Restraint

I have touched on this topic from time to time but have not, until now, addressed it in detail. I am speaking about the astonishing lack of restraint that is not only allowed in our culture, but actually applauded. One sees it especially in sports where one team member will call out his teammate and trash him in public while the talking heads on television applaud him for his “emotional honesty.” There was a time, not long ago, when Johnny Unitas would throw a touchdown pass to Raymond Berry who would smile, toss the ball to the referee and trot back to the bench. Rod Laver would win one of his “Grand Slam” tournaments, smile, jog to the net and shake hands with his opponent. But no more. This sort of behavior is not regarded as exhibiting “emotional honesty” and would never make Sports Center.

We now see the football players make a touchdown and then beat their chests like great apes drawing attention to themselves and getting huge applause from the crowds. The tendency has even infiltrated the more tranquil sports (if you will) like tennis and golf where the victors throw themselves down on the court after the final point or pound their chests after the last putt drops in like….well, like a great ape. The act itself is one thing, but the fact that the cameras follow those types and avoid the more sedate players who simply behave themselves is worth a moment’s reflection. Why do we think it worthy of praise if a man or a woman wallows in self-applause, insults another person, or “lets it all hang out”? The less restraint the better, we are led to believe. And it’s not just in sports. Many admire our sitting president for these very qualities, which can by no stretch of the imagination be regarded as estimable.

I think back to the Greeks who prized self-control. Homer, for example, describes Achilles’ actions after the death of his close friend Patroclus — which was every bit the sort of thing we see on television every day: dragging Hector’s corpse around the walls of Troy. He then learns restraint in granting Hector’s father permission to take Hector back to Troy and provide him with the hero’s burial he justly deserves. And that seems to be the lesson. Indeed, the Greek plays, especially, are full of examples of heroes who cross the line and behave in an unrestrained manner and then have to pay the price. This is the heart and soul of tragedy. And Plutarch’s Lives were written about true heroes who exemplified self-control in order to provide examples to the young people who read them years later.

The Victorian age followed the Greeks in their praise of self-restraint, and that age has generally been dismissed as repleat with human suffering and emotional hang-ups that required Freud to untangle. Focus tends to be on the manifold sins of the age in which the people were all “uptight” by today’s standards and tended to look the other way as the poor were left to fend for themselves. But a peek behind the curtain of the Victorian ethos reveals a people who prized self-restraint every bit as much as did the Greeks. George Eliot is a case in point. Her novels are filled with heroes and heroines who know the value of self-restraint, who seek always to control their emotions, do their duty, and respect others. There is no better example than the remarkable woman Maggie Tulliver in Eliot’s The Mill On The Floss who falls deeply in love with Stephen Guest who is promised to another. The man, as it happens, also loves Maggie and seeks to “compromise her” as the Victorians would have it.

In a lengthy passage that goes on for pages, the would-be seducer manages to divert Maggie’s attention while they are drifting down the river, passing the landing spot they had initially targeted. This means they will have to spend the night together after they land down-stream. This was no accident as Stephen repeatedly attempts to win Maggie over and she fights against his will and her own deepest desires. She sums up the struggle in the following passage:

“I am quite sure that [this] is wrong. I have tried to think of it again and again; but I see, if we judged in [your] way that it would be a warrant for all treachery and cruelty – we should justify breaking the most sacred ties that can ever be framed on earth. If the past does not bind us, where can duty lie? We should have no law but the inclination of the moment. . . Faithfulness and constancy mean something else besides doing what is easiest and pleasantest to ourselves. They mean renouncing whatever is opposed to the reliance others have in us – whatever would cause misery to those whom the course of our lives has made dependent on us.”

Bear in mind that in the eyes of her society Maggie has already compromised herself. She is a sinful woman who has spent the day — and the night ahead as it happens — with a man betrothed to her best friend. But regardless of the consequences Maggie sees her duty to others clearly and provides us with an excellent example of the self-restraint of which I write. It is truly admirable — through it would almost certainly be dismissed these days as an example of a woman who needs to “give it a rest” and be more honest with her feelings.

The fact is, of course, she is totally honest with her feelings. She knows exactly how she feels and her feelings are every bit as strong as Stephen’s. But she resists “the inclination of the moment.” She shows the sort of self-restraint that the Greeks admired. Eliot knew about the struggles between desire and duty and always sought to do the right thing. As a result she was greatly admired while today, I wager, she would be dismissed out of hand as a wooly headed fool.

Thus things do change. And not always for the better.

 

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Is This It?

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.

Genius

Why do we shy away from terms such as “genius,” and “talent”? Ours is an egalitarian age, to be sure, and we insist that all be treated equally, but the notion that all are the same is not a claim — moral or otherwise — that can be substantiated. People are not all the same. Some are taller than others, some are faster than others, some are simply better than others — as we can plainly see today. And there are persons with genuine talents that others lack. And there are some, a few, who can lay claim to the title of “genius.”

Consider the fact that Mozart died when he was 35 years of age. By that time he has composed 600 musical works, starting at age 5. He performed before royalty at a very early age and was the darling of his times. But we might also note Honoré de Balzac, the novelist, who wrote 90 short stories, novellas, and novels, including the “Human Comedy,” a host of novels focusing on human foibles and, among other things, drawing attention to the dangers of wealth in the lives of ordinary people. And we must not forget Anthony Trollope who worked full-time for the Post Office in England and still managed to write 47 novels, dozens of short stories, and a few books on travel. But quantity proves nothing without quality: the works of the men noted above were exceptional by any standards. And some, like Cervantes, George Eliot, or Jane Austen, created fewer works but must also be allowed the title of “genius.” Goethe spent his life writing Faust, regarded as one of the most remarkable works of art ever created by man. The same is true of Edward Gibbon who wrote The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

In any event,  we need not resort to data to show that some are more prolific than others, some have been touched by the Muse again and again, to argue that some people are simply different from others. Just as there are master criminals and politicians who lie at a record pace, there are also extraordinary human beings, of both sexes, who can legitimately be called “genius.” Such people simply stand out and ought to be regarded as the best of us. We revere the exceptional athletes and even call some of them (too many of them?) GOAT — the Greatest of All Time. We do not hesitate to allow that certain human beings are better athletes, but we refuse to acknowledge that some humans are also better piano players, better composers, better novelists, better human beings — in the case of those among us who can legitimately be regarded as saints (such as Mother Teresa and Albert Schweitzer).

It is one thing to insist that all humans ought to be treated alike, that fairness is defined by our demand that no one be discriminated against. But we must, at the same time, allow that discrimination in itself is not a bad thing. It allows us to separate the truly great works or art, for example, from the pretenders. It allows us to determine that certain works of music are simply better than others, more complex and more rewarding to the attentive listener. And it allows us to identify the few truly outstanding human beings who stand out among the rest of us.

Moral equality is a good thing. But the notion that discrimination is a bad thing and that all humans are alike in all important respects is simply wrong-headed. And, more to the point, it disguises from us the fact that there are men and women out there who can legitimately lay claim to the title “genius,” folks who set the bar very high for the rest of us, but who make us aware that some of us have achieved in their lifetime — sometimes a very short lifetime — more than the rest of us. These are the people we should hold up as examples of what humans can be, not those who are in the news almost daily working hard to make their way into the Guinness Book of Records or score the most points before their ACL is torn and they must retire from sports.

I recently read a rather self-involved editorial by the skier Lindsey Vonn recounting her many victories on the slopes — along with her many injuries and astonishing recoveries. She is a remarkable athlete and worthy of admiration. But she pales when compared with Mozart, Austen, Balzac, or Trollope who can in all fairness be regarded as geniuses. It is a word that applies to only a few. But we need to remind ourselves who they are and what remarkable things they accomplished in their day.

Because we are not all alike. Some are simply more remarkable than others — both for what they have accomplished and for what they have not.

George Eliot: A Tribute

I have been a reader since I was in short pants, as they say. It began with “Boy’s Life” and books about young detectives who solved impossible cases. It is a passion, I admit, perhaps even an addiction. But it has opened a world to me that would have otherwise have remained closed.

In any event, I do believe that George Eliot is the best writer of the many I have read and she is almost certainly one of he wisest of writers who ever set pen to paper (remember when writing was about pens and paper?). And the list of wise writers and thinkers is long and includes the many philosophers I have read and such great novelists as Joseph Conrad, Wallace Stegner, R.K. Narayan, Yasunari Kawabata, and Edith Wharton. Eliot is the best of the lot.

I am currently re-reading (for the third or fourth time) Felix Holt: The Radical which is about the struggles in England at the end of the nineteenth century with the issue of suffrage: should all people be granted the vote or only the few who are presumed to know? Eliot suggests that the answer lies in the hope that all can know, that knowledge can be expanded along with the vote. But she knows full well that Democracy is predicated on an educated electorate. She always gets her teeth deep into an issue and masticates it until it is easily digested. Those who know her only from Silas Marner do not know the writer at all. That is her most popular novel, but it is also her lightest. Her other novels deal with serious topics and none is more serious than the topic addressed in Felix Holt. And timely, given deep questions about whether or not our electorate is intelligent and well-educated enough to vote for the best person — given recent elections.

Felix Holt is a well-educated, liberal thinker who has chosen to throw in his lot with those who are less fortunate than himself. He works at a menial job and rubs elbows with those who are disenfranchised and worries with them about how their country is to be run. In a lengthy speech he delivers to his “fellow workmen,” Felix reveals the author’s wisdom in his own pithy observations about things as they are and things as they ought to be. To take just a few examples:

“. . .a society, a nation is held together . . . by the dependence of men on each other and the sense they have of common interest in preventing injury.”

“. . .any large body of men is likely to have more of stupidity, narrowness , and greed than of farsightedness and generosity, [thus] it is plain that the number who resist unfairness and injury are in danger of becoming injurious in their turn. . . . the highest interest of mankind must at last be a common and not a divided interest. . .”

“No men will get any sort of power without being in danger of wanting more than their right share.”

“Now changes can only be good in proportion as they put knowledge in the place of ignorance and fellow-feeling in place of selfishness. . . . . Our getting the franchise will greatly hasten that good end in proportion only as every one of us has the knowledge, the foresight, the conscience, that will make him well-judging and scrupulous in his use of it.”

“Those precious benefits form a chief part of what I might call the common estate of society: a wealth over and above buildings, machinery, produce, shipping, and so on, though closely connected with these; a wealth of a more delicate kind, that we may more unconsciously bring into danger, doing harm and not knowing that we do it. I mean that treasure of knowledge, science, poetry, refinement of thought, feeling, and manners, great memories and the interpretation of great records, which is carried on from the minds of one generation to the minds of another. . . . let us watch carefully lest we do anything to lessen this treasure which is held in the minds of men, while we exert ourselves first of all, and to the very utmost, that we and our children may share in all its benefits; exert ourselves to the utmost to break the yoke of ignorance.”

“To discern between the evils that energy can remove and the evils that patience must bear, makes the difference between manliness and childishness, between good sense and folly”

At a time when we struggle with the problems generated by foolish politicians and blind leaders who lead a population of diffident followers busily going about seeking pleasure while finding reasons why they should not bother to become involved in the running of a democracy that demands their attention and their best energy, a time when education has fallen to the ground and is in danger of being trampled upon and reduced to training young minds to become abject followers, the words of a wise woman writing over a century ago have the ring of truth — a truth that has also been lost in the forest of bloat and rhetoric flowing from the mouths of self-interested politicians who only care about being reelected. We can do no better than to stop and think about those things that George Eliot thought about and weigh carefully what she had to tell us.

If the experiment in universal suffrage can ever succeed, it demands an educated electorate — at least one intelligent enough to separate the worthy from the unworthy.

Who Should Vote?

As the election nears — you can smell it a mile away! — I thought it appropriate to repost a piece I wrote two years ago that deals with the question of whether or not everyone should “get out and vote.” The push will soon be on, and there are solid reasons this year, especially, to get folks off their butts and into the voting booths (where, we will hope, all will be Kosher). To be sure, the vote this November may determine whether or not this Republic is capable of being saved! But there remains the question about the qualifications that ought to be demanded of those who determine the folks that are given the reins of power in this country. And that question is worth pondering.

The British fought with the issue of suffrage for much of the nineteenth century. How many people should be allowed to vote? It seems such a simple question, but it has numerous ramifications, twists, and convolutions. At the outset, when this nation was first founded, we followed the British example: men with property can vote, but no one else. The idea was that men with property had a vested interest in what their government did or didn’t do. It seemed to make sense. But like the English, we also fought with the issue of extending the suffrage.

One of the best sources to read about this issue, oddly enough, is novel by George Eliot: Felix Holt The Radical. It focuses close attention on the issue of extending the vote in Great Britain to many who were disenfranchised at the time. But the key issue, which the hero brings into sharp focus, is why the vote should be extended to the illiterate and unpropertied (the question of extending the vote to women was shelved until later!). Leaving aside the issue of ownership of property, the question is central to any meaningful discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of democracy. After all, why should those who cannot read and write, who cannot possibly become well informed about the issues of the day, be placed in a position to vote on those who make laws? In Eliot’s novel, Holt takes the “radical”position that all male citizens would be allowed to vote, since everyone has a vested interest in the laws his government passes, whereas his conservative opponents argue the contrary position: only those with the demonstrated ability to understand the issues should be allowed to vote on those who will decide the fate of the nation. As Eliot has one of her Tory clergymen say in the novel:

“There’s no end to the mischief done by these busy prating men. They make the ignorant multitude the judges of the largest questions, both political and religious, till we shall soon have no institution left that is not on a level with the comprehension of a huckster or a drayman. There can be nothing more retrograde — losing all the results of civilization, all the lessons of Providence — letting the windlass run down after men have been turning at it painfully for generations. If the instructed are not to judge for the uninstructed, why, let us set Dick Stubbs to make the almanacs and have a President of the Royal Society elected by universal suffrage.”

In this country we insist upon testing those from other countries who wish to become citizens, but we allow that any child born in the United States can vote upon coming of age, regardless of any other qualifications. In days long gone by, young people growing up in this country took a civics class as a normal part of their high school curriculum in which they learned about the machinations of the government — or at least how many Senators each state has. But no more. In fact, many high schools have gone away from any requirements whatever and allow the students to select most if not all of the courses they want for the four years they are within their hallowed halls. Civics is no longer taught and as result, the young not only do not know how to read and write, they know nothing whatever about the history of their own country or how the government works — the government that they will help select when coming of age.

The situation is complex, but the issues it raises are worth pondering at a time when the democratic system we are all so fond of is beginning to show signs of breaking down. It becomes more and more apparent each day that large numbers of disaffected people simply don’t want to have anything to do with politics (for  good reasons, in many cases) and that by default the wealthy who have hidden agendas are placed in a position to “call the shots.” This hardly amounts to a democratic system; as I have noted in past comments, it is more like an oligarchy, government of the wealthy.

The problem of suffrage, therefore, gives birth to the interesting question whether everyone should vote and if so what qualification they should have, if any. As things now stand, in the interest of –what? — equality, we allow anyone at all to vote as long as they were born in this country and are of age or have passed their citizen’s test. That, in itself, is a problem. But added to it is the thought that despite the fact that it is so easy to vote (too easy?), more and more choose not to do so or vote based on the promises, soon to be broken, of some clown who has no qualifications for office at all.

Motion Sickness

Have you ever thought about how much is going on around us all the time — filling our eyes and ears? There is constant motion and noise. It’s so much a part of our world we scarcely notice it, though in our cities it never stops: the air planes taking off and landing, the police and ambulance sirens, the cars and trucks on the Interstates, and the hub-bub of constant people noise. It never stops. Even in rural areas there are the barking dogs, the trains and motorcycles, loud pickups and kids’ cars with their modified mufflers, and the occasional crop duster roaring in the distance. Noise.

And if you watch TV for a while without paying attention to what is on you will notice that it now consists of thousands of quick shots from various angles — a frantic download of pictures in constant agitation. It jars the nerves and rattles the brain. It can’t be good, though I am not aware of any studies to help us understand what this constant noise and movement does to our nervous system.

I am not talking about the actual events portrayed on the television or reported in our papers and on the radio. That is enough to chill the bones — especially these days with “false news” and lie after lie trying to scare the bejesus out of us. But I speak about the constant agitation. As I say, it can’t be good.

Lionel Trilling wrote an essay in 1976 about a class he was putting together at Columbia University on the novels of Jane Austen. He wanted the class to be small, about 20 students, but over a hundred signed up! He culled the group and managed to reduce the number to 40, but he was astonished that so many students would want to read an author who wrote novels so long ago. He thought about it and concluded it was because in Austen’s day “there were more trees than people.” This was a cute way to get across the point that those young people were tired of all the noise and agitation (even in 1976!) and wanted to retreat to a calmer and quieter world, the world of Jane Austen. Austen lived between 1775 and 1817. She wrote most of her novels in the early part of the nineteenth century.

A generation later George Eliot (who was born two years after Austen’s death and was the wisest of women) could already express her exasperation over the noise and agitation that was growing around her. Between Austen and Elliot the Industrial Revolution had burst forth in all its glory, noise, and pollution — visual, nasal, and aural! One of my favorite passages in Eliot’s novels is the following in which she expresses her own feelings about the coming of the “machine in the garden,” as it has been called. She pined for a time when

“reforming intellect takes a nap, while imagination does a little Toryism by the sly, reveling in regret that dear, old, brown, crumbling, picturesque inefficiency is everywhere giving place to spick-and-span new-painted, new-varnished efficiency, which will yield endless diagrams, plans, elevations, and sections, but alas! no picture.”

There is no way we can turn back the clock. And as I have noted in previous posts, I would not want to do so (for the most part). But there was a time when people took things slowly and had time to reflect and enjoy the world around them. Things took time; that was just a fact of life. As things stand at present we are always in a hurry and are surrounded by noise pollution and constant visual agitation, as noted. Ours is a hectic world and one in which we cannot find time to simply relax and enjoy the beauty of the world around us. For the most part, the world won’t let us: it obtrudes. But even when it does let us escape, when we retreat to a quiet nook away from the noise and agitation, we take our electronic toys with us in order to listen to our tunes and to make sure we don’t miss out on anything important — like the latest photo on our phones of our friend’s evening meal or the cute trick by her pet poodle. Important stuff.

Eliot was right. Things happen too fast and furiously and it is not good for the soul. We need to “take a nap” every now and again, get away from it all — and I mean ALL — and think about the many good and beautiful things that surround us. And forget the noise and agitation and especially forget the folks that seem to be running the show these days who simply add to the noise and agitation without making our world even a little bit better.

Dollars and Sense

I am borrowing this title from my senior thesis in college. I have been fascinated since that time (back in the Dark Ages) by the direct relationship between the accumulation of great wealth and the weakening of moral precepts. We are at present witness to the very fact to which I allude in the form of a very wealthy president who has (shall we say?) his own unique take on morality. But this is merely an isolated example and hardly makes my case.

In the pages of a novel by George Eliot in Victorian England around the time of our Civil War, the author pined for a time before the coming of the railroad when:

“reforming intellect takes a nap, while imagination does a little Toryism by the sly, reveling in regret that dear, old, brown, crumbling, picturesque inefficiency is everywhere giving place to spick-and-span new-painted, new-varnished efficiency, which will yield endless diagrams, plans, elevations, and sections, but alas! no picture.”

Perhaps reflecting this same sentiment in an introduction to an edition of  Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn he wrote in 1950, Lionel Trilling focused on the fact that Twain noted that the Civil War in this country marked the sudden transition from a mere desire for money to a fixation with it, the growth of greed in this country on a grand scale and the loss of something of major importance, something very much like what George Eliot regretted losing. He also drew on such prominent thinkers as Twain, Henry Adams, Walt Whitman, and William Dean Howells when he noted that

“. . .something had gone out of American life after the war, some simplicity, some innocence, some peace. None of them was under any illusion about the amount of ordinary human wickedness that existed in the old days, and Mark Twain certainly was not. The difference was in the public attitude, in the things that were now accepted and made respectable in the national ideal. It was, they all felt, connected with new emotions about money. As Mark Twain said, where formerly ‘the people had desired money,’ now they ‘fell down and worship it.’ The new Gospel was, ‘Get money. Get is quickly. Get it in abundance. Get it in prodigious abundance. Get it honestly if you can, dishonestly if you must.'”

Now, to be sure, one could go back to John Calvin for the source of the Protestant “work ethic” and the birth of the notion (which has become commonplace among the spiritually certain) that wealth is a sign of God’s love. But, in this country at least, in the early years there was a healthy suspicion about wealth and a concern that too much was not a good thing.  Indeed, a preliminary draft of Pennsylvania’s Declaration of Rights included an article that stated:

“. . .an enormous Proportion of Property vested in a few individuals is dangerous to the Rights and destructive of the Common Happiness of Mankind.”

This, perhaps, was a result of the Puritanical view that the love of money is the root of all evil. In any event, nearly all of the colonies has proscriptions, even laws, against the accumulation of too much wealth — laws against such things as primogeniture, for example. After all, that way lies aristocracy and the separation of people into classes. It was frowned upon. It was undemocratic.  It was regarded as leading the country in the wrong direction — even by such enlightened thinkers as Thomas Jefferson.

The Civil War marked the radical changing point because, like all wars, there were many technological advances — especially in armament but also in such things as steam engines and the sudden “need” for thousands of miles of railroad tracks and new and faster engines to haul more goods and people to places they wanted to go. And the war made many people, especially in the North, very wealthy. In a word, the Civil War marked the true dawning of industrial capitalism in this country and soon we saw the birth of the Horatio Alger myth that insisted anyone could become fabulously wealthy overnight. The notion that wealth was a sign of God’s favor was now a certainty. And with this certainty much of the simplicity that Trilling and Eliot talk about disappeared and, along with it, the notion that there was moral high ground that was sacred, certainly more important than building miles of railroad tracks and making more money than one can spend in two lifetimes.

To be sure, it is difficult to make a case for the causal relationship between two such diverse factors as great wealth and the decline of morality. But there does seem to be a conjunction between the two. How often are we struck by the generosity and charity shown by the very poor who have nothing and the obsession with money that seems to consume the very rich who never seem to have enough? I ask this as a question, but it is largely rhetorical because the relationship I speak about  is evident. And it may help to explain modern man’s “search for a soul” as Jung would have it, and our uncertainty about what truly matters and what is of considerably less importance.

Me and It

I have proposed a time or two that we ponder the profound difference between the classical view of the place of citizens in the political state and the modern, and postmodern view of that relationship. From the responses I have read, it appears that many have a problem ridding themselves of the more modern view of the primacy of rights over responsibilities and taking seriously the ancient notion that without the political state humans could not possibly ever achieve their human potential. This is the key notion; we find it in both Aristotle and Plato: the state is prior to the individual because without political states humans could never learn what it means to become fully human. I ask only that we consider the ramifications of this altered view in order to understand, not to take a position.

Beginning in about the seventeenth century the classical view started to change radically as thinkers became more and more intrigued by the notion that the individual was all-important and rights have precedence over responsibilities. Borrowing the notion of the “social contract” from Thomas Hobbes, John Locke in his Second Treatise on Civil Government insisted that this contract implies that if the state reneges on its obligations to the individual the latter no longer has any responsibilities toward the state: he or she can ignore the contract, because the state has broken its word. This thinking formed the backbone of the Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson who was fully aware that he was stealing a page from John Locke whom he greatly admired. In any event, the tables had turned, as it were, and the individual and his or her rights took center stage. Though there was still considerable talk about the “common good” and “civic virtue,” the political state had become an artifact; it was no longer regarded as organic, as essential to human life.

Today the view of the political state as an artifact is predominant as very few take seriously the notion that without the protections and possibilities offered by political states individuals could never become fully human. That notion seems an anachronism, a dated notion that simply will no longer fly. This is especially so in the case of those who insist upon recognition of the rights of specific groups of individuals, such as women or African-Americans.

I drew the ire of some folks, a few of whom I admire immensely, when I quoted George Eliot’s comment about the place of women in society. I repeat that comment again knowing that it will disturb the quiet waters of civil discourse (!) and I run the risk of being tarred and feathered. How on earth, some would ask, could a brilliant woman such as George Eliot, surely one of the very brightest people who has ever lived, say such a thing as the following?

“While the zoological evolution has given women the worse share in existence, moral evolution has endowed them with an art which does not amend nature. That art is love. It is the function of love in the largest sense to mitigate the harshness of all frailties. And in the thorough recognition of that worse share, I think there is a basis for a sublimer resignation in woman and a more regenerate tenderness in man.”

This was written at the time when John Stuart Mill was attempting to get support for woman’s rights in England, insisting that women be included among those who could vote to determine who would lead the polity. Eliot disagreed with Mill as did several other prominent women, such as  Charlotte Bronte, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Florence Nightingale. In any event, Eliot’s view was not considered heresy at the time and was, in fact, little more than a recollection of the classical view that without the political state the human could not become fully human and that in each state each citizen has a role to play. As far as the political state is concerned, women play a role in society that no one else can play and the preservation of not only the state itself but, indeed, civilization, rests upon citizens playing the roles they are best suited to play.

Why would anyone hold such a view, one may well ask? The answer hinges on the notion that is so foreign to all of us today, the notion, again, that political bodies exist in order to make it possible for humans to live together amicably and to become fully human, the original meaning of “civilization.” If you start from the premiss that political bodies make possible such things as law, order, and education which are necessary conditions for the humanization of citizens, then it follows that the state is clearly prior to the individual; responsibilities are primary, rights are secondary — we have civil rights only if we acknowledge our civic duties. Thus, the claims of individuals cannot take precedence over the claims of the common good. This is where Eliot and others who think like her are coming from.

It is generally regarded these days as beyond debate that folks like George Eliot are all wet; the individual comes first. Women, for example, ought to be accorded the respect they well deserve and not be kept as unpaid slaves in the home raising screaming kids. But if we allow that George Eliot may have a point, we must ask if mothers do not raise their children at least until they are of school age who will? How are those children to become not only active participants in civil society, but fully realized human beings capable of thought as well as passion? And without thoughtful and committed citizens who are capable of responding to their civic duties what happens to civil society and, indeed, civilization itself? If rights are the end-all of political associations, what becomes of the polity itself?

These questions are worth pondering if for no other reason than the fact that we tend to give them no thought whatever.

 

Universal Suffrage?

One of the very thorny problems the English (and later the Americans) worried about in the nineteenth century was the question of suffrage: who should vote? The question centered around the issue of whether only those who know best should vote or whether everyone should vote. The concern expressed was whether those who are “ignorant” — i.e., uneducated or the “luckless poor” in the words of Thomas Carlyle — should be allowed to make political decisions that affect the entire nation.

George Eliot dealt with the question in her novel Felix Holt: Radical and it seemed clear from that novel (if good novels can be said to make any single position “clear”) that Eliot was in favor of extending the vote to all men regardless of whether or not they owned property. Interestingly, however, Eliot, despite her liberal leanings, did not think women should be given the vote. In fact, she said on this topic:

“While the zoological evolution has given women the worse share in existence, moral evolution has endowed them with an art which does not amend nature. That art is love. It is the function of love in the largest sense to mitigate the harshness of all frailties. And in the thorough recognition of that worse share, I think there is a basis for a sublimer resignation in woman and a more regenerate tenderness in man.”

Eliot’s point is worth pondering, because it touches on a point I made in an earlier post when I noted that the dawning of the Enlightenment and the increasing emphasis on human rights moved the individual from the periphery of the political arena to dead center. The new thinking, from that time on, was that the state exists for the sake of the individual and not the other way around. Whereas the state had been regarded as the necessary ingredient in humanizing citizens, educating them and making clear their duties to other citizens — helping to nurture “civic virtue” — this was no longer the case.

Eliot, like Lord Acton before her, is articulating the contrary position: the state, if not all of civilization, would benefit if women, in this case, remained in the home taking care of the children, providing love, and helping them attain maturity and good character. The needs of the whole take precedence over the interests of the parts — — the assumption being that individuals benefit most when they are other-directed (rather than self-involved). Women, in her view (and the view of many, including many women, in her day), provided the moral fiber that held civilization together. If they were to engage in the hurly-burly of business and politics they would be eliminating that moral fiber and civilization would suffer as a result. While it may sound like heresy in our more advanced day and age, it is worth pondering.

But in the main, the question whether or not all men should vote was itself a knotty problem and one that divided such thinkers as John Stuart Mill, on the one hand, and Thomas Carlyle, on the other. Mill was the liberal’s liberal and was active in trying to convince the English that all citizens should vote, regardless of sex or property ownership. Carlyle, on the other hand, despite his deep empathy for the “luckless poor,” fought mightily against the tide that would usher in universal suffrage. He did not think those without adequate education and a vested interest in the decisions of Parliament should be allowed to vote for membership in that august body. Indeed, he took a deeply paternalistic attitude toward the poor and uneducated and was convinced that they needed wise people to govern them and care for them. As he noted in his essay on Chartism:

“The Working Class cannot any longer go on without government; without being actually guided and governed; England cannot subsist in peace till, by some means or other, some guidance and government for them is found.”

Bear in mind that Carlyle was very much aware of what had happened in France during the “reign of terror” and was also aware that the working poor in England were being totally ignored by Parliament; they felt frustrated and were leaning increasingly toward violence. But still, this strikes the modern reader as reactionary nonsense, even though it is also well worth pondering.

In some sense the issue today is, as they say, academic. Universal suffrage has arrived with all its problems — as Americans recently discovered in the election of 2016. But the question worth considering is whether those who are ignorant of politics and have no interest in anything outside of themselves should be allowed to vote — or, indeed, whether they should be allowed to govern!

So the central issue remains: the question of the priority of the individual over the state, rights over responsibilities: whether or not this is a good thing. The radical change in our thinking on this subject has had deep effects on the political landscape and indeed on civilization itself; we have become convinced that the individual is foremost and the state is a mere handmaid that exists to serve the needs and wants of the individual. The ancients, as I have noted in prior posts, would disagree heartily, as would Thomas Carlyle. But the question is whether they are wrong or whether they might have been correct.

Reactionary Nutter?

I have come late in life to Thomas Carlyle to whom I have been referred many times and had yet to meet. I look forward to the adventure — forewarned that he is a Romantic, Tory reactionary who was far too enamored of authority and not nearly progressive enough for folks like his contemporary John Stuart Mill. At the same time, we are told, he was a seminal thinker and generally regarded as one of the most brilliant minds of the nineteenth century — regarded by Charles Dickens as “the man who knows everything.”

Growing up poor himself, Carlyle had a deep and genuine concern for the “luckless poor,” though at the same time he fought vigorously against the notion that all men should be allowed to vote (a fight many in America might join today given recent political events). He felt the mass of men required an education before granted the vote and spoke out in favor of universal education. His main targets during his early years were mechanism, materialism, and utilitarianism: the tendency to reduce all of our experience to quantities that could be measured and weighed. [How much is that painting worth?  I know I like it and they say it’s worth millions. Is this action the right one? Will it lead to greater good for greater numbers of people in the long run?]. Those who are familiar with “analytics” in sports will recognize the tendency today to reduce, say, the management of a baseball team to calculations that predict outcomes — and eliminate anything that smacks of “intuition,” including experienced managers!

In any event, this “impressionistic historian” wrote what many regard as the definitive history of the French Revolution — which he considered the harbinger of things to come. He worried that if the poor were not cared for (hence his authoritarianism) England would suffer the same sort of violence France had recently undergone. He also wrote many seminal works in social criticism, some of them a bit hysterical, warning his contemporaries of the dangers of the coming age of industrialism and mechanism. He waxed poetic when he noted:

“I, for my share, declare the world to be no machine! I say that it does not go by wheel-and-pinion ‘motives,’ self-interests, checks, balances; that there is something other in it than the clank of spinning-jennys, and parliamentary majorities; and, on the whole, that it is not a machine at all! — The old Norse Heathen had a truer notion of God’s world than these poor Machine Skeptics: the old Heathen Norse were sincere men. But for these poor skeptics there was no sincerity, no truth. Half-truth and hear-say was called truth.”

Folks like Anthony Trollope joined him in his concerns about England’s breakneck journey into the unknown future. George Eliot also took him seriously and at times pined for slower times when

“reforming intellect takes a nap, while imagination does a little Toryism by the sly, reveling in regret that dear, old, brown, crumbling, picturesque inefficiency is everywhere giving place to spick-and-span new-painted, new-varnished efficiency, which will yield endless diagrams, plans, elevations, and sections, but alas! no picture.”

This is not to say that Carlyle didn’t realize the tremendous advantages of mechanization and industrialism to the coming age and the blessings of modern science. As he said in Signs of the Times:

“What wonderful accessions have thus been made, and are still making, to the physical power of mankind; how much better fed, clothed, lodged, and, in all outward aspects, accommodated men now are, or might be, by a given quantity of labour, is a grateful reflection which forces itself on every one.”

So what’s the problem? The problem is, as Carlyle saw it, the danger to the human soul, the loss of a sense of mystery and wonder, the “noble and the divine.”

“Not the external and physical alone is now managed by machinery, but the internal and spiritual also. . . . . Men are grown mechanical in head and heart, as well as in hand. They have lost faith in individual endeavour, and in natural force of any kind. Not for internal perfection, but for external combinations and arrangements, for institutions, constitutions, or for Mechanism of one sort or another, do they hope and struggle. Their whole efforts, attachments, opinions turn on mechanisms and are of a mechanical character.”

The question, according to Thomas Carlyle, is who is to be master: the machines or those who operate them? And while the reference to machines may be somewhat dated — the target of the barbs of Cervantes a hundred years or so before Carlyle — the question today might be in reference to the electronic toys that so fascinate and captivate us and threaten to steal our collective soul. Who is to be master? That is the question.

Carlyle was a Calvinist and his pessimism was born of a fixed idea of the inevitability of events and the inability of human beings to determine their own fate. But, at the same time, he fought hard to waken his fellow Englishmen to the dawning of a New Age of machines and calculation, of the tendency to level down and reduce everything to what can be measured and weighed, the loss of “the mysterious springs of Love, and Fear, and Wonder, of Enthusiasm, Poetry, Religion, all of which have a truly vital and infinite character.” His determinism did not lead him to quietism. On the contrary, he grew hoarse warning his contemporaries of the dangers they were about to face and the need to draw back, proceed with caution, and look around them as they walked through a door that might well lead them into utter darkness.

I look forward to reading more of  what this enigmatic man had to say. He may not have known everything, as Dickens insisted. But he was alive to what was happening around him and something of a prophet — and in any event a very wise man.