The Aristocracy

At its founding our nation struggled with the question of whether or not an aristocracy was a good thing. Thomas Jefferson preferred a “natural aristocracy” in which the best and brightest would rise to the top of government and take control of the reins of state. Thus he founded the University Virginia toward that end. It was generally recognized that some sort of aristocracy was a good thing, a large part of the glue that would hold the republic together and give it some coherence. The problem is that the Colonists had a bad taste in their mouths from their recent experience with the English aristocracy, especially the King and his court. How to find a balance? In an attempt to instill into our republic something like the English House of Lords the Continental Congress settled on the notion of Senators elected by the various state legislatures and holding office for six years, rather than the mere two years for the members of the House of Representatives elected by “the people.”

The Senators would not be “to the manor born” as in England, but would be the wealthiest men in the nation — which assumed that the best among us would be those who had great wealth. This was a Calvinist notion, of course, which insisted that wealth was a sign of God’s grace and which gave rise to the “Protestant work ethic” that made capitalism such a successful part of the American enterprise. It totally conflicted with Balzac’s later warning: “behind every great fortune is a crime.”

I have always shared the distrust of the notion of an aristocracy and have been proud of the fact that this nation did not go that route — though I have questioned whether our compromise position really provided the balance the English found in their House of Lords, given the pithy truth buried in Balzac’s comment above. The question is whether or not a republic would benefit from a landed gentry, a  group of powerful men and women who are devoted to the notion of “civic duty” and “virtue” as it came to be known in the Age of Enlightenment. Edward Gibbon, for one, thought that an aristocracy were the “intrepid and vigilant guardians,” against the abuse of power and as such a necessary part of any political body. During the American Civil War many Englishmen found their sympathies to lie with the Southern plantation owners, which the wealthy regarded as the closest thing to an aristocracy to be found in the United States. People like Lord Acton even went so far as to defend slavery and criticize the abolitionists  on political — not moral — grounds. He felt that slavery was necessary to the Southern economy and a major cog in the political machinations of the Southern aristocracy. Many other Englishmen sided with the South at that time simply because that was where the cotton came from that kept thousands of workers employed in the cotton mills of Western England. When Henry Adams went to England with his father during the Civil War he was dumbfounded by the lack of sympathy among the English for the Union cause and their view of Lincoln as a buffoon.

In any event, recent developments in the political scene in America necessitate a reconsideration of the entire question whether or not an aristocracy would have been a good thing in this country. We have elected a vulgar president who has surrounded himself with a host of narrow-minded and vulgar followers and the government is in the process of dismantling many of the checks and balances it has slowly put in place over the years to temper the greed and selfishness of the very wealthy. A House of Lords would never have let this happen. As noted, the Senate in this country is the closest thing we have to an elite group of men and women but they are professional politicians who, with rare exceptions, are busy feathering their nests and making sure that are on the right side of things when all hell breaks loose — which is only a matter of time. Perhaps we would have been a stronger nation, committed to a slower and more cautious pace, if we had an aristocratic group in one of the houses of government who could act as a restraint on the seemingly unfettered pursuit of wealth and power that is so prevalent today. They would certainly exert pressure to control a president who seems to be out of control and a danger to the polity.

“Old money” and a powerful group or men and women who are committed to the Enlightenment notion the common good and embrace a code of ethics that centers around the duties of virtuous citizens who care about their country and about future generations may be a bit of an exaggeration of what was in place in England, say,  during the Victorian Age and in this country, to an extent, during our founding. But it beats the reality we see around us today of small-mined men and women intent on lining their pockets and grabbing whatever they can while the grabbing is good and the hell with tomorrow.

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Gold As God

Have you ever wondered what makes people like the Koch brothers tick? What possesses a person to want to accumulate more and more wealth when they already have enough to buy a small country? Clearly, it’s a mania, but how does one penetrate into the psyche of such a type and figure out what lies deep within? Apparently this question, or one very like it, has occurred to a number of novelists who have examined miserliness. The classic example, of course, is Molière’s Harpagon. And then there’s George Eliot’s Silas Marner who is a bit of a miser but who comes out of the darkness in the end because of the love of a young girl he has allowed into his life. Eliot shows herself to be an old softie here, since Silas isn’t true to the type: misers love only money.

The writer I am most familiar with who seems to have been fascinated by the miserly type is Honoré de Balzac who wrote 92 novels, a number of which deal with the type. Balzac was deeply concerned about the consequences of the growing fixation around him for wealth in all its forms. It becomes a recurring theme in his novels, as it was in the novels of Anthony Trollope, George Eliot, and Charles Dickens. But the miser is a special case. There is the filthy rich Jérome-Niclas Séchard in Balzac’s Lost Illusions who is quite willing to see his only son, his daughter-in-law, and his grandchild starve rather than give them any of his money. But even more sinister is Eugénie Grandet’s awful father who whose first name is mentioned only once in Balzac’s novel by that name. He is simply referred to as “Grandet” who “towered above the other actors in [his town], exploiting enormous profits from [others’] pretense of friendship. . . . There, incarnate in a single man, revealed in the expression of a single face, did there not stand the only god that anyone believes in nowadays — Money, in all its power?” Old Grandet refused to spend a sou unless he absolutely had to. He gave his wife an allowance, a mere pittance every now and again when necessary — keeping her large inheritance for himself. And he insisted that she pay for all household expenses out of her allowance. He allowed his daughter to buy the material to make herself a dress every year for her birthday. They used the cheapest candles, and very few of them. And his rooms rarely saw a warming fire in the fireplace. His house was cold, bleak, and run down and he insisted on making essential repairs himself. He had a locked room in the attic where he went to count his gold and calculate rates of interest on his investments. In Balzac’s mind the miserly type was the result of the sudden awareness of the possibilities (very real in his day) of accumulating huge amounts of wealth. He saw this not as mere avarice, but as a sickness that drove the sick person to madness or even tragedy. As he put it

“Misers hold no belief in a life beyond the grave, the present is all in all to them. This thought throws a pitilessly clear light upon the irreligious times in which we live, for today more than in any previous era money is the force behind the law, politically and socially. Books and institutions, the actions of men and their doctrines, all combine to undermine the belief in a future life upon which the fabric of society has been built for eighteen hundred years. The grave holds few terrors for us now, is little feared as a transition stage upon man’s journey. That future which once awaited us beyond the Requiem has been transported into the present. To reach per fas et nefas [by fair means or foul] an earthly paradise of luxury and vanity and pleasure, to turn one’s heart to stone and mortify the flesh for the sake of fleeting enjoyment of earthly treasure, as saints once suffered martyrdom in the hope of eternal bliss, is now the popular ambition! It is an ambition stamped on our age and seen in everything, even the very laws whose enaction requires the legislator to exercise not his critical faculties, but his power of making money. Not ‘What do you think?’ but ‘What can you pay?’ is the question he is asked now. When this doctrine has been handed down from the bourgeoisie to the people, what will become of our country?”

As is clear from this stinging passage, Balzac connected the miser’s love of money with a spreading disease that has serious ramifications for the whole of an age and a people. It’s not only that the miser’s heart turns to stone — a phenomenon he explores in great detail in Eugénie Grandet — but that his disease is spreading. But what is of singular interest for my present purpose, especially if Balzac is on to something here, is the perception that the miser’s love of gold becomes all-consuming and his feelings die within his breast as passion takes over and those around him become mere instruments for the gathering of more and more wealth. There is no question why? since the miser doesn’t even consider the possibility of spending it. There is simply the question “How?” and the all-consuming passion for more and more of that which he already has in abundance. Balzac makes the following penetrating observation regarding Grandet:

“A miser’s life is a constant exercise of every human faculty in the service of his own personality. He considers only two feelings, vanity and self-interest: but as the achievement of his interest supplies to some extent a concrete and tangible tribute to his vanity, as it is a constant attestation of his real superiority, his vanity and the study of his advantage are two aspects of one passion — egotism. . . . Like all misers he had a constant need to pit his wits against those of other men, to mulct them of their crowns . . . . To get the better of others, was that not exercising power, giving oneself with each new victim the right to despise those weaklings of the earth who are unable to save themselves from being devoured? Oh! has anyone properly understood the meaning of the lamb lying peacefully at God’s feet, that most touching symbol of all the victims of this world, and of their future, the symbol which is suffering and weakness glorified? The miser lets the lamb grow fat, then he pens, kills, cooks, eats, and despises it. Misers thrive on money and contempt.”

I suppose this takes us part way, at least, to an understanding of modern-day misers who can see nothing beyond the process of maximizing profits at whatever cost to satisfy their own bloated egos. They have no better nature to appeal to: an appeal that is based, say, on the very real possibility that they are blind to the deterioration of the world around them, a blindness that will eventually destroy them and a great many others along with them. They care not: their only urge is to amass a larger and larger fortune. It becomes an end in itself. The means simply do not matter.