Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Mr. Carlyle on the Falls of Niagara

As there is probably no more influential writer in our days than Mr. Carlyle, so there is probably none who stands more in need of some one who is disposed to play Aaron to his Moses. The well-known characteristics of his style interfere so much with the meaning which he would convey if he wrote like other people, that nothing can be easier than to refute him by attacking what he never meant to say. Many of the criticisms made by our contemporaries on his remarkable article in Macmillan’s Magazine for the present month appear to us to be thus founded. They say, All this is mere alarmism, a weak repetition of what has been better said by Mr. Lowe, and a pale shadow of the prophecies made before 1832, and falsified by the event. Such criticisms on men of genius are seldom just, and we do not think that the present occasion is an exception. Mr. Carlyle’s theory on the whole subject of Reform appears to us to be not merely original, and to a considerable extent novel, but also highly instructive, and to a considerable extent true. We will try to translate it into the vulgar tongue, and will then make a few observations on its value. His theory, as we understand it, is as follows:

The gist and essence of the common Reform theory is that nobody ought to be compelled to do anything which he does not like, or to leave undone anything which he does like, except to such an extent as may be absolutely necessary for the preservation of human society. Moreover, when compulsion is applied, it ought always to be applied in minimum doses. The great object of Reform is “a cutting asunder of straps and ties wherever you might find them, pretty indiscriminate of choice in the matter; a general repeal of old regulations, fetters, and restrictions.” This implies in its turn the principle that the great mass of mankind are on the whole wise and good in their wishes and efforts, and that they are, moreover, substantially equal, so that it is not expedient that any one man, or any numerical minority, should rule over the numerical majority. Let the majority on every question fix the amount of compulsion which is to be permitted, and it is obvious that we shall have a minimum of compulsion, and a maximum of people doing as they please.”

Mr. Carlyle’s next proposition is that the bare removal of restraint, the indefinite increase of liberty, would result in the establishment of a very low ideal of human life as the object and end of legislation. He does not think there is any danger of violence and bloodshed. "Our aristocracy are not hated or  disliked by any class of the people, but, on the contrary, are looked up to with a certain vulgarly human admiration, which is by no means wholly envious or wholly servile." On the other hand, "the population has no wild notions, no political enthusiasms of a new era or the like." "There is nothing but vulgarity in our people's expectations, resolutions, or desires in this epoch." The great bulk of the nation is "clearly sincere about nothing whatever, except in silence about the appetites of their own huge belly, and the readiest method of assuaging these. From a population of that small kind, ardent only in pursuits that are low, and in industries that are sensuous and beaverish, there is little peril of human enthusiasms or revolutionary transports, such as occurred in 1789 for instance. A low-minded pecus all that; essentially torpid and ignavum on all that is high or nobly human in revolutions."  There is, however, a minority which may be regarded as the salt of English society. "The English nobleman has still left in him something considerable of chivalry "and magnanimity. . . I incline to call him the politest kind of nobleman or man (especially his wife the politest and gracefullest kind of woman) you will find in any country."  Besides those who are aristocrats by birth, there are many who are so by nature and training. There is "the unclassed aristocracy by nature, not inconsiderable in numbers and supreme in faculty, in wisdom, human talent, nobleness, and courage."  This minority may exercise, by their own natural gifts, a great influence on the course of national affairs, and an influence of the highest possible value for good. Mr. Carlyle thinks that the result of the Reform Bill will be that the influence in question will be exercised in other ways rather than in Parliament; and in particular he attaches great importance to influence which rich men may exercise on their own estates, and which will not be taken from them so long as their wealth is untouched.

Such being his estimate of the condition of the country, it is natural to ask whether he disapproves of the Reform Bill. On the whole it seems that he does not. He regards it as the necessary result of two centuries of what he calls falsehoods and shams, and what others would call neglect and weak compromise. The result of this, he says, has been that all the old restraints which were once good have now become hindrances to good, and require to be removed. We have been removing them for the last thirty or forty years; we have now taken a step which will remove the greater part of what is left, and amongst other things (as lie suggests) the monarchy and our form of government will be conformable to the state of society. Instead of a more or less picturesque sham we shall have a vulgar reality; but vulgar or not, it will be a reality, and when we once know where we are and what we are, much may be done by the aristocracy of birth and of nature to set matters to rights, and by degrees to erect a better edifice than the existing one. This dry analysis of Mr. Carlyle’s article fairly represents his opinions, but of course it does no justice at all to the wonderful vigour and humour with which he expresses them, or to the way in which he deals with a variety of collateral topics which they suggest. It is not, however, common to try to analyze Mr. Carlyle drily, though it sometimes seems to be an indispensable preliminary to understanding or appreciating what he says. We will now try very shortly to do so.

We think he is perfectly right in his estimate of the spirit of Reform, at all events for the last forty years or half-century. Freedom has undoubtedly been its great object, and the only intelligible sense of the word is the indiscriminate removal of restraints. We also think that there is great reason to fear that there is much more truth than it is pleasant to admit in his estimate of the ideal of human life which the bulk of the nation would be likely to mould their legislation upon if they got all the legislative power into their hands; but though there is an undeniable danger in this direction we hope that he has coloured it rather too deeply. There is a great deal of national spirit in all classes of Englishmen, and a considerable readiness to make sacrifices in any cause which enlists their feelings, though it must be owned that no cause has much chance of doing so which does not admit of being painted in very glowing colours, and preached in broad, full monotones. We shall see before long who is right and who wrong in this matter--at present it is all speculation. The point on which we should be most inclined to agree with Mr. Carlyle is the unfitness of the bulk of the population and of any Government representing them for carrying out arduous schemes in the teeth of difficulties and in spite of opposition by systematic and careful legislation. The essence of legislation by a majority of the whole nation is to let people do as they like as much as possible, and to take a minimum of trouble. Such a democracy as we should have in England would have very little faith in legislation. They would simply turn their backs upon the devices for improving and governing the world which require constant adjustment and elaborate care, and the thing to apprehend would be that, after getting their elbows entirely free, they would settle down in a stolid, rather sluttish condition of ease and indifference. It may well be the destiny of the British empire under its new rulers to dwindle down by degrees to the condition of a larger Holland, prosperous and insignificant. It is difficult to think of such a destiny without a sigh, but when we look forward to it as a possible one we ought in justice to remember that in our present piebald condition--which is neither aristocracy, democracy, nor anything else--we are not a little apt to fall into the most ignoble of all positions--that, namely, of having no definite policy or position at all. Upon almost every topic we are affected with chronic hesitation and impotence. Look at any of the great questions which ought to be settled in one way or another, and which have in fact been fumbled over for decades and generations. We cannot pass a Bankruptcy Bill, or decide about the Irish Church, or Irish education, or English education, or the army, or the government of the army, or indeed almost anything else. We talk about a Reform Bill for fifteen years, and get one at last which nobody proposed. When we have got our new Government with its low ideal, it will, it may be hoped, at all events have some definite will of its own and that will always be something.

As to the aristocracy and its virtues we will not quarrel with Mr. Carlyle, though we cannot quite agree with him. No doubt there are amongst us a considerable number of men eminently fitted-- in some cases by birth and habit, in some cases by nature and education-- to take a leading part in public affairs; and no doubt it would be greatly for the advantage of the whole nation if they could be put into the position for which they are fitted. We, too, have always preached, to the best of our ability, the doctrine that if the persons thus favoured by birth and education will only rely on their substantial advantages they will be able to exercise, in a variety of ways, a vast deal of influence, and that it is vain for them to hope in the present state of affairs to retain by help of securities or other devices of the same sort any artificial influence independent of that with which their natural gifts, properly used, will invest them. There is, we think, something a little invidious in the way in which Mr. Carlyle marks off the aristocracy from the "ignavum pecus," but it must be owned that great and difficult and high-minded things are generally done by a minority, and are imposed on the majority at the expense of a great deal of trouble of various kinds. Lastly, we entirely agree with Mr. Carlyle as to the inevitable character of the Reform Bill. It was utterly hopeless to oppose it, though by the help of a little honesty and courage it might have been thrown into a far better form. Now that it has come, we must just make the best of it. What will be the spirit of the legislation which it is to inaugurate, and whether it will compel the best and wisest part of the community to desert Parliament and adopt other means of influencing public affairs, are matters on which we shall soon know what is to be known by experience.

Pall Mall Gazette, August 10, 1867.

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