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Thomas Carlyle, Past and Present (1843)

From “Democracy”

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 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 ‘organised,’ 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 Parliaments 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!

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 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, with ‘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?

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 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.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 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.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 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 these 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.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 3 Not even in Black Dahomey 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!–

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 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 anybody! 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!

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 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 thereon. 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 wellbeing: 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 handcuffs, 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.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 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 Aristoi, BRAVEST, BEST; and conquering generally a confused rabble of WORST, or at lowest; clearly enough, of WORSE? I think their divine right, tried, with affirmatory 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.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 When, across the hundredfold poor scepticisms, trivialisms, 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 and Line of Rulers therefore 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 lionheart;– 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 this 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?–

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Dost thou think Willelmus Conquestor would have tolerated ten years’ jargon, one hour’s jargon, on the propriety of killing Cotton-manufactures 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?

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 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; informed ‘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.


13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 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, godforgetting 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.

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Source: https://marginalia.sunygeneseoenglish.org/carlyle-past-and-present/democracy/

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