The Love of Money

Since my senior year in college when I wrote a senior thesis about the inherent conflict between capitalism and Christianity, I have been fascinated by the effects of money on ordinary people. A few years ago I wrote this post about the demise of the notion of the “gentleman” and the Victorian values that have always fascinated me — given their absence in our commodified culture. In any event, as I try to stay away from the ugly world of today’s politics, I find myself reflecting once again on the writings of such extraordinary people as Anthony Trollope, he of the 41 novels, 12 short stories, 18 works of non-fiction, and 2 plays — all while working full-time for the Post Office, who saw what was coming and also worried about the effects of rapid change and sudden money on ordinary (and extraordinary) people.  Accordingly, I decided to repost an old post, with modifications, that was largely ignored but wasn’t too bad.

The two major forces that brought the Victorian age to an end were industrial capitalism and the demise of the Christian religion after the First World War, the “war to end all wars.” The death blow may have been landed by Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group of writers and critics who saw only the evil that lurked behind what they regarded as the Victorian facade.

Anthony Trollope
(Courtesy of Wikipedia)

What lies at the heart of this struggle for survival of the paramount Victorian values, as we see it working its way out in the conflict between the social classes in England at the time, and in the expansion of suffrage, is the struggle between Self and Other: which is to be paramount? Victorian intellectuals, such as Anthony Trollope, were greatly alarmed by the coming of the steam engine and the rapid changes it entailed. Among other things, it meant the displacement of birth and privilege by wealth. This was disturbing because for the Victorians birth and privilege implied duties on the part of the landed gentry to those of lower social standing, those upon whom life itself depended and who were assumed to be in need of guidance.  And while there were abuses of this responsibility (as George Eliot showed in Adam Bede) in large measure the landed gentry cared about their dependents and saw their own good tied up with those who depended upon them — enlightened self-interest, perhaps. We get a glimpse of this in the recent popular TV show on PBS, Downton Abbey. It was by no means clear that the new, wealthy landowners in the provinces, many of whom had moved from the large cities as they acquired wealth, would feel the same obligations to those who worked for them.

As capitalism grew by leaps and bounds and wealth changed hands from the “well-born” to the nouveau riche, power also changed hands. It was a painful process, as those who saw their power and prestige slipping away regretted the sudden appearance of those “middle-class upstarts who want to rank with gentlemen, and think they’ll do it with kid gloves and new furniture,”  as Rev. John Lingon remarked in Eliot’s Felix Holt: The Radical.  Anthony Trollope, like his contemporary, William Makepeace Thackeray, saw the issue clearly, as he struggled for years trying to determine what exactly makes a “gentleman”;  whether the term could even be said to apply in an age of increasing wealth and prestige among the lower and  middle classes, given the corrupting effects of money, especially upon men and women who had never had much. In a remarkable passage in Trollope’s The Three Clerks, the narrator tells us that one of the three clerks, hovering between virtue and vice, is learning what there is to know about

“the great utility, one may almost say the necessity, of having command of money; he was beginning  also to perceive that money was not a thing to be judged by the ordinary rules which govern a man’s conduct. In other matters it behooves a gentleman to be open, aboveboard, liberal, and true; good-natured, generous, confiding, self-denying, doing unto others as he would wish that others would do unto him; but in the acquirement and use of money – that is, its use with the object of acquiring more, its use in the usurer’s sense – his practice should be exactly the reverse: he should be close, secret, exacting, given to concealment, not over troubled by scruples; suspicious, without sympathies, self-devoted, and always doing to others exactly that which he is on guard to prevent them doing unto him – viz., making money by them.”

To simplify somewhat, then, we can say that the growth of industrialism and capitalism and the accumulation of great wealth in the hands of the few helped promote the sense of self-importance we see so prevalent today — along with the desire on the part of the poor and middle classes to imitate the wealthy and identify success and happiness with wealth and position rather than the obligations we have toward others and the desire to make the world a better place. We see this especially today as the very wealthy in this country flounder about in the polluted waters of politics seeking as much power and influence as possible, blind to any notion of the “common good.” The Victorian era had its many problems, to be sure, but when we rejected its values we seem to have thrown out the baby with the bath water.

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Commissars of Culture

Little known to folks outside the ivory towers that used to house higher education are the machinations of those who struggle for power within, elbowing one another aside to claim the title of commissar of culture, kings or queens of political correctness. In fact, the struggle is about over as the dominant thought in colleges and universities today is to convert institutions of higher education where young people once came to achieve some degree of intellectual freedom into Therapeutic Centers where they are made to feel good about themselves in a climate that increasingly resembles a Country Club. In any event, this was foreseen a couple of decades ago by the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, whom I have mentioned in previous blogs. In her insightful book about the demise of virtue and its replacement by “values” that oh-so-closely resemble feelings, she tells us this about the movement just then aborning, recalling the character of Mrs. Grundy the embodiment of the “narrow-minded, self-righteous, and self-appointed censor.”

“The Mrs. Grundys of our day, vigilantly supervising the proprieties of conduct and speech, command the respect of many of those who profess to be in the vanguard of enlightened thought. Some of them, appointed to direct ‘sensitivity,’ and ‘consciousness’ sessions — ‘facilitators,’ they are sometimes called — enjoy the status and perquisites of well-paid administrators in corporations and universities.”

Himmelfarb refers here to the fact that many of our larger corporations are caught up in the political correctness game and watch every word for transgressions that are deserving of, at the very least, a note in the perpetrator’s personnel file and an official reprimand. They also watch, like collective hawks, for the slightest sign of variation from company policy or, worse yet, words or actions that might result in lawsuits brought against the company. In many ways this mirrors the universities where faculty and students are warned not to say or do anything that might ruffle the feathers of anyone who might insist that his or her feathers have, indeed, been ruffled. This is the Age of the Victim where real suffering has been replaced by papier-mache replicas made by the victims that look surprisingly like self-portraits.  But Himmelfarb would have us  begin to talk once again about serious moral issues rather than the pseudo-issues that closely resemble a tempest in a teapot and tend to stand in the way of serious discussion and an honest exchange of ideas.

She reminds us of the character in Dickens’ Bleak House, a Mrs. Jellyby, whose children are hungry, dirty and out of control at her feet while she writes a check to help out a tribe on the banks of the Tiber. Dickens called hers a “telescopic philanthropy,” her eyes “having the curious habit of seeming to look a long way off as if . . . they could see nothing nearer than Africa.” Himmelfarb accordingly coins the term “telescopic morality” to describe the latest shenanigans in the universities where mountains are made of mole hills and real issues are ignored because of the latest faux pas in the faculty lounge or the student newspaper. As Himmelfarb notes in this regard, these “New Victorians” who pride themselves on bringing attention to the latest outrage have invented the “Telescopic Morality” that focuses on the trivial and ignores the serious.

“The code of behavior they zealously monitor is at once more permissive and more repressive than the old; casual sexual intercourse is condoned, while a flirtatious remark may be grounds for legal action. It is a curious combination of prudery and promiscuity that is enshrined in the new moral code. .  . They. . . do not condemn promiscuity; they only condemn  those men who fail to obtain the requisite consent for every phase of sexual intercourse.  . . . They are not concerned about the kinds of crime that agitate most citizens — violent, irrational, repeated, and repeatedly unpunished crimes; they only propose to pass new legislation to punish speech or conduct normally deemed uncivil rather than illegal. . . . Telescopic morality . . . also distances moral responsibility from the moral agent.”

And there’s the key: the loss of a concern for virtue out of a confused and confusing concern about hurt feelings has eliminated any discussion whatever of the responsibility of those who commit atrocities and cause real pain and suffering. Our attention, rather, is directed toward the young man about to use the “N” word in a term paper to the faculty member who is ridiculed by his colleagues for suggesting in a faculty meeting that perhaps intellectual diversity is more important than cultural diversity.

Himmelfarb does not call for a return to the Victorian age. She knows as well as the rest of us that it was in many ways a miserable time for a great many people. But, she insists, at least they discussed moral issues and weren’t afraid to address them in the public arena. They didn’t have to apologize for bringing up moral questions in public while insisting that, of course, “it’s only my opinion.” They weren’t so concerned about the manner in which they spoke as they were the matter about which they spoke. And in this transition, this movement toward form and away from content, away from virtue and toward values, we have lost sight of those things which matter most, such things as character, duty, and taking responsibility for our own actions instead of finding someone else to blame. In casting out Victorian values we have thrown the baby out with the bath water.

 

Victimhood

My good friend Dana Yost recently made an excellent comment on a previous post dealing with Wallace Stegner’s novel Angle of Repose. While I noted that the narrator admired his grandmother’s Victorian stoicism in dealing with a self-involved husband, Dana pointed out the fact that his grandmother, like so many of the women in her era, was worthy of our sympathy. She had, after all, lived with a man who loved her but, as Dana notes “always on his terms.” She was indeed powerless in an age in which women were generally powerless. Dana fell short of calling the grandmother a “victim,” but what he was saying put me in mind of a book by our mutual friend Joe Amato, titled Victims and Values, on the nature of victimhood in which he says, speaking of American history after the debacle of the Viet Nam War:

“The language of victims, spoken by blacks, Native Americans, women, Latinos, the unemployed, the disadvantaged, animal rights advocates, representatives of wildlife, and others, became a part of standard public discourse, as did the poor, hungry, and the oppressed of the third world. This language escalated and it becomes a means for seeking moral dominance and contending for power. . .

“. . . heightened sensitivity was proclaimed to be a precious good; caring became an obligation; and compassion, ever more conspicuously flaunted, was assumed to be readily available in the human heart. At the extremes even those who committed crimes against property and persons were welcomed into the fold of victims. In fact, their crimes became proof that they themselves, not the victims of those crimes, were the true victims of the system. . . .

“The word ‘victim,’ once a religious term and until very recently used primarily to describe individuals or groups abused by nature or government, has come to form in our world the standard language of hyper-complaint. The dialect of victimology is increasingly utilized not only to express real and significant injustices but to level charges for unachieved expectations and unrealized imagined potentials.”

In a word, the term is being used so widely — and for various reasons, some of which are bogus — that it is in danger of becoming meaningless. Amato’s notion that it being used to seek “moral dominance” and “contending for power” by certain groups of people is especially interesting and echoes the point I made in an earlier post about the “will to power.” Assuredly, many of those who claim to be victims do so to draw attention to themselves and to demand recompense. Their suffering may be real or imagined. In any event, we tend to use a word like “victim” for so many referents that is eventually loses all meaning whatever. For the most part it still refers to those who suffer in one way or another.

But I am going to suggest something outrageous, something that very few people will allow as even a remote possibility. I am going to suggest, following Fyodor Dostoevsky, that we have lost sight of the notion that suffering may be a good thing. We simply assume, without any questioning whatever, that it is necessary to eradicate all suffering wherever possible. This has made it popular for all and sundry to claim that they are suffering and require our sympathy — whether they suffer in fact or not.

Recall that the Victorian women, like so many of the disadvantaged at that time, would have simply accepted the hand they were dealt and tried gamely to make the best of it. One doubts if they thought of themselves as victims. We might even admire their courage to endure the treatment they received at the hand not only of their husbands but of society generally, though we have also lost sight of what courage truly is. In any event, I quote Dostoevsky, in his notes to Crime and Punishment to make the point:

“Man is not born to happiness. Man earns his happiness and always by suffering. There is no injustice here, because the knowledge of life and consciousness (that is, that which is felt immediately with your body and spirit, that is, through the whole vital process of life) is acquired by experience pro and contra, which one must take upon one’s self. . . . “

And, in Notes From Underground, Dostoevsky suggests that it is through suffering that we achieve true freedom, which is central to our very humanity.

It is certainly the case that most Americans in the twenty-first century suffer very little. This may go a long way toward explaining our self-absorption. We do whatever is necessary to eliminate pain and suffering: complain, take pills, seek medical assistance, find an understanding and sympathetic partner. It seldom occurs to us that it may be a way to increase  our appreciation for what we have in hand, that it makes us deeper and more interesting human beings. I do not want to suggest that we should not do whatever we can to prevent suffering or that suffering in an inherently good thing. As Amato notes, “There is an elemental moral requirement to respond to innocent suffering.” But we do need to consider that, whether or not we agree with Dostoevsky (and what he says about suffering does sound like heresy these days, despite the fact that it is a notion fundamental to Christianity) we would do well to watch the way we bandy about terms like “victim,” because if everyone is a victim then no one is.

Eliot’s Lessons In Morality

In her first major novel, The Mill on the Floss, George Eliot created a situation between Maggie Tulliver and Stephen Guest that brings to the fore the conflict between love and duty — a strangely Victorian struggle that might be alien to most of us in the twenty-first century. For Eliot, it is the struggle within the heart of a young woman between her love of a man (Stephen Guest), including the financial security marriage to Stephen would bring, and her duty to those who love her and whom she loves in return – her cousin Lucy Deane (who is engaged to Stephen) and Philip Makem, who would like to be Maggie’s lover. After arranging to take Maggie on a boat ride down the Floss, Stephen allows the boat to drift past their destination and eventually draws Maggie’s attention to the fact that they are destined, in his view, to be together. Though the event seems to have been accidental, it is, of course, what he wants and has perhaps even allowed; it is what Maggie wants but fears. Stephen puts his case forcefully:

 “See, Maggie, how everything has come without our seeking – in spite of all our efforts. We never thought of being alone together again: it has all been done by others.  . . . . It is the only right thing, dearest: it is the only way of escaping from the wretched entanglement. Everything has concurred to point it out to us. We have contrived nothing, we have thought of nothing ourselves.”

Maggie is torn and engages in a dialogue with Stephen that progresses for several hours and many pages,. Stephen equates “the only right thing” with what he and Maggie most dearly want. Maggie, on the other hand sees things differently: “I will not begin any future, even with you. . . with a deliberate consent to what ought not to have been. What I told you [previously] I feel now: I would rather have died than fall into this temptation. It would have been better if we had parted for ever then. But we must part now.”
Note that even at this point, because of the time spent alone with this engaged man, Maggie’s reputation in those Victorian days, will have been ruined – as was Mary Ann Evan’s reputation when she ran off with the married George Lewes. That is of no concern to Maggie – though as things play out, it becomes a burden with tragic consequences. Instead, she experiences the pangs of an active conscience:

 “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.”

We are told these days that guilt is a terrible thing, a burden we ought never be forced to bear and Maggie’s speech may seem like the most blatant romantic nonsense to the modern ear that knows without doubt that “love conquers all.” Yet, in Eliot’s mind the guilty conscience is what leads people like Maggie toward the right course of action, her duty to others to whom she is bound by ties of friendship and love —  despite the fact that it is directly opposed to what she so dearly wants.  Indeed, throughout her writings, Eliot is consistent in attacking those who, like so many of us today, regard “what is easiest and pleasantest to ourselves” as the highest good. In Eliot’s world doing the right thing is sometimes terribly difficult and frequently directly opposite to what “is easiest and pleasantest to ourselves.” But always giving in to what we want to do is often a sign of weak character and lack of moral fiber, ignoring “whatever would cause misery to those whom the course of our lives has made dependent on us.” One abandons principles and duty others at great risk. Strange lessons from bygone days.