Imágenes de páginas
PDF
EPUB

gone. The great difficulty which history records is not that of the first step, but that of the second step. What is most evident is, not the difficulty of getting a fixed law, but getting out of a fixed law; not of cementing (as upon a former occasion I phrased it) a cake of custom, but of breaking the cake of custom ; not of making the first preservative habit, but of breaking through it and reaching something better.

This is the precise case with the whole family of arrested civilizations. A large part - a very large part — of the world seems to be ready to advance to something good, to have prepared all the means to advance to something good, and then to have stopped and not advanced. India, Japan, China, almost every sort of Oriental civilization, though differing in nearly all other things, are in this alike: they look as if they had paused when there was no reason for pausing, when a mere observer from without would say they were likely not to pause.

The reason is, that only those nations can progress which preserve and use the fundamental peculiarity which was given by nature to man's organism as to all other organisms. By a law of which we know no reason, but which is among the first by which Providence guides and governs the world, there is a tendency in descendants to be like their progenitors, and yet a tendency also in descendants to differ from their progenitors. The work of nature in making generations is a patchwork, — part resemblance, part contrast; in certain respects each born generation is not like the last born, and in certain other respects it is like the last. But the peculiarity of arrested civilization is to kill out varieties at birth almost ; that is, in early childhood, and before they can develop. The fixed custom which public opinion alone tolerates is imposed on all minds, whether it suits them or not: in that case the community feel that this custom is the only shelter from bare tyranny, and the only security for what they value. Most

Vol. IV. - 30

Oriental communities live on land which in theory is the property of a despotic sovereign, and neither they nor their families could have the elements of decent existence unless they held the land upon some sort of fixed terms; land in that state of society is (for all but a petty skilled minority) a necessary of life, and all the unincreasable land being occupied, a man who is turned out of his holding is turned out of this world and must die. And our notion of written leases is as out of place in a world without writing and without reading as a House of Commons among Andaman-Islanders. Only one check, one sole shield for life and good, is then possible, - usage; and it is but too plain how, in such places and periods, men cling to customs because customs alone stand between them and starvation.

A still more powerful cause co-operated, if a cause more powerful can be imagined. Dryden had a dream of an early age “when wild in woods the noble savage ran” ;* but “when lone in woods the cringing savage crept” would have been more like all we know of that early, bare, painful period. Not only had they no comfort, no convenience, not the very beginnings of an epicurean life, but their mind within was as painful to them as the world without: it was full of fear. So far as the vestiges inform us, they were afraid of everything: they were afraid of animals, of certain attacks by near tribes and of possible inroads from far tribes, - but above all things they were

frightened of “the world.” The spectacle of nature filled them with awe and dread; they fancied there were powers behind it which must be pleased, soothed, flattered, and this very often in a number of hideous ways. We have too many such religions even among races of great cultivation : men change their religions more slowly than they change anything else, and accordingly we have religions “ of the ages” -- it is

Mr. Jowett who so calls them — “of the ages before morality”; of ages of which the civil life, the common

[ocr errors]

*“Conquest of Granada," Act i., Scene 1.

6

maxims, and all the secular thoughts have long been dead. “Every reader of the classics,” said Dr. Johnson, "finds their mythology tedious.” In that old world, which is so like our modern world in so many things, —so much more like than many far more recent or some that live beside us, there is a part in which we seem to have no kindred, which we stare at, of which we cannot think how it could be credible or how it came to be thought of: this is the archaic part of that very world which we look at as so ancient; an “antiquity” which descended to them hardly altered, perhaps — from times long antecedent, which were as unintelligible to them as to us, or more

How this terrible religion (for such it was in all living detail, though we make and the ancients then made an artistic use of the more attractive bits of it) weighed on man, the great poem of Lucretius, the most of a nineteenth-century poem of any in antiquity, brings before us with a feeling so vivid as to be almost a feeling of our own.

Yet the classical religion is a mild and tender specimen of the preserved religions: to get at the worst, you should look where the destroying competition has been least, - at America, where sectional civilization was rare and a pervading coercive civilization did not exist; at such religions as those of the Aztecs.

At first sight it seems impossible to imagine what conceivable function such awful religions can perform in the economy of the world, and no one can fully explain them; but one use they assuredly had, they fixed the yoke of custom thoroughly on mankind. They were the prime agents of the era: they put upon a fixed law a sanction so fearful that no one could dream of not conforming to it.

No one will ever comprehend the arrested civilizations unless he sees the strict dilemma of early society. Either men had no law at all, and lived in confused tribes hardly hanging together, or they had to obtain a fixed law by processes of incredible

difficulty ; those who surmounted that difficulty soon destroyed all those that lay in their way who did not - and then they themselves were caught in their own yoke. The customary discipline, which could only be imposed on any early men by terrible sanctions, continued with those sanctions, and killed out of the whole society the propensities to variation which are the principle of progress.

Experience shows how incredibly difficult it is to get men really to encourage the principle of originality: they will admit it in theory, but in practice the old error — the error which arrested a hundred civilizations — returns again. Men are too fond of their own life, too credulous of the completeness of their own ideas, too angry at the pain of new thoughts, to be able to bear easily with a changing existence; or else, having new ideas, they want to enforce them on mankind,- to make them heard and admitted and

obeyed before, in simple competition with other ideas, they would ever be so naturally. At this very moment there are the most rigid Comtists teaching that we ought to be governed by a hierarchy, -a combination of savans orthodox in science: yet who can doubt that Comte would have been hanged by his own hierarchy; that his essor matériel, which was in fact troubled by the “theologians and metaphysicians” of the Polytechnic School, would have been more impeded by the government he wanted to make? And then the secular Comtists, Mr. Harrison and Mr. Beesly, who want to “Frenchify the English institutions," - that is, to introduce here an imitation of the Napoleonic system, a dictatorship founded on the proletariat, — who can doubt that if both these clever writers had been real Frenchmen they would have been irascible anti-Bonapartists, and have been sent to Cayenne long ere now? The wish of these writers is very natural: they want to “organize society,” — to erect a despot who will do what they like and work out their ideas; but any despot will do what he himself likes, and will root out new ideas ninetynine times for once that he introduces them.

Again, side by side with these Comtists, and warring with them,- at least with one of them,- is Mr. Arnold, whose poems we know by heart, and who has, as much as any living Englishman, the genuine literary impulse; and yet even he wants to put a yoke upon us,- and worse than a political yoke, an academic yoke, a yoke upon our minds and our styles. He too asks us to imitate France; and what else can we say than what the two most thorough Frenchmen of the last age did say ?

“Dans les corps à talent, nulle distinction ne fait ombrage si ce n'est pas celle du talent. Un duc et pair honore l'Académie Française, qui ne veut point de Boileau, refuse La Bruyère, fait attendre Voltaire, mais reçoit tout d'abord Chapelain et Conrart. De même nous voyons à l'Académie Grecque le vicomte invité, Coräi repoussé, lorsque Jomard y entre comme dans un moulin." *

Thus speaks Paul-Louis Courier in his own brief inimitable prose; and a still greater writer, a real Frenchman if ever there was one, and (what many critics would have denied to be possible) a great poet by reason of his most French characteristics,Béranger,-- tells us in verse :

“Je croyais voir le président
Faire bâiller en répondant
Que l'on vient de perdre un grand homme :
Que moi je le vaux, Dieu sait comme.
Mais ce président sans façont
Ne pérore ici qu'en chanson :

Toujours trop tôt sa harangue est finie.
Non, non, ce n'est point comme à l'Académie ;

Ce n'est point comme à l'Académie.

*“In bodies of talent, no distinction except that of talent gives offense. A duke and peer honors the Académie Française, which wants nothing of Boileau, refuses La Bruyère, makes Voltaire wait, but admits Chapelain and Conrart at once. Similarly, we see at the Académie Grecque the viscount invited, Corai rejected, wbile Jomard enters as into a mill.” (But Chapelain and Conrart were of the founders of the Academy; the “Société de Conrart,” which met at the latter's house, was its germ. – Ed.]

† Désaugiers.

« AnteriorContinuar »