Aspects of American Life

The young men of this generation are more conservative than the old. Perhaps they have less enthusiasm, probably less credulity, we fear less devotion to ideals. The youth have come to have the knowing air of those who cannot be imposed on by the shows of this world. They seem to be cooler-headed, if not colder-hearted; less liable to. give themselves away in socialistic and humanitarian schemes for the regeneration of mankind. The age passing away was one of uncommon upheaval and tumult it had its Garibaldis and John Browns as well as its Bismarcks and Louis Napoleons. The age succeeding has already seen some reaction more indifferentism, a questioning of all fundamental beliefs, a doubt whether any great effort in any direction is worth while. A school of pessimists—men who expect nothing but the worst—has developed in Germany and England; men who possess every luxury of modern civilization, all culture and facilities of travel, city houses, country houses, yachts, libraries, and who wearily ask, “Is life worth living?”

This unusual phenomenon of a conservative youth may be due to want of faith, to the spread of the scientific spirit, to the ennui of wealth and culture. Probably it is less marked in America than in Europe. We like to believe that it is less here. For the country in the future is to be not so much what the young men think they will make it—if they trouble themselves with the problem—as what they themselves are.

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We cannot believe that the American people are about to succumb to the gospel of indifference. In some Oriental lands man has long ago ceased from much strife with nature or affairs. He began by subduing the earth to his needs; he has ended by suiting his needs to her voluntary bounty or parsimony. He accepts the seasons, the social and political state that may be, the life that is offered. He anticipates neither evil nor good; he limits his disappointments by curtailing his risks. What is to be will be; he has adopted the weary gospel of Solomon. You may see any spring day, outside the walls of Damascus, the daughters of that damp and ancient city seated on the ground by the swift-flowing Abana, veiled and motionless images, wrapped in voluminous mantles, without other occupation (in that land where it is scarcely worth while to be a woman) than to wait hour after hour, in vacuous contemplation, while the stream hurries on, and the sun shines, and the desert wind shakes down the blossoms of the mish-mish. It is a type of the Oriental placidity.

We in America are not yet so weary; we are unwilling to surrender. New-comers in the world, we are aggressive, inquisitive, and belligerent. We have the energy and combativeness of nature herself. In her springtime vigor a certain likeness to our present national condition may be fancied, — vast promise of wealth and material prosperity, with the attendant dangers of luxury and insolence, and misleading standards. It may be worth while, on this suggestion, to consider certain aspects of American life.

Juvenal, the great censor of Roman morals, says in his Tenth Satire, “The prayers that are generally the first put up and best known in all the temples are that riches, that wealth, may increase; that our chest may be the largest in the whole forum.” This was the state of devotion in Rome in the first century of our era. We do not suppose it was a new condition, and it is certain it did not pass away with the fall of the empire. We do not to-day pray aloud in our churches that we may have more United States bonds than our fellow-worshipers; but if prayer is the souls sincere desire, unuttered or expressed, we fear that the mighty petition daily going up from the American people was described by Juvenal. If it took the form of a cloud over Wall Street, over State Street, over our manufacturing and mining districts, and over a large portion of our agricultural regions, probably we should not see the sun oftener than once in seven days; perhaps it would be visible only on Sunday, between the hours of half past ten and twelve, through the smoked glass of the church windows.

To be rich is the universal aspiration: it is scarcely necessary to illustrate it, nor to dwell on it further than to mark our national tendency. We may leave moralizing on it to the pulpit and the secular press. As it is the most universal, so it is the earliest desire that seizes us; it largely determines our occupations, our choice of a profession. Society, teaching by example, lays it on us as a duty; it arranges, to a great degree, our marriages, and it is getting to postpone and forbid them. To this necessity we defer everything: we say we cannot afford to marry, we cannot afford to travel, we cannot afford to study, — as if we were to live on indefinitely, and should some time get leisure for our intellectual development. Our very schemes of education commend themselves in proportion as they are practical: the legislature will vote money to an institution if it can be shown that it will increase the material wealth of the state, but upon any question of adding to the intellectual and spiritual wealth there wouldn’t be a quorum. When we ask after the success in life of an acquaintance, and we are told he has done very well, what do we infer from the reply? That he has become a good man, a learned man, a useful man in his town and State; or that he has acquired a handsome property? Is our inquiry, “Whom did he marry?” usually anything more than a euphuism for “How much?” If we were told that she had beauty, all the graces, and a heavenly disposition, would we not burn to ask another question? When we hear that she has made “a good match,” the phrase has come to have such a technical meaning that we experience the same satisfaction we have in reading the stock report of a rising market.

It would be unwise to satirize this state of things, or to overdraw it, or to forget the sweet and corrective influences that exist in our society. But we can hardly be mistaken in saying that there is growing in America a passion for wealth, and a serious, not to say conscientious, pursuit of it, more pronounced than ever before in our history. In a part of the country which might be named, a man is ashamed to die unless he can leave behind at least a million; and public opinion sustains him in this. The sad paragraph that chronicles his demise, his personal appearance, his dress and daily habits, the number and character of his relatives, the amount of his life insurance, with the name of the company in which he is insured, is considered incomplete if it does not state how much he was worth.

It should be said, however, that the love of money is not the peculiarity of America, whatever the ostentation of mere wealth may be. The worship of wealth, the talk about money, are more characteristic of Europe than of America. It is natural that where the conditions of acquiring money are harder there should be more anxiety about it; and among the middle and lower classes of England it is the staple of conversation. The same is true in France, in Italy, in Germany. The experience of all observing travelers will confirm this, and in the older countries of the Orient the trait is even more marked. The growth of the money passion pari passu with the refinement of civilization is one of the problems for the student of progress. The traveler who has gone abroad with the impression that America is peculiarly the land of the “almighty dollar” is surprised to find everywhere a devotion to money and a talk about cost and prices to which he is unaccustomed at home, and which strike him often as an indelicacy. Since we are speaking of foreign peoples, a slight examination of some of the differences between us and them—largely differences due to external conditions—will lead us further into our subject.

The Frenchman is economical; he is thrifty; whatever his earnings, he puts by a portion of them; he saves, and denies himself expensive indulgences. This universal thrift is largely due to the women, who are the most executive, the clearest-headed, the best managers, in the world, and know better than any others how to get the most pleasure and show out of life at the least cost, how to make home-life comfortable and attractive without extravagance.

The Italians, who most resemble the French, also practice economy, but, especially with the Southern Italians, it is an economy of labor as well as of money. The true Italian, child of the sun, would rather limit his wants than increase his exertions to supply them; he can live on little, but he accumulates nothing.

The German is different from either: he has not the thrift of the Frenchman nor the self-denial of the Italian, but he is industrious, and as fond of money as they. Getting rich, making a lucky stroke, is greatly in his thoughts, although he cannot resist, as the Frenchman does, spending his savings on his personal pleasures. But it is the habit of the three peoples named to live within their incomes.

In England, a little island, where are gathered greater riches than any nation ever before accumulated, we see again some contrasts. The bulk of the people practice a calculated economy, — a necessity where the bulk of the people live on practically fixed incomes; the small economies of life are nowhere else so studied, so dwelt upon in conversation. But the lower classes, the laborers in factories and mines and on farms, have nothing of the French thrift and economy. They do not know how to get the most comfort out of their earnings, nor how to lay by anything. Whatever their wages are, they spend them. A few years ago, when the Welsh miners were getting extraordinary wages, they treated themselves to game-pie and champagne. Their idea of equality with those socially above them is to eat and drink as the others do; that is, “to live like a lord.” They are not alone in the notion that costly eating and drinking and expensive clothes and gaudy houses lift people up in the social scale.

The American, of course, resembles the English more than any other European people; but he is without the balance determined by the traditions of a long-established society, or imposed by the necessities of fixed incomes. The American is a spendthrift. He works as hard as any people, and with less relaxation; but he has little thrift and little notion of economy. He has little independence in regard to his expenditure, and regulates it often by what others about him spend rather than by his own income. He is not so solicitous to live within his income as he is to raise his income to cover the extent of his desires and extravagances. The average condition and the happiness of Americans would be much improved if they expended half as much care upon saving money as they do upon making money. Bankruptcy seems to be a sort of accepted incident in a successful career! We have seen it stated that ninety-nine merchants out of a hundred fail. Brokers and other operators are accused of using failures as stepping-stones to fortune. Very likely, professional people would fail oftener if they had anything to fail on. The poet and the teacher would be lonesome in the bankrupt’s court; and it is only here and there that a clergyman has a salary large enough to take him there. The lawyers—exceptions to all rules—are said to live by the failures and latterly by the “wills” of other people. It is said that if a person neglects to make a will he must leave a pretty large estate in order to pay the expenses of finding out how to distribute it by law; and if he makes a will, unless the estate is insignificant, it will disappear before the sense of justice in the legal fraternity and the legal acumen needed to interpret the will.

We have, then, in America the phenomenon of a people passionately devoted to money-making, but with little economy or faculty for keeping it. Money is desired for the position, the luxury it will give to him who has it, and it is lavished for these purposes as eagerly as it is made. Accumulation for the sake of founding a family is rare, and it is discouraged by our peculiar conditions; the advantages of the stability it would give to the country are overbalanced by other considerations. This desire to make money divorced from economy, in America, and, attended by a discontent with any settled position in society, is traceable to a certain fundamental political condition here. We refer to what is called “equality.” We have established political equality. In theory all men are equal. There is a constant attempt to deduce from this social equality. We do not suppose that this was any more intended by the gentlemen who landed at Plymouth than by the gentlemen who landed at Jamestown. The traditions of grades in society and of social distinctions are in no race stronger than in the Anglo-Saxon. The Latin races have a facility of fusion. There is a greater approach to social equality in France than in America. And even before the Revolution of 1793, there were fewer barriers to warm sympathy, and the expression of it, between the French noble and the French peasant than exist, to-day, between the English upper class and the English lower. We have not the well-marked divisions and grades of the English social structure, but we have something of the traditions of that society, and probably there is as little contact and exchange of sympathy between the different social states in America as anywhere in the world.

Politically we are equal, and it is our boast that we are all equal before the law; whether we are or not they can judge who have noticed the arraignment before a police court of a rich man and a poor man for a similar offense. The English also boast that their laws are impartial and their courts equally open to all, — a fact that is taken at its true value by the wife of the navvy, who has been beaten by her husband till she is more like a jelly than a wife, when she is told by the magistrate that the courts of Westminster are open to her to apply for a judicial separation, and that the cost will be one hundred pounds, when she has not as many pennies.

Yet while it is idle to talk of social equality in America, it is true that the absence here of titles, of definitions of classes, and of inherited privileges creates an appearance of equality which stimulates constant efforts for place and position. The absence of other artificial signs of social rank gives to wealth undue distinction, and it naturally comes that wealth is coveted. Our real approach to equality in America is in opportunity. On the whole, we are less hindered and have a fairer chance for any career we choose than other people. But this equality of opportunity begets discontent with any position in life except the most conspicuous; and so the whole community is on the march to get into what is called society, or to get the supposed luxuries and enjoyments of society, through the only gates open to all, that is, by means of money. If we were all social equals, or if we were in the more fixed conditions of the English or the Germans, or if there was that broad sympathy between classes, in spite of birth, which exists in France, there is every probability that, if we did not exhibit less insanity in the pursuit of wealth, there would at least be less living beyond our means. It is certainly an odd result of our equality, political and theoretical, that it should stimulate us to do just that which destroys equality. For we are led further away from the equal distribution of wealth, and this tends to put classes further apart. It is true that mere wealth does not always open the way into what people know so well, and experience so much difficulty in finding (in countries where it is not defined by a court), — the best society, — in America any more than it does in England or Germany, and perhaps not so easily here as there; but wealth can do almost anything, and what it cannot do it can imitate. And so it happens that this condition of ours that we call equality is one of the main causes of our feverish anxiety to get money and make a display with it. It remains to be seen what sort of general society will result from the imposition of political equality and equality of opportunity upon the class tendency of the Anglo-Saxon race. If anything like social equality is ever realized anywhere in the world, it is safe to say that wealth will not be an element in it; that it will neither make it nor prevent it.

The American people, in a struggle to realize its theoretical equality, both at home and abroad, sometimes mistake display for a demonstration of it. This has got the American the reputation of extravagance, and the worse reputation of a vulgar ostentation of wealth. For in old and settled societies one of the signs of consciousness of inferiority of position is the ostentation of money; and seeing how nearly all-powerful money is everywhere, it is natural that the mistake should be made. Money, it is believed, can open the presentation door of almost any court in Europe; can procure a seat in the United States senate, and the most conspicuous pew in the most fashionable church in America; it can do almost anything except purchase the secret respect of those whose respect is alone of permanent value.

It has been necessary to dwell a little upon some of the peculiarities of our situation, because there are signs of a new departure in the way of material development and the accumulation of wealth. During our first century of national existence we have been exceedingly active; but it has been largely a destructive activity. We have run over a vast amount of territory, and, as we say, have subdued it. It would be almost as correct to say, in the language of the agriculturists, that we have skinned it, — a phrase literally true of great portions of our land: we have slashed away the splendid wealth of our forests, destroyed water-powers, exhausted the soil by superficial and ignorant cultivation. We have hastened to snatch wealth by the easiest methods, without regard to the future. We have done an immense amount of work; we have made a great deal of money; and, on the whole, we seem to have spent more than we have made. We have exercised no economy. Everybody has lived as if lie had a rich uncle to die every five years and leave him a fortune. At the end of a century of gigantic progress and unprecedented prosperity, the nation has, like most other full-grown nations, accumulated an enormous debt: every city, every town, every county, every State, is in debt; every individual is in debt. For part of this the war is responsible, but not for all of it. Our land is mortgaged; our personal property is pledged as collateral. It is not sure that ground enough could be found in America, uncovered by a mortgage, in which to bury its present inhabitants. The ancient Egyptian mortgaged his family tomb and the mummy of his father. We have not come to that yet; though it is difficult to find any ground outside of a cemetery not mortgaged.

This would be a dark picture if it were the whole statement of our situation, and if it were not relieved by more encouraging signs. But it must be remembered that in the past hundred years we have accomplished a good deal of permanent work, as the world views it. If we are all in debt, we have built some splendid cities; constructed great bridges; netted the land with railways and telegraph wires; dotted the coasts with light-houses and harbors; built at enormous and sinful expense great public edifices, — most of them ugly and inconvenient; got a steady market for our increasing crops of grain and cotton; and, after a long struggle, established manufactures that compete the world over with our ancient and most skillful rivals. We can sell American cambrics in London because they are better than the products of the Lancashire looms; and the Germans can sell iron-ware in South America and sewing-machines in Italy only by counterfeiting the American trade-marks.

Up to this time the country has been divided sectional-wise on political issues, and political issues that took a strong hold on account of the moral ideas involved. In one way or another, and even when unacknowledged, the slavery question was involved in every other question. But the sectional antagonism arising from this cause is daily dying away. We like to believe it is agreed, South and North, that we shall set our faces as one people in a new direction. Astronomically speaking, while heretofore one part of the country insisted on keeping its eye on the north star, and another on the south star, we now agree to fix our gaze on the temperate zone.

For some time to come the national issues must be material rather than moral. With such diverse climates and productions, it is unavoidable that there should still be sectional rivalries, but these are within the limits of a common national interest. The change taking place is more marked at the South than in the West. In the South, for reasons apparent, there has been little accumulation of wealth. There has been little exercise of economy. What was made was spent, and, American fashion, sometimes before it was made. Its wealth consisted in its laborers, in lands which its system of labor always tended to depreciate, and in the next crop. The system of labor discouraged manufactures, and also the highest agricultural development. What, for other reasons, happened to the soil of New England happened to the South on a larger scale. The early settlers of the New England farms cut away the forests and skinned the thin soil of its virgin wealth, and then were driven into manufacturing and commerce, or to the less easily exhausted lands of the West. Their abandoned farms have been largely taken by foreigners, who apply more economical methods, and are content with less gain for the moment. The South had even less economy and forethought. It exhausted its lands by superficial culture, and did very little to develop the great resources of the country. No one can doubt that there is now a decided chance in the South in respect to attention to its material interests. It is beginning vigorously to join the great productive and accumulating movement of the country. The South raises annually more cotton than ever before, and it needs but a few years of economical husbanding of resources to give a solid basis to other industries besides the agricultural.

With lines of communication established over the continent, slavery out of the way, and manufactures fairly rooted, we do not doubt that the country, notwithstanding temporary paralysis from speculation, universal living beyond our means, and debt, is about entering, North and South, upon an era of development of wealth and accumulation. Individual instances of great accumulation already multiply before our eyes. This will go on. Already corporations and institutions, religious and secular, are amassing vast properties. Where are there any signs that this tendency will not increase?

It is a good thing for a country to be rich if there is anything like a fair distribution of wealth; it is a bad thing if the wealth is massed in a few hands. In the one case there is the comfort of all; in the other there is luxury for the few, and misery for the many. It is a good thing for the country to be rich if the wealth is put to noble uses; it is a disaster if it is devoted to luxury. These are the truisms of history. And in their light the coming great material development of this country is full of anxiety.

The traveler from Philadelphia down the Delaware is impressed with the magnificent opportunities of this region. He is in the heart of the greatest possibilities. Nothing is wanting to the necessities of a dense and thriving population, and an unequaled variety of industries: a fat soil and a smiling land; a climate without great extremes; inexhaustible stores of iron and coal; forests within easy reach; and a superb river, broadening into an arm of the sea, destined erelong to be lined with ship-yards, — to become an improved Mersey and a greater Clyde. This is not an unfair type of the varied capacities of the whole country. Wealth is thrust upon us. How shall we use it? What will be the effect upon us, upon the American people, of the era of material prosperity? We know, historically, what is the result to a people who give themselves up to the temptations of wealth. Is there anything in our character, our situation, or the forces of religion and education, sufficient to save us from a like fate? We shall apprehend the danger by considering what is unfavorable.

As to character, we have spoken of our wasteful and spendthrift propensities; of our eagerness to get money, unaccompanied by economy; of our tendency to display for the sake of position, partly growing out of our theory of equality; of the consequent liability to luxury and self-indulgence. In respect of indulgence, our very seriousness is somewhat against us. The American is sober, taciturn, intent in a grave way. Travelers think us a serious-minded, uncommunicative people. We lack vivacity of manner; have little gayety of temperament; little capacity to enjoy ourselves without excess; not a habit of getting pleasure, like the Italians, the French, the Arabs even, out of simple things. We should hardly think ourselves launched upon a festive evening at a café when we had ordered a glass of water, two lumps of sugar, and a lucifer match. We want profusion, and we want things strong. We carry into our pleasures the same serious energy, with no relaxation in it, that we use to build a railway. There is an anecdote of a volunteer soldier who turned up in New York recently to receive the back pensions of thirteen years. It was a little fortune for a prudent man. The next day he landed in the station-house, without a cent in his pocket. He had compressed the delayed enjoyment of thirteen years into one royal night.

There is a notion, prevalent in and out of Congress, that we are somehow a peculiar people, and that our condition, our government, our isolation, exempt us not only from the universal laws of political economy, but from the rules that other nations, by long experience, have found necessary to healthful life; that there is an “American way” for everything, and that it is the best way. Intrenched in this conceit, we are disinclined to learn anything, simply because it is not American, from the English experiments in civil service, from the German organization of education, from the French household economy. The orator always carries his audience with him when he says of anything, “It is not suited to the genius of our people;” as if we had invented a new kind of intellect, and patented a new order of life. We used to hear, years ago, a great deal about an American school of landscape painting. We don’t know what has become of it now; perhaps it disappeared at the Paris Exhibition of 1867. It should be said, however, that we make one exception in our exclusiveness: we take the foreign fashions, without regard either to our climate or our means.

One result of this conceit, — that we have not the common liabilities of other peoples, — joined to an ignorance of the history of other nations, has led us into the most fantastic and crude experiments. We suppose it is confidence in the purity of human nature that is reducing our army to the Shaker standard. But it is in the regions of finance that we have specially distinguished ourselves, — in the adoption of theories and expedients that, over and over again, have brought disaster to other peoples. We do not doubt that many people think it is an American invention that you can make a dollar by stamping a piece of metal, “one dollar; in God we trust;” that is, that you can induce people to give a dollar’s worth of cloth for it much as the Christian Commission sought to convert the army of the Potomac by sending the soldiers little biscuits stamped with texts of Scripture. The soldiers took the biscuits willingly; not, however, for the value of the stamp, but according to the grains fine of flour they contained.

If one were asked to name a characteristic of American life which is very prominent, he might say it is the desire to get something rather than to be something. This desire is not by any means confined to Americans, but it is more marked here than elsewhere because of the absence of traditions, and because of our flexible social condition. It constitutes a special danger in view of the coming struggle for material advantage and prosperity. It is a desire which cannot be too seriously considered by those who are getting the elements of their education and preparing for their careers; for it neglects thoroughness in education and preparation for the career. This desire, which is more than a tendency, may be described as a disposition to get place and rank, with little regard to fitness for them. It reverses the natural order, and presupposes that success in life is not due to training and discipline so much as it is to opportunity. Hence our many failures of all sorts, the direct result of our eager assumption of office, of business, of trades, without adequate preparation. The ambitious thought stirring in most young minds is what career they shall choose; not how they shall train themselves for a career. It is the ambition to do something rather than to learn how to do something; as we said, the eagerness to get a place rather than to train one’s self for the duties of that place. It is unnecessary to say how opposite this is to the method which has made the Germans strong in every department of human endeavor. The leading idea in gymnasium and university is training, — solid preparation for the chosen career.

A familiar illustration of our self-confidence without preparation is that of the young lady who proposes to go upon the stage with no training, and seeks a manager when she should go to an elocutionist. It is the same in other affairs. The young man’s thoughts of business or of an office are not so much in relation to his ability to perform it as to get into it. No doubt all things would be better done—from cabinet-making up to law-making—if people had a habit of getting ready to do things before they began. It is worth while to stop and think to whom it is that we intrust the most delicate duty performed in human society, — the making of our laws. Of course we know that our laws are made by our legislature. And who are the legislators? These law-makers are not the proper result of our political system, but of our political machine. And here again the young man has the precocious wisdom of his generation. If he determines to go into politics, or to enter the civil service of his country, he does not prepare himself for the duties of the one nor for the position coveted in the other; he makes himself an adept in the manipulation of caucuses and the securing of the favor of those who can help him. If he seeks a consulate at Naples, he does not study Italian; he carries his ward. Here, again, the American is more eager to get something than to be something; and yet it should be said in respect to the civil service that there is this excuse for the young man: there is no other way to get into it than that named. Our civil service is what the English was fifteen years ago, and it is about the most undemocratic in the world. It is closed to those who are not favored by the accident of political influence. The English service until recently was almost exclusively filled by the aristocracy; it was the patronage of the Parliament and the ministry. Now, through the door of competitive examination, it is open to the humblest lad in the land if he have talent, and we may be sure that the father of the middle class will never surrender this privilege for his son. Nor will the American people, when they understand the subject, consent that so honorable and profitable a career shall be the object of patronage and the perquisite of successful political manipulation. They will insist that it shall be open to the fair ambition of those willing to fit themselves for it. It will become a legitimate career, like law or medicine; and one advantage of opening it to public competition—and it is not unimportant—is the stimulus it will give to education.

Is it a relief to turn from minor politics to Congress? Perhaps we have never considered why it is that the American Congress stands so high in the opinion of this country and of the world. This is the reason: When a man contemplates the possibility of a congressional career, he sets himself seriously to prepare for that exalted station. He studies geography, especially that of his native land, so that he may not be liable to vote for an appropriation for digging a river where a turnpike would be better; he studies history, and American history thoroughly; he masters American politics; he devotes laborious days and nights to the acquisition of a knowledge of political economy, to a study of the laws of finance and of trade as they are illumined by our own experience and that of other peoples; he makes himself familiar with the course of legislation as it affects the vital interests of the country, for he knows that he is to deal with imperial concerns, and that his votes will have a far-reaching influence in a vast republic. Perhaps he acquires the art of expressing himself concisely, clearly, and readily. When the people see a man thus accomplished, they take him up by a sort of popular movement in the party and send him to Congress. When he is there, he keeps himself in the background at first, studying the situation, and learning the art of parliamentary legislation, — a science in itself. And the congressman so accomplished and so trained the people keep in Congress as long as he continues honest and capable and represents the principles of his district.

Such are some of the present aspects of American life. The topic is fruitful of suggestions, which we have no space to follow, and it is useless to moralize. Long ago the philosophers decided that it is important what a man is, not what he has. It was an apothegm of Solon that “satiety is generated by wealth, and insolence by satiety;” and again, that members of a community are most effectively deterred from injustice “if those who are not injured feel as much indignation as those who are.” Or, to put this in modern phrases, we see the danger of a national habit that estimates success by possession, and not by character, and nurses the delusion of equality without sympathy between classes.