Front Page Titles (by Subject) 92.: THE SPIRIT OF THE AGE, III [Part 2] EXAMINER, 13 MAR., 1831, PP. 162-3 - The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXII - Newspaper Writings December 1822 - July 1831 Part I
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92.: THE SPIRIT OF THE AGE, III [Part 2] EXAMINER, 13 MAR., 1831, PP. 162-3 - John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXII - Newspaper Writings December 1822 - July 1831 Part I 
The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXII - Newspaper Writings December 1822 - July 1831 Part I, ed. Ann P. Robson and John M. Robson, Introduction by Ann P. Robson and John M. Robson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986).
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THE SPIRIT OF THE AGE, III [Part 2]
This article, headed “The Spirit of the Age, / No. 3, concluded,” is introduced by the following notice: “[It was by mistake that we announced, several weeks since, that this series would conclude with the present paper. It will extend to several numbers more, though the pressure of more urgent matter will not enable us to continue it from week to week.]” The notice presumably refers to the remark at the end of No. 82, “The conclusion of this Paper in our next.” For the entry in Mill’s bibliography, see No. 73. In the Somerville College set, it is listed as heading and enclosed in square brackets.
it is not necessary for me to point out that until a comparatively recent period, none but the wealthy, and even, I might say, the hereditarily wealthy, had it in their power to acquire the intelligence, the knowledge, and the habits, which are necessary to qualify a man, in any tolerable degree, for managing the affairs of his country. It is not necessary for me to show that this is no longer the case, nor what are the circumstances which have changed it: the improvement in the arts of life, giving ease and comfort to great numbers not possessed of the degree of wealth which confers political power: the increase of reading: the diffusion of elementary education: the increase of the town-population, which brings masses of men together, and accustoms them to examine and discuss important subjects with one another; and various other causes, which are known to every body. All this, however, is nothing more than the acquisition by other people in an inferior degree, of a few of the advantages which have always been within the reach of the higher classes, in a much greater degree: and if the higher classes had profited as they might have done by these advantages, and had kept their station in the vanguard of the march of improvement, they would not only at this moment have been sure to retain in their hands all the powers of government, subject perhaps to severer conditions of responsibility, but might possibly even have continued for a considerable time longer to retain them on the same footing as at present. For ample experience has proved that mankind (who, however prone they may be, in periods of transition, to even groundless suspicion and distrust, are as strongly addicted at all other times to the opposite extreme of blind and boundless confidence), will bear even great excesses of abused power, from those whom they recognize as fitter to hold the reins of government than themselves.
But the higher classes, instead of advancing, have retrograded in all the higher qualities of mind. In the humanizing effects of civilization they have indeed partaken, and, to some extent, in the diffusion of superficial knowledge, and are so far superior to their predecessors: but those predecessors were braced and nerved by the invigorating atmosphere of a barbarous age, and had all the virtues of a strong will and an energetic active mind, which their descendants are destitute of. For these qualities were not the fruits of an enlightened education skilfully pointed to that end, but of the peculiar position of the holders of power; and that position is no longer the same.
All is not absolutely unfounded in the notion we imbibe at school, from the modern writers on the decline of the ancient commonwealths, that luxury deadens and enervates the mind. It is true that these writers (whose opinion, truly, was the result of no process of thought in their own imitative souls, but a faint impression left by a ray of the stoic philosophy of Greece and Rome themselves, refracted or bent out of its direction by the muddy medium through which it had passed) were wrong in laying it down as a principle that pleasure enervates; as if pleasure, only to be earned by labour and won by heroic deeds, ever did or ever could enervate the mind of any one. What really enervates, is the secure and unquestioned possession, without any exertion, of all those things, to gain which, mankind in general are wont to exert themselves. This secure and lazy possession, the higher classes have now for some generations enjoyed; their predecessors in the same station and privileges did not enjoy it.
Who, for example, that looks over the catalogue of the Kings who have reigned in Europe for the last two centuries, would not conclude, from that and the nature of the case combined, that the station of a hereditary king was the very most unfavourable to be found in this sublunary world, for the acquisition of any talents for governing? Is not the incapacity of the monarch allowed for, as an inevitable inconvenience, even by the most strenuous supporters of monarchy; represented at best as an evil susceptible of palliation, and preventing other evils far more fatal? From the beginning of the eighteenth century it has passed into a philosophic truism, that kings are generally unfit to govern, and likely even to delegate their power not to statesmen, but to favourites, unless forced to choose those Ministers whom the public voice recommends to them. Yet this maxim is far from being borne out by history. A decided majority of all the kings of England previous to the Revolution, will be found to have been men who, in every endowment belonging to their age, might be compared to the best men in it. The same may be said of the Emperors of Germany, and even of the Kings of France, of Spain, the Dukes of Burgundy, and so on. Would you know why? Think of Edward II and Richard II.1 In that turbulent age, no rank or station rendered the situation of a man without considerable personal endowments, a secure one. If the king possessed eminent talents, he might be nearly absolute: if he was a slave to ease and dissipation, not only his importance was absolutely null, but his throne and his life itself were constantly in danger. The Barons stood no less in need of mental energy and ability. Power, though not earned by capacity, might be greatly increased by it, and could not be retained or enjoyed without it. The possessor of power was not in the situation of one who is rewarded without exertion, but of one who feels a great prize within his grasp, and is stimulated to every effort necessary to make it securely his own.
But the virtues which insecurity calls forth, ceased with insecurity itself. In a civilized age, though it may be difficult to get, it is very easy to keep: if a man does not earn what he gets before he gets it, he has little motive to earn it thereafter. The greater the power a man has upon these terms, the less he is likely to deserve it. Accordingly, as Mr. Hallam has remarked, Great Britain has had since William III no monarch of more than ordinary personal endowments;2 nor will she ever more, unless the chapter of accidents should open at a page inscribed with very singular characters. We may add, that the House of Peers has produced, since the same epoch, hardly any remarkable men; though some such have, from time to time, been aggregated to the order. As soon as these facts became manifest, it was easy to see a termination to hereditary monarchy and hereditary aristocracy: for we never shall again return to the age of violence and insecurity, when men were forced, whatever might be their taste for incapacity, to become men of talents in spite of themselves: and mankind will not always consent to allow a fat elderly gentleman3 to fill the first place, without insisting upon his doing something to deserve it. I do not undertake to say in what particular year hereditary distinctions will be abolished, nor do I say that I would vote for their abolition, if it were proposed now, in the existing state of society and opinion: but to the philosopher, who contemplates the past and future fortunes of mankind as one series, and who counts a generation or two for no more in marking the changes of the moral, than an age or two in those of the physical world, the ultimate fate of such distinctions is already decided.
There was an intermediate stage in the history of our own island, in which it was yet a question whether the Crown should share in the government of the country as the master of the aristocracy, or only as the first and most powerful of its members. Though the progress of civilization had given to the gentry of England, personal security independently of honourable exertion, it had not yet given them undisputed power. They were nothing, except through the Parliament, and the Parliament as yet, was nothing, except through their energy and talents. The great names by which the seventeenth century of English history has been immortalized, belonged almost without an exception to the same class which now possesses the governing power. What a contrast! Think, good heavens! that Sir John Elliot, and John Hampden, and Sir John Colepepper, and Sir Thomas Wentworth, were country gentlemen—and think who are the parliamentary leaders of that class in our own day: a Knatchbull, a Bankes, a Gooch, a Lethbridge!4 Think even of the most respectable names among the English landholders of our time, such as Lord Wharncliffe, or Mr. Coke.5 The remainder of the great politicians of that age, the Bacons, the Cecils, the Walsinghams, the Seldens, the Iretons, the Pyms, the Cokes, were mostly lawyers.6 But what lawyers, and how strikingly distinguished, as well by their origin as by the range of their faculties and acquirements, from our successful Barristers, our Sugdens and Copleys!7 They were almost to a man, the younger or even the elder sons of the first families among the English gentry: who studied the law as being what it then in some degree was, a liberal profession, a pursuit fit for a gentleman, and not for a mere drudge; exercising at least the higher faculties, by the comprehension of principles, (though frequently absurd ones), not the mere memory, by the heaping together of unconnected details: and who studied it chiefly that it might serve them in fulfilling the exalted mission, to which they were called by an ambition justly to be called noble, since it required of them great sacrifices, and could be gratified only by the accomplishment of what was then nearest to their country’s weal.
Applied to these men, the expression, natural leaders of the people, has some meaning: and then and then only it was that our institutions worked well, for they made this country the nurse of more that is exalted in sentiment, and expansive and profound in thought, than has been produced by all other countries in the modern world taken together, until a recent period. The whole of their effect is now the direct contrary—to degrade our morals, and to narrow and blunt our understandings: nor shall we ever be what we might be, nor even what we once were, until our institutions are adapted to the present state of civilization, and made compatible with the future progress of the human mind. But this will, I trust, more clearly appear, when, in the next paper, the historical survey which I have here taken of the conditions of worldly power, shall also have been taken of the conditions of moral influence.
[1 ]Edward II (1284-1327), King of England 1307-27, and Richard II (1367-1400), King of England 1377-99, both weak monarchs who lost the crown.
[2 ]Henry Hallam (1777-1859), The Constitutional History of England from the Accession of Henry VII to the Death of George II, 2 vols. (London: Murray, 1827), Vol. II, pp. 496-7.
[3 ]The reference is probably to George IV (1762-1830), who, after serving from 1811 to 1820 as Regent during periods when his father, George III, was mad, ruled 1820-30; his fatness was a subject of frequent satirical comment.
[4 ]The contrast is between, on the one hand, the great parliamentary figures in the early seventeenth century: John Eliot (1592-1632), M.P. 1614 and again 1624; John Hampden (1594-1643), who became an M.P. in 1621 and eventually a Colonel in Cromwell’s army; John Colepeper (d. 1660), who began as a supporter of the popular party but later served both Charles I and Charles II; and Thomas Wentworth (1593-1641), Earl of Strafford, who, having defended the subjects’ rights against the king, became a defender of the royal authority, and was impeached and executed; and on the other hand, the weak country representatives in the nineteenth century: Edward Knatchbull (1781-1849), Tory M.P. 1819-30, an opponent of corn-law reform and Catholic emancipation; George Bankes (1788-1856), Tory M.P. 1816-23, 1826-32, appointed to the Board of Control in 1829, and Junior Lord of the Treasury and a commissioner for India (1830); Thomas Sherlock Gooch; and Thomas Buckler-Lethbridge (1778-1849), 2nd Baronet Lethbridge, M.P. 1806-12, 1820-30, and Colonel of the 2nd Somerset Militia.
[5 ]James Archibald Stuart-Wortley-Mackenzie (1776-1845), Lord Wharncliffe, was a Tory M.P. 1801-26, when his support for Catholic emancipation cost him his seat; then, as a peer, he moved from opposing parliamentary reform to persuading his fellow peers to accept it. Thomas William Coke (1752-1842), Earl of Leicester, known for his agricultural improvements, was a Whig M.P. almost continuously from 1776 until 1833; he favoured reform but also supported the corn laws and agricultural interests generally.
[6 ]Nicholas Bacon (1509-79), eloquent and learned lawyer, holder of many public offices, including that of Lord Keeper of the Great Seal (1558), and his son Francis Bacon (1561-1626), the great philosopher and statesman, nephew of William Cecil (1520-98), Lord Burghley, one of the most powerful statesmen of the sixteenth century; Francis Walsingham (ca. 1530-90), diplomat and Secretary of State; John Selden (1584-1654), learned author and parliamentarian; Henry Ireton (1611-51), general in Cromwell’s army and his deputy in Ireland; John Pym (1584-1643), M.P. and parliamentary spokesman on constitutional and religious questions; and Edward Coke (1552-1634), great legal authority and parliamentarian.
[7 ]Edward Burtenshaw Sugden (1781-1875), Baron St. Leonards, legal writer and M.P., had become Solicitor-General in 1829; and John Singleton Copley (1772-1863), Baron Lyndhurst, at one time a holder of Jacobin views, had become a Tory, Solicitor-General in 1819, Attorney-General in 1824, and Lord Chancellor in 1827.