It is insufficient to say that Ebenezer Scrooge is greedy. Scrooge believes that in his private life no one can make claims on his substance or time. He the kind of man who understands life to reduce to contracts…
In September 1843, Charles Dickens started writing his little book, A Christmas Carol, one of very few modern Christmas myths. He was finished in early December and, after deciding to pay for publication himself, he failed to make anything like the profit he expected. But the book has never been out of print since.
This is a modern myth because it deals with a modern problem: individualism. It is insufficient to say that the protagonist who learns to change his ways, Ebenezer Scrooge, is greedy. Were we to add that he is thrifty, industrious, and successful in his chosen profession, that would serve to complicate the picture, but would not cut to the core. Scrooge is a modern individualist, one who believes that in his private life no one can make claims on his substance or time. He is Dickens’ caricature of the kind of man who understands life to reduce to contracts. He shows freedom of a kind that is today called “libertarian” to be really dry, inhuman stuff.
Scrooge rejects family in rejecting his nephew… and society in rebuffing the men who come asking for charity on behalf of the destitute. He offers a model of political revolution to make the world sane—or else he should be happy in the insane asylum, if the crazy people roam the streets and rule the city. The crux of Scrooge’s teaching may seem to resemble the old oligarchic teaching; but he is not satisfied that the wealthy rule; he considers those who know how to acquire wealth the best rulers. It is a feature of modernity that acquisitiveness might be turned into a universal principle of right. There is a practical difference, too: Old oligarchs had to turn to each other, prize their families, and defend themselves from democrats, as few against the many. This new type takes for granted freedom from political expropriation. This is only possible in the modern world, which is the world made by liberalism, which first created a distinction between state and civil society. This is not meant to suggest Scrooge is civil, of course.
Scrooge, in the end, steps back from the principles he proffers in his wrath. He turns to the charity and generosity he had blamed for impoverishing the city. It seems the political work of the story is the marriage of oligarchy and democracy. This could be done in various ways, but the one Dickens chose is the strangest you could expect, for it relies on the antecedents of sacred law. It is the terror of death and suffering in the afterlife that can humble Scrooge’s pride. He is apparently not a fully committed atheist. Instead of commitment to a kind of business-like or a scientific materialism, Scrooge suffers from what Hobbes called “fear of ghosts.” To look from sacred law to the justice London offers, the political equivalent of the divine punishment Scrooge fears would be democratic vengeance. This he does not see at all, but was of course a serious concern for European regimes in the age. However things may be in the afterlife, there is a this-worldly connection, too, between faith and democracy: The politics implied in Christianity is the dignity of each person. This is similar to the liberal teaching, which makes of rights universal principles theoretically applicable to all individuals simply because they are individuals. Again, Scrooge himself does not see any connection between himself and other people in the principles he espouses. Instead, he claims that the best should rule or be left alone and shows no respect for anyone else. Things get worse from there.
Scrooge nevertheless pulls back from making the radical argument. He lives, in a specific sense, that argument: He has neither family nor friends. He did not grieve his partner, though he accepted the duties of executor of his estate; there is never any suggestion that Scrooge had treated his partner with anything but fairness throughout their business arrangement. Scrooge does seem to reduce all relations to contract, holding his worker to the business schedule, but asking no more, nor thinking he deserves more or less. Why should Scrooge not be all for stark individual autonomy? Dickens offers us two reasons, one belonging to the social class and one to Scrooge himself, to his discovery that he is possessor, among many other assets and liabilities, of an endangered soul. The way they are connected involves a very tricky analysis of the psychology of liberalism.
Let us first turn to the problem of social class: What Dickens shows us is that hot on the heels of the friendly nephew, full of love and generosity, come some gentlemen asking for charity. They do not ask by right or by law. Their appeal is to a vague sense of the sacred. What does it mean practically? That Scrooge has wealth and the poor have need. They suggest that the separation between state and civil society depends ultimately on the rich providing for the poor. Otherwise, there would be revolution. Scrooge says, he pays his taxes and is pleased that they pay for some kind of welfare. He shows he is as aware of this part of the social deal as are the gentlemen asking for charity. But this will then force him to moderate his claims: He depends on the state that depends on the social contract that depends on the equality of the state of nature. This means Scrooge cannot really claim that his superior money-making and money-saving arts are a claim to rule without consent.
Now, there is the problem of Scrooge’s tentative discovery of soul. Why had he never discovered this before? Dickens forces us to work it out in two contradictory ways: from visions of his own past, which are stories about himself that are in some way foundational; and from his own immediate experience of fear of death. These things might seem unconnected, but the story’s sequence again teaches quietly. First comes fear of death in the only case that can touch Scrooge: a man like himself, a partner, an image of himself—Mr. Marley. It is in that instant that the self-sufficiency of Scrooge is breached. Only later can other ghosts teach him about his own past, which is like Marley, forgotten, unmourned. Scrooge has to be taught to regret things, which means to imagine them first.
What is Dickens doing here? Where might he have learned that fear of death should be absolutely separated from fear of ghosts if men are to be reasonable calculators of their own interest? It is nearly verbatim the teaching of Thomas Hobbes, “the monster of Malmesbury,” that he is refuting in story here. The success of the refutation of course depends on the persuasiveness of the story. Scrooge’s attack on generosity is identical to the attack in Leviathan on vainglory. This is the deeper meaning of Scrooge’s insistence on the self-sufficient character of his rights, which are justified in practice by his having become and stayed successful by legal means. Scrooge must believe himself the proof of the theory. This is also why he is willing to expose the charity schemes of the state as the rich paying for the poor that they may content themselves to look to celebrations instead of revolutions. Scrooge must believe his success means that there will be less and less need of charity in the future.
But once he sees himself in Marley, he is open to fear of death, which all the success of his business and the security of his legal position in the new order cannot change. The criticism Dickens makes of Hobbes here is plain: Man’s mortality is not forgotten once the political state is entered into, and it will create greater troubles than the complication concerning self-defense, to do with the executive power and with security. This is why Dickens here has recourse to a non-Christian, non-modern device—ghosts. Ghosts are the claims that the dead make on the living, whatever may be said for the means of enforcing those claims. They prophesy death as forward-looking, but they also present a backward-looking limit to human action, both by making the past unforgettable and by insisting on duties beyond choice or contract. Ghosts, as far back as the oldest stories, always mock dreams of human freedom. The question between Hobbes and Dickens is whether an adequate account of human nature can be given without reference to what is sacred. Hobbes creates what he calls a mortal god, but Dickens points out that mortality is not entirely tolerable for human beings, even in a remarkably prosperous, peaceful, civilized state. Let man live the opposite of the poor, nasty, brutish and short life; will he thereby become happy and oblivious of his mortality? What will cause human beings to betray any kind of contract based on fear of death is the fear of death understood as their own private mortality. What terrifies Scrooge into a kind of moderation or a kind of piety is the vision of dying unburied, unmourned.
It is obvious that the concern here is losing control of one’s situation completely. Dickens, without any knowledge of Hobbes and his heirs, but from the practice he caricatures in Scrooge and Marley, reverses entirely the situation of the rights-bearing individual. He replaces the indignation of claiming one’s rights with the dread of utter neediness or vulnerability as revealed by mortality. Rights end up looking like a mere nothing; instead, Marley teaches Scrooge that men are bound to each other by duties more visible in death than in life. Dickens thus reverses the economic judgment concerning the poverty of the poor to show Scrooge as the poorest man of all, who cannot even afford burial. But inasmuch as man is obviously mortal in his body, why should this be such a terror? Perhaps that question is too complicated for now, as it pertains to the question of the good. To be very brief, Scrooge must now believe that the good cannot be reduced to the useful and is not ultimately proved and attained by any combination of calculative faculties. That death is the limit of his previous commitment to liberalism not only qualifies that commitment—even if he had not realized it before—it also teaches us something somber: Necessity overmatches his human understanding of the good.
The psychology behind liberalism is under attack in this way: Man as an autonomous rights-bearing individual should have no interest in his own post-mortem situation. That is the concern of others, if anyone’s. It is no one’s concern if everyone is a rights-bearing autonomous individual. Or some convention would have to establish property rights over corpses. Burial in this view would end up looking like the tyranny of the dead hand of the past, gruesomely literally. That Scrooge has been willing to live alone, but is unwilling to die alone, shows a radical dependence on others—on funeral rites—on what we call religion, ultimately. That is his discovery of soul. Hobbes might well ask whether talk of soul will give him any more effective power over the state of his corpse. But we are led to believe Scrooge would not listen to such arguments anymore. This Dickens achieves gracefully by showing his acts of kindness following on his terror.
Regaining his reason no longer leads him to be argumentative. His image of the Christian world of Christmas generosity as a madhouse—ignorant of necessity—and his political proposals had really been spontaneous, though he had been provoked by the gentlemen. He no longer wishes for political revolution. He had made explicit the implicit difference between an older and a younger generation of industrious men, his employer when a youth, Mr. Fezziwig, and himself. A generation back, the story within the story shows, the man of business wanted his workers to celebrate, so that they profess an interest in each other’s success and pleasure in each other’s society. Private and public come together in a business situation, which is both and neither. Scrooge, in refusing marriage and preferring work, and by doing it successfully, separated what his employer had wanted to keep together and showed the world of business as dominated by contract. Ruthlessness becomes inevitable. His new rejection of his old self-reliance leads him to imitate his old employer and the conventions animating the gentlemen who advertised charity. Scrooge seems to have learned that incomprehensible generosity is the proper answer to awareness of the limits our mortality sets upon our actions. Some things, apparently, liberalism should not try to destroy or even modify, but merely serve. This is made apparent quietly. Scrooge’s generous actions at the end are obviously tied up with the fantasies before, which did not readily distinguish his memories from his newly-learned regrets and wishes. Man in celebration is apparently ruled by memories.
So that then is why Scrooge, though not a hero, is not a villain. The great society of mankind have bestowed an awkward immortality, now in caricature and now mawkishly, on the character. We are willing to hear the stories even of those whom we do not admire or find exemplary. But let us not embrace Scrooge too quickly. He is a character and, to find out what he typifies, we have to listen to his claims. He is the major character in his own story, he thinks. He is the kind of man who makes claims and argues even when he knows himself to be in the minority. Even if grudgingly, we recognize the willingness to stand for something.
As this is a Christmas story, if a ghost story, so there is a happy end. Fear is not the dominant note in this symphony. So listen to the story or watch any of the many movie adaptations, if you are at all sentimental about the season. And Happy Christmas, one and all!
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The featured image is an illustration from “A Christmas Carol” by John Leech, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.