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Past and Present: Thomas Carlyle, 1843

Book 4 Chapter 1: Aristocracies

To predict the Future, to manage the Present, would not be so impossible, had not the Past been so sacrilegiously mishandled; effaced, and what is worse, defaced! The Past cannot be seen; the Past, looked at through the medium of ‘Philosophical History’ in these times, cannot even be not seen: it is misseen; affirmed to have existed, - and to have been a godless Impossibility. Your Norman Conquerors, true royal souls, crowned kings as such, were vulturous irrational Tyrants: your Becket was a noisy Egoist and Hypocrite; getting his brains spilt on the floor of Canterbury Cathedral, to secure the main chance, - somewhat uncertain how! “Enthusiasm” and even “honest Enthusiasm,” - yes, of course:

‘The Dog, to gain his private ends,
Went mad; and bit the man!’ -

For in truth, the eye sees in all things what it brought with it the means of seeing. A godless century, looking back on centuries that were godly, produces portraitures, more miraculous than any other. All was inane discord in the Past; brute force bore rule everywhere; Stupidity, savage unreason, fitter for Bedlam than for a human world! Whereby indeed it becomes sufficiently natural that the like qualities, in new sleeker habiliments, should continue in our own time to rule. Millions enchanted in Bastille Workhouses; Irish widows proving their relationship by typhus fever: what would you have? It was ever so, or worse. Man’s History, was it not always even this: The cookery and eating up of imbecile Dupedom by successful Quackhood; the battle, with various weapons, of vulturous Quack and Tyrant against vulturous Tyrant and Quack! No God was in the Past Time; nothing but Mechanisms and chaotic Brute Gods: - how shall the poor ‘Philosophic Historian,’ to whom his own century is all godless, see any God in other centuries? -

Men believe in Bibles, and disbelieve in them: but of all Bibles the frightfullest to disbelieve in, is this ‘Bible of Universal History.’ This is the Eternal Bible and God’s Book, ‘which every born man,’ till once the soul and eyesight are extinguished in him, ‘can and must see with his own eyes the God’s-Finger writing!’ To discredit this is an infidelity like no other. Such infidelity you would punish, if not by fire and fagot, which are difficult to manage in our times, yet by the most peremptory order, to hold its peace till it got something wiser to say. Why should the blessed Silence be broken into noises to communicate only the like of this? If the Past have no God’s-Reason in it, nothing but Devil’s-Unreason, let the Past be eternally forgotten: mention it no more; - we whose ancestors were all hanged, why should we talk of ropes!

It is, in brief, not true that men ever lived by Delirium, Hypocrisy, Injustice, or any form of Unreason, since they came to inhabit this Planet. It is not true that they ever did, or ever will, live except by the reverse of these. Men will again be taught this. Their acted History will then again be a Heroism; their written History, what it once was, an Epic. Nay forever it is either such; or else it virtually is - Nothing. Were it written in a thousand volumes, the unheroism of such volumes hastens incessantly to be forgotten; the net content of an Alexandrian Library of Unheroics is, and will ultimately shew itself to be, zero. What man is interested to remember it; have not all men, at all times, the liveliest interest to forget it? - ‘Revelations,’ if not celestial then infernal, will teach us that God is; we shall then, if needful, discern without difficulty that He has always been! The Dryasdust Philosophisms and enlightened Scepticisms of the Eighteenth Century, historical and other, will have to survive for a while with the Physiologists, - as a memorable Nightmare Dream. All this haggard epoch with its ghastly Doctrines, and death’s head Philosophies ‘teaching by example’ or otherwise, will one day have become, what to our Moslem friends their godless ages are, the ‘Period of Ignorance.’

If the convulsive struggles of the last Half-century have taught poor struggling convulsed Europe any truth, it may perhaps be this as the extreme of innumerable others: That Europe requires a real Aristocracy, a real Priesthood, or it cannot continue to exist. Huge French Revolutions, Napoleonisms, then Bourbonisms with their corollary of Three Days, finishing in very unfinal Louis-Phillipisms: all this ought to be didactic! All this may have taught us, that False Aristocracies are insupportable; that No-Aristocracies, Liberty-and-Equalities are impossible; that true Aristocracies are at once indispensable and not easily attained!

Aristocracy and Priesthood, a Governing Class and a Teaching Class: these two, sometimes separate, and endeavouring to harmonize themselves, sometimes conjoined as one, and the King a Pontiff-King: - then did no society exist without these two vital elements, then will none exist. It lies in the very nature of man: you will visit no remotest village in the most republican country of the world, where, virtually or actually you do not find these two powers at work. Man, little as he may suppose it, is necessitated to obey superiors. He is a social being in virtue of this necessity; nay he could not be gregarious otherwise. He obeys those whom he esteems better than himself, wiser, braver; and will forever obey such, and even be ready and delighted to do it. The Wiser, Braver: these, a Virtual Aristocracy everywhere and everywhen, do in all societies that reach any articulate shape, develope themselves into a ruling class, an Actual Aristocracy, with settled modes of operating, what are called laws and even private-laws or privileges, and so forth; very notable to look upon in this world. - Aristocracy and Priesthood, we say, are sometimes united. For indeed the Wiser and the Braver are properly but one class; no wise man but needed first of all to be a brave man, or he never had been wise. The noble Priest was always a noble Aristos to begin with, and something more to end with. Your Luther, your Knox, your Anselm, Becket, Abbot Samson, Samuel Johnson, if they had not been brave enough, by what possibility could they ever have been wise? - If, from accident or forethought, this your Actual Aristocracy have got discriminated into two classes, there can be no doubt but the Priest class is the more dignified; supreme over the other, as governing head is over active hand. And yet in practice again, it is likeliest the reverse will be found arranged; - a sign that the arrangement is already vitiated; that a split is introduced into it, which will widen and widen till the whole be rent asunder.

In England, in Europe generally, we may say that these two Virtualities have unfolded themselves into Actualities, in by far the noblest and richest manner any region of the world ever saw. A spiritual Guideship, a practical Governorship, fruit of the grand conscious endeavours, say rather of the immeasurable unconscious instincts and necessities of men, have established themselves; very strange to behold. Everywhere, while so much has been forgotten, you find the King’s Palace, and the Vice-King’s Castle, Mansion, Manor-house; till there is not an inch of ground from sea to sea but has both its King and Vice-King, long due series of Vice-Kings, its Squire, Earl, Duke, or whatever the title of him, - to whom you have given the land that he may govern you in it.

More touching still, there is not a hamlet where poor peasants congregate but by one means and another a Church-Apparatus has been got together, - roofed edifice with revenues and belfries; pulpit, reading-desk, with Books and Methods: possibility, in short, and strict prescription, that a man stand there and speak of spiritual things to men. It is beautiful; - even in its great obscuration and decadence, it is among the beautifullest, most touching objects one sees on the earth. This speaking Man has indeed, in these times wandered terribly from the point; has, alas! as it were totally lost sight of the point: yet, at bottom, whom have we to compare with him? Of all public functionaries boarded and lodged on the Industry of Modern Europe, is there one worthier of the board he has? A man even professing, and never so languidly making still some endeavours, to save the souls of men: contrast him with a man professing to do little but shoot the partridges of men! I wish he could find the point again, this speaking one: and stick to it with tenacity, with deadly energy, - for there is need of him yet! The speaking Function, this of Truth coming to us with a living voice, nay in a living shape and as a concrete practical Exemplar: this with all our Writing and Printing Functions, has a perennial place. Could he but find the point again, - take the old spectacles off his nose, and looking up discover, almost in contact with him, what the real Satanas, and soul-devouring, world-devouring Devil, now is! Original Sin and such like are bad enough, I doubt not: but distilled Gin, dark Ignorance, Stupidity, dark Corn-Law, Bastille and Company, what are they! Will he discover our new real Satan, whom he has to fight; or go on droning through his old nose-spectacles about old extinct Satans, - and never see the real one, till he feel him at his own throat and ours? That is a question for the world! Let us not intermeddle with it here.

Sorrowful, phantasmal as this same Double Aristocracy of Teachers and Governors now looks, it is worth all men’s while to know that the purport of it is and remains noble and most real. Dryasdust, looking merely at the surface, is greatly in error as to those ancient Kings. William Conqueror, William Rufus or Redbeard, Stephen Curthose himself, much more Henry Beauclerc and our brave Plantagenet Henry: the life of these men was not a vulturous Fighting; it was a valorous Governing, to which occasionally Fighting did, and alas must yet, though far seldomer now, superadd itself as an accident, a distressing impedimental adjunct. The Fighting too was indispensable, for ascertaining who had the might over whom, - the right over whom. By much hard fighting, as we once said, ‘the unrealities, beaten into dust, flew gradually off,’ and left the plain reality and fact, “thou stronger than I; thou wiser than I; thou king, and subject I,” in a somewhat clearer condition!

Truly we cannot enough admire, in those Abbot-Samson and William-Conqueror times, the arrangement they had made of their Governing Classes. Highly interesting to observe how the sincere insight, on their part, into what did of primary necessity behove to be accomplished, had led them to the way of accomplishing it; and in the course of time, to get it accomplished! No imaginary Aristocracy would serve their turn; and accordingly they attained a real one. The Bravest men, who it is ever to be repeated and remembered, are also on the whole the Wisest, Strongest, every way Best, had, here, with a respectable degree of accuracy, been got selected; seated each on his piece of territory, which was lent him, then gradually given him, that he might govern it. These Vice-Kings, each on his portion of the common soil of England, with a Head King over all, were a ‘Virtuality perfected into an Actuality’ really to an astonishing extent.

For those were rugged stalwart ages; full of earnestness, of a rude God’s-truth: - nay, at any rate, their quilting was so unspeakably thinner than ours; Fact came swiftly on them, if at any time they had yielded to Phantasm! ‘The Knaves and Dastards’ had to be ‘arrested’ in some measure; or the world, almost within year and day, found that it could not live. The Knaves and Dastards accordingly were got arrested. Dastards upon the very throne had to be got arrested, and taken off the throne, - by such methods as then were; by the roughest method, if there chance to be no smoother one. Doubtless there was much harshness of operation, much severity; as indeed government and surgery are often somewhat severe. Gurth, born thrall of Cedric, it is like, got cuffs as often as pork-parings, if he misdemeaned himself: but Gurth did belong to Cedric: no human creature then went about connected with nobody; left to go his ways into Bastilles or worse, under Laissez-faire; reduced to prove his relationship by dying of typhus fever! - Days come when there is no King in Israel, but every man is his own king, doing that which is right in his own eyes; - and tar barrels are burnt to ‘Liberty,’ Ten Pound Franchise and the like, with considerable effect in various ways! -

That Feudal Aristocracy, I say, was no imaginary one. To a respectable degree, its Iarls, what we now call Earls, were Strong Ones in fact as well as etymology; its Dukes Leaders; its Lords Law-wards. They did all the Soldiering and Police of the Country, all the Judging, Law-making, even the Church-Extension; whatsoever in the way of Governing, of Guiding and Protecting could be done. It was a Land Aristocracy; it managed the Governing of this English People, and had the reaping of the soil of England in return. It is, in many senses, the Law of Nature, this same Law of Feudalism; - no right Aristocracy but a Land one! The curious are invited to meditate upon it in these days. Soldiering, Police and Judging, Church Extension, nay real Governance and Guidance, all this was actually done by the Holders of the Land in return for the Land. How much of it is now done by them, - done by anybody! Good Heavens, “Laissez-faire, Do ye nothing, eat your wages and sleep,” is everywhere the passionate half-wise cry of this time; and they will not so much as do nothing, but must do more Corn-Laws! We raise Fifty-two millions from the general mass of us, to get our Governing done, - or, alas, to get ourselves persuaded that it is done: and the ‘peculiar burden of the Land’ is to pay, not all this, but to pay, as I learn, one twenty-fourth part of all this. Our first Chartist Parliament, or Oliver Redivivus, you would say, will know where to lay the new taxes of England! - Or, alas, taxes? If we made the Holders of the Land pay every shilling still of the expense of Governing the Land, what were all that? The Land by mere hired Governors, cannot be got governed. You cannot hire men to govern the Land; it is by a mission not contracted for in the Stock-Exchange, but felt in their own hearts as coming out of Heaven, that men can govern a Land. The mission of a Land Aristocracy is a sacred one, in both the senses of that old word. The footing it stands on, at present, might give rise to thoughts, other than of Corn-Law.

But truly a ‘splendour of God,’ as in William Conqueror’s rough oath, did dwell in those old rude veracious ages; did inform, more and more, with a heavenly nobleness, all departments of their work and life. Phantasms could not yet walk abroad in mere Cloth Tailorage; they were at least Phantasms ‘on the rim of the Horizon,’ pencilled there by an eternal Light-beam from within. A most ‘practical’ Hero-worship went on, unconsciously or half-consciously everywhere. A monk Samson, with a maximum of two shillings in his pocket, could, without ballot-box, be made a Vice-king of, being seen to be worthy. The difference between a good man and a bad man was as yet, felt to be, what it forever is, an immeasurable one. Who durst have elected a Pandarus Dogdraught, Esq. in those days, to any office, Carlton Club, Senatorship, or place whatsoever? It was felt that the arch Satanas and no other had a clear right of property in Pandarus; that it were better for you to have no hand in Pandarus, to keep out of Pandarus his neighbourhood! Which is to this hour the mere fact; though for the present, alas, the forgotten fact. I think they were comparatively blessed times, those, in their way! “Violence,” “war,” “disorder:” well, what is war, and death itself, to such a perpetual-life-in-death, and ‘peace, peace where there is no peace!’ Unless some Hero-worship, in its new appropriate form, can return, this world does not promise to be very habitable long.

Old Anselm, exiled Archbishop of Canterbury, one of the purest-minded ‘men of genius,’ was travelling to make his appeal to Rome, against King Rufus, - a man of rough ways, in whom the inner Lightbeam shone very fitfully. It is beautiful to read in Monk Eadmer, how the continental populations welcomed and venerated this Anselm, as no French population now venerated a Jean-Jacques [Rousseau] or giant-killing Voltaire; as not even an American population now venerates a Schnüspel the distinguished Novelist! They had, by phantasy and true insight, the intensest conviction that a God’s-Blessing dwelt in this Anselm, - as it is my conviction too. They crowded round with bent knees and enkindled hearts, to receive his blessing, to hear his voice, to see the light of his face. My blessings on them and on him! - But the notablest was a certain necessitous or covetous Duke of Burgundy, in straitened circumstances we shall hope, - who reflected that in all likelihood this English Archbishop, going towards Rome to appeal, must have taken store of cash with him to bribe the Cardinals. Wherefore he of Burgundy for his part, decided to lie in wait and rob him. ‘In an open space of a wood,’ some ‘wood’ then green and growing, eight centuries ago, in Burgundian land, - this fierce Duke, with fierce steel-followers, shaggy, savage, as the Russian Bear, dashes out on the weak old Anselm, riding along there on his small quiet-going pony; escorted only by Eadmer and another poor monk on ponies; and, except some small modicum of road-money, not a gold coin in his possession. The steel-clad Russian Bear emerges, glaring: the old white-bearded man starts not, - paces on unmoved, looking into it with his clear old earnest eyes, with his venerable, sorrowful, time-worn face; of whom no thing need be afraid, and who also is afraid of no created thing. The fierce eyes of his Burgundian Grace meet these clear eye-glances, convey them swift to his heart: he bethinks him that probably this feeble, fearless, hoary Figure, has in it something of the Most High God; that probably he shall be damned if he meddle with it, - that, on the whole, he had better not. He plunges, the rough savage, off his warhorse, down to his knees, embraces the feet of old Anselm: he too begs his blessing - orders men to escort him from being robbed, and under dread penalties see him safe on his way! Per os Dei [by God's bones], as his majesty was wont to ejaculate!

Neither is this quarrel of Rufus and Anselm, of Henry and Becket, uninstructive to us. It was, at bottom, a great quarrel. For, admitting that Anselm was full of Divine Blessing, he, by no means, included in him all forms of Divine Blessing: - there were far other forms withal, which he little dreamed of; and William Redbeard was unconsciously the representative and spokesman of these! In truth, could your divine Anselm, your divine Pope Gregory have had their way, the results had been very notable. Our Western World had all become a European Thibet, with one Grand Lama sitting at Rome; our one honourable business that of singing mass all day and all night. Which would not in the least have suited us! The Supreme Powers willed it not so.

It was as if King Redbeard unconsciously, addressing Anselm, Becket and the others had said: “Right Reverend, your theory of the Universe is indisputable by man or devil, to the core of our heart we feel that this divine thing which you call Mother Church does fill the whole world hitherto known, and is and shall be all our salvation and all our desire. And yet - and yet - Behold, though it is an unspoken secret, the world is wider than any of us think, right Reverend! Behold, there are yet other unmeasurable sacrednesses in this that you call Heathenism, Secularity! On the whole I, in an obscure, but most rooted manner, feel that I cannot comply with you. Western Thibet and perpetual mass-chaunting - No. I am, so to speak, in the family way; with child, of I know not what, - certainly of something far different from this! I have - Per os Dei, I have Manchester Cotton-trades, Bromwicham [Birmingham] Iron-trades, American Commonwealths, Indian Empires, Steam Mechanisms and Shakspeare Dramas, in my belly; and cannot do it, right Reverend!” - So accordingly it was decided: and Saxon Becket spilt his life in Canterbury Cathedral, as Scottish Wallace did on Tower-Hill, and as generally a noble man and martyr has to do, - not for nothing; no, but for a divine something, other than he had altogether calculated. We will now quit this of the hard organic, but limited Feudal ages; and glance timidly into the immense Industrial Ages, as yet all inorganic, and in a quite pulpy condition, requiring desperately to harden themselves into some organism!

Our Epic having now become Tools and the Man, it is more than usually impossible to prophesy the Future. The boundless Future does lie there, predestined, nay already extant though unseen; hiding, in its continents of Darkness ‘Good hap and sorrow;’ but the supremest intelligence of man cannot prefigure much of it: - the united intelligence and effort of All Men in all coming generations, this alone will gradually prefigure it, and figure and form it into a seen fact! Straining our eyes hitherto, the utmost effort of intelligence sheds but some most glimmering dawn a little way into its dark enormous Deeps: only huge outlines loom uncertain on the sight; and the ray of prophesy, at a short distance expires. But may we not say, here as always, Sufficient for the day is the evil thereof! To shape the whole Future is not our problem; but only to shape faithfully a small part of it, according to rules already known. It is perhaps possible for each of us, who will with due earnestness inquire, to ascertain clearly what he, for his own part, ought to do: this let him, with true heart, do, and continue doing. The general issue will, as it has always done, rest well with a Higher Intelligence than ours.

One grand ‘outline,’ or even two, many earnest readers may perhaps, at this stage of the business, be able to prefigure for themselves, - and draw some guidance from. One prediction or even two are already possible. For the Lifetree Igdrasil in all its new developements, is the self-same world-old Lifetree, having found an element or elements there, running from the very roots of it, in Hela’s Realms, in the Well of Miner and of the Three Normas or Times, up to this present hour of it in our own hearts, we conclude that such will have to continue. A man has, in his own soul, an Eternal; can read something of the Eternal there, if he will look! He already knows what will continue; what cannot, by any means of appliance whatsoever, be made to continue!

One wide and widest ‘outline’ ought really, in all ways, to be becoming clear to us; this, namely: That a ‘Splendour of God,’ in one form or other, will have to unfold itself from the heart of these our Industrial Ages too; or they will never get themselves ‘organised;’ but continue chaotic, distressed, distracted, ever more, and have to perish in frantic suicidal dissolution. A second ‘outline’ or prophecy narrower, but also wide enough, seems not less certain: That there will again be a king in Israel; a system of Order and Government; and every man shall, in some measure, see himself constrained to do that which is right in the King’s eyes! This too we may call a sure element of the Future; for this too is of the Eternal; - this too is of the Present, though hidden from most; and without it no fibre of the Past ever was. An actual new Sovereignty, Industrial Aristocracy, is indispensable and indubitable for us.

But what an Aristocracy; on what new, far more complex and cunningly devised conditions than that old Feudal fighting one! For we are to bethink us that the Epic verily is not Arms and the Man, but Tools and the Man, - an infinitely wider kind of Epic. And again we are to bethink us that we cannot now be bound to men by brass collars - not at all: that this brass-collar method, in all figures of it, has vanished out of Europe forevermore! Huge Democracy, walking the streets everywhere in its Sack Coat, has asserted so much, irrevocably, brooking no reply! True enough, man is forever the ‘born thrall’ of certain men born master of certain other men, born equal of certain others, let him acknowledge the fact or not. It is unblessed for him when he cannot acknowledge this fact; he is in the chaotic state, ready to perish, till he do get the fact acknowledged. But no man is, or can henceforth be, the brass-collar thrall of any man; you will have to bind him by other, far nobler and cunninger methods. Once for all, he is to be loose of the brass-collar, to have a scope as wide as his faculties now are: - will he not be all the usefuller to you, in that new state? Let him go abroad as a trusted one, as a free one; and return home to you with rich earnings at night! Gurth could only tend pigs; this one will build cities, conquer waste worlds. - How, in conjunction with inevitable Democracy, indispensable Sovereignty is to exist: certainly it is the hugest question ever heretofore propounded to mankind! The solution of which is work for long years and centuries. Years and centuries of one knows not what complexion; - blessed or unblessed, according as they shall with earnest valiant effort, make progress therein, or in slothful unveracity and dilettantism only talk of making progress. For either progress therein, or swift and ever swifter progress towards dissolution, is henceforth a necessity.

It is of importance that this grand reformation were begun; that Corn-Law Debatings and other jargon, little less than delirious in such a time, had fled far away, and left us room to begin! For the evil has grown practical, extremely conspicuous; if it be not seen and provided for, the blindest fool will have to feel it ere long. There is much that can wait; but there is something also that cannot wait. With millions of eager Working men imprisoned in ‘Impossibility’ and Poor-Law Bastilles, it is time that some means of dealing with them were trying to become ‘possible’! Of the Government of England, of all articulate-speaking functionaries, real and imaginary Aristocracies, of me and of thee, it is imperatively demanded, “How do you mean to manage these men? Where are they to find a supportable existence? What is to become of them, - and of you!”

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