The Collected Works of Theodore Parker
THEODORE PARKER ON SOCIAL SCIENCE.
The seventh volume of Theodore Parker’s works contains his contributions to what we have got into the way of calling Social Science—an unhappy name for which it is difficult to substitute anything more satisfactory, though its general meaning includes whatever relates to the practical business of life and the general increase of comfort. The volume contains nine sermons relating to Merchants, the“ Perishing” and “ Dangerous ” Classes of Boston, Poverty, the moral and spiritual condition of Boston, the public education of the people, the position and duties of the American Scholar, and the chief Sins of the People.
Like all Parker’s works, these performances have great merit. They all contain something important, which is by no means the common case with sermons; and, though they are no doubt open to many serious objections, they are hardly ever puerile or commonplace in the sense in which those words apply to sermons written by men who can serve up nothing to their congregations but crambe repetita. They ought to be the culminating point of Parker’s works. The great feature by which he was distinguished from the common run of clergymen whom he criticized so unsparingly was, that they had contentedly lost what he was so supremely anxious to secure—a hold on really prominent men and really important things. “You are no longer,” he used to say, “the leaders of the world. People have practically decided against you and your claims. The clerical notion of right and wrong, of virtue and vice, is not the lay one. The weak alone re you as guides. The strong care little what you say. The world which you denounce, and which does not trouble itself to object to your denunciations, has its own principles, its own morality, its own philosophy, which it refuses to submit in an really interesting or important matters to your views; and not only are you unable to struggle against and convince the world that it is wrong and that you are right, but the world is convincing you. It is right. Its view, alike of science, morals, and politics, of all that really interests human beings as such, has much more justice in it than yours; and till you recognise that fact, and try honestly to address mankind on lay principles, and to show them the right and wrong of their conduct upon those principles, you will never produce any really considerable effect upon them, or be able to take up a position really influential and dignified." It was the great object of Parker’s own life and writings to show how this could be done. According to his view, the greater part of the efforts of common theologians was laid out in promoting chimerical virtues and fighting with imaginary vices. His wish was to substitute for this the discussion of realities, and the promotion, by preaching, of the reel happiness and solid interests of mankind.
We have discussed to some extent, on former occasions, the justice of the negative part of Theodore Parker’s system. The present volume gives, more clearly than any of its predecessors, the measure of the practical value of the positive part of his teaching. It shows what, in his opinion, constituted the real evils of life, what was the true way of getting rid of them, and therefore what was that ideal towards which human nature ought to direct its efforts. His view is by no means a difficult one to follow, and it has, no doubt, the merit of being good as far as it goes. In the first place, he takes a view of wealth which beyond all real question is the true one, though it is formally and radically imposed to the ascetic conception of life. Wealth, he teaches, is, in a variety of ways, an immense blessing. It cannot be produced without the great virtues of industry and honesty, and when it is produced it is the stepping-stone to things higher and better than itself. Poverty, on the other hand,
‘is the dark side of modern society. I say modern society, though poverty is not modem, for ancient society had poverty worse than ours, and a side still darker yet. Cannibalism, butchery of captives after battle, frequent or continual wars for the sake of plunder, and the slavery of the weak, these were the dark side of society in our great periods of human history—the savage, the barbarous, the classic, and the feudal. Poverty is the best of these five bad things, each of which, however, has grimly done its service in its day.’
The sermon on Merchants, and that on Poverty, work out this thought (which, indeed, lies at the bottom of the Protestant conception of morality) with great vigour, and enforce with considerable justice, and even with real pathos, the truth that the mere accumulation of wealth, properly viewed, has a vast tendency to increase, not merely the comfort, but the spiritual growth of men. Man, he thinks, is by rights a glorious creature-too noble to be put to servile or mechanical uses. It is a sort of reproach that so marvellous a thing as the human body, directed by such powers as those which belong to the human soul, should be degraded to the position of a beast of burden. The powers of nature ought to work for us, and we ought to be at leisure to turn our minds to higher matters. Wealth is the general name for the material element of all human improvement, and stands in much the same sort of relation to it as that in which the body stands to the mind. It must, however, be constantly remembered that the value of wealth is simply instrumental. It is important, because it is an indispensable condition of the moral and intellectual improvement of men. But men, and not money, are the really important objects, and the real motive power lying at the bottom of all improvement is to be found, not in the sensuality which enjoys results, but in that goodwill towards mankind at large which is gratified by everything that makes men wiser, happier, more skilful, more thoughtful, and, in a word, better.
This, says Parker, is the true view of wealth, and of all that contributes to its increase and accumulation; but men are, in fact, liable to be influenced, in their efforts to be rich, by very different views from these, and though a rich and wicked people will no doubt be happier and less wicked than a poor and wicked people, they may nevertheless be very wretched —— infinitely more wretched in many vital respects than the need be. It is mainly because prosperous people are negligent that a considerable proportion of the human race is still placed in unfavourable circumstances, and it is by reason of the circumstances in which they are placed that men become wicked in the grosser forms of wickedness. The greatest and most obvious public and religious duty of the rich and prosperous is to set this state of things to rights. The great distinctive happiness of society as it is in the United States is that it supplies special facilities for doing so. The essence of democracy is the recognition, as a first truth, of the equal rights of all men, and the natural consequence is that it ought to provide more efficiently than an other form of government for the prevention of those evils which afflict large masses of men. This sort of creed runs through all the discourses in the volume, and is repeated in various forms in every one of them. The following sentences express it as neatly as any others:—
‘The purpose of national life is to bring forth, and bring up, manly men, who do the most of human duty, have the most of human rights, and enjoy the most of human welfare. That is the most successful nation which has the whole body of its people well born, well bred, well bodied, and well minded too; and those are the best institutions which accomplish this best.’The whole theory and practice of slavery was obviously diametrically opposed to this; and, accordingly, Parker denounces it, and especially its great bulwark, the Fugitive Slave Law, as the great national sin. The fierceness with which he writes on this subject, his indignant denunciation by name and description of the persons concerned in putting the law in force, and his keen sense of shame and humiliation at the extradition of a fugitive slave from Boston under the provisions of the Act, are the counterpart of the fury which led Brooks to strike down Mr. Sumner in the Senate; and the two together help us to understand, to some degree, the savage hatred which has found for itself a vent in the most awful carnage of modern times.
The good side of this sort of doctrine is obvious enough. Indeed, Parker differed from other preachers only in the fact that the importance which he attached to it might be called extreme. He appears to have cared for and believed in hardly any other form of goodness; and this gives to his sermons a powerful and masculine air which, after the mass of feeble sentiment commonly inflicted by clergyman on their congregations, is very pleasant. It must, however, be added, that he gives an equally good opportunity of observing the weak side of his views. The weak point of them is their narrowness and thinness. He is always full of his ideal. In his eyes it is the noblest, the most glorious, the most pathetic that can be imagined—a thing to live and die for. To ordinary observers it is difficult to discover much more in it, after all, than a vision of an indefinite number of Yankees engaged in making fortunes in a rational way, with some consideration for their neighbours. Of course, the temptation to despise this view of life is so great as to be only not irresistible; but upon calm reflection it is possible to discover that, though it may not inspire enthusiasm, it is, to say the very least, highly respectable. If regarded as a step in a long and complicated process, it becomes something more, and no man has a right to judge the enthusiasm of another, for a variety of reasons, and especially because it is almost impossible to be quite sure what has aroused it. Considering the resources of the world in which we live, and the capabilities of human nature, it is certainly a wonderful roof of the amount of stupidity existing among mankind at men should be poor and uncomfortable. To rise above that, at all events, is the very first proof which, in the nature of thin , they ought to give of the fact that they are human beings, and have in them human faculties. It is not hard when we look at matters candidly, to forgive an American for being proud of his country, and for believing, even if he believes it rather passionately and irrationally, that it is destined to teach the world a set of truths hitherto little known, and that the wonderful rapidity with which, to use Mr. Carlyle’s cynical phrase, the Americans “have begotten thirty millions of the greatest bores in creation,” is the first step in their teaching.
Though Parker’s patriotic enthusiasm may be forgiven, it is not so easy to be together indulgent to another form which his thinness assumes. He argues in the most irritating way, and is full of small prejudices. A few examples will be sufficient. His sermon on the Dangerous Classes of society is a good illustration. The spirit in which he writes it out crime and criminals is perfectly silly. There is no other name for it. He says that hanging is un-Christian, because Christ, who used to be painted by ancient artists as a labouring man, could not be painted as a hangman. “Paint him to your fancy as an executioner legally killing a man, the halter in his hands, hanging Judas for high treason.” This he considers impossible, and a reductio ad absurdum. What about Michael Angelo’s picture of the Last Judgment? The judge and the sheriff, after all, have no right to despise the hangman; and if the greatest of pointers thinks it natural to represent the Founder of Christianity in the act of passing a sentence much worse than hanging on a great part of the human race—a sentence carried out there and then by a legion of devils — Parker’s reductio ad absurdum ceases to be one. He, no doubt, did not believe as Christians generally do on this point, but his appeal is to Christian sentiment, and that sentiment was the other way. This, however, is a mere illustration. He says, “Society has no right to take my life without my consent to save the whole human race.” He does not attempt to prove this wonderful assertion. He does not even follow it out systematically. He does not deny, on the one hand, that we have a right to kill in self-defence or in war, nor does he show, on the other, how such rights are consistent with his reposition; but he lays it down as something that rests “on the road ground of natural justice, the law of God.” He views crime throughout the whole of his sermon as a mere disease, to be treated medicinally, and never to be viewed with indignation, or subjected to punishment in any real sense of the word. He never seems to care the least for the fact that men are so constructed that the fear of general indignation and of the infliction of punishment is the appropriate medicine for the disease of crime, if you like to call it a disease. The metaphor which regards capital punishment as an amputation is neither better nor worse than the metaphor which describes murder as a disease. Parker's language, however, has one convenience. It shows pretty clearly what is really meant by moral insanity. He says:—
‘I would treat the small class of born criminals, the foes of society, as maniacs. I would not kill them more than madmen. I would not inflict needless pain on them. I would not try to shame, to whip, to starve into virtue men morally insane. I would not torture a man because born with a defective organization.’It may be convenient to ask a certain set of mad doctors, when they next try “to save the life” (as they call it) of some interesting murderer, whether they take this view of crime—whether, in their opinion, all great criminals are “morally insane.” At all events we should know where we are.
Parker‘s rashness led him at times into most marvellous blunders. He can never speak justly of England. In his view, England must needs have an idea. As America embodied the democratic idea, so England embodied the aristocratic. This self-evident truth led him to singular results upon questions of fact. He says:—
‘In England the State takes charge of the education of the nobility and gentry—that is, of young men of ancient and historical families, the nobility, and young men of fortune, and the gentry. . Hence institutions are founded for the education of the aristocratic class. Oxford and Cambridge . . . with their preparatories and helpmeets. . . These universities furnish the individual who resorts thither with opportunities not otherwise to be had. They are purchased at the cost of the State, at the cost of each man in the State; the alumnus at Oxford pays his term bills, indeed, but the amount thereof is a trifle compared to the actual cost of his residence there. Mankind pays the residue.’There are many things which it is lawful and right to do for an idea. There can be no objection to preaching it, living for it, fighting for it, If need be; but to manufacture facts for the sake of keeping it alive is not a praiseworthy kind of industry.
Saturday Review, July 30, 1864.