17 Pages

The Poor

I T has sometimes been contended in recent years that the Middle Ages lacked only our smug middle-class comfort; and that, as the upper classes were nobler, so the poor were healthier and happier then. It is probable that the latter part of this theory is at least as mistaken as the first: but the question is in itself more complicated, and we have naturally less detailed evidence in the poor man's case than in the rich man's. Among the great, we find many virtues and many vices common to both ages; but a careful comparison reveals certain grave faults which put the earlier state of society, as we might expect, at a definite and serious disadvantage. No gentleman of the present day would dream of striking his wife and daughters, of talking to them like the Knight of La Tour Landry, or like the Merchant in the presence of the Nuns, or of selling marriages and wardships in the open market. All the redeeming virtues in the world, we should feel, could not put the man who saw no harm in these things in the front rank of real gentility. Such plain and decisive methods of differentiation, however, begin to disappear as we descend the social scale; until, at the very bottom, we find little or no difference in coarseness of moral fibre between our own contemporaries and Chaucer's. For

it stands to reason that the development of the poor cannot be s.o rapid as that of the upper classes. In all human affairs, to him that hath shall be given; the superior energy and abilities of one family will differentiate it more and more, as life becomes more complicated, from other families which still vegetate among the mass; and in proportion as the wealth of the world increases, the gap must necessarily widen between the man who has most and the man who has least; since there have always been a certain number who possess, and are capable of possessing or keeping, virtually nothing. In that sense, the terrible contrast between wealth and poverty is undoubtedly worse in our days; but this fact in itself is as insignificant as it is unavoidable. The tramp on the highroad is not appreciably unhappier for knowing that his nothingness is contrasted nowadays with Mr. Carnegie's millions instead of de la Pole's thousands; and again, until we can find some means of distributing the accumulations of the rich among the poor without doing far more harm than good, the community loses no more by allowing a selfish man to lock up his millions, than formerly when they were only hundreds or thousands. The securities afforded by modern society for possession and accumulation of wealth do indeed often permit the capitalist to sweat his workmen deplorably; but these are the same securities which allow the workman to sleep in certain possession of his own little savings. While the capitalist is accumulating money, the foresight and self-restraint of the workmen enables them to accumulate votes, which in the long run are worth even more. Much may no doubt be done in detail by keeping in eye the simpler -methods of our ancestors; but no sound principle can be modelled on an age when nothing prevented capitalists from hoarding but lack of decent security, when strikes were rare only because of penal laws against all combinations of workmen, and when the peasant was partly kept from starving by his

recognized market value as the domestic animal of his master. We could easily remedy many desperate social difficulties-for the moment at least-if we might reduce half the population of England again to the status of serfs.