Edward Carpenter

British poet and academic

Edward Carpenter (29 August 1844 – 28 June 1929) was an English socialist poet, socialist philosopher.

The man who attempted to retain for himself land or goods, or who fenced off a portion of the common ground and—like the modern landlord—would allow no one to till it who did not pay him a tax—was a criminal of the deepest dye. Nevertheless the criminals pushed their way to the front, and have become the respectables of modern society.


  • Government and laws and police then fall into their places - the earth gives her own laws; Democracy just begins to open her eyes and peep! and the rabble of unfaithful bishops, priests, generals, landlords, capitalists, lawyers, kings, queens. patronisers and polite idlers goes scuttling down into general oblivion; faithfulness emerges, self-reliance, self-help, passionate comradeship.
    • Towards Democracy, (1883), quoted in Andrew Dobson and Paul Lucardie, (eds.) The Politics of Nature: Explorations in Green Political Theory Routledge, 2002.
  • Granting, I say that competition has hitherto been the universal law, the last word, of nature, still if only one man should stand up and say, "It shall be so no more," if he should say, "It is not the last word of my nature, and my acts and life declare that it is not," then that so-called law would be at an end.
    • England's Ideal: And Other Papers on Social Subjects (1887) p. 54
  • To keep a man (slave or servant) for your own advantage merely, to keep an animal that you may eat it, is a lie. You cannot look that man or animal in the face.
    • England's Ideal and Other Papers on Social Subjects (1887), Routledge, 2016, p.
  • Every human being grows up inside a sheath of custom, which enfolds it as the swathing clothes enfold the infant.
  • Eros is a great leveller. Perhaps the true Democracy rests, more firmly than anywhere else, on a sentiment which easily passes the bounds of class and caste, and unites in the closest affection the most estranged ranks of society. It is noticeable how often Uranians of good position and breeding are drawn to rougher types, as of manual workers, and frequently very permanent alliances grow up in this way, which although not publicly acknowledged have a decided influence on social institutions, customs and political tendencies
    • The Intermediate Sex (1908), pp. 114-115
  • I can see only one ultimate way out of the morass in which we are engulfed. The present commercial system will have to go, and there will have to be a return to the much simpler systems of co-operation be-longing to a bygone age ... To that condition, or something very like it, I am convinced we shall have to return if society is to survive. I say this after a long and close observation of life in many phases. ... This is what the miners, I think, in a dim, subconscious way, have already perceived, for they retain in their minds much of the primitive mentality of pre-civilization days.
    • The Healing of Nations and the Hidden Sources of Their Strife (1919)
  • Today these taboos and terrors still linger, many of them, in the form of conventions of morality, uneasy strivings of conscience, doubts and desperations of religion; but ultimately Man will emerge from all these things, FREE—familiar, that is, with them all, making use of all, allowing generously for the values of all, but hampered and bound by NONE. He will realize the inner meaning of the creeds and rituals of the ancient religions, and will hail with joy the fulfilment of their far prophecy down the ages—finding after all the long-expected Saviour of the world within his own breast, and Paradise in the disclosure there of the everlasting peace of the soul.
    • Pagan and Christian Creeds (1920)

Defence of Criminals: A Criticism of Morality (1889)

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  • The law is in a sense the consolidated public opinion of society.
  • The money-grubber has been floating with the great current of society, while the poor man has been swimming against it.
  • The poacher … is asserting a right (and an instinct) belonging to a past time—when for hunting purposes all land was held in common. … In those times private property was theft. Obviously the man who attempted to retain for himself land or goods, or who fenced off a portion of the common ground and—like the modern landlord—would allow no one to till it who did not pay him a tax—was a criminal of the deepest dye. Nevertheless the criminals pushed their way to the front, and have become the respectables of modern society.
  • Law represents from age to age the code of the dominant or ruling class, slowly accumulated, no doubt, and slowly modified, but always added to and always administered by the ruling class. Today the code of the dominant class may perhaps best be denoted by the word Respectability—and if we ask why this code has to a great extent overwhelmed the codes of the other classes and got the law on its side (so far that in the main it characterises those classes who do not conform to it as the criminal classes), the answer can only be: Because it is the code of the classes who are in power. Respectability is the code of those who have the wealth and the command, and as these have also the fluent pens and tongues, it is the standard of modern literature and the press. It is not necessarily a better standard than others, but it is the one that happens to be in the ascendant; it is the code of the classes that chiefly represent modern society; it is the code of the Bourgeoisie. It is different from the Feudal code of the past, of the knightly classes, and of Chivalry; it is different from the Democratic code of the future—of brotherhood and of equality; it is the code of the Commercial age and its distinctive watchword is—property.
    The Respectability of today is the respectability of property. There is nothing so respectable as being well-off.
  • Thus we see that though there are for instance in the England of to-day a variety of classes, and a variety of corresponding codes of public opinion and morality, one of these codes, namely that of the ruling class whose watchword is property, is strongly in the ascendant. And we may fairly suppose that in any nation from the time when it first becomes divided into well-marked classes this is or has been the case. In one age—the commercial age—the code of the commercial or money-loving class is dominant; in another—the military—the code of the warrior class is dominant; in another—the religious—the code of the priestly class; and so on.
  • Probably the respect or stigma attaching to particular classes of actions arose from the fact that these classes of actions were—or were thought to be—beneficial or injurious to the society of the time; but it is also clear that this good or bad name once created clings to the action long after the action has ceased in the course of social progress to be beneficial in the one case, or injurious in the other; and indeed long after the thinkers of the race have discovered the discrepancy. And so in a short time arises a great confusion in the popular mind between what is really good or evil for the race and what is reputed to be so—the bolder spirits who try to separate the two having to atone for this confusion by their own martyrdom.
  • Plato in his allegory of the soul—in the Phaedrus—though he apparently divides the passions which draw the human chariot into two classes, the heavenward and the earthward—figured by the white horse and the black horse respectively—does not recommend that the black horse should be destroyed or dismissed, but only that he (as well as the white horse) should be kept under due control by the charioteer. By which he seems to intend that there is a power in man which stands above and behind the passions, and under whose control alone the human being can safely move. In fact if the fiercer and so-called more earthly passions were removed, half the driving force would be gone from the chariot of the human soul. Hatred may be devilish at times—but after all the true value of it depends on what you hate, on the use to which the passion is put. Anger, though inhuman at one time is magnificent and divine at another. Obstinacy may be out of place in a drawing-room, but it is the latest virtue on a battlefield when an important position has to be held against the full brunt of the enemy. And Lust, though maniacal and monstrous in its aberrations, cannot in the last resort be separated from its divine companion, Love. To let the more amiable passions have entire sway notoriously does not do: to turn your cheek, too literally, to the smiter, is (pace Tolstoy) only to encourage smiting; and when society becomes so altruistic that everybody runs to fetch the coal-scuttle we feel sure that something has gone wrong. The white-washed heroes of our biographies with their many virtues and no faults do not please us. We have an impression that the man without faults is, to say the least, a vague, uninteresting being—a picture without light and shade—and the conventional semi-pious classification of character into good and bad qualities (as if the good might be kept and the bad thrown away) seems both inadequate and false.

Love's Coming of Age (1896)


Online text

  • The commercial prostitution of love is the last outcome of our whole social system, and its most clear condemnation. It flaunts in our streets, it hides itself in the garment of respectability under the name of matrimony, it eats in actual physical disease and death right through our midst; it is fed by the oppression and the ignorance of women, by their poverty and denied means of livelihood, and by the hypocritical Puritanism which forbids them by millions not only to gratify but even to speak of their natural desires; and it is encouraged by the callousness of an age which has accustomed men to buy and sell for money every most precious thing — even the life-long labor of their brothers, therefore why not also the very bodies of their sisters?
  • There is no solution except the freedom of woman—which means of course also the freedom of the masses of the people, men and women, and the ceasing altogether of economic slavery. There is no solution which will not include the redemption of the terms “free woman” and “free love” to their true and rightful significance. Let every woman whose heart bleeds for the sufferings of her sex, hasten to declare herself and to constitute herself, as far as she possibly can, a free woman. Let her accept the term with all the odium that belongs to it; let her insist on her right to speak, dress, think, act, and above all to use her sex, as she deems best; let her face the scorn and ridicule; let her “lose her own life” if she likes; assured that only so can come deliverance, and that only when the free woman is honored will the prostitute cease to exist. And let every man who really would respect his counterpart, entreat her also to act so; let him never by word or deed tempt her to grant as a bargain what can only be precious as a gift; let him see her with pleasure stand a little aloof; let him help her to gain her feet; so at last, by what slight sacrifices on his part such a course may involve, will it dawn upon him that he has gained a real companion and helpmate on life’s journey.
  • The whole evil of commercial prostitution arises out of the domination of Man in matters of sex. Better indeed were a Saturnalia of free men and women than the spectacle which as it is our great cities present at night. Here in sex, the women's instincts are, as a rule, so clean, so direct, so well-rooted in the needs of the race, that except for man's domination they would scarcely have suffered this perversion.
  • Love when felt at all deeply has an element of transcendentalism in it, which makes it the most natural thing in the world for the two lovers — even though drawn together by a passing sex-attraction — to swear eternal troth to each other; but there is something quite diabolic and mephistophelean in the practice of the Law, which creeping up behind, as it were, at this critical moment, and overhearing the two thus pledging themselves, claps its book together with a triumphant bang, and exclaims: "There now you are married and done for, for the rest of your natural lives."
  • Real love is only possible in the freedom of society; and freedom is only possible when love is a reality. The subjection of sex-relations to legal conventions is an intolerable bondage, but of course it is a bondage inescapable as long as people are slaves to a merely physical desire. The two slaveries in fact form a sort of natural counterpoise, the one to the other. When love becomes sufficient of a reality to hold the sex-passion as its powerful yet willing servant, the absurdity of Law will be at an end.

Quotes about Carpenter

  • Edward Carpenter was the greatest spiritual inspiration of our lives. His Towards Democracy was our Bible...One admired and loved him at once.
    • Fenner Brockway, "A Memory of Edward Carpenter", New Leader, 5 July 1929, (p.6). Quoted in , Tony Brown, ‎Thomas N. Corns, Edward Carpenter and Late Victorian Radicalism Taylor & Francis 2013; also in Harris, Kirsten, Walt Whitman and British socialism: The Love of Comrades. Basingstoke : Taylor & Francis Ltd 2016.
  • My visit with Edward Carpenter lasted the greater part of an afternoon in his modest cottage at Guildford. [...] I attempted to tell him how much his books had meant to me-Towards Democracy, Angel Wings, Walt Whitman. He stopped me, gently putting his hand over mine. Instead I should rather tell him about Alexander Berkman, he said. He had read his Prison Memoirs, "a profound study of man's inhumanity and prison psychology, and of his own martyrdom, portrayed with extraordinary simplicity."
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