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Past and Present: Thomas Carlyle, 1843

Book 3 Chapter 8: Unworking Aristocracy

It is well said, ‘Land is the right basis of an Aristocracy;’ whoever possesses the Land, he, more emphatically than any other, is the Governor, Viceking of the people on the Land. It is in these days as it was in those of Henry Plantagenet and Abbot Samson; as it will in all days be. The Land is Mother of us all; nourishes, shelters, gladdens, lovingly enriches us all; in how many ways, from our first wakening to our last sleep on her blessed mother-bosom, does she, as with blessed mother-arms, enfold us all

The Hill I first saw the Sun rise over, when the Sun and I and all things were yet in their auroral hour, who can divorce me from it? Mystic, deep as the world’s centre, are the roots I have struck into my Native Soil; no tree that grows is rooted so. From noblest Patriotism to humblest industrial Mechanism; from highest dying for your country, to lowest quarrying and coal-boring for it, a Nation’s Life depends upon its Land. Again and again we have to say, there can be no true Aristocracy but must possess the Land.

Men talk of ‘selling’ Land. Land, it is true, like Epic Poems and even higher things, in such a trading world, has to be presented in the market for what it will bring, and as we say be ‘sold:’ but the notion of ‘selling,’ for certain bits of metal, the Iliad of Homer, how much more the Land of the World-Creator, is a ridiculous impossibility! We buy what is saleable of it; nothing more was ever buyable. Who can, or could, sell it to us? Properly speaking, the Land belongs to these two: To the Almighty God; and to all His Children of Men that have ever worked well on it, or that shall ever work well on it. No generation of men can or could, with never such solemnity and effort, sell Land on any other principle: it is not the property of any generation, we say, but that of all the past generations that have worked on it, and of all the future ones that shall work on it.

Again, we hear it said, The soil of England, or of any country, is properly worth nothing, except ‘the labour bestowed on it.’ This, speaking even in the language of Eastcheap, is not correct. The rudest space of country equal in extent to England, could a whole English Nation, with all their habitudes, arrangements, skills, with whatsoever they do carry within the skins of them, and cannot be stript of, suddenly take wing, and alight on it, -- would be worth a very considerable thing! Swiftly, within year and day, this English Nation, with its multiplex talents of ploughing, spinning, hammering, mining, road-making and trafficking, would bring a handsome value out of such a space of country. On the other hand, fancy what an English Nation, once ‘on the wing,’ could have done with itself, had there been simply no soil, not even an inarable one, to alight on? Vain all its talents for ploughing, hammering, and whatever else; there is no Earth-room for this Nation with its talents: this Nation will have to keep hovering on the wing, dolefully shrieking to and fro; and perish piecemeal; burying itself, down to the last soul of it, in the waste unfirmamented seas. Ah yes, soil, with or without ploughing, is the gift of God. The soil of all countries belongs evermore, in a very considerable degree, to the Almighty Maker! The last stroke of labour bestowed on it is not the making of its value, but only the increasing thereof.

It is very strange, the degree to which these truisms are forgotten in our days; how, in the ever-whirling chaos of Formulas, we have quietly lost sight of Fact, -- which it is so perilous not to keep forever in sight! Fact, if we do not see it, will make us feel it by and by! -- From much loud controversy and Corn-Law debating there rises, loud though inarticulate, once more in these years, this very question among others, Who made the Land of England? Who made it, this respectable English Land, wheat-growing, metalliferous, carboniferous, which will let readily hand over head for seventy millions or upwards, as it here lies: who did make it? -- “We!” answer the much-consuming Aristocracy; “We!” as they ride in, moist with the sweat of Melton Mowbray: “It is we that made it; or are the heirs, assigns and representatives of those who did!” -- My brothers, You? Everlasting honour to you, then; and Corn-Laws as many as you will, till your own deep stomachs cry Enough, or some voice of human pity for our famine bids you Hold! Ye are as gods, that can create soil. Soil-creating gods there is no withstanding. They have the might to sell wheat at what price they list; and the right, to all lengths, and famine-lengths, -- if they be pitiless infernal gods! Celestial gods, I think, would stop short of the famine-price; but no infernal nor any kind of god can be bidden stop! -- Infatuated mortals, into what questions are you driving every thinking man in England?

I say, you did not make the Land of England; and, by the possession of it, you are bound to furnish guidance and governance to England! That is the law of your position on this God’s-Earth; an everlasting act of Heaven’s Parliament, not repealable in St. Stephen’s [i.e. parliament] or elsewhere! True government and guidance; not no-government and Laissez-faire; how much less, misgovernment and Corn-Law! There is not an imprisoned Worker looking out from these Bastilles but appeals, very audibly in Heaven’s High Courts, against you, and me, and every one who is not imprisoned, “Why am I here?” His appeal is audible in Heaven; and will become audible enough on Earth too, if it remain unheeded here. His appeal is against you, foremost of all; you stand in the front-rank of the accused; you, by the very place you hold, have first of all to answer him and Heaven!

What looks maddest, miserablest in these mad and miserable Corn-Laws is independent altogether of their ‘effect on wages,’ their effect on ‘increase of trade,’ or any other such effect: it is the continual maddening proof they protrude into the faces of all men, that our Governing Class, called by God and Nature and the inflexible law of Fact, either to do something towards governing, or to die and be abolished, -- have not yet learned even to sit still, and do no mischief! For no Anti-Corn-Law League yet asks more of them than this; -- Nature and Fact, very imperatively, asking so much more of them. Anti-Corn-Law League asks not, Do something: but, Cease your destructive misdoing, Do ye nothing!

Nature’s message will have itself obeyed: messages of mere Free-Trade, Anti-Corn-Law League and Laissez-faire, will then need small obeying! -- Ye fools, in name of Heaven, work, work, at the Ark of Deliverance for yourselves and us, while hours are still granted you! No: instead of working at the Ark, they say, “We cannot get our hands kept rightly warm;” and sit obstinately burning the planks. No madder spectacle at present exhibits itself under this Sun.

The Working Aristocracy; Mill-owners, Manufacturers, Commanders of Working Men: alas, against them also much shall be brought in accusation; much, -- and the freest Trade in Corn, total abolition of Tariffs, and uttermost ‘Increase of Manufactures’ and ‘Prosperity of Commerce,’ will permanently mend no jot of it. The Working Aristocracy must strike into a new path; must understand that money alone is not the representative either of man’s success in the world, or of man’s duties to man; and reform their own selves from top to bottom, if they wish England reformed. England will not be habitable long, unreformed.

The Working Aristocracy -- Yes, but on the threshold of all this, it is again and again to be asked, What of the Idle Aristocracy? Again and again, what shall we say of the Idle Aristocracy, the Owners of the Soil of England; whose recognised function is that of handsomely consuming the rents of England, shooting the partridges of England, and as an agreeable amusement (if the purchase-money and other conveniences serve), dilettante-ing in Parliament and Quarter-Sessions for England? We will say mournfully, in the presence of Heaven and Earth, -- that we stand speechless, stupent, and know not what to say! That a class of men entitled to live sumptuously on the marrow of the earth; permitted simply, nay entreated, and as yet entreated in vain, to do nothing at all in return, was never heretofore seen on the face of this Planet. That such a class is transitory, exceptional, and, unless Nature’s Laws fall dead, cannot continue. That it has continued now a moderate while; has, for the last fifty years, been rapidly attaining its state of perfection. That it will have to find its duties and do them; or else that it must and will cease to be seen on the face of this Planet, which is a Working one, not an Idle one.

Alas, alas, the Working Aristocracy, admonished by Trades-unions, Chartist conflagrations, above all by their own shrewd sense kept in perpetual communion with the fact of things, will assuredly reform themselves, and a working world will still be possible: -- but the fate of the Idle Aristocracy, as one reads its horoscope hitherto in Corn-Laws and such like, is an abyss that fills one with despair. Yes, my rosy fox-hunting brothers, a terrible Hippocratic look reveals itself (God knows, not to my joy) through those fresh buxom countenances of yours. Through your Corn-Law Majorities, Sliding-Scales, Protecting-Duties, Bribery-Elections and triumphant Kentish-fire, a thinking eye discerns ghastly images of ruin, too ghastly for words; a handwriting as of MENE, MENE. [1] Men and brothers, on your Sliding-scale you seem sliding, and to have slid, -- you little know whither! Good God! did not a French Donothing Aristocracy, hardly above half a century ago, declare in like manner, and in its featherhead believe in like manner, “We cannot exist, and continue to dress and parade ourselves, on the just rent of the soil of France; but we must have farther payment than rent of the soil, we must be exempted from taxes too,” -- we must have a Corn-Law to extend our rent? This was in 1789: in four years more -- Did you look into the Tanneries of Meudon, and the long-naked making for themselves breeches of human skins! May the merciful Heavens avert the omen; may we be wiser, that so we be less wretched.

A High Class without duties to do is like a tree planted on precipices; from the roots of which all the earth has been crumbling. Nature owns no man who is not a Martyr withal. Is there a man who pretends to live luxuriously housed up; screened from all work, from want, danger, hardship, the victory over which is what we name work; -- he himself to sit serene, amid down-bolsters and appliances, and have all his work and battling done by other men? And such man calls himself a noble-man? His fathers worked for him, he says; or successfully gambled for him: here he sits; professes, not in sorrow but in pride, that he and his have done no work, time out of mind. It is the law of the land, and is thought to be the law of the Universe, that he, alone of recorded men, shall have no task laid on him, except that of eating his cooked victuals, and not flinging himself out of window. Once more I will say, there was no stranger spectacle ever shewn under this Sun. A veritable fact in our England of the Nineteenth Century. His victuals he does eat: but as for keeping in the inside of the window, -- have not his friends, like me, enough to do? Truly, looking at his Corn-Laws, Game-Laws, Chandos-Clauses, Bribery-Elections and much else, you do shudder over the tumbling and plunging he makes, held back by the lappelles and coatskirts; only a thin fence of window-glass before him, -- and in the street mere horrid iron spikes! My sick brother, as in hospital maladies men do, thou dreamest of Paradises and Eldorados, which are far from thee. ‘Cannot I do what I like with my own!’ Gracious Heaven, my brother, this that thou seest with those sick eyes is no firm Eldorado, and Corn-Law Paradise of Donothings, but a dream of thy own fevered brain. It is a glass-window, I tell thee, so many stories from the street; where are iron spikes and the law of gravitation!

What is the meaning of nobleness, if this be ‘noble?’ In a valiant suffering for others, not in a slothful making others suffer for us, did nobleness ever lie. The chief of men is he who stands in the van of men; fronting the peril which frightens back all others; which, if it be not vanquished, will devour the others. Every noble crown is, and on Earth will forever be, a crown of thorns. The Pagan Hercules, why was he accounted a hero? Because he had slain Nemean Lions, cleansed Augean Stables, undergone Twelve Labours only not too heavy for a god. In modern, as in ancient and all societies, the Aristocracy, they that assume the functions of an Aristocracy, doing them or not, have taken the post of honour; which is the post of difficulty, the post of danger, -- of death, if the difficulty be not overcome. Il faut payer de sa vie. Why was our life given us, if not that we should manfully give it? Descend, O Donothing Pomp; quit thy down-cushions; expose thyself to learn what wretches feel, and how to cure it! The Czar of Russia became a dusty toiling ship-wright; worked with his axe in the docks of Saardam; and his aim was small to thine. Descend thou: undertake this horrid ‘living chaos of Ignorance and Hunger’ weltering round thy feet; say, “I will heal it, or behold I will die foremost in it.” Such is verily the law. Everywhere and everywhen a man has to ‘pay with his life;’ to do his work, as a soldier does, at the expense of life. In no Piepowder earthly Court [2] can you sue an Aristocracy to do its work, at this moment: but in the Higher Court, which even it calls ‘Court of Honour,’ and which is the Court of Necessity withal, and the eternal Court of the Universe, in which all Fact comes to plead, and every Human Soul is an apparition, -- the Aristocracy is answerable, and even now answering, there.

Parchments? Parchments are venerable: but they ought at all times to represent, as near as they by possibility can, the writing of the Adamant Tablets; otherwise they are not so venerable! Benedict the Jew in vain pleaded parchments; his usuries were too many. The King said, “Go to, for all thy parchments, thou shalt pay just debt; down with thy dust, or observe this tooth-forceps!” Nature, a far juster Sovereign, has far terribler forceps. Aristocracies, actual and imaginary, reach a time when parchment pleading does not avail them. “Go to, for all thy parchments, thou shalt pay due debt!” shouts the Universe to them, in an emphatic manner. They refuse to pay, confidently pleading parchment: their best grinder-tooth, with horrible agony, goes out of their jaw. Wilt thou pay now? A second grinder, again in horrible agony, goes: a second, and a third, and if need be, all the teeth and grinders, and the life itself with them; -- and then there is free payment, and an anatomist-subject into the bargain!

Reform Bills, Corn-Law Abrogation Bills, and then Land-Tax Bill, Property-Tax Bill, and still dimmer list of etceteras; grinder after grinder: -- my lords and gentlemen, it were better for you to arise, and begin doing your work, than sit there and plead parchments!

We write no Chapter on the Corn-Laws, in this place; the Corn-Laws are too mad to have a Chapter. There is a certain immorality, when there is not a necessity, in speaking about things finished; in chopping into small pieces the already slashed and slain. When the brains are out, why does not a Solecism die! It is at its own peril if it refuse to die; it ought to make all conceivable haste to die, and get itself buried! The trade of Anti-Corn Law Lecturer in these days, still an indispensable, is a highly tragic one.

The Corn-Laws will go, and even soon go: would we were all as sure of the Millennium as they are of going! They go swiftly in these present months; with an increase of velocity, an ever-deepening, ever-widening sweep of momentum, truly notable. It is at the Aristocracy’s own damage and peril, still more than at any other’s whatsoever, that the Aristocracy maintains them; -- at a damage, say only, as above computed, of a ‘hundred thousand pounds an hour!’ The Corn-Laws keep all the air hot: fostered by their fever-warmth, much that is evil, but much also, how much that is good and indispensable, is rapidly coming to life among us!

[1] 'Mene, mene' - this is a reference to the 'writing on the wall' at Belshazzar's Feast (Daniel, ch. 5). King Belshazzar gave a great banquet for his nobles and they drank the gold and silver goblets that his father, Nebuchadnezzar, had taken from the temple in Jerusalem. As they drank the wine, they praised their own gods. Suddenly the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall. The king watched the hand as it wrote; his face turned pale and he was so frightened that his knees knocked together and his legs gave way. The king sent for the wise men of Babylon, promising riches to whoever could read the writing and tells him what it meant. None of the wise men could read the writing or tell the king what it meant. However, Daniel, one of the exiles from Judah was able to read the prophecy. The hand had written, “Mene, Mene, Tekel, Parsin”, meaning “God has numbered the days of your reign and brought it to an end. You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting. Your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.” [back]

[2] 'pie powder' is a corruption of the French, pied poudre - dusty feet. These courts dealt with offences committed in the markets: vendors and purchasers fell within the jurisdiction of them. [back]

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