Front Page Titles (by Subject) SENIOR'S JOURNALS. ( Fortnightly Review, August, 1871.) - The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 7 (Economic Studies and Essays)
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SENIOR’S JOURNALS. ( Fortnightly Review, August, 1871.) - Walter Bagehot, The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 7 (Economic Studies and Essays) 
The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, ed. Mrs. Russell Barrington. The Works in Nine Volumes. The Life in One Volume. (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1915). Vol. 7.
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Mr. Gladstone—at least every one alleges it to be Mr. Gladstone—said in the Edinburgh Review, that unhappily we scarcely possessed in England the kind of writer who abroad is called a publicist. Indeed it is not very easy to give an Englishman only familiar with English discussions and English ways of thought, an exact idea of the word. But probably the late Mr. Senior, in the last years of his life, came very near to it. He lived among politicians; he spent the main stress of his speculative mind upon politics; he wrote largely upon them. But he had none of the ties to them usual in England. He was neither a practical politician, engaged in real affairs, nor the editor of a political periodical, nor even a stirring writer addressing a large audience. He devoted much of his time to temporary politics, but he always dealt with them in an abstract and philosophical manner. He always endeavoured to deal with the permanent aspects of them, he addressed only thoughtful men, he was a “didactic member” of the republic of letters; and this we suppose is the idea of a publicist.
Many persons may regret it as Mr. Gladstone did, but the fact certainly is that we have very few such writers in this country, and that the tendency of present times is rather to diminish than to increase their number. There is something artificial about the species. That a man of ability should spend a great part of his mind on political affairs, but that he should neither have a practical share in them nor an effective say to a large audience, is not natural. Such a type can exist only in periods of transition, as in despotic countries where the government though absolute will allow discussion, perhaps is moved by discussion, where there are many cultivated men who wish to read good and long reasonings on political subjects, but where there is as yet no people, no vast numerous class, who wish to read and who will only read short sharp arguments on present issues. As soon as “leading articles” come in, publicists and pamphlets die out. Those who could best write pamphlets are drawn off to the more lucrative trade of writing “leaders”. And readers, especially the most important readers whose time is valuable, have so many leaders to read, and are so sickened of the subject, that they will not read a word beside. Mr. Disraeli once compared the great Quarterly Reviews, whose political articles are pamphlets in disguise, to the old mail coaches, which were capital things in their way, but when they tried to start in the present day found that all the travellers had gone on by the train. A quicker mode of travelling has come in, a hastier mode of reading, and a scrappier mode of writing. Fifty years ago, when Mr. Senior began to write, all this had not happened. The English Government was then predominantly ruled by aristocratic politicians, some of whom were reading men, more of whom respected reading though they did not practise it, and beneath whom there was a still larger body of educated men who cared for political discussion, who already possessed some public power, and who were eagerly desirous of more. At that time the grave political essayist could speak to the few, without being shouted down by the many.
That political writing has in consequence declined in this country is certain, at least it has been minced. No practical subject can be discussed thoroughly at sufficient length, and with all the arguments set in one view. No observant person could write such things on a pressing practical point, and think they would have any influence on events. On the politics of the hour the great penny papers of the North have infinitely more effect that all the reviews in London. These rule the constituencies, and on great pressing issues rule Parliament too. In time to come they will prevent the existence of publicists, or at least take care that they shall be few, and those few not powerful.
At first it might seem that the change was bad, but I am not sure that it is so. On the contrary it has one good effect. It prevents the highest class of philosophical minds from worrying themselves with momentary affairs. This is not their characteristic function. They have by nature in a rare degree that in which most men are most deficient—the faculty of abstraction. It is given them steadily to see not only a particular instance, or a few instances, but that which all such instances have in common. They can keep their attention fixed on this common element, and so fashion a doctrine common to all like cases. But when they have made their doctrine, their work is done: when that doctrine comes to be applied in real life a different class of faculties are wanted, and a most opposite set of powers become necessary. A philosopher having a particularly fine vision of the common elements in all cases is apt to be particularly blind to the uncommon qualities of individual instances. As objectors say, he is doctrinaire—that is, his doctrine telling him, that “C will happen, because A and B are present, if A and B are unresisted”—he is apt to be very fond of his theory, and some time or other to overlook some unknown and uncatalogued resisting agency, and which modifies or overpowers. A and B changes C altogether. We need for practice a more pliable class of mind, which though not able perhaps to invent a good abstract doctrine, is able to use it when made; and is able, too, to see the resisting agencies or modifying media, which the originator of the theory neither could nor would. The best applier is seldom the real discoverer, and still more seldom is the man who discovers the best man, or at all a good man to persuade others to use his discoveries. The difference between the patentee of an invention, and the capitalist who uses it, is not greater than that between the discoverer of an abstract political doctrine, and the practical politicians, active or rhetorical, who use it.
Mr. Mill is, of course, the standing instance of a philosopher spoiled by sending him into Parliament, and the world. But in a very different way I think Mr. Senior, our last “publicist,” was in some sense a spoiled philosopher. And I hope none of his friends will be offended at my saying so, for I intend it in no bad sense. What I mean is, that he scattered and wasted in a semi-abstract discussion of practical topics, powers which were fit to have produced a lasting and considerable work of philosophy. And I cannot think the practical discussion, as a discussion, very good. Take, for instance, the essay on Ireland, which is republished as a preface to his Irish Conversations. It is certainly very dull, and dull in the most teasing way, for you feel that the subject is most interesting, and that the writer is a man of ability, but there is no corresponding result. Your mind is not engrossed as it ought to be, or instructed as it ought to be. In truth, the essay is too abstract for a work on a living subject like Ireland. You always feel that you are reading about an economic island in the air; you are always pausing to think whether something that is not said may not affect and overthrow that which is said. You are never presented, as a writer on real politics should present you, with a living image which impresses itself rightly or wrongly on your imagination as a picture of the subject, and interests and persuades you even more by what it suggests to your own imagination than by the bare words on the paper. If, on the other hand, any one wishes to see what Mr. Senior was really capable of, I should refer him to the collection of Mr. Senior’s philosophical essays lately published—say to the review of Sir George Lewis’s essay on “Authority in Matters of Opinion”—and unless I am much mistaken, he will find there clear proofs of a speculative intellect of singular clearness and of high force, which it is a pity should have left no equal memory of itself, and which for the want of such is even already fading as time passes and the generations change.
One reason why Mr. Senior’s name is sooner passing away than it ought is that he was best known as a political economist, and that it must be owned that of late years abstract political economy—and it was with the abstract part that Mr. Senior dealt—has fallen somehow in public confidence, and that people’s minds are a little in doubt about it. One principal cause of this is the set—the most mischievous set in my judgment—which is being made against abstract reasoning in general. This is due to the rise of an immense class of readers who find, as everybody ought to find, abstractions difficult, and who being incessantly told that they are the great reading public, and the judge of everything, instantly begin to judge that what is unpleasant to them cannot be very valuable. The great rise of “Physics” ought, of course, to have prevented this. Our railways were made, so to say, out of abstract geometry, abstract algebra, abstract mechanics. Even in the kinds of science now most talked of those who can pass a good examination in Darwin’s Origin of Species must have had some practice in gaining a familiarity with abstract knowledge. But, in fact, “Physics” have had a contrary effect. The thousands of popular students only know the results at secondhand; they have no conception of the processes by which they were discovered. They see brilliant experiments on optics, and because there is so much to see they think there is nothing hard or abstract in the subject; yet if they would try and master the undulatory theory of light which very likely is the basis of these experiments, and that for which they were tried, they would find many and great difficulties—exactly the same sort of difficulties which there are in mastering abstract political economy and applying it to the moving facts of trade and life. A very rapid diffusion of popular knowledge necessarily brings with it a certain dislike and distrust of that abstract reasoning which never can be popular, and which people are only too glad to think unnecessary. And, besides this, political economy has fallen into some difficulty from causes peculiar to itself, and heresies, or what Mr. Senior and other economists of the old school would have thought to be especially such, are daily propounded. I was myself examined by him years ago, in the time of the strict school, at the London University, and I am sure he would have plucked various present examiners and professors. If it could have been revealed to him that persons of authority would dare to teach that profit had no tendency to become equal in different trades,—that the Ricardo theory of rent was a blunder and a misconception,—that it was unnecessary for bankers to keep a stock of gold or silver to meet their liabilities, but that they should buy the gold in the market when they wanted it, I think Mr. Senior would have been aghast. Yet such is the present state of the science, and naturally the rise of the heresiarchs has diminished the dignity of the orthodox heads. Now that the fame of Ricardo (one of the greatest and most consecutive of English thinkers) is a little dimmed, no wonder that the fame of an able follower of his, and such was Mr. Senior in the main, is much diminished. Secondary fame of that sort, if once lost, is scarcely to be recovered; and, therefore, I fear Mr. Senior’s economic writings, or his philosophical essays (very able as several of the latter seem to me to be), will not long keep alive in the world the recollection of what in his own generation was justly thought to be his ability.
Possibly Mr. Senior, who was a shrewd observer of the world, had no confidence in the endurance of his philosophical fame; at all events, he took singular and sedulous pains to provide himself with a substitute in case of a failure. There has been, as we all know, a great deal of discussion, modern and ancient, about posthumous fame, and some species of it have been catalogued. The “immortality of quotation” is one of these. There are many writers really known by some few sentences or some half-dozen stanzas, which every one knows, but all the rest of their works are dead, and no one knows anything about them. And it has been argued whether this kind of immortality of “extract” is or is not desirable or worth having. I believe the better opinion to be that it is worth having; always assuming that any posthumous fame is so. After all, your best words—your most characteristic words—are quoted continually, and have the chance of making a good impression of you year after year if anything of yours can make a good impression. But Mr. Senior has invented, or almost invented, a new and different sort of immortality. He aspired to immortality as a referee. He went about Europe, indeed beyond Europe, for he visited Egypt, talking carefully to the best known, the best informed, the most influential people on the affairs of each country, and on general intellectual affairs, and he wrote down the answers. There was no breach of confidence in this, for he told everybody—at least, everybody of importance—what he was doing; and if they liked, and if there were opportunity, he submitted that part of his journal which concerned them to their revision. His idea, of course, was that by preserving valuable thoughts, setting down on the instant fresh and characteristic remarks, he should earn permanent repute for himself. And if that sort of repute be desirable he will earn it. He will appear at the bottom of pages in many books for many years, as, “See Senior’s Journals, vol. ii. p. 293”. And occasionally, according to the convenience of writers, his name will creep into the text, “according to a good observation reported by Mr. Senior,” X Y was true; or, “if we may rely on an assertion made to Mr. Senior, A B was not true”. And this will be the reward for years of endless pains and labour. It will not be like the common “immortality of quotation,” in which your characteristic words are kept alive; it will be in the slightest sense a name only that will live; no image of Mr. Senior will then be preserved. The reader of after years will know only that a person called Mr. Senior, and about whom he has no other knowledge, was told so and so, true or false, by a Pasha of Egypt, or by such and such a French statesman, and this is all the immortality.
A certain peculiar power of asking questions is necessary in this mode. M. Léon Faucher was Prime Minister of France, and Mr. Senior steps up to him with—“Now that I have you for ten minutes, will you tell me what is your plan for a campaign?”—that is, for the policy of his government. No doubt it is a weakness, but there are many men thick-skinned enough in most ways, who could not ask such a question for any money or any fame. And the notoriety that Mr. Senior, as a professed journalist, might ask such questions, led people to be prepared to answer them. As years went on, it used to be said that the value of his journal was impaired, because persons of eminence prepared for their interviews, and corrected (as he was kind enough to let them) their sayings into what they would wish to have said rather than that which they did really say. The conversations thus became minor manifestoes, not unguarded utterances, and so lost their greatest interest.
And independently of having to ask as a habit questions too direct to be pleasant, most people would rather go to the galleys than be bound to put down at the end of a party what was said in the course of it. The pang of the coming task would poison most men’s social pleasure. And Mr. Senior often looked as if it spoiled his pleasure. His face had a care down it, as if he was keeping up the recollection of what had been said, rather than enjoying what was being said. And, at times, not quite gratifying to the speaker, the interest for what you were saying seemed to cease on a sudden (as does that of a reporter when he puts down his pen), as if he thought what was being said was no way remarkable, and that he would rest himself by not attending to it. To gain an immortality of referential citation, Mr. Senior certainly sacrificed much social enjoyment and some social popularity.
It should be seen, however, that most people could not gain that immortality by any sacrifice. First of all you must be something or somebody before the first people in foreign countries will speak to you freely, or indeed at all. Mr. Senior went abroad as a celebrated English economist, and with strenuous introductions from the most powerful and best people in England whom he had the gift of knowing. And what is more, he had the rarer gift of being able to use those introductions well. There was nothing in his daily pursuits to give him that knowledge; on the contrary, by profession he was an equity barrister, and he has himself described how difficult, how almost impossible it is, to get any foreigner to comprehend what “equity” in England means; and with much exaggeration, yet not without some truth, Political Economy, as Mr. Senior understood it, has been called an “insular science,” of which the authors were Englishmen, which assumed in the beings so treated of conditions and qualities hardly to be met with out of England. But Mr. Senior was an “International Man,” well able, as many volumes of “conversations” prove, to enter into the thoughts and report the words, not only of one sort of foreigners, but of various sorts. And the number of Masters in Chancery of whom this can be said is very small indeed.
Certainly, however, as was perhaps inevitable, the conversations are reported a little drily, and scarcely at all dramatically. Everybody speaks the same language—a French lady, a Pyrenean peasant, an Italian statesman, all use the same grave and cultivated words; all shape their sentences in the same clear, but rather formal, fashion. Nor is there much play of dialogue. In the best cases Mr. Senior’s object was to get at the thoughts of some one eminent man, and that he has given us, but he left inferior speakers to shift for themselves. And in all cases the thoughts appear in their driest—we might say in their most algebraic form, it might be all about A, B, C, S, and E, F for any life there is. Mr. Senior gives us what a man said, but not how he said it; he does not make us know them better for having said it; and this because he either did not notice, or disdained to set down, the little traits and intricacies which distinguish one man’s conversation from another. He rarely tells us whether a great statesman is tall or short; never mentions what sort of a coat any one wore; he shows no man “in his habit as he was”.
In the substance of the two volumes of Journals now before us, Mr. Senior was very fortunate, for they turn on the two most prominent parts of foreign politics—the condition of the Pope, who, if he be not restored to temporal sovereignty, is sure to be in “continual claim” for that sovereignty much longer than the lives of any of us; and the state of France, which is “always with us,” an unequalled source of care, and an everlasting subject for excellent writing. At this instant almost every one will turn to the French journals, but this extract from the Roman journal of 1851 is worth reading:—
“Dr. T. came to take leave of us. He is going to England, and describes the formalities which attend the grant of a passport to a Roman. First, he must have the consent of his wife; secondly, of the curate of his parish; and, thirdly, a certificate from two persons in the confidence of the Government that he behaved well during the Revolution. ‘But,’ I said, ‘if the wife or the curate refuse to consent, what is the remedy?’ ‘In respect of the curate,’ he said, ‘there is none. He is the sole judge of what is favourable or unfavourable to the spiritual health of his parishioners: and if he thinks that foreign travel is likely to disagree with your soul, you must stay at home. As to your wife, you may summon her before the tribunal to give her reasons, and if the Court thinks them insufficient you are allowed to go; but there is no saying how long the suit may last.”
And this observation from the Duc de Sermoneta, “considered then as now,” the editor tells us, “the cleverest man in Rome,” is not ungratifying to English vanity:—
“ ‘Assassination,’ he added, ‘is almost the only classical custom which we have preserved; in other things we are more Turkish than European. Our system of government is eminently Turkish. It consists of a central despotism and provincial despots, whom they call pashas and cadis, and we call cardinals and prelates, in the provinces. The real successors of the ancient Romans are the English. You have inherited the Roman respect for law and authority, the Roman love for what is established, the Roman fidelity to engagements, the Roman pertinacity of purpose, and the Roman contempt or foreigners. When you commit follies they are all of your own invention. We add to our own absurdities those of every other country. Like the Romans, wherever you go you take all your immunities. An Englishman, or even a Jew who calls himself an Englishman, is civis Romanus. He is not bound to put up with the institutions of other countries. He carries abroad with him his amusements, his comforts, his habits, and even his hours. Wherever you go to the Galignani follows you. No foreign post-office ventures to intercept it. When I read Cicero’s “Letters” I fancy myself reading the correspondence of one of your statesmen. All the thoughts, all the feelings, almost all the expressions are English.’ ”
I cannot help thinking that this saying of the “cleverest man in Rome” might he coupled with Professor Huxley’s dictum that the “English and the Italian are the best brains now extant,” and that Mr. Arnold might fitly append both to the next reprint of My Countrymen.
The conversations of Mr. Senior on France in 1848, 1850, and 1851, in several parts, are very curious, and would afford easy matter for an article if it were desirable to add another to the innumerable ones already written in England on French politics. But at present I need not do this, nor is there room. I will only take two salient points which these conversations illustrate, make a quotation from them, and then stop.
First, and this is the greatest point of all, no one of Mr. Senior’s interlocutors seems to have had the secret gift of correct anticipation. In May, 1848, Michel Chevalier predicted the days of June of the same year; but this, though a very sensible remark, was no miraculous prophecy. It was certain to everybody that the struggle between the rouge party and the party of order had not yet been fought out, and that it must be fought out, and few close judges probably could doubt that at last the party of order would win, at last they always have won. But this is almost the only instance in these volumes of tolerable prediction. One instance of bad prophecy is very curious. Naturally very many if not most of Mr. Senior’s friends were, if not professed economists, at least men of an economic and financial turn. After the coup d’état of the late Emperor, the question continually is not so much what is coming to the French nation, as what will happen to French trade—the French exchequer. And it is very remarkable that though these experienced and close observers might and did in some degree differ as to the intensity of the economic disaster which was impending in 1851, every one expected economic disaster more or less severe. The following from an unknown converser, V., is a fair specimen:—
“ ‘What do you mean,’ I asked, ‘by ruin? How can such a country as France be ruined?’
“ ‘By ruin,’ he answered, ‘I mean progressive decline. I mean deterioration of agriculture, of manufactures, and of commerce. I mean capital exported, railroads unfinished, rents unpaid, increasing pauperism, a growing deficit; in short, the continuance of our present state of insecurity, and therefore of semi-paralysis.’ ”
But neither V. nor any other “authority” dreamed that the next twenty years would be years of incomparably the greatest economic prosperity which France had ever seen; that the railway system would be developed with a rapidity far greater than in the time of Louis Philippe; that commerce would grow with unknown celerity; that agriculture would thrive; that the deficit in the finances would be caused not by the deficiency of the revenue, for that augmented faster than ever, but by the prodigality of the Government; and that this prodigality, though there seemed no end to it, and though financiers were always exposing it, would in no way exhaust France, but leave her able at her need to raise suddenly an immense sum of ready money far greater than she ever raised before, than former Governments would have dreamed of demanding, or than in 1851 would have been thought possible. At this moment, when so many predictions are in the air as to future France, it is useful to see how wrong the most sure predictions, and those of the best authorities, have been as to past France.
And in addition to this general difficulty of prediction, there are also the clearest warnings in these volumes, how difficult the French then found it (and now find it, for the circumstances are not really altered) to establish what to a common Englishman seems the most obvious form of government in their case: parliamentary government and constitutional royalty. “France,” says one of Mr. Senior’s interlocutors, an Imperialist, it is fair to say,—
“Is unfit for Parliamentary government. It wants two things, both elements of that form of government. One is moderation. Every French party, if it gets the upper hand, pushes its victory to the utmost, alters the policy and displaces the administration of its predecessors, and carries out its own views to the utmost extreme, until it disgusts the country, and the Opposition comes in, and acts with equal intemperance. Another deficiency is an aristocracy. We have indeed an aristocracy of birth and an aristocracy of wealth; but the former is poor, ignorant, and presumptuous, the latter ignoble and servile. The great object of our rich roturiers is to connect themselves with noble families. They succeed more easily for their daughters, but even that success is a miserable one. An Englishman can scarcely conceive the stupidity, ignorance, and frivolity of the young men of our ancient families. They disdain the learned professions and trade, there is room for only a portion of them in the army, and what is the army in a long peace? Then we have no political bodies with any inherent strength or traditionary influence. In short, there is nothing powerful but the Government and the army.”
And a much higher authority, Gustave de Beaumont, the friend and the biographer of Tocqueville, spoke still more clearly and still more strongly on the incompatibility to France of our English constitutional king.
“ ‘I objected,’ said Mr. Senior, ‘to his calling the government of Louis-Philippe constitutional, since Louis-Philippe was his own prime minister—a most unconstitutional proceeding, according to our notions.’
“ ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘according to your notions, but not according to ours. We have not yet adopted the true faith, the faith of the cochon à l’engrais. To preserve our respect our sovereign must act. And this, perhaps, makes us incapable at present of your constitutional government. If our sovereign, whether you call him president or king, merely takes the members whom the Assembly points out to him, keeps them so long as they can keep their majority, follows their advice implicitly, and dismisses them as soon as they lose their majority, he becomes King Log, and we despise him. If he acts he must sometimes make mistakes, and still oftener be thought to do so. He will sometimes offend the good sense of the nation, and oftener its susceptibilities, and we shall hate him. This is the objection to a President for life; he would inevitably in time become hated or despised, or both, and then we should go into the streets and depose him. For in France,’ he added, ‘we are not good balancers of inconveniences. “Nous sommes trop logiques.” As soon as we see the faults of an institution, nous la brisons. In England you calculate; we act on impulse. We should never have tolerated your Hanoverian kings, with their German favourites and their German policy. We should have turned them out in a year. You kept them until they were acclimatised, and gradually became the best royal stock in Europe. Unless we greatly improve, we never shall have any permanent institutions; for as we destroy every institution as soon as we discover its faults, and no one is free from them, nothing can last.’ ”
Enough has been quoted to show the amount of curious information in these volumes. But it ought to be added that there is a great difficulty in using them. Archbishop Whately used to say that he had often heard the words of Eliphaz, the Temanite, quoted in good pulpits as “on conclusive authority”; the preacher found them in the Book of Job in the very centre of the Bible, and did not see why he should not quote them. The fact that they were dramatically put in the mouth of an ill-natured and mistaken friend did not occur to him. Just so in Mr. Senior’s journals, there are interlocutors of every sort, and any one who seeks a text on any side or anything for France or Italy may find it here. This will contribute much to their “immortality of reference,” but it will also make a wise critic suspicious of their authority. He will want to see not only what was said, but who said it, lest the words may be those of some nameless fool or grave charlatan, instead of those of Faucher or Tocqueville.
END OF VOL. VII.
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