Freedom: A Paradox

Readers of this blog will be familiar with my persistent attempts to understand the nature of human freedom. It seems such a simple concept one might well wonder why anyone would spend time trying to grasp it. But it a slippery notion and one not easy to understand fully. I dare say this  latest attempt will also leave questions. I do, however, note that the complaints folks have that they are not free because they can’t have what they want strike me as totally wrong-headed. This inspires me to forge ahead!

In  the end, it seems to me that freedom requires restraint, and with that paradox I shall begin. Complete freedom, complete absence of restraint, is not freedom at all. It is chaos. Those who scream loudest among us that they are not free because there things they want but cannot have are really demanding a life without restraints at all. What they want it chaos, but they don’t know it. If they did they should shut up. And the man who claims the top political office in this land would stop telling them that it is an unmitigated good thing and a thing that only he can deliver to them. But, then, that claim got him elected. So there you have it.

The point was driven home to me in reading Thomas Carlyle’s history of the French Revolution in which he noted the demand by the people of France for “freedom.” To be sure they wanted equality as well, but above all else, they wanted freedom. Alexis de Tocqueville, after visiting America in 1860, realized that Americans who already had freedom preferred equality, that we would abandon our freedom completely as long as we had equality. God forbid that anyone might have more than I do! But the French people wanted Freedom. They lived in a Monarchy and among wealthy aristocrats who had everything. They had nothing. To make matters worse, they were the ones who had to pay the taxes while the wealthy were allowed to relax in the lap of luxury. Whenever it was suggested that perhaps the wealthy might bear some of the expense of running the ship of state they shouted “No!” and the tax burden was shifted back to the poor — who had little or no money. The results were predictable: the poor became sick and tired of bearing all of the weight of the political state on their backs and they rose up and initiated the “Reign of Terror” — the likes of which humans have seldom seen in their entire recorded history.

In any event, their notion of freedom, like that of a great many of the rest of us, simply meant the absence of restraints, the shifting of the burden of  taxation elsewhere — the ability to come and go as they pleased and to throw off the shackles of poverty and have it all. For a while they seemed to have succeeded, except that it brought with it the constant fear that they might be the next poor soul suspected of conspiring against the political body, sent to prison and there wait for their name to be called and their ghastly and untimely end to arrive. In any event, they achieved something like the freedom they craved but it brought with it the chaos of unrestrained terror. Because if I have complete freedom then so do you — and do I know if you can be trusted or whether, these days, you are carrying a weapon?

If an unruly crowd wants to take a rope tow to the top of a hill in order to ski down and there is no order at all, only complete freedom, there will be chaos. Without law and order we cannot expect to be free. It’s a quid pro quo.Without the willingness to give up some of our freedom we can only expect to be in something resembling what the eighteenth century philosophers imagined a “state of nature” to be — a life that is “hasty, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” In order to live together with others we must restrain our impulses and allow that freedom cannot be absolute. John Locke saw the paradox and stated in no uncertain terms that freedom requires law and it requires order. We must all restrain ourselves in order to be truly free.

 

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Genius!

I invoke a word which aptly describes those rare minds that have been the very source of our precious Western Civilization. I use it to describe such thinkers as Thomas Carlyle to whom I have referred from time to time; and I ask the reader to recall my plea, expressed many times, that we ask our young people to walk, albeit briefly, in the company of genius. It cannot but help them grow and develop perspective on the day’s comings and goings. In this case I will quote several passages from Carlyle’s French Revolution: A History — a book of some 775 pages —  in the expectation that few of my readers have time to read a book of this length. But these selections will give a taste of what they are missing. I will add only that the original manuscript of this monumental work was burned by mistake while in the possession of Carlyle’s friend John Stuart Mill. Carlyle than rewrote the entire thing from memory!

Carlyle, toward the end of the history, is reflecting on the terribly bloody revolution and its many horrors. Speaking of revolutions generally:

‘”This is the way of Revolutions, which spring up as the French one has done; when the social bonds of Society snap asunder; and all Laws that are not Laws of Nature become naught but empty Formulas.”

Of the possible source of wars:

“So, however, are men made. Creatures who live in confusion; who, once thrown together can readily fall into that confusion of confusions which quarrel is, simply because their confusions differ from one another; still more because they seem to differ! Men’s words are a poor exponent of their thought; nay, their thought itself is a poor exponent of the inward unnamed Mystery wherefrom both thought and action have their birth. No man can explain himself, can get himself explained; men see not one another, but distorted phantasms which they call one another; which they hate and go to battle with: for all battle is well said to be misunderstanding.”

And toward the end of this remarkable book, as Carlyle reflects on the carnage he has written about:

“Wherefore we will, at all events, call this Reign of Terror a very strange one. Dominant Sansculottism [power of the people] makes, as it were, a free arena; one of the strangest temporary states Humanity has ever been in. A nation of men, full of wants and void of habits! The old habits are gone to wreck because they were old: men, driven forward by Necessity and fierce Pythian Madness have, on the spur of the instant, to devise a way of satisfying it . . . . .”

And of the fanaticism that we see around us even today:

“For a man, once committed headlong to [a cause] and fighting and fanaticizing amid a Nation of his like, becomes as it were enveloped in an ambient atmosphere of  . . . Delirium: his individual self is lost in something that is not himself, but foreign though inseparable from him. Strange to think of, the man’s cloak still seems to hold the same man: and yet the man is not there, his volition is not there; nor the source of what he will do and devise; instead of the man and his volition there is a piece of Fanaticism incarnated in the shape of him. He, the hapless incarnated Fanaticism, goes his road; no man can help him, he himself least of all. It is a wonderful, tragical predicament — such as human language, unused to deal with such things, being contrived for the uses of common life, struggles to shadow out in figures. The ambient element of material fire is not wilder than is fanaticism; nor, though visible to the eye, is it more real. Volition bursts forth involuntary-voluntary; rapt along; the movement of free human minds becomes a raging tornado. . .”

Finally, drawing his study to a close he worries about what men will commit themselves to in the future:

“The Heavens cease not their bounty; they send us generous hearts into every generation. And now what generous heart can pretend to itself, or be hoodwinked into believing, that Loyalty to Moneybags is a noble Loyalty? Mammon, cries the generous heart out of all ages and countries, is the basest of the known Gods, even the known Devils. In him what glory is there that ye should worship him?”

Truly, a remarkable mind and one it is a privilege to visit from time to time.

 

 

A Thin Veneer

 

“Alas then, is man’s civilization only a wrappage through which the savage nature of him can still burst, infernal as ever?”

Thomas Carlyle

In order to answer the question whether our civilization is weakening, threatening to crumble under the weight of indifference, self-interest, and greed, one might well reflect upon the condition of ordinary citizens during times of great stress. Beneath the shiny surface of civilization, our language, religion, laws, science, history, art, and manners, there burbles a cauldron of potential turmoil.  Freud was one of the few who could look into the abyss without flinching. But no one listens to him any more: he’s a “dead, white, European, male.”

Another dead, white, European male, Thucydides, wrote about the revolution in Corcyra during the lengthy Peloponnesian War many years ago. For the time, that revolution set the standard for kinds of atrocities and the cruelty that humans are capable of once the veneer of civilization is scraped off. As Thucydides tells us, revolutions and civil wars transform ordinary people into something quite extraordinary:

” In peace and prosperity states and individuals have better sentiments because they do not find themselves suddenly confronted with imperious necessities; but war takes away the easy supply of daily wants and proves to be a rough master that brings most men’s characters to a level with their fortunes. . . .[During that revolution] reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; the ability to see all sides of a question inaptness to act on any. Frantic violence became the attribute of manliness; cautious plotting a justifiable means of self-defense. The advocate of extreme measures was always trustworthy; his opponent a man to be suspected. . . . such [transformations] as occurred [will] always occur as long as nature of mankind remains the same.”

But it took a writer like Thomas Carlyle to fully describe the atrocities that men and women are capable of when the thin veneer of civilization is stripped away. In his monumental study of the French Revolution Carlyle tells us of the countless cruelties that human beings can inflict on one another.  As he has noted, “there are depths in man that go the length of lowest Hell as there are heights that reach highest Heaven.” He describes at length the depths. In a massacre at Nanci during that terrible war, for example, he tells of the slaughter of 130 men, women, and babes in arms by the “Patriots” in expressing their distrust and even hatred of the nobility. There followed the infamous “September Massacre” in Paris involving over a thousand men and women followed by countless hangings and decapitations, including Regicide. At Arras mothers were forced to stand and watch “while the Guillotine devours their children.”  Blood flowed in the streets, bodies were piled up everywhere and stank as the flies feasted. Carlyle describes the aftermath of the attack on the Tuileries early in the revolution:

“A hundred and eighty bodies of Swiss [ who sought to protect the royal family] lie piled there, naked, unremoved till the second day. Patriotism has torn their red coats into snips and marches with them at Pike’s point: the ghastly bare corpses lie there under the sun and under the stars; the curious of both sexes crowding to look.  . . . Above a hundred carts, heaped with the dead, fare toward the cemetery of Saint-Medeleine . . . . It is one of those carnage-fields, such as you read by the name of “Glorious Victory,” brought home in this case to one’s own door.”

Echoing the words of Thucydides, Carlyle describes what the chaos surrounding revolutions does to nations and individuals:

“Very frightful it is when a nation, rending asunder its Constitutions and Regulations . . . must now seek its wild way through the New Chaotic — where Force is not yet distinguished into Bidden and Unbidden, but Crime and Virtue welter unseparated — in that domain of what is called the Passions. . . . Horrible the hour when man’s soul, in its paroxysm, spurns asunder the barriers and rules, and shows what dens and depths are in it!”

The point of all this is to aid us in understanding the thin veneer of civilization that we take for granted and which is so easily peeled away during times of crisis, when law and order disappear and chaos is embraced in the name of liberty. We must pause as we look around today and see the gradual deterioration of respect for law (in many cases deserved), the call to arms brought about by the terror that has been turned loose in our churches and schools, the fear that seems to dictate action, and the tendency of each to claim the “right” to do whatever he or she wants to do without any regard for the “rights” of others to whom we once insisted we have responsibilities.

As Carlyle notes in passing, “without good morals Liberty is impossible.” And yet so many today insist that “good morals” are a fiction, that ethics and morality are simply a matter of personal opinion and gut feelings. The moral high ground disappeared with the death of Martin Luther King, some might say. So we arm ourselves and we demand the freedom to do whatever we want without restraint. And to assure us of this liberty we elect a clown whose only claim to the highest office in this country was his promise to provide his followers with unlimited liberty to do as they want, without the interference of governments and restraints of any kind.

Surely, as we face the prospect of all citizens, including teachers of the young, arming themselves out of the very real fear of sudden terror and total chaos, the handwriting is on the wall: we must consider the possibility that we are at present witnessing the birth of a new barbarism. Civilization which is above all else the will to live in common is all but withering away –unless we refuse to allow it to happen!

Carlyle worried that the revolutionary spirit would infect the English where there were thousands of disenfranchised people, downtrodden and poor, and a government that had lost the trust of the citizens. England avoided that revolution for a number of reasons, but it remains a possibility not only for that country but for any country that wallows in fear and hatred, insists that freedom viewed as the absence of restraint is a paramount value, and ignores the poor — where bloated politicians promise everyone that complete freedom and prosperity are theirs for the asking when, in fact, there cannot be any as long as those who hold the purse strings keep them tied tight and we hate and fear one another.

 

Silent Voices

Sad it is, indeed, that the most eloquent voice of Thomas Carlyle, one of the most influential thinkers of the Victorian era, falls now for the most part on deaf ears. His was a voice that was heard and responded to by such great minds as George Elliot, Charles Dickens, and John Stuart Mill. But it is seldom heard any more; it is becoming silent along with so many others as we hustle to grab the latest best-seller — if we read at all — or worry that we might miss the latest word from the author lately interviewed by Oprah Winfrey. The voices of the past are fast becoming silent as reading and the reading of great minds become lost in time. We live in a digital age, an age in which the printed word becomes increasingly difficult to read by those raised on moving pictures and interactive social media. Technology to Knight’s pawn: Checkmate!

But Carlyle at the top of his art could put words together like few others, at times echoing the sounds of William Shakespeare as he warned his world about the dangers of such things as laissez-faire capitalism, rapacious and never satisfied, or the dangers of a democracy that was sweeping over Europe following the grand experiment in the United States — an experiment that is yet to be judged. He echoed Plato’s concerns about the effectiveness of small-minded folks with no care whatever for the common good suddenly coming to power, and he worried about the unbridled greed of his fellow men; after a careful study of the documents surrounding the French Revolution he worried about folks with empty bellies and loaded weapons turned loose on their fellows without the restraints of law and order.

But we know better. We are satisfied, well fed, and not about to panic over the thought of what folks with small minds and automatic weapons might do to one another — or to the rest of us. We ignore history that might provide us with lessons to be learned because we pride ourselves on the fact that this is a new age and the rules have all been re-written. And yet, how much we might learn from a mind that could provide us with the following words to describe the sorts of men who rose to the top in the chaos surrounding the beginnings of the French Revolution, men who might become Prime Minister in the new government established by the rabble who came into power on waves of hunger and deep discontent:

“Loménie-Brienne, who had all his life ‘felt a kind of predestination for highest offices,’ has now obtained them. He presides over the finances; he shall have the title of Prime Minister itself, and the effort of his long life be realized. Unhappy only that it took such talent and industry to gain the place; that to qualify for it hardly any talent or industry was left disposable!”

Like so much of Carlyle’s writing, this sort of sudden understated, even sarcastic, insight strikes a responsive chord as we look around at today’s politicians and realize that they, too, have spent whatever little talent they may have on becoming elected and once in office are discovered to be totally inept and without the slightest aptitude for leadership and governance. And yet, like today, these are the voices that shout the loudest!

After the French King Louis XVI, weak and incompetent, is removed from Versailles and sent under guard to Paris where he can be watched carefully, Carlyle uses a simile to describe for us the general deterioration of the man and the mystique that surrounded royalty:

“The victim having once got his stroke-of-grace, the catastrophe can be considered as almost come. There is small interest now in watching his long low moans: notable only are his sharper agonies, and what convulsive struggles he may make to cast the torture off from him; and then finally the last departure of life itself, and how he lies extinct and ended, either wrapt like Caesar in decorous mantle-folds, or unseemly sunk together, like one that had not the force even to die. . . . .Was French Royalty, when wrenched forth from its tapestries in that fashion on the sixth of October, 1789, such a victim?”

The pathos and foreshadowing of what is to come for the King in this passage is deeply unsettling — as a story about that terrible event should be. So much is contained in this brief paragraph, suggesting the carnage that has already taken place and the carnage yet to come as the pathetic King now wanders aimlessly, under guard, in the confines of his Paris gardens. To be sure, Carlyle has sympathies for the fallen King as we may not, but he is also aware that a contagion has crept into the bowels of the people of France; they have paid a huge price to gain a slice of power that so few throughout history have been able to wield without succumbing to the temptations and mistakes it opens to them. Carlyle sees this as he does so much of what surrounds the events of that terrible revolution — so much more bloody and terrifying than the American Revolution that may have given it impetus. As he notes almost in passing, at the height of that Revolution those who speak the loudest

“. . .have wedded their delusions: fire nor steel, nor any sharpness of Experience, shall ever sever the bond; till death do us part! On such may the Heavens have mercy; for the Earth, with her rigorous Necessity, will have none.”

So it is with folks and their delusions. We know about them! In any event, all this is lost on those who ignore history and who also ignore words written by the great minds that have molded our own — whether we admit it or not. Great minds are great teachers and we close our eyes and ears to them at our own detriment. Sad it is. Almost as sad as seeing the King confined and pacing like a caged animal while the people of France, giddy with unfamiliar power, decide what to do with him next.

 

Morrison’s Pill

Carl Gustav Jung noted in the 1930s that modern man is in search of a soul. Postmodern man denies he ever had one. In any event Jung proposed a number of possible substitutes for the loss of a deep relationship with a powerful and demanding God, and many of those suggestions have been taken to heart by a people who share a sense of the loss of certainties prevalent in preceding centuries. Many would argue that those certainties were compensation for short lives, deprivation, wide-spread poverty, and human suffering; but, be that as it may, Jung was very much aware of the radical alteration in the outlook of a disenchanted  people who exchanged an all-pervasive religion for psychiatric counseling, T-groups, scientism, and creature comforts. The age of Industrialism, capitalism, and democracy came in with a roar and folks turned away from the heavens and toward their iPads and determined that their very own here and now was the most important thing.

One of those who worried about the radical changes and sought to cling to a past that was already dead — perhaps to resuscitate it and bring it back to life — was Thomas Carlyle, a conservative who, at the same time, espoused universal education and worried deeply about the disadvantaged, restless poor and what could be done to make their lives easier.

Carlyle was a staunch supporter of Oliver Cromwell and saw what he called the “Healing Parliament” of 1660 (usually referred to as the “Cavalier Parliament”) as the turning point in English History, marking the death of true religion for all intents and purposes. This Parliament acted in accord with Charles II who was restored to power after the death of Cromwell — one of Carlyle’s heroes. Carlyle saw him as a powerful man who could rule England with an iron fist and make the decisions that would heal her wounds and avoid another “reign of terror.” In any event, the major results, as Carlyle saw it, of the “Healing Parliament” were the ruthless attempts to restore the Church of England and displace other religions, attempts that took the form of “repressive religious legislation.” Religion was once again experiencing a power struggle among the various Churches: the plight of ordinary folks was ignored in the fallout.

Carlyle saw what Jung saw later: human beings had become cut off from a God who could save them from any and all evils that might befall them while making the demands on their consciences that would result in the salvation of their immortal souls. Needless to say, these demands were not welcomed by increasing numbers of people who worried much more about the state of their pocketbook and where the next pint of ale might come from. Carlyle saw this alteration of focus as dangerous and ultimately catastrophic. In his book Past and Present — in which he wanders all over the place and sounds at times like a born-again preacher with a sense of humor (if you can imagine) — he makes a number of astute and somewhat startling observations. Regarding our love of money (including the Church’s love of money, of course) he has this to say:

“Money is Miraculous. What miraculous facilities has it yielded, will it yield us; but also what never-imagined confusions, obscurations has it brought in; down almost to total extinction of the moral sense in large masses of mankind. . . . Let inventive men consider whether the secret of this universe, and of man’s life there, does, after all, as we rashly fancy it, consist in making money?”

The problem, as Carlyle saw it, is precisely the loss of religion — not a religion we put on once a week for an hour and which allows us to seek wealth through self-indulgence, but rather a religion that demands that we seek virtue through self-sacrifice. He likened the recent practice of religion to taking a pill, one that would quickly and painlessly cure all ills. As he put it:

” . . . religion shall be a kind of Morrison’s Pill, which they have only to swallow once and all will be well. Resolutely once gulp down your Religion, your Morrison’s Pill, you have clear sailing now; you can follow your affairs, your no-affairs, go along with money-hunting, pleasure-hunting, etc. etc.”

The point of my bringing up the ramblings of a mind long dead and often dismissed out of hand is that despite his peculiarities, his concerns have been echoed by many intelligent folks who have lived since Carlyle died in 1880. One such thinker is the liberal economist Robert Heilbroner who notes in his study of capitalism that the passion of the capitalist to gain more and more wealth has created a “moral vacuum” in which anything goes and the end always justifies the means — the end being the maximizing of profits, needless to say. And, of course, there’s Jung, the brilliant psychiatrist, who echoes Carlyle’s regrets that modern man has lost his soul. As Carlyle would have it:

“There is no longer any God for us! God’s Laws are become a Greatest Happiness, a Parliamentary expediency: the Heavens overarch us only as an astronomical time-keeper . . . . man has lost the soul out of him; and now after the due period begins to find the want of it!”

One is tempted to dismiss this man as so many have done. But, still, he does make us think in our disjointed age — if we can think any more. Just because a man is a bit off-the-wall at times doesn’t mean he may not have important things to say!

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.

Majority Rules

It is an odd assumption that a majority of men and women will invariably reach the correct decision in matters sometimes too complicated for a single person. Consider the vote — a recent vote in the United States being a case in point. The sitting president received less than the majority of the popular vote (which was remarkable) but a majority of the those in the Electoral College, supposedly of sounder minds, decided to hand the nuclear codes to a man just stupid enough to want to use them.

There has been much discussion over the years about the wisdom of trusting a majority of folks when perhaps one person might be better positioned to find the correct answer. I, for one, would prefer not to ask a majority of my fellows whether or not my appendix need be removed. Alexis de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill both warned against the “tyranny of the majority,” the tendency of large numbers of people to sway the remaining few to vote their way. Consider the vote to invade Iraq when the minority was swayed by a vocal majority to engage in what was clearly an immoral action: the invasion of another Sovereign nation on the pretense that they had “weapons of mass destruction” when, in fact, they had none. There is certainly such a thing as the persuasive force of majority opinion. I dare say we have all felt it at one time or another.

A number of people, including Plato, thought the majority nothing more than a collection of uninformed twits. After all, the majority of those determining Socrates’ fate voted for his death. Another to express his disdain for the rule by majority is Thomas Carlyle who considered the minority to be nothing more than a number of like minds all of which might very well be empty. Specifically, regarding the push toward “universal suffrage” in his time, he said:

“. . .can it be proved that, since the beginning of the world, there was ever given a [majority] vote in favor of the worthiest man or thing? I have always understood that true worth, in any department, was difficult to recognize; that the worthiest, if he appealed to universal suffrage, would have a poor chance. John Milton, inquiring of Universal England what the worth of Paradise Lost was, received for answer, Five Pounds Sterling. [Railroad tycoon] George Hudson, inquiring in like manner what his services on the railways might be worth, received for answer, Fifteen Hundred Thousand [pounds sterling]. Alas, Jesus Christ asking the Jews what he deserved, was not the answer Death on the [cross]? — I feel it almost a shame to insist on such truisms.. . .  The mass of men consulted upon any high matter whatever is as ugly an exhibition of human stupidity as this world sees.”

This sentiment was strongly echoed in the 1940s by Joseph Schumpeter in his study of democratic citizenship when he noted that

“And so it is with most of the decisions of everyday life that lie within the little field which the individual citizen’s mind encompasses with a full sense of its reality. Roughly, it consists of the things that directly concern himself . . . for the private citizen musing over national affairs there is no scope for his will and no task at which it could develop. He is a member of an unworkable committee, the committee of the whole nation, and this is why he expends less disciplined effort on mastering a political problem than he expends on a game of bridge. . . . the typical citizen drops down to a lower level of mental performance as soon as he enters the political field. He argues and analyzes in a way that he would readily recognize as infantile within the sphere of his real interests. He becomes a primitive again.”

Consider: the majority is nothing more, nor less, than the collective opinion of individuals many (if not all) of which are based on nothing more than gut feelings. If one person can be mistaken then a thousand persons can also, collectively, be mistaken. No one put the point more forcefully than Alexis de Tocqueville in his remarkable study of Democracy in America:

“A majority taken collectively is only an individual, whose opinions, and frequently whose interests, are opposed to those of another individual, who is styled a minority. If it be admitted that a man possessing absolute power may misuse that power by wronging his adversaries, why should not a majority be liable to the same reproach? Men do not change their character by uniting with one another; nor does their patience in the presence of obstacles increase with their strength. For my own part, I cannot believe it; the power to do everything, which I should refuse to one of my equals, I would never grant to any number of them.”

The problem is, of course, if we don’t trust the majority then whom do we trust? Plato wanted an enlightened despot and Thomas Carlyle also wanted an heroic authority figure who embodied both wisdom and strength, enlightened enough  to keep his eye always on the common good and never to succumb to the temptations of power and self-interest. History has shown that such people are rare — though some, like Marcus Aurelius, have appeared from time to time. In any event, the notion of an enlightened despot may well be the dream of romantics and idealists detached from the real world.

But the real question is why we should trust a majority of men and women when we do not trust even one or a few?

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.