Imágenes de páginas
PDF
EPUB

is the product of a sane and sound writer. The best and almost perfect instance of this in English is Scott. Homer was perfect in it, as far as we can judge ; Shakespeare is often perfect in it for long together, though then, from the defects of a bad education and a vicious age, all at once he loses himself in excesses. Still, Homer, and Shakespeare at his best, and Scott though in other respects so unequal to them, have this remarkable quality in common, — this union of life with measure, of spirit with reasonableness.

In action it is equally this quality in which the English --at least so I claim it for them-excel all other nations. There is an infinite deal to be laid against us, and as we are unpopular with most others and as we are always grumbling at ourselves, there is no want of people to say it: but after all, in a certain sense, England is a success in the world; her career has had many faults, but still it has been a fine and winning career upon the whole, — and this on account of the exact possession of this particular quality. What is the making of a successful merchant ? That he has plenty of energy, and yet that he does not go too far. And if you ask for a description of a great practical Englishman, you will be sure to have this, or something like it :-“Oh, he has plenty of go in him, but he knows when to pull up." He may have all other defects in him; he may be coarse, he may be illiterate, he may be stupid to talk to: still this great union of spur and bridle, of energy and moderation, will remain to him. Probably he will hardly be able to explain why he stops when he does stop, or why he continued to move as long as he in fact moved ; but still, as by a rough instinct, he pulls up pretty much where he should, though he was going at such a pace before.

There is no better example of this quality in English statesmen than Lord Palmerston. There are of course many most serious accusations to be made against him. The sort of homage with which he was regarded in the last years of his life has passed away; the spell is broken, and the magic cannot be again revived. We may think that his information was meager, that his imagination was narrow, that his aims were short-sighted and faulty ; but though we may often object to his objects, we rarely find much to criticize in his means. “He went,” it has been said, “with a great swing,” but he never tumbled over ; he always managed to pull up “before there was any danger." He was an odd man to have inherited Hampden's motto; still, in fact there was a great trace in him of mediocria firma, - as much probably as there could be in any one of such great vivacity and buoyancy.

It is plain that this is a quality which as much as, if not more than, any other multiplies good results in practical life. It enables men to see what is good; it gives them intellect enough for sufficient perception : but it does not make men all intellect; it does not “sickly them o'er with the pale cast of thought"* ; it enables them to do the good things they see to be good, as well as to see that they are good. And it is plain that a government by popular discussion tends to produce this quality : a strongly idiosyncratic mind, violently disposed to extremes of opinion, is soon weeded out of political life; and a bodiless thinker, an ineffectual scholar, cannot even live there for a day. A vigorous moderateness in mind and body is the rule of a polity which works by discussion; and upon the whole it is the kind of temper most suited to the active life of “such a being as man in such a world as the present one.” |

These three great benefits of free government, though great, are entirely secondary to its continued usefulness in the mode in which it originally was useful. The first great benefit was the deliverance of mankind from the superannuated yoke of customary law, by the gradual development of an inquisitive originality; and it continues to produce that effect upon persons apparently far remote from its influence,

Hamlet,” iii. 1.

+ See foot-note to Vol. ii., page 109.

and on subjects with which it has nothing to do. Thus Mr. Mundella, a most experienced and capable judge, tells us that the English artisan, though so much less sober, less instructed, and less refined than the artisans of some other countries, is yet more inventive than any other artisan ; the master will get more good suggestions from him than from any other.

Again, upon plausible grounds, – looking, for example, to the position of Locke and Newton in the science of the last century and to that of Darwin in our own,- it may be argued that there is some quality in English thought which makes them strike out as many if not more first-rate and original suggestions than nations of greater scientific culture and more diffused scientific interest. In both cases I believe the reason of the English originality to be that government by discussion quickens and enlivens thought all through society; that it makes people think no harm may come of thinking; that in England this force has long been operating, and so it has developed more of all kinds of people ready to use their mental energy in their own way, and not ready to use it in any other way, than a despotic government. And so rare is great originality among mankind, and so great are its fruits, that this one benefit of free government probably outweighs what are in many cases its accessory evils; of itself it justifies or goes far to justify our saying with Montesquieu, “Whatever be the cost of this glorious liberty, we must be content to pay it to heaven."

Vol IV.-37

NO. VI.

VERIFIABLE PROGRESS POLITICALLY CONSIDERED.

The original publication of these essays was interrupted by serious illness and by long consequent illhealth; and now that I am putting them together, I wish to add another which shall shortly explain the main thread of the argument which they contain. In doing so there is a risk of tedious repetition; but on a subject both obscure and important, any defect is better than an appearance of vagueness.

In a former essay I attempted to show that slighter causes than is commonly thought may change a nation from the stationary to the progressive state of civilization, and from the stationary to the degrading. * Commonly the effect of the agent is looked on in the wrong way: it is considered as operating on every individual in the nation, and it is assumed or half assumed that it is only the effect which the agent directly produces on every one that need be considered. But besides this diffused effect of the first impact of the cause, there is a second effect, always considerable and commonly more potent, - a new model in character is created for the nation; those characters which resemble it are encouraged and multiplied, those contrasted with it are persecuted and made fewer. In a generation or two the look of the nation becomes quite different: the characteristic men who stand out are different, the men imitated are different, the result of the imitation is different. A lazy nation may be changed into an industrious, a rich into a poor, a religious into a profane, as if by magic, if

* Sic, but probably a slip of the pen for “degraded

or

“declining." – ED.

[ocr errors][ocr errors][merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small]

any single cause though slight, or any combination of causes however subtle, is strong enough to change the favorite and detested types of character.

This principle will, I think, help us in trying to solve the question why so few nations have progressed, though to us progress seems so natural; what is the cause or set of causes which have prevented that progress in the vast majority of cases and produced it in the feeble minority. But there is a preliminary difficulty: what is progress and what is decline ? Even in the animal world, there is no applicable rule accepted by physiologists which settles what animals are higher or lower than others; there are controversies about it. Still more, then, in the more complex combinations and politics of human beings, it is likely to be hard to find an agreed criterion for saying which nation is before another, or what age of a nation was marching forward and which was falling back. Archbishop Manning would have one rule of progress and decline, Professor Huxley in most important points quite an opposite rule; what one would set down as an advance the other would set down as a retreat. Each has a distinct end which he wishes and a distinct calamity which he fears, but the desire of the one is pretty near the fear of the other; books would not hold the controversy between them. Again, in art, who is to settle what is advance and what decline? Would Mr. Ruskin agree with any one else on this subject, would he even agree with himself, or could any common inquirer venture to say whether he was right or wrong?

I am afraid that I must, as Sir William Hamilton used to say, “truncate a problem which I cannot solve," -I must decline to sit in judgment on disputed points of art, morals, or religion; but without so doing, I think there is such a thing as “verifiable progress," if we may say so, that is, progress which ninety-nine hundredths or more of mankind will admit to be such, against which there is no established

« AnteriorContinuar »