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Past and Present: Thomas Carlyle, 1843

Book 1 Chapter 5: Aristocracy of Talent

When an individual is miserable, what does it most of all behove him to do? To complain of this man or of that, of this thing or of that? To fill the world and the street with lamentation, objurgation? Not so at all; the reverse of so. All moralists advise him not to complain of any person or of any thing, but of himself only. He is to know of a truth that being miserable he has been unwise, he. Had he faithfully followed Nature and her Laws, Nature, ever true to her Laws, would have yielded fruit and increase and felicity to him: but he has followed other than Nature’s Laws; and now Nature, her patience with him being ended, leaves him desolate; answers with very emphatic significance to him: No. Not by this road, my son; by another road shalt thou attain well-being: this, thou perceivest is the road to ill-being; quit this! -- So do all moralists advise: that the man penitently say to himself first of all, Behold I was not wise enough; I quitted the laws of Fact, which are also called the Laws of God, and mistook for them the laws of Sham and Sem- blance, which are called the Devil’s Laws; therefore am I here!

Neither with Nations that become miserable is it fundamentally otherwise. The ancient guides of Nations, Prophets, Priests, or whatever their name, were well aware of this; and, down to a late epoch, impressively taught and inculcated it. The modern guides of Nations, who also go under a great variety of names, Journalists, Political Economists, Politicians, Pamphleteers, have entirely forgotten this, and are ready to deny this. But it nevertheless remains eternally undeniable: nor is there any doubt but we shall all be taught it yet, and made again to confess it: we shall all be striped and scourged till we do learn it; and shall at last either get to know it, or be striped to death in the process. For it is undeniable! When a Nation is unhappy, the old Prophet was right and not wrong in saying to it: Ye have forgotten God, ye have quitted the ways of God, or ye would not have been unhappy. It is not according to the laws of Fact that ye have lived and guided yourselves, but according to the laws of Delusion, Imposture, and wilful and unwilful Mistake of Fact; behold therefore the Unveracity is worn out; Nature’s long-suffering with you is exhausted; and ye are here!

Surely there is nothing very inconceivable in this, even to the Journalist, to the Political Economist, Modern Pamphleteer, or any two-legged animal without feathers! If a country finds itself wretched, sure enough that country has been misguided: it is with the wretched Twenty-seven Millions, fallen wretched, as with the Unit fallen wretched: they as he have quitted the course prescribed by Nature and the Supreme Powers, and so are fallen into scarcity, disaster, infelicity; and pausing to consider themselves, have to lament and say, Alas, we were not wise enough. We took transient superficial Semblance for everlasting central Substance; we have departed far away from the Laws of this Universe, and behold now lawless Chaos and inane Chimera is ready to devour us! -- ‘Nature in late centuries,’ says Sauerteig, ‘was universally supposed to be dead; an old eight-day clock, made many thousand years ago, and still ticking, but dead as brass, -- which the Maker, at most, sat looking at, in a distant, singular, and indeed incredible manner: but now I am happy to observe, she is everywhere asserting herself to be not dead and brass at all, but alive and miraculous, celestial-infernal, with an emphasis that will again penetrate the thickest head of this Planet by and by!’ --

Indisputable enough to all mortals now, the guidance of this country has not been sufficiently wise: men too foolish have been set to the guiding and governing of it, and have guided it hither; we must find wiser, -- wiser, or else we perish! To this length of insight all England has now advanced; but as yet no farther. All England stands wringing its hands, asking itself, nigh desperate, What farther? Reform Bill proves to be a failure; Benthamee Radicalism, the gospel of ‘Enlightened Selfishness,’ dies out, or dwindles into Five-point Chartism, amid the tears and hootings of men: what next are we to hope or try? Five-point Charter, Free-trade; Church-extension, Sliding-scale; what, in Heaven’s name, are we next to attempt, that we sink not in inane Chimera, and be devoured of Chaos? -- The case is pressing, and one of the most complicated in the world. A God’s-message never came to thicker-skinned people; never had a God’s-message to pierce through thicker integuments, into heavier ears. It is Fact, speaking once more, in miraculous thunder-voice, from out of the centre of the world; -- how unknown its language to the deaf and foolish many; how distinct, undeniable, terrible and yet beneficent, to the hearing few: Behold, ye shall grow wiser, or ye shall die! Truer to Nature’s Fact, or inane Chimera will swallow you; in whirlwinds of fire, you and your Mammonisms, Dilettantisms, your Midas-eared philosophies, double-barrelled Aristocracies, shall disappear! -- Such is the God’s-message to us, once more, in these modern days.

We must have more Wisdom to govern us, we must be governed by the Wisest, we must have an Aristocracy of Talent! cry many. True, most true; but how to get it? The following extract from our young friend of the Houndsditch Indicator is worth perusing: ‘At this time,’ says he, ‘while there is a cry everywhere, articulate or inarticulate, for an “Aristocracy of Talent,” a Governing Class namely which did govern, not merely which took the wages of governing, and could not with all our industry be kept from misgoverning, corn-lawing, and playing the very deuce with us, -- it may not be altogether useless to remind some of the greener-headed sort what a dreadfully difficult affair the getting of such an Aristocracy is! Do you expect, my friends, that your indispensable Aristocracy of Talent is to be enlisted straightway, by some sort of recruitment aforethought, out of the general population; arranged in supreme regimental order; and set to rule over us? That it will be got sifted, like wheat out of chaff, from the Twenty-seven Million British subjects; that any Ballot-box, Reform Bill, or other Political Machine, with Force of Public Opinion never so active on it, is likely to perform said process of sifting? Would to Heaven that we had a sieve; that we could so much as fancy any kind of sieve, wind-fanners, or ne-plus-ultra of machinery, devisable by man, that would do it!

Done nevertheless, sure enough it must be; it shall and will be. We are rushing swiftly on the road to destruction; every hour bringing us nearer, until it be, in some measure, done. The doing of it is not doubtful; only the method and the costs! Nay I will even mention to you an infallible sifting-process whereby he that has ability will be sifted out to rule among us, and that same blessed Aristocracy of Talent be verily, in an approximate degree, vouchsafed us by and by: an infallible sifting-process; to which, however, no soul can help his neighbour, but each must, with devout prayer to Heaven, endeavour to help himself. It is, O friends, that all of us, that many of us, should acquire the true eye for talent, which is dreadfully wanting at present! The true eye for talent presupposes the true reverence for it, -- O Heavens, presupposes so many things!

For example, you Bobus Higgins, Sausage-maker on the great scale, who are raising such a clamour for this Aristocracy of Talent, what is it that you do, in that big heart of yours, chiefly in very fact pay reverence to? Is it to talent, intrinsic manly worth of any kind, you unfortunate Bobus? The manliest man that you saw going in a ragged coat, did you ever reverence him; did you so much as know that he was a manly man at all, till his coat grew better? Talent! I understand you to be able to worship the fame of talent, the power, cash, celebrity or other success of talent; but the talent itself is a thing you never saw with eyes. Nay what is it in yourself that you are proudest of, that you take most pleasure in surveying meditatively in thoughtful moments? Speak now, is it the bare Bobus stript of his very name and shirt, and turned loose upon society, that you admire and thank Heaven for; or Bobus with his cash-accounts and larders dropping fatness, with his respectabilities, warm garnitures, and pony-chaise, admirable in some measure to certain of the flunkey species? Your own degree of worth and talent, is it of infinite value to you; or only of finite, -- measurable by the degree of currency, and conquest of praise or pudding, it has brought you to? Bobus, you are in a vicious circle, rounder than one of your own sausages; and will never vote for or promote any talent, except what talent or sham- talent has already got itself voted for!’ -- We here cut short the Indicator: all readers perceiving whither he now tends.

More Wisdom’ indeed: but where to find more Wisdom? We have already a Collective Wisdom, after its kind, -- though ‘class-legislation,’ and another thing or two, affect it somewhat! On the whole, as they say, Like people like priest; so we may say, Like people like king. The man gets himself appointed and elected who is ablest -- to be appointed and elected. What can the incorruptiblest Bobuses elect, if it be not some Bobissimus, should they find such?

Or, again, perhaps there is not, in the whole Nation, Wisdom enough, ‘collect’ it as we may, to make an adequate Collective! That too is a case which may befal: a ruined man staggers down to ruin because there was not wisdom enough in him; so, clearly also, may Twenty-seven Million collective men! -- But indeed one of the infalliblest fruits of Unwisdom in a Nation is that it cannot get the use of what Wisdom is actually in it: that it is not governed by the wisest it has, who alone have a divine right to govern in all Nations; but by the sham-wisest, or even by the openly not-so-wise if they are handiest otherwise! This is the infalliblest result of Unwisdom; and also the balefullest, immeasurablest, -- not so much what we can call a poison-fruit, as a universal death-disease, and poisoning of the whole tree. For hereby are fostered, fed into gigantic bulk, all manner of Unwisdoms, poison-fruits; till, as we say, the life-tree everywhere is made a upas-tree, deadly Unwisdom overshadowing all things; and there is done what lies in human skill to stifle all Wisdom everywhere in the birth, to smite our poor world barren of Wisdom, -- and make your utmost Collective Wisdom, were it collected and elected by Rhadamanthus, Æacus and Minos, not to speak of drunken Tenpound Franchisers with their ballot-boxes, an inadequate Collective! The Wisdom is not now there: how will you ‘collect’ it? As well wash Thames mud, by improved methods, to find more gold in it.

Truly, the first condition is indispensable, That Wisdom be there: but the second is like unto it, is properly one with it: these two conditions act and react through every fibre of them, and go inseparably together. If you have much Wisdom in your Nation, you will get it faithfully collected; for the wise love Wisdom, and will search for it as for life and salvation. If you have little Wisdom, you will get even that little ill-collected, trampled under foot, reduced as near as possible to annihilation; for fools do not love Wisdom; they are foolish, first of all, because they have never loved Wisdom, -- but have loved their own appetites, ambitions, their coroneted coaches, tankards of heavy-wet. Thus is your candle lighted at both ends, and the progress towards consummation is swift. Thus is fulfilled that saying in the Gospel: To him that hath shall be given; and from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath. Very literally, in a very fatal manner, that saying is here fulfilled.

Our ‘Aristocracy of Talent’ seems at a considerable distance yet; does it not, O Bobus?

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