Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
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New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co.
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Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
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ESTATES, CASTES, CLASSES, ORDERS. Plato, in his "Republic," seeking, by the study of man, to acquire a knowledge of and attain to justice, analyzed the manifestations of the soul, and reduced them to three original faculties: intellect, sentiment and sensation. These three forces of our nature, though unequally developed in individuals, are considered by him to be the strict and complete expression of our being. He takes them, therefore, as the bases of a more general study, and, rising from the individual to society, he reduces all mankind to these three types, and he divides men into three classes, according as one or another of the three faculties predominates in the soul of the individual. These three classes he calls philosophers or magistrates, warriors or gymnasts, laborers or artisans, and gives them the following attributes. To the first, that of the intellect which presides and governs; to the second, sentiment, sympathetic and ardent, which obeys and combats; to the third, the common instinct which subjects external nature to our wants. "The history of human society seems to confirm the truth of this metaphysical analysis. Everywhere the existence has been shown of these three classes, the necessity of which Plato undertook to prove: and experience, in accord with theory, shows us the human race instinctively accepting this natural law, from the remotest epoch in India down to modern times, each nation dividing itself into three branches, we might say into three peoples, superimposed the one on the other, and reserving to each one of these branches a distinct part in the general labor of mankind.


—But this hierarchy in the social body, enduring for centuries or reconstructed after revolution, modifies its character with the progress of civilization, in the lapse of time. The earliest nations looked on this hierarchy as a creation of the Deity, as something providential. At a later period philosophers and legislators thought they detected in it a tendency inherent in man, and they upheld it no longer in the name of an immutable God, but in the name of wisdom and justice to which the personal rights of the individual should yield. Still later, when society had become more mature, this hierarchy was accepted only as a system more or less proper and useful in preserving order and directing nations, till at last equality was proclaimed as a principle by the French revolution.


—Although in ordinary language, the terms castes, classes, estates and orders are frequently used as synonyms, their meanings are different, and relatle to the different origins of these hierarchies. Castes are unchangeable divisions fixed by religious belief, and which have not really existed except in India. The general name of classes is given to all those political divisions founded on conquest or on civil legislation. Estates are merely a modern modification of classes, a more liberal and more philosophical way of calling and looking at them.


—The transformations of which we have just spoken were not successive, and the progress of nations and civilization has not been continuous. Nations have advanced to the realization of what appears to us not to be justice and truth through many vicissitudes. Some succumbed to invasion and conquest, but no change was wrought in their institutions; others grew weak in proportion as equality overcame their social hierarchy, and new races, founding new empires, restored the classes, which had disappeared for a moment; still others preserve their social organization as it is described by the most ancient monuments of their history. Whatever science may say as to their historic origin, the castes of India have always had their roots in the supernatural order. Earthly life, in accordance with the laws of Manu, was nothing to the Hindoo but the inevitable consequence of a previous life, the recompense accorded or the punishment inflicted by God—an unchangeable destiny, against which revolt was either useless or impious. Brahma did not create man: he created three different men, who emanated respectively from his head, his arms and his feet—the Brahman, the Cshatrya and the Vaisya, who alone compose humanity. The stranger, the primitive inhabitant of India, the Sudra or Chandala, was lower than a man, lower than certain animals, reverence for which was enjoined by the law. The contact of this impure creature, the Sudra, his look, even his shadow, defile regenerated men (Dwidjas) who might put him to death with impunity, or use him as a lifeless thing. Only the races issued from Brahma have a right to life here and hereafter, and the world is divided among them. To the Brahman belong science, wisdom and virtue; he is king of the earth; all its products belong to him of right and to the other classes only through his liberality: he prays, he contemplates, is the incarnation of Brahma; he is God himself, obeyed and honored as such, for his words express the divine will. The Cshatrya, under the supreme direction of the Brahman, govern, dispense justice, frame the laws, make war and peace, levy taxes, maintain social order, and the division of castes. Under the term Vaisyas are comprehended the cultivators of the soil, and artisans charged with the feeding of animals, the carrying on of commerce, of acquiring and increasing wealth, etc.


—Could Buddha, by his milder doctrine, have in the long run overcome the rigidity of the dogma of castes? His system of morals which tended to equality would beyond doubt have been powerless to do away with the Brahmanic hierarchy (see BRAHMANISM and BUDDHISM) since the Buddhist considered that the unity and equality of men were to be realized only beyond the tomb and through annihilation. However this may be, the followers of Buddha, conquered and driven from India, were able to gain over to their new religion only the people of China, of the highlands of Asia, Japan, and some other islands. Persia, Judea and Egypt had also their sacerdotal order; but the Magi, the Levites and the priests of Memphis differed profoundly from the Brahmans. They occupied the first rank in society, as intermediaries between man and God, but they were not its predestined sovereigns. All power did not emanate from them; the kings and warriors enjoyed real independence; even laborers had rights which belonged to them personally. The Levite gave council to the chiefs of Israel, but he had no personal authority over them; the priests of Egypt studied the laws and guarded their perpetuity, but they could not encroach on the attributes and the privileges of the two other classes. The historians of Greece admired this priestly organization in which the present reproduced the past, and which was a guarantee of lasting peace.


—Greek society made greater progress than the theocracies of the east. On Hellenic soil, as later at Rome, the city was the origin and the basis of the republic, and within such narrow limits the subordination of class to class could not endure very long. The difference between the conquering and the conquered nation was not very apparent. The Dorians and the Ionians belonged to the same family, spoke the same language, professed the same religion, but neither was able to master the other. The first and most important result of this coexistence of independent and hostile states, in the same region, was to destroy all uniformity of legislation, and to render the formation of a sacerdotal class impossible. The Greek genius, so far removed from the contemplative mysticism of the east, far more occupied with the present condition of man, with his relations to other men, than with his future destiny and his relations to the universe and God, simplified and humanized worship as well as religion. The sacerdotal order became useless in Greece.


—The sacrifices were simply one of the privileges of the aristocratic and warrior class, in whose Lands sovereignty for a long time remained. In Sparta and some other Doric cities, where the influence of Crete and Egypt were considerable, this domination rested on characteristic institutions. The Spartans alone constituted the city, the government and the army; they owned a part of the lands and had a suzerainty over the rest. They guaranteed the integral preservation in each family of its property; they avoided all change in legislation and endeavored to preserve intact the traditions of conquest and of their establishment in the Peloponnesus. The conquered Laconians, scattered around them became the laboring class, who cultivated the lands which were ceded to them on condition of their paying tribute. Thus they provided for the material wants of the Spartans, served as artisans, sailors and auxiliary troops, but had no political existence and were scarcely recognized or protected by the law.


—It was different at Athens: from the earlier centuries the races of Attica mingled, revolutions followed, systems of laws succeeded each other; and a multiplicity of laws, says Vico, soon leads to a democracy. In the seventh century Solon, in his effort to reconstruct society, was unable to take, as a basis and criterion of his division of classes, origin or birth, but simply wealth. Such an arbitrary hierarchy, and one so easy to modify became illusory in a short time. Every citizen had equal rights, was a member of the popular assembly, and could attain to official position in the state. The form of the government never allowed authority to continue in a given group of families, nor privileges to become general. The offices themselves belonged, without distinction, to all, each one might become in turn a soldier, a judge, a legislator, a magistrate; for labor, instead of being a cause of inferiority, was imposed on all citizens. Thus was formed that Athenian democracy whose excesses were censured by the greatest minds of the ages of Pericles and Alexander, by Xenophon, Aristotle, Socrates, Aristophanes, and which excited the irony of Plato.


—The hierarchy of the Roman classes, founded on more absolute principles and sustained by more powerful institutions, resisted for four centuries the most persistent and energetic efforts of the people. Under the kings, and during the earlier period of the republic, the patricians, who without doubt derived their origin from learned Etruria and warlike Sabina, were the active part of the republic.


—After the ancient world had become one, it crumbled to pieces. From the Euphrates to the river Tweed, the provinces, attached to the capital only by bonds which grew weaker every day, and by an administration at once oppressive and powerless, were isolated from each other, and lost by degrees their collective and national life. Abandoned at last to themselves, they opposed no effort to the invasions of the Germanic tribes.


—From this contact of opposing peoples and civilizations a restoration of social classes necessarily resulted. The barbarians, who were warriors impatient of discipline, with no occupation but that of arms, united by their federative tendencies and by interest, found in the provinces of the empire only a sparse population, enfeebled and impoverished, devoted to continuous labor, unaccustomed either to independence or authority. This insured not only the domination of the conquering race, but the union of its chiefs in a body politic, into a superior class, who owned the land, exercised sovereignty over its inhabitants, and reduced to the labors of tillage or of daily industry the dwellers in the country and in the towns.


—One authority alone stood erect amid the ruins of the empire, that of the ecclesiastical order. After the official recognition of Christianity by Constantine, the chiefs of the Christian church had been invested with a temporal jurisdiction which increased continuously through the weakness of the imperial administration Entrusted at first with the government of the faithful and the material interests of their churches, the bishops, by slow degrees, had changed this altogether special authority, and when the barbarians came, they were the protectors and masters of cities, the only municipal and provincial authority capable of resisting the violence of invasion.


—The rapid conversion of the barbarians to Christianity, and the need they had of making use of agents to subject the conquered population to the new organization of society, further increased the political influence of the clergy. Possessing in the name of the church, considerable landed property which they lost but for a moment, the bishops entered easily into a hierarchy which had as a basis and measure property in its different forms. If it be true that feudalism was completely established only in the tenth century, it is none the less true that the principal elements of the feudal regime existed in the west in the beginning of the seventh and eighth centuries, that the spirit of individualism of the Germanic peoples made them look on property from the first as the essential attribute of personality as the first condition of sovereignty and independence: and they graduated the rank, the duties and the privileges of each person according to the origin and the more or less complete control of the property he possessed. The bishops and the abbots were admitted, therefore, into the feudal hierarchy, with the rank of "leudes" and barons, by reason of being great proprietors.


—After the beginning of the fourth century, although the Roman law was universal, the clergy obtained the establishment of special ecclesiastical tribunals, before which alone they appeared. This privilege they preserved after the invasion. The clergy besides demanded and enjoyed new privileges, such as exemption from taxes on their own property, and the establishment of tithes on all other property, tithes imposed and collected by themselves and for their own exclusive benefit.


—Legislation, tribunals and resources of their own could not but put the clergy in a situation independent of and in many respects superior to, the secular aristocratic class. At a certain period of history, when the Germans, having entered orders, occupied all the dignities of the church, when these dignities ceased to be conferred by election in order to be given by the suzerain lords of territory, just like secular emoluments, when bishopries and the papacy itself were transmitted in certain families like a sort of hereditary fief, it was to be feared that a real sacerdotal caste might arise in the bosom of Christianity as in the religions of the east. Certain popes in the twelfth century, and, later, the French kings, raised an obstacle to such a movement. In his struggles against the empire, Gregory VII. endeavored above all things to submit the clergy under the orders of the holy see to discipline, and prevent them from forming a sort of sovereign sacerdotal college in each nation. By the strict enforcement of celibacy, by vindicating the supremacy of the holy see and ;the separation of the two investitures, he made the clergy a regular militia, distinct no doubt from the rest of society and invested with numerous privileges, but with access to its ranks for all. The creation of the mendicant orders continued this work and rendered impossible a return to those sacerdotal castes, to the theocratic oligarchies of Asia, composed of a small number of members equal among each other, and sharing in perpetuity the government of the people. "The secular powers on their part, and among them especially the kings of France, when they observed the efforts of the papacy to form, not a caste, but a particular society within a general one, used all their adroitness and all their care to put themselves in the place of the holy see, assume the direction of this great ecclesiastical body, and transform the representatives of the church into spiritual functionaries of the state. While guaranteeing to them the greater part of their privileges, the sovereigns restrained and limited the authority of the clergy, by the granting only of special functions to them, and by the interference and permanent supervision of lay authority, so that it may be said, if the mode of recruiting the clergy and their position, privileged, as regards other classes and subordinate as regards the state, be considered, that they form in modern times a simple corporation rather than a class.


—Is it necessary to add that, among the nations in which the reformation triumphed, the independence of the clergy as a social and political body was enfeebled and disappeared rapidly? The reformers have often been accused of having merely withdrawn their churches from the supremacy of Rome, to subject them more completely to the temporal power of kings; but no other result was possible in the sixteenth century. Royalty had then grown too strong, nationalities had become too matured, the civil power too firmly established. Deprived of the external support of the papacy, the members of the Protestant clerical body became almost immediately magistrates in the spiritual order, and the abolition of celibacy, which at any other time would have produced altogether opposite consequences, only served to cause the clergy to mingle more completely with the rest of society.


—The profound difference existing between the Christian clergy and the sacerdotal castes of antiquity, separate modern aristocracies also from those of Rome and Sparta. Even in countries where the hierarchy of classes was most deeply rooted, another civilization and different beliefs directed societies. Amid social and political diversities there appeared a sincere faith in the unity of the human race and an aspiration toward equality. Sometimes even, as in France and a great part of Italy, the nobility scarcely formed a body politic, a real aristocratic class In Italy, in fact, commerce and maritime republics, the industry of Lombard and Tuscan communes, obtained at an early day a considerable superiority of wealth for the bourgeoisie, and enabled it to attain power, to exercise an extended civil and military jurisdiction and to play a great political role. There existed in France during centuries several classes of nobility foreign to each other; the nobility of the south quasi-Spanish, that of the east, dependent on the empire, that of the great vassals of Burgundy and Brittany, and that of the king: but it was only very late that there was a real French nobility. This want of union, this absence of collective force enabled the third estate, the commercial and industrial class, to rise form material occupations and interests to the liberal professions and public functions. While French chivalry was fighting on all the battle fields of Europe and Asia, careless of the place which it might have retained in the government, the third estate had gradually taken possession of all power of municipal, financial and judicial offices and held so to speak, the monopoly of them. Its ideal was that of the empire.


—For different reasons the nobility of Germany, Spain and England preserved their supremacy longer than that of France. The federal form of the German empire, the division of the territory into a great number of principalities and independent lordships, the organization of diets and the weakness of the central power, enabled the German nobility not only to preserve a large jurisdiction within the more or less narrow limits of their domains, but to preserve also a majority of the attributes of sovereignty, and to leave existing a deep dividing line between the aristocratic and the lower classes of the nation. The long continued national wars which the nobles of Castile and Arragon waged against the Moors, gave them an esprit de corps, a spirit of independence and pride, which long made them the real sovereigns of the kingdom. It required nothing less than the stubborn genius of Ferdinand and of Charles V., aided by the resources of a vast empire and the power of the inquisition, to disorganize and bend to absolute power the haughty descendants of the Goths.


—The Norman barons whom William the Conqueror led into and established in England, had need of mutual assistance of union and organization, in order to overcome the energetic resistance of the conquered population. Being almost equal among themselves, having no power above them but the royal power, in order to preserve their privileges, they were obliged to act collectively to obtain a part of the public authority, to stipulate for general guarantees of permanent and exclusive rights. The English aristocracy sought for and occupied all the public offices, from lieutenancies of counties up to the great dignities of the state; it wrested from royalty supervision and control, by the definite establishment of parliament in the thirteenth century; it obtained the support of the commons by defending the general liberties of the nation, and in according to them rights inferior to its privileges, it is true, but real and practical. Neither the arbitrary attempts of the Tudors and the Stuarts, nor the two revolutions of the seventeenth century, could destroy a social condition founded on the character and origin of the nation; but in England, as on the continent, the increase of wealth, the importance of labor, and the progress of public opinion, left nothing else of value to the hierarchy of classes than what is attached to the external forms of a respected tradition.


—If we wish to find an aristocracy in modern times which recalls the patricians of Rome, we can mention only the Swedish aristocracy. To the material privileges which the nobility of Europe enjoyed, the most absolute monopoly of all the dignities and all the offices of the kingdom, the Swedish nobility added extraordinary personal privileges; every plebeian was prohibited from marrying a noble woman, under pain of confiscation of the property of both parties: some ordinances went so far as to decree capital punishment for inter marriage of classes. (Fryxell, Gustaxus Adolphus.) But such legislation existed only in theory. The kings of Sweden, aided from time to time by peasants and citizens, struggled energetically against the nobles. The last two centuries witnessed despotism succeeding revolt, and political equality was finally established only by the constitution of 1866.


—Thus at all times and in all places, in India, in Egypt, in Greece, in Rome, and in modern Europe, society, obeying a universal instinct, has been composed of three classes, to which it has attributed the rank and role of one of the human faculties mentioned at the beginning of this article. The mistake of the eastern world was in considering these three classes as three races of beings essentially different in origin, nature and destiny; the error of the Pagan world was in sacrificing the most precious rights of man to the general order of an hierarchical society. The humanity of Christianity and the individualism of the Germanic races vindicated the dignity of man, and led the human conscience to proclaim the equality of the rights of man. Such was and such will be progress of humanity.


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