Front Page Titles (by Subject) EDITOR'S PREFACE. ( Portion of a Preface written by Forrest Morgan for an edition of Walter Bagehot's works which was published in America. ) - The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 1 (Memoir, Early Essays)
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EDITOR’S PREFACE. ( Portion of a Preface written by Forrest Morgan for an edition of Walter Bagehot’s works which was published in America. ) - Walter Bagehot, The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 1 (Memoir, Early 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. 1.
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That no editor has any business to rewrite a line or change a substantive word of his author’s text is self-evident; and that the substitution of any language of mine for that of Walter Bagehot would be the summit of impertinence and presumptuous folly is equally evident. What readers wish to know and have a right to know is, what Bagehot said, not what his editor thinks he ought to have said. Therefore, in no case have I meddled with the structure of a sentence in any way; in a few cases I have called attention to the entanglement of the syntax, but I have not even attempted to mend such atrocities as “The period at which the likeness was attempted to be taken” (beginning of the English Constitution), or other like gems of English. But I do not think even editorial fidelity or reverence for the memory of a great man (and I cannot better gauge my own for Walter Bagehot than by saying that I believe this edition is a higher service to the public than any original work I could do) binds me to allow a plural noun to remain coupled with a singular verb (or vice versa), or a singular pronoun in one clause set off against a plural one in the following like clause, or a present and a past tense similarly yoked together in a most discordant union,—merely because the great man did not read his proofs and a patent slip of the pen remained uncorrected. I do not believe even he, little as he cared for such things, would wish to have all the rags and tatters of his haste and slovenliness scrupulously saved up and exhibited to posterity, any more than a public speaker would care to have a phonograph record an accidental hiccough; nor do I believe that even the most devoted admirers of Bagehot, to whom every word is worth preserving as instinct with the flavour of that rich mind (among whom I count myself), care to have their senses jarred upon by such purely accidental slips. Nevertheless, I recognise the right of the public to know just what their author wrote and how he left his text; that he wrote carelessly and did not read his proofs is in itself an item of interest in comprehending him. And still more, I owe both to them and to myself to give the minutest information just how far I have tampered with the text, so that they may not fear that they are reading a mangled and wantonly altered version, and I may not be suspected of meddling with his language. I have therefore kept a scrupulous account of all the changes, even the minutest (except such as are made by the insertion of words or letters,—in which case the additions are invariably put in brackets,—or by foot-notes), and give them in a separate table. By this means, any one who finds comfort in knowing how badly his author could write can do so, and where no notice is given may be sure he is reading Bagehot undefiled.
That all extracts in foreign languages are translated, ought to be more a matter of course than it is: in anything designed for wide popular reading, neglect to do so is either laziness or swagger. The object being that all readers shall have the fullest understanding and enjoyment with the least friction, it is absurd to lock up any portion out of the reach of four-fifths of them; and it is not the business either of a writer or an editor to impose penalties for defective education. There is of course one palpable exception to this,—where an extract is cited as a sample of style instead of matter; which in general excludes translation of all poetry as well as of some prose. But curiously enough, not a single quotation of Bagehot’s from any foreign author is given to illustrate style: even the verses from Æschylus in the essay on Shelley are cited only as an instance of classic bareness of decoration, and he quotes poems from Béranger only to illustrate that poet’s philosophy of life. The worst translation possible, therefore, would be better than none.
It will be noticed that I have refrained almost wholly from argumentative notes; even the few which seem such turn really upon questions of fact. It is a gross wrong to an author to make his popularity float criticism of himself which could not gain a hearing if published separately, in such intimate union with the text that it cannot be escaped; and nothing is more annoying to a reader than to be incessantly teased with the information that the editor, for whom he does not care, differs from the author, for whom he does care. There are scores of points on which I think Bagehot’s opinion could be contested or limited, some of them provoking in their perversity; but I have not forced the reader even to take the trouble of skipping an argument on the subject.
It ought not to be necessary, but to some it will be, to disclaim any overweening notion of the value of these or any corrections. Of course Bagehot’s greatness is not affected by such trifles: his thought and his wit, the value of his matter and the charm of his style, did not have to wait for this before delighting the world, and so far as either the use or the pleasure of his works is concerned, they would be substantially as well without it. But then, the same thing may be said of every other great author, whom nevertheless it is always thought a worthy service to present in as fair and clear a shape as possible. Such work is, to use a familiar comparison, only “picking vermin off a lion’s skin;” but for my own part I prefer a clean lion to a dirty one, and must not be accused of forgetting that he is a lion because I perform the service thoroughly,—on the contrary, but for my hearty admiration for him it would not have been undertaken. Once for all, Walter Bagehot’s writings have been to me for many years one of the choicest of intellectual luxuries, and a valued store of sound thought and mental stimulation, and full appreciation of these must be held as implied in any difference of opinion I express; but even an admired master and teacher is not an idol to be uncritically worshipped.
Lastly, despite all the care and labour expended on the work, I know well that blunders will probably be found in it by sharp-eyed specialists, each with more time for a few items than the editor has had for the whole. Very likely they will vindicate Bagehot’s accuracy on some points; not impossibly I have made some fresh errors in trying to correct his. I cannot escape or forestall such criticism, and would not if I could,—the public is entitled to know the truth on every point; nor shall I complain of any just castigation for errors or bad judgment. I ask only for the fair allowance due one who has made heavy personal sacrifices of leisure, health, and chosen pursuits, to carry through an important work which better equipped and less burdened men were not likely to undertake.
The appreciative essays on Bagehot published since his death—Mr. Hutton’s memoirs, Mr. Giffen’s reminiscences in the Fortnightly, the acute comments of Professors Walker and Dicey in the Nation, and others—have so fully set forth his titles to praise, that further comment involves an awkward dilemma. To repeat the eulogies would be tedious; yet to give nothing but hostile criticism would grossly distort the perspective both of Bagehot and myself, and stultify both my admiration and my work. The hasty reader might think, “If Bagehot is wrong in both his attitude and his arguments, it is a waste of time to read him, and he cannot deserve so much laudation”. Of course this would be bad reasoning even if the postulate were wholly true: like all first-rate minds, Bagehot is more instructive and better worth reading when he is wrong than when he is right, because the wrong is sure to be almost right and the truth on its side neglected; and for myself, I take refuge in his own dictum that it is not a critic’s business to be thankful. Some new things, however, are still left me to say in his praise, to maintain a tolerable balance; but I have no intention of cataloguing all the items I specially admire or disapprove, or of anything more than supplementing the articles above mentioned by a few detached observations.
It will seem absurd to compare Bagehot with Coleridge, and there certainly was little enough resemblance in life or writings; but the chief work of both was the same,—to uproot the stubborn idea that nothing except what one is used to has any “case”. Bagehot harps upon the fact that everything has a case; that institutions and practices are tools to do certain work vital to a society, and cannot be passed upon till we know its needs; and that those needs may demand alternate acceptance and rejection of given institutions, according as discipline is paralysing progress or progress weakening discipline. He carries this to the very root, evidently taking keen pleasure in making out an excellent case for isolation, for persecution, for slavery, for State regulation of everything from religion to prices, for even the most paralysing politico-religious despotism,—in short, for everything most hateful to the modern spirit and most mischievous in modern society; he makes it an arguable point whether his own arguments for toleration should be tolerated; he leaves prejudice in favour of any institution in the abstract not a leg to stand on. As a principle of immediate political action, Mr. Hutton is unquestionably right in thinking this teaching worse than useless; but as a piece of analysis to clarify the minds of the intellectual class in the study of events and institutions, to sober sectarian zeal and infuse caution into the framers of political elysiums, its value can hardly be overrated.
Physics and Politics, of which the above is the vital essence, seems to me his masterpiece, and not even yet rated at its true value. Both its size and its style, though important merits, are drawbacks to its gaining reverence: men will not believe that so small a book can be a great reservoir of new truth, or that one so easy to understand can be a great work of science. Yet after subtracting all its heavy debt to Darwin and Wallace, Spencer and Maine, Tylor and Lubbock, and all the other scientific and institutional research of his time, it remains one of the few epoch-making books of the century: the perspective of time may perhaps leave this and the Origin of Species standing out as having given us clearest knowledge of the springs of change and progress in the world,—this doing for human society what that did for organic life. And in one respect Bagehot’s work, though inspired by the other, is the more striking,—it is so short. It is hardly more than a pamphlet,—one can read it in an evening: yet it contains a mass of ideas which could be instructively expanded into several large volumes; and I do not know of any work which is a master-key to so many locks, and supplies the formula for so many knotty historical problems. Most important is the terrible clearness with which he brings out the lack of any necessary connection between the interests of the individual and those of the society (that is, the individuals of the future), and their direct antagonism often for ages; this fact alone is the source of half the tragedy of the world. But it makes the book a profoundly saddening one, as anything must be which recalls the infinite helplessness of human endeavour against the mighty forces of whose orbits we can hardly see the curve in thousands of years; one must have little imagination not to be impressed by it as by a great melancholy epic. It shows also (though Bagehot evidently did not perceive it) that “the fools being in the right” and the intelligent thought of a society wrong half the time results from natural law,—from the fact that ultimate benefit through the strengthening of the society involves vast immediate evils, the popular instinct feeling only the former and the cultivated thought perceiving only the latter; and consequently disproves his own political creed that a democratic government cannot be as good as a “deferential” one. In fact, that theory dissolves into a tissue of fallacies and verbal quibbles as soon as one begins to analyse it.
The leading theories of the book are obviously true. The two great factors, imitation and persecution, though on the surface exactly opposed, spring in fact from a single root, the pride of personality, the result of the very fact of conscious existence. Imitation is the attempt of an individual to raise itself to an equality of accomplishment with every other: supposed inferiors are not imitated. Persecution is nature’s protest against unstable equilibrium, and effort to make it stable,—that is, to avoid the unsettling of the principles or feelings an individuality acts on, or in other words, injuries to its pride. It is in fact an effort to bar from its knowledge all things inconsistent with the permanency of its immediate state of feeling; and the intensity of the desire or of its action does not and cannot diminish,—it is as strong now in the most civilised societies as it was in the Stone Age. The only amelioration is, that to an ever greater extent a flux of details is found to involve none of guiding principles, and to be a sine qua non of needful business; so more and more of them are reluctantly left to free choice. But how hateful this tolerance is to men’s hearts, how spontaneous the impulse of persecution (or, less harshly, enforcing conformity), how gladly they set up some standard (it does not much matter what) in the pettiest things and force every one to act alike, is manifest wherever there is power either to coerce others or to get away from them. Parents will not let a child prepare its food in its own way, even when it would do no harm; men will hoot another for wearing a suit whose colour is (for no assignable cause) held inappropriate to the season; and the tyranny of fashion among women (who simply represent the conservative forces at their strongest) needs no exposition. “Society” is ruled by codes more microscopic, despotic, and inflexible than any ever enforced on savages: the clothes to be worn, the ceremonies to be performed, the manner of eating, the minutest details of conduct, are prescribed without latitude or appeal. The same feeling makes people shun like the plague the risk of discovering new truth on the main theories of life, as politics and religion: men choose their associates, their newspapers, their very societies of intellectual research, to reinforce their confidence in themselves, not to shake it. Life would not be endurable if one never felt sure from day to day whether the postulates on which he based his conduct were true. Even the principle of corporate liability for offences to the gods, to which Bagehot assigns the largest share in enforcing unity of action, must have found its chief scope through this; for things directly esteemed unlucky from special events (absurdly numerous as they seem to us) can have borne but a small proportion to the mass of neutral acts, which must have been organised into a systematic drill through the fact that anything disagreeable (or what is the same thing, unfamiliar) to themselves was of course assumed disagreeable to their gods too, and soon came under a permanent religious ban. I am inclined also to think that his theory of the way the “cake of custom” came to be broken is more ingenious than valid: the progress of the world cannot have been left to the pure accident of a special polity. It is much more likely that it resulted from the simultaneous growth of knowledge, cupidity, and business necessity,—through the mixture of peoples, conquest, and commerce,—and would have occurred if the “chief, old men, and multitude” system had never grown up. Here again the influence of old prepossessions is very visible: aristocracy having in fact existed in all progressive societies, it is assumed that but for its rise the world could never have emerged from savagery—which is incredible.
The economic worth or novelty of Economic Studies I am not competent to estimate; but that feature is not to me its chief interest, and I doubt if it is its chief value, which is rather historic and social. The book is mainly a re-survey of the ground traversed in Physics and Politics, with which it is identical in aim in a more limited sphere,—to prove that modern advantages were ancient ruin, and modern axioms ancient untruths. It buttresses the same points with many new illustrations and expositions; and contains besides a mass of the nicest and shrewdest observations on modern trade and society, full of truth and suggestiveness. That it was left a fragment is a very great loss to the world; had it been finished, Mr. Giffen’s account of his discussions with his colleague gives us reason to believe that it would have touched on all the moral elements in trade which so deflect men from the line of mere pecuniary interest.
Regarding the English Constitution, appreciation of its immense merits must be taken for granted; praising it is as superfluous as praising Shakespeare. Every student knows that it has revolutionised the fashion of writing on its subject, that its classifications of governments are accepted commonplaces, that it is the leading authority in its own field and a valued store of general political thought. As an analysis of the English system and an essay on comparative constitutions, it will not lose its value; as a treatise on the best form of constitution and a manual of advice for foreigners, it is a monument of the futility of such work, for the course of events since his death seems sardonically designed for the express purpose of making a wreck of it. The last decade has done more than the previous four to compel a total recasting of much political speculation based at once on long experience and seemingly unassailable theory. In this country some apparent axioms, further confirmed by the test of ninety years, have been upset by that of a hundred; in France, recent history has justified Bagehot’s theory as a philosopher by stultifying his conclusions as an Englishman, and proving his governmental prescription to be quackery as a panacea; in his own country some of the leaders of thought are looking wistfully toward the conservatism of our system as an improvement on the unfettered democracy of theirs,—an ironical commentary on his book. These changes, too, are of the most opposite sorts, as might be expected,—the characteristic evils of each system developing until they become well-nigh intolerable and demand an infusion of the other for a remedy. In this country we need some elements at least of the cabinet system, for the sake of political education, party responsibility, direct executive power, and the ability to prevent the creation of a permanent oligarchy through the interests and fears of an army of office-holders. In France there is evident need of an executive with power to carry on the government for a certain time in defiance of faction. In England the question is so bound up with the tremendous problems now at hand, and these are so involved and far-reaching, that reserve of judgment is both modesty and common-sense; but the difference in the situation from that of a few years ago is so great that the rather complacent tone of the book already grates on one as being decidedly out of place, and even gives it an unjust appearance of shallowness. Part of the change had come before his death: the difference in tone between the first edition and the introduction to the second is nearly as great as between the views of trade given by a merchant when prospering and when menaced with bankruptcy.
And this leads naturally to his utterances on American subjects. These were in general so fair, often so weighty and valuable, and always so different in kind from the ignorant ill-will toward anything foreign in which every national press is steeped, that we can feel no irritation even where his judgment is most severe. Besides, he confined his criticisms mainly to positive institutions, which can be modified at will; and did little carping at social facts, which is scarcely more than a waste of breath even from a native and quite that from a foreigner,—such facts not being conscious creations but instinctive embodiments of social necessities, which adjust themselves as needed and which their very creators are powerless to change. It would be silly, therefore, to resent the little streaks of complacent John-Bullism which lurked even in that least insular of minds; but I confess to a touch of malicious satisfaction in this proof that he was human and an Englishman. Of this sort is the remark, in the most permanently delicious passage he ever wrote (that on early reading in the essay on Gibbon), “Catch an American of thirty; tell him about the battle of Marathon,” etc. What he supposed the historical teaching in American colleges1 to consist of, it is impossible to say; apparently, analyses of the battle of New Orleans, and panegyrics on Sam Houston and Davy Crockett. But all literature may be challenged to furnish anything equal in absurdity to the grave deliverance in Physics and Politics, that “A Shelley in New England could hardly have lived, and a race of Shelleys would have been impossible”. Shelley would have been no whit more out of key with the community than were Alcott and Thoreau, and he could not well have received less sympathy here than he did at home; and in what quarter or epoch of the world since the Silurian age “a race of Shelleys” would have been possible, defies imagination,—it certainly was not England in 1800+. It is hard to believe that Bagehot did not have some intelligible thought in writing this piece of sublimated nonsense, but I cannot form the least idea what.
These of course are trifles; but in both the great aspects of our system, the political and the social, he omits or mistakes essential facts. To be sure, in the social aspect he bases a gloomy view of the future on a much too complimentary view of the present; but it must have struck so impartial a seeker after truth as a very remarkable and gratifying coincidence, that both the political and the social system of his own country should be the best in the world, not only for present happiness but for future elevation.
First, politically. The English Constitution is ostensibly not a brief for that system, but a judicial work on comparative constitutions; and from such a standpoint it is a serious flaw that he ignores wholly the factor of stability, to which everywhere else he attaches supreme value. All progress and even good government must be sacrificed if necessary to keep the political fabric together, is the entire raison d’être of the Letters on the Coup d’État”; if a government cannot keep itself alive, it makes no difference how good it is. Much of Physics and Politics and Economic Studies rests on the same thesis: unity of action is of such prime importance to the world that a disciplined band of semi-barbarians often crushes out an advanced but loose-knit society; the same idea recurs again and again in his other writings. Yet when he contrasts the English with the American system, national feeling triumphs over abstract philosophy, with the result of exactly reversing the relations of the two systems. The evident fact is, that the nominal aristocracy of England is really an unchecked democracy, committing the fate of the polity at every moment, through the cabinet system and the lack of a written constitution, to the crude emotions of the mass; while the nominal democracy of America is so curbed by its written Constitution and fixed executive terms, accessory institutions, and the division of power between national, State, and municipal bodies, that its working is even ultra-conservative. Nor is it true, as he was wont to argue in the Economist, that such barriers are only useless irritations, and are always broken through as soon as the people are really excited. The failure of Johnson’s impeachment is one proof to the contrary; and though the Supreme Court could be swamped and packed, that process cannot be indefinitely repeated. On the whole, the curbs curb,—and a good deal too much; for I must not be understood as objecting much to what he says, but only to what he does not say. His positive criticisms are mainly of the highest value and justice, and the severest ones are the truest. The dangers and degradations and follies, the scanting of decent political thought and the outlawry of independent political thinkers, the riot of low minds and coarse natures in authority for which they have no fitness, the lowering into the mud of the standards of political cleanliness, inevitable to such a polity, are so far from being overstated that his expressions are tame beside the facts. My contention is, that every point he makes in favour of the English system—and his arguments are of immense weight and often unanswerable—is an equal point in favour of pure democracy and against his own distrust of the people, by showing that the freer they are left to their own will the better they manage. Nothing can be truer than that a cabinet system keeps the political education of the masses at the highest pitch, and that one like ours injuriously stints it. But thoroughness of political education results from directness of political power; and while a champion of democracy is perfectly consistent in thinking this an advantage and favouring cabinet government, its advocacy by Bagehot on that express ground presents the grotesque spectacle of a great thinker employing his best powers in confuting his own creed. And it is certainly not proved that the hard and fast line he draws between the two systems is inevitable: that free countries are shut down for ever to a choice between two evils, neither of which can be lessened; that they must take either a pure cabinet system, with the throttle valve always under the hand of the mob, or a pure presidential system, with irresistible party power yet no party responsibility, little direct power of the executive for good and limitless indirect power for mischief, and the bread of many thousands of families at once a bribe and a threat to turn elections into a farce. I believe that the two can be made in some measure to work together; and if either finally absorbed the other, it would be the surest possible proof that the survivor was best fitted to the needs of the country.
His theory of the social effects of democracy is wildly imaginary, and very diverting to an American. He actually assumes that the theory of democratic social equality is realised as a fact, and that bootblacks and porters are the social equals (or at least think themselves so and act as if they were) of the rich and the “old families”; and bases on this assumption a highly complacent thesis of the great superiority of English society, as one of “removable inequalities,” which is one of the most elaborately absurd pieces of social speculation ever published. In the first place, his facts are all wrong. Social equality is a chimera anyway, and in few sections of the earth is there less either of the practice or the theory than in the older cities of the United States. As to the practice, nowhere do a larger part of the people devote more of their faculties, from youth to old age, with strenuous energy and anxious care, to the sole task of preventing other people from associating with them,—their successes and failures in this useful vocation make no small part of the fun of the numerous comic papers; society is stratified by money, family connections, and occupation, here as everywhere, and England itself cannot surpass the minuteness of gradations and the subtlety of distinctions. As to the theory, not only is it practically absent from current talk or thought (except as an occasional inspiration to quell an English tourist), but I do not believe any other literature has so large a body of writing of all forms—essays, novels, plays, etc.—devoted to a conscious propaganda of the snob theory of life in all its details, as America can show in the last two decades,—employing every weapon from direct argument to spiteful sneers and calm assumption, and in every tone from light ridicule to rancorous bitterness. The reaction from the earlier democratic theories has been even violent: in the perception that the equality so coveted and eulogised is neither possible nor best, a host of writers revel in kicking and insulting it, and glorifying the opposite and worse extreme which does not recognise personal qualities as a factor in social estimates at all. After reading some novels of the past few years, one thinks of the Jacobin Clubs of 1794 with a kindlier feeling. These writers are by no means consistent in detail,—part of them urging that the common herd may perhaps make something of their successors by tearful self-abasement of themselves, while others denounce them for wishing to be better than God made them, and for not making servant-girls of their daughters; and the same author sometimes implying in one work that wealth without grandfathers is naught, and in another that the Admirable Crichton himself without a large fortune would not be a proper parti: but they have one common aim,—to teach that the first duty of all who would be socially saved is to despise and avoid as large a part of the human race as possible. A society like this is in no lack of inequalities of any sort to furnish a stimulus to struggle, an incentive to every sort of ambition from the basest to the noblest, a motive to acquire everything tangible and intangible to be got by man. And on the other hand, the inequalities of the vast mass of English society are of exactly the same sort, and are “removable” only by just the same means,—namely, visible expenditure, dustlicking, patience, and careful imitation of the accepted social leaders. The very essence of Du Maurier’s endless satire is, that the untitled English do not have their classes labelled, and that the scramble to acquire a better standing, and the premium on pretending to a better standard than one has, give rein to some of the meanest passions of human nature; brains and character count for as much or as little in one society as in the other; there is nothing more essentially ennobling in trying to get rich enough to be made a baronet or a lord, than in trying to get rich enough to be invited to the Jones’s receptions or to refuse to invite them to your own; and aping the manners of lords is no more refining than aping those of the “first families” of Boston, New York, or Virginia. Bagehot’s contention, in fact, reduces to two points: that there being several labelled ranks of society makes the boundaries of classes among the unlabelled one less doubtful; and that the effort to get out of the latter into the former is more improving than the effort to climb from one of the latter to another,—both which need only statement for disproof. Plainly enough, he built an ingenious theory on the names aristocracy and democracy, without comparing either with facts.
The biographical papers vary much in merit; but the best of them are of the very first rank, among not only his writings but all writings of the kind. Like the literary essays, they are at once helped and harmed by his passion for making the facts support a theory; but the benefit is much greater than the injury. They have two special merits in great strength: they are wonderfully vivid in portrayal of character,—the subjects stand out like silhouettes, and one knows them almost like the hero of a novel; and they present the important political features of the times with stereoscopic and unforgettable clearness. In these respects he far surpassed the most famous master in this line, Lord Macaulay. One cannot form nearly so full and just an idea of the younger Pitt’s equipment, or so clear an image of his personality, from Macaulay’s biography as from Bagehot’s; and the insight into the problems of Queen Anne’s time to be gained from the “War of the Succession” is very superficial compared with that given by the masterly exposition in Bagehot’s Bolingbroke. Bagehot, too, has an unequalled skill in so stating his facts and his deductions as to force one to remember them,—the highest triumph of a literary style. A careless person may read an essay of Macaulay’s with great delight, carry away a wealth of glittering sentences, and be absolutely unable to remember the course or connection of events,—the uniform brilliancy destroying the perspective and leaving nothing salient for the mind to grasp; but nobody who reads one of Bagehot’s historical papers can lose the clue to the politics of the time any more than he can forget his name.
The sketch of his father-in-law, Mr. Wilson, it would be unfair to judge by pure abstract standards. Its chief interest to me is its unconscious picture of the complacent provinciality, the application of their local standards to everything in the world, which has made the English Government and many of the most high-minded and well-meaning English officials hated by every subject people in every age. Mr. Wilson was an able, upright, and utterly conscientious public man; he never had a doubt that the administrative machinery of England was the best possible for any country or people, that the taxes ought to be raised everywhere just as they were raised in England, that the way anything was done in England was the way it should be done everywhere; he was made financial dictator of India, and proceeded to duplicate the English system there, in unruffled disregard both of the people and of the resident English officials who declared it unsuitable to the country: and his biographer, who has devoted his best powers elsewhere to exposing the folly of abstract systems, calmly tells us that if it did not work well it was the people’s own fault, and they must not complain if the Government put on the screws harder. Both may have been entirely right—but it is all very English, and an excellent object lesson.
The literary essays are unfailingly charming, and exhibit Bagehot’s wit and freshness of view and keenness of insight, and the wide scope of his thought, more thoroughly than any other of his writings; and their criticism is often of the highest value. Yet I do not rate them his best. They have the merit and the defect of a consistent purpose,—a central theory which the details are marshalled to support. The merit is, that it makes them worth writing at all; the defect, that the theory may be wrong or incomplete, and the facts garbled to make out a case for it. For example, Macaulay’s character and views are both distorted to round out Bagehot’s theory of the literary temperament and its effects. The theory is only half true to begin with: the shrinking from life and preference for books which he attributes to an unsensitive disposition is often enough the result of the exact reverse,—an over-sensitive one, like a flayed man, which makes it hard to distinguish impressions because all hurt alike; Southey, the extreme type of the book man, exemplifies this. Macaulay could not have been the able administrator and effective parliamentary speaker he was, without much more capacity to see life and men with his own eyes than Bagehot allows him; and how any one can read the Notes on the Indian Penal Code and still maintain that Macaulay’s residence in India taught him nothing, I cannot comprehend. And his judgment of the Puritans is grossly perverted: he, and not Carlyle, was the first to sweep away the current view that they were canting hypocrites whose religion makes their success harder instead of easier to understand; and both in the essays and in the History of England he attributes their power directly to their religious fervour,—his lack of sympathy with which makes his hearty appreciation of its effects all the more striking a proof of his intellectual acuteness. Bagehot more than atones for this, however, by a signal service to Macaulay’s repute in pointing out that the vulgar cant which rates him as a mere windy rhetorician is the exact reverse of the truth, and that the source of his merits and defects alike was a hard unspiritual common-sense.
The miscellaneous nature of the essays was a great advantage to a shrewd and humorous mind like his, by not exacting a petty surface consistency: he could utter all sorts of contradictory or complementary half-truths, shoot the shafts of his wit at friend and foe alike, and gibe at all classes of society as their ridiculous aspects came into view. Any one dull enough to take all his fleers for cold and final judgments, and try to weave them into a consistent whole, would have a worse task than Michael Scott’s devils. He seems to me to have had also, as such a mind often has, a strong element of sheer perversity. One of his chief delights—by a reactionary sympathy rather odd in a great thinker and literary man, and specially so in him as contrary to his whole theory of modern society—was to magnify the active and belittle the intellectual temperament; he is never tired of glorifying fox-hunters and youths who hate study, and sneering at the intellectual class, from Euclid and Newton, Macaulay and Mackintosh, to college tutors and impotent littérateurs. Yet in Physics and Politics, where his serious purpose curbs his reckless wit, he credits the “pale preliminary students” with the main share in developing civilisation; and in a remarkable passage makes the active temperament a serious drawback and evil temptation in modern life, and the increase of thoughtful quiet our great desideratum. The natural deduction would be, that the best work has been done by the best men, and that a class we need to have multiplied is a superior class. Surely it is an exception to everything else in the universe if the small body of pioneers have been the weakest part of the race, if the scarcest mental qualities are the least valuable, if the world’s admiration is given to those who as a whole do not deserve it, if the fortunes of the world have depended and still depend on the fibreless and the purblind. Like others, Bagehot sometimes preferred one-sided wit to judicial truth. After this, it will seem like wanton paradox to say that I think his utterances on this point much more valuable and better worth heeding than most of those on the other side; but it is not. We hear quite enough of the other, and feeble recluse literary talent gets fully as much reverence as it earns; it is very wholesome to have it shrunk a little by a cold shower-bath of mockery, and a practical experience of life set up as the inexorable condition of having anything to say worth listening to. It is exaggerated, of course, but one must exaggerate to gain a hearing,—refined truth is not exciting; and there is no truer or weightier remark than Bagehot’s that literature is so comparatively sterile because “so few people that can write know anything”.
His own Lombard Street is a splendid material argument of the above position: as he says, most business men cannot write, most writers known nothing of business, therefore most writing about business is either unreadable or untrue; he devoted the highest literary talent to the theme of his daily business, and has produced a book as solid as a market report and more charming than a novel. It is one of the marvels of literature. There has rarely been such an example of the triumph of style over matter,—Macaulay himself never succeeded in giving more exhaustless charm to things which few can make readable at all; and it is a striking example of his great faculty of illuminating every question by illustrations from the unlikeliest sources. There is a fascination about it surpassing that of any other of his writings: its luminous, easy, half-playful “business talk” is irresistibly captivating, and after reading it a hundred times, I cannot pick it up without reading a good share of it again. As to the validity of its criticisms or advice on banking matters, I know nothing and shall say nothing. The only strong review of the book was by Professor Bonamy Price in Fraser’s; and while some of the professor’s observations are highly acute and valuable, one grudges to admit any merit at all in the article on account of its virulent bitterness of tone, the extreme opposite to that of the book reviewed. The business man discusses his subject like a gentleman, and the professor like a termagant,—nothing new in controversies; and the latter becomes ponderously sarcastic with rage every time he thinks of the “insult” offered to the management of the Bank of England by the suggestions for bettering it,—something the author probably never dreamed of and the public certainly never noticed. Even a much smaller man is entitled to say, without committing the stupendous folly of expressing an opinion on the Bank case, that Professor Price’s assault on Bagehot for confusion of technical terms is overcaptious (the passage on this subject in the “Transferability of Capital” is evidently intended as an answer to it); that some of his assertions are simply angry reiterations, without fresh argument, of points Bagehot has contested; that others attack things in one part of the book which are cleared up in another part; and that nothing in it warrants any such amount of bad temper. Moreover, his position on the subject of panics, considered as a reply to Bagehot, makes one open his eyes very wide: it is the same thing in essence as telling the corpse of a man dead from fright that since all his organs are sound, he has no business to be dead, and in point of fact is not dead, and could perfectly well go on living if he chose. The obvious answer is, that none the less he is dead. If a panic results in reducing a host of merchants to bankruptcy and small salaries, in reducing thousands of families from affluence to poverty, in destroying elegant homes and sending their inmates to tenements, in depriving boys of university educations and girls of social chances, it is a tremendous misfortune, even though, as Professor Price maintains, not a particle of actual capital is lost; it is to be averted by every possible means; and it is not presumptuous to say that Bagehot’s preventives are much sounder than Professor Price’s, which seem to consist of telling people that if they would have sense enough not to be scared they would not be harmed. This is of course true, but also worthless; it is excellent as general teaching, but childish in any particular crisis: and if business is based on a probability of facts instead of directly on the facts, it is inevitable that an apparent failure of the probability should produce for the time the same result as an actual failure of the facts. But all this is beside the vital qualities of Lombard Street; its merits or defects as a banker’s manual will have nothing to do with its immortality, for sooner or later its use in that capacity must pass away. It will live as a picture, not as a text-book; ages after the London of our time is as extinct as the Athens of Pericles, it will be read with delight as incomparably the best description of that London’s business essence that anywhere exists.
Of the Articles on the Depreciation of Silver it must be said that the course of events has not thus far supported their thesis. It seems most probable that the increased use of tools of credit—which is the same thing as the growth of mutual confidence, bred by civilisation and commerce—has permanently lessened the needful stock of coin, and that consequently the use and value of the bulkier metal have started on a downward road which can never ascend. If the great silver-using countries develop increased trade, they will probably use less silver instead of more, simply drawing more bills. But aside from their main purpose, the articles contain much admirable exposition of trade, facts, and principles, richly worth studying.
Of the Letters on the French Coup d’Ètat, there is not much to add to what Mr. Hutton and others have said. They are perennially entertaining and wholesome reading, full of racy wit and capital argument; they contain the essence of all his political philosophy, and he swerved very little from their main lines; and with all their limitations and perversities, they would be an invaluable manual for our politicians and legislators,—their faults are too opposed to our rooted instincts to do the smallest harm, and they harp on those primary objects of all government which demagogues and buncombe representatives forget or never knew. They are still more remarkable as the only writings of so young a man on such a subject whose matter is of any permanent value, and as showing how early his capacity for reducing the confused details of life to an embracing principle gained its full stature.
As theological opinions rarely please any one but the holder, I may perhaps indulge in the luxury of pleasing myself in commenting on Bagehot’s, without expecting concurrence from others. He was much too cool, sceptical, practical, and humorous for a great theologian or religious leader; but his acute and original intellect suffered no paralysis in this field, and he had one factor of the highest religious temperament,—a strong bent toward and liking for mysticism. Indeed, in the “First Edinburgh Reviewers” he asserts flatly that “mysticism is true,”—which is a matter of definition. This raised him far above Paley and his group in spiritual insight, and gave him a sympathetic understanding of some very obscure problems in religious history. The best of his polemic work is the unanswerable piece of destructive criticism on Professor Rogers and the extreme supporters of the Analogy in the essay on Bishop Butler; his best positive contribution to theology is the explanation why religion does not destroy morality, in the “Ignorance of Man”. This essay is wonderfully ingenious and plausible, but not always convincing or satisfying. For example, the “screen” theory is excellent for the screened, but hard on the screen; in fact, it is simply our old friend the Calvinistic doctrine of election over again, in a less extreme and shocking form. That ninety-nine per cent. of all immortal souls were created simply to agonise the remaining one per cent. into elevated spirituality, is not quite so bad as that they were created for nothing except to be damned; but there is the same division into small aristocracy and vast rabble, both fixed as such by the Creator. It is the same old altar-piece toned down, with rags and crusts in place of the flames of hell. The truth is, a thinker reared under an aristocratic polity can hardly ever get it out of his head that there must be a small favoured “upper class” in the divine councils, for whose behoof the great mass exist. The influence of earthly on divine constitutions will bear more analysis than it has received: that there has been so little democracy here is unquestionably the reason there has been so little in the theories of the hereafter. Perhaps God is more of a democrat than is currently allowed, and it may be reserved for the United States to renovate theological as it has political speculation. That the dirty crowd was ever meant to be let into the fine parks of the future, is too shocking an idea from the aristocratic standpoint to be admitted, and rarely has been; Bagehot does not shut them out wholly, but preserves due subordination of ranks by reserving the “grand stand” for the spiritual nobility,—evidently holding that the spiritual world is organised on a “deferential” system like the English Government, which by a happy chance is the best model not only for this world but the next.
There would be no difficulty in extending these comments to any length,—the difficulty is to stop; but I have said quite enough, and perhaps on some points too much. And after all, what has been said of other great writers is true of Bagehot and indeed of every great writer,—the best answer to all fault-finding is to read him. His untimely death lost the world a great store of high and fine enjoyment, as well as strong and satisfying thought; and closing my intimate daily companionship with him seems like parting from one who is at once a powerful teacher and a beloved comrade.
[1 ] Of course comparisons of this sort must be made between like classes: it is absurd to contrast the educated few of one country with the rough mass of another, and I doubt if the bulk of Yorkshire farmers or Lancashire mill-hands would find any magic in the name of Miltiades or Leonidas.