Let us take a particular instance. In the early part of the first volume of his History of the French Revolution, M. Louis Blanc has a great deal of the usual flourish of trumpets about principes. The old state of things in France, he tells us, reposed on the principe d'autorité; the Revolution introduced the principe d'égalité; and in that golden age which is ultimately to arrive we shall live under the principe de fraternité. He then explains what these different principes are. “The principe of authority,” he says, “is that which makes the life of nations repose on beliefs blindly accepted, on a superstitious respect for tradition, on inequality, and which, as a means of government, employs constraint.” He goes on to contrast this with the other principes which the Revolution brought into fashion, and on which it proceeded. All that he writes is full of such language, and the same is true of almost all modern French authors. Let us take, then, this explanation of the principe d'autorité, and see whether, strictly speaking, it can be said to have any meaning at all. In the first place, it does not even attempt to explain what a principe is; for it asserts only that the principe of authority is that principe which makes, &c. Is a principe, then, equivalent to a theory or proposition, and does the principe of authority mean no more than “the proposition that, the life of nations reposes on beliefs blindly accepted, &c.?.” In short, is a conflict of opposite principes merely a name for a controversy between men holding conflicting opinions as to which of those opinions is true? If this were all, the phrase itself would be intelligible enough, though the reason for using it in preference to the plain words “opinions” and “controversy about opinions” would not be apparent. It is, however, very clear that this is not all that is meant, or supposed to be meant, by a principe. The class of writers in question constantly use the word in a way which shows that they suppose it to mean something far wider and more mysterious. They constantly speak of principes as of things which have not only an existence, but a sort of authority of their own. Such or such a measure may have such or such recommendations, or may be open to such or such objections; but if it reposes on a principe, considerations like these are not only not deemed conclusive, they are scarcely supposed to be fit, if indeed they are at all fit, to be taken into consideration. It is obvious that if, in the minds of these writers, a principe meant nothing but a theory or a proposition, they would never use such language; for the assertion that a particular proposal must be dealt with in a particular way, because of its relation to a given proposition or theory, would at once suggest the question whether the proposition or theory were true. By calling it a principe it appears to be put on a different footing from a mere theory. It is a theory, and something more—an authoritative theory, supposed, as it were, to be set on a pedestal above all power of question or contradiction. One effect of this is that the name of the principe is associated in the most indistinct and shadowy way with its meaning.
To recur to M. Louis Blanc's principe d'autorité; the words run off the tongue with delightful ease, and would convey to most of those who heard them a sort of vague, notion that they knew what was meant, but how far would they connect them with the definition which M. Louis Blanc himself gives of the phrase? And how far did any sane human being ever hold the opinion which that definition describes? There might be some plausibility, for instance, in speaking of Louis XIV, or Bossuet as eminent representatives of the “principle of authority;” but who would think of seriously maintaining that either of those remarkable men believed or taught that “the life of nations reposes” (a phrase, by the way, which would have made Bossuet shudder) “on beliefs blindly accepted, on the superstitious respect for tradition,” &c. They would have been the first to disavow such doctrines, and would have given plenty of reasons, good or bad, to show that the grounds on which they wished their beliefs to be accepted were anything but blind, and that their respect for tradition was not superstitious, but reasonable. Now the words “blind” and “superstitious" are the emphatic words of M. Louis Blanc's definition; for every human being's conduct is regulated by (which is probably something like what is meant by “the life of nations reposing on”) beliefs accepted, which are nothing else but their own opinions, and respect for tradition—that is, for the opinions which they take on the authority of others. Hence, the phrase, principe d'autorité which is but one specimen of any number of such phrases, has either no definite meaning at all, or has a definite meaning which leads to all sorts of absurdities. The truth is that it has no definite meaning; but it has an indefinite meaning which, for a great many purposes, does better, and which has, amongst other things, the curious property of looking specially definite and systematic. The indefinite meaning of the phrase is that there are a number of feelings, habits of mind, and theories, all of which to a certain extent resemble each other by reason of their common relation to the subject of the origin and extent of political power. For instance, when a man says, “The reign of Louis XIV. was the era when the principle of authority ruled with despotic power in the world of politics, art, and literature,” he means that a number of doctrines relating to these various subjects, a number of feelings produced by believing in these doctrines, and a number of courses of conduct adopted in accordance with them, existed at that time, had great influence, and were closely related to each other. The other way of stating this is shorter, and certainly more poetical; for, under the one word principe it throws a hasty glance at a great number of totally different things, and at the same time, to some extent, personifies the principe and gives the reader a vague notion of some mysterious entity of that name soaring over and regulating the great ocean of human affairs.
This use of the word principe is but one example of ten thousand of the extreme vagueness and indistinctness of a great part of the semi-philosophical language which prevails in the present day, especially amongst French writers. The whole subject is dealt with by M. De Tocqueville in a passage of his great work which ought to be more widely known than it is:—
‘A democratic writer will prefer to speak in the abstract of capacities, instead of capable men, and without specifying the things to which this capacity applies. He will speak of actualities, to paint in one word what is passing before the eye at a given moment; and he will comprehend under the word eventualities all that may happen in the whole universe subsequently to the moment when he speaks. . . . . . Indeed, to make their discourse more lively, they personify the subject of these abstract words and make it act like a real person. ... They will say, “the force of circumstances requires capacities to govern.” . . . . I can best explain myself by reference to my own example. I have often used the word “equality” absolutely; I have also personified equality in some places, and have thus said that equality did some things, and avoided others. The writers of the age of Louis XIV. would never have written thus. It would never have occurred to any one of them to use the word equality without applying it to some particular thing, and they would rather have given up the use of it than have consented to make equality a living person.’In this, as in some other instances, M. De Tocqueville is perhaps rather too much enamoured of the theory which was always before him as to the effects of democracy; but the fact to which he refers is undeniably true. It may, however, be explained without reference to the rapid increase of a proximate equality of conditions, though that, amongst other things, may have a certain relation to it. The most obvious reason why people like vague and abstract language in the present day is, that knowledge has of late years, increased so enormously that unless the check of immediate practical necessity is on a man, he is under the strongest temptation to talk vaguely. Almost every one who is not absolutely ignorant knows, in a vague general way, a good deal about the general character of the reign, for instance, of Louis XIV. He knows, for instance, that the king had enormous power, and the people few rights, that great importance was attached to the observance of certain rules in art and literature, and that the general impression which the history of the time conveys is that of stately formality. It is very convenient to describe all this by saying that in the age of Louis XIV., the principle of authority was very powerful; and it requires, some acquaintance with some one at least of the subjects in which language has to be used with strictness to see that the expression has, in reality, no meaning at all, but hovers between several different meanings, some of which may be true and others false.
The most singular fact about language of this kind is, that it frequently earns for those who employ, it a reputation for the possession of those very gifts of which in reality it denotes the absence. Thus we constantly hear of the extreme precision of the French language, and that it is admirably adapted for theories of all kinds, because it is so full of abstract terms. The truth is, that the tendency of the French of our own days to invent abstract phrases is the strongest possible proof of their disinclination to think with anything like patience or exactness upon the subjects to which those terms are generally applied. “An abstract term,” says M. De Tocqueville, “is like a box with a false bottom; you can put into it what ideas you please, and take them out without being seen.” Hence language becomes vague exactly in proportion as it becomes abstract, and it loses true precision as it gains that appearance of system and completeness which leads superficial observers to fall down and worship its logical beauty, and humbly to insinuate that, if it does not happen to be true, that is because practice is one thing and theory another. It is an almost unfailing test of the value of assertions made in abstract words—such as the word principe for instance — to try to throw them into specific propositions relating to some particular person or thing. The result of trying to do so is almost always the discovery that no such propositions can be framed; and that what looks like a proposition, and an eminently respectable and scientific one, is in reality a mere phrase for a whole string of propositions between which the author as never made his choice, if, indeed, he was ever distinctly aware of their existence.
Saturday Review, October 3, 1863.