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A Political Molecule

The most arrant denier must admit that a man often furthers larger ends
than he is conscious of, and that while he is transacting his particular
affairs with the narrow pertinacity of a respectable ant, he subserves
an economy larger than any purpose of his own. Society is happily not
dependent for the growth of fellowship on the small minority already
endowed with comprehensive sympathy: any molecule of the body politic
working towards his own interest in an orderly way gets his
understanding more or less penetrated with the fact that his interest is
included in that of a large number. I have watched several political
molecules being educated in this way by the nature of things into a
faint feeling of fraternity. But at this moment I am thinking of Spike,
an elector who voted on the side of Progress though he was not inwardly
attached to it under that name. For abstractions are deities having many
specific names, local habitations, and forms of activity, and so get a
multitude of devout servants who care no more for them under their
highest titles than the celebrated person who, putting with forcible
brevity a view of human motives now much insisted on, asked what
Posterity had done for him that he should care for Posterity? To many
minds even among the ancients (thought by some to have been invariably
poetical) the goddess of wisdom was doubtless worshipped simply as the
patroness of spinning and weaving. Now spinning and weaving from a
manufacturing, wholesale point of view, was the chief form under which
Spike from early years had unconsciously been a devotee of Progress.

He was a political molecule of the most gentleman-like appearance, not
less than six feet high, and showing the utmost nicety in the care of
his person and equipment. His umbrella was especially remarkable for its
neatness, though perhaps he swung it unduly in walking. His complexion
was fresh, his eyes small, bright, and twinkling. He was seen to great
advantage in a hat and greatcoat--garments frequently fatal to the
impressiveness of shorter figures; but when he was uncovered in the
drawing-room, it was impossible not to observe that his head shelved off
too rapidly from the eyebrows towards the crown, and that his length of
limb seemed to have used up his mind so as to cause an air of
abstraction from conversational topics. He appeared, indeed, to be
preoccupied with a sense of his exquisite cleanliness, clapped his hands
together and rubbed them frequently, straightened his back, and even
opened his mouth and closed it again with a slight snap, apparently for
no other purpose than the confirmation to himself of his own powers in
that line. These are innocent exercises, but they are not such as give
weight to a man's personality. Sometimes Spike's mind, emerging from its
preoccupation, burst forth in a remark delivered with smiling zest; as,
that he did like to see gravel walks well rolled, or that a lady should
always wear the best jewellery, or that a bride was a most interesting
object; but finding these ideas received rather coldly, he would relapse
into abstraction, draw up his back, wrinkle his brows longitudinally,
and seem to regard society, even including gravel walks, jewellery, and
brides, as essentially a poor affair. Indeed his habit of mind was
desponding, and he took melancholy views as to the possible extent of
human pleasure and the value of existence. Especially after he had made
his fortune in the cotton manufacture, and had thus attained the chief
object of his ambition--the object which had engaged his talent for
order and persevering application. For his easy leisure caused him much
_ennui_. He was abstemious, and had none of those temptations to sensual
excess which fill up a man's time first with indulgence and then with
the process of getting well from its effects. He had not, indeed,
exhausted the sources of knowledge, but here again his notions of human
pleasure were narrowed by his want of appetite; for though he seemed
rather surprised at the consideration that Alfred the Great was a
Catholic, or that apart from the Ten Commandments any conception of
moral conduct had occurred to mankind, he was not stimulated to further
inquiries on these remote matters. Yet he aspired to what he regarded as
intellectual society, willingly entertained beneficed clergymen, and
bought the books he heard spoken of, arranging them carefully on the
shelves of what he called his library, and occasionally sitting alone in
the same room with them. But some minds seem well glazed by nature
against the admission of knowledge, and Spike's was one of them. It was
not, however, entirely so with regard to politics. He had had a strong
opinion about the Reform Bill, and saw clearly that the large trading
towns ought to send members. Portraits of the Reform heroes hung framed
and glazed in his library: he prided himself on being a Liberal. In this
last particular, as well as in not giving benefactions and not making
loans without interest, he showed unquestionable firmness. On the Repeal
of the Corn Laws, again, he was thoroughly convinced. His mind was
expansive towards foreign markets, and his imagination could see that
the people from whom we took corn might be able to take the cotton goods
which they had hitherto dispensed with. On his conduct in these
political concerns, his wife, otherwise influential as a woman who
belonged to a family with a title in it, and who had condescended in
marrying him, could gain no hold: she had to blush a little at what was
called her husband's "radicalism"--an epithet which was a very unfair
impeachment of Spike, who never went to the root of anything. But he
understood his own trading affairs, and in this way became a genuine,
constant political element. If he had been born a little later he could
have been accepted as an eligible member of Parliament, and if he had
belonged to a high family he might have done for a member of the
Government. Perhaps his indifference to "views" would have passed for
administrative judiciousness, and he would have been so generally silent
that he must often have been silent in the right place. But this is
empty speculation: there is no warrant for saying what Spike would have
been and known so as to have made a calculable political element, if he
had not been educated by having to manage his trade. A small mind
trained to useful occupation for the satisfying of private need becomes
a representative of genuine class-needs. Spike objected to certain items
of legislation because they hampered his own trade, but his neighbours'
trade was hampered by the same causes; and though he would have been
simply selfish in a question of light or water between himself and a
fellow-townsman, his need for a change in legislation, being shared by
all his neighbours in trade, ceased to be simply selfish, and raised him
to a sense of common injury and common benefit. True, if the law could
have been changed for the benefit of his particular business, leaving
the cotton trade in general in a sorry condition while he prospered,
Spike might not have thought that result intolerably unjust; but the
nature of things did not allow of such a result being contemplated as
possible; it allowed of an enlarged market for Spike only through the
enlargement of his neighbours' market, and the Possible is always the
ultimate master of our efforts and desires. Spike was obliged to
contemplate a general benefit, and thus became public-spirited in spite
of himself. Or rather, the nature of things transmuted his active egoism
into a demand for a public benefit. Certainly if Spike had been born a
marquis he could not have had the same chance of being useful as a
political element. But he might have had the same appearance, have been
equally null in conversation, sceptical as to the reality of pleasure,
and destitute of historical knowledge; perhaps even dimly disliking
Jesuitism as a quality in Catholic minds, or regarding Bacon as the
inventor of physical science. The depths of middle-aged gentlemen's
ignorance will never be known, for want of public examinations in this
branch.

George Eliot