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The Spirits of Christmas: A New Look at "A Christmas Carol"
Those of an Objectivist or Libertarian bent usually vilify "A Christmas Carol", his best-known story, as an overly sentimental paean to altruism. But, there may be less to that theory than meets the eye. When it airs this season try to see it in a new light.
What most people take from the story is that businessmen are greedy, nasty old geezers, whose redemption lies in bankrupting themselves to buy friends and provide for the poor. To take this, and nothing else, from the story, does the 19th century chronicler of social injustice a
``Are there no prisons?'' asked Scrooge.
``Plenty of prisons,'' said the gentleman.
``And the Union workhouses?'' demanded Scrooge. ``Are they still in operation?''
``They are. Still,'' returned the gentleman, `` I wish I could say they were not.''
``The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?'' said Scrooge.
``Both very busy, sir.''
``Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,'' said Scrooge. ``I'm very glad to hear it.''
"What shall I put you down for?''
`Nothing!'' Scrooge replied.
``You wish to be anonymous?''
``I wish to be left alone,'' said Scrooge, ``Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don't make merry myself at Christmas and I can't afford to make idle people merry."
Scrooge, ostensibly the villain, is easily dismissed as a two dimensional skinflint and a miser, unless you catch the lines that follow: "I help to support the establishments I have mentioned: they cost enough: and those who are badly off must go there.''
``Many can't go there; and many would rather die,'' the man continues.
``If they would rather die,'' said Scrooge, ``they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population. Besides -- excuse me -- I don't know that.''
``But you might know it,'' observed the gentleman.
``It's not my business,'' Scrooge returned. ``It's enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people's. Mine occupies me constantly. Good afternoon, gentlemen!'' Like many of us, Scrooge is frugal and industrious and too busy making a living to examine the sham that is government largesse.
For several years Patrick Stewart performed this Dickens story as a one-man play. According to Stewart: "I think there's more to Scrooge than that grumpy old miser that we've sometimes seen. He's a man with a sense of humor. . . a very smart man, articulate." According to Stewart, Scrooge truly believes in the laissez-faire Capitalism he spouts. This is in evidence again when Cratchet implies he is ill-used by not being granted the day off with pay. Scrooge replies, " And yet, you don't think me ill-used, when I pay a day's wages for no work.''
Scrooge is a trader, a free market capitalist. From an Objectivist or Libertarian point of view, his point is unassailable, and although Dickens is sympathetic to Scrooge, he suggests there may be more to life than one’s labor; a revelation that comes in the form of the noisy ghost of his late partner Jacob Marley.
With moaning and groaning and the clanking of chains, Marley explains ``It is required of every man that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow-men, and travel far and wide; and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death.’
Christian mythology aside, it is too easy to dismiss this as sentimental drivel. Objectivists of the neurotic variety, led principally by Leonard Peikoff, would have us believe that any charitable act or kind word is a sign of weakness and degeneration. However, David Kelly of The Objective Center sees it differently.
Kelly points out that Objective philosophy does not require a denial of the spirit. "Objectivism holds that spiritual values can be defined in secular terms," and he argues "they are of vital importance to fulfillment and happiness. Spiritual values are those pertaining to the needs of human consciousness, arising from the human capacity for reason, creativity, free will, and self-awareness. These needs include self-esteem, love, art, and philosophy (a comprehensive view of existence), among others. Achieving these values in one's life is no less important than providing for one's material needs and achieving worldly success." This is what Marley’s ghost is trying to convey to Scrooge.
"Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!''
Dickens argues here for an integrated rational, full-faceted individual who is as comfortable in the counting house as he is with spiritual values and the fulfillment and happiness they provide. The spirit of Christmas is a metaphor for the integrated life. Dickens describes Christmas as "the only time I know of in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of other people below them as if they really were fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. "
Scrooge is not the villain in the piece. He assumes, as most do, that what government exacts in taxes it puts to a useful purpose. The overlooked, but all too real villain is revealed when as the ghost of Marley is exiting, "The air was filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went. Every one of them wore chains like Marley's Ghost." With a wry sense of humor Dickens adds, "some few (they might be guilty governments) were linked together. . ." The message is clear, virtue can not be delegated.
After considering his Past and Present, Scrooge asks of his Future, ``Before I draw nearer to that stone to which you point, answer me one question. Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only?'' Scrooge forms the logical conclusion that "Men's courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead. But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change." Cause and effect. Through the device of the grave, Dickens offers hope and a second chance to those who confuse social pathologies with a life of rational self-interest.
``I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach. . .(He) walked about the streets, and watched the people hurrying to and fro, and patted children on the head, and questioned beggars, and looked down into the kitchens of houses, and up to the windows: and found that everything could yield him pleasure. He had never dreamed that any walk -- that anything -- could give him so much happiness."
"He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world."
"He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us!"
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