Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Senior's Historical and Philosophical Essays

Review of:
“Historical and Philosophical Essays” by Naussau W. Senior.

The indefatigable activity of the late Mr. Senior's mind has received another and, it is to be feared, a final attestation by the republication of two volumes of historical and philosophical Essays originally published by him at various times between 1841 and 1850. They were partially prepared for publication by the author in 1862, and it is much to be regretted that he did not live to finish his work, as the course of events during the twenty years between 1842 and 1862 would certainly have enabled him to add much to what he originally wrote. He appears to have meant to recast the articles which are contained in these volumes, and to throw them more or less into the shape of a continuous treatise. This design, however, has not been carried out, and the natural consequence is that the form of the book is defective. Several of the Essays are encumbered with notes and postscripts, and one of the most valuable of the whole series—a paper on combinations and strikes, and on the laws relating to them — is republished in its original form, that of a report to Lord Melbourne's Government which was subsequently used to form part of the Report of the Hand-loom Weavers' Commission. This doubly-distilled official character certainly does not improve the literary merits of what is, in itself, a remarkable and important production. It is like publishing a brief, corrected from the notes of the counsel engaged in the case, by way of giving an account of a trial.

These literary defects, however, are in reality an unimportant matter. In substance, the Essays in question appear to us to be by far the best and most important of Mr. Senior's writings. In their own way, they are well entitled to rank with the very best performances of the kind of which so many have been published within the last twenty-five years. There are things in these volumes as good as the best of Lord Macaulay's or Mr. Mill's speculative essays; and they contain a mass of special information upon particular subjects which is hardly to be found in the occasional productions of either of those great writers. Their general characteristics are those of their author's profession. Before all things Mr. Senior was a lawyer. His mind was intensely legal, and that in the good sense of the word.

That is to say, he understood the nature and value of evidence, he knew an argument when he saw one, he always wrote with a distinct meaning in his mind, and there is no nonsense or sophistry to be found in his compositions.  On the other hand, he had not much imagination; and this defect sometimes led him, not only to leave out of account matters which he ought to have considered and which really bore upon the question at hand, but also to put up with a word, instead of finding out what the word meant.

It is almost impossible to give a connected account of a book which is itself disjointed, as every collection of miscellanies must of necessity be. We shall therefore confine ourselves to some general observations which the tone of the volumes before us suggests, and to the discussion of one or two isolated points out of the great number which the author handles. The first general observation suggested by the book relates to the school to which it belongs. Mr. Senior was one of the most prominent, most thoroughgoing, and most successful of the school of utilitarians and rationalists. According to him, all institutions, all creeds, all doctrines, were always and everywhere upon their trial, liable at any moment to be found wanting, and rejected or modified accordingly. He was the logical opposite of Dr. Newman, and of all other persons who believe that any bander whatever is to be opposed to the exertions of the human mind upon any subject, either by authoritative teachers or by the internal authority of innate ideas. It is interesting to see the practical effect of the application of an intellect of this kind to the present, or at least to a very modem, state of things, and to trace the sort of results which it contributed to produce.

The general view which it involved of the condition of public affairs was by no means favourable. It would, indeed, be hard to find a more severe and less flattering critic of almost every kind of institution, and of the proceedings of every nation, than Mr. Senior. Voltaire himself was hardly more severe upon the way in which human affairs are managed. This did not arise from general scepticism or from a querulous disposition, but simply from a practical conviction of the fact commemorated by Oxenstiern in his famous address to his son. A keen sense of the stupidity of mankind, and a pertinacious endeavour to reconcile human proceedings to some extent with common sense, are the leading and constant characteristics of this book. Perhaps the best illustration of this is afforded by the first paper, which is entitled "France, America, and Britain." It fills about 140 pages, and consists of a portrait of the three nations in question. The table of contents shows, with remarkable justice, the nature of the portrait. It is as follows:—"FRANCE—her political education—her pride—her vanity—her ambition—her immorality—her boldness—her unfounded fears of attack—her sympathy barren— her want of generosity. AMERICA—her pride—her over-confidence in the future—her vanity—her ill-directed attempts to influence England—her conduct to France—her want of prudence occasioned by her government being in the hands of the uneducated portion of the people—her litigiousness—her want of sympathy—her irritability." England comes off nearly as ill, but not quite, though the table of contents to that part of the article begins— "Her pride— her intolerance occasioned by lurking doubt." The article itself is a long and very able denunciation of the behaviour of each of the three nations in question in all, or nearly all, their external relations for the last thirty or forty years. It is full of information as to passages in modem history which every one knows by name, though few know them accurately, and is almost as unsparing an attack on the wickedness of mankind in their collective capacity as is to be found in modem literature. At the same time, it cannot be called unjust. It is like the summing up of a hanging judge in a very bad case of murder. Both America and France, France in particular, are found guilty upon every count and after any number of previous convictions. England, though most severely reprimanded, is still recommended to mercy, on the ground of one or two redeeming features of character. The same severity is shown in the other practical articles. Those which relate to the Poor Laws and to Strikes are undoubtedly very grim indeed, and give the reader a pleasant sort of feeling that the world in which he lives is inhabited by people most of whom ought to be put into madhouses if there could but be found sane people enough to be keepers. In all this there may be some exaggeration; there may be, and no doubt is, something of the temper of the schoolmaster and the drill-sergeant; but there is an immense deal of truth in it. A clear perception of the degree in which human life as it is falls short even of the very humblest ideal is the first step towards anything approaching to improvement, and faith in the power of proper means to set things to rights is the next. Both of these things Mr. Senior had in abundance. His severity has in it nothing sneering or cynical. He is like a severe teacher, but he really has something to teach, and is thoroughly determined to make his pupil learn it.

This is the good side of the utilitarian school. It really is what it professes to be. It is thoroughly in earnest; it knows well what it wants, and what it does want is highly beneficial to the public. No dogmatic or idealist school has ever, at least in our days, succeeded in doing what Bentham and his disciples and forerunners have done. It is easy to decry their merits and exaggerate their faults, but they have at least done something lasting. Almost every one of the great social reforms which have changed the face of society in the course of the last generation has been not merely organized, but originated, by them. They have done enormous services to society, and probably no set of thinkers that ever arose in the world have excited less enthusiasm, or received slighter recognition of their services. Their very intellect has been underrated, whilst men have excited the most passionate enthusiasm whose greatest service to the world has consisted in devising new dresses for old sophisms, and inventing eloquent and more or less ingenious excuses for those who wish to get rid at once of their reason and of the responsibilities which it imposes. The causes of this lie on the surface and are not worth repeating, but Mr. Senior's Essays give a good illustration of the extent and value of the services which are thus underrated.

Each Essay in its turn more or less illustrates these observations, and it would be interesting, did space permit, to go through them all. As this is out of the question, we will confine ourselves to some observations which set in a clear light both the practical and the speculative powers of their author's mind.

The subject with which Mr. Senior was most deeply acquainted, and on which he had no doubt bestowed the greatest amount of thought and labour, was the Poor Law, and we know of no book which gives so clear and complete an account of the nature of that strange system, and of the changes which from time to time have been made in it. His contributions towards its reform were the great feat of his life; and though the work, we think, was only half done, he certainly did contribute towards the removal of a set of iniquities as monstrous as any that were to be found in the Statute-book, if, indeed, we except some branches of the old criminal law. We will shortly describe what Mr. Senior and his colleagues did, and point out what they appear to us to have failed to do.

The object of a poor law is threefold—to determine what relief is to be given to poor persons unable to maintain themselves, to determine the place at which it is to be given, and to establish and regulate the arrangements by which its distribution is to be controlled. There have been four separate ways in which these objects have been provided for, more or less efficiently, in the course of the last five hundred years, for the English Poor Law dates as far back as the Statute of Labourers, 23rd. Ed. III., A.D. 1349. The object of this and of some subsequent statutes was to fix a maximum of wages, to oblige labourers to accept it when offered, to punish vagrancy with cruel severity, and to confine the impotent poor to the parishes where they were born, there to dwell for life. It seems that they were expected to be supported by voluntary charity. A long series of statutes forbade either change of occupation or wandering in search of work without a license. If fully carried out, these Acts would have reduced the English labouring poor to absolute slavery. This was the first system. By degrees the attempt to regulate wages by statute became obsolete and was given up, and the relief of the destitute became a more prominent object of legislation than the oppression of the able-bodied. The poor were no longer prevented from travelling about to look for work, but the overseers were enabled to remove them if they came to settle, and the maintenance of the impotent was thrown on the rates. This was the second system. The power of the overseers to remove naturally raised the question where they were to remove to; and the answers to this question, in course of time, produced, and indeed constituted, the law of settlement. The charge upon the rates for the maintenance of the impotent was by degrees enlarged, as Mr. Senior well observes, by means of a sort of play upon the word "poor"— which was interpreted to mean, not people unable to work, but people with but little property. A system thus grew up by which labourers were put, as it were, into leading strings, and were systematically pauperised. Wages were paid out of rates.
‘The labourer belonged to the parish in which he had his legal settlement. There only he could receive allowance; and, generally sneaking, there only he could get employment. The law decided what should be his place of settlement; the magistrate, what should be his whole income; the vestry, how much of it should consist of wages, how much of allowance; and the overseer, who should be his master.’
This was the third system. It enslaved the labourer, by pampering him and destroying his sense of independence, as effectually as the first system enslaved him by cruel severities.

The fourth system was the one established by the New Poor Law, of which Mr. Senior was one of the principal authors. The essence of it consisted in the establishment of the New Poor Law Board, with power to make general rules and to form unions, and generally to regulate the administration of relief. The Commissioners recommended that the Act should prohibit out-door relief, and, as every one knows, the Commissioners have greatly restricted it, and have succeeded to a very considerable extent in undoing the mischievous results of the old system of indulgence, notwithstanding the intense unpopularity which they have incurred for their exertions at the hands both of the Tories and the Radicals. Of all the reforms of our day none has been so sensible, so useful, or on the whole so successful as this. It must, however, be admitted that there have been considerable defects in modern legislation on this subject. It might, with much advantage, have gone a good deal further. The iniquities of the law of settlement were hardly touched by the New Poor Law; indeed, it is an open question whether, in one or two particulars, they were not aggravated. Under the law as it now stands, hardly any poor man ever gains a settlement at all. Refinements apart, the only ways of gaining a settlement are by renting a £10 house, or by apprenticeship. Apprenticeship does not apply to a labourer, and he never lives in a £10 house; hence he never gains a settlement at all; and though it is true that he may become irremovable by three years' residence in a Union, even that privilege is lost by a change of residence, and he then has to fall back upon what are called derivative settlements. It would generally be quite as fair to all parties to decide by tossing up what parish should relieve him, as by resorting to a derivative settlement.

Of the speculative Essays, the best and most characteristic is, we think, a review of Sir G. C. Lewis's book on the Influence of Authority in Matters of Opinion. It illustrates every one of the qualities of its author. It follows the whole book step by step, and expresses an opinion, generally well worth consideration, upon all the various propositions put forward. We do not think, however, that the opinions usually go to the bottom of the subjects discussed by Sir George Lewis, though they were the very topics towards which all Mr. Senior's speculations ought, one would suppose, to have led him. For instance, Sir George Lewis begins by distinguishing between matter of opinion and matter of fact, and Mr. Senior disagrees with him. He observes that each of these expressions is ambiguous. Matter of fact, he says, may mean either "an event or phenomenon, which we know from consciousness" (which is Sir George Lewis's definition), or an inference supported by very strong evidence. Matter of opinion may mean either inference as opposed to perception, or a doubtful inference as opposed to one which is free from doubt. On this ground Mr. Senior proposes to disuse the expressions, "matter of fact," and "matter of opinion," and to divide knowledge into matter of perception and matter of inference, and, as a cross division, into matter of certainty and matter of doubt. We think Mr. Senior failed to see the real difficulty of the question, and therefore failed to see the solution. The difficulty (which was recognised, though perhaps hardly invested with sufficient importance, by Sir G. Lewis) is that inference and perception go on pari passu, from the very first impression made on our senses to the very latest results of argument and reflection. The use of the simplest word involves some degree of inference, and perception is the guarantee of the ultimate results of inquiry. Hence every proposition whatever asserts both an opinion and a fact. The proposition, "grass is green," asserts both that grass is green and that the person by whom those words are spoken thinks so. Viewed in their relation to the thing, the words describe and assert a matter of fact. Viewed in their relation to the person who uses them, they describe an opinion. This is not a very important matter, but Mr. Senior's treatment of it strikes us as characteristic. It shows the love which he had for clearness, and also the stiffness and want of subtlety which belonged to his mind.

One of the most curious and characteristic discussions in the whole article relates to the subject of toleration. Mr. Senior insists with extreme eagerness and ardour on the proposition that religious error is very injurious, for which he cites the cruel superstitions which at different times have exercised, and in many parts of the world do still exercise, enormous influence over great populations:—
‘The nations which have professed Buddhism, Hindooism, and Mahometanism, and the creeds which govern China and Japan, have all, sooner or later, reached a point at which they have been stationary for ages. The only religion which admits of unlimited improvement is Christianity, and the forms of it which we believe to be least infected with error are the most favourable to the diffusion of real civilization.’

He agrees with Sir G. Lewis in thinking that persecution may be so conducted as to put down a religion, but he differs with him as to the reasons for which it is expedient not to persecute. Sir G. Lewis thought that the reasons were two— first, that religious error cannot be entirely suppressed by severity, since different nations believe in different religions; and secondly, that there is always much moral sympathy for martyrs. To this Mr. Senior replies, that each government can drive error out of its own bounds, and that the sympathy of the public for offenders is not a reason against punishing them, as is proved by the punishment of rebels and traitors. Of these answers we think that the first is good, but the second is, to say the least of it, very imperfect. The sympathy felt for rebels and traitors does put great difficulties in the way of punishing them, and does diminish immensely the moral effect of their punishment. Nations have been cowed by the punishment of traitors, but we doubt whether any nation was ever made loyal by such spectacles. In regard to religion the same difficulty occurs in a far stronger form. A religion earnestly and passionately believed, especially if it be one which teaches its disciples to expect persecution and opposition as their lot in life, thrives by any persecution which is not mercilessly severe; and it is only under very peculiar circumstances that persecutions of really merciless severity, persecutions that approach the exterminating point, can be carried on. Notwithstanding this, we are inclined to agree with Mr. Senior in the opinion that the deterring effect of rigorous persecution is greater than its stimulating effect. Everything, however, depends upon circumstances. The penal laws in England greatly diminished Roman Catholicism. The same laws in Ireland had no such effect. Probably the reason was, that the Roman Catholics in England were a dispirited and depressed minority whom it was easy to depress still further. In Ireland, on the contrary, they were an oppressed majority who kept each other in countenance. Moreover, the class which was exposed to the action of the penal laws in England was more affected by them than the bulk of the Irish Roman Catholics, who were too poor to feel their full bitterness, as they fell for the most part on property and education.

Mr. Senior's own reason against persecution is that there is no use in persecuting, as you can never he sure as to what is true. "The falsehood of the persecuted doctrine being in general incapable of demonstration, it follows, as a general rule, that persecution is not expedient." The trenchant and plainspoken character of such an argument as this no doubt invests it with great attractions for many persons, and it cannot be denied that there is much truth in it, but we think Mr. Senior attached too much importance to it. It is no doubt a conclusive objection to that sort of persecution which is defended on the plea that it assures, or tends to assure, the eternal salvation of its victims. If people persecute on the ground that to hold certain opinions is a sin for which men will be eternally damned, and that by persecution they are prevented from committing that sin, it is a complete answer to say that it cannot be shown that the holding of those opinions is such a sin. But if people persecute on the ground that certain opinions are injurious to society— and all the instances of the mischief of religious error referred to by Mr. Senior are cases of this kind—it is no answer to say that the falsehood of the injurious creed cannot be demonstrated. In the first place, opinions, by the supposition, are punished, not because they are false, but because they are mischievous; and in the second place, the probability both of their falsehood and also of their mischievous character can be shown in many cases with at least as much cogency as is sufficient to call upon the Legislature to act. Can it be supposed that Congress or Parliament has any doubts as to either the falsehood or the mischief of Mormonism? Yet Mr. Senior would not have persecuted Mormonism.

What, then, is the real reason why religious error ought not to be punished as a general rule? The reason which we should give is like Mr. Senior's, but is different from it. It is not that the falsehood of particular religions is doubtful, but that the freedom of all forms of religious opinion is the only possible guarantee for the attainment of religious truth. This, indeed, applies not only to religion, but to every other subject as well. Numerous forms of social and political opinion are utterly false, intensely mischievous, and capable of being put down by persecution. Why does no one wish to put them down? Not for their own sake, but for the sake of the truth. "Error is but opinion in the making," and this is true as well of religious errors as of errors on other subjects. We cannot understand how, on Mr. Senior's principles, he would have justified the toleration of the old doctrines about the currency. It was undoubtedly a great error to believe that the pound sterling was an abstract measure of value. It was also a very pernicious error. It was, too, an error which might have been put down by persecution. If the Political Economy Club had held an auto da fain Trafalgar Square, and solemnly burnt Mr. Muntz and Sir Archibald Alison on a pile composed of the pamphlets on their side of the question (for we will not suppose, even for the sake of argument, that they would have retracted), sound views of the currency would probably have prevailed; at least the damnable heresy of an inconvertible currency would not have been onenly taught. But then no one would have believed in the truth of the views of the Bullion Committee. You tolerate error because, by doing so, you guarantee truth.

This, however, is only one reason for toleration. Another is that the criminal law is a great moral agent. Crimes almost always are, or ought to be, condemned, not only by law, but by morals; and when it is necessary, as in some cases of political offences, to punish acts not morally wrong, it is a great misfortune. Now, by not punishing error in religious or political teaching, the Legislature abstains from saying that such error is morally wrong, and this, under the circumstances, is nearly equivalent to asserting that it is morally innocent. It is one great step towards the assertion and recognition of the great general principle that honest error is no sin—that it is only a mistake and misfortune. To get this notion well into the minds of the world at large, to have it not merely admitted but realized and continually acted upon, is not merely of the highest importance in itself, but is also a more powerful guarantee for the attainment of truth than any other which can possibly be offered.

Of these two arguments, the first applies to all mankind. You can tell every one whose religion does not directly enjoin persecution that persecution renders truth itself suspicious. The second argument is directly opposed to all creeds which attach merit to the maintenance of particular opinions; and one of its great advantages is, that its gradual growth and acceptation in the world is a deadly blow to the bigotry and inhumanity to which such creeds are irrevocably committed by their very essence and constitution.

Saturday Review, April 22, 1865.

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