Wednesday, November 30, 2016

A Parisian Sunday

In the whole Sabbatarian controversy, no argument is pressed more triumphantly by those who denounce all amusement on the first day of the week than what may be called the national argument. To tell a man that he is in favour of a Continental, or of a French Sunday, is a reproach which is sure to carry great weight with a nation which perhaps carries its nationality to a greater extent in theology than in other things. The argument, however, such as it is, appears to us totally false; and at a time when a large number of our countrymen are able to test the soundness of our observation by their own experience, it may be worth while to consider how far those who wish to see the nation acknowledge the lawfulness of Sunday amusement are justly chargeable with seeking to assimilate England to France.

In the first place, no one throughout the controversy has ever advocated the introduction into England of the French habit of working on Sunday. It has always been admitted as a fair argument against proposed alterations of the law or customs of the country, that they would involve an increase of Sunday labour. No Englishman, probably, would wish to see the masons and carpenters as busy in Knightsbridge on Sunday, as they are in the Champs Elysées; and very few Englishmen are otherwise than pleased to observe that the close of Parisian shops on that day is much more general at present than it used to be under Louis Philippe, or even under the Republic. But Sunday labour is by no means the feature of a Parisian Sunday which most astonishes and most shocks ordinary Englishmen. It is the number, the gaiety, and the publicity of the amusements of the population on that day which give rise to the greatest number of thanksgivings—some, we fear, not altogether unpharisaical upon the difference which exists between two neighbouring and friendly nations. If the numberless holiday-makers who are now thronging back to England would try to analyse the character of the shock which their English habits received from the French method of passing the Sunday, instead of turning away from the recollection with self-applauding disgust—if they would ask themselves what it is to which they object, and why they object to it—they might learn a most useful lesson of toleration. For we are convinced that, upon reflection, it would appear to almost any ordinary Englishman that, apart from the question of Sunday labour, there is no difference of principle between the Sunday of the Parisian and that of the Londoner, and that the difference which does exist between them depends almost entirely upon the difference between the characters of the two nations, and is, in fact, the same which may be observed in a thousand other matters which have no theological bearing whatever.

It is obvious enough that it can make no difference in the religious character of an action, whether it is done in doors or out of doors. To maintain the contrary would be a direct vindication of hypocrisy. Now there is nothing in the Parisian Sunday which strikes an Englishman as affording a greater contrast to his national habits than the fact that the Louvre, the Hotel Cluny, and a thousand other exhibitions of a similar character, are not only open on that day, but are more crowded than on any other. For many hours in the day such exhibitions as we have mentioned are filled by dense throngs, who pass in and out with no more notion that they are doing anything wrong than an Englishman feels in taking a walk in Hyde Park. We all know how proposals to open the British Museum and the National Gallery on Sundays have been dealt with in this country, and we do not propose at present to reopen the question of their expediency; but we would ask those who regard them as infinitely mischievous to consider how far the common English practice differs in principle from the French. People do not turn the faces of their own pictures to the wall on a Sunday. Very few would object to turn over the leaves of a volume of engravings—scarcely any one would think it wrong to take a walk—and though we have certainly known a case in which the local authorities objected to allow visitors (unless accompanied by a canon) to go over one of our finest cathedrals on a Sunday, it may be hoped that this was almost a solitary instance of such a scruple. What is the principle upon which these and similar acts are allowed, whilst walking through a public picture-gallery is forbidden? A day of sight-seeing is certainly anything but a day of rest—or, indeed, to most adults, of pleasure; but a great public exhibition, continually open, soon looses the character of a sight, except to a sprinkling of foreigners or provincials, to whom the streets, public places, and so much of the manners and customs of the people as may be there displayed, are the most attractive of all exhibitions. We believe that, to the mass of Parisians, the Louvre or the Hotel Cluny are mere lounges, though better sheltered, more amusing, and more instructive than the streets. The only difference that we can see in this particular between the French and English Sunday, is that all classes of Frenchmen do openly, and somewhat noisily, what most Englishmen who are moderately well off do rather more quietly at home. Can any one suppose that the closing of the various Parisian exhibitions would benefit the morals of the population, or that it would produce any material change in their views on the subject of Sunday–or, indeed, any other effect at all than that of inflicting a slight inconvenience upon a large number of persons? It is impossible to doubt that the opening or closing of such places is a mere matter of habit. As soon as the population is accustomed to see them open on a Sunday, they understand that the use of public picture-galleries and public parks rests on exactly the same foundation, and that it is impossible to give the shadow of a reason for holding that it is right to enjoy a walk out of doors, whilst to enjoy a walk in-doors is wrong. Imagine a Government informing the city of Paris of its intention to testify its respect to the Sunday by leaving the Bois de Boulogne as it is, and shutting up the Louvre!

We have maintained that, in principle, the French and English observance of the Sunday is precisely the same, as far as the lawfulness of amusement is concerned; but the charge frequently brought against those who favour Sunday recreations, of wishing to assimilate the practice of the two countries in that respect, appears to us entirely false. Even in the very improbable event of any ultimate identity of opinion upon the subject between the two nations, the deep and lasting differences of national character would make the English conception of a day of rest very different from the French. There is a gravity, not to say a sternness, in the English character, which would lead most Englishmen to decline participation in a large number of amusements on a day appropriated to rest and worship, however completely the common feelings as to their positive sinfulness and unlawfulness might have been removed; and this is a characteristic which we should be the last to wish to modify. A certain indifference to the lighter class of amusements, a disinclination to admit all the world to participate in a man's chosen enjoyments, and a reluctance to select pleasures open to the objection of involving such participation, are habits deeply rooted in the English character, and intimately associated with all its noblest qualities. Besides these passive habits of mind, there are others of a more active cast, which equally distinguish our countrymen, and which are quite as valuable. There is probably in England a larger minority of really devout persons than in most other countries. We have a still greater proportion of men who have serious aims and steady principles in life. There can be no doubt that, unless members of these classes are blessed with unusual cheerfulness and vivacity of temperament, they are not much disposed to the ordinary amusements of life; for the world undoubtedly contains enough of what is sad and discouraging to predispose a serious observer of it to gloom, unless he is singularly favoured by nature. Such persons, no doubt, would find a much more appropriate employment for Sunday than amusement; and indeed almost any noisy or ostentatious form of it would wound their feelings. For those who feel thus, and who act up to their principles, we have an unfeigned respect, and we heartily wish that their numbers were greater than they are; but there can be no more grievous mistake than to suppose that, everything is wrong which would be distasteful to them. What is desirable is one question—what is lawful is quite another; and by making the first the regulator of the last, we constantly defeat our own objects. To commit perjury is a crime—to lead a life of unsullied integrity is a great virtue; but it does not follow that the best way to suppress perjury would be to pass a law enforcing perfect sincerity." "Our code, legal and conventional, about the Sunday, is rather more absurd even than this, for, without enforcing a high standard, it forbids many things which are not unlawful. It is as if, in order to guarantee our truthfulness, the law enacted that no one shall tell more than two lies a day, and that one of them ought to be a white one. The views which foreign nations take, theoretically and practically, of the manner in which Sunday should be observed, ought to teach Englishmen that their own theory and practice upon the subject are a mere compromise; and although compromise is necessary as a step in human affairs, a compromise in matters of feeling can never be a resting place. The existing compromise about the Sunday places those who maintain it most eagerly in a singularly false position. Their case is, that the Sunday is a great privilege, inasmuch as the rest which is commanded affords an appropriate opportunity for the worship and other devotional observances which are not commanded. The policy which this theory would naturally suggest is that of enforcing the rest and encouraging the worship; but the existing arrangement consists in imposing irksome collateral restraints on persons who are not compelled to worship, and who in fact do not, whilst they are perfectly willing to rest. A more ingenious method of twisting a privilege into a penance it would be hard to devise.

Saturday Review, October 4, 1856.

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