Thomas Carlyle on … Democracy

The enigmatic Victorian writer, Thomas Carlyle, who was inspired by German Romanticism, wrote some pretty fascinating lines on ‘democracy’ and ‘government’ in his Past and Present (1843):

Democracy, which means despair of finding any Heroes to govern you, and contented putting-up with the want of them, alas, thou too, mein Lieber [German: my dear], seest well how close it is of kin to Atheism, and other sad Isms: he who discovers no God whatever, how shall he discover Heroes, the visible Temples of God? Strange enough meanwhile it is to observe with what thoughtlessness, here in our rigidly Conservative Country, men rush into Democracy with full cry…

The notion that a man’s liberty consists in giving his vote at election-hustings, and saying, “Behold, now I too have my twenty-thousandth part of a Talker in our National Palaver; will not all the gods be good to me?” is one of the pleansantest! Nature nevertheless is kind at present, and puts it into the heads of many, almost of all…

Government can do much, but it can in no wise do all. Government, as the most conspicuous object in Society, is called upon to give signal of what shall be done; and, in many ways, to preside over, further, and command the doing of it. But the Government cannot do, by all its signaling and commanding, what the Society is radically indisposed to do. In the long-run every Government is the exact symbol of its People, with their wisdom and unwisdom; we have to say, Like People like Government.