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.

Only E P Thompson could say it like this

From ‘In Defence of the Jury’, in E P Thompson, Making History: Writings on History and Culture (New York: New Press, 1994):

… Two basic propositions of democracy are so bizarre to their [UK government bureaucrats’] atrophied faculties that they really cannot comprehend them. The first is that there could be occasions when laws are judged by the public to be oppressive, or when the subject requires a defence against the Crown (or organs of the state). In our history it is at precisely such moments that the jury has interposed the power of its verdict…

The defence of the subject against the over-mighty state was once regarded – by such men as Sir William Blackstone and Thomas Jefferson – as a crucial function of the jury, elevating it to a high place among the defining institutions of a political democracy. For Alexis de Tocqueville the American jury as an ’eminently republican element in government’ which ‘places the real direction of Society in the hands of the governed’. I know of only one old judge, long retired from practice, who even understands this language today. And he – Lord Devlin – now writes in elegiac tone. Thirty years ago he could still say that ‘the jury is the lamp that shows that freedom lives.’ In 1978, he warned of the gathering signs ‘that the jury has another half-century or so of life to be spent in the sort of comfortable reservation which conquerors, bringing with them a new civilisation, assign to the natives whom they are displacing.

The second proposition is beyond the comprehension not only of our betters but of almost any of us in these latter days. It is the quaint archaic notion that anyone – randomly selected – might be able to perform a human-sized office or role. We have less sense of ourselves than villages in Medieval times, who rotated parish offices, or 18th century tradesmen who could find it in themselves to defy the Attorney-General and the Bench. The jury is perhaps the last place in our social organisation where any person, any citizen, may be called upon to perform a fully adult role. It has not been shown that our fellow citizens have failed, when placed in the jury box. They appear, when they find themselves there, to undergo some inexplicable reversion to pre-modern modes, and to find in themselves resources to fulfill the responsibility. But the very idea of it is ‘illogical’ and absurd. Only a crank could possibly suggest such a direct exercise of democracy today. Indeed, although as a historian I have to confess that the thing has worked, I can scarely comprehend it myself.

Originally published in the London Review of Books, Dec 1986.