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    The Miser and His Friends

    by Gilbert Keith Chesterton
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    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.
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