Thursday, October 6, 2016

M. Simon on Liberty

Review of:
“La Liberté” (by Jules Simon, 1859).

No spectacle can be more melancholy than that which is afforded by the great writers whose existence is a protest— too often a silent and an ineffectual protest—against the degradation of France. There is no class of men in the world towards whom it is a more imperative duty to express that sympathy which is universally excited in this country by the misfortunes to which they are exposed, and by the dignity with which those misfortunes are borne. It is impossible not to feel that, with all its brilliancy, the French character has many serious defects, but it is equally impossible to doubt that it possesses some virtues in a degree which it would be almost impossible to match in any other country. A Frenchman who possesses high abilities and a finished education, has not only a higher, but a truer, sense of personal dignity and honour than men of the same character in almost any other nation. He will bear any amount of poverty and privation without a murmur, and with a degree of cheerfulness and good humour which very few Englishmen would show under similar circumstances. If the French, as a nation, are less skilful and less persevering than ourselves in pursuing what we are (not unjustly) accustomed to look upon as solid advantages, it should also be remembered that the best of them are less accustomed than we are to allow themselves to be influenced in their behaviour, and especially in their appreciation of individual character, by the circumstances in which men are placed. That intense admiration for success (all but universal in this country) which a favourable criticism may perhaps interpret into admiration for strength of character, is greatly modified in France by the admiration given to virtues of a more amiable kind. The steady refusal of every living Frenchman of genius and learning to participate in the crimes or to countenance the success of the present ruler of France, is one of the most honourable circumstances in French contemporary history. The great men who refuse to serve his gods, or to worship the despotism which he has set up, make sacrifices for the benefit of France and Europe of which it is impossible to estimate the importance, though it is unfortunately too easy in many cases to form a conception of their extent. M. Simon holds a very distinguished place amongst the writers to whom we have alluded, and the tone and contents of his book bear strong marks of the circumstances under which it has been composed. It is written throughout in a lofty and manly spirit. The author obviously feels that he forms part of a small minority, and he neither expects nor wishes to conciliate the majority by the expression of his opinions. His whole view of politics is high and pure—enthusiastically and romantically high in our opinion—but such feelings are not so common in modern French politics as to incline us to view them with severity.  The book is in every respect a noble one, and leaves on the reader the strongest possible impression in favour of the author's honour, magnanimity, and ability. We think it right to express our admiration for the general character of M. Simon's work in the strongest possible manner, because most of our remarks must be directed to points on which we differ not only from him, but from the whole school of politicians to which he belongs; and it would be to us matter of sincere regret if we appeared to fail in the recognition which every one owes—and no one more than those who use and enjoy freedom themselves—to disinterested integrity, and to that kind and degree of courage which yields to no temptations, and is kept alive neither by the excitement of tangible danger nor by the applause and sympathy of spectators.

It is a somewhat singular circumstance that the abstract theory of Liberty should have attracted so much attention of late. Mr. Mill's essay and M. Simon's two thick volumes are both devoted to the same subject; and nothing can be more characteristic of the different habits of mind of their respective nations than the way in which the handle it. Mr. Mil confines himself to discussing the advantages which arise from not interfering with people's conduct and convictions. He describes the importance of variety and originality of character, considered as elements of human happiness. He points out the great and most important principle, that the utmost freedom of discussion is an advantage to all true opinions, because it allows their truth to be established on the strongest of all foundations, and forces those who believe them to understand accurately what those foundations are, and how they are related to each other and to the objections which can be urged against them. For these and similar reasons he concludes in favour of the advantages of liberty, pointing out several modes of thought and feeling common amongst us which he considers inimical to its interests. He expressly disclaims any foundation for his opinions except those which experience supplies. Faithful to the teaching of the school to which he belongs, he expresses his entire disbelief in the existence of any system whatever of abstract rights. M. Simon's method is precisely the reverse of this. Abstract rights hold by far the most important place in his estimation; and though his book contains a very great number of interesting statements upon matters of fact—statements which to us at least are by far the most interesting and important part of it—they are merely used as illustrations of the theory which underlies the whole structure of the work, and gives unity to its different members.

The scheme of the work is somewhat as follows:—First of all, man is, in the metaphysical sense of the word, a free agent. God (of whose existence and attributes he has an innate knowledge—such we understand to be M. Simon’s opinion) has given to man an immutable moral law, by which he, being free, is to regulate his actions. This moral law confers, like other laws, certain rights, which are the natural and imprescriptible rights of man; and all this a matter of which we are apprised by our own consciousness. Human laws can never contravene these rights; and though in fact they never do fully express them, they always tend, or ought to tend, in that direction, and are only legitimate in so far as they do so. The principal fundamental rights are, the right of liberty, which consists in doing whatever does not injure others—the right of property—the right of personal security (sûreté)—and the right of resistance to oppression. The declaration that these rights are fundamental and imprescriptible, made by the States General in 1789, forms, according to M. Simon, the title of that body to everlasting veneration; and the rights themselves, taken together, are the “Principles of 1789," of which we have all heard so much from such very different quarters.

These principles are repeatedly enunciated in different parts of M. Simon’s book, and form the foundation of it. Starting from them, he goes through the whole framework of French society, comparing the actual state of things with that which ought to exist if the fundamental rights of man were fully recognised and embodied in law. Though we totally dissent from M. Simon's principles, their application is extremely interesting. The book (though we think it greatly inferior in power of thought) continually recalls M. de Tocqueville's Ancien Régime, as in every instance it not only criticizes the existing institutions of the country, but compares them with those which existed before the Revolution. For obvious reasons, M. Simon avoids the discussion of what we usually understand by political institutions. He says hardly anything of the constitution of representative assemblies, but confines himself almost entirely to such questions as the laws affecting family rights, private property, and the administrative machinery which plays so vast a part in French society. The clearness, the life, and the artistic skill with which the whole discussion is managed, and the judgment with which the subjects are chosen, are very characteristic of French composition. It may perhaps is be an insular prejudice, but we cannot help feeling that, if our own thinkers are less elegant, they are far more powerful and also much more accurate.

In most of M. Simon’s observations on the laws and practices which he specifies, we agree, if not entirely, at least to a very great extent; but the whole course of his speculations appears to us to be vitiated by the fact that they rest on an unsound foundation. We have frequently repudiated the common notion that the French are a more logical people than ourselves, and we think that nothing shows its falsehood more clearly than such a book as M. Simon's. It proceeds throughout upon that assumption as to the nature and object of logic which Mr. Mill had the honour of refuting—the assumption that logic is the art of arguing from universals to particulars, not that of arguing from particulars to particulars. We may, perhaps, give additional clearness to our view of the subject by recalling some observations which are no doubt very familiar to many of our readers. It has been objected, and we think with conclusive force, to that view of the nature of logic to which we have adverted, that a syllogism can never prove anything new, because the major reposition presupposes the conclusion. We cannot know that all men are mortal until we know that every particular man is mortal; and therefore when we argue that A. B. must be mortal because lie is a man, and all men are mortal, we are only classifying and arranging our knowledge, not increasing it. We are affirming that whatever reasons we may have for supposing that men in general are mortal apply to A. B.; but we do not assert that we have any independent certainty of the general proposition which would enable us, apart from all other considerations, to affirm it of the individual. The practical result of this view of the nature of logic is to refer all science to observation and experience; and the necessity of this becomes more and more apparent in exact proportion to the intricacy and difficulty of the subject-matter to which the principle may have to be applied. Almost all French speculation, so far as we are acquainted with it, proceeds upon the opposite principle. It constantly starts with the assumption that the most general assertions which can be made in relation to the subject in hand are self-evident truths, and that the whole existing framework of society, or of any other institution which may be under consideration, may be judged by reference to them. In some sciences —as, for example, in mathematics—this habit of mind is not without its advantages, inasmuch as the most general doctrines which they contain are reached at a comparatively early stage in the history of the study, and, when reached and enunciated, their convenience in affording solutions for all the problems connected with the subject, and in providing classifications, is so obvious as to persuade many persons to believe that they carry with them an evidence of their own, anterior to and independent of all experience whatever. It is in subjects of a more complicated kind that the practical inconvenience of misapprehending the nature of our knowledge as to general truths is most distinctly shown, because the liability to error in estimating the truth or falsehood of general statements is immensely great in such subjects, and also because prejudice and feeling exercise such an enormous and all but universal influence over the process of making the estimate.

We could hardly have a better instance of the character of such errors than M. Simon's work supplies. It forcibly confirms a conjecture which has frequently occurred to us, that the French must be singularly deficient in humour when they go on patiently building up such an infinite number of neat symmetrical systems —all based upon four or five eternal and self-evident truths as to the nature of which no two persons ever agree, and all equally remote from fact, and, to all appearance, equally insignificant in practical results. One man finds out a variety of eternal truths from which he infers, without doubt or hesitation, that men ought to live in phalansteries and wear waistcoats buttoning behind. Another, from truths equally eternal, deduces with equal confidence the conclusion that he ought to worship his wife, mother, and sister by turns, according as he wants one class of moral virtues more than another. A third discovers that the two first sets of self-evident and eternal truths are self-evidently and eternally false, and asserts that the Principles of 1789 “brillent au fond de son être," that no one can possibly doubt or deny them, and that all municipal law is to be judged of solely by its conformity to them. It never seems to occur to a Frenchman that there can be such a thing as imperfect and tentative knowledge upon political subjects, and that, instead of inquiring what articular lights shine in the bottom of his being, he ought to inquire, not only how the being of other people is lighted, but what is proved by the fact that such illuminations exist. ‘

The particular set of principles upon which M. Simon founds his system appear to us to be no more than rhetorical phrases. They prove nothing and express very little. He asserts that whoever believes in God must believe that men have rights, and not only rights, but a particular set of rights. He does not rest this doctrine upon any system of revealed religion, but simply, as we understand him, on natural religion. We can hardly imagine how a man of M. Simon's ability could ever express such an opinion as this. We thought that it had been matter of universal notoriety and common consent that there was no subject in the world on which men’s opinions were more hopelessly divided than that of the fundamental propositions of natural theology. There cannot be a higher subject of thought than the being and attributes of God; but it seems to us to be neither more nor less than a contradiction to all experience and to all speculation to assert that upon that immense subject there is any one doctrine so self-evident, and—in so far as it is capable of being understood at all—so universally recognised by all men in the same sense, that it can be made the foundation for a statement of human rights. Men's views of the divine character, and especially of the relations which exist between God and man, differ enormously as they accept or reject the Christian theology or any particular form of it. Is every theological opinion to be re resented by a corresponding theory of human rights, and of the whole organization of society? And if so, how are we ever to arrive at any respect of agreement on the subject? The same may be said of morality. M. Simon's book ends with these words:—“Il n'y a de solide et d'eternel dans la legislation que la morale;" and he assumes throughout his work the existence of some great system of morality based upon intuition, which is to be the soul of legislation, and the test by which every code of laws must be tried. If there is such a system anywhere, no one has yet succeeded in discovering it. To take a single, but most instructive example, what universal standard can possibly be laid down as to the relation between the sexes? Even in Christian and European nations, the question of divorce is an open question, solved in different modes in different countries, and in the same country at different times. If we take the whole world, we must certainly admit that polygamy is an open question. It is practised in many parts of the world without the least notion of criminality. Nay, chastity itself, as we understand its obligations, was not looked upon as a duty in the heathen world; whilst the Phaedrus and Symposium reveal a state of things which to our eyes appears to violate sentiments looked upon as so emphatically instinctive that no one in these days ever thinks of examining them. M. Simon's eternal and self-evident morality is, in fact, neither more nor less than the morality of the more respectable part of the French nation during the first half of the nineteenth century—not a bad morality, perhaps, but very far indeed from being either complete or universal. Every system based upon propositions claiming to be recognised by universal intuition must of necessity begin by begging the question; but the authors of such systems may be fairly expected to know that they are begging it, and that, if their truths are universal, they are not at any rate universally admitted.

One of the most curious points about M. Simon’s book is that it contains a great deal of evidence tending to show how it is that the French have come to believe in the stock of phrases which they call principles, and in the figment of the law of nature which so many of them suppose to lie at the bottom of human laws, and to give them their binding force and ultimate sanction. He compares at great length, and in a very interesting manner, the state of things in France before and after the Revolution, and with special reference to the contrasts afforded by the old French law and the Code; and one result of his comparison is to show that before the Revolution there was hardly anything in France which, strictly speaking, deserved the name of a law, and hardly anybody who could be properly called a legislator. In this country, for many hundred years, there has been a central administration of justice and a perfectly well-defined exercise of all legislative functions. A certain specific set of rules called the Common Law, and administered with inflexible rigidity by the Courts at Westminster, and the statutes of the realm enacted by Parliament, have at all times formed the law of England; and the consequence is that we attach a simpler and plainer meaning to the word “law" than any other nation. This was entirely different in France. To say nothing of the differences between the pays de droit écrit and the pays coutumiers, there were thirteen Parliaments and sovereign Courts scattered over the country, and an infinite number of minute local jurisdictions, armed with all sorts of different rights and powers, and administering laws essentially different. Over all these bodies the King, with his ordonnances, Beds of Justice, and right of what was called “evocation "—the power, that is, of withdrawing causes from the courts to which they properly belonged and trying them himself—exercised a doubtful, capricious kind of supremacy; and, besides his legal supremacy, he had vast executive powers of enormous extent, and singularly ill-defined, by virtue of which he was practically absolute. Independently of the King and the Courts of Justice, there were fundamental laws like that which regulated the succession to the Crown, which did not appear to have been made by any one; and there were also the States General, which were convoked about once in a century, and which, when they were convoked, were a most anomalous body. They might do almost anything if the King allowed them, but they were practically restrained to the function of giving utterance to the grievances of their electors without possessing any substantial means of reforming the grievances so made known. Amidst this chaos of authorities, it was not only natural but inevitable that the true theory that a law is a command from a superior to an inferior, imposing a duty and enforced by a sanction, should not have resented itself to the minds of French writers or thinkers. They naturally adopted the theory of the Roman lawyers—the more naturally because Roman law was to a great part of France what the Common Law is in England—that law has a foundation in itself, apart from and superior to all sanctions and all human enacting powers; and it is impossible not to see how deeply this theory affected the whole tone of French speculation on legal and political subjects. The Roman lawyers derived their theory from the Stoical philosophy, which upon this subject closely resembled the doctrine—so unhappily familiar to us all in these days—according to which the “laws” of gravitation, the “laws" of chemistry, the "laws" of tides, the “laws" of murder, and the “laws" of misdirected letters at the Post Office, are precisely similar in their essence to the law that the eldest son is heir to his father, or that the property in goods sold passes on delivery. The French lawyers, in precisely the same manner as the English writers to whom we have alluded, considered that the rights of man in the abstract, and the rights of Frenchmen in particular, were to be deduced from some sort of study claiming to be scientific, and as independent of existing rules as the true theory of gravitation was of the views which Ptolemy and Tycho Brahe entertained on the subject. The history of France since the Revolution has certainly not tended to produce more correct views on the nature of law; for the frequent revolutions which have taken place have changed so abruptly and so violently the sanction on which French law depended, that we can easily understand how the law itself, which remains unchanged, should be supposed to be the real controlling power, instead of the shifting Government, whose sanction, in fact, gives it its validity, and transforms it from a mere speculation into a real power.

Apart from M. Simon’s theories about liberty and the foundation of law, his book contains a very interesting description of the existing condition of French civil society. In most of the observations which he has to make upon these points we heartily agree with him. He points out with great vigour the degrading effects of Socialism on human character and human happiness, and establishes very conclusively the truth—happily familiar enough on this side of the Channel—that despotism is only one form of Socialism, and that it is very far from being the best or even the least bad of its manifestations. The picture which he gives of the internal condition of France after sixty years of revolution and a complete overthrow of most of the existing institutions of society, is as sad, and we fear as hopeless a picture as the most gloomy imagination could possibly devise. According to his calculation, one grown-up man out of every twelve is actually in the employment of the central Government, and it is the dearest wish of three or four of the other eleven to enter the same service. About 600,000 employés of different kinds receive on an average something more than £60 a year, which is as nearly as possible 23s. a week—not so much as a footman gets in England, and far less than may be earned by a skilled mechanic in a moderately prosperous trade. This is a fact which almost supersedes all comment and all controversy. Whatever the admirers of competitive examination ma say to the contrary, there is hardly any position in life so galling, so dependent, so irksome, and so dull as that of a subordinate clerk in a public office. We can imagine no national calamity more dreadful than that the ambition to fill such positions should be brought home to half the households—even the poorest households—which it contains; and there can be no sort of doubt that the French have brought on themselves this frightful curse by allowing themselves to be talked into a perfectly insane passion for equality—a passion which, however it may be adorned by demagogues and justified by philosophers, is, after all, nothing more than a compound of the two vilest appetites of our nature--vanity and envy.

The saddest part of the condition of the French seems to be, that it hardly admits of any reform. In the last century they wore picturesque but barbarous fetters, which galled them cruelly, no doubt, and which aggravated the wounds they caused by the capricious irregularity of their pressure. In the present day the anomalies are all gone, the barbarism is swept away, the caprice is at end; but a civilized, gentle, equable pressure, which shows no flagrant absurdities, gives no handle to the sneers and the ridicule which so effective y assailed the old state of things, and is restrained by no independent machinery as lumbering, antiquated, and incongruous as itself, is squeezing the very life out of the nation; and because, like death, it levels the tower with the cottage, the cottager enjoys and applauds its operation. This new power has contrived to give to a majority of the people a direct interest in its existence. It accustoms them to be rocked and dandled in its paternal embrace till they are quickly losing the use of their limbs; nay, it makes provision, with a malignantly ingenious foresight, for the reservation and extension of its influence. The bargain between the French Government and the French railway companies is perhaps as instructive an instance of the way in which France is governed as could possibly be mentioned. After the expiration of a ninety years’ lease, all these bodies are to merge into the State. As if it were not enough that the State should have 600,000 clerks, it makes long-sighted bargains beforehand to increase their numbers to an extent altogether portentous. When we think of these things, we feel that no human being can estimate what England lost on that disastrous day when Louis Napoleon destroyed the only elements of liberty which his country contained. With a free press and a free Parliament, everything was possible to France. Old fetters might have been broken, new ones need not have been forged, and we should have had the inestimable advantage of a neighbour with whom we could sympathize, and on whom we could depend. As it is, we see growing up within a few miles of our coast a sort of European China—civilized indeed, powerful and intellectual in the highest degree, but more and more cut off from all our sympathies. We can only express the indignation and regret with which the spectacle affects us, and offer our heartiest good wishes and our most sincere tribute of admiration and respect to M. Simon, and to all those other brave and wise Frenchmen who, like the 7000 in Israel, refuse to bow the knee to Baal.

Saturday Review, June 4, 1859.

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