July 25, 2008

Among the Disparate Reads

I like to read a lot of stuff at the same time. Well, not at the exact same time but you know what I mean. It has its pluses and minuses. It is fun to occasionally see a related concepts in unrelated books. For example, I was reading Pete Hamill's "My Downtown" and came across this passage:
Manhattan, Fifth Avenue became the street of social power. The early notion of a powerful native aristocracy was gone—they would not rule democratic New York—but there were more indirect forms of power. The Knickerbockers set social rules that would last for decades, even if the most brutal cruelties could often be expressed, as in James, with a raised eyebrow. They insisted that wealth itself was not a virtue. It was all a question of property versus trade. Wealth derived from the ownership of property, they insisted, was far superior to wealth earned from trade. They were people with property—real estate, distant farmlands—and property was a sign of long residence, of bloodlines that antedated the Revolution, of comfortable, essentially passive security. Trade was grubby, vulgar, active. Trade was forever hungry and voracious. It destroyed all permanence. It devoured the old to make way for the new. Trade must be resisted. Tradesmen must be kept at an immunizing distance.
One might be tempted to call that elitist, but it seems the old Knickerbockers saw things not unlike the Venerable John Henry Newman. In Ker's biography and he quotes the great one:
Not to the poor, the forlorn, the dejected, the afflicted, can the Unitarian doctrine be alluring, but to those who are rich and have need of nothing...Those who have nothing of this world to rely upon need a firm hold of the next, they need a deep religion...

Such is the benefit of poverty; as to wealth, its providential corrective is the relative duties which it involves, as in the case of a landlord; but these do not fall on the trader. He is rank without tangible responsibilities; he has made himself what he is, and becomes self-dependent...If he thinks of religion at all, he will not like from being a great man to become a little one; he bargains for some or other compensation to his self-importance, some little power of judging or managing, some small permission to have his own way. Commerce is free as air; it knows no distinctions; mutual intercourse is its medium of operation. Exclusiveness, separations, rules of life, observance of days, nice scruples of conscience, are odious to it.
Throughout the book the prescience of Newman is often apparent. On the doctrine of papal infallibility he worried that it would make the educated more skeptical and resistant to authority. Newman also writes of the middle class: "A religion that neither irritates their reason nor interferes with their comfort, will be all in all in such a society...Reason teaches them that utter disregard of their Maker is unbecoming, and they determine to be religious, not from love and fear, but from good sense."

No comments: