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An essay by Arthur C. Benson


Title:     Equality
Author: Arthur C. Benson [More Titles by Benson]

It is often said that the Anglo-Saxon races suffer from a lack of ideals, that they do not hold enough things sacred. But there is assuredly one thing which the most elementary and barbarous Anglo- Saxon holds sacred, beyond creed and Decalogue and fairplay and morality, and that is property. At inquests, for instance, it may be noted how often inquiries are solicitously made, not whether the deceased had religious difficulties or was disappointed in love, but whether he had any financial worries. We hold our own property to be very sacred indeed, and our respect for other men's rights in the matter is based on the fact that we wish our own rights to be respected. If I were asked what other ideals were held widely sacred in England and America I should find it very difficult to reply. I think that there is a good deal of interest taken in America in education and culture; whereas in England I do not believe that there is very much interest taken in either; almost the only thing which is valued in England, romantically, and with a kind of enthusiasm, besides property, is social distinction; the democracy in England is sometimes said to be indignant at the existence of so much social privilege; the word "class" is said to be abhorrent to the democrat; but the only classes that he detests are the classes above him in the social scale, and the democrat is extremely indignant if he is assigned to a social station which he considers to be below his own. I have met democrats who despise and contemn the social tradition of the so-called upper classes, but I have never met a democrat who is not much more infuriated if it is supposed that he has not social traditions of his own vastly superior to the social traditions of the lowest grade of precarious mendicity. The reason why socialism has never had any great hold in England is because equality is only a word, and in no sense a real sentiment in England. The reason why members of the lowest class in England are not as a rule convinced socialists is because their one ambition is to become members of the middle-class, and to have property of their own; and while the sense of personal possession is so strong as it is, no socialism worthy of the name has a chance. It is possible for any intelligent, virtuous, and capable member of the lower class to transfer himself to the middle class; and once there he does not favour any system of social equality. Socialism can never prevail as a political system, until we get a majority of disinterested men, who do not want to purchase freedom from daily work by acquiring property, and who desire the responsibility rather than the influence of administrative office. But administrative office is looked upon in England as an important if indirect factor in acquiring status and personal property for oneself and one's friends.

I am myself a sincere believer in socialism; that is to say, I do not question the right of society to deprive me of my private property if it chooses to do so. It does choose to do so to a certain extent through the medium of the income-tax. Such property as I possess has, I think it as well to state, been entirely acquired by my own exertions. I have never inherited a penny, or received any money except what I have earned. I am quite willing to admit that my work was more highly paid than it deserved; but I shall continue to cling tenaciously to that property until I am convinced that it will be applied for the benefit of every one; I should not think it just if it was taken from me for the benefit of the idle and incompetent; and I should be reluctant to part with it unless I felt sure that it would pass into the hands of those who are as just-minded and disinterested as myself, and be fairly administered. I should not think it just if it were taken from me by people who intended to misuse it, as I have misused it, for their own personal gratification.

It was made a matter of merriment in the case of William Morris that he preached the doctrines of socialism while he was a prosperous manufacturer; but I see that he was perfectly consistent. There is no justice, for instance, about the principle of disarmament, unless all nations loyally disarm at the same time. A person cannot be called upon to strip himself of his personal property for disinterested reasons, if he feels that he is surrounded by people who would use the spoils for their own interest. The process must be carried out by a sincere majority, who may then coerce the selfish minority. I have no conception what I should do with my money if I determined that I ought not to possess it. It ought not to be applied to any public purpose, because under a socialist regime all public institutions would be supported by the public, and they ought not to depend upon private generosity. Still less do I think that it ought to be divided among individuals, because, if they were disinterested persons, they ought to refuse to accept it. The only good reason I should have for disencumbering myself of my possessions would be that I might set a good example of the simple life, by working hard for a livelihood, which is exactly what I do; and my only misfortune is that my earnings and the interest of my accumulated earnings produce a sum which is far larger than the average man ought to possess. Thus the difficulty is a very real one. Moreover the evil of personal property is that it tends to emphasise class- distinctions and to give the possessors of it a sense of undue superiority. Now I am democratic enough to maintain that I have no sense whatever of personal superiority. I do not allow my possession of property to give me a life of vacuous amusement, for the simple reason that my work amuses me far more than any other form of occupation, If it is asked why I tend to live by preference among what may be called my social equals, I reply that the only people one is at ease with are the people whose social traditions are the same as one's own, for the simple reason that one does not then have to think about social traditions at all. I do not think my social traditions are better than the social traditions of any other stratum of society, whether it be described as above or below my own; all I would say is that they are different from the social traditions of other strata, and I much prefer to live without having to consider such matters at all. The manners of the upper middle-class to which scientifically I belong, are different from the manners of the upper, lower-middle, and lower class, and I feel out of my element in the upper class, just as I feel out of my element in the lower class. Of course if I were perfectly simple- minded and sincere, this would not be so; but, as it is, I am at ease with professional persons of my own standing; I understand their point-of-view without any need of explanation; in any class but my own, I am aware of the constant strain of trying to grasp another point-of-view; and to speak frankly, it is not worth the trouble. I do not at all desire to migrate out of my own class, and I have never been able to sympathise with people who did. The motive for doing so is not generally a good one, though it is of course possible to conceive a high-minded aristocrat who from motives based upon our common humanity might desire to apprehend the point-of-view of an artisan, or a high-minded artisan who for the same motive desired to apprehend the point-of-view of an earl. But one requires to feel sure that this is based upon a strong sense of charity and responsibility, and I can only say that I have not found that the desire to migrate into a different class is generally based upon these qualities.

The question is, what ought a man who believes sincerely in the principle of equality to do in the matter, if he is situated as I am situated? What I admire and desire in life is friendly contact with my fellows, interesting work, leisure for following the pursuits I enjoy, such as art and literature. I honestly confess that I am not interested in what are called Social Problems, or rather I am not at all interested in the sort of people who study them. Such problems have hardly reached the vital stage; they are in the highly technical stage, and are mixed up with such things as political economy, politics, organisation, and so forth, which, to be perfectly frank, are to me blighting and dreary objects of study. I honour profoundly the people who engage in such pursuits; but life is not long enough to take up work, however valuable, from a sense of duty, if one realises one's own unfitness for such labours. I wish with all my heart that all classes cared equally for the things which I love. I should like to be able to talk frankly and unaffectedly about books, and interesting people, and the beauties of nature, and abstract topics of a mild kind, with any one I happened to meet. But, as a rule, to speak frankly, I find that people of what I must call the lower class are not interested in these things; people in what I will call the upper class are faintly interested, in a horrible and condescending way, in them--which is worse than no interest at all. A good many people in my own class are impatient of them, and think of them as harmless recreations; I fall back upon a few like-minded friends, with whom I can talk easily and unreservedly of such things, without being thought priggish or donnish or dilettanteish or unintelligible. The subjects in which I find the majority of people interested are personal gossip, money, success, business, politics. I love personal gossip, but that can only be enjoyed in a circle well acquainted with each other's faults and foibles; and I do not sincerely care for talking about the other matters I have mentioned. Hitherto I have always had a certain amount of educational responsibility, and that has furnished an abundance of material for pleasant talk and interesting thoughts; but then I have always suffered from the Anglo-Saxon failing of disliking responsibility except in the case of those for whom one's efforts are definitely pledged on strict business principles. I cannot deliberately assume a sense of responsibility towards people in general; to do that implies a sense of the value of one's own influence and example, which I have never possessed; and, indeed, I have always heartily disliked the manifestation of it in others. Indeed, I firmly believe that the best and most fruitful part of a man's influence, is the influence of which he is wholly unconscious; and I am quite sure that no one who has a strong sense of responsibility to the world in general can advance the cause of equality, because such a sense implies at all events a consciousness of moral superiority. Moreover, my educational experience leads me to believe that one cannot do much to form character. The most one can do is to guard the young against pernicious influences, and do one's best to recommend one's own disinterested enthusiasms. One cannot turn a violet into a rose by any horticultural effort; one can only see that the violet or the rose has the best chance of what is horribly called self- effectuation.

My own belief is that these great ideas like Equality and Justice are things which, like poetry, are born and cannot be made. That a number of earnest people should be thinking about them shows that they are in the air; but the interest felt in them is the sign and not the cause of their increase. I believe that one must go forwards, trying to avoid anything that is consciously harsh or pompous or selfish or base, and the great ideas will take care of themselves.

The two great obvious difficulties which seem to me to lie at the root of all schemes for producing a system of social equality are first the radical inequality of character, temperament, and equipment in human beings. No system can ever hope to be a practical system unless we can eliminate the possibility of children being born, some of them perfectly qualified for life and citizenship, and others hopelessly disqualified. If such differences were the result of environment it would be a remediable thing. But one can have a strong, vigorous, naturally temperate child born and brought up under the meanest and most sordid conditions, and, on the other hand, a thoroughly worthless and detestable person may be the child of high-minded, well-educated people, with every social advantage. My work as a practical educationalist enforced this upon me. One would find a boy, born under circumstances as favourable for the production of virtue and energy as any socialistic system could provide, who was really only fitted for the lowest kind of mechanical work, and whose instincts were utterly gross. Even if the State could practise a kind of refined Mendelism, it would be impossible to guard against the influences of heredity. If one traces back the hereditary influences of a child for ten generations, it will be found that he has upwards of two thousand progenitors, any one of whom may give him a bias.

And secondly, I cannot see that any system of socialism is consistent with the system of the family. The parents in a socialistic state can only be looked upon as brood stock, and the nurture of the rising generation must be committed to some State organisation, if one is to secure an equality of environing influences. Of course, this is done to a certain extent by the boarding-schools of the upper classes; and here again my experience has shown me that the system, though a good one for the majority, is not the best system invariably for types with marked originality--the very type that one most desires to propagate.

These are, of course, very crude and elementary objections to the socialistic scheme; all that I say is that until these difficulties seem more capable of solution, I cannot throw myself with any interest into the speculation; I cannot continue in the path of logical deduction, while the postulates and axioms remain so unsound.

What then can a man who has resources that he cannot wisely dispose of, and happiness that he cannot impart to others, but yet who would only too gladly share his gladness with the world, do to advance the cause of the general weal? Must he plunge into activities for which he has no aptitude or inclination, and which have as their aim objects for which he does not think that the world is ripe? Every one will remember the figure of Mrs. Pardiggle in Bleak House, that raw-boned lady who enjoyed hard work, and did not know what it was to be tired, who went about rating inefficient people, and "boned" her children's pocket-money for charitable objects. It seems to me that many of the people who work at social reforms do so because, like Mrs. Pardiggle, they enjoy hard work and love ordering other people about. In a society wisely and rationally organised, there would be no room for Mrs. Pardiggle at all; the question is whether things must first pass through the Pardiggle stage. I do not in my heart believe it. Mrs. Pardiggle seems to me to be not part of the cure of the disease, but rather one of the ugliest of its symptoms. I think that she is on the wrong tack altogether, and leading other people astray. I do know some would-be social reformers, whom I respect and commiserate with all my heart, who see what is amiss, and have no idea how to mend it, and who lose themselves, like Hamlet, in a sort of hopeless melancholy about it all, with a deep-seated desire to give others a kind of happiness which they ought to desire, but which, as a matter of fact, they do not desire. Such men are often those upon whom early youth broke, like a fresh wave, with an incomparable sense of rapture, in the thought of all the beauty and loveliness of nature and art; and who lived for a little in a Paradise of delicious experiences and fine emotions, believing that there must be some strange mistake, and that every one must in reality desire what seemed so utterly desirable; and then, as life went on, there fell upon these the shadow of the harsh facts of life; the knowledge that the majority of the human race had no part or lot in such visions, but loved rather food and drink and comfort and money and rude mirth; who did not care a pin what happened to other people, or how frail and suffering beings spent their lives, so long as they themselves were healthy and jolly. Then that shadow deepens and thickens, until the sad dreamers do one of two things-- either immure themselves in a tiny scented garden of their own, and try to drown the insistent noises without; or, on the other hand, if they are of the nobler sort, lose heart and hope, and even forfeit their own delight in things that are sweet and generous and pleasant and pure. A mournful and inextricable dilemma!

Perhaps one or two of such visionaries, who are made of sterner stuff, have deliberately embarked, hopefully and courageously, upon the Pardiggle path; they have tried absurd experiments, like Ruskin, in road-making and the formation of Guilds; they have taken to journalism and committees like William Morris. But they have been baffled. I do not mean to say that such lives of splendid renunciation may not have a deep moral effect; but, on the other hand, it is little gain to humanity if a richly-endowed spirit deserts a piece of work that he can do, to toil unsuccessfully at a piece of work that cannot yet be done at all.

I myself believe that when Society is capable of using property and the better pleasures, it will arise and take them quietly and firmly: and as for the fine spirits who would try to organise things before they are even sorted, well, they have done a noble, ineffectual thing, because they could not do otherwise; and their desire to mend what is amiss is at all events a sign that the impulse is there, that the sun has brightened upon the peaks before it could warm the valleys.

I was reading to-day The Irrational Knot, an early book by Mr. Bernard Shaw, whom I whole-heartedly admire because of his courage and good-humour and energy. That book represents a type of the New Man, such as I suppose Mr. Shaw would have us all to be; the book, in spite of its radiant wit, is a melancholy one, because the novelist penetrates so clearly past the disguises of humanity, and takes delight in dragging the mean, ugly, shuddering, naked creature into the open. The New Man himself is entirely vigorous, cheerful, affectionate, sensible, and robust. He is afraid of nothing and shocked by nothing. I think it would have been better if he had been a little more shocked, not in a conventional way, but at the hideous lapses and failures of even generous and frank people. He is too hard and confident to be an apostle. He does not lead the flock like a shepherd, but helps them along, like Father- o'-Flynn, with his stick. I would have gone to Conolly, the hero of the book, to get me out of a difficulty, but I could not have confided to him what I really held sacred. Moreover the view of money, as the one essential world-force, so frankly confessed in the book, puzzled me. I do not think that money is ever more than a weapon in the hands of a man, or a convenient screening wall, and the New Man ought to have neither weapons nor walls, except his vigour and serenity of spirit. Again the New Man is too fond of saying what he thinks, and doing what he chooses; and, in the new earth, that independent instinct will surely be tempered by a sense, every bit as instinctive, of the rights of other people. But I suppose Mr. Shaw's point is that if you cannot mend the world, you had better make it serve you, as in its folly and debility it will, if you bully it enough. I suppose that Mr. Shaw would say that the brutality of his hero is the shadow thrown on him by the vileness of the world, and that if we were all alike courageous and industrious and good-humoured, that shadow would disappear.

And this, I suppose, is after all the secret; that the world is not going to be mended from without, but is mending itself from within; and thus that the best kind of socialism is really the highest individualism, in which a man leaves legislation to follow and express, as it assuredly does, the growth of emotion, and sets himself, in his own corner, to be as quiet and disinterested and kindly as he can, choosing what is honest and pure, and rejecting what is base and vile; and this is after all the socialism of Christ; only we are all in such a hurry, and think it more effective to clap a ruffian into gaol than to suffer his violence-- the result of which process is to make men sympathise with the ruffian--while, if we endure his violence, we touch a spring in the hearts of ruffian and spectators alike, which is more fruitful of good than the criminal's infuriated seclusion, and his just quarrel with the world. Of course the real way is that we should each of us abandon our own desires for private ease and convenience, in the light of the hope that those who come after will be easier and happier; whereas the Pardiggle reformer literally enjoys the presence of the refuse, because his broom has something to sweep away.

And the strangest thing of all is that we move forward, in a bewildered company, knowing that our every act and word is the resultant of ancient forces, not one of which we can change or modify in the least degree, while we live under the instinctive delusion, which survives the severest logic, that we can always and at every moment do to a certain extent what we choose to do. What the truth is that connects and underlies these two phenomena, we have not the least conception; but meanwhile each remains perfectly obvious and apparently true. To myself, the logical belief is infinitely the more hopeful and sustaining of the two; for if the movement of progress is in the hands of God, we are at all events taking our mysterious and wonderful part in a great dream that is being evolved, far more vast and amazing than we can comprehend; whereas if I felt that it was left to ourselves to choose, and that, hampered as we feel ourselves to be by innumerable chains of circumstance, we could yet indeed originate action and impede the underlying Will, I should relapse into despair before a problem full of sickening complexities and admitted failures. Meanwhile, I do what I am given to do; I perceive what I am allowed to perceive; I suffer what is appointed for me to suffer; but all with a hope that I may yet see the dawn break upon the sunlit sea, beyond the dark hills of time.

[The end]
Arthur C. Benson's essay: Equality