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CHAPTER V: Of Knowledge, Religion, and Morals Among the English. - Germaine de Staël, Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution (LF ed.) 
Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution, newly revised translation of the 1818 English edition, edited, with an introduction and notes by Aurelian Craiutu (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2008).
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Of Knowledge, Religion, and Morals Among the English.
What constitutes the knowledge of a nation are sound political ideas spread among all classes and a general instruction in sciences and literature. In the first respect, the English have no rivals in Europe; in the second, I know nothing that can be compared to them, except the Germans of the North. Still the English would have an advantage which can belong only to their institutions, which is that the first class of society devotes itself as much to study as the second. Mr. Fox wrote learned dissertations on Greek during his hours of leisure from parliamentary debates; Mr. Windham has left several interesting treatises on mathematics and literature. The English have at all times honored learning: Henry VIII, who trampled everything underfoot, yet respected men of letters when they did not come in opposition to his disorderly passions. The great Elizabeth was well versed in the ancient languages and even spoke Latin with facility. That foppery of ignorance with which we had reason to reproach the French nobility was never introduced among the princes or nobility of England. One would think that the former were persuaded that the divine right by which they hold their privileges entirely exempted them from the study of human science. Such a manner of thinking could not exist in England and would only appear ridiculous. Nothing factitious can succeed in a country where everything is subjected to publicity. The great English nobility would be as much ashamed of not having had a distinguished classical education as men of the second rank in France were, heretofore, of not going to court; and these differences are not connected, as some pretend, with French frivolity. The most persevering scholars, the deepest thinkers, have belonged to that nation, which is capable of everything when it chooses; but its political institutions were so defective that they perverted its natural good qualities.
In England, on the contrary, the institutions favor every kind of intellectual progress. The juries, the administrations of counties and towns, the elections, the newspapers give the whole nation a great share of interest in public affairs. The consequence is that it is better informed; and that, at a venture, it would be better to converse with an English farmer on political questions than with the greater number of men on the Continent, even the most enlightened. That admirable good sense which is founded on justice and security exists nowhere but in England or in the country that resembles it, America. Reflection must remain a stranger to men who have no rights; since as soon as they perceive the truth, they must be first unhappy, and soon after filled with the spirit of revolt. It must be admitted also that in a country where the armed force has almost always been naval, and commerce the principal occupation, there must necessarily be more knowledge than where the national defense is confided to the troops of the line; and where industry is almost entirely directed to the cultivation of the ground. Commerce, placing men in relation with the interests of the world, extends the ideas, exercises the judgment, and, from the multiplicity and diversity of transactions, makes the necessity of justice continually to be felt. In countries where the only pursuit is agriculture, the mass of the population may be composed of serfs attached to the soil and devoid of all information. But what could be done with tradesmen who are enslaved and ignorant? A maritime and commercial country is, therefore, necessarily more enlightened than any other; yet there remains much to be done to give the English people a sufficient education. A considerable portion of the lowest class can as yet neither read nor write; and it is doubtless to remedy this evil that the new methods of Bell and Lancaster1 are so warmly encouraged, because they are calculated to bring education within the reach of the indigent. The lower orders are perhaps better informed in Switzerland, in Sweden, and in some parts of the north of Germany; but in none of these countries is found that vigor of liberty which will preserve England, it is to be hoped, from the reaction occasioned by the French Revolution. In a country where there is an immense capital, great riches concentrated in a small number of hands, a court, all that can tend to the corruption of the people, time is needed for knowledge to extend itself and to oppose successfully the inconveniences attached to the disproportion of fortunes.
The peasantry of Scotland is better informed than that of England, because there is less wealth in the hands of a few and more prosperity among the people. The Presbyterian religion established in Scotland excludes the episcopal hierarchy maintained by the English church. Consequently, the choice of the simple ministers of public worship is better there; and as they live retired in the mountains, they devote their time to the instruction of the peasants. It is also a great advantage for Scotland not to be subject, like England, to a very oppressive and very ill-planned poor’s tax, which keeps up mendicity and creates a class of people who dare not quit the parish where relief is guaranteed to them.2 The city of Edinburgh is not so much absorbed as London by public affairs, and does not contain such a mixture of wealth and luxury; philosophical and literary interests play there a greater role. But, on the other hand, the remains of the feudal system are more felt in Scotland than in England. Juries in civil affairs have been but recently introduced, and there are not nearly so many popular elections in proportion as among the English. Commerce has there less influence, and the spirit of liberty is, with some exceptions, displayed with less energy.
In Ireland, the ignorance of the people is frightful; but that must be attributed, in part, to superstitious prejudices and, in part, to the almost total privation of the benefits of a constitution. Ireland has been united to England only for a few years;3 she has felt till now all the evils of arbitrary power, and has often avenged herself of it in a most violent manner. The nation being divided into two religions, forming also two political parties, the English government since Charles I has granted every advantage to the Protestants in order to enable them to keep in submission the Catholic majority. Swift, an Irishman and as fine a genius as any in the three kingdoms,* wrote, in 1740, on the miserable state of Ireland. The attention of enlightened men was strongly excited by the writings of Swift, and the improvements which took place in that country may be dated from that time. When America declared herself independent, and England was obliged to acknowledge her as such, the necessity of paying attention to Ireland was felt every day more strongly by reflecting minds. The illustrious talents of Mr. Grattan,4 which thirty years later have again astonished England, were remarked so early as 1782 in the parliament of Ireland; and by degrees that country was at length brought to a union with Great Britain. Superstitious prejudices are still, however, the source of a thousand evils there; for to reach the same point of prosperity as England, the knowledge connected with a reform in religion is as necessary as the free spirit of a representative government. The political exclusion to which the Irish Catholics are condemned is contrary to the true principles of justice; but it seems difficult to put in possession of the benefits of the constitution men who are irritated by ancient resentment.
Hitherto then we can admire in the Irish nation only a great character of independence and a great deal of natural quickness; but in that country people do not yet enjoy either the security or the instruction which are the result of religious and political liberty. Scotland is, in many respects, the opposite of Ireland, and England retains something of both.
Since it is impossible in England to be minister without sitting in one of the houses of Parliament, and without discussing the affairs of state with the representatives of the nation, it unavoidably follows that such ministers bear, in general, no resemblance to the class of governors in an absolute monarchy. The esteem of the public is, in England, the first aim of men in power; they scarcely ever make a fortune in the ministry. Mr. Pitt died leaving nothing but debts, which the Parliament paid. The under-secretaries of state, the clerks, all persons connected with the administration, enlightened by public opinion and their own pride, possess the most perfect integrity. Ministers cannot favor their partisans unless the latter are sufficiently distinguished not to provoke the discontent of Parliament. It is not enough to have the favor of the master to remain in place; it is necessary also to have the esteem of the representatives of the nation; and this can only be obtained by real ability. Ministers appointed by court intrigue, as we have seen continually in France, would not support themselves twenty-four hours in the House of Commons. Their mediocrity would be ascertained in an instant; they would not appear there be-powdered and in the full costume of the ministers of the old government and of the court of Bonaparte. They would not be surrounded with courtiers acting the same part with them which they themselves act with the King, and bursting into raptures at the justness of their commonplace ideas and the depth of their false conceptions. An English minister enters either house alone, without any particular dress, without a distinctive mark; no sort of quackery comes to his aid; everybody questions and judges him; but, on the other hand, he is respected by all, if he deserves it, because being able to pass only for what he is, the esteem he enjoys is due to his personal worth.
“They do not pay their court to princes in England as in France,” it will be said, “but they seek popularity, which does not less impair the truth of character.” In a well-organized country like England, to desire popularity is to wish for the just recompense of all that is noble and good in itself. There have existed, in all times, men who were virtuous, notwithstanding the inconveniences and the perils to which they were exposed in consequence; but when social institutions are combined in such a manner that private interests and public virtues accord, it does not hence follow that these virtues have no other basis than personal interest. They are only more general, because they are advantageous as well as honorable.
The science of liberty (if we may use that expression) at the point at which it is cultivated in England supposes in itself a very high degree of education and knowledge. Nothing can be more simple than that doctrine, once the principles on which it reposes have been adopted; but it is nevertheless certain that, on the Continent, we seldom meet with any person who, in heart and mind, understands England. It would seem as if there were moral truths amidst which we must be born, and which the beating of the heart inculcates better than all the discussions of theory. Nevertheless, to enjoy and practice that liberty which unites all the advantages of republican virtues, of philosophical knowledge, of religious sentiments, and monarchical dignity, a great share of understanding is requisite in the people, and a high degree of study and virtue in men of the first class. English ministers must unite with the qualities of a statesman the art of expressing themselves with eloquence. It thence follows that literature and philosophy are much more appreciated, because they contribute efficaciously to the success of the highest ambition. We hear incessantly of the empire of rank and of wealth among the English; but we must also acknowledge the admiration which is granted to real talents. It is possible that, among the lowest class of society, a peerage and a fortune produce more effect than the name of a great writer; this must be so; but if the question regards the enjoyments of good company and consequently of public opinion, I know no country in the world where it is more advantageous to be a man of superiority. Not only every employment, every rank may be the recompense of talent; but public esteem is expressed in so flattering a manner as to confer enjoyments more keenly felt than any other.
The emulation which such a prospect must excite is one of the principal causes of the incredible extent of information and knowledge diffused in England. Were it possible to make a statistical report of knowledge, in no country should we find so great a proportion of persons conversant in the study of ancient languages, a study, unfortunately, too much neglected in France. Private libraries without number, collections of every kind, subscriptions in abundance for all literary undertakings, establishments for public education exist in all directions, in every county, at the extremity as in the center of the kingdom; in short, we find at each step altars erected to thought, and these altars serve as a support to those of religion and virtue.
Thanks to toleration, to political institutions, and the liberty of the press, there is a greater respect for religion and for morals in England than in any other country in Europe. In France people take a pleasure in saying that it is precisely for the sake of religion and morals that censors have been at all times employed; but let them compare the spirit of literature in England since the liberty of the press is established there with the different writings which appeared under the arbitrary reign of Charles II, and under the regent or Louis XV in France. The licentiousness of published works was carried among the French in the last century to a degree that excites horror. The case is the same in Italy, where, however, the press has at all times been subjected to the most cumbersome restrictions. Ignorance in the mass of the people and the most lawless independence in men of superior parts is always the result of constraint.
English literature is certainly of all others that in which there are the greatest number of philosophic works. Scotland contains, at this day, very powerful writers in that department, with Dugald Stewart5 at their head, who in retirement pursues with ardor the search of truth. Literary criticism is carried to the highest pitch in the reviews, particularly in that of Edinburgh;6 in which writers, formed to render themselves illustrious, Jeffrey, Playfair, Mackintosh,7 do not disdain to enlighten authors by the opinions they pass on their works. The most learned writers on questions of jurisprudence and political economy, such as Bentham, Malthus, Brougham,8 are more numerous in England than anywhere else because they have a well-founded hope that their ideas will be translated into practice. Voyages to every part of the world bring to England the tributes of science, which are not less welcome than those of commerce; but in the midst of so many intellectual treasures of every kind, we cannot cite any of those irreligious or licentious works with which France has been inundated: public opinion has reprobrated them from the moment that it had cause to dread them; and it acquits itself of this with greater willingness because it is the only sentinel for this purpose. Publicity is always favorable to truth; and as morality and religion are truth in its highest character, the more you permit men to discuss these subjects, the more they become enlightened and dignified. The courts of justice would very properly punish in England any publication offensive to character and morals; but no work bears that mark of official inspection (censure) which casts a previous doubt on the assertions it may contain.
English poetry, which is fostered neither by irreligion, nor the spirit of faction, nor licentiousness of manners, is still rich and animated, experiencing nothing of that decline which threatens successively the literature of most other countries in Europe. Sensibility and imagination preserve the immortal youth of soul. A second age of poetry has arisen in England because enthusiasm is not there extinct, and because nature, love, and country always exercise great power there. Cowper lately, and now Rogers, Moore, Thomas Campbell, Walter Scott, Lord Byron, in different departments and degrees, are preparing a new age of glory for English poetry; and while everything on the Continent is in a state of degradation, the eternal fountain of beauty still flows from the land of freedom.
In what empire is Christianity more respected than in England? Where are greater pains taken to propagate it? Whence do missionaries proceed in so great number to every part of the world? The Society9 which has taken on itself to transmit copies of the Bible into countries where the light of Christianity is obscured, or not yet displayed, transmitted quantities of them into France during the war, and this care was not superfluous. But I should at present deviate from my subject were I to enter here on what would constitute an apology for France in that respect.
The Reformation placed the cultivation of knowledge among the English in harmony with the feelings of religion. This has been of great advantage to that country; and the high degree of piety of which individuals there are capable leads always to austerity in morals, and scarcely ever to superstition. The particular sects of England, the most numerous of which is that of the Methodists, have no other view than the maintenance of the severe purity of Christianity in the conduct of life. Their renunciation of pleasures of every kind, their persevering zeal in well-doing announce to mankind that there are in the Gospel the germs of sentiments and of virtues still more fruitful than all those that we have seen displayed even to the present day, and the sacred flowers of which are perhaps destined for future generations.
In a religious country good morals also necessarily exist, and yet the passions of the English are very strong; for it is a great error to believe them of a calm disposition because they have habitually cold manners. No men are more impetuous in great things; but they resemble the dogs sent by Porus10 to Alexander, who disdained to fight against any other adversary than the lion. The English abandon their apparent tranquillity and give themselves up to extremes of all kinds. They go in quest of danger; they wish to attempt extraordinary things; they desire strong emotions. Activity of imagination and the restraint of their habits render such emotions necessary to them; but these habits themselves are founded on a great respect for morality.
The freedom of the newspapers, which some persons would represent to us as contrary to delicacy of mores, is one of the most efficacious causes of that delicacy: everything in England is so well known, and so discussed, that truth in all matters is unavoidable; and one might submit to the judgment of the English public as to that of a friend, who should enter into the details of your life, into the shades of your character, to weigh every action, in the spirit of equity, agreeably to the situation of each individual. The greater the weight of public opinion in England, the greater boldness is necessary to act in violation of it; accordingly the women who brave it go to a daring length. But how rare are these violations of it, even in the highest class, the only one in which such examples can at times be cited! In the second rank, among the inhabitants of the country, we find nothing but good marriages and private virtues, a domestic life entirely consecrated to the education of a numerous family, who, brought up in a complete conviction of the sacred nature of marriage, would not permit a light thought on this subject to enter the mind. As there are no convents in England, the daughters are commonly educated at the house of their parents; and one can see by their information and their virtues which of the two is better for a female, education on this plan or on that which is practiced in Italy.
“At least,” it will be said, “those trials for divorce in which the most indecent discussions are admitted are a source of scandal.” They shouldn’t, however, be so, since the result is such as I have just mentioned. These trials are an old usage, and from this point of view, certain people ought to defend them; but be this as it may, the dread of the scandal is a great restraint. And besides, people in England are not disposed as in France to make such subjects a topic of pleasantry. A degree of austerity corresponding to the spirit of the early Puritans is displayed in these trials. The judges, as well as the spectators, come to them with a serious disposition, and the consequences are highly important since the maintenance of the domestic virtues depends on them, and there is no liberty without these virtues. Now, as the spirit of the age was not favorable to them, the useful ascendancy of these trials for divorce is a fortunate chance; for chance there almost always is in the good or evil that can be produced by adhering to old usages, as occasionally they are suitable to the present time, and at other periods no longer applicable to it. Happy the country in which the misconduct of women can be punished with so much wisdom, without frivolity, and without vengeance! They are permitted to have recourse to the protection of the man for whom they have sacrificed everything; but they are, in general, deprived of all the brilliant advantages of society. I do not know whether legislation could invent anything at once stronger and milder.
An indignant feeling will perhaps be excited by the practice of requiring a sum of money from the seducer of a woman. As everything in England is stamped with a noble feeling, I will not lightly pass sentence on a custom of this nature, since it is preserved. It is necessary to punish in some way the trespasses of men against morals, since public opinion is in general too lax in regard to them, and no one will pretend that a heavy pecuniary loss is not a punishment. Moreover, the public sensation produced by these distressing trials renders it almost always a duty on the man to espouse the woman whom he has seduced; and this obligation is a pledge that neither levity nor falsehood is mingled with the sentiments which men allow themselves to express. When in love there is nothing but love, its irregularities are both more rare and more excusable. It is, however, difficult to me to understand why the fine payable by the seducer should go to the husband: often, indeed, the husband does not accept it, but appropriates it to the poor. However, there is reason to think that two motives have given rise to this custom: one to furnish to a husband, when of a class without property, the means of educating his children when the mother, whose duty it was, is lost to him; the other, and this is a more essential point, to bring forward the husband in a case involving the misconduct of his wife, in order to examine if he be not culpable in a similar way in regard to her. In Scotland, infidelity on the part of the husband dissolves a marriage like infidelity on the part of the wife, and a sentiment of duty in a free country always puts the strong and the weak on a level.
In England all is constituted in such a way that the interest of each class, of each sex, of each individual lies in conforming themselves to morality. Political liberty is the supreme instrument of this admirable combination. “Yes,” it will still be said, “if you look at words and not at things; the truth is, that the English are always governed by interest.” As if there were any resemblance between the interest that leads to virtue and that which causes a deviation to vice! Doubtless, England is not a planet distinct from ours, in which personal advantage is not, as elsewhere, the spring of human action. Men cannot be governed by reckoning always on devotedness and sacrifices; but when the whole of the institutions of a country are such that there is an advantage in being upright, there results from it a certain habit of integrity which becomes engraven on every heart: it is transmitted by remembrance, the air we breathe is impregnated with it, and we are no longer under the necessity of reflecting on the inconveniences of every kind that would ensue from certain improprieties; the force of example is enough to preserve them.
[1. ] Andrew Bell (1753–97) and Joseph Lancaster (1778–1838) founded the mutual education system involving the best students in the teaching process.
[2. ] The Poor Laws had existed since the reign of Elizabeth I; they confined the poor to workhouses in which work was mandatory. The 1601 law remained in effect until 1832.
[3. ] Since 1800.
[* ] It is related that Swift felt a foreboding that his faculties would abandon him, and that, walking one day with a friend, he saw an oak, the head of which was withered, though the trunk and roots were yet in full vigor. “It is thus I shall be,” said Swift; and his sad prediction was accomplished. When he had fallen into such a state of stupor that for a whole year he had not uttered a word, he suddenly heard the bells of St. Patrick’s, of which he was the Dean, ringing in full peal, and asked what it meant. His friends, in raptures that he had recovered his speech, hastened to inform him that it was in honor of his birthday that these signs of joy were taking place. “Ah!” he exclaimed, “all that is unavailing now”; and he returned to that silence which death soon after confirmed. But the good he had done survived him, and it is for this that men of genius appear on the earth.
[4. ] Henry Grattan (1746–1820), Irish Protestant and member of the parliament in Dublin, fought for Irish independence.
[5. ] Dugald Stewart (1753–1828), a prominent Scottish philosopher and disciple of Thomas Reid, was a member of the Scottish School of Common Sense, which flourished in Scotland in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
[6. ] The famous Edinburgh Review, one of the most influential magazines of the nineteenth century, was founded in 1802 by Francis Jeffrey, Sydney Smith, and Henry Brougham. For more information, see Fontana, Rethinking the Politics of Commercial Society.
[7. ] Francis Jeffrey (1773–1850) was a founder of the Edinburgh Review and member of the House of Commons (from 1834). John Playfair (1748–1819) was an eminent mathematician and geologist. James Mackintosh (1765–1832) was the author of Vindiciae Gallicae (1791).
[8. ] Henry Brougham (1778–1868) was a prominent Whig politician. As lord chancellor from 1830 to 1834, he was responsible for the passage of the Reform Act of 1831–32 and the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833.
[9. ] The British and Foreign Bible Society, founded in London in 1804.
[10. ] Indian prince (ca. 327 bc) who fought against Alexander the Great.