Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Theodore Parker's Discourses on Politics

Review of:
Discourses of Politics (by Theodore Parker, 1863).

The publication of Theodore Parker's Discourses of Politics, forming the fourth volume of his collected works, is very opportune. It would at any time be curious to see in a small compass, the political opinions of such a man, but in the most remarkable crisis of American history which has as yet occurred, they have a special interest and value. This volume, however, contains something more than the political opinions of a distinguished American. It is a volume of sermons by a man who, whatever might be his faults, was at least restrained by no conventional rules in speaking his mind. This, in our time and country, gives the book a very peculiar value.

The habit of complaining of sermons has become almost universal amongst us. Every organ which can be supposed to represent the feelings of the educated part of the community joins either in denouncing or excusing the demerits of our preachers. Some inveigh against the clergy for their dullness, others find reasons for considering dullness respectable and even edifying; but that the sermons in general are dull, and as a rule empty into the bargain, is common ground upon which all their critics are agreed. They are equally unanimous as to one of the principal causes of this state of things. . A sermon must always start from given principles and arrive at given conclusions. Whatever else it is, it must at least be orthodox; and this orthodoxy is guaranteed not merely by legal sanctions, but by social sanctions, which are far more effective. These conditions are the great reasons why sermons are dull, for, however desirable it may be for the community that a man should wear fetters, it is not in human nature to dance in them gracefully. Theodore Parker was an entirely unfettered preacher, of very considerable gifts and of great influence, and it is not only curious but instructive to see what he made of his position.

In the first place, he certainly preached interesting sermons. Every one of his Discourses of Politics, as he or his editor somewhat affectedly calls them, is not only worth reading, but is also very pretty reading; yet about half of them are genuine sermons, with texts, duly preached at the Twenty-eighth Congregational Church in Boston. They no doubt considerably violate our notions of what a sermon should be. For instance, in his sermon on the Mexican War, he observes:—
‘From the correspondence laid before the American Senate, in its secret session for considering the treaty, it now appears that on the 10th of November, 1845, Mr. Polk instructed Mr. Slidell to offer a relinquishment of American claims against Mexico, amounting to 5,000,000 or 6,000,000 dollars, for the sake of having the Rio Grande as the Western boundary of Texas.’
 This is a strange innovation on the Dearly Beloved style. In the next place, Theodore Parker's sermons have always something in them. The sermon on the Mexican War is a most vigorous exposition of what may be called the purely moral view of that transaction. The same may be said more emphatically of a sermon on the State of the Nation, on the text, “Righteousness exalteth a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people.” It was preached in November, 1850, and will be read now by thousands with a strange feeling of the justice of many of its doctrines. It is a comparison, and a very shrewd and eloquent one, of the Northern and Southern States of the Union; and it dwells with intense earnestness on the sinfulness of slavery, on the iniquity of the principles on which it rests, and on the tremendous consequences with which its existence threatened the Union. It is a common charge against English sermons that they are remote from the real and large interests of life; that the greater part both of their exhortations and denunciations are directed against or towards objects which most of their hearers have fully determined not to consider practically as virtues or vices, or on which they require no advice; and that they do not venture to meddle with questions which really have a great moral significance, and on which there is room for doubt. Certainly this is not the case with Parker's sermons. They discuss grave and difficult national subjects with as little consciousness of embarrassment or impropriety as an English clergyman would feel in dilating upon any well-established moral or theological commonplace.

Whether or not this is a good thing is a question of taste. The common run of English people certainly think that there is and ought to be a difference between the frame of mind in which they go to church and that in which they read the Times; and they would simply be scandalized if the clergy were to deliver to them leading articles, even if the articles were conceived in a high-minded and, at times, a solemn spirit. This is one branch of that wide-spread distinction between religion and common life at which a minority will always chafe, whilst to the vast majority it appears inevitable, and indeed absolutely necessary. The degree in which it prevails settles itself from time to time according to the circumstances of particular times and places, and it can hardly be expected to be very much altered. If an English clergyman tried to preach like Theodore Parker, his white neckcloth would soon bring him down to the common clerical level; and if he really has anything very particular to say, there can be no reason why he should not speak the dialect of his profession. Vigorous thought and well-digested learning may be dressed in pulpit phraseology, just as the limbs and muscles of a prizefighter may be dressed in black clothes and a white tie. There may be affectation in assuming, as well as in discarding, the manners of the rest of the world, and if Theodore Parker had condescended to be a little more conventional he would not have been less effective.

This, after all, is a minor matter, though it happens at present to have some special interest for Englishmen. The really important questions which Theodore Parker's discourses suggest arise, not upon their style, but on their substance. His theological views, as every one knows, were those of the extreme Unitarian school. He repudiated historical Christianity altogether, and confined himself to simple Deism, and to the inculcation of what he believed to be moral duties, using the word “moral” in its most extensive sense. His morality made the highest pretensions. He claimed to be in a position to lay down the law, not only in the abstract, but upon all sorts of concrete subjects. In his first sermon — the subject of which is War, and the text, or rather texts, for there are two, “The Lord is a man of war,” and “God is love.”— he declares vehemently that the Old Testament view of the Divine attributes is wrong, that “war is in utter violation of Christianity.” He seems to think that passive resistance is the only course which the best men ought to take against violence and oppression, and that even in the best and holiest causes those who fight are wrong. “It is a colder heart than mine which does not honour such men, yet it believes them mistaken.” The Mexican war he denounces specifically as something sinful and abominable; and in the same way, in his sermon on the State of the Nation, he attacks slavery, not on the ground of its bad results, but because it is opposed to “the democratic idea”—which idea is “that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain natural rights, which only the possessor can alienate, that all men are equal in these rights, that amongst them is the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” — and because this democratic idea comes from the nature of God, and to carry it out politically is “to execute justice, which is the will of God.” In short, the key-note of every one of his discourses, and that which gives unity to all his political opinions and doctrines, is the principle that we have by nature such an insight into the Divine will that we can lay down with confidence a variety of general moral propositions as first truths and universal rules of duty, from which we can argue deductively, with unfailing confidence, as to our duty in any particular case which may occur. Of course, a man in possession of such a set of propositions, and acquainted with the proper ways of arguing from them, would be in a position to dictate to the nation at large the course which it ought to pursue on all great questions—that is, if he got his facts right.

It would be out of place in these columns to discuss the theological elements of such speculations; but their general interest is so deep, their claims, especially in these days, are so high and in some respects so plausible, and their practical importance is so enormous, that it is hardly possible to refer to them at all without glancing slightly at one or two of the principles which they involve. The high a priori road to morals is, in these days, generally taken by those who wish to unite the rejection of all historical creeds with the advocacy of any religious views distinct enough to exercise much practical influence over human conduct. It is quite as conspicuous in the writings of Mr. James Martineau, for instance, as in those of Theodore Parker. The reason is obvious. A system of intuitive morality, from which there is no appeal, occupies much the same place in their writings as an infallible Church or an infallible book occupies in the writings of other schools. To Theodore Parker the phrases from the Declaration of Independence about the natural and inalienable rights of man were exactly what an express declaration of the Bible would be to persons who took the highest view of the infallibility of the Scriptures. Such phrases were the fulcrum from which he did his best to move the world. It would be an injustice to a remarkable man to suppose that he was not aware of the special difficulties of such a view. Indeed, to say nothing of his other works, in which he goes expressly into the foundations of his system, the present volume shows that he was acquainted with what to many minds appears the fatal objection to them, though it does not exactly appear how he got over it. That objection is that morality is progressive, and that we can no more say that we in the nineteenth century have reached the full and true view of it than our predecessors could have said so. In his sermon on War, in which he denounces all wars in the most unqualified way, Parker yet admits that soldiers and the martial virtues had their place in the history of the development of the race. This admission implies that absolute moral rules as to war cannot, or rather could not in earlier ages, be laid down, except with reference to time, and place, and circumstances. But if this was true then, the same is true now; and the vehement condemnation of war which is to be found in his sermon on that subject dwindles down to a condemnation of particular classes of wars undertaken in the nineteenth century; and this is a question of degree, time, place, and circumstance.

There is another and a wider objection to Parker's view of morality, which, in common with other writers of his school, he frequently overlooks on occasions when it ought to be recognised. This objection is, rightly or wrongly, one of the great causes which prevent men whose allegiance to other creeds is by no means close or strict from adopting Unitarianism. It constitutes, in fact, the great moral objection to it—the only one which can be noticed here. Parker's view of morality was ultimately founded on the belief that we have such an instinctive knowledge of the Divine character that we can argue downwards from the will of God to the conduct of man. He would have said, for instance, that slavery is wrong, because before God all men are equal. It is the common peculiarity of all creeds which rest on a historical basis that they avoid statements of this kind. They present God to man through the medium, not of propositions, but of what they allege to be facts; and of course this mode of proceeding leaves open a vast number of moral questions wo the other way of stating the matter closes. Thus the view of the Christian world at large is, that the Divine nature and attributes are to be collected from the general course of human affairs, and more especially from the history of Christianity, the life of its Founder, and the events which preceded and, so to speak, led up to it. Of course, there is room for endless controversy—at the merits of which we cannot even glance—on the truth of the pretension which this view implies, of being able to say “Here, and here, and here you may trace the hand of God and the designs of Providence;” but, be the merits of such controversies what they may, there can be no doubt that this view of the matter leads to far more reasonable views of morality than the other. It lets in considerations which are altogether excluded by the claim to set up a number of sententious phrases, like those about equal rights and eternal justice, as the ultimate standards by which human conduct ought to be tested. Many such considerations might be mentioned, but it will be sufficient to refer to one. The more the matter is considered, the more clearly it will appear that right and wrong, good and bad, are words which have a definite meaning so long only as they are applied to human beings, and with a tacit reference to that imperfect and limited state in which human beings are forced to live. Thus, right means obedience to a rule—wrong, deviation from a rule— good, something which tends to produce happiness—bad, something which tends to produce misery. Every one of these words assumes a world in which rules, happiness, and misery are already existing. Apply them to a being who institutes the rules, and ordains and creates happiness and misery, and they become, not unmeaning, but inadequate and indistinct; and, as applied to such a being, it becomes necessary to interpret the words by facts, instead of judging of the facts by the words. We may illustrate this by the case of slavery. Instead of starting with the general proposition, “Before God all men are equal,” and arguing thence that a system which establishes a permanent inequality between men must be wrong, a person whose notion of the Divine character is derived from history will say, “I infer from the general tenor of things that such institutions as tend to produce human happiness are more in harmony with the Divine character than such as tend to produce human misery. Then, does slavery, as it exists in the nineteenth century in the United States, tend to produce happiness or misery? Probably the practical result may, in the particular case, be the same; but it is obvious that the historical way of treating the subject is far more moderate, and likely to lead to more qualified results than the other. It has the advantage, for one thing, of offering a distinct issue—namely, what is the result produced? If one man says, “I see by intuition that before God all men are equal,” and another says, “I see by intuition that before God black and white men are unequal,” it is difficult to see how they can get any further. The great practical defect in such speculations as Parker's is, that they overlook the great truth that evil is just as much a fact as good—that there are inscrutable mysteries in the relations between God and man, and in the very conception of God, which mysteries admit of no other than a practical quasi-solution, to be obtained, step by step, by groping our way from one little fragment of truth to another.

A few observations may be made, in conclusion, on Parker's literary merits. He was a most vigorous writer, and his writings on political subjects, though open to the criticisms offered above, are not only powerful and courageous, but highly instructive. American speeches and sermons are infinitely better than American newspapers or American books. An American newspaper is written by a lower class of men than the leading papers of this country, and American literature is apt to be exotic and feeble. The speeches and lectures in which Americans delight, though rather too much in the pamphlet style for English tastes, are far better; and the complicated web of American politics and history can hardly be understood except by those who will take the pains to go through a course of such reading. The present volume contains some admirable performances of this kind. There are some faults of taste, or what Englishmen would consider such, but, on the whole, it is full of vigorous thought. There are in particular two discourses—one on John Quincy Adams, and the other on President Taylor—which are excellent little bits of history, though they contain somewhat too much fine writing.

Saturday Review, August 27, 1863.

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