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age would soon have slain an isolated bold man in the beginning of his innovations. What Macaulay so relied on as the incessant source of progress, the desire of man to better his condition,* was not then permitted to work : man was required to live as his ancestors had lived.
Still farther away from those times were the “free thought” and the "advancing sciences” of which we now hear so much. The first and most natural subject upon which human thought concerns itself is religion; the first wish of the half-emancipated thinker is, to use his reason on the great problems of human destiny, - to find out whence he came and whither he goes, to form for himself the most reasonable idea of God which he can form. But as Mr. Grote happily said, “This is usually what ancient times would not let a man do: his gens or his pparpía required him to believe as they believed." + Toleration is of all ideas the most modern, because the notion that the bad religion of A cannot impair here or hereafter the welfare of B is, strange to say, a modern idea. And the help of "science" at that stage of thought is still more nugatory. Physical science as we conceive it -- that is, the systematic investigation of external nature in detail-did not then exist: a few isolated observations on surface things, a half-correct calendar, -- secrets mainly of priestly invention and in priestly custody, were all that was then imagined; the idea of using a settled study of nature as a basis for the discovery of new instruments and new things did not then exist, it is indeed a modern idea, and is peculiar to a few European countries even yet. In the most intellectual city of the ancient world, in its most intellectual age, Socrates, its most intellectual inhabitant, discouraged the study of physics because they engendered uncertainty and did not augment human happiness: the kind of knowledge which is most connected with human progress now was that least connected with it then. But a government by discussion, if it can be borne, at once breaks down the yoke of fixed custom : the idea of the two is inconsistent. As far as it goes, the mere putting up of a subject to discussion, with the object of being guided by that discussion, is a clear admission that that subject is in no degree settled by established rule, and that men are free to choose in it; it is an admission too that there is no sacred authority, no one transcendent and divinely appointed man, whom in that matter the community is bound to obey. And if a single subject or group of subjects be once admitted to discussion, ere long the habit of discussion comes to be established, the sacred charm of use and wont to be dissolved. “Democracy," it has been said in modern times, “is like the grave: it takes, but it does not give.” The same is true of “discussion”: once effectually submit a subject to that ordeal, and you can never withdraw it again; you can never again clothe it with mystery or fence it by consecration; it remains forever open to free choice and exposed to profane deliberation.
* In modern England : “History of England," Chap. xix. – ED. + “Plato,” Vol. i., page 251,- in substance, not words.
VOL. IV. - 35
The only subjects which can be first submitted or which till a very late age of civilization can be submitted to discussion in the community are the questions involving the visible and pressing interests of the community; they are political questions of high and urgent import. If a nation has in any considerable degree gained the habit and exhibited the capacity to discuss these questions with freedom and to decide them with discretion, to argue much on politics and not to argue ruinously, an enormous advance in other kinds of civilization may confidently be predicted for it; and the reason is a plain deduction from the principles which we have found to guide early civilization. The first prehistoric men were passionate savages, with the greatest difficulty coerced into order and compressed into a state, for ages were spent in beginning that order and founding that state; the only sufficient and effectual agent in so doing was consecrated custom: but then that custom gathered over everything, arrested all onward progress, and stayed the originality of mankind. If therefore a nation is able to gain the benefit of custom without the evil, - if after ages of waiting it can have order and choice together, - at once the fatal clog is removed, and the ordinary springs of progress, as in a modern community we conceive them, begin their elastic action.
Discussion, too, has incentives to progress peculiar to itself. It gives a premium to intelligence: to set out the arguments required to determine political action with such force and effect that they really should determine it is a high and great exertion of intellect. Of course all such arguments are produced under conditions: the argument abstractedly best is not necessarily the winning argument. Political - discussion must move those who have to act; it must be framed in the ideas and be consonant with the precedent of its time, just as it must speak its language: but within these marked conditions, good discussion is better than bad; no people can bear a government of discussion for a day which does not, within the boundaries of its prejudices and its ideas, prefer good reasoning to bad reasoning, sound argument to unsound. A prize for argumentative mind is given in free states to which no other states have anything to compare.
Tolerance too is learned in discussion; and as history shows, is only so learned. In all customary societies bigotry is the ruling principle; in rude places to this day any one who says anything new is looked on with suspicion, and is persecuted by opinion if not injured by penalty. One of the greatest pains to human nature is the pain of a new idea : it is, as common people say, so “upsetting”; it makes you think that after all your favorite notions may be wrong, your firmest beliefs ill-founded; it is certain that till now there was no place allotted in your mind to
the new and startling inhabitant, and now that it has conquered an entrance you do not at once see which of your old ideas it will or will not turn out, with which of them it can be reconciled and with which it is at essential enmity. Naturally, therefore, common men hate a new idea, and are disposed more or less to ill-treat the original man who brings it. Even nations with long habits of discussion are intolerant enough : in England, where there is on the whole probably a freer discussion of a greater number of subjects than ever was before in the world, we know how much power bigotry retains. But discussion, to be successful, requires tolerance: it fails wherever, as in a French political assembly, any one who hears anything which he dislikes, tries to howl it down. If we know that a nation is capable of enduring continuous discussion, we know that it is capable of practicing with equanimity continuous tolerance.
The power of a government by discussion as an instrument of elevation plainly depends — other things being equal — on the greatness or littleness of the things to be discussed. There are periods when great ideas are “in the air,” and when, from some cause or other, even common persons seem to partake of an unusual elevation. The age of Elizabeth in England was conspicuously such a time: the new idea of the Reformation in religion, and the enlargement of the monia mundi by the discovery of new and singular lands, taken together, gave an impulse to thought which few if any ages can equal; the discussion, though not wholly free, was yet far freer than in the average of ages and countries,- accordingly, every pursuit seemed to start forward. Poetry, science, and architecture, different as they are, and removed as they all are at first sight from such an influence as discussion, were suddenly started onward. Macaulay would have said you might rightly read the power of discussion in the poetry of Shakespeare, in the prose of Bacon, in “the oriels of Longleat and the
stately pinnacles of Burleigh.”* This is in truth but another case of the principle of which I have had occasion to say so much as to the character of ages and countries : if any particular power is much prized in an age, those possessed of that power will be imitated, those deficient in that power will be despised ; in consequence, an unusual quantity of that power will be developed and be conspicuous. Within certain limits vigorous and elevated thought was respected in Elizabeth's time, and therefore vigorous and elevated thinkers were many; and the effect went far beyond the cause, -it penetrated into physical science, for which very few men cared, and it began a reform in philosophy to which almost all were then opposed. In a word, the temper of the age encouraged originality; and in consequence original men started into prominence, went hither and thither where they liked, arrived at goals which the age never expected, and so made it ever memorable.
In this manner all the great movements of thought in ancient and modern times have been nearly connected in time with government by discussion. Athens, Rome, the Italian republics of the Middle Ages, the communes and states-general of feudal Europe, have all had a special and peculiar quickening influence, which they owed to their freedom, and which states without that freedom have never communicated. And it has been at the time of great epochs of thought - at the Peloponnesian War, at the fall of the Roman Republic, at the Reformation, at the French Revolution - that such liberty of speaking and thinking have produced their full effect.
It is on this account that the discussions of savage tribes have produced so little effect in emancipating those tribes from their despotic customs.
The oratory of the North-American Indian - the first savage whose peculiarities fixed themselves in the public imagination - has become celebrated, and yet the North-American Indians were scarcely if at all better
* Essay on History, near end. † But cf. Palfrey's “New England,” i. 34.