Front Page Titles (by Subject) PROFESSOR CAIRNES. (1875.) - The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 6 (Lombard Street, Essays on Guizot & Cairnes, The Depreciation of Silver)
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PROFESSOR CAIRNES. (1875.) - Walter Bagehot, The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 6 (Lombard Street, Essays on Guizot & Cairnes, The Depreciation of Silver) 
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. 6.
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We cannot attempt at this moment to give anything like a full estimate of Mr. Cairnes’s character, either as a political economist or a political writer. The first few days after the death of one so eminent and so peculiar, are never favourable to such a task; and the difficulty is always greater when, as in this case, he wrote much on topics on which public opinion is still divided. We can only attempt a few descriptive words.
The characteristic of Mr. Cairnes’s mind was a tenacious grasp of abstract principle. He applied to the subjects of his life exactly the sort of mind with which a great judge applies the principles of law to the facts before him; and he applied it under more difficult circumstances, for, in the principles of positive law, a judge can absolutely be guided by previous precedent, whereas a thinker in the moral sciences has to make his principles, as well as to apply them—“to find,” at least often, “the dream as well as the interpretation”. This quality is not common in any age, but it is particularly uncommon now. The habit of popular writing—a habit which is apt to grow on all who deal with political and moral subjects, for it is only by being in some degree popular that you will be read or can be influential—has a contrary influence. It generates a habit of leaving out difficulties, of saying that which is easy rather than that which is true, that which is clear rather than that which is exact. There are a great many parts of political and economical truth which are in their nature very complex, just as many parts of science are so, and, in these cases, extreme easiness of comprehension in a writer is a quality to be suspected; for probably it arises from his leaving out a part—frequently the most difficult part—of the subject. Mr. Cairnes never does this; he takes his readers through the subject, just as it seems to him to be. He did not make it artificially easy, or attempt to please them by lessening its intricacies. And he showed himself even more careless of popularity in another way. The curiosity on such subjects is now far greater than the capacity for gratifying it; severe and abstract reasoning is necessary before they can be mastered, and there are many who dislike severe and abstract reasoning. Accordingly, something else is often put forward, as if it would do as well. “Figures” are used instead of reasoning. But, as Mr. Cairnes always contended, the figures of an instance do not of themselves prove anything beyond that instance. They are most valuable in illustrating a distinct argument, but that argument must accompany them. But, as the argument is often more difficult than the illustration, it is apt not to be used, and “political economy” is in danger of dissolving into “statistics,” which is much as if anecdotes of animals were substituted for the science of biology.
The constant rigour with which Mr. Cairnes withstood these temptations has given his writings a very peculiar character. There is a Euclidian precision about them which fits them for a tonic for the mind, and which makes much other writing seem but “soft stuff” after we have been reading them;—at any rate, you feel that you have seen, in all likelihood, the worst of the subject. You have been in company with one who did not spare himself anything, and who despised readers that wished to be spared anything. Reading his works is like living on high ground; the “thin air of abstract truth” which they give you, braces the mind just as fine material air does the body.
The wonder that this incessant intellectual vigour was displayed for years by a wasting invalid, hardly able to move, and often in the most intense pain, has long been familiar to his friends, and has now been published to the world. Much as those who read his writings valued his life, they felt almost forbidden to grieve when they heard of his death; for it seemed selfish to wish that their instruction should be purchased at the cost of such pain as his. Why a mind like his should have been created, and then the power to use it at all fully withheld, is one of the mysteries of which in this world we have no solution.
By far the most remarkable of Mr. Cairnes’s writings, in our judgment, are his Logic of Political Economy and his essays on some of the Unsettled Questions, recently published. In the first he defines better, as we think, than any previous writer, the exact sort of science which political economy is, the kind of reasoning which it uses, and the nature of the relation which it, as an abstract science, bears to the concrete world. Those who know how many different opinions have been held on this, and how difficult a part of the subject it is as a rule, prize, we think, most highly what Mr. Cairnes has said on it. In his recent essays on Unsettled Questions in political economy, Mr. Cairnes takes up the hardest parts of the subject and discusses them with a consistent power—it might almost be said with an enjoyment—which is scarcely given to any one who now remains to us. As the questions with which he deals are “unsettled,” it would be premature to assume the truth of his conclusions; but this may be said, that all who hereafter write on these problems, not only ought to study what he has said, but also to reply to it, if they do not agree with it, a process which—if we may speak from some experience—they will not find at all easy.
We do not mean that Mr. Cairnes has conclusively solved these problems; there are several on which our opinions are not his. And all will agree that the recluse life which his health compelled him to lead, deprived him of information, and especially of a sort of easy familiarity with the course of business, which the greatest ability could not wholly make up for. But under such circumstances the wonder is, not that what he did was sometimes imperfect, but that he was able to do anything.
We have spoken of Mr. Cairnes principally as an economist, partly because that is more especially our own province, but partly also because we think that was the capacity in which his powers were best fitted to work, and by which he will be most remembered. But his other writings have much and characteristic merit, though this is not the time to attempt an estimate of them. In the presence of great difficulties, silence is “better than many words”; and there are few greater difficulties than that a mind so strong and pure should have been so thrust aside from life and subjected to so much pain.