Poems and Prose Remains, Vol. I

Extracts From a Review

of a Work Entitled

‘Considerations on Some Recent Social Theories.’

(Published in the ‘North American Review,’ for July 1853, Vol. lxxvii No. 160.)

Arthur Hugh Clough

OUR author begins with the vague declamations, rather than positions, which have lately been current in Europe—‘Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity,’ ‘God and the People,’ ‘Direct Popular Government,’ ‘The Universal Republic,’ and the like. Several of these he sums up in the old formula, Vox populi vox Dei, and devotes his first chapter to the question of its correctness. The high doctrine proclaimed by the fervid Italian leader, of the supreme ‘authority of the people as the collective perpetual interpreter of the will of God,’ finds but little favour with him. Who and what, he asks, is this ‘royal priesthood,’ this ‘peculiar people?’

We cannot, indeed, any more than our author, soar to the high modern Mazzinian acceptation of the ancient maxim. Those who use it should, at any rate, we think, temper it in application by the rule,

Nec dens intersit nisi dignus vindice nodus;

and may, perhaps, find their advantage in collating it with another significant dictum which tells us that at times

Sua cuique dens fit dira cupido;

a people can be the slave of cupidity and resentment; a people can be pusillanimous, dastardly, and base; a people can be also fiendishly inhuman; the fears and passions of a people, when once excited, are more hopelessly irrational, more wildly uncontrollable, more extensively ruinous, more appallingly terrible, than those of councils and kings. Nevertheless, depravation and barbarism apart, in an average state of society, a state such as we hope and believe in for the future, it may be true that the common impulses and plain feelings of the people may be expected to be honest and good. Great questions, that must go back for their solution to natural instincts and unconscious first principles, may refer themselves to the popular voice. In such cases, the love of routine, the narrow and rigid views, the personal interest, ambition, or indolence of officials and representatives, are likely enough to impede and retard, to mislead, pervert, and corrupt the national action. In executive details, meantime, what choice have we but to trust to individuals? A crowd of voters cannot easily study, cannot readily appreciate, the subtle and intricate circumstances which embarrass the application of principles. A complex question in arithmetic is better submitted to the computation of an accountant than to the suffrages of a town-meeting Accountants and auditors may combine to deceive, but the chances of their telling the truth are greater than those of our carrying it by acclamation. A people also, we conceive, however generous and well-meaning, is apt to be a little too rough-handed to deal properly with nice points of fairness and honour, and delicate questions of feeling.

A second chapter, on Liberty, the supposed principle, is followed by a third, on the projected perfect practice of it in the Universal Republic. The writer urges, with reason, that the existence of government at all presupposes a certain surrender of some portion of their freedom to do whatever they please, upon the part of those who live under it. Upon any other theory, how strange and anomalous, for example, is that constraint which, in the freest of all politics, restricts the freewill of the citizen, by requiring his submission to the vote of a majority. This regulation, he argues, all political regulations, all institutions and constitutions whatever, are not in themselves principles; they are, at their very best, extremely imperfect human expedients for attaining, in a rough way, some amount, often a very small one, of practicable common benefit. Universal suffrage is one social method, monarchy is another; as the former is sometimes best, so also sometimes is the latter. Universal suffrage would hardly do on shipboard, the rule of one is unsuitable for a club. There are times when a state is very much like a club; there are occasions when it may fitly be compared to a ship.

Before quitting these chapters we must add a few words on Liberty.

The dream and aspiration of the ardent and generous spirits of our time is for a certain royal road to human happiness. Disappointed a thousand times, they still persist in their exalted. creed that there must and will be here on earth, if not now, in some future and approaching time, a state of social arrangements in which the spontaneous action and free development of each individual constituent member will combine to form ‘a vast and solemn harmony,’ the ultimate perfect movement of collective humanity. There beautiful thoughts will distil as the dew, and fair actions spring up as the green herb; there, without constraint, we shall all be good, and without trouble, happy; there, what in its imperfect form is vice, shall gently and naturally flower out into virtue; there contention and contest, control and commandment, will be the obsolete terms of a dead language, with no modern equivalents to explain them. A divine interior instinct will intimate to each single human being his fittest and highest vocation, and will prompt and inspire and guide him to fulfil it; while in the pursuit of his own free choice and in the fulfilment of his own strongest desires, he will, by the blessing of the presiding genius of humanity, best serve the true interests of society and the race.

Was it not thus long ago? For,

Ante etiam sceptrum Dictæi regis, et ante
Impia quam cæsis gens est epulata juvencis,
Aureus hanc vitam in terris Saturnus agebat.

O blessed ages of pure, spontaneous, unconscious, unthinking, unreasoning life and action, to you, either in the past or the future, the human heart is still fain to recur—still must dream, even though it be but a dream, of how sweet it were to grow as the green herb, and bloom as the spring flowers, to be good because we cannot be otherwise, and happy because we cannot help it. O blessed ages, indeed! But have such, since men were men, ever been? Or are such, while men are men, ever likely to come? Alas, the rude earth itself affords us admonition—

                                Pater ipse colendi
Haud facilem esse viam voluit, primusque per artem,
Movit agros, curis acuens mortalia corda,
Nec torpere gravi passus sua regna veterno.

And, strange as it may seem—how charming soever be spontaneity, still those who have endured coercion find a good deal also to say in favour of it.

O life! without thy chequered scene
Of right and wrong, of weal and woe,
Success and failure—could a ground
For magnanimity be found,
For faith, mid ruined hopes serene?
    Or whence could virtue flow?

There are many, surely, who, looking back into their past lives, feel most thankful for those acts which came least from their own mere natural volition—can see that what did them most good was what they themselves would least have chosen; that things which, in fact, they were forced to, were, after all, the best things that ever happened to them. There are some, surely, who have had reason to bless a wholesome compulsion; there are some who prefer doing right under a master to doing nothing but enjoy themselves as their own masters; who, rather than be left to their own unaided feebleness, hesitation, and indolence, would voluntarily, for their own and the common good, enter a condition of what thenceforth would be ‘involuntary servitude.’ The mature free-will of the grown man looks back, undoubtedly, with some little regret, but also with no little scorn, upon the bygone puerile spontaneities of the time when he did as he liked.

There are periods, it is true, in the life of the individual human being, and perhaps of the collective human race, when expansion is the first of necessities. Such, it is possible, may be the present. But because we would be rid of existing restrictions, it does not follow that restriction of all kinds is an evil; because our present house is too small for us, it is not to be inferred that we shall live henceforth in the open air.

As a general rule of life and conduct, we see as yet no reason to believe that liberty, if this be its meaning, is better than service. It does not seem to be established that the system on which the things we live amongst were arranged, is that of spontaneous development, rather than of coercion met by a mixture of resistance and submission. The latter hypothesis seems intrinsically as much more elevating as the other does more agreeable. Meantime, as a matter of language, we should be inclined to reject altogether this modern sense of our old established word Liberty. If the new theory wants a name, let it find a new one. It will but perplex and cheat us by claiming one already otherwise appropriated. When we hear people demanding liberty, we shall consider them to express their desire, not for the golden age, but either for release from some particular form of restriction, or, it may be, for a less degree of restriction in general. Liberty for us will mean either more liberty—just as, in the Black Hole of Calcutta, ‘air’ meant ‘more air’—or distinct emancipation, for example, from personal slavery, or from foreign rule. Liberty in itself is but the power of doing what we please; a power which, for all human beings, has its natural limits. We may easily, indeed, have too much or too little of it; we can only have it in degree, but without some degree of it we cannot exist.

.     .     .     .     .

The crying evil, as it appears to us, of the present system of unrestricted competition, is not so much the distress of the workmen as the extreme slovenliness and badness of their work. The joy and satisfaction of making really good things is destroyed by the criminal eagerness to make them to suit the market. The love of art, which, quite as much as virtue, is its own reward, used in the old times to penetrate down as far as to the meanest manufacture, of kettles, for example, and pots. With us, on the contrary, the miserable truckling to the bad taste of the multitude has gradually stolen up into the very regions of the highest art—into architecture, sculpture, painting, music, literature. Nay, has it not infected even morality and religion? And do we never hear spiritual advice, which in fact bids us do as little good, and get as much applause for it, as we can; and, above all things, know the state of the market?

So far as co-operative societies or guilds would remove this evil, they would be of great use. But let it not be forgotten that the object of human society is not the mere ‘culinary’ one of, securing equal apportionments of meat and drink to all its members. Men combine for some higher object; and to that higher object it is, in their social capacity, the privilege and real happiness of individuals to sacrifice themselves. The highest political watchword is not Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, nor yet Solidarity, but Service.

The true comfort to the soldiers, serving in the great industrial army of arts, commerce, and manufactures, is neither to tell them, with the Utopians, that a good time is coming, when they will have plenty of victuals and not so much to do; nor yet, with the Economists, to hold out to them the prospect of making their fortune; but to show them that what they are now doing is good and useful service to the community; to call upon them to do it well and thoroughly; and to teach them how they may; and all this quite irrespectively of any, prospects either of making a fortune or living on into a good time.

We are not sure that our author would quite coincide with us in a comparative disregard of physical discomfort, privation, and suffering. Yet we think he would join us in the belief that the real want of the present time is, above all things, the distinct recognition and steady observance of a few plain, and not wholly modem, rules of morality.

It is very fine, perhaps not very difficult, to do every now and then some noble or generous act. But what is wanted of us is to do no wrong ones. It may be, for instance, in many eyes, a laudable thing to amass a colossal fortune by acts not in all cases of quite unimpeachable integrity, and then to expend it in magnificent benevolence. But the really good thing is not to make the fortune. Thorough honesty, and plain undeviating integrity—these are our real needs; on these substructions only can the fabric of individual or national well-being safely be reared. ‘Other foundation can no man lay.’ Common men, who, in their petty daily acts, maintain these ordinary unostentatious truths, are the real benefactors of mankind, the real pillars of the State, are the apostles and, champions of—something not to be named within a few pages of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity, the Solidarity of the Peoples, and the Universal Republic.

Poems and Prose Remains vol. I - Contents

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