed at
home, and I would ask anyone who reads this whether he can remember
one single journey of his which was not marred by the evident
contempt which the servants and the owners of taverns showed for him
wherever he went?
It is therefore of the first importance, much more important than
any question of price or distance, to know something of this art; it
is not difficult to learn, moreover it is so little exploited that
if you will but learn it you will have a sense of privilege and of
upstanding among your fellows worth all the holidays which were ever
taken in the world.
Of this Respect which we seek, out of so many human pleasures, a
facile, and a very false, interpretation is that it is the privilege
of the rich, and I even knew one poor fellow who forged a cheque and
went to gaol in his desire to impress the host of the "Spotted Dog,"
near Barnard Castle. It was an error in him, as it is in all who so
imagine. The rich in their degree fall under this contempt as
heavily as any, and there is no wealth that can purchase the true
awe which it should be your aim to receive from waiters, serving-wenches,
boot-blacks, and publicans.
I knew a man once who set out walking from Oxford to Stow-in-the-Wold,
from Stow-in-the-Wold to Cheltenham, from Cheltenham to Ledbury, from
Ledbury to Hereford, from Hereford to New Rhayader (where the Cobbler
lives), and from New Rhayader to the end of the world which lies a
little west and north of that place, and all the way he slept rough
under hedges and in stacks, or by day in open fields, so terrified
was he at the thought of the contempt that awaited him should he pay
for a bed. And I knew another man who walked from York to Thirsk, and
from Thirsk to Darlington, and from Darlington to Durham, and so on
up to the border and over it, and all the way he pretended to be
extremely poor so that he might be certain the contempt he received
was due to nothing of his own, but to his clothes only: but this was
an indifferent way of escaping, for it got him into many fights with
miners, and he was arrested by the police in Lanchester; and at
Jedburgh, where his money did really fail him, he had to walk all
through the night, finding that no one would take in such a
tatterdemalion. The thing could be done much more cheaply than that,
and much more respectably, and you can acquire with but little practice
one of many ways of achieving the full respect of the whole house, even
of that proud woman who sits behind glass in front of an enormous
ledger; and the first way is this:--
As you come into the place go straight for the smoking-room, and
begin talking of the local sport: and do not talk humbly and
tentatively as so many do, but in a loud authoritative tone. You
shall insist and lay down the law and fly into a passion if you are
contradicted. There is here an objection which will arise in the
mind of every niggler and boggler who has in the past very properly
been covered with ridicule and become the butt of the waiters and
stable-yard, which is, that if one is ignorant of the local sport,
there is an end to the business. The objection is ridiculous. Do you
suppose that the people whom you hear talking around you are more
learned than yourself in the matter? And if they are do you suppose
that they are acquainted with your ignorance? Remember that most of
them have read far less than you, and that you can draw upon an
experience of travel of which they can know nothing; do but make the
plunge, practising first in the villages of the Midlands, I will
warrant you that in a very little while bold assertion of this kind
will carry you through any tap-room or bar-parlour in Britain.
I remember once in the holy and secluded village of Washington under
the Downs, there came in upon us as we sat in the inn there a man whom
I recognised though he did not know me--for a journalist--incapable of
understanding the driving of a cow, let alone horses: a prophet, a
socialist, a man who knew the trend of things and so forth: a man who
had never been outside a town except upon a motor bicycle, upon which
snorting beast indeed had he come to this inn. But if he was less than
us in so many things he was greater than us in this art of gaining
respect in Inns and Hotels. For he sat down, and when they had barely
had time to say good day to him he gave us in minutest detail a great
run after a fox, a run that never took place. We were fifteen men in
the room; none of us were anything like rich enough to hunt, and the
lie went through them like an express. This fellow "found" (whatever
that may mean) at Gumber Corner, ran right through the combe (which,
by the way, is one of those bits of land which have been stolen bodily
from the English people), cut down the Sutton Road, across the railway
at Coates (and there he showed the cloven hoof, for your liar always
takes his hounds across the railway), then all over Egdean, and killed
in a field near Wisborough. All this he told, and there was not even a
man there to ask him whether all those little dogs and horses swam
the Rother or jumped it. He was treated like a god; they tried to
make him stop but he would not. He was off to Worthing, where I have
no doubt he told some further lies upon the growing of tomatoes
under glass, which is the main sport of that district. Similarly, I
have no doubt, such a man would talk about boats at King's Lynn,
murder with violence at Croydon, duck shooting at Ely, and racing
Then also if you are in any doubt as to what they want of you, you
can always change the scene. Thus fishing is dangerous for even the
poor can fish, and the chances are you do not know the names of the
animals, and you may be putting salt-water fish into the stream of
Lambourne, or talking of salmon upon the Upper Thames. But what is
to prevent you putting on a look of distance and marvel, and
conjuring up the North Atlantic for them? Hold them with the cold
and the fog of the Newfoundland seas, and terrify their simple minds
A second way to attain respect, if you are by nature a silent man,
and one which I think is always successful, is to write before you
go to bed and leave upon the table a great number of envelopes which
you should address to members of the Cabinet, and Jewish money-lenders,
dukes, and in general any of the great. It is but slight labour, and
for the contents you cannot do better than put into each envelope one
of those advertisements which you will find lying about. Then next
morning you should gather them up and ask where the post is: but you
need not post them, and you need not fear for your bill. Your bill
will stand much the same, and your reputation will swell like a sponge.
And a third way is to go to the telephone, since there are
telephones nowadays, and ring up whoever in the neighbourhood is of
the greatest importance. There is no law against it, and when you
have the number you have but to ask the servant at the other end
whether it is not somebody else's house. But in the meanwhile your
night in the place is secure.
And a fourth way is to tell them to call you extremely early, and
then to get up extremely late. Now why this should have the effect
it has I confess I cannot tell. I lay down the rule empirically and
from long observation, but I may suggest that perhaps it is the
combination of the energy you show in early rising, and of the
luxury you show in late rising: for energy and luxury are the two
qualities which menials most admire in that governing class to which
you flatter yourself you belong. Moreover the strength of will with
which you sweep aside their inconvenience, ordering one thing and
doing another, is not without its effect, and the stir you have
created is of use to you.
And the fifth way is to be Strong, to Dominate and to Lead. To be
one of the Makers of this world, one of the Builders. To have the
more Powerful Will. To arouse in all around you by mere Force of
Personality a feeling that they must Obey. But I do not know how
this is done.
There is not anything that can so suddenly flood the mind with shame
as the conviction of ignorance, yet we are all ignorant of nearly
everything there is to be known. Is it not wonderful, then, that we
should be so sensitive upon the discovery of a fault which must of
necessity be common to all, and that in its highest degree? The
conviction of ignorance would not shame us thus if it were not for
the public appreciation of our failure.
If a man proves us ignorant of German or the complicated order of
English titles, or the rules of Bridge, or any other matter, we do
not care for his proofs, so that we are alone with him: first
because we can easily deny them all, and continue to wallow in our
ignorance without fear, and secondly, because we can always counter
with something we know, and that he knows nothing of, such as the
Creed, or the history of Little Bukleton, or some favourite book.
Then, again, if one is alone with one's opponent, it is quite easy
to pretend that the subject on which one has shown ignorance is
unimportant, peculiar, pedantic, hole in the corner, and this can be
brazened out even about Greek or Latin. Or, again, one can turn the
laugh against him, saying that he has just been cramming up the
matter, and that he is airing his knowledge; or one can begin making
jokes about him till he grows angry, and so forth. There is no
necessity to be ashamed.
But if there be others present? Ah! Hoc est aliud rem, that
is another matter, for then the biting shame of ignorance suddenly
displayed conquers and bewilders us. We have no defence left. We are
at the mercy of the discoverer, we own and confess, and become
insignificant: we slink away.
Note that all this depends upon what the audience conceive ignorance
to be. It is very certain that if a man should betray in some cheap
club that he did not know how to ride a horse, he would be broken
down and lost, and similarly, if you are in a country house among
the rich you are shipwrecked unless you can show acquaintance with
the Press, and among the poor you must be very careful, not only to
wear good cloth and to talk gently as though you owned them, but
also to know all about the rich. Among very young men to seem
ignorant of vice is the ruin of you, and you had better not have
been born than appear doubtful of the effects of strong drink when
you are in the company of Patriots. There was a man who died of
shame this very year in a village of Savoy because he did not know
the name of the King reigning over France to-day, and it is a common
thing to see men utterly cast down in the bar-rooms off the Strand
because they cannot correctly recite the opening words of "Boys of
the Empire." There are schoolgirls who fall ill and pine away
because they are shown to have misplaced the name of Dagobert III in
the list of Merovingian Monarchs, and quite fearless men will blush
if they are found ignoring the family name of some peer. Indeed,
there is nothing so contemptible or insignificant but that in some
society or other it is required to be known, and that the ignorance
of it may not at any moment cover one with confusion. Nevertheless
we should not on that account attempt to learn everything there is
to know (for that is manifestly impossible), nor even to learn
everything that is known, for that would soon prove a tedious and
heart-breaking task; we should rather study the means to be employed
for warding off those sudden and public convictions of Ignorance
which are the ruin of so many.
These methods of defence are very numerous and are for the most part
easy of acquirement. The most powerful of them by far (but the most
dangerous) is to fly into a passion and marvel how anyone can be
such a fool as to pay attention to wretched trifles. "Powerful,"
because it appeals to that strongest of all passions in men by which
they are predisposed to cringe before what they think to be a
superior station in society. "Dangerous," because if it fail in its
objects this method does not save you from pain, and secures you in
addition a bad quarrel, and perhaps a heavy beating. Still it has
many votaries, and is more often carried off than any other. Thus,
if in Bedfordshire, someone catches you erring on a matter of crops,
you profess that in London such things are thought mere rubbish and
despised; or again, in the society of professors at the
Universities, an ignorance of letters can easily be turned by an
allusion to that vapid life of the rich, where letters grow
insignificant; so at sea, if you slip on common terms, speak a
little of your luxurious occupations on land and you will usually be
There are other and better defences. One of these is to turn the
attack by showing great knowledge on a cognate point, or by
remembering that the knowledge your opponent boasts has been
somewhere contradicted by an authority. Thus, if some day a friend
should say, as continually happens in a London club:
"Come, let us hear you decline [Greek: tetummenos on]," you can
"You know as well as I do that the form is purely Paradigmatic: it
is never found."
Or again, if you put the Wrekin by an error into Staffordshire, you
can say, "I was thinking of the Jurassic formation which is the
basis of the formation of----" etc. Or, "Well, Shrewsbury ...
Staffordshire?... Oh! I had got my mind mixed up with the graves of
the Staffords." Very few people will dispute this, none will follow
it. There is indeed this difficulty attached to such a method, that
it needs the knowledge of a good many things, and a ready
imagination and a stiff face: but it is a good way.
Yet another way is to cover your retreat with buffoonery, pretending
to be ignorant of the most ordinary things, so as to seem to have
been playing the fool only when you made your first error. There is
a special form of this method which has always seemed to me the most
excellent by far of all known ways of escape. It is to show a steady
and crass ignorance of very nearly everything that can be mentioned,
and with all this to keep a steady mouth, a determined eye, and
(this is essential) to show by a hundred allusions that you have on
your own ground an excellent store of knowledge.
This is the true offensive-defensive in this kind of assault, and
therefore the perfection of tactics.
Thus if one should say:
"Well, it was the old story. [Greek: Anankae]."
It might happen to anyone to answer: "I never read the play."
This you will think perhaps an irremediable fall, but it is not, as
will appear from this dialogue, in which the method is developed:
SAPIENS. But, Good Heavens, it isn't a play!
IGNORAMUS. Of course not. I know that as well as you, but the
character of [Greek: Anankae] dominates the play. You won't deny
SAPIENS. You don't seem to have much acquaintance with Liddell and
IGNORAMUS. I didn't know there was anyone called Liddell in it, but
I knew Scott intimately, both before and after he succeeded to the
SAPIENS. But I mean the dictionary.
IGNORAMUS. I'm quite certain that his father wouldn't let him write
a dictionary. Why, the library at Bynton hasn't been opened for
If, after five minutes of that, Ignoramus cannot get Sapiens
floundering about in a world he knows nothing of, it is his own
But if Sapiens is over-tenacious there is a final method which may
not be the most perfect, but which I have often tried myself, and
usually with very considerable success:
SAPIENS. Nonsense, man. The Dictionary. The Greek dictionary.
IGNORAMUS. What has Ananti to do with Greek?
SAPIENS. I said [Greek: Anankae].
IGNORAMUS. Oh! h----h! you said [Greek: anankae], did you? I thought
you said Ananti. Of course, Scott didn't call the play Ananti, but
Ananti was the principal character, and one always calls it that in
the family. It is very well written. If he hadn't that shyness about
publishing ... and so forth.
Lastly, or rather Penultimately, there is the method of upsetting
the plates and dishes, breaking your chair, setting fire to the
house, shooting yourself, or otherwise swallowing all the memory of
your shame in a great catastrophe.
But that is a method for cowards; the brave man goes out into the
hall, comes back with a stick, and says firmly, "You have just
deliberately and cruelly exposed my ignorance before this company; I
shall, therefore, beat you soundly with this stick in the presence
of them all."
This you then do to him or he to you, mutatis mutandis, ceteris
paribus; and that is all I have to say on Ignorance.
BELLOC-On Nothing & kindred subjets