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The Miser and His Friends

It is a sign of sharp sickness in a society when it is actually led by
some special sort of lunatic. A mild touch of madness may even keep a man
sane; for it may keep him modest. So some exaggerations in the State may
remind it of its own normal. But it is bad when the head is cracked; when
the roof of the commonwealth has a tile loose.

The two or three cases of this that occur in history have always been
gibbeted gigantically. Thus Nero has become a black proverb, not merely
because he was an oppressor, but because he was also an aesthete--that is,
an erotomaniac. He not only tortured other people's bodies; he tortured
his own soul into the same red revolting shapes. Though he came quite
early in Roman Imperial history and was followed by many austere and noble
emperors, yet for us the Roman Empire was never quite cleansed of that
memory of the sexual madman. The populace or barbarians from whom we come
could not forget the hour when they came to the highest place of the earth,
saw the huge pedestal of the earthly omnipotence, read on it Divus Caesar,
and looked up and saw a statue without a head.

It is the same with that ugly entanglement before the Renaissance, from
which, alas, most memories of the Middle Ages are derived. Louis XI was a
very patient and practical man of the world; but (like many good business
men) he was mad. The morbidity of the intriguer and the torturer clung
about everything he did, even when it was right. And just as the great
Empire of Antoninus and Aurelius never wiped out Nero, so even the silver
splendour of the latter saints, such as Vincent de Paul, has never painted
out for the British public the crooked shadow of Louis XI. Whenever the
unhealthy man has been on top, he has left a horrible savour that humanity
finds still in its nostrils. Now in our time the unhealthy man is on top;
but he is not the man mad on sex, like Nero; or mad on statecraft, like
Louis XI; he is simply the man mad on money. Our tyrant is not the satyr
or the torturer; but the miser.

The modern miser has changed much from the miser of legend and anecdote;
but only because he has grown yet more insane. The old miser had some
touch of the human artist about him in so far that he collected gold--a
substance that can really be admired for itself, like ivory or old oak.
An old man who picked up yellow pieces had something of the simple ardour,
something of the mystical materialism, of a child who picks out yellow
flowers. Gold is but one kind of coloured clay, but coloured clay can be
very beautiful. The modern idolater of riches is content with far less
genuine things. The glitter of guineas is like the glitter of buttercups,
the chink of pelf is like the chime of bells, compared with the dreary
papers and dead calculations which make the hobby of the modern miser.

The modern millionaire loves nothing so lovable as a coin. He is content
sometimes with the dead crackle of notes; but far more often with the mere
repetition of noughts in a ledger, all as like each other as eggs to eggs.
And as for comfort, the old miser could be comfortable, as many tramps
and savages are, when he was once used to being unclean. A man could find
some comfort in an unswept attic or an unwashed shirt. But the Yankee
millionaire can find no comfort with five telephones at his bed-head and
ten minutes for his lunch. The round coins in the miser's stocking were
safe in some sense. The round noughts in the millionaire's ledger are
safe in no sense; the same fluctuation which excites him with their
increase depresses him with their diminution. The miser at least collects
coins; his hobby is numismatics. The man who collects noughts collects
nothings.

It may be admitted that the man amassing millions is a bit of an idiot;
but it may be asked in what sense does he rule the modern world. The
answer to this is very important and rather curious. The evil enigma for
us here is not the rich, but the Very Rich. The distinction is important;
because this special problem is separate from the old general quarrel
about rich and poor that runs through the Bible and all strong books, old
and new. The special problem to-day is that certain powers and privileges
have grown so world-wide and unwieldy that they are out of the power of
the moderately rich as well as of the moderately poor. They are out of
the power of everybody except a few millionaires--that is, misers. In
the old normal friction of normal wealth and poverty I am myself on the
Radical side. I think that a Berkshire squire has too much power over his
tenants; that a Brompton builder has too much power over his workmen; that
a West London doctor has too much power over the poor patients in the West
London Hospital.

But a Berkshire squire has no power over cosmopolitan finance, for
instance. A Brompton builder has not money enough to run a Newspaper
Trust. A West End doctor could not make a corner in quinine and freeze
everybody out. The merely rich are not rich enough to rule the modern
market. The things that change modern history, the big national and
international loans, the big educational and philanthropic foundations,
the purchase of numberless newspapers, the big prices paid for peerages,
the big expenses often incurred in elections--these are getting too big
for everybody except the misers; the men with the largest of earthly
fortunes and the smallest of earthly aims.

There are two other odd and rather important things to be said about them.
The first is this: that with this aristocracy we do not have the chance
of a lucky variety in types which belongs to larger and looser
aristocracies. The moderately rich include all kinds of people even good
people. Even priests are sometimes saints; and even soldiers are
sometimes heroes. Some doctors have really grown wealthy by curing their
patients and not by flattering them; some brewers have been known to sell
beer. But among the Very Rich you will never find a really generous man,
even by accident. They may give their money away, but they will never
give themselves away; they are egoistic, secretive, dry as old bones. To
be smart enough to get all that money you must be dull enough to want it.

Lastly, the most serious point about them is this: that the new miser is
flattered for his meanness and the old one never was. It was never called
self-denial in the old miser that he lived on bones. It is called
self-denial in the new millionaire if he lives on beans. A man like
Dancer was never praised as a Christian saint for going in rags. A man
like Rockefeller is praised as a sort of pagan stoic for his early rising
or his unassuming dress. His "simple" meals, his "simple" clothes, his
"simple" funeral, are all extolled as if they were creditable to him.
They are disgraceful to him: exactly as disgraceful as the tatters and
vermin of the old miser were disgraceful to him. To be in rags for
charity would be the condition of a saint; to be in rags for money was
that of a filthy old fool. Precisely in the same way, to be "simple" for
charity is the state of a saint; to be "simple" for money is that of a
filthy old fool. Of the two I have more respect for the old miser,
gnawing bones in an attic: if he was not nearer to God, he was at least a
little nearer to men. His simple life was a little more like the life of
the real poor.


Gilbert Keith Chesterton


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