If there is one writer in English whose name can be uttered with Shakespeare’s, it is Carlyle.
If we need a third, we can add Johnson. (Chaucer is too foreign.) Shakespeare, Carlyle, and Johnson: do you notice a pattern? If not, you are probably new to UR. If you’re not quite sure who Carlyle and Johnson were, much glorious learning awaits you. Fortunately you get to learn Johnson on your own—I know very little about the 18th century.
But you will find precious few who have read all three and will quarrel with this trinity. And all of them are fools. In my view. Then again, I named my daughter after Carlyle. If you are wiser and reserve your judgment, please allow me to etch away one or two of your reservations.
First, it is no daring literary act to exalt Carlyle as superhuman. Like Johnson, he was exalted as superhuman in his own time. Indeed, the proper way to introduce Carlyle is through the eyes of his peers.
Some of whom are still remembered. For example, one American wrote:
The way to test how much he has left his country were to consider, or try to consider, for a moment, the array of British thought, the resultant ensemble of the last fifty years as existing today, but with Carlyle left out. It would be like an army with no artillery.
That was Walt Whitman, in his 1881 obituary. People still read Whitman, but not Carlyle. There’s a reason for this. It’s not necessarily a good reason.
Because Whitman’s point of view—about as close as it comes to NPR avant la lettre—is so easy for the good citizen of 2009 to masticate, his introduction to Carlyle may be the best available. You see, the basic reason Carlyle is not in your high-school English reader, whereas Whitman is, is that Carlyle was what, here at UR, we call a reactionary. (Whereas Whitman is a progressive, or in 19th-century parlance a radical.)
A reactionary is not a Republican, a Democrat, or even a libertarian. It is not even a communist, a fascist, or a monarchist. It is something much older, stranger, and more powerful. But if you can describe it as anything, you can describe it as the pure opposite of progressivism. True reaction is long since extinct in the wild, but it lives in Carlyle—whose writings are now and forever available at a click, though they may be illegal in most states and the European Union.
But let Whitman introduce us:
All that is comprehended under the terms republicanism and democracy were distasteful to [Carlyle] from the first, and as he grew older they became hateful and contemptible. For an undoubtedly candid and penetrating faculty such as his, the bearings he persistently ignored were marvellous.
For instance, the promise, nay certainty of the democratic principle, to each and every State of the current world, not so much of helping it to perfect legislators and executives, but as the only effectual method for surely, however slowly, training people on a large scale toward voluntarily ruling and managing themselves (the ultimate aim of political and all other development)—to gradually reduce the fact of governing to its minimum, and to subject all its staffs and their doings to the telescopes and microscopes of committees and parties—and greatest of all, to afford (not stagnation and obedient content, which went well enough with the feudalism and ecclesiasticism of the antique and medieval world, but) a vast and sane and recurrent ebb and tide action for those floods of the great deep that have henceforth palpably burst forever their old bounds—seem never to have entered Carlyle’s thought.
It was splendid how he refused any compromise to the last. He was curiously antique. In that harsh, picturesque, most potent voice and figure, one seems to be carried back from the present of the British islands more than two thousand years, to the range between Jerusalem and Tarsus. His fullest best biographer justly says of him:
He was a teacher and a prophet, in the Jewish sense of the word. The prophecies of Isaiah and Jeremiah have become a part of the permanent spiritual inheritance of mankind, because events proved that they had interpreted correctly the signs of their own times, and their prophecies were fulfilled. Carlyle, like them, believed that he had a special message to deliver to the present age. Whether he was correct in that belief, and whether his message was a true message, remains to be seen. He has told us that our most cherished ideas of political liberty, with their kindred corollaries, are mere illusions, and that the progress which has seemed to go along with them is a progress towards anarchy and social dissolution. If he was wrong, he has misused his powers. The principles of his teachings are false. He has offered himself as a guide upon a road of which he had no knowledge; and his own desire for himself would be the speediest oblivion both of his person and his works. If, on the other hand, he has been right; if, like his great predecessors, he has read truly the tendencies of this modern age of ours, and his teaching is authenticated by facts, then Carlyle, too, will take his place among the inspired seers.
To which I add an amendment that under no circumstances, and no matter how completely time and events disprove his lurid vaticinations, should the English-speaking world forget this man, nor fail to hold in honor his unsurpassed conscience, his unique method, and his honest fame. Never were convictions more earnest and genuine. Never was there less of a flunkey or temporizer. Never had political progressivism a foe it could more heartily respect. […] Then I find no better text, (it is always important to have a definite, special, even oppositional, living man to start from), for sending out certain speculations and comparisons for home use. Let us see what they amount to—those reactionary doctrines, fears, scornful analyses of democracy—even from the most erudite and sincere mind of Europe.
We slipped some Froude (Carlyle’s disciple as well as his biographer) in there with the Whitman. But the quote is Whitman’s own. Is it not a measure of Whitman’s own greatness—the archpoet of Democracy triumphant—that he gives such props to such a pure opponent? If Whitman can worship Carlyle and quote Froude—what Whitmans are there today?
There are two ways to process Carlyle in 2009. One is to buy in with Whitman: of course Carlyle was wrong as a prophet, though we acknowledge his importance as a writer. (Well, actually, most of us don’t. But a few professors will always have no choice.) As another contemporary critic (this one mercifully forgotten) put it:
By common consent, or nearly so, Mr. Carlyle died our greatest English Man of Letters. Of this claim on his behalf (which includes of course a recognition of him as a great intellectual and spiritual force) there can scarce, I should say, be much question. But one might very well admire Mr. Carlyle as a Litterateur (in this higher and larger sense) yet have only a modified belief in him as a Prophet, and question altogether his title to be called—except in a rather loose and inexact way—a great Thinker and Philosopher.
From this perspective, just as Froude describes, Carlyle misused his vatic powers. On behalf of “the cultural evils of nineteenth-century Britain.” And has suffered that justified oblivion which all false prophets deserve and receive. Evil having since been eradicated in Britain, of course.
If it can be swallowed in the 21st century with a straight face, a task demanding no small strength of gullet, this is a safe antidote which detoxifies Carlyle, and renders him safe for antiseptic scholarship of the Dryasdust school. Alternatively, one can embrace the dark side and simply study Carlyle, and of course his era, as the Adversary : Satan personified. This is even safer, as the dead do not shoot back.
(But Hell has a carrel and a stipend for everyone who studied the past because he despised it, and a big corner office for those in the actual business of actual libel. Kids: if you hate your ancestors, hold your tongues. You will not feel like such fools later.)
The trouble with studying 19th-century Britain from the 20th-century American point of view is that no Victorianist can think seriously of a modern career in the field unless he shoots only through one or both of these two orthodox angles, Dryasdust or Hesperus Fiddlestring. Either camera can churn out any amount of scholarly product, and neither can be handled by anyone with an actual soul. The literary value of both together is about that of Marx–Lenin studies, though the former is useful from a strictly clerical standpoint. (Indeed, the Soviet understanding of the Victorians was exactly the same as ours, modulo a little Marx.)
If you did not have a soul, however, you probably would not have found your way to UR. Likewise, a brain. And this brain cannot fail to have had a certain reaction to Mr. Whitman’s argument against Mr. Carlyle. Was that reaction, by any chance, “um?”, or “what?”, or “okay,” or “sure, I guess?”
For example, when Whitman castigates Carlyle for not realizing that democracy will “gradually reduce the fact of governing to its minimum,” or “perfect legislators and executives,” or (best of all) train its own voting citizens “on a large scale” to be every year wiser and more well-informed, did your soul leap up and shout: “Very true, Mr. Whitman! And we of 2009 know just how true it is!”
I actually did not excerpt Whitman’s principal argument against Carlyle. It is two pages of windy Hegelism—plainly free of content. Give it a go and see what you think. Whitman always was a sucker for the mystical, a hippie in the wrong century. (He was not alone in this.) But he was an honest man, not afraid to tell us “what a foetid gasbag much of modern radicalism is.” The good old curate’s egg—but still, say more, Mr. Whitman! Alas, men have declined, and poets too.
And when Whitman writes:
Carlyle’s grim fate was cast to live and dwell in, and largely embody, the parturition agony and qualms of the old order, amid crowded accumulations of ghastly morbidity, giving birth to the new. But conceive of him (or his parents before him) coming to America, recuperated by the cheering realities and activity of our people and country—growing up and delving face-to-face resolutely among us here, especially at the West—inhaling and exhaling our limitless air and eligibilities—devoting his mind to the theories and developments of this Republic amid its practical facts as exemplified in Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Tennessee, or Louisiana. I say facts, and face-to-face confrontings—so different from books, and all those quiddities and mere reports in the libraries, upon which the man (it was wittily said of him at the age of thirty, that there was no one in Scotland who had gleaned so much and seen so little), almost wholly fed, and which even his sturdy and vital mind but reflected at best.
Carlyle, of course, was a historian. Reconstructing other worlds from books was his trade, actual time-tourism not being an option. And his pithy little wisecracks about contemporary America are worth more, a century and a half later, than most present libraries.
But more to the point, I can rather easily imagine Carlyle’s response to present-day Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Tennessee or (Lord help us) Louisiana. If those states in 1881 might have shaken Carlyle’s faith in the downward course of democracy, a point on which we may defer to Whitman, I can’t imagine their present successors would achieve any such result.
In fact, if we could organize a joint tour of their ghosts, I rather imagine that Whitman himself would end up siding with Carlyle on many (if not all) points. We have seen Whitman’s honesty, and we cannot imagine him arguing for the track record of democracy since he wrote, if only because all his arguments are plainly falsified. If Carlyle ignores these arguments, he ignores them because they are (and thus must always have been) worthy of nothing but ignorance.
Our society, of course, has its own mental defenses against the Carlylean position. There is certainly no shortage of arguments for “republicanism and democracy.” They are just all different from Whitman’s arguments. Still, there are enough that most intelligent people consider the case overwhelming—to the point where they have never seriously considered it.
However, if we imagine Whitman dropping his own falsified arguments and picking up the latest and greatest replacements, we imagine a Walt Whitman who is not a poet but a defense lawyer. People have called Whitman many nasty names, but no one to my knowledge ever described him as a reptilian, two-tongued bureaucrat.
This does not tell us that there exist no correct arguments for “republicanism and democracy,” against Carlyle and reaction. It merely implies that if Whitman and Carlyle both had a chance to inspect the world of 2009, it is probably Whitman and not Carlyle who would feel chastened, and have to apologize; Whitman who would agree with Carlyle, not vice versa. But Whitman and Carlyle could both be wrong, of course.
Therefore we achieve a strange conclusion in our perspective of Carlyle. We begin to suspect that we should at least consider Froude’s second alternative:
If, on the other hand, he has been right; if, like his great predecessors, he has read truly the tendencies of this modern age of ours, and his teaching is authenticated by facts, then Carlyle, too, will take his place among the inspired seers.
But if Froude is right, we have only seen half the prophecy unfold. The teaching has been authenticated. The teacher remains unknown. This, dear reader, is why Carlyle matters.
For is this not what Froude should have expected? If democracy triumph—and it has—why should it bother to recall its enemy, Carlyle? Does it run out of friends, of Whitmans, to celebrate? Is it thus forced to sing the praises of its foes? What winner was ever short of friends? Ah, if only victory implied righteousness, and might made right. But there is no principle of which the democrat is more skeptical.
The case of democracy is a case in which the jury has heard only from the defense. Year after year, generation after generation, democracy’s lawyers trot out an ever-changing dog’s breakfast of alibis, character witnesses and Harvard scientists, all singing one tune: the ironclad innocence and stellar nobility of the defendant, who is no more and no less than Gotham’s finest citizen. As for the prosecutor, his corpse has been rotting in the men’s room for years. Sometimes the bailiff, who has a ninth-grade education, a Tennessee accent and a drinking problem, picks up a few pages from his brief and reads them out of order.
But is the trial over? It is all but over. The jury is utterly sold. If they could adjourn and assign the defendant the keys to Gotham for life, they would. They are not even aware that there is a trial. They think they’re deciding whether to award a gold medal or a platinum one. But alas: the verdict of history is never, ever in. Once it does find the truth, though, it tends to stay there.
For it is a terrible thing to see a prophecy come true, but more terrible to see just the first half. Time remains for the rest, and always will. It is never too late to read Carlyle; it has certainly never been easier. And when he takes his place, etc., I promise you: other things will change.
But what exactly is (I claim) authenticated? What did Carlyle believe, what did he foresee, and how does history validate it? And what did he get wrong? For he was not actually a god, of course. It is time to say goodbye to our Whitmans, and see the infernal regions for themselves.
Carlyle did not believe in democracy. But he must have believed in something. What, then, was this something? If you stop believing in democracy, quite a difficult mental step for anyone in 2009—or 1859, in fact, which is much of what made Carlyle unique—what do you believe in instead? Hopefully you will hear a terrible, creaking noise, as your brain stretches to regard the awful answer. It is not my answer, it is Carlyle’s, but I take the liberty of translating.
First and foremost, Carlyle is a believer in order. To Carlyle, the old order is not “giving birth to the new.” It is rotting slowly into anarchy—or burning fast, as in France or later Russia. The destination is not an order at all, but a blackened waste with clumps of singed ferns. Nor does this observation make the old order good—the ancien régime was termite bait and a firetrap. But in Carlyle’s mirror, the pattern that the ordinary Whig historian and his ordinary student know as steady progress punctuated by brilliant revolutions, becomes a pattern of inexorable decay punctuated by explosions of barbarism.
Here is a characteristic passage, often quoted on this blog, from Shooting Niagara—Carlyle’s last great reactionary pamphlet. It cannot be quoted too often:
All the Millenniums I ever heard of heretofore were to be preceded by a “chaining of the Devil for a thousand years,”—laying him up, tied neck and heels, and put beyond stirring, as the preliminary. You too have been taking preliminary steps, with more and more ardour, for a thirty years back; but they seem to be all in the opposite direction: a cutting asunder of straps and ties, wherever you might find them; pretty indiscriminate of choice in the matter: a general repeal of old regulations, fetters, and restrictions (restrictions on the Devil originally, I believe, for most part, but now fallen slack and ineffectual), which had become unpleasant to many of you,—with loud shouting from the multitude, as strap after strap was cut, “Glory, glory, another strap is gone!”—this, I think, has mainly been the sublime legislative industry of Parliament since it became “Reform Parliament;” victoriously successful, and thought sublime and beneficent by some. So that now hardly any limb of the Devil has a thrum, or tatter of rope or leather left upon it:—there needs almost superhuman heroism in you to “whip” a garotter; no Fenian taken with the reddest hand is to be meddled with, under penalties; hardly a murderer, never so detestable and hideous, but you find him “insane,” and board him at the public expense, a very peculiar British Prytaneum of these days! And in fact, the Devil (he, verily, if you will consider the sense of words) is likewise become an Emancipated Gentleman; lithe of limb as in Adam and Eve’s time, and scarcely a toe or finger of him tied any more. And you, my astonishing friends, you are certainly getting into a millennium, such as never was before,—hardly even in the dreams of Bedlam.
We speak of prophecy. Well, what became of Britain, in this century of democracy? This millennium? In which the Devil became an Emancipated Gentleman?
Britain lost her Empire and most of Ireland, and became a political satellite of America. Her industries declined and largely disappeared. Her crime rate rose by a factor of 50—not 50%. Her aristocracy was decimated by two Continental wars of unparalleled savagery, and permanently destroyed by punitive taxation. Many areas of London and other cities became unsafe by day, and more by night. Her lower classes, generously augmented by the dregs of the late Empire, achieved levels of squalor, ignorance and degradation perhaps unsurpassed in human history. Meanwhile, the Crown and the Lords disappeared as meaningful political entities, the Commons ceased to be a genuine forum for debate and became a parking lot for party hacks, and political power diffused into a vast, shapeless morass of Whitehall bureaucrats, Berlaymont Eurocrats, mendacious talking heads, and professors of incompetence.
And worst of all, most appalling of all—Britons do not feel they have a problem. Quite the contrary. They have never been better governed. The smarter and more informed they are, the more deeply they thank the 20th century from saving them from the evils of the Victorian age. The educated Englishman of 2009 considers himself the beneficiary of two centuries of steadily improving good government, from Castlereagh to Gordon Brown.
Indeed, if any faint shadow of anything like a Carlylean view persists anywhere as a living tradition, it is in America herself. Evaluated as pure reaction, American conservatism is the most confused, polluted, and diluted sample conceivable, but so long as we exclude elderly Chilean generals it is by far the most reactionary thing on earth. There is nothing remotely like a European equivalent. In Europe, especially the Continent, all is Left.
Yet Whitman wrote:
I have deliberately repeated it all, not only in offset to Carlyle’s ever-lurking pessimism and world-decadence, but as presenting the most thoroughly American points of view I know. In my opinion the above formulas of Hegel are an essential and crowning justification of New World democracy in the creative realms of time and space. There is that about them which only the vastness, the multiplicity and the vitality of America would seem able to comprehend, to give scope and illustration to, or to be fit for, or even originate. It is strange to me that they were born in Germany, or in the old world at all. While a Carlyle, I should say, is quite the legitimate European product to be expected.
In 2009, of course, warmed-over Walt Whitman is all we get from Europe—Britain with a few exceptions, the Continent without. The “legitimate European product” is not reaction, but socialism. Not Carlyle, but Pinter. Not Metternich, but Cohn-Bendit. Ah, if only might proved right! If only! We could all take another blue pill, and sleep with such sweet smiles.
Here we start to see the prophetic powers of Carlyle. 150 years ago it was imaginable that American “republicanism and democracy” would eventually triumph, but certainly not that it would eradicate every independent trace of indigenous Continental or even British thought. Carlyle does not even quite predict this. But if anyone could have imagined it, it was he.
Compare the great reactionary to a mere conservative of his time, if no mean one—Queen Victoria herself. Victoria, if you read her letters (which are well worth reading), emerges as no cipher either political or intellectual, and her view of the disturbances of 1848 is much the same as Carlyle’s. And yet in 1851, she writes to Leopold I of Belgium:
The position of Princes is no doubt difficult in these times, but it would be much less so if they would behave honourably and straightforwardly, giving the people gradually those privileges which would satisfy all the reasonable and well-intentioned, and would weaken the power of the Red Republicans; instead of that, reaction and a return to all the tyranny and oppression is the cry and the principle—and all papers and books are being seized and prohibited, as in the days of Metternich!…
In other words: Victoria believes the cure for acute democracy is chronic democracy. Canning and Palmerston have spent the entire post-Napoleonic era going around Europe fighting Metternich and all other defenders of the old European order, promoting British clients (such as Piedmont) under the banner of constitutional monarchy. Which Victoria, and many like her, consider the cure for “Red Republicanism.”
(Yes, Virginia, our own dear Republicans originated as the most left-wing party in the most left-wing country on earth. The name is not at all a coincidence. They were basically socialists, they adored ethnic minorities, and if their party had a color, it was red. How things change!)
Now curiously, today, everyone agrees that there is no such thing as constitutional monarchy. Constitutional monarchy in 2009 is a synonym for symbolic monarchy, which is vestigial monarchy if at all—quite indistinguishable in reality from any “Red Republicanism.” Queen Victoria was not at all without actual power. Queen Elizabeth is. This outcome would not have surprised Carlyle. Nor might it have surprised Whitman, to whom all queens were dinosaurs. It would certainly have surprised everyone in between.
Thus the exercise of hindsight devastates the entire political center: liberal, moderate and conservative. Validation is available only to the reactionary and the radical (19th century) or progressive (20th), both of whom hold the only consistent position: the true spirit of democracy is anarchy, dissolution of hierarchical authority. To the radical, this flame, if not snuffed out, cannot be withstood. To the reactionary, the cancer will either kill the patient or be eradicated. To both, no stable compromise is possible or desirable.
How will the center of 2009 hold up in the light of 2159? It is a different center, of course—but this is hardly a promise of durability. Consider how you will react if the center of 2009 turns out to be to the right of the center of 2029, following the general pattern of human history. Consider the 20th century’s favorite centrist tract, The Vital Center (1949), by its favorite court historian, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.—a young crony of FDR, an old crony of JFK. Then consider Professor Schlesinger’s last work—The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society (1991). You can read these books, but do you need to?
Escaping this trap of centrism is the first and most difficult task for those tempted to think outside the democratic box. Faced with the endless, mind-boggling whirl of mass political mania, the assumption that there exists some Goldilocks mean, not too hot or too cold, which just happens to correspond to the average public opinion of the current generation (which is absurdly left-wing in the eyes of the previous generation, and will be absurdly right-wing in the eyes of the next), and which therefore should be correct—or at least a starting point… alas. The more we focus our eyes on it, the more this island of seeming sanity melts and disappears.
We find ourselves in the middle of the ocean. We suddenly realize that we know nothing at all about human politics. We are forced not just to consider the set of theories of government which are popular now, but the set which has ever been popular. Most have applied their minds only to two theories of republicanism, the liberal and conservative as practiced today, between which there is almost no distance by historical standards.
And then we abandon our centrism, and we are comforted. We read Carlyle, and we see that there are only two logically consistent choices for our political belief. They can be briefly summarized as Carlyle and Alinsky.
What we see instead, from both the Carlylean and Alinskyist perspectives, is a monotonic slope. This is the slope of order. Order slopes up to the right: true right, which is reactionary, is always the direction of increasing order, and true left the direction of increasing disorder. It is especially valuable to have a clear definition of this polarization, which seems to have evolved independently so many times in history. David Axelrod would surely get along with the Gracchi, and Pinochet with Sulla.
Since most people do not know the Carlylean theory of order, but most do know the Alinskyist theory of disorder (I won’t be surprised if my daughter is introduced to “activism” well before kindergarten), there is an obvious temptation here. The temptation is to derive the Carlylean theory by simply reversing its equally-uncompromising Alinskyist dual. Thus, everything bad is good, and so on. For example, the ultimate act of good government is to shoot into a mob.
While this approach can be useful in an absolute emergency, I would encourage readers to at least be very careful with it. The practice of defining the Right by reversing the Left can lead one to idolize persons and practices who, in the true Carlylean cosmos, are quite unworthy. It is definitely not for the apprentice necromancer or candidate Sith Lord.
Indeed the Carlylean theory of order might just as well be stated as truth. Or justice. For Carlyle, truth, justice and order are all inseparable and perfectly desirable. There is no such thing as too much truth, too much justice, or too much order; the ideal society is one in which all these qualities are seen to their maximum extent. In the society that is Cosmos, truth, justice and order all pertain. In its opposite, Chaos, we see lies and injustice and disorder.
Indeed, Carlyle is often described as not just a prophet, but a theologian. And indeed there are 92 references to the word “God” in the keystone of his political work, the Latter-Day Pamphlets. You may not believe in God—I don’t—but until you understand Carlyle’s theology, you cannot understand his theory of government. Carlyle was raised a true Scottish Calvinist, an obsolete form of Christianity which actually believed in the concept of sin, and if you have some kind of irrational allergy to Christianity you will never be able to read his books. Sorry.
Order in Carlyle is obedience to the law of God in government, and enforcement of the law of God is the test of good government. And what is the law of God? Does it have anything to do with mixed fibers? It does not. It is no more than truth, justice and order—each of which reduces to the other.
While these buzzwords are easy to say, justice is a buzzword of the present regime and truth is not far behind. Order has escaped the owl-droppings, however, unless you live in Brazil. Thus it remains the best word with which to describe Carlylean thought.
Let us work up from order to Carlyle’s theory of slavery. If you can understand slavery through Carlyle’s eyes—and he is one of the few theoretical defenders of slavery in the last two centuries, the only other I can think of offhand being George Fitzhugh—nothing in Carlyle will shock you, unless you are unaware of current results in human biodiversity.
For once, I will paraphrase, because the Occasional Discourse should not be the first Carlyle you read, but the last. A good political education in Carlyle is: first Chartism, then the Latter-Day Pamphlets, then Shooting Niagara, then the Occasional Discourse. I would hate to spoil this progression. So again, I will not quote Carlyle on slavery.
Order, for Carlyle, is the set of bonds between the humans in society. A bond is any promise of importance. It may be a promise of payment, it may be a promise of work, it may be a promise of marriage. Regardless, a society is orderly if it is a society in which promises of significant human value, explicit or implicit, are made and kept.
Every promise is an obligation. By writing the promise, I compel my future self. If I promise to pay you $1000 in 2011, I am not exercising my human right of liberty if in 2011 I refuse to pay you. I cannot say: no, man, I would rather be free. By not paying you, man, I am exercising my human right to be free.
Consider the difference between the society in which I can get away with this hippie shit, and the society in which I can’t. The society in which obligations can be broken is the society in which loans are either risky, expensive and hard to get, or do not exist at all. Thus we see clearly that the society in which promises are made and kept, the society of order, is more civilized and humane. It is a better society. Once again, there is no Goldilocks effect, no golden mean.
We thus see that the enforcement of promises is a critical aspect of human society. Certain promises are self-enforcing: they are fulfilled because the promiser wants to fulfill them. Marriage, in the ideal, is such a promise. In most cases, however, a loan is not. A society that contains an impartial and irresistible enforcer of contracts is thus preferable to one which does not—although no contract with the enforcer itself can be enforced by definition.
So far the enterprising libertarian will go with you, although he will certainly quibble at the last. A society is richer if each individual in it has the right to bind her future actions by agreed obligations, in return for which others may exchange other consideration. Would this bother Ayn Rand? I’m afraid I’ve never read Ayn Rand. I know—it’s terrible—I should. It would certainly bother Rothbard, but sometimes this is a virtue.
Once we get this far, we are almost all the way to Carlyle on slavery. We have not agreed that a man can be born a slave, but we agree that he can sell himself into slavery. That is: he can sign a contract with a master in which the slave agrees unconditionally to obey and work for the master, and the master agrees unconditionally to protect and support the slave.
Moreover, this contract need not be a mere expression of sentiment. It can and should be enforced by the State, just as a loan is. If the slave changes his mind and runs away, the State will capture and return him, billing the master for the expense. Or at least, these are reasonable terms under which two parties might agree on the permanent relationship of master and slave.
Such terms could also be agreed on a non-permanent basis, yielding the relationship of indentured servitude—familiar to all American high-school students. The laws of early America and England were indeed both more flexible, and more orderly, than our own in permitting and enforcing this form of order. (The relationship of flexibility to order, and sclerosis to disorder, is a common one in Carlylean analysis.)
This still does not get us to classic Anglo-American slavery in the Southern or West Indian style, or of course the classic Greek or Roman forms. Most human societies, and in particular most civilized societies, have had some form of slavery or bondage. And typically this is involuntary slavery, not at all the nice libertarian type.
To despise these societies as a class is an anthropological solecism. Those who consider slave societies intrinsically evil, a word the 20th century would be well advised to keep well away from its tongue, would quickly change their tunes if forced, like this man, to function in an actual slave society. We are all Horatios; this world is not in our philosophy. When we judge it without seeing it or knowing anything about it, we only reveal ourselves as fools.
It is only a short step from seeing the State as an enforcer of voluntary and binding obligations, to an enforcer of involuntary and arbitrary obligations. No society can possibly exist without uncontracted obligations.
For example, property and in particular real estate represent a class of obligations behind which there is no principle but historical accident. I am obliged not to trespass on your land. I did not agree not to trespass on your land, but I am obliged nonetheless. And why is it your land, rather than my land? Because it is.
Everyone is born into a web of involuntary obligations: the family. No one gets to pick their parents. Moreover, every family is part of a human society and thus accepts the obligations of that society. You do not need to go to Carlyle for an explanation of the relationship between slavery, family, and community, for you can find it in Aristotle. Indeed, the definition of family in most times and places has included slaves.
The relationship of master and slave is a natural human relationship: that of patron and client. Like true familial relationships, these essentially feudal structures are bidirectional. The client must obey and serve the patron; the patron must care for and protect the client. On one side of the relationship is always authority; on the other side, always dependency. Either side may violate its obligations, resulting in state intervention.
In the most ordered and flexible feudal societies, the relationship of patron and client becomes a true governance relationship. The patron is personally responsible for all offenses of the client against society—this is a core tenet of Roman law, applying both to slaves and children. In return, the patron holds the power of the magistrate over his clients. In the old days of the Roman Republic, a father could order the execution of his son on his own word alone. This is even a bit extreme for me, but it demonstrates the concept.
We see the most palatable relatives of hereditary slavery in the feudal European societies, where we have not slavery in the antique sense but serfdom, slavery adscripti glebae—peasants bound to the soil. The 20th-century historian will generally describe this system as if it were something like the Gulag, or possibly even Auschwitz, or maybe just the Angola Penitentiary, and everyone was just biding their time and waiting to be free. This is what it is to be an enemy of the past—you are doomed to walk through life, lying. Try to imagine yourself visiting 13th-century France and recommending the liberation of the serfs.
Thus we see the root of democracy’s antipathy to slavery: its antipathy to feudalism. These structures are clearly in the same class. Is there a difference between being born bound to a person, and born bound to the land? There is, but not much of one. In both cases, you are born to obligations. You did not agree to these obligations, yet they are your inescapable burden. Had the luck of your fresh-minted soul been different, you might have been born to privilege instead. And good luck, Carlyle will tell you grimly, in abolishing luck.
But wait: when one is born a serf, bound to the land with obligations, one is bound not to a person but to a political entity. In the case of serfdom, assuming the extremity of personal restriction, this is a small political entity. This may be a problem if you are a restless fellow and like to get around, but seeing Europe was not the primary concern of most pre-industrial agricultural workers. Moreover, regardless of the size or nature of the entity to which you are born bound, allowing you to stretch your legs is no risk at all so long as that entity has the power to catch you and bring you back. Again, this is true for both serfs and slaves.
Suddenly we see the relationship between slavery and government. Serfdom and slavery can be described as microgovernment and nanogovernment respectively. In government proper, the normal human role of patron is filled by a giant, impersonal, and often accidentally sadistic bureaucracy, which is sovereign and self-securing. In serfdom, this role is filled by a noble house or other large family business, which in turn is a client of the State, and just as fixed to the land as its serfs. In slavery, mastership is exercised by a mobile individual whose slaves go with him.
(Democracy here appears as simply a mechanism for controlling subjects by deluding them into believing that they control the entire enterprise, a pretense which cannot be maintained in the context of serfdom or slavery. In this role it is certainly unnecessary, as physical enforcement technologies are quite sufficient. The mind-control state is obsolete.)
In all these relationships, the structure of obligation is the same. The subject, serf, or slave is obliged to obey the government, lord, or master, and work for the benefit of same. In return, the government, lord or master must care for and guide the subject, serf, or slave. We see these same relationship parameters emerging whether the relationship of domination originates as a hereditary obligation, or as a voluntary obligation, or in a state outside law such as the state of the newly captured prisoner (the traditional origin of slave status in most eras). This is a pretty good clue that this structure is one to which humans are biologically adapted.
Not all humans are born the same, of course, and the innate character and intelligence of some is more suited to mastery than slavery. For others, it is more suited to slavery. And others still are badly suited to either. These characteristics can be expected to group differently in human populations of different origins. Thus, Spaniards and Englishmen in the Americas in the 17th and earlier centuries, whose sense of political correctness was negligible, found that Africans tended to make good slaves and Indians did not. This broad pattern of observation is most parsimoniously explained by genetic differences.1
A person makes a good slave if he is loyal, patient, and not exceptionally bright or stubborn. But even great intelligence is not necessarily a bar to a good experience in slavery, as the experience of many Greek slave philosophers, such as Epictetus, shows. A slave must carry the unique burden of personal dependency and obedience, which we are all used to expressing only toward impersonal government agencies.
One typically does not experience emotional bonds with, say, the IRS. Unless they are bonds of hate. There is nonetheless an emotional bond with Washington as a whole, a sense of being part of the team that is your owner and its other subjects. All psychologically normal subjects, serfs, or slaves feel this, so long as their government, lord or master is both sane and competent. Otherwise, any derangement may occur. Of course, the smaller the group, the more intense the feelings—for better or for worse. But in general, the normal case is real affection on both sides.
Moreover, just because the relationship of slavery or serfdom is personal by default, does not imply that it cannot be made impersonal, like the relationship of subject to government. If the client is not one of Aristotle’s natural slaves, has an IQ over 90, is an adult, and can provide his or her own personal guidance, the subject–government relationship may be a better fit. The master may maximize his economic benefit by simply allowing the slave to negotiate his own employment and living arrangements, and taxing him. Thus the parallel reemerges.
Conversely, the subject–government relationship easily becomes dysfunctional for clients who are natural slaves, i.e., are not capable of guiding themselves to live in a human and humane manner. It is beyond question that such individuals exist, if only as a result of brain damage. And it is easily seen that they thrive under personal guidance, and wilt and grow foul in the arms of bureaucrats. If all long-term welfare cases were transferred from Washington to the authority of genuine, truly charitable nonprofits, for example, their new human supervisors could intervene on a personal, discretionary basis to compel them to get their acts together. This would be a step toward humanity in our society—and also a step toward slavery.
Probably the closest most Americans have come to idealizing slavery, without of course knowing it, is in the good press that large Japanese corporations once got for maintaining a policy of lifetime employment. Lifetime employment and slavery are, of course, practically synonyms, and indeed the same phenomena of reciprocal loyalty and dependency were said—repeatedly, in my memory, in the ’90s on NPR—to emerge. Right down to the company uniform and song. This, too, is a Carlylean bond, although a rather weird one to the Western eye.
We thus observe slavery not as a perversion, but as a natural relationship, like marriage. Of course, like marriage, slavery is not without its abuses. When we think of the word “slavery,” we think of these abuses. Thus, by defining the word as intrinsically abusive, like marriages in which one party beats the other, we can conveniently define away all the instances of slavery in which the relationship is functional.
Carlyle is in fact ready to be as indignant as anyone over these abuses. He reasons: since slavery is a natural human relationship, this bond will exist regardless of whether you abolish the word. And it does—if only in broken and surreptitious forms. However, if you are a genuine humanitarian and your interest is in abolishing the abuses, the best way to do so is to—abolish the abuses. So, for example, he proposes reforms such as stronger supervision of slaveowners, a standard price by which slaves can buy their freedom, etc., etc.
In this extreme example, we see the general pattern of Carlylean order. Again, order is about the bonds between members of society, which consist of obligations voluntary and involuntary, which are promises made and kept, and enforced by law where law is needed to enforce them. Especially critical to Carlyle is the hierarchical bond, the relationship of command, which is one critical form of social glue without which large organizations cannot function. Carlyle, who is not perfect, slightly neglects another important class of obligation, the financial. Financial obligations are more likely to be voluntary, but also more dependent on enforcement.
One of my own personal great moments of Carlylean enlightenment came not from Carlyle himself, but from his disciple Froude, also a great historian. (To add to the fun, “Froude” is pronounced just the way Keanu Reeves says “Freud” in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.) Someday I will read all of Froude’s twelve-volume history of England from Henry VIII through Elizabeth I, but I have only read a bit of the first volume. That bit was so impressive and stunning that I thought I might want to wait a year or two before taking in any more.
Froude describes a Tudor society which is completely ordered—which consists, from top to bottom, king to knave, of these relationships of mutual obligation. They are relationships of family, of feudalism, of guild traditions such as apprenticeship, of the Church, of political patronage, of commercial patronage and monopoly, and of course of law and government. It was impossible to live a normal human life outside this tapestry, and nor is it at all clear why anyone would have wanted to.
Misfits, screwups and parasites constantly fell out of the fabric, the era being after all primitive, and every arm of government was charged with eradicating this human bilge. If Tudor England, or any European sovereign of the era, had tolerated vagrants, beggars and the idle, it would have been inundated with a mountain of them in a second. As it was, it seems there were quite a few. The difficulty of operating in these primitive conditions demanded a social fabric at which the 21st century can only stare in amazement, like a general contractor contemplating a cathedral. And these people, indeed, built cathedrals. They were not libertarian cathedrals.
Thus order turns out to equal both truth and justice, because all three equate to promises made and kept. We have seen the reactionary end of the slope of order: Henry VIII. We then look at the radical end of the slope, for which we will accept three symbols: Haiti, Afghanistan, and San Francisco.
In Haiti, we see one aspect of life without promises made and kept: poverty, corruption, violence and filth. In a word: anarchy. Haiti is the product of the persistence of human anarchy, and an excellent symbol because it symbolized exactly the same thing to Carlyle and Froude. The latter visited; his observations are here. Haiti is far more anarchic than it was in 1888, of course, whose Port-au-Prince is a paradise next to today’s. Froude gets all enraged because he sees a ditch full of garbage. The 19th century’s Haiti is the 21st’s whole Third World.
If you are interested in the general subject of anarchy in the Third World, perhaps you have read Robert Kaplan’s famous 1994 essay in the Atlantic, The Coming Anarchy. Kaplan spends most of it berating the reader with a completely fictitious set of causes of this anarchy. The real cause, of course, is decolonialization. The cause of that was progressivism, i.e., Carlyle deficiency. Of course Kaplan’s little anarchies would not surprise Carlyle for a moment.
Moreover, as Kaplan does not tell you but Carlyle would, the anarchy is indeed coming—to you. Because every year, the border between the Third World and the First is a little more porous. Here indeed are the seeds of true Ate, though this thorough and Biblical ruin (already taking place in South Africa) may well run another century. No one has yet shown me a magic pill that turns a Third Worlder into a First Worlder.
But at least most of the Third World is not an active physical danger to the lives of Americans. This cannot be said of Afghanistan, where Americans (and other Europeans, and yes, Afghans too) are dying every day for lack of Carlyle. More precisely, they are dying because America, the democratic nation, is and will always be completely incapable of doing the one thing it must do to succeed in Afghanistan, which is to rule the country.
Oh, no, you see. Americans are in Afghanistan to advise the self-governing Afghan people. Ruling is the last thing they could think of doing. America is just helping the independent government of Afghanistan, which of course it created lock, stock and barrel, to stand on its own two feet. But why should it? Do you think these people want America to go away, and all America’s dollars with it?
James Mill once wrote:
The two important discoveries for conquering India were, 1st: the weakness of the native armies against European discipline; 2dly, the facility of imparting that discipline to natives in the European service.
But America has no Afghans in its service. Except for a few interpreters, for whom necessity finds a way, the bond of command between American and Afghan is strictly forbidden. It is too Carlylean. Nothing like the Philippine Scouts, for instance, could be tolerated. As a result, Americans are running around screaming, quite ineffectually to the sight of any experienced parent or manager, at “their” Afghan soldiers, that they shouldn’t smoke hash before going on patrol. It doesn’t appear to be working.
Thus, Afghans are privileged to receive the full Orwellian force of the 21st century. They suffer the pains of not only anarchy but also civil war, for an indefinite time period in the future, for the sake of their own human rights. Is this a noble martyrdom, or what? If there is any justice in the world, the Afghans may very well inherit it. I’m not sure they will be too nice if they do.
The Afghan experience hits a couple of huge Carlylean hot buttons. Not only is it a clear case of anarchy, but it is also a sham. The civil war in Afghanistan continues because of the fraud, clearly palpable to all and defended by none, that the Karzai government is in some sense “independent.” It could only be more dependent if it was attached to Capitol Hill by an actual, physical umbilical cord. And yet, because Washington cannot summon the strength of reality needed to couple authority with dependency—the classic dynamic of mastery—anarchy persists, and so does war. Thus disorder, mendacity and injustice again go hand in hand, as Satan walks to and fro in the earth. Satan is a pretty busy guy these days.
And finally, we come down to San Francisco. This is not Afghanistan, and nor is it Haiti—although the city fathers of fifty years ago might be excused for imagining some relationship. But no, actually. San Francisco is not well-governed by any reasonable standard, but I live there and I can tell you that it’s a pretty nice place to live.
Still, however, the tapestry of promises looks like a moth attack at a dental-floss convention. About the only strong human bonds in San Francisco today are familial bonds, and there are precious few of those. (Although the birth rate is up about 50% in the last 10 years, in my zip code—a thing which makes one think there may be some turning of the tide.) Extended families are a rarity. Clans and tribes are found only among the primitive. There are no guilds, there are no real churches, there are no genuine, multigenerational neighborhood communal organizations. There are plenty of sexual bonds, friendships, affinity groups, and employment relationships, of course. But everything is casual.
Whereas fifty years ago, this city was an American Catholic city, full of Irish and Italians. It had community in spades. So did the entire country. America was in fact famous for her social cohesion. If you read Tocqueville’s actual American journals, he goes around America marvelling at the social fabric, marvelling at the strict discipline in the prisons, and being amazed that both can coexist with democracy—whose destructive side, being French, he knows well. It was a tough fabric, and took more than another century to totally decay.
But now, of course, it has—as another famous pundit has pointed out. (The same professor has, much against his will, even observed one of the causes.) American society is atomized and structureless. All decisions are as procedural and collective as can be made. The only exception is in the corporate, military and law-enforcement worlds, each its own little bitter holdouts of rationalized reaction. These are stubborn. But when they go, commerce and security go—and here is the true slide over the great falls.
Oh, and Shakespeare and Johnson? They were reactionaries too, of course. Johnson was a notorious Jacobite. But Shakespeare? Alas. Aside from notorious passages such as Ulysses’ speech on degree (which you are now fully equipped to understand), not to mention notorious plays, such as Coriolanus—let me simply note that if Shakespeare was a democrat, you’d’ve heard it.
If you must look further: “I had as lief be a Brownist as a politician.”2 Note that Brownism begat Congregationalism and Congregationalism begat Universalism—so we are all Brownists now. By memetic genealogy, at least. Remember that the next time NPR chews your ear off about the Bard.
And again, don’t let this be your only introduction to Carlyle. To repeat the course: Chartism, then the Latter-Day Pamphlets, then Shooting Niagara, then the Occasional Discourse. If this doesn’t stretch your skull, nothing will.
1. This paragraph has proven to be one of the most controversial in the Moldbug corpus. Some feign outrage at the notion that “Africans tended to make good slaves,” intentionally misreading this as an endorsement of the idea, while also stripping it of critical historical context. But the observation that 17th-century Spaniards and Englishmen found Africans to be better slaves than Indians is hardly controversial—how else to explain the transatlantic slave trade?
Meanwhile, there are those who fret about the suggestion that genetic differences between different populations might account for some of their differences in behavior. Such people would do well to educate themselves on the actual research on the subject, as well as to consult their local dictionary regarding the word parsimonious. Genetic differences aren’t the only explanation for the source of the observed disparity—just the simplest (most parsimonious) one.
Indeed, there is no question that genetic differences made Africans better slaves than indigenous Americans in at least one respect: due to superior genetic resistance, Africans were much less likely to die of introduced tropical diseases like yellow fever and malaria. Those who can’t admit that a live person makes a better slave than a dead one are well beyond the reach of reason.