Book 5, Chapter 11 : Moral Effects of Aristocracy
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Book 5, Chapter 11
Nature of aristocracy. - Importance of practical justice. - Species of injustice which aristocracy creates. - Estimate of the injury produced. - Examples.
THE features of aristocratically institution are principally two: privilege, and an aggravated monopoly of wealth. The first of these is the essence of aristocracy; the second, that without which aristocracy can rarely be supported. They are both of them in direct opposition to all sound morality, and all generous independence of character.
Inequality of wealth is perhaps the necessary result of the institution of property, in any state of progress at which the human mind has yet arrived; and cannot, till the character of the human species is essentially altered, be superseded but by a despotic and positive interference, more injurious to the common welfare, than the inequality it attempted to remove. Inequality of wealth involves with it inequality of inheritance.
But the mischief of aristocracy is that it inexpressibly aggravates and embitters an evil which, in its mildest form, is deeply to be deplored. The first sentiment of an uncorrupted mind, when it enters upon the theater of human life, is, Remove from me and my fellows all arbitrary hindrances; let us start fair; render all the advantages and honors of social institution accessible to every man, in proportion to his talents and exertions.
Is it true, as has often been pretended, that generous and exalted qualities are-hereditary in particular lines of descent? They do not want the alliance of positive institution to secure to them their proper ascendancy, and enable them to command the respect of mankind. Is it false? Let it share the fate of exposure and detection with other impostures. If I conceived of a young person that he was destined, from his earliest infancy, to be a sublime poet, or a profound philosopher, should I conceive that the readiest road to the encouraging and fostering his talents was, from the moment of his birth, to put a star upon his breast, to salute him with titles of honor, and to bestow upon him, independently of all exertion, those advantages which exertion usually proposes to itself as its ultimate object of pursuit? No; I should send him to the school of man, and oblige him to converse with his fellows upon terms of equality.
Privilege is a regulation rendering a few men, and those only, by the accident of their birth, eligible to certain situations. It kills all liberal ambition in the rest of mankind, by opposing to it an apparently insurmountable bar. It diminishes it in the favored class itself, by showing them the principal qualification as indefeasibly theirs. Privilege entitles a favored few to engross to themselves gratifications which the system of the universe left at large to all her sons; it puts into the hands of these few the means of oppression against the rest of their species; it fills them with vain-glory, and affords them every incitement to insolence and a lofty disregard to the feelings and interests of others.
Privilege, as we have already said, is the essence of aristocracy; and, in a rare condition of human society, such as that of the ancient Romans, privilege has been able to maintain itself without the accession of wealth, and to flourish in illustrious poverty. But this can be the case only under a very singular coincidence of circumstances. In general, an aggravated monopoly of wealth has been one of the objects about which the abettors of aristocracy have been most incessantly solicitous. Hence the origin of entails, rendering property. in its own nature too averse to a generous circulation, a thousand times more stagnant and putrescent than before, of primogeniture, which disinherits every other member of a family, to heap unwholesome abundance upon one; and of various limitations, filling the courts of civilized Europe with endless litigation, and making it in many cases impossible to decide who it is that has the right of conveying a property, and what shall amount to a legal transfer.
There is one thing, more than all the rest, of importance to the well being of mankind, justice. A neglect of justice is not only to be deplored for the direct evil it produces; it is perhaps still more injurious by its effects in perverting the understanding, overturning our calculations of the future, and thus striking at the root of moral discernment, and genuine power and decision of character.
Of all the principles of justice, there is none so material to the moral rectitude of mankind as that no man can be distinguished but by his personal merit. When a man has proved himself a benefactor to the public, when he has already, by laudable perseverance, cultivated in himself talents which need only encouragement and public favor to bring them to maturity, let that man be honored. In a state of society where fictitious distinctions are unknown, it is impossible he should not be honored. But that a man should be looked up to with servility and awe because the king has bestowed on him a spurious name, or decorated him with a ribband; that another should revel in luxury because his ancestor three centuries ago bled in the quarrel of Lancaster or York; do we imagine that these iniquities can be practiced without injury?
Let those who entertain this opinion converse a little with the lower orders of mankind. They will perceive that the unfortunate wretch who, with unremitted labor, finds himself incapable adequately to feed and clothe his family has a sense of injustice rankling at his heart.
But let us suppose that their sense of injustice were less acute than is here supposed, what favorable inference can be deduced from that? Is not the injustice real? If the minds of men are so withered and stupified by the constancy with which it is practiced that they do not feel the rigor that grinds them into nothing, how does that improve the picture?
Let us fairly consider, for a moment, what is the amount of injustice included in the institutioo of aristocracy. I am born, suppose, a Polish prince with an income of £300,000 per annum. You are born a manerial serf, or a Creolian Negro, attached to the soil, and transferable, by barter or otherwise, to twenty successive lords. In vain shall be your most generous efforts, and your unwearied industry, to free yourself from the intolerable yoke. Doomed, by the law of your birth, to wait at the gates of the palace you must never enter; to sleep under a ruined, weather-beaten roof, while your master sleeps under canopies of state; to feed on putrefied offals, while the world is ransacked for delicacies for his table; to labor, without moderation or limit, under a parching sun, while he basks in perpetual sloth; and to be rewarded at last with contempt, reprimand, stripes and mutilation. In fact the case is worse than this. I could endure all that injustice or caprice could inflict provided I possessed, in the resource of a firm mind, the power of looking down with pity on my tyrant, and of knowing that I had that within that sacred character of truth, virtue and fortitude which all his injustice could not reach. But a slave and a serf are condemned to stupidity and vise, as well as to calamity.
Is all this nothing? Is all this necessary for the maintenance of civil order? Let it be recollected that, for this distinction, there is not the smallest foundation in the nature of things, that, as we have already said, there is no particular mold for the construction of lords, and that they are born neither better nor worse than the poorest of their dependents. It is this structure of aristocracy, in all its sanctuaries and fragments, against which reason and morality have declared war. It is alike unjust, whether we consider it in the calls of India; the villainage of the feudal system; or the despotism of ancient Rome, where the debtors were dragged into personal servitude, to expiate, by stripes and slavery, the usurious loans they could not repay. Mankind will never be, in an eminent degree, virtuous and happy, till each man shall possess that portion of distinction and no more, to which he is entitled by his personal merits. The dissolution of aristocracy is equally the interest of the oppressor and the oppressed. The one will be delivered from the listlessness of tyranny, and the other from the brutalizing operation of servitude. How long shall we be told in vain 'that mediocrity of fortune is the true rampart of personal happiness?
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