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Past and Present: Thomas Carlyle, 1843

Book 3 Chapter 13: Democracy

If the Serene Highnesses and Majesties do not take note of that, then, as I perceive, ‘that’ will take note of itself! The time for levity, insincerity, and idle babble and play-acting, in all kinds, is gone by; it is a serious, grave time. Old long-vexed questions, not yet solved in logical words or parliamentary laws, are fast solving themselves in facts, somewhat unblessed to behold! This largest of questions, this question of Work and Wages, which ought, had we heeded Heaven’s voice, to have begun two generations ago or more, cannot be delayed longer without hearing Earth’s voice. ‘Labour’ will verily need to be somewhat ‘organized,’ as they say, - God knows with what difficulty. Man will actually need to have his debts and earnings a little better paid by man; which, let Parliament speak of them or be silent of them, are eternally his due from man, and cannot, without penalty and at length not without death penalty, be withheld. How much ought to cease among us straightway; how much ought to begin straightway, while the hours yet are!

Truly they are strange results to which this of leaving all to ‘Cash;’ of quietly shutting up the God’s Temple, and gradually opening wide-open the Mammon’s Temple, ‘Laissez-faire,’ and Every man for himself! - have led us in these days! We have Upper, speaking classes, who indeed do ‘speak’ as never man spake before; the withered flimsiness, the godless baseness and barrenness of whose speech might of itself indicate what kind of Doing and practical Governing went on under it! For Speech is the gaseous element out of which most kinds of Practice and Performance especially all kinds of moral Performance, condense themselves, and take shape; as the one is, so will the other be. Descending, accordingly, into the Dumb Class in its Stockport Cellars and Poor-Law Bastilles, have we not to announce that they also are hitherto unexampled in the History of Adam’s Posterity?

Life was never a May-game for men; in all times the lot of the dumb-millions born to toil was defaced with manifold sufferings, injustices, heavy burdens, avoidable and unavoidable; not play at all, but hard work that made the sinews sore, and the heart sore. As bond slaves, villani, bordarii, sochemanni, nay indeed as dukes, earls, and Kings, men were oftentimes made weary of their life; and had to say, in the sweat of their brow and of their soul, Behold it is not sport, it is grim earnest, and our back can bear no more! Who knows not what massacrings and harryings there have been; grinding, long-continuing, unbearable injustices, till the heart had to rise in madness, and some “Eu Sachsen nimith euer Sachses, You Saxons, out with your Gully-Knives then.” You Saxons, some ‘arrestment,’ partial ‘arrestment of the Knaves and Dastards’ has become indispensable! The page of Dryasdust is heavy with such details.

And yet I will venture to believe that in no time, since the beginnings of Society, was the lot of those same dumb millions of toilers so entirely unbearable as it is even in the days now passing over us. It is not to die, or even to die of hunger, that makes a man wretched; many men have died; all men must die; - the last exit of us all is in a Fire Chariot of Pain. But it is to live miserable we know not why; to work sore and yet gain nothing; to be heart-worn, weary, yet isolated, unrelated, girt in with a cold universal Laissez-faire: it is to die slowly all our life long, imprisoned in a deaf, dead Infinite Injustice, - as in the accursed iron belly of a Phalaris Bull! This is and remains forever intolerable to all men whom God has made. Do we wonder at French Revolutions, Chartisms Revolts of Three Days? The times, if we will consider them, are really unexampled.

Never before did I hear of an Irish Widow reduced to prove her sisterhood by dying of typhus-fever and infecting ‘seventeen persons,’ - saying in such undeniable way, “You see, I was your sister!” Sisterhood, Brotherhood was often forgotten, but not till the rise of the ultimate Mammon and Shotbelt Gospels, did I ever see it so expressly denied. If no pious Lord, or Law-ward would remember it, always some pious Lady (‘Hlaf-dig,’ Benefactress, ‘Loaf-giveress,’ they say she is, - blessings on her beautiful heart!) was there, with mild mother voice and hand, to remember it; some pious thoughtful Elder, what we now call ‘Prester,’ Presbyter or ‘Priest,’ was there to put all men in mind of it, in the name of the God who had made all.

Not even in Black Dahomy was it ever, I think, forgotten to the typhus-fever length. Mungo Park, resourceless had sunk down to die under the Negro Village-Tree; a horrible white object in the eyes of all. But in the poor Black Woman, and her daughter who stood aghast at him, whose earthly wealth and funded capital consisted of one small calabash of rice, there lived a heart richer than ‘Laissez-faire:’ they, with a royal munificence, boiled their rice for him; they sang all night to him, spinning assiduous on their cotton distaffs, as he lay to sleep: “Let us pity the poor white man; no mother has he to fetch him milk, no sister to grind him corn!” Thou poor black Noble One, - thou Lady too: did not a God make thee too; was there not in thee too something of a God!

Gurth, born thrall of Cedric the Saxon, has been greatly pitied by Dryasdust and others. Gurth with the brass collar round his neck, tending Cedric’s pigs in the glades of the wood, is not what I call an exemplar of human felicity: but Gurth, with the sky above him, with the free air and tinted boscage and umbrage round him, and in him at least the certainty of supper and social lodging when he came home, - Gurth to me seems happy in comparison with many a Lancashire and Buckinghamshire man of these days not born thrall of any body! Gurth’s brass collar did not gall him; Cedric deserved to be his Master. The pigs were Cedric’s, but Gurth too would get his parings of them. Gurth had the inexpressible satisfaction of feeling himself related indissolubly, though in a rude brass-collar way, to his fellow mortals in this earth. He had superiors, inferiors, equals. - Gurth is now ‘emancipated’ long since; has what we call ‘Liberty.’ Liberty, I am told, is a divine thing. Liberty, when it becomes the liberty to die by starvation is not so divine!

Liberty? The true liberty of a man, you would say, consisted in his finding out, or being forced to find out the right path, and to walk therein. To learn or to be taught what work he actually was able for, and then by permission, persuasion and even compulsion, to set about doing of the same! That is his true blessedness, honour, liberty and maximum of well-being: if liberty be not that, I, for one, have small care about liberty. You do not allow a palpable madman to leap over precipices; you violate his liberty, you that are wise; and keep him, were it in strait-waistcoats, away from the precipices! Every stupid, every cowardly and foolish man is but a less palpable madman: his true liberty were that a wiser man, that any and every wiser man, could by brass collars, or in whatever milder or sharper way, lay hold of him when he was going wrong, and order and compel him to go a little righter. O if thou really art my Senior, Seigneur, my Elder, Presbyter or Priest - if thou art in very deed my Wiser, may a beneficent instinct lead and impel thee to ‘conquer’ me, to command me! If thou do know better than I what is good and right, I conjure thee in the name of God, force me to do it; were it by never such brass collars, whips and hand-cuffs, leave me not to walk over precipices! That I have been called by all the Newspapers a ‘free man’ will avail me little, if my pilgrimage have ended in death and wreck. O that the Newspapers had called me slave, coward, fool, or what it pleased their sweet voices to name me, and I had attained not death but life! Liberty requires new definitions.

A conscious abhorrence and intolerance of Folly, of Baseness, Stupidity, Poltroonery and all that brood of things, dwells deep in some men: still deeper in others an unconscious abhorrence, and intolerance, clothed moreover by the beneficent Supreme Powers in what stout appetites, energies, egoisms so called, are suitable to it; - these latter are your Conquerors, Romans, Normans, Russians, Indo-English; Founders of what we call Aristocracies. Which indeed have they not the most ‘divine right’ to found; being themselves very truly BRAVEST, BEST; and conquering generally a confused rabble of WORST, or at lowest, clearly enough, of WORSE? I think their ‘divine right,’ tried, with affirmating verdict, in the greatest Law-Court known to me, was good! A class of men who are dreadfully exclaimed against by Dryasdust; of whom nevertheless beneficent Nature has oftentimes had need, - and may alas, again have need.

Whom across the hundredfold poor scepticisms, trivialities and constitutional cobwebberies of Dryasdust, you catch any glimpse of a William the Conqueror, a Tancred of Hauteville or such like, - do you not discern veritably some rude outline of a true God-made King; whom not the Champion of England cased in tin, but all Nature and the Universe were calling to the throne? It is absolutely necessary that he get thither. Nature does not mean her poor Saxon children to perish, of obesity, stupor or other malady, as yet: a stern Ruler therefore and Line of Rulers is called in, - a stern but most beneficent Perpetual House-Surgeon is called in, - by Nature, and even the appropriate fees are provided for him! Dryasdust talks lamentably about Hereward and the Fen Counties, fate of Earl Waltheof, Yorkshire and the North reduced to ashes; all which is undoubtedly lamentable. But even Dryasdust apprises me of one fact: ‘a child, in this William’s reign, might have carried a purse of gold from end to end of England.’ My erudite friend, it is a fact which outweighs a thousand! Sweep away thy constitutional, sentimental and other cobwebberies; look eye to eye, if thou still have any eye, in the face of this big burly William Bastard: thou wilt see a fellow of most flashing discernment, of most strong lion-heart; - in whom, as it were, within a frame of oak and iron, the gods have planted the soul of ‘a man of genius’! Dost thou call that nothing? I call it an immense thing! - Rage enough was in this Willelmus Conquestor, rage enough for his occasions; - and yet the essential element of him, as of all such men, is not scorching fire but shining illuminative light. Fire and light are strangely interchangeable; nay at bottom, I have found them different forms of the same most godlike elementary substance in our world: - a thing worth stating in these days. The essential element of Conquestor is, first of all, the most sun-eyed perception of what is really what on this God’s-Earth; - which, thou wilt find, does mean at bottom ‘Justice,’ and virtues not a few: conformity to what the Maker has seen good to make; that, I suppose, will mean Justice and a Virtue or two? -

Dost thou think Willelmus Conquestor would have tolerated ten years’ jargon, one hour’s jargon, on the propriety of killing Cotton-manufacturers by partridge Corn-Laws? I fancy, this was not the man to knock out of his night’s-rest with nothing but a noisy bedlamism in your mouth! “Assist us still better to bush the partridges; strangle Plugson who spins the shirts?” - “Par la splendeur de Dieu!” - - Dost thou think Willelmus Conquestor, in this new Time, with Steam-engine Captains of Industry on one hand of him, and Joe-Manton Captains of Idleness on the other, would have doubted which was really the BEST; which did deserve strangling, and which not?

I have a certain indestructible regard for Willelmus Conquestor. A resident House-Surgeon, provided by Nature for her beloved English People, and even furnished with the requisite ‘fees,’ as I said, - for he by no means felt himself doing Nature’s work, this Willelmus, but his own work exclusively. And his own work withal it was: ‘Par la splendeur de Dieu.’ - I say it is necessary to get the work out of such a man however harsh that be! When a world not yet doomed for death, is rushing down to ever deeper Baseness and confusion, it is a dire Necessity of Nature’s to bring in her ARISTOCRACIES, her BEST, even by forcible methods. When their descendants or representatives cease entirely to be the Best, Nature’s poor world will very soon rush down again to Baseness, - and it becomes a dire Necessity of Nature’s to cast them out! Hence French Revolutions, Five-point Charters, Democracies, and a mournful list of Etceteras in these our afflicted times.

To what extent Democracy has now reached, how it advances irresistible with ominous, ever-increasing speed, he that will open his eyes on any province of human affairs may discern. Democracy is everywhere the inexorable demand of these ages, swiftly fulfilling itself. From the thunder of Napoleon battles, to the jabbering of open-vestry in St. Mary Axe, all things announce Democracy. A distinguished man, whom some of my readers will hear again with pleasure, thus writes to me what in these days he notes from the Wahngasse of Weissnichtwo, where our London fashions seem to be in full vogue. Let us hear the Herr Teufelsdröckh again, were it but the smallest word!

‘Democracy, which means despair of finding any Heroes to govern you, and contented putting up with the want of them, - alas, thou too, mein Lieber, seest well how close it is of Kin to Atheism, and other sad Isms: he who discovers no God whatever, how shall he discover Heroes the visible Temples of God? - Strange enough meanwhile it is, to observe with what thoughtlessness, here in our rigidly Conservative Country, men rush into Democracy with full cry. Beyond doubt, his Excellenz the Titular-Herr Ritter Kauderwälsch von Pferdefuss-Quacksalber, he our distinguished Conservative Premier himself, and all but the thicker-headed of his Party, discern Democracy to be inevitable as Death, and are even desperate of delaying it much!

‘You cannot walk the streets without beholding Democracy announce itself: the very Tailor has become, if not properly Sansculottic, which to him would be ruinous, yet a Tailor unconsciously symbolising, and prophesying with his scissors, the reign of Equality. What now is our fashionable coat? A thing of superfinest texture, of deeply meditated cut; with Malinnes-lace cuffs; quilted with gold; so that a man can carry, without difficulty, an estate of land on his back? Keineswegs, by no manner of means! The Sumptuary Laws have fallen into such a state of desuetude as was never before seen. Our fashionable coat is an amphibium between barn-sack and drayman’s doublet. The cloth of it is studiously coarse; the colour a speckled soot-black or rust-brown grey; - the nearest approach to a Peasant’s. And for shape, - thou shouldst see it! The last consummation of the year now passing over us is definable as Three Bags: a big bag for the body, two small bags for the arms, and by way of collar a hem! The first Antique Cheruscan who, of felt-cloth or bear’s hide, with bone or metal needle, set about making himself a coat, before Tailors had yet awakened out of Nothing, - did not he make it even so? A loose wide poke for body, with two holes to let out the arms; this was his original coat; to which holes it was soon visible that two small loose pokes, or sleeves, easily appended, would be an improvement.

‘Thus has the Tailor-art, so to speak, overset itself, like most other things; changed its centre-of-gravity, whirled suddenly over from zenith to nadir. Your Stutz, with huge somerset, vaults from his high shop-board down to the depths of primeval savagery, - carrying much along with him! For I will invite thee to reflect that the Tailor, as topmost ultimate froth of Human Society, is indeed swift-passing, evanescent, slippery to decipher; yet significant of much, nay of all. Topmost evanescent froth, he is churned up from the very lees, and from all intermediate regions of the liquor. The general outcome he, visible to the eye; of what men aimed to do, and were obliged and enabled to do, in this one public department of symbolising themselves to each other by covering of their skins. A smack of all Human Life lies in the Tailor: its wild struggles towards beauty, dignity, freedom, victory; and how, hemmed in by Sedan, and Huddersfield, by Nescience, Dulness, Prurience, and other sad necessities and laws of Nature, it has attained just to this: Grey Savagery of Three Sacks with a hem!

‘When the very Tailor verges towards Sansculottism, is it not ominous? The last Divinity of poor Mankind dethroning himself; sinking his taper too, flame downmost, like the Genius of Sleep or of Death; admonitory that Tailor-time shall be no more! - For, little as one could advise Sumptuary Laws at the present epoch, yet nothing is clearer than that when ranks do actually exist, strict division of costumes will also be enforced; that if we ever have a new Hierarchy and Aristocracy, acknowledged veritably as such, for which I daily pray Heaven, the Tailor will re-awaken; and be, by volunteering and appointment, consciously and unconsciously, a safeguard of that same.’ - Certain farther observations, from the same invaluable pen, on our never-ending changes of mode, our ‘perpetual Nomadic and even Ape-like appetite for change and mere change,’ in all the equipments of our existence, and the ‘fatal revolutionary character’ thereby manifested, we suppress for the present. It may be admitted that Democracy, in all meanings of the word, is in full career; irresistible by any Ritter Kauderwülsch or other son of Adam as times go. Liberty is a thing men are determined to have.

But truly, as we have meanwhile to remark, ‘the liberty of not being oppressed by your fellow men’ is an indispensable, yet one of the most insignificant fractional parts of Human Liberty. No man oppresses thee, can bid thee fetch or carry, come or go, without reason shewn. True; from all men thou art emancipated: but from Thyself and from the Devil? - No men, wiser, or unwiser, can make thee come or go: but thy own futilities, bewilderments, thy false appetites for Money, Windsor Georges and such like? No man oppresses thee, O free and independent Franchiser: but does not this stupid Porter-pot oppress thee? No son of Adam can bid thee come or go; but this absurd Pot of Heavy-wet, this can and does! Thou art the thrall not of Cedric the Saxon, but of thy own brutal appetites, and this scoured dish of liquor. And thou pratest of thy ‘liberty?’ Thou entire blockhead!

Heavy-wet and gin: alas, these are not the only kinds of thraldom. Thou who walkest in a vain shew, looking out with ornamental dilettante sniff and serene supremacy, at all Life and all Death; and amblest jauntily; perking up thy poor talk into crochets, thy poor conduct into fatuous somnambulisms; - and art as an ‘enchanted Ape’ under God’s sky, where thou mightest have been a man, had proper Schoolmasters and Conquerors, and Constables with cat-o’-nine-tails, been vouchsafed thee: dost thou call that ‘liberty?’ Or your unreposing Mammon-worshipper, again, driven as if by Galvanisms, by Devils and Fixed-Ideas, who rises early and sits late chasing the impossible; straining every faculty to ‘fill himself with the east wind,’ - how merciful were it, could you, by mild persuasion or by the severest tyranny so-called, check him in his mad path, turn him into a wiser one! All painful tyranny, in that case again, were but ‘mild surgery;’ the pain of it cheap, as health and life, instead of galvanism and fixed-idea, is cheap at any price.

Sure enough, Of all paths a man could strike into there is at any given moment a best path for every man; a thing which, here and now, it were of all things wisest for him to do; - which could he be but led or driven to do, he were then doing ‘like a man,’ as we phrase it; all men and gods agreeing with him, the whole Universe virtually exclaiming Well-done to him! His success, in such case, were complete; his felicity a maximum. This path, to find this path and walk in it, is the one thing needful for him. Whatsoever forwards him in that, let it come to him even in the shape of blows and spurnings, is liberty: whatsoever hinders him, were it wardmotes, open-vestries, pollbooths, tremendous cheers, rivers of heavy-wet, is slavery.

The notion that a man’s liberty consists in giving his vote at election-hustings, and saying, “Behold now I too have my twenty-thousandth part of a Talker in our National Palaver; will not all the gods be good to me?” - is one of the pleasantest! Nature nevertheless is kind at present; and puts it into heads of many, almost of all. The liberty especially which has to purchase itself by social isolation, and each man standing separate from the other, having ‘no business with him’ but a cash-account: this is such a liberty as the Earth seldom saw; - as the Earth will not long put up with, recommend it how you may. This liberty turns out, before it have long continued in action, with all men flinging up their caps round it, to be, for the Working Millions a liberty to die by want of food; for the Idle Thousands and Units, alas a still more fatal liberty to live in want of work; to have no earnest duty to do in this God’s-world any more. What becomes of a man in such predicament? Earth’s Laws are silent; and Heaven’s speak in a voice which is not heard. No work, and the ineradicable need of work, give rise to new very wondrous life-philosophies, new very wondrous life-practices! Dilettantism, Pococurantism, Beau Brummelism, with perhaps an occasional half-mad, protesting burst of Byronism, establish themselves: at the end of a certain period, - if you go back to ‘the Dead Sea,’ there is, say our Moslem friends, a very strange ‘Sabbath-day’ transacting itself there! - Brethren, we know but imperfectly yet, after ages of Constitutional Government, what liberty is and Slavery is.

Democracy, the chase of Liberty in that direction, shall go its full course; unrestrainable by him of Pferdefuss-Quacksalber, or any of his household. The Toiling Millions of Mankind, in most vital need and passionate instinctive desire of Guidance, shall cast away False-Guidance; and hope, for an hour, that No-Guidance will suffice them: but it can be for an hour only. The smallest item of human Slavery is the oppression of man by his Mock-Superiors; the palpablest, but I say, at bottom the smallest. Let him shake off such oppression, trample it indignantly under his feet; I blame him not, I pity and commend him. But oppression by your Mock-Superiors well shaken off, the grand problem yet remains to solve: That of finding government by your Real-Superiors! Alas, how shall we ever learn the solution of that, benighted, bewildered, sniffing, sneering, god-forgetting unfortunates as we are? It is a work for centuries; to be taught us by tribulations, confusions, insurrections, obstructions; who knows if not by conflagration and despair! It is a lesson inclusive of all other lessons; the hardest of all lessons to learn.

One thing I do know: Those Apes chattering on the branches by the Dead Sea never got it learned; but chatter there to this day. To them no Moses need come a second time; a thousand Moseses would be but so many painted Phantasms, interesting Fellow-apes of new strange aspect, - whom they would ‘invite to dinner,’ be glad to meet with in Lion-Soirees. To them the voice of Prophecy, of heavenly monition is quite ended. They chatter there, all Heaven shut to them, to the end of the world. The unfortunates! O, what is dying of hunger, with honest tools in your hand, with a manful purpose in your heart, and much real labour lying round you done, in comparison? You honestly quit your tools; quit a most muddy confused coil of sore work, short rations, of sorrows, dispiritments and contradictions, having now honestly done with it all; - and await, not entirely in a distracted manner, what the Supreme Powers, and the Silences and the Eternities may have to say to you.

A second thing I know, this lesson will have to be learned, - under penalties! England will either learn it, or England will also cease to exist among Nations. England will either learn to reverence its heroes, and discriminate them from its Sham-Heroes and Valets, and gaslighted Histrios; and to prize them as the audible God’s-voice amid all inane jargons and temporary market-cries, and say to them with heart-loyalty, “Be ye King and Priest and Gospel and Guidance for us:” or else England will continue to worship new and ever new forms of Quackhood, - and so, with what resiliences and reboundings matters little, go down to the Father of Quacks! Can I dread such things of England? Wretched thick-eyed, gross-hearted mortals, why will ye worship Lies, and ‘stuffed clothes-suits created by the ninth-parts of men!’ It is not your purses that suffer; your farm-rents, your commerces, your mill-revenues, loud as ye lament over these; no, it is not these alone, but a far deeper than these: it is your Souls that lie dead, crushed down under despicable Nightmares, Atheisms, Brain-fumes; and are not Souls at all, but mere succedanea for salt to keep your bodies and their appetites from putrefying! Your Cotton-spinning and thrice miraculous mechanism, what is this too, by itself, but a larger kind of Animalism? Spiders can spin, Beavers can build and shew contrivance; the Ant lays up accumulation of capital, and has, for aught I know, a Bank of Antland. If there is no soul in man higher than all that, did it reach to sailing on the cloud-rack and spinning sea-sand; then I say, man is but an animal, a more cunning kind of brute: he has no soul, but only a succedaneum for salt. Wherefore, seeing himself to be truly of the beasts that perish, - he ought to admit it, I think; and also straightway universally kill himself; and so, in a man-like manner, at least end, and wave these brute-worlds his dignified farewell! -

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