The Works of Lord Macaulay.
There is always something especially interesting about collective editions of the works of considerable men. Great works like Lord Macaulay's History, or even eminently popular ones like his Essays, have a place of their own, and, so to speak, throw the author himself more or less into the background; but when we see a full collection of all that a great man thought it worth while to write down in the course of an industrious life, we get not only a collection of books, but something of a mental history of the man who wrote them, and this again is always a more or less valuable contribution to the intellectual history of the time in which he lived. Oddly enough, in the present collection of Lord Macaulay's works, his writings are arranged in what, chronologically speaking, may be almost called an inverted order. First comes the History, then the Essays and biographical articles contributed to the Encyclopedia Metropolitana, then the introductory report and supplementary notes to the Indian Penal Code, then a variety of juvenile contributions to Knight's Quarterly Magazine, then reports of Parliamentary speeches, and, lastly, a number of poems. The "Lays of Ancient Rome" occupy the place of honour amongst these, and the remainder are of very various degrees of merit, the best being the well-known lines on the Armada. The worst, we think, is the dreary production "On the Marriage of Tirzah and Ahirad," two antediluvians:—
‘The bravest he of all the sons of Seth,Tirzah was the she. It is a long story about the sons of God and the daughters of men, ending with an announcement of the Deluge which begins rather grotesquely:—
Of all the house of Cain the loveliest she.’
‘Oh, thou haughty land of Nod,It is rather to be regretted that this and some other early and occasional performances should have been reprinted. There are several election squibs, for instance, which were never meant for permanence, and a good many of the articles in Knight's Quarterly might as well have been left there. They would never have been republished by their author. Some, indeed, of the essays which he did republish from the Edinburgh were hardly worth that honour. Writing in periodicals had not become so general forty years ago as it has now, but every man who has occupied himself much in such pursuits must have written many things for which his best wish would be speedy oblivion. One advantage has certainly been gained by republishing all these essays. They show how steadily their author improved till he reached the full maturity of his powers. We do not think, however, that after a comparatively early period his mind continued to expand, although of course he was continually acquiring a larger range of knowledge. His best essays, those on Clive and Warren Hastings, for instance, are as good as anything in the History of England, and the faults of some of the essays which please us least, such as the review of Bacon, the review of Mr. Gladstone's work on Church and State, and the review of Ranke's History of the Popes, are faults of which both the scheme and the execution of the History show the permanence.
Hear the sentence of thy God. ‘
One of the most remarkable of all Lord Macaulay's performances is the one which is certainly least known to the public at large. We refer to his preface to, and notes upon, the Indian Penal Code. It justifies most completely its author's well-known remarks on the strange ignorance and indifference of English people, even of those who are otherwise well informed, on Indian subjects. There is not to be found in the world any piece of legislation so complete, so practical, and so scientific, and yet there is probably none which is less known even by English lawyers who have specially studied the subject. Parliament is at this moment feebly attempting to redefine the crime of murder, and in doing so is, as far as we can judge, making the existing confusion worse confounded, and reviving obsolete fictions by the use of awkward technical language, in spite of all warnings to the contrary. In vol. vii. p.493, of Lord Macaulay's works, there is a discussion of the principles of the law relating to offences against the body, and especially of offences which cause death, which fairly exhausts the subject. The definitions of the code founded upon this Report have for many years had the force of law in India, and have answered there admirably; yet our legislators treat this fact with calm indifference, and go on cobbling the incoherent language of Coke and Hale, as if it were something too sacred to be ever laid aside. We must not, however, wander into a general discussion upon the subject of criminal law. Our present object is Lord Macaulay's way of dealing with it. Of all the numerous subjects which he treated at different times, we doubt whether any one suited the peculiar bent of his genius so well as this. He never, we believe, had any considerable connection with the practice of the profession of which he was a member. Politics and literature effectually withdrew his attention from it. Yet he had some of the qualities of a lawyer, or at all events of a jurist, in an unrivalled degree. He had in perfection that peculiar systematic logical way of viewing things which is sometimes described as the special gift of the Scotch, and sometimes as the great peculiarity of the legal mind. He could affix a special sense to a given word, and go on using it perfectly consistently in that sense, and in no other, throughout the whole of a long and elaborate inquiry. His theories on all subjects are laid out with the precision of a mathematical figure. Moreover, he was never imposed upon by a word. He knew precisely the meaning of every expression that he ever used, and never did use one which did not raise before his mind a perfectly distinct and well-defined mental picture. To these qualities, which are indispensably necessary for a codifier, he added several others which, if not indispensable, are at least useful in the highest degree. His unrivalled power of illustration—a power which in some of his writings he uses to an extent which makes particular passages cumbrous and ungraceful—is essentially the quality of a lawyer. It is, indeed, nothing else than the habit of putting cases. All his writings abound with instances of the way in which he uses this gift. He deduces, for instance, in one place, from the principle of passive obedience, the unexpected result that those who held it ought to have fought against Charles II. at Worcester, and against James II. at the Boyne; and he fixes upon Mr. Gladstone's principles about the relation between Church and State consequences, as to the course of duty of the English Government in India, of which it is hard to say whether they are more remarkable for being monstrous or for being inevitable. This power was invaluable to him in the work of codification, in so far as he used it for the purpose of ascertaining, with absolute or nearly absolute precision, what his real meaning was; but competent judges have doubted whether it did not carry him a step too far when it led him to add to each of the provisions of the code definite illustrations intended to make its meaning clear. Another admirable qualification which Lord Macaulay possessed for the task which he had to perform lay in the fact that, though he was a real lawyer, and had a preeminently legal mind, he was not in the least degree a slave to law. He criticized it quite as freely, and with as little respect for the special weaknesses and failings of lawyers, as if he had stood altogether outside of the subject. He was one of that almost infinitesimally small number of lawyers who take the true measure of the value of their profession, who can appreciate the great amount of practical shrewdness, vigour of mind, and general experience which it embodies, whilst they can recognise the numerous absurdities which have been imported into the system, and the fallacy of many of the theories upon which certain parts of it are founded. The result of this is that Lord Macaulay's notes upon the Indian Code possess a degree of general interest which attaches to not more than one or two other law books. They cannot be known too widely, for they not only contain information in itself valuable and interesting in the highest degree, but they show how law might be made one of the most delightful and interesting of all the branches of a liberal education, if its principles were properly investigated and exhibited with their leading applications in a philosophical shape. One of the most generally interesting of these notes to the code is the one which relates to the law of defamation. It gives the whole theory of the law of libel, and of the cases in which truth, and in which good faith independently of truth, ought to be a justification for defamatory statements, with a system, a completeness, and a power of illustration which we have never seen equalled elsewhere.
Though in some respects they may be considered as the most important of all his performances, Lord Macaulay's contributions to the criminal law of India will naturally be less known than his other writings. The code itself, like other performances of the kind, is founded principally on Bentham's speculations, but it is greatly superior to most other works of the same kind, and especially to the French Code Pénal, in the care with which its first principles have been considered and decided on. This is a work to which all legislators are averse, and which is simply impossible in a country like our own, where all legislation has to be passed through the two Houses of Parliament, and submitted to every sort of amendment and distortion at the hands of all sorts of people who are, for the most part, quite ignorant of the subject We have noticed the subject rather more fully than the space which it occupies in Lord Macaulay's works would otherwise require, in the hopes of attracting to it some small part of the attention which it deserves.
Of Lord Macaulay's more popular works it is needless to say anything special. They are well known even to those who know little else. It may, however, be interesting to make a few observations on some of the more prominent of their author's doctrines upon the subjects which especially engaged his attention. It has been observed, with much truth, that Lord Macaulay's writings on all subjects, and not only his writings but also his speeches, are distinguished in almost every case by a sort of abstract air. He passed his whole life in writing upon the subjects which interest people most deeply, and yet there is hardly to be found in any part of his writings a sign of any special emotion or any strong belief in particular principles or institutions. He was by no means cold. On the contrary, he was well known to be one of the warmest-hearted and most affectionate of men, and his writings are full of patriotic and personal feeling. He was an enthusiastic Englishman. Ho greatly admired William III.; he cordially hated James II.: but, notwithstanding this, it would be difficult to name any writer of our own day of anything like the same mental calibre who had about him so very little of the prophet or preacher. To use the cant of a particular school, he had no gospel at all for mankind, and did not appear to feel the want of one. He had authoritative, decisive views upon all kinds of subjects. He had a very decided opinion that, on the whole, the general tendency of things was towards improvement. Yet he viewed this progress without enthusiasm, without denunciation, and without any special emotion whatever which ever made itself manifest to his readers. He was infinitely less influential than a score of writers whom no one would think of comparing to him in point either of intellect, of learning, of power of expression, or of grasp of thought. We may take a single illustration amongst hundreds. In all the respects which we have mentioned, as indeed in most others, he was altogether superior to such a writer as Mr. Robertson of Brighton, so superior that there is a certain absurdity in admitting the possibility of a comparison; yet we greatly doubt whether the reading of Robertson's sermons has not formed an epoch in the mental history of large numbers of persons on whom Lord Macaulay's works have left no particular impression. If it be replied that Robertson was a preacher, and that as such it was his special function to work upon the emotions, it may be replied that the same observations would apply to Mr. Thackeray. Pendennis and Vanity Fair are far more influential books than Lord Macaulay's History, though the degree of knowledge, mental power, and general ability required to write them was indefinitely less. This cannot be explained by the fact that Mr. Thackeray was a novelist and Lord Macaulay an historian, for the peculiar and distinctive features of Lord Macaulay's treatment of history were precisely those which he possessed in common with novelists. What was it then which deprived Lord Macaulay of the personal influence which one would naturally have expected a man of such varied powers and resources to possess? We should be inclined to reply that he had fully as much influence as a man thoroughly penetrated with his principles ought to expect, or even to wish to exert. We will try to give some sort of sketch of those principles, and. of their more important applications.
Lord Macaulay's whole view of life represents, more perfectly perhaps than that of almost any other man, what may be described as the view of a thoroughly sensible, honourable, kindly man of the world; and we are disposed to think that his writings have done as much to incline people to accept it, or at all events to see its strong side, and to regard them favourably, as those of any author of our own, or indeed of most other, times. This view is by no means so simple as it may sometimes look, and is well deserving of explicit attention. Let us look upon it first on the negative, and then on the positive side. If examined to the bottom, it will be found to depend at last upon a determination on the part of those who hold it to acquiesce in things as they are, and to renounce the hope of making any sudden or very rapid change for the better in them. The fundamental doctrine of a man of the world is, The thing that hath been the same also shall be. People will not be much better or much worse than they actually are within any short time, or under the operation of any new or violent cause, and the recognition of this is the indispensable condition of such gradual improvements as are possible, and as are also sufficiently secure to make it worth the while of cautious persons to take the risk of trying to bring them about. This habit of mind is in one way positive, since it recognises the possibility of changes for the better; but its negative side is much more strongly marked. It implies, on the part of a person who feels it, not only dislike to the schemes and doctrines which on different occasions have most strongly excited the passions of men, but something very like positive disbelief in them, or at all events in any very marked and detailed ways of stating them. A man who takes this view will never be eager for new principles or new applications of old principles in morals, in politics, or in religion. He will be apt to be contented with what he has got already, and to be disinclined to part with it. When this theory takes the fervid poetical shape it becomes Toryism of the romantic order, and in that condition it has a great affinity to Radicalism, because the one idealizes the past as the other idealizes the future. When it is united with a cold selfish temper it becomes simple obstructive conservatism. "I am satisfied, why can't you all hold your tongues and let me alone"? When it is connected with sincere benevolence, a warm heart, and a high spirit, it produces a man like Lord Macaulay—a man who exaggerates nothing, who takes as moderate, if' you please as cold and hard, a view of the world in which we live, and of the conditions on which we live in it, as the most selfish of mankind; and who, for nil that, is not selfish in the least, but is, on the contrary, full of warmth, full of kindness, full of zeal for the principles in which he believes, and prepared to make great sacrifices to carry them out.
In all Lord Macaulay's writings and in all his political conduct the degree in which he was actuated by this temper is most remarkable; the more remarkable because the warmth of his disposition, and the somewhat florid character of some of his peculiar gifts, formed a contrast to the extreme caution, reserve, and general scepticism as to nostrums of all sorts, which formed the basis of his character. Thus, for instance, in all his vigorous advocacy of the Reform Bill, he never took a violent line, though he was quite a young man at the time, and carefully confined himself to arguing the question as one of immediate practical expediency. He says in so many words, in one of his speeches, that he has no general theory of politics, and does not believe in such theories at all. In his writings this temper shows itself much more powerfully than in his political conduct. It had no doubt a great deal to do with his preference for history over other pursuits for which he would appear to have been at least as well fitted by nature. No one can read his notes on the Indian Code, or the speculations which are dispersed through all his books, and especially through certain parts of his essays, without seeing that he had at least as much aptitude for argument upon moral, political, and religious questions as for narration. We should be inclined to think that his final and deliberate preference for history was due in a great measure to the conviction that it is hardly possible to arrive by speculative processes at results permanently satisfactory, whereas it is possible by careful study of historical facts to come to some sort of conclusions as to the practical working on men and things of the principles which we see in operation around us under n variety of different forms. In short, it was a love for the concrete, and a distrust of abstractions, which led one of the most square-minded, logical, and systematic of men to turn aside from speculation to the task of recording and describing matters of fact.
In all his writings, however, and with all his love for the concrete, the abstract temper of mind is always present. He liked history principally because he viewed it as concrete politics. In all that he writes he is continually thinking of Whig and Tory, Protestant and Roman Catholic. With all his genius for picturesque descriptions and his boundless command of detail he enters singularly little into individual character. He will give less of a notion of William III., or Marlborough, or Charles II. in half a volume than Mr. Carlyle would in ten pages. On the other hand, there is a greater body of distinct moral and political propositions in some particular essays of Lord Macaulay's than in all Mr.Carlyle's writings put together. His history is constantly little else than gorgeous description running into discussion. Argument, debate, moral or political controversy in one form or another, was the element in which he lived, and history was valuable as supplying an unlimited number of texts for such debates, whilst it kept the debates themselves from falling into vagueness.
The general character of the doctrines which he preached through the medium of his favourite studies corresponded exactly to the principle to which we have referred as the foundation of his whole state of mind. They are, with hardly an exception, moderate, sensible, and vigorous; but, apart from the energy with which they are expressed, and the earnestness with which Lord Macaulay himself entertained them, there is little about them to create enthusiasm. That the Revolution of 1688 was a happy event; that Charles I. was a great tyrant; that Jews ought to be allowed to sit in Parliament; that Mr. Gladstone wrote great nonsense about the relations between Church and State, and had no clear conception of the meaning of his own theory; that Southey's Colloquies are full of fallacies; that, on the whole, it was wise to pass the Reform Bill—these and other doctrines of the same kind, together with endless lively discussions upon particular individuals, upon Warren Hastings, Clive, Pitt, Walpole, and innumerable other persons, are what is to be got out of Lord Macaulay. It is all perfectly true, and, taken together, very instructive and important; but there is something disappointing in the way in which the greatest problems of all are quietly passed over as being altogether insoluble, or else are discussed in a thoroughly unsatisfactory manner, although it is impossible not to feel that so powerful a writer might and ought to have thrown much light upon them. Almost every one of the essays raises this feeling. Take, for instance, the review of Mr. Gladstone's book on Church and State. When Lord Macaulay comes to give his own views of that great subject, they are very meagre, and it is difficult to avoid the reflection that the fact that they are clear, and that they admitted of being stated in a forcible epigrammatic manner, and not any real consideration of their truth, was the reason why they are stated as they stand. The whole of the theory is an amplification of one proposition—"We consider the primary end of government as a purely temporal end, the protection of the persons and property of men." It may be able incidentally to promote other good objects, such as religious instruction, and, if so, it ought to do so. Most of our renders will remember the long string of vigorous, well-chosen, well-cut illustrations by which this principle is enforced, and by which the consequence is deduced from it that the current modern notions about toleration, the maintenance of an Established Church, and other such matters are all perfectly satisfactory. The objection to all this is that it deals in no way whatever with the real difficulties of the subject. It is a mere statement of an existing state of opinion, as if it were an ultimate indisputable truth. Why should the protection of person and property be the sole or chief end of government? Does not the determination to treat it as such, and to organize the most important of human institutions with an exclusive view to it depend upon further views, positive or negative, as to the objects of human life? Suppose, for instance, that it is true that the holding of particular religious opinions involves damnation or salvation after death, and suppose that governments can, as a fact, influence the religious belief of those who are subject to them, why should they neglect a matter so much more important than the protection of person and property? Again, is the production of good and great men, of a high type of character and a high level of happiness, a proper object for governments to aim at? The protection of person and property is, after all, only a means to an end; and why should governments regard part of that end only? Hero we come upon the great fundamental problems of morals, politics, and theology, and Lord Macaulay has nothing to say about them. His silence on these great matters is the weak point of his literary character, just as the extraordinary vigour and massive thought which he delighted to lavish on matters of far less importance was its strong point.
Saturday Review, August 18, 1866.