"England and the Italian question" (by Matthew Arnold)
Mr. Matthew Arnold’s pamphlet on England and the Italian Question fully satisfies the expectations which his reputation could not fail to excite in respect of anything which he might write. It is needless to say that it is characterized by great elegance and great vigour of style; but it is remarkable on independent grounds, inasmuch as it contains the only attempt which, as far as we know, has been made on this side of the Channel to enter into and express the views with which the French regard the Italian question. It is the infirmity of all who take a clear and strong view of a particular subject to find a great difficulty in admitting into their minds the belief that any other view of it should appear equally natural to other people. Englishmen are so much in the habit—a habit in which they are amply justified by experience—of looking upon a vast proportion of the sounding professions which the late war elicited as mere bombast and hypocrisy, that they are sometimes induced to overrate the degree in which they may influence a less incredulous population, whose vanity is interested in believing them to be true. Mr. Arnold, who (in the discharge, we understand, of public duties) has lately passed a considerable time in France, has had the opportunity of forming a very clear opinion as to the real feelings of the French in reference to the Italian war. He has done good service to all who concern themselves in the matter, by expressing the opinion which he has adopted in consequence of his observations. We do not agree with his conclusions, nor do we think that he does justice to the views which determined the policy of England during the war, but we are grateful to him for putting before us, with equal ingenuity and perspicuity, a side of the question which is certainly not familiar in this country.
The thesis of which the greater part of the pamphlet is the development is that the English aristocracy misconceived the whole purport and character of the Italian war, and its object is to give them an opportunity of correcting their mistake. Our divergence begins from the very first words of the pamphlet. We deny altogether that the English aristocracy formed any conception upon the subject of the war different from that which was formed by all persons of education and reflection. The general view of the country upon the whole subject was almost unanimous. The policy which it dictated was absolute neutrality. The sentiments on which it proceeded were extreme jealousy of the French, and especially of their Emperor, and a rather cold good-will towards the Italians— cold, because tempered by just scepticism as to the prospects of liberation from foreign and despotic authority which the war held out to them. This policy and these feelings were certainly not confined to the House of Lords. They notoriously were common to both Houses of Parliament, to almost every constituency in the kingdom, and to the overwhelming majority of the newspapers and other periodicals.
Mr. Arnold's view of the matter is, that the aristocracy (which he identifies with the nation in a manner which is almost unexampled amongst English writers, though it is common enough in France) opposed the Italian war for three reasons:—first, because they thought that the Italians never had been, and never could be, independent of foreign rulers; secondly, because they considered the principle of nationality chimerical; and, thirdly, because they thought that the French intervention would end in a mere change of rulers, and not in the liberation of Italy. In answer to these three arguments, he urges, first, that the Italians were, in fact, independent from the year 1310 till 1494; and that at the latter period a great Italian nation was in the process of formation, which was only prevented from uniting itself into a great European State by the intervention of Charles VIII. Secondly, he contends that the idea of nationality is not chimerical, but substantial — that though in some cases it would be absurd to make distinctions of race and of language a ground for national independence, it is in others most reasonable to do so—and that the reasonableness of the proceeding in the case of Italy arises from the great historical importance and the hereditary glory and genius of the Italian race. Lastly, he answers the argument that the interference of Louis Napoleon would produce a mere change of masters, by asserting that the French peasantry, who are the bulk of the nation, are utterly opposed to wars of conquest—that they dreaded the Italian war because at first they thought it was to be a war of conquest and that they afterwards admired it because Louis Napoleon told them that he had no such intentions, and they believed his professions. Rightly or wrongly, Mr. Arnold argues, they have confidence in him, because they consider that he represents their own views and sympathies, and because they think that he will raise the prestige of the nation, for which they are as anxious as ever, though they have renounced their dreams of extended dominion. He adds, that to some extent this confidence in Louis Napoleon is justified by the fact that he sympathizes strongly with all the great popular ideas, which his varied experience of life has led him to feel to be most important agents in the affairs of the world. These ideas are comprised in the “Principles of 1789;” and the Emperor is not only deeply imbued with these principles, but is sincerely anxious to propagate them--probably for objects of his own—but still to propagate them effectually and sincerely. Such is the principal part of Mr. Arnold's pamphlet. The remainder consists of observations on the relations between England and the Continent to which we do not propose to refer.
Reverting to the arguments which we have already stated, we must say that in so far as they are directed against what we should call the popular, and what Mr. Arnold calls the aristocratic view of the late war, we are entirely unable to agree with them. Mr. Arnold, no doubt, states the matter in such a way as to give considerable plausibility to his opinions. It is not quite true that Italy has never been free from foreign dominion since the fall of the Roman Empire; nor is it at all true that the idea of nationality is chimerical; nor is it quite true that the object of the late war was conquest, in the strict sense of the word. In controverting these opinions, Mr. Arnold gains a victory as worthless as it is easy. No one ever maintained them; but the opinions which most Englishmen did entertain approached them very nearly, and are not only incontrovertibly true, but are unconsciously admitted and supported by Mr. Arnold himself. That Italy was during nearly two centuries free from foreign interference is no doubt the case. That those two centuries were filled with intestine broils which ended in the division of the country into five principal States, is Mr. Arnold's own statement. That in the absence of foreign interference these five States would gradually have been fused into one great nation, is an assertion which it is as easy to make as it is hard to prove. Mr. Arnold assumes it as an elementary proposition which requires no proof. The result is, that though it is not true that Italy has never, since the fall of the Western Empire, been free from foreign interference, it is strictly true that this may be affirmed of twelve centuries out of fourteen, and that the other two centuries were passed in intestine divisions which paved the way for the renewal of that foreign interference which was suspended during their course.
As to the principle of nationality, which, as Mr. Arnold affirms, the English aristocracy looked upon as chimerical, a very similar observation arises. Neither the English aristocracy, nor any other body of proximately sane persons, ever doubted the general maxim that foreign rule over any nation is a calamity; nor do we believe that any considerable section of English society ever doubted that, if the Austrians could by fair means have been ex£ from Italy, the result would have been highly desirable. If, for example, the Lombards, by their own exertions, or with the help of the Sardinians, had succeeded in driving the Austrians into the Tyrol, not only would no English politician have proposed any interference in favour of the foreign domination, but hardly any, if any, Englishman, whether a member of the aristocracy or not, would have refused his hearty sympathy to the achievement. What Mr. Arnold calls the “idea of nationality”—or what we should call the maxim that the government of nations by foreign Powers is usually an evil—is as familiar to Englishmen as to any people in the world. No one ever was absurd enough to consider it chimerical. No one could possibly dispute Mr. Arnold's cautious statement, that “in a sentiment thus natural and necessary, and the operation of which also is thus natural and necessary, there is nothing chimerical. A politician is not fanciful for taking such a sentiment into account. It is considerable enough to demand his notice.” What the English aristocracy, and every other person of education or reflection, contemplated with deep alarm was the establishment of the principle that the French, or any other people, are entitled to break through existing treaties, and deny the rights secured by them, simply on the ground that they do not square with their opinions as to what ought to be the state of international relations. Mr. Arnold does not appear to us to distinguish as he ought between ideas and principles. That the idea of national independence is an important and, indeed, essential element in all politics, is an unquestionable truth. That it is chimerical to expect any good results from the establishment of the principle that any nation may interfere forcibly on behalf of any people subject to rulers of a foreign race, appears to be a truth which is equally certain and equally important. The formation of a single powerful and independent State comprising the whole of Italy is an object to which Italians naturally and properly attach the very highest importance; but this admission has no bearing on the question whether the French had a right to make war on the Austrians in order to bring it about. It is very desirable that poor men should be acted upon by the idea of riches, but it by no means follows that they ought to act upon the principle of emptying their neighbours' pockets. Still less does it follow that the rich ought to rob each other for the benefit of the poor.
According to Mr. Arnold, the reasonableness of making “a separate nationality a plea for a separate national existence” depends upon the greatness and glory of the State by which that plea is urged, and on the prospect which circumstances afford of its being united in a satisfactory manner to the State to which it is subject; and he seems to think, though he does not exactly go on to say, that if these conditions are fulfilled in a particular case, it is lawful for any nation to bring about the necessary changes by force of arms. The establishment of such a principle would be absolutely fatal to the peace of Europe. Gibraltar, Malta, the Channel Islands, all belong by race to great nations; and it is, precisely because the establishment of the principle upon which Mr. Arnold appears to look so favourably would justify the French in inquiring whether they might not be advantageously reunited to those nations, that we entirely object to its establishment. The idea of Spanish nationality may, for aught we know, be a very fine thing, but the recognition of any principle which would justify any foreign country in treating as an open question the propriety of restoring Gibraltar to the Spanish nation would be simply intolerable. This was the ground on which the aristocracy, with the hearty concurrence of every man of sense in the country, regarded the attack upon Austria as an act full of danger to ourselves.
The third of Mr. Arnold's arguments is perhaps the most singular of them all. It depends upon his view of the character and wishes of the French nation. It is, he argues, a mistake to suppose that the French desire wars of conquest. There is nothing they dread so much; but they have perfect confidence in the Emperor; they believed him when he said that the Italian war was undertaken for the liberation of Italy; and they like glory (prestige Mr. Arnold calls it) as much as they dread a new coalition, an increase of taxation, and an even more stringent conscription than they have at present. We have no doubt that this is perfectly true. That the French really do admire and trust the Emperor is a melancholy fact; that they do intensely long to see their country play a grand dramatic rôle, as the redresser of wrongs and the liberator of the oppressed, is no less true; and we have very little doubt that an announcement that the Emperor was going to the wars for the purpose of conquering Belgium or the Rhenish Provinces would be very unpopular. All this, however, is not only quite consistent with the suspicion and dismay with which the nation viewed the proceedings in Italy, but is a complete justification of it. Mr. Arnold's case, in a few words, is that the French like, aggression, but do not care for conquest. They are fond of, knocking people down, and taking away their watches, but they never commit robbery—they always give the property to the poor. They are the Robin Hoods of Europe, and have no connexion with the low garotte robbers who have no soul for anything above plunder. If Robin Hood were still alive we suspect that the Nottinghamshire police would be just as busy as they are now. The owners of Clumber and Thoresby would not feel that their plate and pictures were more secure because, if they lost them, they would pass into some grand national museum or picture gallery, and not into the melting-pot and the Jew's back parlour. If you are to be robbed and murdered, it is no consolation that it is done on the purest principles; and, indeed, a conscientious burglar who lectured the Christian Young Men's Association before he went on his beat, and requested the prayers of the congregation at the parish church on behalf of a gentleman embarked in a hazardous enterprise, would be, to our apprehension, a far more dangerous character than the common domestic rogues who, in the language of our old law books, “mangent bien et boivent bien et nount nul bien.” Can Mr. Arnold possibly imagine that a war or series of wars of aggression and “moral influence” could possibly be carried on without ending very early indeed in wars of precisely the old type? You cannot always gallop straight at a precipice, and pull up within a yard of it. A very little more, and the question between France and Austria would have become a question of conquest. Every one feels that the present mongrel result is a mere stop-gap, as dangerous, perhaps more dangerous, than the state of things which preceded it. If Germany had been brought into the conflict—and no one knows how near such a result may have been—the French must have conquered or submitted. The beginning of strife is like the letting out of water, and though the aggressor may be quite content with displaying his own courage and skill, and may be perfectly willing, when he is satiated or exhausted with success, to retire from the contest, it is by no means certain that it will be in his power to do so. The wars of the Revolution were not undertaken as wars of conquest. They assumed that character simply because it was agreeable to the armies and their general. This danger is as great, or greater, at present than it ever was. It is not to be supposed that an enormous army, flushed with victory and accustomed to think itself invincible, will be peaceably inclined; and Mr. Arnold himself admits (though for another purpose) that “the peasant proprietary is in perfect sympathy with the army, because the army issues from its bosom.” Has any member of the aristocracy, or of any other part of the community, ever put the state of affairs in a point of view more alarming than this?
Of Mr. Arnold's estimate of Louis Napoleon himself, and of the French nation generally, we may say a few words in conclusion. The Emperor, he says, “possesses” (the italics are Mr. Arnold's) “largely and deeply interwoven in his constitution the popular fibre.” This “is the most interesting feature in his character. It is his great advantage over the kings and aristocracies of Europe.” This feature is marked, as we understand Mr. Arnold, partly by the circumstance that he recognises the value of “the ideas of religious, political, and social freedom which are commonly called the Ideas of 1789,” and “by the constitution of his own nature is in entire sympathy with them.” An Englishman, and an Oxford Professor, should have remembered that the “Ideas of 1789” were a mere copy from those of 1774, and that Independence Day was a nobler and more important date than the all of the Bastille. We do not, however, grudge the French whatever credit is to be got from the announcement of a few barren abstractions, though even that credit is not their due. The astonishing nature of Mr. Arnold's assertion is enough to concentrate the whole of our attention upon itself. What single instance can he, or any other person, adduce of the Emperor's having promoted either religious, or political, or social freedom in any particular? M. Martin observes that Malebranche was preeminently French in his admiration of ideas and his supreme disdain of facts. Possibly Louis Napoleon deserves the same eulogy. Whether it will disarm the suspicions entertained of him here is quite another question. There is indeed one passage in Mr. Arnold's pamphlet which gives an explanation of this view, which is probably more correct though even less satisfactory. Speaking of the popular feeling with which the Emperor sympathizes so deeply, he says:
‘They [the French] were sensible also to the gratification of playing before the world the brilliant part of generous and disinterested liberators of such a country as Italy. Neither for this gratification would they pay too high a price; but if it was to be had on reasonable terms, they accepted it gladly. “Après tout”—the common people were constantly saying after the Emperor's manifesto had appeared—“après tout, c'est une belle guerre, c'est une belle guerre,” and then followed string of commonplaces, taken from the journals, as to the achievements of Italy in the cause of civilization, and her claims upon the gratitude of the world. It is to the honour of France, it is what distinguishes her from all other nations, that the mass of her population is so accessible to considerations of this elevated order. It is the bright feature in her civilization that her common people can understand and appreciate language which elsewhere meets with a response only from the educated and refined classes. One is tempted to ask oneself, what would the French nation be if the general knowledge equalled the general intelligence. At present, the accessibility to ideas, in France, is only equalled by the ignorance of facts. To give a curious illustration: if ever a war with England is consented to by the French nation, it will be from the profound conviction entertained by the mass of them (I do not speak of the Emperor or his general officers) of the inefficiency of the English army.’To our apprehension a taste for a string of commonplaces taken from the “journals” is a proof of nothing but natural poverty of character. To talk parrot, and to like fine words, is the characteristic of a silly child, whose faculties run to display and fluency, and are unfit for the real business of life. We cannot follow Mr. Arnold in his satisfaction at the discovery that the French like fine phrases, and care nothing for the facts which they represent. The Emperor, he argues, humours, and to some extent sympathizes with them, and therefore the estimate formed of him by the English aristocracy is a false one. To us, the conclusion seems rather to be that no English writer has as yet fully comprehended the imminent danger in which we are placed by a nation and an Emperor who understand each other so thoroughly, who have so many good reasons for wishing to injure us, and so strong a propensity to overrate the ease of doing so.
Saturday Review, August 13, 1859.