Monday, November 14, 2016

Mr. Buckle and Sir John Coleridge

Mr. Buckle has published in the last number of Fraser's Magazine an article on Mr. Mill's essay On Liberty, which is curiously characteristic in more ways than one. It is as well written, as learned, and as discursive, and in some very material points as harsh and unjust, as that part of the History of Civilization which is already before the world. The article begins by, a well-merited testimony to the genius of Mr. Mill, which gives occasion for a dissertation on a standing opposition which appears to Mr. Buckle to exist between speculative and practical ability. This, he says, arises partly from the mischievous habit of patronage, partly from the circumstance that “the speculative classes search for what is distant, whilst the practical classes, search for what is adjacent.” In support of this theory, no less than thirty-nine eminent writers are enumerated who have been sadly deficient in common sense. The list is a most singular one, including as it does Lord Bacon, Sir Walter Scott, and Fearne (the author, we suppose, of the Treatise on Contingent Remainders). It would certainly be curious to know what were the remote and profound truths which blinded Scott to immediate objects, or how Fearne, a very ingenious man and a great real property lawyer, displayed either speculative genius or incapacity for common business.  Lord Bacon's practical ability is attacked with all the vehemence which ingenious men show in working out crotchets. He was not only, Mr. Buckle informs us, a heartless villain, but a bungling villain into the bargain; and the bungling character of his villany arose from his gigantic genius. His mind was so intent upon remote results and general truths that he overlooked what fell under his immediate notice. “Ingratitude, aggravated by cruelty, must, if it is generally known, always be a blunder as well as a crime, because it wounds the deepest and most universal feelings of our common nature.”  . . . . "But the philosopher could not foresee those immediate consequences which a plain man would have easily discerned." . . . . “The mighty thinker was in practice an arrant trifler. He always neglected the immediate and the pressing.” And then follows the story about his catching a cold, which ended fatally, by stuffing a fowl with snow, “with an absence of common sense which would be incredible if it were not well attested.”

To say that a man who, though the greatest philosopher of his age, found time and energy to raise himself to the rank of Lord Chancellor, was wanting in practical ability because he did not manage the business of receiving bribes with the callous indifference of a thorough-paced villain—because he was guilty of an act of meanness which secured him Court favour at the expense of what was then comparatively unimportant, popular esteem— and because he was so unwise as to perform an experiment at the risk of catching cold—suggests the observation that some future historian of civilization might be inclined to add a fortieth name to those of the thirty-nine men of letters whom Mr. Buckle cites in support of his proposition. To say that Sir Walter Scott could not manage common affairs is surely no less absurd. The misfortune which so grievously embittered the close of his life might have overtaken any man, and similar misfortunes constantly do overtake the keenest and acutest men of business. Sir Walter Scott was through his whole career engaged in a multitude of business transactions, and almost all of them terminated most prosperously.

After a digression about the patronage of literature, Mr. Buckle goes on to the services rendered by Mr. Mill to the science of logic, and shows in a very interesting manner his ho in relation to various great thinkers of various ages. He then gives a summary of his arguments about Liberty, passes into an attack on Sir John Coleridge, which we propose to examine with some detail, and finally concludes the article with an argument upon a future life. He wishes to show, he observes, how full a liberty he would concede to inquiry by giving an extreme case. He would wish the doctrine of a future life to be freely discussed, and lest he should be supposed to intend to attack what he most entirely believes, he gives an argument in favour of it which he considers to be particularly important, because it is independent of revelation, and would apply with undiminished force if revelation ceased to be believed. The argument is neither more nor less than this, that people who are attached to their friends would be shocked at supposing that their affection ended with life. This argument is certainly independent of revelation, but it hardly does as well. Indeed, it has the unfortunate peculiarity of being calculated to prove anything, for hatred and indifference are parts of our nature, as well as love; and if the goodness of love proves our immortality, the wickedness of hatred or indifference must prove the reverse. Mr. Buckle's argument would illustrate the future prospects of nothing except Shelley's
‘Spirits who lie in the azure sky,
Where they love but live no more.’
We have given a sketch of this curious article as an introduction to our observations on one part of it, not only because it is the work of a remarkable man, but because its structure affords abundant evidence of the rash, peremptory, and one-sided form into which Mr. Buckle's speculations usually fall. These are just the faults to which men of letters, whose life is passed in study and speculation, are most exposed, and which too them to do cruel injustice to those whose pursuits are not of the same character. A man who is so unjust to Lord Bacon and Sir Walter Scott can hardly be expected to be very equitable in his estimate of a living judge, and the peculiarity of his views as to what is evidence of a future state is not altogether immaterial to the question of the justice of his conception of the law relating to blasphemous libels.

In a note to Mr. Mill's Essay on Liberty a short and indignant reference occurs to the case of a man named Pooley, who was tried at the Bodmin Summer Assizes of 1857 for blasphemous libel, and sentenced, on conviction, to eighteen months' imprisonment by Sir J. Coleridge. Mr. Buckle was so scandalized at this, that he suspected some mistake, and accordingly “carefully investigated the facts.” He gives the result of his inquiry in a tone which is not unlike that of Mr. Charles Reade's ludicrous tirade about the case of Birmingham gaol-- a tirade curiously enough directed against the same judge, though with even more injustice. “A great crime,” he says, “has been committed, and the names of the criminals ought to be known. They should be in every one's mouth. They should be blazoned abroad, in order that the world may see that in a free country such things cannot be done with impunity; and surely no punishment can be more severe than to preserve their names.” After some more observations follows a short paragraph giving the names of the prosecutor, the committing magistrate, and the judge. “Of the first two little need be said. It is to be hoped that their names will live, and that they will enjoy that sort of fame which they have amply earned.” There is a self-sufficiency about this which is at once offensive and absurd. A man must live almost exclusively among books and admirers, and have few connexions with the ordinary affairs of life, who can attach this degree of importance to a magazine article. To mention a man with disapprobation in Fraser's Magazine is not exactly equivalent to damning him to everlasting fame. We can tell Mr. Buckle what the real effect of his awful denunciation will be. During the early part of the present month, some of the readers of Fraser's Magazine will recollect that he made an attack on Sir John Coleridge. During the early part of next week some of the readers of the Saturday Review will remember that we remarked upon his attack. The first day of next month in the one case, the last day of next week in the other, will wipe out the recollection of the controversy from the minds of nineteen-twentieths of that very small number of persons who took a passing interest in it a fortnight since, or will take a passing interest in it to-morrow.

The circumstances of Pooley's case are as follows:—He wrote upon a gate some abusive remarks about Christianity; on other occasions he made blasphemous observations, coupling the name of Christ with contumelious reproaches in a public house. He was indicted for this, and the counsel for the prosecution told the jury that the offence imputed to the man was that of using language which was calculated to shock the feelings of his neighbours, and was used for that purpose, and not by way of expressing or advocating any theological opinion whatever. He said that to attack Christianity in the way of bona fide discussion might be wrong, but that no one would think of punishing such conduct as a crime. That on the other hand, to utter reproaches intended merely as reproaches, and not as arguments against beliefs entertained by a large majority of persons, and favoured in various ways by the law of the land, was a crime which deserved punishment like any other violation of public decency. The judge, in his summing up, took precisely the same ground. The prisoner was convicted, and was sentenced to eighteen (Mr. Buckle says twenty-one) months' imprisonment. The prosecution may have been ill-judged, and the sentence we think was too severe; and if Mr. Buckle had confined his observations to these two points, we should not have noticed them; but he has gone far beyond this, and has made the facts which we have stated the occasion of a string of unjust charges against a man of the most unblemished character, and he has urged these charges with an intemperance of language which nothing can excuse. He says, first, that Pooley was a man of irreproachable character, of industrious habits, and “supporting his family by the sweat of his brow, respected by his neighbours, and loved by his family, for whom he toiled with a zeal rare in his class, or indeed in any class.” It is not absolutely inconsistent with this account of Pooley's virtues, but it is rather a strange comment upon it, that Mr. Buckle couples with it a statement that he was all but mad, being a prey to every sort of strange delusion. The virtue and the lunacy of the prisoner are, however, both insisted on as aggravations of the wickedness of the judge. It would have been but ordinary fairness to Sir John Coleridge to have added that at Pooley's trial not one word was said either as to his character or as to his madness. If the delusions mentioned by Mr. Buckle had been proved in evidence, Pooley would undoubtedly have been acquitted. To a judge, that which does not appear must be as if it did not exist; and it is most unjust, in looking at Sir J. Coleridge's conduct, to view it in any other light than that in which it would have stood had Pooley been a perfectly sane man, of whose conduct nothing was known. Mr. Buckle, however, goes much further than this. He imputes to Sir John Coleridge not only cruelty but cowardice. He did, says his critic, in Cornwall what he would not have dared to do in London. “We expect,” says Mr. Buckle, “that our superior judges . . . . shall not ferret out some obsolete well that the anti-Christian sentiments which that law was intended to punish are quite as common among the upper classes as among the lower, and are participated in by many persons who enjoy the confidence of the country, and to whom the highest offices are entrusted.” . . “He (Sir John Coleridge) would not have dared to commit such an act in the face of a London audience and in the light of the London press,” (we may observe in lo that a report of the trial appeared in the Times). “Neither would he nor those who supported him have treated in this manner a person belonging to the upper classes. . . . Hardly a year goes by without some writer of eminence and ability attacking Christianity, and every such attack is punishable by law. Why did not Mr. Justice Coleridge and those who think like him put the law into force against those writers? Why do they not do it now? . . . . ‘Simply because they dare not. I defy them to it.’”

The passage we have quoted not only misconceives the law, but is most unjust on Sir John Coleridge personally. A tone runs through it which appears to have been adopted on a supposition so absurd that we cannot suppose, Mr. Buckle really entertained it. His language seems to imply that there was a black conspiracy, in which Sir John Coleridge and the counsel for the Crown were actors—that they “selected the theatre of this prodigious crime"—that they “played their parts with zeal"— and that Sir John in particular could choose by some mysterious process whom he would try in Cornwall, and whom he would try in London—a matter with which he had absolutely nothing to do. . One point in this passage deserves special notice. The counsel for the Crown, it is said, was the judge's son; and “father and son seem to have played their parts with equal zeal." No insinuation could be more offensive than this; for it implies that a judge and a barrister, being father and son, from feelings of party spirit plotted together to commit an iniquitous perversion of justice. To insinuate that there was any private understanding hostile to the prisoner between the judge and the counsel in a criminal case, is to insinuate that both parties were dead to all sense of professional duty. To base the insinuation upon the relationship of the parties is to make it additionally offensive; for to men with the feelings of gentlemen, that circumstance would in itself form an additional motive against improper conduct. Mr. Buckle ought to have been restrained from this remark, by his own sense of what is due from one gentleman to another. As to the insinuation itself we shall not say a single word; but we may observe that whatever Mr. Buckle may think, the judge and the counsel for the Crown have no more to do with getting up prosecutions than the man in the moon.

Law is not Mr. Buckle's strong point. In one of the notes to his History of Civilization he spoke of the “immortal work” of that most unscientific of writers Justice Story; in another, he glorified the Statute of Frauds, which has perhaps produced as much litigation as it has prevented, and the passage quoted above shows that he is ignorant of the degree in which the administration of English law is, and so long as it remains uncodified must always be, modified by circumstances, so that a law passed for one purpose is constantly applied to another. What the original law upon blasphemous libels may have been is not a very important question. As at present administered, it is merely meant to protect public decency. Indeed, an eminent writer on the Law of Libel treats this distinction as being at present embodied in the law, though its original scope may have been wider. “It may not be going too far,” says Mr. Starkie, “to infer from the principles and decisions that no author or preacher who fairly and conscientiously promulgates the opinions with whose truth he is impressed for the benefit of others, is for so doing amenable as a criminal; but a malicious and mischievous intention is in such cases the broad boundary between right and wrong.” No one would think of punishing the writers referred to by Mr. Buckle, for the expression of their views, so long as they write bona fide; but if they walked up and down the Strand with placards on their backs, coupling sacred names with obscene or abusive epithets, they would be rightly punished, and we feel confident that public opinion would not only concur in their punishment, but would in all probability call for a very severe one.

There are cases in which Mr. Buckle himself would probably be glad to see the law which he denounces enforced. If a missionary went into a mosque at Delhi, and said that Mahomet was a villain, an adulterer, a rogue, a liar, and a murderer, would not Mr. Buckle or Mr. Mill be the first to say that he would deserve punishment for trampling on the feelings and exciting the passions of his neighbours without any reasonable cause for doing so? If a man went about in France or Italy reviling the saints and the Virgin Mary, would not his conduct rightly expose him to punishment? Bona fide discussion is one thing and wanton insult another; nor can we see the slightest inconsistency in permitting the one and preventing the other. Probably in most cases it is wisest to let such occurrences pass unnoticed, because their discussion attracts attention to them; but if there were no law on the subject it would be in the power of a few individuals to produce an indefinite amount of annoyance and irritation to thousands. The blasphemous placards and caricatures exposed in the shop of Carlile could not affect the merits of Christianity, but they were excessively offensive, and were a nuisance which required abating... The existence of a law against blasphemous libels may occasionally give rise to an unwise prosecution, but its total absence would occasionally give rise to the grossest scandals. It is in the nature of all legal definitions to include many things to which the authors of the law would not wish to apply it. In strictness of law, a man who uses a sheet of notepaper without leave is a thief—a man who lays his hand on another's shoulder commits an assault—every number of every newspaper ever published probably contains what in strictness is libellous; but it would be a monstrous thing to give people a legal right to use their neighbour's paper, to lay their hands lightly on their shoulders, or to libel them up to a certain point. The only possible security against the abuse of many customs is that they should not be invested with the character of legal rights. We do not mean to say that our law against blasphemous libels might not be more explicit and more wisely framed than it is, but of the necessity of such a law we feel no doubt at all.

Whatever may be thought of the law upon this subject, it surely cannot be denied that our view of the question, adopted as it is by a very large proportion of persons at the present day, has at any rate enough semblance of reason to protect a judge who acts upon it from lavish and violent abuse. Sir John Coleridge probably does not much mind being called names; but, for the sake of his own reputation, Mr. Buckle should not speak of such a man as “the criminal,” whom he is “dragging from his covert,” “the unjust and unrighteous judge,” “the stony-hearted man who held him (Pooley) in his gripe,” “his cold heart and shallow understanding.” For very many years Sir John Coleridge discharged most arduous duties in a manner which won for him the very highest respect from all classes of society. To couple his name with cruelty, cold-heartedness, and the like, is to insult the feelings and understandings of many hundreds of persons who know and honour him; and to do this because he took a different view from Mr. Buckle of the amount of punishment which ought to be inflicted in a case in which he had no conceivable interest, is not the happiest illustration that could be given of respect for the opinions of others.

Mr. Buckle says, that of Sir John Coleridge personally he has no knowledge. “Individually, I can feel no animosity towards men who have done me no harm, and whom I have never seen.” We answer, that, he ought to know something of the general character of a public man before he lavishes on him the epithets which we have quoted. How would Mr. Buckle like to be stigmatized by any one who might disagree with his own article, as “that slanderer,” “that calumniator,” “that unjust and unrighteous libeller?” He, or his friends for him, would say, and most justly, “You should not speak so of a man who has given abundant proof of very high literary ability, of great learning, of many qualities of the highest kind, merely because you think his language on this occasion ill-judged and intemperate?” and if the answer were, “I never read Mr. Buckle's book, and know nothing about him,” the reply would be—“You should read it before you revile him.” Sir John Coleridge has publicly administered justice for more than twenty years in every part of England—a function which requires qualities far rarer and powers far higher than most forms of authorship, and no man has a right to call him names who has not studied his career. Mr. Buckle can . thirty-nine authors (of most of whose names we own with shame we are utterly ignorant) to show that men of letters sometimes do silly things; but a tenth part of the research necessary for this purpose would have enabled him to collect the evidence of a larger number of witnesses who would have shown him that Sir John Coleridge is not the monster of iniquity he supposes him to be. We fear, however, it will be in vain to argue with Mr. Buckle, for he says—“In such cases our passions instruct our understanding. The same cause which excites our sympathy for the oppressed stirs up our hatred of the oppressor. is is an instinct of our nature, and he who struggles against it does so to his own detriment." (Mr. Buckle has certainly not done himself that injury.) “It belongs to the higher region of the mind; it is not to be impeached by argument. It cannot even be touched by it.” Mr. Buckle's vehemence reminds us of an anecdote told by Lord Cockburn. On hearing that an old Scotch judge had declared that a certain proposition was such bad law that the Almighty could not make it good, an Edinburgh professor observed that it must be very bad indeed, as his Lordship had told him that he saw no difficulty in supposing that the same power might have made 3+2=6. Mr. Buckle has so very high an opinion of the power of argument to invalidate evidence usually considered conclusive, that assertions which he admits to be unimpeachable by argument, must be very plain indeed. He argued in his book at great length to show that our consciousness of the freedom of the will does not prove that the will is free; but “the higher region of the mind” asserts Sir John's wickedness so much more emphatically, that it must be heard, and no argument can be admitted against it even by Mr. Buckle's unlimited love of free discussion. A less positive philosopher than Mr. Buckle may be allowed to suggest that our passions, occasionally supersede our understanding, when we suppose that they only instruct it.

Saturday Review, May 14, 1859.

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