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23 May 2022

From the NS archive: Thoughts on poverty

13 September 1924: Poverty makes one generous and cures one of illusions.

By Hilaire Belloc

In this 1924 piece Hilaire Belloc considers what it means to live in poverty and asserts that it is a “foundation for virtue and right living”. It does, of course, bring hardship: it is “that state in which a man is perpetually anxious for the future of himself and his dependents”, in which he tends “inexorably to despair”. Yet Belloc sees upsides too: a man in poverty is more generous than his richer counterparts, more likely to share the little he has because of a mixture of “kindness and indifference”. Poverty, he argues, “cures one of illusions”: while the rich live in an “abyss of unreality”, to survive the poor man must keep his feet firmly on the ground. Belloc’s argument is a philosophical one. Someone experiencing desperate poverty may tell it a little differently.

I had occasion the other day to give an address to a number of young men upon the matter of poverty: which address I had intended to call: “Poverty: The Attainment of It: the Retention of It when Attained.” But I found that no title was required.

In giving this short address I discovered, as one always does in the course of speaking without notes, all manner of new aspects of the thing. The simple straightforward view of poverty we all know; how it is beneficial to the soul, what a training it is, how acceptable to the Higher Powers, and so on. We also know how all those men whom we are taught to admire began with poverty, and we all have, I hope, at the back of our minds a conception of poverty as a sort of foundation for virtue and right living.

But these ideas are general and vague. I was led by my discourse to consider the thing in detail, and to think out by reminiscence and reason certain small, solid, particular advantages in poverty, and also a sort of theory of maintenance in poverty: rules for remaining poor.

I thus discovered first of all a definition of poverty, which is this: poverty is that state in which a man is perpetually anxious for the future of himself and his dependents, unable to pursue life upon a standard to which he was brought up, tempted both to subservience and to a sour revolt, and tending inexorably towards despair.

Such was the definition of poverty to which I arrived, and, once arrived at, the good effects flowing from such a condition are very plain.

The first great good attendant upon poverty is that it makes men generous. You will notice that while some few of the rich are avaricious or mean, and while all of them have to be, from the very nature of their position, careful, the poor and embarrassed man will easily share whatever little he has. It is true, this is from no good motive, but merely from a conviction that, whatever he does, it will be much the same in the end; so that his kindness to his fellows is a mixture of weakness and indifference. Still, it breeds a habit; and that is why men whose whole characters have been formed under this kind of poverty always throw away money when by any chance they get a lump of it.

Then there is this other good attending poverty, that it cures one of illusions. The most irritating thing in the company of the rich, and especially of rich women, is the very morass of illusion in which they live. Indeed, it cannot be all illusion, there must be a good deal of conscious falsehood about it. But at any rate, it is an abyss of unreality, communion with which at last becomes intolerable. Now the poor man is physically prevented from falling into such vices of the heart and intelligence. He cannot possibly think that the police are heroes, the judges superhuman beings, the motives of men in general other than vile. He can nourish no fantasies upon the kind old family servant or the captain.

We may also thank poverty (those of us who are enjoying her favours) for cutting quite out of our lives certain extraordinary necessities which haunt our richer brethren. I know a rich man who is under compulsion to change his clothes twice a day, to travel at set periods to set places and to see in rotation each of at least 60 people. He has less freedom than a schoolboy in school, or a corporal in a regiment; indeed, he has no real leisure at all, because so many things are thus necessary to him. But your poor man cannot even conceive what these necessities may be. If you were to tell him that he had to go and soak himself in the vulgarity of the Riviera for so many weeks, he would not understand the word “had” at all. He would say that perhaps there were some people who liked that kind of thing, but that anyone should do it without a strongly perverted appetite he could not understand.

And here’s another boon of grinding, anxious, sordid poverty. There is no greater enemy of the soul than sloth; but in this state of ceaseless dull exasperation, like a kind of grumbling toothache, sloth is impossible. Yet another enemy of the soul is pride, and even the sour poor man cannot really nourish pride; he may wish to nourish it; he may hope in future to nourish it; but he cannot immediately nourish it. Or, again, the inmost of man which an old superstition called “the soul” is hurt by luxury. Now poverty, in the long run, forbids or restricts luxury.

I know very well that you will tell me with countless instances how the poor gentlemen of your acquaintance drink cocktails, eat caviar, go to the theatre (and that in the stalls), take taxis, order liqueurs with their coffee and blow cheques. Very true, but if you will narrowly watch the careers of such, you will find that there is a progressive decline of these habits of theirs; the taxis get rarer and rarer after 45, caviar dies out, and though liqueur with coffee goes on, the coffee is on that account less frequent. There is a real discipline, incredible as it may seem, imposed by poverty upon luxury.

Indeed, I met a man only last April in a town called Lillebonne; (where I was examining the effects of Roman remains upon hotel-keeping), and this man told me that before the War he habitually spent his holiday (he was a parson) in Switzerland, but now he could not get beyond Normandy. Whereupon I sketched for him with a piece of paper a scheme showing, with a radius vector drawn to scale, the expenses of a holiday. Therein did I show him how a holiday killing lions in East Africa cost so much, another badgering the French in Morocco so much, another annoying the Spaniards so much: and how the cheapest holiday of all was a holiday on foot in Normandy, which lies but one poor Bradbury from the coasts of these islands. This little diagram he folded and took away – little knowing that a still cheaper holiday could be taken in the Ardennes.

Poverty, I think, however, has a much nobler effect by the introduction of irony, which I take to be the salt in the feast of intelligence. I have, indeed, known rich men to possess irony, but only by importation, just as a man may possess a picture which he has bought. Poor men possess irony as native to themselves, so that it is like a picture which a man paints for his own pleasure and puts up on his own walls. All the poor of London have irony, and, indeed, poor men all over the world have irony; even poor gentlemen, after the age of 50, discover veins of irony and are the better for them, as a man is better for salt in his cooking. Remark that irony kills stupid satire, and that to have an agent within one that kills stupid satire is to possess an antiseptic against the suppurative reactions of the soul.

Poverty, again, makes men appreciate reality. You may tell me that this is of no advantage. It is of no direct advantage, but I am sure it is of advantage in the long run, for if you ignore reality you will come sooner or later against it like a ship against a rock in a fog, and you will suffer as the ship will suffer.

If you say to the rich man that some colleague of his has genius, he may admit it in a lazy but sincere fashion. A poor man knows better; he may admit it with his lips, but he is not so foolish as to accept it.

Lastly of poverty I think this, that it prepares one very carefully for the grave. I heard it said once by a beggar in a passion that the rich took nothing with them down to death. In the literal acceptation of the text he was wrong, for the rich take down with them to death flattery, folly, illusion, pride and a good many other lesser garments which have grown into their skins, and the tearing off of which at the great stripping must hurt a good deal. But I know what this mendicant meant – he meant that they take nothing with them down to the grave in the way of motor-cars, hot water, clean changes of clothes and various intolerably boring games. The rich go down to death stripped of external things not grown into their skins; the poor go down to death stripped of everything. Therefore in Charon’s boat they get forward, and are first upon the further shore. And this, I suppose, is some sort of advantage.

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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