Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Commonplaces on England

The periodical writers, especially the writers in newspapers, who assume to themselves the right of speaking in the name of the nation at large, are in the habit of constantly using the word "we," not only in the common sense of " I who write this," but in the special and peculiar sense of "We, the English people." The broad, general principle with which a leading article generally sets out to run its race is constantly thrown into the form of some assertion of this sort. "We are not a speculative people," "We are a patient people," "We can make anything in the world except a handsome public building," &c. A complete collection of the sentiments of this kind uttered in any given year in any one popular paper, would supply a highly curious portrait of the nation—not as others see it, but as it is seen by writers who embody in their own persons a full dose of the national characteristics, and who intensify by describing them. Some curious and important consequences follow from the habit of propagating in all directions notions on such an important subject as the national character adapted to the exigencies of periodical literature, the first and most pressing of which is to produce impressions as vivid as they are transient.

The first observation which arises on it is, that the view of the English character which it produces is tinged throughout by humourous self-depreciation. Of the commonplaces which abound in newspapers about English national character few are directly and in terms boastful, or even complimentary. The commonest expressions on the subject are meant to justify measures or institutions by a half-contemptuous admission of the absence from the English character of some lofty attribute which would have remedied the defects complained of; but this is always attended with an insinuation, more or less express, that the attribute in question is not really lofty or magnificent, though it is not worth our while to dispute its claims. Suppose, for instance—and it is a very common case—that the object in view is to pooh-pooh and set on one side some clergyman who has pushed his speculations beyond what are usually viewed as the limits of orthodoxy. The commonest, and one of the most effective, ways of doing so is to say in substance—" This may be all very well, but we are not a speculative nation; carry your doubts and inquiries elsewhere." This is in terms an admission that the English people has renounced the highest of its intellectual functions, and that it is fit only for those lower exertions of intelligence by which men provide for their daily wants. The writer really does intend to hint something of the kind, though he probably does not precisely know himself how far he is prepared to go; but he means a good deal more besides. He means to insinuate that the speculations on which the elerical heretic is disposed to set so high a price are, in truth, all nonsense, and that the British public, with its contemptuous admission of ignorance, is wiser than its self-satisfied instructor, with his presumptuous claims to superior knowledge. For once in a way, such an expression may pass muster well enough. The proper answer to a person otherwise not worth answering may frequently be—" No doubt you are much wiser than I, but this is my opinion, and I shall act on it." In time, however, such admissions, made merely for controversial purposes, become established as recognized commonplaces. For some temporary purpose people are told that they are this, that, and the other, but at last they come to think that the fact is really so. An opinion grows up that the English nation is not fitted for speculation—that it has little logical power—that it cares little for "theory," meaning thereby principle in any form; and these opinions, put forward with humourous levity, and persisted in more from a good-natured contempt of those against whom they are levelled than for any other purpose, have often most serious practical consequences. For instance, it was for many years a fashion to say that we are not a military people; that the English nation are utterly indifferent to military glory, and that we had finally betaken ourselves to the acquisition of wealth as the only occupation worthy of a serious people. Some of our readers may happen to remember a caricature of a well-known picture which appeared in Punch, and which embodied this sentiment in a very pointed manner. The title of the caricature was "The Choice of Hercules." John Bull, as Hercules, was between Mr. Cobden and the Duke of Wellington. He willingly followed the prophet of free-trade, who was pushing him along towards peace and plenty, and looking back with a good-humoured grin at the hero, who, with a stern countenance, was pointing upwards. It has now become almost trivial to say how completely false this impression was, and how important were the consequences of the mistake. It is far from improbable that many lives and much money might have been saved if we had been a little less ready to admit that we had ceased to care for anything beyond present ease and comfort, and if we had insisted a little more on our retention of the properties which have made England a great nation. It is always best to speak the exact truth about both men and nations, and it is unworthy to allow false conceptions of the character of the country to grow up for no better reason than that by doing so we parry for the moment some troublesome question, and save ourselves the pains of finding the true answer. Let us consider a few of these commonplaces, and their relation to the real state of the case.

One considerable group of these refers to the intellectual character of the country. Everywhere we meet with the assertion, "We are not a speculative people;" and this dogma is worked in such a way as to furnish an answer to almost every new opinion advanced upon any subject which the general body of the public are not at the moment inclined to discuss. Theological discussion, within certain limits, is the very breath of the nostrils of a considerable proportion of the public. The standing duels between different sects of Christians, and different shades of opinion—between the Roman Catholic and the Protestant, between the High and the Low Churchman, between the Church of England and Dissenters—are never interfered with; they go on perpetually in their own spheres, and according to their own rules, without exciting the faintest censure, generally speaking without even attracting attention. If, however, certain limits, ill-defined, though generally tacitly understood, are transgressed; if the principles usually taken for granted on both sides are brought into serious question—especially if this is done in such a manner as to attract any considerable amount of public attention and interest—all the more influential organs of public opinion give utterance, from time to time, to a prolonged and scandalized hush. The disputants are told that they are stretching their tether too far. "We are not a speculative people." We—the English people—are not going to hear real discussions upon these subjects. Our principles are fixed, our minds made up, and let no man who wishes for anything that others can give him presume to try to unsettle them. In politics the hush is neither so loud nor so long, for the custom of the country permits a much greater amount of real liberty of thought and discussion upon these than upon most other subjects. Here, however, as in the theological department, there is a limit. Let people try to test almost any institution by anything that wears the appearance of an abstract principle, and they will be confronted with the same doctrine in a slightly different shape. Probably they may not be told that "we are not a speculative people," but they will most assuredly learn, if they did not know it before, that we are a practical people; that the English nation is not to be deluded by theory; that compromise is the very soul of all our institutions, and that unless a man is prepared to suggest some compromise which the two contending parties are likely to accept, he had better hold his peace altogether. Some years ago a discussion arose about Sunday trains or Sunday shopping. A very popular and influential writer, having occasion to handle the subject, observed in the usual oracular way, "The English Sunday is a compromise," and he went on to point out that it shared that characteristic with the British constitution and many other standing subjects of veneration. Wherever any arrangement whatever has to be regulated on anything approaching to a principle, observations of the same sort are always put forward. Sometimes we are told that we are not a logical people; on other occasions we discover that there is no reason why we should be consistent. In one way or other we are continually boasting, with a strong spice of the pride that apes humility, of a strange disproportion which is supposed to exist between the strength of our reason and that of our prejudices. Is it in fact true that such a disproportion exists? Does the English nation as a rule disregard the truth? Is it incapable of being convinced by an impartial inquiry into truth that its preconceived opinions are not true in fact, and that its institutions or articles of belief ought to be altered? If these things are not so, it would surely be worth while to give up the habit of asserting that they are, and of thus misleading those who have to act with reference to their conceptions of English character into errors which may have very serious practical results.

A person disposed to inquire seriously whether or not the English are a speculative people would, in the first place, try to ascertain what he meant by the word, and by other words of the same sort. Upon inquiry he would find it impossible to assign to them any other meaning than that of thoughtful, fond of inquiry, and the like. A man speculates who is in the habit of comparing the world outside of him with the principles on which he usually acts, and who judges of the truth of his principles by considering how far they agree with the facts to which they are applied.He is in short a man who loves the truth, who wishes to find out what it is, and who, when he has found it out, acts upon his discovery. Does the English character answer to this description? The whole history of the nation answers, Yes, in the most emphatic manner. Perhaps there is not in all the rest of the world any people which has on all occasions adhered so vigorously to that of the truth of which it has once been convinced, or has allowed its policy to be influenced so deeply and permanently by abstract reasoning. It might have been expected that this would be so, for no nation has in all stages of its history been so rich in men eminent for original thought and abstract inquiry. No doubt it is quite true that English people have always been singularly slow in accepting proof of theories, and that when they have accepted them as true they have applied them to the infinitely complicated masses of fact with which governments and legislatures have to deal with singular deliberation, and an unparalleled quantity of discussion. This, however, shows neither distrust of the processes of reason, nor scepticism as to the possibility of discovering truth. It shows nothing more than consciousness of the true nature of the undertaking in which every one must of necessity be engaged who wishes to investigate the truth and apply it to any useful purpose. To view truth as something complex and hard to be learnt, to distrust first impressions, to work towards it gradually, and to apply with caution the results ultimately obtained, is the part of sincere believers in truth, not of those who doubt the possibility of reaching it. The history of England shows decisively which path it has followed as a whole. Twice in the last three centuries, at the time of the Reformation, and at the time of the French Revolution, great dams opposed to the general current of human thoughts and passions have given way after a long and silent collection of the waters behind them. On each occasion the English nation behaved in precisely the same way. They considered the matter in hand with a ponderous, dignified calmness, which opposed to the various conflicting impulses a sufficient vis inertia to allow each to act with its full force. Neither the Calvinists nor the Catholics, neither the democrats nor the legitimists, ever had their way in this country; but why not? Because the public thought that a compromise, something between the two, was the safest course? Certainly not. Because they were convinced that neither party had solved the whole problem; that neither was entirely in the right; that the truth was something far deeper and wider than either of the contending parties supposed it to be, and that it has to be discovered, not by taking up with showy maxims which claim to be true because they were coherent, but by laborious methods of detail, by making things rather better which were clearly bad, and by continually seeking and searching into them to see why they were bad, and what were the principles on which they ought to be based.

Any one who will attentively consider the history of England, and especially that part of it which is passing before his own eyes, will perceive that the alleged dislike of Englishmen to theory and speculation is, in reality, a dislike for falsehood and rashness. Once give proof of the falsehood of any proposition, on which an English belief or institution is founded, and the days of that belief or institution are numbered. People go on denouncing, despising, and attacking it with the callous tenacity which belongs to so many English proceedings. For a long time the wall stands fair and square before the battering-ram, but the blows continue to fall till, after an incalculable quantity of talk and trouble, the obstacle is at last removed, and truth is victorious. What looks like compromise and indecision is, in reality, only an effort of the obstinacy and stubbornness of the controversialists. Each fights for every rag of his opinion till the side on which truth lies has gained a victory so decisive as to make any future fighting impossible. When the very last grain of wheat has, by unspeakable efforts, been sifted out of the chaff, the matter is at an end, and not before. Even when the victory is finally won and the principle established, a sort of shelter is provided—partly by generosity, partly in order to save trouble for the beaten party. Enough of their theory is left them to swear by. Their opponents are usually disinclined, if their own principles are established in fact, to take much trouble about humiliating the other side, by stickling for a categorical legal recognition of their own triumph.

An excellent illustration of this mode of proceeding is afforded by the whole history of the establishment in this country of the principle that men are free to hold any religious opinions they please. To say exactly how the law of the land stands on this point would require a great deal of half-antiquarian, half-legal knowledge. For instance, the law as to religious liberty is something of this kind. The Church of England has jurisdiction over all Englishmen, and, amongst other things, compels them to hold the Christian faith according to its own principles, and it may punish, as heretics, all those who deny it, or any part of it, to be true. It may not, however, declare anything whatever to be heresy except what is laid down as such in the Thirty-nine Articles, &c., until the Queen, with the consent of Parliament, shall have declared what is to be so considered, which her Majesty and her predecessors have taken exceedingly good care not to do. Neither can the Church punish as heretics, by the help of the lay power, anybody who does deny the doctrines in the Thirty-nine Articles; nor can it punish any one by spiritual censures in such a way as to hurt him, unless he is a beneficed clergyman; and though there are all sorts of temporal penalties denounced against people who do not believe or worship aright, yet they are all prevented from acting by one contrivance or another. In other words, any one but a beneficed clergyman is free to think what he pleases about religion and to worship as he likes.

It is easy to call a system like this, composed of elaborate rules, blockaded by exceptions co-extensive with themselves, a compromise. It is, in fact, no compromise at all; but the monument of the triumph of a great principle, established, step by step, in the face of fierce and even desperate opposition, but established so firmly that, after being once established, it never required further discussion or inquiry, but became a sort of axiom in politics. "Vestigia nulla retrorsum," is the motto of all English reforms. 'When the battle is once won, it is won once for all. Of course, while the process of struggle and inquiry is still going on, compromises may and do exist, but they are mere truces, temporary expedients which are never conclusive. An English controversy never really ends until one side has finally knocked the other down, and stamped on it, with more or less emphasis, according to the way in which the question has been discussed.

It is not difficult to compare the probabilities of this theory with commonplaces couched in language which can have no other real meaning than that the English people are constitutionally indifferent to truth, that they are incapable of understanding what a true theory is, and that they look out only for convenient compromises between conflicting theories. When steadily looked at, this theory may be seen to be not merely untrue, but unmeaning. It proceeds, in the first place, upon an indistinct and really unintelligible notion that theories have some existence of their own in the air apart from the minds which entertain them, and that the conflict of theories means something different from controversies between the men who hold those theories. It is absurd to suppose that there is a great difference between the people who are supposed to adopt the compromises and those who hold the theories between which the compromises are supposed to be made. The fact is that the compromises are made by the people who hold the opposite theories; but they make them as an instrument of war, not as a surrender of their own views. The compromise represents no one's opinions, nor does its existence show that those who made it had none, or did not believe them. In fact, it proves the reverse. The real inference from the complicated character of English institutions, and the peculiar and apparently tortuous character of English policy, is not that Englishmen are deficient in logical power or in belief in their own theories, but that a great variety of opinion exists against them, and that the opinions of very different kinds of people have had each in their turn a considerable effect on the actual course of events. The notion that Englishmen are not speculative, because the practical results of their speculations are not simple, is just like the notion that the propulsive force of gunpowder and the force of gravitation have no assignable direction, because it is a very difficult thing to trace accurately the course of a projectile.

Apart from this general view of the matter, it is surely impossible to reconcile the theory which denies speculative power to the English nation with the fact that in all practical questions our countrymen are proverbially decisive and consistent. No one has ever carried depreciation of the intellect of this country so far as to say that English people are distinguished in the management of business by not knowing their own minds, and by being unable to carry out consistently any course of conduct on which they have decided. Yet this ought to be the case, if we were not a speculative people. No human undertaking whatever, from mending a pen or making a pair of shoes, up to founding an empire, can be conducted without some theory, without some thought on the subject. No one can act at all unless he has some object in view, and some notion of the nature of the means by which it is to be effected; and the only real difference between the speculation which leads to immediate and that which leads to distant results, is a difference in degree. Great and well-deserved admiration has of late years been bestowed upon the wonderful engineering feats, of which the last two generations have witnessed so many. Most of them rested on speculations and theories of the most recondite and elaborate kind. Locomotive engines and their applications to railroads were theories long before they were translated into facts. So were the Atlantic steamers and the tubular bridges of which we have all heard so much. Can it be true that a nation which has taken the lead in such works as these should really be deficient in power of thought—in other words, in speculation?
The disposition to run down or to deny altogether the intellectual power of Englishmen is only one of the many forms assumed by the awkward irony under consideration. A very common form of it is the absurd habit of putting forward on every occasion the lowest motives only as those on which our policy is based. Throughout a great part of continental Europe there is a fixed belief that the policy, and especially the foreign policy, of this country is sordid, selfish, and cunning, in the highest possible degree. Every step that we ever take is supposed by the French to be some diabolical device for extending our commerce, and by the Americans to be some hateful plot on the part of the aristocracy against their greatness and glory. The Macchiavellian theory of John Bull is, perhaps, not quite so popular now as it was some years ago, but he is still looked upon as a terribly hard-hearted old miscreant, whose principal aim in life is to force his hardware down people's throats, and to clothe them by main strength in his cotton fabrics. To a considerable section of the European world we are still known as the race perfidious beyond all others, and successful principally by reason of our perfidy. In M. Hugo's great repertory of fine phrases, England figures as "le mauvais riche;" and the standing topic of continental— especially of Roman Catholic—critics upon us is, that with all our wealth and power, we are a hard-hearted, selfish, wicked set, whose glory is the luxury of the few, based on the wretchedness of the many. It is one of the most curious of common things that this estimate of the character of England should prevail throughout a great part of the world, and that the nation so stigmatized by its fellows should rather enjoy the process than not. The most indignant eloquence, the most solemnly pronounced censure from any foreign country, is copied into English newspapers, and produces nothing but a smile half amused and perhaps a quarter contemptuous. We do not care enough about the opinion of others to take the trouble to despise it thoroughly and heartily, or to ask ourselves at all why we despise it. If a Frenchman reads attacks upon France, he gets furiously angry; he wants to defend himself; he feels as an Englishman would feel if he were made the object of public accusation in his own newspaper. He cares intensely for the public opinion of Europe, and has no sort of wish to conceal the fact. We treat all such things consistently, on the principle that such attacks amuse our critics, and cannot by any possibility hurt us. This sublime and imperturbable pride is very impressive, and in its way a very good thing. In these days, the power of public opinion in all its forms is so great, that much is to be said in favour of any one who appeals habitually to any other standard of right and wrong, and a nation utterly unmoved by the praise or blame of others, so long as it is satisfied with its own proceedings, sets an excellent example to the world. It may, however, be easily debased into something which cannot in any way be made the subject of praise. To be utterly unmoved by the reproaches of others, and perfectly indifferent to their approbation, is an excellent thing. To adopt their reproaches as if they were true, or to act in such a way as to allow them to suppose that their reproaches are true, is a very different thing ; and there is a sort of fashion amongst us of speaking and writing in such a way as to countenance these conclusions. The French, for instance, profess in the loudest terms all manner of splendid sentiments. We listen with external composure, but with an internal conviction that it is all swagger and nonsense. They assert that we are a purely mercenary people, indifferent to anything but wealth. Without exactly saying yes, we consent to discuss matters upon that understanding, retaining our own tacit conviction that the French estimate of us is as absurd as their estimate of themselves, but that it is not worth our while to explain to them what they cannot be expected to understand. After indulging for a time in this strange habit, in which a half humourous contempt for the vanity of others produces the appearance of want of respect for ourselves, we are surprised to find that the rest of the world have been taking us at our own estimate, that they really believe us to be the selfish and vulgar mercenaries that we have allowed them to suppose us to consider ourselves to be, and that the proposition that England is perfidious and hypocritical has come to be an established part of the political creed of continental Europe.

In fact, few nations are less open to charges of this kind. Whatever excuse there may once have been for such a view of English policy, there has been hardly any truth in it for a great length of time. On the contrary, it is probable that no nation in Europe is, on the whole, so much moved by appeals to a sense of honour and duty. Views of this kind, right or wrong, enlightened or not, have decided all the most important political questions that have arisen for many years past. To take a broad instance which at this moment is passing before our eyes, let any one compare the weight which, in popular estimation, attaches to arguments on the American question drawn from anything which has any plausible grounds to be called a moral principle, with arguments professedly based upon interest. The one would command universal attention; no one would venture even to put forward the other. The two points by which the sympathies of the nation, as well as their conduct, are determined, are the bearing of the struggle upon the prospects of slavery and its bearing on liberty. Intimately as the whole matter is connected with the interests of every part of the community, especially with those of the very poor, the theoretical way of looking at the matter is universal, and may be said almost to exclude every other. What interests the nation at large is not the question of cotton or of tariffs, or of the degree of sympathy and alliance which we might expect from either party in case of its success, but the question of slavery, the question of democracy, the question of the right to secede. It is probably true that some sections of the public are animated by a jealousy of the greatness of the old Union, and that others feel satisfaction in the notion that what has occurred is a discredit to democratic institutions, but though these feelings may not be lofty or even justifiable, they are genuine feelings. They are not mere calculations. The men who are glad to see America fail (as they think) do really dislike and disapprove of the principles on which American institutions are based. They would not be equally pleased, for instance, to hear of intestine divisions in Russia, by which the power of that empire might be reduced and our own relative force increased in consequence. Whatever the faults of our institutions may be, there can be no doubt that they tend to stimulate, to the very utmost, the moral sensibility of those who live under them. Extreme publicity and perfect freedom of discussion, encouraged in practice even more fully than in theory, are by the necessity of the case moralizing agents, though they certainly favour somewhat crude and shallow views of morality. Human nature must be far worse than it has ever yet been known to be before men could explicitly avow, and systematically defend, immoral or even selfish principles of action. But those who argue on principles which they do not really hold, argue at a great disadvantage. No dexterity can permanently conceal the inconsistency between their premisses and their conclusions, and the exposure of this inconsistency gives their opponents a triumph which can neither be averted nor concealed. The influences under which they live put English statesmen under a stronger compulsion to be substantially honest in their policy towards other nations than the government of any other country; and it would be very unjust to deny that the sentiments of the people point consistently in the same direction. The opposite impression which prevails so widely is due almost entirely to the trick which we have fallen into of expressing contempt for what we imagine to be the bombast and hypocrisy of other nations by throwing over our own feelings a strange affectation of cynical frankness.

It would be easy to show how the same temper of mind produces similar criticisms on many other subjects. For instance, it is a most popular depreciatory commonplace to speak of the inability of English people to enjoy works of art. Scores of newspaper articles in the course of every year contrast the power which Englishmen show in the more serious pursuits of life with the complacency with which they endure all that is hideous in their capital and their other great cities. We can, it is said, make a constitution, but for upwards of twenty generations we have never made a public building or a fine street. Much might be said upon this subject if it were worth while. It might be shown, for instance, that that small minority of persons—small from the nature of the case in every nation whatever—who have great artistic power, has not, on the whole, been smaller or less influential in England than elsewhere, especially in the course of the last hundred years; and it might also be shown that the absence of that prodigal splendour which characterizes French public buildings (between which and our own we are always drawing comparisons) is the effect of most complicated causes, in which superior taste and capacity for art plays a very small part; but enough has been said to show the general nature of the criticisms referred to, and to prove their great injustice.

Cornhill Magazine, July 1863.

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