Thursday, November 17, 2016


There is a class of writers who are distinguished by the special gift of being able to understand, before other people, the signs of the times. To use an unsatisfactory phrase, they are in advance of their age, and show in all their works a sense of the fact that the course of events is bringing up for solution a set of questions the character of which they apprehend, very often indistinctly enough, but still long before their neighbours. One of the first features of the literature of the last century which strike a reader of the present day is the general air of satisfaction which pervades a great part of it. Innumerable writers, especially in our own country, seem to have felt and written as if the course of affairs had produced a state of stable equilibrium both in politics and society. It was so in poetry, it was so in art, it was so preeminently in history. Hume, Gibbon, Robertson, and the other great men of that age, wrote history with a serene, untroubled, and unsympathetic air, which looks as if they had never seen great events, and did not know how to understand descriptions of them. It is only in a few detached instances that the coming events cast their shadow over the minds of the great writers of that day, and that they show a dim forecast of the convulsion in which the century was to end. Here and there, however, such feelings may be traced—more frequently in France than in England, for obvious reasons. The deep-seated abuses, and the enormous masses of lying and corruption in high places, which made French society a whited sepulchre, did act upon the imagination of some of those who lived amongst them, and did lead them to foresee some great change in the state of the society in which they lived. The reader of the most characteristic works both of Rousseau and Voltaire, to say nothing of less illustrious names, finds himself at once in a modern world. The questions considered, and the spirit in which they are dealt with, are to a great extent those of our own time and country; and the books in which they are contained constitute, though with remarkable exceptions, a series of protests against the order of things in the midst of which the writers lived. The French Revolution gave an extraordinary impulse to what may be called sympathetic literature. Ever since it fairly took hold, not merely of the understanding, but of the imagination of the world at large, a wonderful power of comprehending the questions which interested past times, and a strong propensity to pry into those which will interest our descendants, have been observable. One marked illustration—though not, perhaps, a very important one—is to be found in the growth of historical novels. Such a book as Ivanhoe could not have been written before the French Revolution. This power of sympathizing with the past involved the power of looking beyond the present, and to specify the remarkable writers in whom it has shown itself would be to criticize all the most remarkable works of the last sixty years. A few names may be mentioned as examples. One of the earliest and most striking instances of the peculiar temperament which belongs to precursors was afforded by Joseph De Maistre. It is difficult to believe, in reading the SoirĂ©es de St. Petersbourg, that it was written half a century ago. The tone, the temper, the arguments are all those of a later period. Large parts of the book read as if they had been written expressly to anticipate Dr. Newman, whilst others sound like a refutation of Comte. Indeed, this eminent person observed, with some truth, that if Aristotle and St. Paul had done something in the way of heralds to Auguste Comte, his immediate precursor was De Maistre. Lamennais was a man not, indeed, of the same order, but with the same prospective turn of mind; and the history of French Socialism on the one hand, and of one component element of Italian Liberalism on the other, testifies to the influence which he exerted over his generation.

Of precursors in the modern history of our own country, none was more conspicuous, or on the whole less understood, than Dr. Newman. Whenever the history of the movement in which he was by far the most remarkable agent comes to be written by a person capable of understanding it, the facts that he influenced deeply many of the most powerful minds of his generation in their most vital part, and that he foresaw the great religious controversy now beginning a quarter of a century earlier than the rest of the world, will be invested with the prominence which they deserve. The famous sermon which declared that in science the earth might move round the sun, but that in theology the sun moved round the earth, contains not so much the germ of almost all our subsequent controversies as one possible result of them, which some minds have already reached, whilst others are on the high road to it. Dr. Newman was a marvellously persuasive and sympathetic precursor. To a smaller audience, and perhaps in a narrower way, Dr. Arnold was even more persuasive; but these names, and those of all other English precursors, grow pale before the two great names which stand, as it were, on opposite sides of the passage from the eighteenth to the nineteenth century—Coleridge and Bentham.  Mr. Mill has well said that the whole history of the present generation has flowed from the ideas of which they were the representatives, and that any one who could rise to the point from which their respective creeds would appear as opposite sides of one larger faith would have practically solved some of the greatest problems of the age.

It should be observed that the qualities which make a man a precursor are by no means the most admirable in the world, nor are they the most highly paid. They consist, apparently, in quick, sympathy, great force of imagination, and that power in judging of the general course of events which, if displayed in small private affairs, would be tact. The possession of all these gifts is perfectly consistent with a total absence of those powers which, if we could choose, most men would wish to possess. For instance, that calm, large, masculine understanding which can grasp a great subject, seize upon its material points, mould it into shape, and draw the inferences which the necessity of the case requires — the royal gift which, in the transaction of all the affairs of life, is beyond all price – is by no means essential to the character of a precursor, and is not found more often in connexion with that than with other characters. Of the eminent men mentioned above, Bentham was the only one who can be said to have possessed it; and the most remarkable feature in Bentham's mind was the union of the two powers—the minute, lawyer-like sagacity which can clear up confusion, and the grasp which can not only see, but influence, the tendencies of a generation. As a general rule, it would seem that, in order to be a true precursor, a man must have some of the feminine elements of character in excess. He must be excitable. He must really care about, and feel his comfort affected by, matters which lie far off from him, and may never happen at all. He is none the less effective for a tendency to exaggeration; and, above all, he must have strong, and may have utterly unreasonable, likes and dislikes. Rousseau was far more of a precursor than Voltaire, and he derived his powers from sources which it is easier to understand than to respect. The stern, manly habit of mind which leads a man to make the best of what cannot be helped, to dream few dreams, and to reckon on nothing unusual — the temper which deliberately says, with Dr. Johnson, “Sir, this is a world in which there is much to be done and little to be known"—is very unfit for a precursor. Yet this is the temper which enables a man to govern the world when it is well governed. It is one of the most striking of the many difficulties and contradictions presented by human life, that the best and wisest men often appear to know less than fools. It is out of the mouths of babes and sucklings that the approach of great changes is most frequently announced. It is by the assistance of weak and credulous people that they are effected.

It does not follow that a man approves of the changes of which he is the herald. On the contrary, as often as not, he views them with dread, and, if he saw them actually accomplished, would feel the most eager indignation against them. It was his keen perception of the tendencies of the age, and his bitter hatred of them, that drove Dr. Newman to Rome. It is curious to speculate on the feelings with which Voltaire would have regarded the Revolution which he did so much to bring about. He was, for all practical purposes, a Tory of the Tories. Nothing would have pleased him better than an absolute kin surrounded by institutions full of historical curiosities, and prompted by philosophers to perform judicious experiments on a grateful people.  It is difficult to realize the disgust with which he would have regarded the history of a great part of the last seventy years.

The most interesting question which these considerations suggest is, whether there are at present any precursors, and what it is that they forebode? What are the subjects which in the next generation will come up for discussion? The question is at present very harmless, if it is not very interesting. Our present state of mind was well expressed the other day by one of those admirable weekly cartoons with which we are supplied by Punch. Most of our readers know, better than we can tell them, how the International Derby was won by the good horse British Constitution, ridden by that rather heavy weight National Debt and how France, Austria, Prussia, Rome, and the United and Confederate States were so completely beaten as not to be worth lacing. Universal congratulation and a general chuckle and and-shaking are very pleasant, and, if they could last indefinitely, would leave little or nothing to be desired. That they should so last is not to be expected, unless, indeed, the world has not only changed its mind, but got a new constitution to live under—a theory which does not seem very probable. It is, however, a singular question where we shall next break out—whence will come the storm which is at present hushed in a repose which, according to all rules, ought to be described as grim. From the nature of the English people, it may be inferred with confidence that it will be either religious or political, or both. Some persons may suppose—and there are many symptoms which at first sight might favour the suggestion — that we are on the brink of a great religious controversy. It may be true — it probably is true—that such a controversy will occur, and that it has already begun; but there is every reason to believe that, whatever may be the importance of the results ultimately produced, the controversy itself will be quiet to the last degree. If the liberal party in the Church of England carried their point to the very utmost, they would produce nothing but general liberty of speculation. They would convert the Church of England into an endowed profession, with formularies, but without a creed, and they would secure the right of the clergy to controvert on the Monday doctrines implied by the prayers which, in the discharge of their official duty, they read in church on the Sunday, If, on the other hand, they are utterly defeated or driven out of the Church, the only result will be the restriction of the liberty which at present exists. That neither party will get the extreme result at which they aim, may be predicted with great confidence; but it is also clear that their controversy, end how it will—especially if it ends in the modified victory of the party of movement, as such controversies usually do—can hardly excite any great popular feeling. It must go off into a question of criticism, verbal, historical, and scientific, which cannot be condensed into any such short popular issue as is required in order to make a considerable stir in the world. The nation at large will never interest itself passionately in an inquiry whether the fact that the last chapter of Deuteronomy was not written by Moses proves or not that Moses was not the author of the bulk of the Pentateuch.

In the event of the coming struggle, whenever, it comes, being a political one, there are not wanting some signs of the direction which it is likely to take. There are indications that the old Socialist doctrines which have played so vigorous a part in France, and which were supposed to have been very effectually laid in what can scarcely be called a metaphorical Red Sea, have changed their skin, and are making considerable progress in certain classes of the population and under more reasonable forms than they have hitherto worn. Take a mixture of physical science, and philanthropic sentiment instead of a religion—associate people in Trades' Unions and Cooperative Stores—adopt Comte's moral and social doctrines, purified from the grotesque absurdities which he chose to affix to them in his later years—and you may make up as respectable an image to bow down to as is usually worshipped by a popular party. Signs that such a process is going on are not wanting. They may come to anything or nothing. At present, they are certainly sufficiently well marked to justify a transient curiosity; but, should they ultimately prove large enough to shelter all the fowls of heaven, they would not make so much difference in the end as one would at first be inclined to suppose. In the meantime, let us cultivate our cabbages.

Saturday Review, June 20, 1863.

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