Front Page Titles (by Subject) 97.: THE SPIRIT OF THE AGE, IV EXAMINER, 3 APR., 1831, PP. 210-11 - The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXII - Newspaper Writings December 1822 - July 1831 Part I
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97.: THE SPIRIT OF THE AGE, IV EXAMINER, 3 APR., 1831, PP. 210-11 - 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, IV
For the context and entry in Mill’s bibliography, see No. 73. The article is listed as “The Spirit of the Age, No. 4” and enclosed in square brackets in the Somerville College set.
it has been stated, in the preceding paper,1 that the conditions which confer worldly power are still, amidst all changes of circumstances, the same as in the middle ages—namely, the possession of wealth, or the being employed and trusted by the wealthy. In the middle ages, this form of government might have been approved, even by a philosopher, if a philosopher had been possible in those ages: not, surely, for its intrinsic excellence; not because mankind enjoyed, or could have enjoyed, the blessings of good government under it: but there are states of society in which we must not seek for a good government, but for the least bad one. It is part of the inevitable lot of mankind, that when they themselves are in a backward state of civilization, they are unsusceptible of being well governed.
But, now, mankind are capable of being better governed than the wealthy classes have ever heretofore governed them: while those classes, instead of having improved, have actually retrograded in capacity for government. The abuses of their power have not diminished, though now showing themselves no otherwise than in forms compatible with the mildness of modern manners, and being of that kind which provokes contempt, mingled with resentment, rather than terror and hatred, as of yore.
Such of the above propositions as required illustration appearing to have sufficiently received it in the foregoing paper, I proceed to take a similar survey of the changes which mankind have undergone in respect to the conditions on which moral influence, or power over the minds of mankind, is dependent.
There are three distinguishable sources of moral influence:—eminent wisdom and virtue, real or supposed; the power of addressing mankind in the name of religion; and, finally, worldly power.
It is not necessary to illustrate the manner in which superiority of wisdom and virtue, or in which religion, pre-engages men’s minds with the opinions and feelings in favour of which those authorities declare themselves. It is equally superfluous to insist upon the influence exercised over the minds of men by worldly power. The tendency of the human mind to the worship of power, is well understood. It is matter of common complaint, that even the Supreme Being is adored by an immense majority as the Almighty, not as the All-good; as he who can destroy, not as he who has blessed. It is a familiar fact, that the vulgar, in all parts of the world, have in general little or no rule of conduct or of opinion, but to do as their betters do, and to think as their betters think: and this very word betters, is a speaking proof of the fact which we allege—meaning, as it does, not their wisers, or their honesters, but their richers, and those placed in authority over them.
All persons, from the most ignorant to the most instructed, from the most stupid to the most intelligent, have their minds more or less under the dominion of one or other, or all, of the influences which have just been mentioned. All bow down, with a submission more or less implicit, to the authority of superior minds, or of the interpreters of the divine will, or of their superiors in rank and station.
When an opinion is sanctioned by all these authorities, or by any one of them, the others not opposing, it becomes the received opinion. At all periods of history in which there has existed a general agreement among these three authorities, there have existed received doctrines: a phrase the sense of which is now almost forgotten. The most marked character of such periods is a firm confidence in inherited opinions. Men cleave with a strong and fervent faith to the doctrine which they have imbibed from their infancy: though in conduct they be tempted to swerve from it, the belief remains in their hearts, fixed and immoveable, and has an irresistible hold upon the consciences of all good men. When, on the contrary, the three authorities are divided among themselves, or against each other, a violent conflict rages among opposing doctrines, until one or other prevails, or until mankind settle down into a state of general uncertainty and scepticism. At present, we are in a mixed state; some fight fiercely under their several banners, and these chiefly the least instructed; while the others (those few excepted who have strength to stand by themselves) are blown about by every breath, having no steady opinion—or at least no deep-rooted conviction that their opinion is true.
Society, therefore, has its natural state, and its transitional state, with respect to moral influence as well as to worldly power. Let us bestow a few words upon the natural state, and upon the nature of those varieties of the social order in which it has hitherto been realized.
It is in states of society in which the holders of power are chosen by the people (or by the most highly civilized portion of the people) for their supposed fitness, that we should most expect to find the three authorities acting together, and giving their sanction to the same doctrines. As men are raised to worldly power for their supposed wisdom and virtue, two of the three sources of moral influence are united in the same individuals. And although the rulers of such societies, being the creatures of the people’s choice, have not, quâ rulers, that ascendancy over the minds of the people, which power obtained and held independently of their will, commonly possesses; nevertheless, the station to which they are elevated gives them greater opportunities of rendering their wisdom and their virtue visible, while it also fixed the outward stamp of general recognition upon that merit, which would otherwise operate upon each mind only in proportion to its confidence in its own power of discriminating the most worthy.
Accordingly, in the best-constituted commonwealths of the ancient world, this unity of moral influence did to a very great degree exist. And in the great popular government of our own times, it exists with respect to the general doctrines of the constitution, and many maxims of national policy, and the list of received doctrines is increasing as rapidly as the differences of opinion among the persons possessing moral influence will allow.
I say, only the best-constituted commonwealths of antiquity—and chiefly Athens, Sparta, and Rome—because, in the others, the form of the government, and the circumstances of society itself, being in a perpetual flux, the elements of moral influence never remained long enough in the same hands, to allow time for constitutional doctrines, or received maxims of policy, to grow up. But, in the three commonwealths which I have named, such constitutional doctrines, and such received maxims of policy, did exist, and the community was intensely attached to them.
The great authority for political doctrines in all these governments was the wisdom of ancestors: their old laws, their old maxims, the opinions of their ancient statesmen. This may sound strange to those who have imbibed the silly persuasion, that fickleness and love of innovation are the characteristics of popular governments. It is, however, matter of authentic history. It is not seen in reading Mitford, who always believed his prejudices above his eyes2 —but it is seen in reading Demosthenes, who shows in every page that he regards the authority of ancestors, not merely as an argument, but as one of the strongest of arguments; and steps out of his way to eulogise the wisdom of the ancient laws and lawgivers, with a frequency which proves it to have been the most popular of topics, and one on which his unequalled tact and sagacity taught him mainly to rely. All the other Athenian orators, down to the speeches in Thucydides; Cicero, and all that we know of the Roman orators; Plato, and almost all the monuments which remain to us of the ideas of Athens, Sparta, and Rome, teem with evidence of the same fact.3 In all this there is nothing but what the known constitution of human nature would have enabled us to surmise: it is precisely what marks these commonwealths to have been in a natural state of society. When a government, whether it be a popular one or not, works well for the people among whom it exists, and satisfies their highest conceptions of a good social order, there is naturally a strong, and generally a very just, reverence for the memory of its founders. This would not have been thought strange three-quarters of a century ago. Robertson, the historian, speaks with the utmost simplicity, of “that attachment to ancient forms, and aversion to innovation, which are the unfailing characteristics of popular assemblies.”4 Europe had not then entered into the state of transition of which the first overt manifestation was the breaking out of the French revolution. Since that epoch, those near-sighted people who can see nothing beyond their own age, have mistaken that desire of novelty, and disregard of the authority of ancestors, which characterise an age of transition, for the properties of a popular government: just as if the same symptoms did not constantly attend every change, no matter of what nature, in the spirit of the age; as if we might not be quite sure that there was as much scoffing at the wisdom of ancestors in the Court of Augustus,5 as in the National Convention of France.
The authority of ancestors, so deeply reverenced at Athens and Rome, was the authority of the wisest and best men for many successive generations. If, instead of upholding and applauding the ancient maxims, the ablest and most experienced contemporaries had affirmed them to be the rude conceptions of barbarians, the many would have lost their faith in them, and would have been as we are now. Nor had authority more than its just weight: it did not supersede reason, but guided it: for every relic which remains to us, of what was addressed to the Athenian Demos, for example, by their orators and politicians, is full of strong sense, cogent argument, and the most manly and forcible appeals to the reason of the people. The speeches of the great orators, and those in Thucydides, are monuments of long-sighted policy, and keen and sagacious observation of life and human nature, which will be prized as long as the world shall endure, or as wisdom shall be understood and appreciated in it.
It is well known that respect and deference for old age formed a conspicuous feature both in the public and private morality of the ancient commonwealths: and there is no surer mark of a natural state of society in respect to moral influence. So deeply, however, have the notions and feelings of an age of transition taken root among us, that if there are some who wonder that this reverence should no longer exist, there are probably many more who wonder that it should ever have existed, and view it as a sort of superstition, or as one of the numerous oddities of those peculiar people, the ancients: if, indeed, they believe it at all; for it may be almost a misapplication of terms to say that a man believes a fact, although he may never dream of doubting it; as religious writers know well, when they treat of what they call practical infidelity. We can hardly be said to believe that, which we do not conceive with any distinctness or vivacity. What we read of Greece and Rome is so remote from what we have ever seen; we are helped by so few familiar analogies to penetrate our minds with its spirit, and make ourselves, as it were, at home in it, that some strength of imagination is requisite to conceive it with the intensity and life which is essential to any thing deserving the name of belief. We do not believe ancient history, we only fancy we believe it—our belief deserves no higher name than simple acquiescence—it scarcely amounts to more than that conventional assent, which we give to the mythology of the same nations.
Unquestionably, if the mental state of the old men of the present day were their natural state, there would be little reason for paying much deference to their modes of thinking. But narrowness of mind, and obstinate prejudice, are not the necessary, or the natural concomitants of old age. Old men have generally both their opinions and their feelings more deeply rooted than the young; but is it an evil to have strong convictions, and steady unfluctuating feelings? It is on the contrary, essential to all dignity or solidity of character, and to all fitness for guiding or governing mankind. It constitutes prejudice, only when society is at one of those turns or vicissitudes in its history, at which it becomes necessary that it should change its opinions and its feelings. There is but little wisdom in any one head, whatever quantity there may be in the society collectively, when the young are wiser than the old. We should not forget that, in the natural state of things, the old would, as a matter of course, be further advanced than the young, simply because they have been longer on the road. If this be not the case at present, it is because we have come to a bend in the road, and they not knowing it, continued to advance in the same line, got to the wrong side of the hedge, and allowed even the hindmost to pass them by. If the old know less than the young, it is because it is hard to unlearn; but society, fortunately, has not so frequent need to unlearn, as to learn.
All old men might have, and some old men really have, knowledge which it is altogether impossible that a young man, however great his capacity, should possess a very large measure of, namely, that which is derived from personal experience. There are some states of civilization in which this is every thing—rude states, it is true. In these, accordingly, the authority of age is almost unlimited. Nowhere is it so great as among the North American Indians: for there, the knowledge and judgment of every man must be nearly in proportion to the length of his individual experience, as the cunning of a fox may be not inaccurately measured by his years. Among the Greeks and Romans, though, in comparison, highly civilized nations, wisdom, notwithstanding, was less the fruit of speculative study, than of intercourse with the world, practice in business, and the long habit of deliberating on public affairs. It was there a recognised maxim, that old men were fittest to devise, and young men to execute.
In an age of literature, there is no longer, of necessity, the same wide interval between the knowledge of the old, and that which is attainable by the young. The experience of all former ages, recorded in books, is open to the young man as to the old; and this, doubtless, comprises much more than the individual experience of any one man; but it does not comprise all. There are things which books cannot teach. A young man cannot, unless his history has been a most extraordinary one, possess either that knowledge of life, which is necessary in the most difficult and important practical business, or that knowledge of the more recondite parts of human nature, which is equally necessary for the foundation of sound ethical and even political principles, but which is almost the exclusive privilege of him who, like Ulysses, has been πολύτλας.6 which he, whose mind has not passed through numerous states, both moral and intellectual, cannot find out by himself—though he may undoubtedly take upon trust from other minds, such faint, uncertain, and shadowy conceptions, as we have of a plant or an animal about which we have merely read. It is true that our old men, educated as they were, have little enough of all these advantages; but young men cannot have them. If they are not in the old men, they are nowhere.
That the habits of old men are fixed, their principles riveted, and that they swerve not easily from them, instead of a defect, should naturally be the highest recommendation. It would be so, if the habits which they acquired in their youth, were still suitable to the state of the human mind in their old age. When it is otherwise, indeed, the greater flexibility of the young, their greater accessibility to new ideas and new feelings, all which would otherwise be termed unsteadiness, renders them the sole hope of society. But this is nothing to be proud of, or to rejoice at; it is one of the great causes which combine to render this state of transition a most dangerous passage to society. The indispensable requisites for wise thinking and wise conduct in great affairs, are severed from each other: they are apart, and are not all found in the same men; nay, they are found in two sets of men, who are, for the most part, warring with each other. The young must prevail, though it were only by outliving their antagonists; but the most important of the qualifications for making a good use of success, are still to be acquired by them during the struggle. In turbulent times, knowledge of life and business are rapidly obtained; but a comprehensive knowledge of human nature is scarcely to be acquired, but by calm reflexion and observation, in times of political tranquillity; for when minds are excited, and one man is ranged against another, there are few who do not contract an invincible repugnance, not only to the errors of their opponents, but to the truths to which those errors are allied. Through this state, however, we must struggle; and happy will be the day when it will once more be true, that with length of years cometh wisdom,7 and when the necessary privations and annoyances of declining life shall again, as heretofore, be compensated by the honour and the gratitude due to increased powers of usefulness, fittingly employed.
[1 ]I.e., in Nos. 82 and 92, especially the former.
[2 ]History of Greece (1784-1810), 10 vols. (London: Cadell and Davies, 1818-20), by William Mitford (1744-1827), anti-Jacobin monarchist, M.P. intermittently 1785-1818.
[3 ]For praise of the wisdom of ancestors in these authors, see, e.g., Demosthenes (384-322 ), De falsa legatione, in De corona and De falsa legatione (Greek and English), trans. C.A. and J.H. Vince (London: Heinemann, 1926), pp. 420-6 (268-76); Thucydides (ca. 460-399 ), Thucydides (Greek and English), trans. Charles Forster Smith, 4 vols. (London: Heinemann, 1919-23), Vol. I, p. 144 (I, lxxxv, 1), and p. 252 (I, cxliv, 4); Cicero, Pro T. Annio Milone, in Cicero: The Speeches. Pro T. Annio Milone, In L. Capurnium Pisonem, Pro M. Aemilio Scauro, Pro M. Fonteio, Pro. C. Rabinio Postumo, Pro M. Marcello, Pro. Q. Ligario, Pro rege Deiotaro (Latin and English), trans. N.H. Watts (London: Heinemann, 1953), p. 98 (XXX, 83); and Plato, Laws (Greek and English), trans. R.G. Bury, 2 vols. (London: Heinemann, 1926), Vol. I, p. 294 (716bff.).
[4 ]The History of the Reign of the Emperor Charles V (1769), in Works, 6 vols. (London: Longmans, et al., 1851), Vol. III, p. 379, by William Robertson (1721-93), Scottish historian whose works Mill read avidly as a child.
[5 ]Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus Augustus (63 -14 ).
[6 ]“Much-enduring” is the epithet frequently applied by Homer to Ulysses; see, e.g., Odyssey (Greek and English), trans. Augustus Taber Murray, 2 vols. (London: Heinemann, 1919), Vol. I, p. 182 (E, 171).
[7 ]Cf. Job, 12:12.