Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Mr. Congreve on England

Mr. Richard Congreve, whose name is known to the public principally by a review of some strange speculations of his about Roman Emperors which lately appeared in the Oxford Essays, has favoured the world with a concise view of the general principles by which our foreign policy ought to be regulated, and of the practical steps by which their adoption ought to be inaugurated. Both are sufficiently startling; and the latter have, at any rate, the merit of being abundantly intelligible. We have the good fortune—for we can regard it in no other light—to differ from Mr. Congreve in his premises, his conclusions, and the spirit in which he writes.  His theory is shortly this. England forms a member of “the Western European State-System,” and our foreign policy ought to be regulated according to the interests of that body, to which it has hitherto been generally opposed. The conclusion is, that we ought to adopt a policy “founded on the recognition of international social obligations;" and that, as a practical application of these principles, we ought to give up Gibraltar to Spain without claiming compensation. Conclusions so surprising ought to rest on a solid foundation, especially as Mr. Congreve puts them forward in illustration of the political teaching of Positive Philosophy—a system of which it is the special boast to connect its generalizations with facts in the most rigid manner possible. It is nevertheless true that our principal difficulty in dealing with this theory arises from the circumstance that it appears to us to be connected with facts only in the most remote and occasional manner. Mr. Congreve runs over in his own mind a few general statements—social, historical, and geographical—selected, as far as we can judge, quite at random; and he founds upon them conclusions of the most overwhelming importance, which seem to him completely matters of course. These crotchets he dignifies with every kind of magnificent name. The question which he discusses is not, he tells us, a question for common sense, but for “the maturest and most patient wisdom, a wisdom which shall embrace in one comprehensive view the whole of the past history of mankind.”

Neither his principles, his conclusions, nor the feelings which dictate them, can surprise those who are at all acquainted with the lucubrations in which what in France are called publicistes, and in England penny-a-liners, are accustomed to vent their petty spite against liberty in general and this country in particular. We all know that the easiest kind of writing is that which deals most largely in wide generalizations —“great swaggering majors,” as Burke called them—and most hastily slurs over the minors, the establishment of which is always the most difficult part of an argument. So many things have happened since the fall of the Roman Empire, that a man not totally ignorant of the more remarkable events which have occurred since that time may readily find a sort of historical basis for almost any assertion, however monstrous. It would, therefore, have been surprising if Mr. Congreve had not succeeded in justifying his assumed character of a positive philosopher, by claiming for his doctrines the support of the whole of the history of modern and mediaeval Europe. The lesson which his extensive course of reading teaches him is, that France, England, Spain, Italy, and Germany, form “the political aggregate to which we give the name of Western Europe, or the Western European State-system.” This body corporate has, or ought to have, or hereafter will perhaps arrive at—for Mr. Congreve, like many others who confound positive philosophy with arbitrary guesswork, is insensible rather than indifferent to the distinction of mood and tense—common objects and a common policy. “Membership in a system precludes all isolation, all separate action on the part of each single member. The action of each member must in all cases be brought into harmony with that of the rest, and be determined by the common end in view.” The system forms, in fact, one great republic under the primacy of France, which we have hitherto wickedly, foolishly, and absurdly refused to acknowledge, for France has always taken the lead in European movements from the days of Charlemagne downwards. The end which this organization is to propose to itself, “granting the system duly brought into play,” is the settlement of all international disputes, the organization of labour all over Europe, the settlement of all intellectual, moral, and religious difficulties—including, we presume, the questions of foreknowledge, free-will, and the origin of evil—in short, the removal of all the confusions to which the various political, moral, and religious questions that have arisen since the fall of the Roman Empire have given rise. The means by which these results are to be obtained are the re-constitution of a power in some degree analogous to the Papacy, which, we should suppose, would consist in gazetting Auguste Comte as Deus ex machinâ, vice Divine Providence superseded. The new Papacy is to produce amongst other things, an “identity of fundamental beliefs.”  By these means “the Western European Republic may receive an organization in which all the substantive ideas that have been evolved throughout the course of its history, may find a final and adequate expression—an organization more binding than that of Rome, resting, as it should do, on a sounder foundation of internal unity even than that offered by Catholicism.” One of the minor objections to this delightful prospect lies in the difficulty of finding a place in the “Western European Republic” which will exactly suit the British Empire. Great Britain Mr. Congreve can understand, because part of it was once a province of the Roman Empire; but what can the Western European Republic say to the wider developments of the British Lion? Mr. Congreve's answer is, that if he will only la aside his teeth and claws, and denude himself of that brutal self-confidence and “arrogance” for which he is unfortunately remarkable, he shall be welcomed into the mystic circle, and allowed to talk metaphysics to the end of the chapter, if he will be very good, and never interrupt his natural masters the French. The brute, he admits, grudgingly and unwillingly, is strong enough and fierce enough, though a disgusting bully and a natural fool, and therefore there would be some merit in his conduct if, as a symptom of his return to a better mind, he would give up Gibraltar to the Spaniards.

To look for flaws in arguments like these is like looking for holes in a sieve. Why does the “Western European State System” include Italy and exclude Greece? Why does it take in Spain, and leave out Sweden and Denmark? Why are we to be anxiously concerned about the interests of Wurtemberg and Bavaria, and totally indifferent to those of the United States? Why does positive philosophy include the “idea of a guardianship” exercised by Western Europe over the “black and yellow races,” and take no notice of the fact of a guardianship exercised over hundreds of millions of human beings of such races by men of English blood and descent? Why is France to be invested with a primacy over all Europe, because half-a-dozen French writers have bragged about its being the Tête de la civilisation Européenne, whilst the fact that England actually exercises primacy over an empire larger and better governed than that of Rome ever was is to be declaimed against as an abuse and a sin, because it does not square with Mr. Congreve's system — a system which claims to account for every existing fact, whilst it really ignores all facts except those for which it professes to account? These, and hundreds of questions like them, must suggest themselves to every reader of Mr. Congreve's pamphlet: he will perhaps consider it an instance of the pettiness of the English intellect that they should be put to him. Something larger and more general would suit him better. We will therefore make one objection to his whole teaching, which he must admit is broad enough. It is simply that his doctrine is neither more nor less than political atheism. The secret of the whole of his admiration for despotism in general, and the Roman empire and the Pope in particular, is, that he does not believe in the Divine government of the world and of individuals. To those who really believe that human nature was divinely constituted, and that human affairs are divinely governed, such projects as Mr. Congreve's are simply a usurpation by man of the province of God. No one who looks at the world from that point of view can help seeing that men are so made as to be governed by passions and desires which prompt them to act, and by laws which direct their actions in a particular manner; and though we may often, perhaps always, perceive that general purposes are subserved by particular desires, individuals and nations act, and were meant to act, with a view to the particular, and not to the general, purpose. Men eat because they are hungry, not because they wish to sustain their lives; they marry because they like it, and not because the institution of marriage is necessary to the existence of society; and just in the same way nations conquer and colonize, political parties rise and fall, corporations flourish and decay, not because they feel that they are enacting a part in a great drama which requires them to do so, but because the men who compose them are patriotic or careless, wise or foolish, steady or irresolute. In fact, the various actions of life depend upon the reason which Dr. Watts very justly assigned for the growling and fighting of bears and lions; and there can hardly be a surer mark of hypocrisy or folly than the wish to be wiser than God, and to make men take a larger view of life than He designed them to take. “Except the Lord build the house, their labour is but lost that build it.” The different talents with which men are endowed, the different circumstances in which they are placed, the innumerable conditions physical, moral, and intellectual, by which they are surrounded, determine the history of the world. Men can no more say, with effect, “Go to; let us make a better kind of Pope, and worship him," than they could say, in the infancy of human society, “Go to; let us make bricks and build a tower that shall reach unto heaven." The passions—honest and noble passions, as we believe—of a single nation would blow Mr. Congreve's schemes to atoms like so many cobwebs. Englishmen will never be argued out of Gibraltar, except by the ratio ultima; and whoever is inclined to try the experiment of applying that argument will hear—to use Mr. Carlyle's language—“an everlasting No, to which belief cannot be refused.” If the French should ever be foolish and wicked enough to renew the scheme which Louis XIV. and Buonaparte attempted to realize, of establishing French supremacy in Europe, they would find that a deeper sea of blood than they could wade through lay between them and their object. God only knows what the ultimate fate of Europe and the world may be: but if history teaches us nothing else, it may teach us this—that mere geographical facts, however dignified by such names as “the natural boundaries of nations,” have, little to do with the ultimate solution of great political problems, Spain might seem better fitted, geographically speaking than England, to colonize a new world; but in the 16th and 17th centuries men believed in God and not in systems, and succeeded in furnishing some arguments which led to a different conclusion. It was perhaps very wrong, in a philosophical point of view, to destroy the Armada, and to burn Cadiz, and to take the galleons, and to settle the West Indies and North America; but the thing was done, and the business of positive philosophy is to reverence, to understand, to describe, and not to denounce, what exists.

The most revolting part of Mr. Congreve's pamphlet lies in the view which he takes of his own country. We can understand that there must be much in English affairs very unpleasant to many foreigners: but it is matter for shame and disgust that an Englishman should be found to endorse every shallow calumny, which finds its natural place among the representatives of the malignant discontent of a defeated party in France, the hatred of a tyrannical church in Austria, the bigotry of the slaves of Russia in Northern Germany, or the deliberate falsehood of Russian organs in Belgium. His admissions will be translated on the Continent of Europe, and Mr. Congreve will find a punishment almost adequate to his deserts in the praise of Le Nord, L'Univers, and the Kreuz Zeitung. Happily, his slander has as little originality as truth. He can only give back to our Continental detractors their own ignorant falsehoods; but he gives them an undoubted right to say that one Englishman has been found weak enough not to refute them, silly enough to believe them, and base enough to propagate them—so far, at least, as a brain too shallow for anything but generalities, and a style which hesitates and hobbles like a horse with the stringhalt, will allow him to do so. This is how an Englishman speaks of the power and institutions of England:—
‘I must, in some measure, avoiding so far as may be any pandering to our national arrogance, express the consciousness which I share with all around me of the great name and great power of England. If her officers have justly incurred the national dislike and the contempt of all competent foreign observers; if her rulers are no less the just object of the national distrust, and of the ill-concealed sneers of foreign statesmen; if her policy is by all foreign nations considered as Machiavellian, and by a large and increasing minority at home stigmatized as at once weak, pretentious, and unjust; if her institutions are somewhat overworn; if her social fabric is shaken by the extreme separation and alienation of the different classes: if her wide empire bears many a stain on its origin, and some few also on the spirit in which it is wielded; still, when the process of subtraction is complete, there is left legitimate and solid ground for a high estimate of England's power. They who despise her officers must admire the patient and majestic valour of her soldiers. They who sneer at her statesmen feel that the nation those statesmen represent is no object for a sneer. The foreign nations who condemn our policy distinguish between its authors and the English people. And all alike are alive to the fact, that behind those time-worn institutions, behind that tottering social fabric, ill represented and but partially concealed by an effete church and aristocracy, there stands the strong English nation, with a will and an energy which in the hour of danger would shake off its actual guides, whether in the field or in council, and, under new and more competent guidance, prove itself adequate to any emergency. This strength of will, the indomitable energy, the real union of all her parties amid much apparent disunion, her wealth, her commercial influence, her colonial empire, her command of India, her powerful navy, her power of calling into existence under any disadvantages, of conveying and of feeding an army—all these combined seem to make her formidable both for defence and aggression.’
Mr. Congreve does not see that his reluctant praise makes his eager censure simple ludicrous. His praise is extorted by facts— his blame is zealously learnt by heart from foreign calumniators. The most jaundiced eye cannot help seeing, when the fact is under its immediate notice, that England is a great nation; but on the army, the church, and the aristocracy, Mr. Congreve forms his opinions, not from observation, but from foreign newspapers, and he accordingly assigns to them faults utterly, inconsistent with the national, greatness which he so grudgingly admits. If the English church and aristocracy are effete, will Mr. Congreve mention any member of English Society which is vigorous? If the English Parliament is worn out, will he mention any form of government which is on a level with the age? France, he tells us, is in a “more advanced" political condition than ourselves—France, the de jure primate of Europe. We have no wish to use language which might seem disrespectful to a great nation, so we will only show what is Mr. Congreve's view of the particulars in which French superiority consists. England, he says, is, for political purposes, a mere aristocracy—an aristocracy, indeed, “which has not been wanting in ability” for the securing of its own vile and selfish objects. Parliamentary government is “a delusive scheme;" and the result of the whole is, that “the tenure of power by the aristocracy, as at present constituted and animated, is equivalent to the adjournment of all real social amelioration.” France, on the other hand, is governed by a ruler “republican in essential character,” but embarrassed by being “imperialist in outward form.” The other Governments of Western Europe “represent the principle of order,” whilst Continental reformers “represent the principle of progress.” We English, on the other hand, have no adequate representatives of any principle at all— we are “thoroughly illogical,” quite absurd—strong-willed, no doubt, energetic, and wealthy, but totally irreconcileable with any system whatever, and quite opposed to all the principles of Mr. Congreve's philosophy. . We plead guilty to the charge. The English nation cannot be weighed, and measured, and ticketed and classified, by a narrow understanding and a cold heart. There is a sweet simplicity in a democracy tempered by tyranny which is very charming, but quite incompatible with our vitiated tastes. There is a logic largely exemplified by Mr. Congreve to which we cannot subscribe, though it is conclusive and all-embracing ; for its premises are never true, and its conclusions are always false. But our qualifications are not merely negative. We, too, have a positive philosophy; and its fundamental maxim is, that it is wise for men and nations to mind their own business, to do their own duty, and to leave the results to God. By adhering to this ignoble and selfish superstition we have attained some results which may not be unworthy of the attention even of a positive philosopher. Children are born to-day who will live to hear the English language spoken over half the world by hundreds of millions of men descended from English blood, and their remote posterity will not see the day when the territories so peopled will be overcrowded. In India—which, according to Mr. Congreve, warps all our views about the East—we govern a population larger than that of Europe, as it never was governed before, and we are now beginning to civilize and to Christianize what we have conquered. When we look at home, we see only one European country in which freedom of speech and writing exists at all, or in which government is not carried on by mere brute force. The oldest man living there has never heard a cannon fired in anger within its bounds. It has discussed, prepared, and actually carried into operation within the last thirty years, reforms which have succeeded in no other European country, though they have been attempted in almost all, and have been extinguished in almost all, amidst bloodshed and treachery and heartburnings unutterable. It is a little singular, no doubt, that such a nation should be the most backward, the most illogical nation in Europe, that its institutions should be overworn, its governing classes effete, and its theory of government “a delusive scheme;” but notwithstanding this and much more, we are of opinion that we do better service to Europe and to mankind in following the natural impulses which ought to prompt every Englishman to maintain the rights and extend the power of that
“Grave mother of majestic works,
From her isle-altar looking down,
Who God-like grasps the triple forks
 And king-like wears the crown—” 
than in repudiating and denouncing the policy of our country in order to forward the possible interests of a body of which the future existence is a remote contingency—the present a baseless dream.

Saturday Review, January 10, 1857.

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