The Cat is Seen
Henry George had passed close but hadn’t nearly answered his great question yet, or even completely formulated it, but in the themes of this article he was clearly approaching it all, just as the railroad was approaching. The mystery kept nagging him, what he would later describe as a great wedge that comes into a society at a certain point, producing a divide in society akin to slavery, he could feel it coming. He could see what was going to happen in California, but it was a trip to New York in 1869 that really shook him.
Being the kind of fellow that’s going to take a walk around town, he is shocked and reviled by the squalor, the wretched, degrading poverty he meets. The questions that had been simmering in his mind now hardened into a steely purpose.
Standing on the street in New York City, he solemnly vowed to find the answer to the question, the Sphinx’s riddle.
Henry George’s son, Henry George Jnr, in The Life of Henry George, explained this Sphinx:
When Oedipus, in Greek mythology, travelled towards the city of Thebes he found widespread distress from deaths wrought by the monster Sphinx, who had the body of a lion, and the head, breast and arms of a woman, and who put a riddle to all approaching, which not to answer meant to be hurled headlong from the rock where she abode. Many had tried, but all had failed; and through the country as Oedipus moved on came constant lamentation and constant warning.
The Sphinx’s riddle was modern civilisation. Henry George’s vow:
to seek out, and remedy, if I could, the cause that condemned little children to lead such a life as you know them to lead in the squalid districts.
The question haunted him that year like a ghost. Every day’s news thrust the questions in his face. Staggering fortunes were exploding in California, yet wages were going down. The old Philadelphia printer’s words would come back to him, and chatting to miners he heard the same things again, prophecies that as the country grows, wages will fall. It was so, he could see it happening before his eyes; as California was growing in stature, those who had to work had to work harder.
He sought time alone to interrogate his knowledge of the world, to pick the lock which enslaved the world. He stumbled around. He knew it was there, it tortured him, he could almost touch it, but it always eluded him.
He took to riding out of town to give air and space to his thoughts. One day in March, 1871, he drove his horse hard into some hills around San Francisco Bay, and stopped to give her a breather. Passing the time with a passer-by, he chatted about local conditions and news, and Henry George suddenly saw something. Henry George says of this moment:
Like a flash it came upon me that there was the reason of advancing poverty with advancing wealth . . . . . .
I turned back, amidst quiet thought, to the perception that then came to me and has been with me ever since.
Crystallised, as by lightning flash, my brooding thoughts into coherency, and I there and then recognised the natural order one of those experiences that make those who have them thereafter that they can vaguely appreciate what mystics and poets have called the ecstatic vision.
We’ve cut bits out of quotes like that here and there because, as we said earlier, if you haven’t read Progress & Poverty, we don’t want to reveal too much here of what the book reveals, but just about what his question was, because it’s much, much better that he explains it to you. Our object is to get you to read this book. We want you to hear it from him. If you do want to read about it now, from more authoritative sources than we, you can follow any of the links found on this page.
In this moment with his panting horse in the hills, Henry George had seen the cat; seeing the cat became the phrase used by the Single Taxers that were to come, to describe the moment of someone's realisation of what George saw this day.
He had solved his Riddle of the Sphinx. The explanation was made of the paradox, why increasing wealth brings about increasing poverty. Everything then fell into place, all was revealed. In the inky blackness just beyond the blazing lights of the lavish parties there will always be those bedding down to sleep under the stars, and now he knew why. And it certainly isn’t because that’s just the way it is.