Saturday, May 5, 2007, continuing
(10:45 a.m.) You may have heard – what will seem ridiculous to you – of Elizabethan society, for instance, in which someone wearing a ruff wider that allowed for that station in life might have it publicly (and humiliatingly) clipped for him. A class-based society is firmly bounded and does not allow people to move upward very easily, and certainly not at their will, to the extent that it can help it. In a society – a feudal society, say – based upon hereditary casts, there is a security as well as a lack of opportunity.
Indeed, for one and all there is a security partially based on that lack of opportunity.
This is hard for your age to understand, thinking as it does that it is the last word in progress. What age ever thinks differently? Even if it looks backward to a past that was undoubtedly greater – as the medieval world looked back on the Roman Empire, say – still it says, “but we are better, in that we –” and then it fills in the blanks as best it can.
Your idea of your society, and how that society would look to the proverbial outside observer, the man from Mars, are two very different things. In fact one could argue the law of compensation: That which you have the least, you imagine that you have the most. That which in practice you value least, in theory you value most.
Respect for law? Respect for life? Equality under the law? Opportunity for all? Wealth, education, security, name it. The more you are told (and are led to tell yourself) that you have, in fact the less you really have in substance.
Who is cutting the ruff of instant millionaires building their monuments to themselves? What gangster fails to get power and even prestige once he is successful enough? What does it take to put $1 million in jail, much less the electric chair? How representative is a government that cannot be influenced saved by fear or money? What equality of opportunity in a land where even free public education no longer exists except as a sort of Potemkin village?
You know all this. Is it the fault of a few crooked politicians? Of a political party? Of the selfishness of a social category? Or is it something far more fundamental?
A society that measures prestige and worth by one means – money – is going to have a very unstable and self-destructive pyramid.
You may go to Plato, whose descending scale you disliked but can now see was based on observation and not merely on aristocratic prejudice.
Dictatorship and back to monarchy.
You are well into the stage of plutocracy. What can money not buy in your society? We refer here not merely to America, which is the world’s mirror, but every country on earth to greater or lesser degree, modified by local circumstances. What can money not buy?
But there have been societies in which money could not buy intellectual prestige, or social preferment, or the ability to change rank. You may not like such societies – think of the minor German principalities of the 1600s, say – and you would not fit into them, but they had what you think you want – restraints on the power of money to buy whatever it wants.
Let us say it plainly. Political reform, economic reform, is not the path to any utopia. The reason it is utopia is because it does not exist and it cannot exist – it should not (we would add) exist.
Look again at Plato’s succession of states of social organization. Even if you could force society to stay at any one of these levels, which level is perfect? Which does not have – must have – the defects of its qualities?
Look not to political or economic remedies for your salvation!
Do you want to curtail wealth, or at least the stupidest, crudest flaunting of wealth? You can do it only by exerting social controls either personal (as in tribes) or impersonal (as in caste societies). Are you willing to pay the price, and assuming that you are, are you able to bring this is into being? Or is it a tilting at windmills that distracts you from your real work?
Certainly we do not meet to imply that it is no one’s task to work to change the world’s political and economic structures. We ask only that you ask yourself, is it your work. Is it your work, or do you have other tasks that you are better fitted for? You will do what they are because their allure for you will be unmatched by any other.
A final word on the subject. If you will look at communist societies you will see an attempt to impersonally control society so that wealth is not to determine. It your day such an attempt had to degenerate into ruthless social control based upon police. The reason why had nothing to do with external hostile powers, or “a few bad apples” seizing control of the People’s State – it had to do with the attempt by a few to overcome the weight of the entire world’s movement. Try to set up a monarchy in an age of democracy, or a plutocracy in an age of aristocracy, etc. Some things cannot be done. You might as well try to move the orbit of the Earth. Any results you produce will be twisted by their conflict with the invisible laws governing the times. Hegel was not mistaken, nor was he lost in abstraction.