Even so, the St James’ Chronicle could say of the London Mechanics’ Institution in 1825, “A scheme more completely adapted for the destruction of this empire could not have been invented by the author of evil himself than that which the depraved ambition of some men, the vanity of others, and the supineness of a third and more important class, has so nearly perfected.” Even their advocates felt a certain need for apology: “I am at a loss,” said Sir Benjamin Heywood, President of the Manchester Mechanics’ Institution, in 1827, “to see how we are disturbing the proper station of the working classes, and giving them an undue elevation; we do not alter their relative position; a spirit of intellectual activity, unequalled in any age or country, now prevails amongst us, and, if the superstructure be renewed and strengthened, it does not seem fitting that the foundation should be neglected.”

I guess that this is a figurative use, but then does Definition 1.3 (A concept or idea based on others:) or 1.4 apply? If Definition 1.3 fits, then what concept or idea is being discussed?


The passage is making an analogy between the structure of society and its classes, and the construction of a building (or any large work).

The challenge in interpretation is twofold: one, the text, because it's both 19th century and political, persuasive writing, is a bit florid and overweening. Second, at the time the text was written, social classes were much more explicit, legitimate, and enforced than they are today, and that dates the metaphor.

So, to extract the meaning from the passage, it might be best to first try to modernize the language. In that vein, you may read superstructure here as building, and renewed and strengthened as renovated. Thus, a more modern (and correspondingly less florid) formulation might be:

If the building is renovated, it seems wrong that that the foundation should be ignored.

Here, the building or superstructure, that is, what is built above, visible and ultimate, is a figurative representation of the upper classes, and the foundation, that is, what lies below, holding everything else up, is a figurative representation of the lower classes.

In this case, the specific lower classes in question are the mechanics, who the St James Chronicle was accusing of trying to rise above their station, and disrupting the proper order of society along the way.

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