I recently finished re-reading George Eliot’s Felix Holt: The Radical. It’s an amazing book and once again proves Eliot’s mastery of her craft. She was a wise woman in addition to being an exceptional writer. In this novel she is addressing the complex question of the extension of suffrage in England in the mid-nineteenth century. It was a thorny issue, as it involved the willingness of the wealthy and privileged to allow the poor to vote and help determine political events.
We no longer deal with this particular issue, but we do need to think about the central issue of whether or not everyone should be allowed to determine who holds the reins of power. In this regard, we have recently been made aware that something has been rotting in the political cellar for many years: there are those who feel they have been excluded from the political process and they have risen up and spoken out loud and clear in voting for a man who is clearly unqualified for the job but who, they think, speaks for them. I have tried again and again to fathom how this could have happened and nothing ago posted a guest essay by Jerry Stark who was nice enough to comment at length on my suggestion that the revolution we are living through is an expression of what the French call “ressentiment.” I think the discussion that followed that post helped to clear up some of the problem; but in reading Felix Holt I came across a passage that may help even more.
In the novel the hero is a bright and well-educated man who chooses to become an “ordinary” craftsman, a watchmaker as it happens. He is also dedicated to teaching and helping the poor become eligible to vote. Eliot was clearly influenced by Thomas Carlyle whom she greatly admired and who spent much of his life trying to make room for the poor in the political arena. He, in turn, was motivated by the fear that England would suffer a violent revolution much like the French and there would be chaos. Eliot, however, insisted, in the words of her hero, that the key was not the extension of suffrage to all and sundry, but education for all in the hope that as suffrage was extended the voters would make wise choices.
In the brief passage mentioned above she has another speaker voicing his ressentiment in making an impassioned plea for universal suffrage on the part of the disenfranchised who, he insists, have been held down by those with great wealth and position far too long:
“. . .these are the men who tell us we’re to let politics alone; they’ll govern us better without our knowing anything about it. We must mind our business; we are ignorant; we’ve no time to study great questions. But I tell them this: the greatest question in the world is how to give every man a man’s share in what goes on in life –.”
This brief passage, along with some comments made to the guest post I mentioned above, have helped me to understand a bit better the frustration many in this country have felt for years because they have been displaced by those they regard with suspicion: those with wealth, education, and status who have refused them a place at the political table. They identify this group as “liberals.” In a democracy, no matter how flawed it night be, it is everyone’s right to have a place at the table. But as Eliot insists, and I couldn’t agree more, those who take their place must understand what’s involved. Again, education is the key.
Because we have failed to recognize this important truth we now find ourselves in the midst of a moral revolution, as Jerry Stark suggests, in which black is white, right is wrong, and truth is falsity. We are led by a man blinded by his own self-interest and sense of self-importance coupled with a twisted view of the world because a great many people in this country who do not feel themselves a part of “what goes on in life” have spoken up in angry self-righteous indignation. And, unfortunately, those with legitimate complaints have brought with them the lunatic fringe who wallow in fear and hatred. It is important that the disenfranchised have a voice. But it is also important that they have the capacity to grasp the “great questions” a capacity that is only possible with an education that involves both civics and history — at the very least. Otherwise, as Eliot would have it, we shall be governed by “men [and women] whose mental state is a mere medley of appetites and confused impressions.”
As Felix says in a lengthy speech to a gathered throng at a political rally:
“. . . all the schemes about voting, and districts, and annual Parliaments, and the rest, are engines, and the water or steam — the force that works those engines — must come out of human nature. . . . Whether the engines will do good work or bad depends [on the wisdom of the voters]; and if we have false expectations about men’s characters [whom we vote for], we are very much like the idiot who thinks he can carry milk in a can with no bottom. In my opinion, the notions about what mere voting will do are very much of that sort.”
In a democracy no one should be excluded from the seats of power, but all who take their place must know what they are about.