By Hilaire Belloc
CHAPTER I ENTITLED “AL-RAFSAT”, OR “THE KICK”
In the days of Abd-er-Rahman, who was among the wisest and most glorious of the Commanders of the Faithful, there resided in the City of Bagdad an elderly merchant of such enormous wealth that his lightest expressions of opinion caused the markets of the Euphrates to fluctuate in the most alarming manner.
This merchant, whose name was Mahmoud, had a brother in the middle ranks of Society, a surgeon by profession, and by name El-Hakim. To this brother he had frequently expressed a fixed determination to leave him no wealth of any kind. “It is my opinion,” he would say, “that a man’s first duty is to his own children, and though I have no children myself, I must observe the general rule.” He was fond of dilating upon this subject whenever he came across his relative, and would discover from time to time new and still better reasons for the resolution he had arrived at. His brother received with great courtesy the prospect held out to him by the wealthy merchant; but one day, finding tedious the hundredth repetition of that person’s pious but somewhat wearisome resolve, said to him:
“Mahmoud, though it would be a mean and even an impious thing to expect an inheritance from you to any of my seven sons, yet perhaps you will allow these boys to receive from your lips some hint as to the manner in which you have accumulated that great wealth which you now so deservedly enjoy.”
“By all means,” said Mahmoud, who was ever ready to describe his own talents and success. “Send the little fellows round to me to-morrow about the hour the public executions take place before the Palace, for by that time I shall have breakfasted, and shall be ready to receive them.”
The Surgeon, with profuse thanks, left his brother and conveyed the good news to the seven lads, who stood in order before him with the respect for parents customary in the Orient, each placed according to his size and running in gradation from eight to sixteen years of age.
Upon the morrow, therefore, the Surgeon’s seven sons, seated gravely upon crossed legs, formed a semi-circle at the feet of their revered relative, who, when he had watched them humorously and in silence for some moments, puffing at his great pipe, opened his lips and spoke as follows:
“Your father has wondered, my dear nephews, in what way the fortune I enjoy has been acquired; for in his own honourable but far from lucrative walk of life, sums which are to me but daily trifles appear like the ransoms of kings. To you, his numerous family, it seems of especial advantage that the road to riches should be discovered. Now I will confess to you, my dear lads, that I am quite ignorant of any rule or plan whereby the perishable goods of this world may be rapidly accumulated in the hands of the Faithful. Nay, did any such rule exist, I am persuaded that by this time the knowledge of it would be so widely diffused as to embrace the whole human race. In which case,” he added, puffing meditatively at his pipe, “all would cancel out and no result would be achieved; since a great fortune, as I need not inform young people of your sagacity, is hardly to be acquired save at the expense of others.
“But though I cannot give you those rules for which your father was seeking when he sent you hither, I can detail you the steps by which my present affluence was achieved; and each of you, according to his intelligence, will appreciate what sort of accidents may make for the increase of fortune. When you are possessed of this knowledge it will serve you through life for recreation and amusement, though I very much doubt its making you any richer. For it is not the method nor even the opportunity of intelligent acquisition which lead to great riches, but two other things combined: one, the unceasing appetite to snatch and hold from all and at every season; the other, that profound mystery, the Mercy of God.
“For Allah, in his inscrutable choice, frowns on some and smiles on others. The first he condemns to contempt, anxiety, duns, bills, Courts of law, sudden changes of residence and even dungeons; the second he gratifies with luxurious vehicles, delicious sherbet and enormous houses, such as mine. His will be done.
“A dear friend of mine, one Mashé, was a receiver of stolen goods in Bosra, until God took him, now twenty years ago. He left two sons of equal intelligence and rapacity. The one, after numerous degradations, died of starvation in Armenia; the other, of no greater skill, is to-day governor of all Algeirah and rings the changes at will upon the public purse. Mektub.”
For a moment the ancient Captain of Industry paused with bent head in solemn meditation upon the designs of Heaven, then raising his features protested that he had too long delayed the story of his life, with which he would at once proceed.
“The Mercy of Allah (1922) sardonically recounts the exploits of Mahmoud, a sharp Baghdad merchant turned moneylender who has grasped and clawed his way to the top. Ostensibly a critique of Islamic culture set in some indeterminate period in the past, the book is really an attack on what the author considered to be the unbridled greed of the modern West. As a work of socio-economic satire, it forms a nice complement to Belloc’s Distributist writings like The Servile State (1912). A. N. Wilson calls it “the most brilliant of his fantasies.””
The “whole book” at Gutenberg.org will have to wait, but I disagree with Belloc if the highlighted remark reflects his personal opinion. I submit that wealth accumulation is not, perforce, a zero sum proposition, and indeed, many ordinary people (not me) have been made filthy rich as an indirect and even unintended result of the acquisition of wealth by complete strangers. If only I had plunked down a mere $1000 for Apple stock 20 years ago, I could retire to Moratinos, Spain today.
I know hardly anything about Distributism, but it strikes me as an unattainably halcyonic vision of what life was like in the Middle Ages. But this Belloc piece reminds me of a self-help book I was much influenced by 32 years ago, also about the teachings of a pseudo-Muslim (but actually an entirely Christian) sage. I don’t now remember much about The Greatest Salesman In the World by the American inspirational writer Og Mandino, except for his exhortation to always give away 50% of your income to the poor, a teaching I’ve never followed, sad to say.
I know hardly anything about Distributism, but it strikes me as an unattainably halcyonic vision of what life was like in the Middle Ages.
No! A common misconception!
TF: I’m not qualified to critique the Distributist idea, but looking at the first of the two reviews of the book you recommend, the words used to approvingly describe it are:
“left-wing”, “left-wing”, “democratic socialist circles”, “Proudhon”, “social-democratic libertarians”, “future Labour Party manifestos”…
Is this a book you think a person with a long reading wish list should give priority?
Is this a book you think a person with a long reading wish list should give priority?
Absolutely, but I’d give the Amazon reviews a miss. Although the best place to start is probably An Outline of Sanity by GKC
“Proudhon” —that’s the daftest of all the words you found! He’s a darn anarchist!
Proudhon? Yes, I knew he was an anarchist, which made me wonder why you would recommend a book that one reviewer (of two) thinks somehow exemplifies his teachings.
And why, pray, should I give Amazon book reviews a miss, but not you 😉
The book itself provides a thorough treatment of Distributist thinking from the time of Rerum Novarum to the present day. On the plus side it’s the best semi-up to date account I know of. — On the downside the Australian author (now retired) was on the right of the Federal ALP — not especially ‘left’ at all. But I think that might explain the slant of the reviews on Amazon,
Distributism isn’t socialism or medievalism, or ‘left wing’. — I didn’t have much time to go into it, so I posted the link (I own the book) — I should have checked some of those reviews, I think they just add to the misconception!
Rest assured, TF, I respect your opinion more than that of some unknown reviewer on Amazon.com; but again prefacing what follows by admitting my general benightedness of Distributist ideas, I’m skeptical about most variants of communalism, particularly those which have no recorded modern history of success. I’ve an excellent (and negative) article about communalism, which I’ve been searching for tonight through my binders to share with you, but can’t locate it yet. I have found this one and this one – 12 year old SSPX pieces that might be up your alley, agreeing as I think they do with your philosophy, although it’s been that many years since I actually read them. Cheers.
…oops (or Oops)… sorry, Tom Fisher, for the missing link at 05:28. Here be Part 1 of Capitalism and Catholic Economics according to the SSPX…
…which I don’t mean pejoratively, but which I don’t completely agree with.
“Behind every great fortune is a great crime,”
Said Balzac. But like JH, I wonder if Bill Gates, or Warren Buffet, are great criminals?
If JH had plonked down $10 for Apple stock 20 years ago, he could buy Moratinos today.
You’re saying I could actually buy Moratinos today for a $10 investment in Apple 20 years ago? Would that include Rebecca Scott – er, Rebekah Scott 😉 ?
The inhabitants are a separate negotiation. And will be sold by the kilo. Though you could probably “pick up” Toad for a very modest consideration.
…is your real name actually Patrick? Cool. I was born on his Saint’s day.
..though I feel obliged to caution you, he is well past his “sell by” date.
No problem. I’m not interested in you.
I’m inclined to commiserate on that. A date which has sadly become the cynosure, if not the paradigm, of appalling behaviour in certain quarters of the planet which will be nameless.
The USA in fact.
Of Canada, I cannot speak, and thus will remain silent..
…as shall I henceforth. God bless your good wife. And you too.
Thanks for this JH! I’ll take a look forthwith
Sorry again, Tom. I see now that the links I gave are abbreviated teasers. The SSPX never used to be so commercial. I’ve got the full hard copy articles here in Ontario for you to read the next time you visit Niagara Falls, which is probably the only landmark hereabouts you’ve heard of.