Imágenes de páginas
PDF
EPUB

all which is old is retained by the priests. But the peculiarity of Judæa-a peculiarity which I do not for a moment pretend that I can explain—is that

the prophetic revelations are, taken as a whole, indisputably improvements; that they contain, as time goes on, at each succeeding epoch higher and better views of religion. But the peculiarity is not to my present purpose: my point is that there is no such spreading impetus in progress thus caused as there is in progress caused by discussion; to receive a particular conclusion upon the ipse dixit, upon the accepted authority, of an admired instructor is obviously not so vivifying to the argumentative and questioning intellect as to argue out conclusions for yourself. Accordingly the religious progress caused by the prophets did not break down that ancient code of authoritative usage; on the contrary, the two combined: in each generation the conservative influence “built the sepulchres" and accepted the teaching of past prophets, even while it was slaying and persecuting those who were living. But discussion and custom cannot be thus combined; their “method,” as modern philosophers would say, is antagonistic: accordingly the progress of the classical states gradually awakened the whole intellect, that of Judæa was partial and improved religion only; and therefore in a history of intellectual progress the classical fills the superior and the Jewish the inferior place, just as in a special history of theology only, the places of the two might be interchanged.

A second experiment has been tried on the same subject matter. The characteristic of the Middle Ages

may be approximately — though only approximately – described as a return to the period of authoritative usage and as an abandonment of the classical habit of independent and self-choosing thought. I do not for an instant mean that this is an exact description of the main mediæval characteristic, nor can I discuss how far that characteristic was an advance upon those of previous times; its friends say it is far better than the peculiarities of the classical period, its enemies that it is far worse: but both friends and enemies will admit that the most marked feature of the Middle Ages may roughly be described as I have described it. And my point is, that just as this mediæval characteristic was that of a return to the essence of the customary epoch which had marked the pre-Athenian times, so it was dissolved much in the same manner as the influence of Athens, and other influences like it, claim to have dissolved that customary epoch.

The principal agent in breaking up the persistent mediæval customs, which were so fixed that they seemed likely to last forever or till some historical catastrophe overwhelmed them, was the popular element in the ancient polity which was everywhere diffused in the Middle Ages. The Germanic tribes brought with them from their ancient dwelling-place a polity containing like the classical a king, a council, and a popular assembly; and wherever they went they carried these elements, and varied them as force compelled or circumstances required. As far as England is concerned, the excellent dissertations of Mr. Freeman and Mr. Stubbs have proved this in the amplest manner, and brought it home to persons who cannot claim to possess much antiquarian learning. The history of the English Constitution, as far as the world cares for it, is in fact the complex history of the popular element in this ancient polity, which was sometimes weaker and sometimes stronger, but which has never died out, has commonly possessed great though varying power, and is now entirely predominant. The history of this growth is the history of the English people; and the discussions about this Constitution and the discussions within it, the controversies as to its structure and the controversies as to its true effects, have mainly trained the English political intellect in so far as it is trained. But in much of Europe, and in England particularly, the influence of religion has been very different from what it was in antiquity: it has been an influence of discussion; since Luther's time there has been a conviction, more or less rooted, that a man may by an intellectual process think out a religion for himself, and that as the highest of all duties he ought to do so. The influence of the political discussion and the influence of the religious discussion have been so long and so firmly combined, and have so effectually enforced one another, that the old notions of loyalty and fealty and authority, as they existed in the Middle Ages, have now over the best minds almost no effect.

It is true that the influence of discussion is not the only force which has produced this vast effect : both in ancient and in modern times other forces cooperated with it. Trade, for example, is obviously a force which has done much to bring men of different customs and different beliefs into close contiguity, and has thus aided to change the customs and the beliefs of them all. Colonization is another such influence: it settles men among aborigines of alien race and usages, and it commonly compels the colonists not to be over-strict in the choice of their own ele. ments; they are obliged to coalesce with and "adopt” useful bands and useful men, though their ancestral customs may not be identical [with] — nay, though they may be in fact opposite to their own. In modern Europe, the existence of a cosmopolite Church claiming to be above nations and really extending through nations, and the scattered remains of Roman law and Roman civilization, co-operated with the liberating influence of political discussion; and so did other causes also : but perhaps in no case have these subsidiary causes alone been able to generate intellectual freedom; certainly in all the most remarkable cases, the influence of discussion has presided at the creation of that freedom and has been active and dominant in it.

No doubt apparent cases of exception may easily be found. It may be said that in the court of Augustus there was much general intellectual freedom, an almost entire detachment from ancient prejudice, but that there was no free political discussion at all; but then, the ornaments of that time were derived from a time of great freedom, -it was the republic which trained the men whom the empire ruled. The close congregation of most miscellaneous elements under the Empire was no doubt of itself unfavorable to inherited prejudice and favorable to intellectual exertion; yet except in the instance of the Church, which is a peculiar subject that requires a separate discussion, how little was added to what the Republic left! The power of free interchange of ideas being wanting, the ideas themselves were barren. Also, no doubt, much intellectual freedom may emanate from countries of free political discussion, and penetrate to countries where that discussion is limited: thus the intellectual freedom of France in the eighteenth century was in great part owing to the proximity of and incessant intercourse with England and Holland; Voltaire resided among us, and every page of the "Esprit des Lois” proves how much Montesquieu learned from living here. But of course it was only part of the French culture which was so derived,the germ might be foreign, but the tissue was native: and very naturally, for it would be absurd to call the ancien régime a government without discussion ; discussion abounded there, only by reason of the bad form of the government it was never sure with ease and certainty to affect political action. The despotism “tempered by epigram” was a government which permitted argument of licentious freedom within changing limits, and which was ruled by that argument spasmodically and practically, though not in name or consistently.

But though in the earliest and in the latest time, government by discussion has been a principal organ

now

for improving mankind, yet from its origin it is a plant of singular delicacy; at first the chances are much against its living. In the beginning the members of a free state are of necessity few: the essence of it requires that discussion shall be brought home to those members; but in early time, when writing is difficult, reading rare, and representation undiscovered, those who are to be guided by the discussion must hear it with their own ears, must be brought face to face with the orator and must feel his influence for themselves. The first free states were little towns, smaller than any political division which we have, except the republic of Andorre which is a sort of vestige of them; it is in the market-place of the country town, as we should now speak, and in petty matters concerning the market-town, that discussion began, and thither all the long train of its consequences may be traced back. Some historical inquirers, like myself, can hardly look at such a place without some sentimental musing, poor and trivial as the thing seems.

But such small towns are very feeble : numbers, in the earliest wars as in the latest, are a main source of victory. And in early times one kind of state is very common and is exceedingly numerous : in every quarter of the globe we find great populations compacted by traditional custom and consecrated sentiment, which are ruled by some soldier, generally some soldier of a foreign tribe, who has conquered them and (as it has been said) “vaulted on the back” of them, or whose ancestors have done so. These great populations, ruled by a single will, have doubtless trodden down and destroyed innumerable little cities who were just beginning their freedom.

In this way the Greek cities in Asia were subjected to the Persian power, and so ought the cities in Greece proper to have been subjected also: every schoolboy must have felt that nothing but amazing folly and unmatched mismanagement saved Greece from conquest both in the time of Xerxes and in that of Darius;

« AnteriorContinuar »