Saturday, December 22, 2012

Scrooge & Modern Virtue

Here is a philosophical question appropriate to the season: was Scrooge A (pre-Christmas spirit Scrooge) a man of modern virtue?  Modern virtue is here defined in the Machiavellian sense of effective virtue, that is, a set of habits that is efficiently productive.  The answer, within the confines of that definition, is obviously yes.  This is largely the conclusion of Stephen Lansburg's defense of Scrooge A in Slate. Scrooge A was about as efficiently productive as it is possible for a human being to be, as least when it comes to cold, hard, cash.
Dickens's Christmas Carol is one of the most powerful short stories ever composed.   This is due in large part to his sublimation of Christianity.  The story is, to be sure, full of ghosts; but, apart from the word Christmas itself, I think there is not the slightest mention of the Holy Ghost.  Dickens writes as if he were trying to smuggle the Gospel onto the courthouse grounds under the watchful eyes of our contemporary Supreme Court.  This has the paradoxical effect of making the Christian message of redemption all the more compelling.
A second aspect of its perfection lies in the marvelous splitting of time into past, present, and future spirits.  All three ghosts are, of course, one and the same ghost: Christmas itself, a religious festival incarnate (or almost incarnate, the ghosts remaining a bit vaporous if no less visible and powerful for that).    But Christmas appears differently from the three temporal points of view, thus grounding itself in the most basic existential fact of human life.  The past and present are history.  Only the future may be redeemed.
Last, but not least, Dickens shows the fatal flaw in modern virtue without rejecting modern virtue.  Anyone can see that there is something desperately wrong with the way that Scrooge A lives.  Sipping warmed up broth in his cold chambers, without the comforts of love, friends, or family, what is the point of being rich?  On the other hand, it is precisely the efficiency of Scrooge A that makes his transformation so wonderful.  After all, Scrooge B can afford to send the Cratchits a gargantuan turkey.  He can afford to redeem his sister's love by changing his nephew Fred's circumstances.  And he can afford to save poor Tim.  It is worth mentioning that he can also afford to make his place of business and his home a good deal more comfortable.
I have heard it said that Dickens more or less revived and profoundly shaped our later celebration of Christmas.  It is certainly part of an interesting shift in the Christian calendar.  The most important Christian festival ought to be Easter, for Christ's resurrection constitutes the essential promise of the Gospel: as Christ walked out of the tomb, those who believe in Him may do likewise.  But Christmas has overshadowed Easter, even among the most pious Christians in the modern world.  Because of Scrooge A-like modern virtue, we can afford to be very generous when a Scrooge B-like mood hits us.  And say what you want about the evils of capitalism, it has done more to warm the hearths of the poor than dropping alms into collection plates ever did.   The Tiny Tims of the developed world have been saved by the power and prosperity of modern civilization.  But A Christmas Carol is not about their salvation.  It is about Scrooge's salvation.
I have seen a lot of versions of A Christmas Carol, and I like many of them.  My favorite is the version starring Patrick Stewart.  No one has presented the contrast between the redeemed and unredeemed Scrooge so well.  When he finds himself alive on Christmas morning, he suddenly seems to strangle and cough.  He is trying to laugh, for the first time in so long that he has to remember how to do it.  It also adds a scene in which Scrooge attends a Christmas morning church service.  He is so unaccustomed to the venue that he has to be reminded twice to take off his top hat.  As he squeezes into a pew, he tries to sing but doesn't know the words.  The man next to him kindly shares his hymnal.  When he shows up, very unexpected, at Fred's for Christmas dinner, he knows that the person who has to accept him is not Fred but Fred's wife.  He says to her: "can you forgive a stupid old man who doesn't want to be left out in the cold any more."  I tear up just typing those words.
All this reminds us that modern virtue, for all its power, would be a very poor thing without Christian virtue.  Merry Christmas.


  1. Dickens and Mark Twain shared a perspective on the social and economic vestiges of feudalism that would not find much to admire about Scrooge A. Twain saw the ultimate issue as slavery and the traditions that transmitted it. Dickens saw them in the world of commerce. The objection was, to use Landsberg's line of thought, was not that Scrooge was miserly so that servants would be free to be employed by others, but that a class was held in servitude at all, and Scrooge seemed tacitly to endorse it. Both authors were critical and satiric about the fact that the feudal state was eliminated formally, but lingered on in the social rankings and the valuations of human worth on which it was based.

  2. I am very uncertain that the word "feudalism" is appropriate here. As far as social ranking is concerned, Scrooge was strictly egalitarian. He judged everyone by a single standard--ruthless thrift--and awarded merit accordingly.

    Capitalism and feudalism are altogether incompatible. Feudalism aims to keep wealth where it is, in the hands of a landed gentry. Capitalism is what the burghers do to replace feudalism.

    What was wrong with Scrooge A, among other things, was his utter lack of charity and his neglect of the limits of his own modern version of virtue.

    However, I certainly agree that both Twain and Dickens were serious social critics who directed attention to the excesses of modern capitalism.

  3. "Tale of Two Cities" is a very conscious examination of the social attitudes of feudalism, inspired in part by Dickens' own experience. After his father was released from debtors' prison, he was forced to work for 8 months in a boot black factory. In many of his works, he explored how industrialization appropriated essentially the attitude toward serfs in the way they regarded their workers. Scrooge A exhibits that attitude, until his conversion, which many critics see as the giving up the ghosts of medievalism for the spirit of democracy.

  4. David: I defer to your knowledge of Dickens. I am still doubtful that feudalism is much help in interpreting A Christmas Carol. What was Scrooge's social background? Did he think it important, or did he ground his sense of self worth on the fact that he made himself a fortune? Did he admire the men at the stock exchange because they came from good families or because they were men of business? If the latter, his were attitudes of capitalism rather than of feudalism.

    When a good English father refuses to let his daughter marry a wealthy automobile salesmen because he is "in trade", that is the social attitude of feudalism.