Front Page Titles (by Subject) 103.: THE SPIRIT OF THE AGE, V [Part 1] EXAMINER, 15 MAY, 1831, P. 307 - The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXII - Newspaper Writings December 1822 - July 1831 Part I
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103.: THE SPIRIT OF THE AGE, V [Part 1] EXAMINER, 15 MAY, 1831, P. 307 - 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, V [Part 1]
For the context and entry in Mill’s bibliography, see No. 73. The article, listed as “The Spirit of the Age, No. 5” and enclosed in square brackets in the Somerville College set, is also there corrected in eleven places: “which, it” is altered to “which it” (305.20), “pale, because” to “pale because” (305.26), “Now, when” to “When” (305.39), “that, situate . . . of the rivals . . . him, even . . . chair,” to “that (situate . . . of rivals . . . him even . . . chair,)” (306.6-9), “mankind, the” to “mankind, and the” (306.11), “of menacing” to “for menacing” (306.12), “low.” to “low;—” (306.14), “them; and” to “them and” (306.20), “but when” to “but where” (306.22), “indisputably” to “undisputably” (306.25), and “irretrievable—except” to “irretrievable except” (307.5). These are all accepted here.
in commencing this series of papers, I intended, and attempted, that the divisions of my discourse should correspond with those of my subject, and that each number should comprehend within its own limits all which was necessary to the expansion and illustration of one single idea. The nature of the publication, which, as being read by more persons capable of understanding the drift of such speculations (and by fewer, in proportion, who are unfit for them) than any other single work, I considered myself fortunate in being enabled to adopt as a vehicle for my ideas, compels me to limit the length of each article more than is compatible with my original plan. I can no longer always hope that every paper should be complete within itself; and the present number, had it appeared in its proper place, would have formed the continuation of the last.
In endeavouring to give an intelligible notion of what I have termed the natural state of society, in respect of moral influence—namely, that state in which the opinions and feelings of the people are, with their voluntary acquiescence, formed for them, by the most cultivated minds which the intelligence and morality of the times call into existence; and in drawing attention to the striking differences between this natural state and our present transitional condition, in which there are no persons to whom the mass of the uninstructed habitually defer, and in whom they trust for finding the right, and for pointing it out; I have hitherto illustrated the former state only by the example of those commonwealths, in which the most qualified men are studiously picked out because of their qualifications, and invested with that worldly power, which, if it were in any other hands, would divide or eclipse their moral influence: but which, placed in theirs, and acting partly as a certificate of authority, and partly as a cause, tends naturally to render their power over the minds of their fellow-citizens paramount and irresistible.
But it is not solely in such societies that there is found a united body of moral authority, sufficient to extort acquiescence from the uninquiring, or uninformed majority. It is found, likewise, in all societies where religion possesses a sufficient ascendancy, to subdue the minds of the possessors of worldly power, and where the spirit of the prevailing religion is such as excludes the possibility of material conflict of opinion among its teachers.
These conditions exist among two great stationary communities—the Hindoos and the Turks; and are doubtless the chief cause which keeps those communities stationary. The same union of circumstances has been hitherto found only in one progressive society—but that, the greatest which had ever existed: Christendom in the middle ages.
For many centuries, undivided moral influence over the nations of Europe, the unquestioned privilege of forming the opinions and feelings of the Christian world, was enjoyed, and most efficiently exercised by the Catholic clergy. Their word inspired in the rest of mankind the most fervent faith. It not only absolutely excluded doubt, but caused the doubter to be regarded with sentiments of profound abhorrence, which moralists had never succeeded in inspiring for the most revolting of crimes. It is certainly possible to feel perfectly sure of an opinion, without believing that whosoever doubts it will be damned, and should be burnt: and this last is by no means one of those peculiarities of a natural state of society which I am at all anxious to see restored. But the deep earnest feeling of firm and unwavering conviction, which it pre-supposes, we may, without being unreasonable, lament that it was impossible, and could not but be impossible, in the intellectual anarchy of a general revolution in opinion, to transfer unimpaired to the truth.
The priesthood did not claim a right to dictate to mankind, either in belief or practice, beyond the province of religion and morals, but the political interests of mankind came not the less within their pale because they seldom assumed the authority to regulate those concerns by specific precepts. They gave the sanction of their irresistible authority to one comprehensive rule, that which enjoined unlimited obedience to the temporal sovereign: an obligation from which they absolved the conscience of the believer, only when the sovereign disputed their authority within their peculiar province: and in that case they were invariably triumphant, like all those to whom it is given to call forth the moral sentiments of mankind in all their energy, against the inducements of mere physical hopes and fears.
The Catholic clergy, at the time when they possessed this undisputed authority in matters of conscience and belief, were, in point of fact, the fittest persons who could have possessed it—the then state of society, in respect of moral influence, answers to the description of a natural state.
When we consider for how long a period the Catholic clergy were the only members of the European community who could even read; that they were the sole depositaries of all the treasures of thought, and reservoirs of intellectual delight, handed down to us from the ancients; that the sanctity of their persons permitted to them alone, among nations of semi-barbarians, the tranquil pursuit of peaceful occupations and studies; that, howsoever defective the morality which they taught, they had at least a mission for curbing the unruly passions of mankind, and teaching them to set a value upon a distant end, paramount to immediate temptations, and to prize gratifications consisting of mental feelings above bodily sensation; that (situate in the position of rivals to the temporal sovereign, drafted chiefly from the inferior classes of society, from men who otherwise would have been serfs, and the most lowly among them all having the road open before him even to the papal chair,) they had the strongest motives to avail themselves of the means afforded by Christianity, for inculcating the natural equality of mankind, and the superiority of love and sacrifice above mere courage and bodily prowess, for menacing the great with the only terrors to which they were accessible, and speaking to their consciences in the name of the only superior whom they acknowledged, in behalf of the low;—Reflecting on these things, I cannot persuade myself to doubt that the ascendancy of the Catholic clergy was to be desired, for that day, even by the philosopher; and that it has been a potent cause, if even it was not an indispensable condition, of the present civilization of Europe. Nor is this an apology for the vices of the Catholic religion: those vices were great and flagrant, and there was no natural connection between them and the more civilizing and humanizing features in which all that there was of good in it resided. We may regret that the influence of the priesthood was not superseded by a better influence: but where in those days did any such influence exist?
I conclude, therefore, that, during a part of the middle ages, not only worldly power, as already shown, but moral influence also, was undisputedly exercised by the most competent persons; and that the conditions of a natural state of society were then fully realized.
But the age of transition arrived. A time came when that which had overmatched and borne down the strongest obstacles to improvement, became itself incompatible with improvement. Mankind outgrew their religion, and that, too, at a period when they had not yet outgrown their government, because the texture of the latter was more yielding, and could be stretched. We all know how lamentably effectual an instrument the influence of the Catholic priesthood then became, for restraining that expansion of the human intellect, which could not any longer consist with their ascendancy, or with the belief of the doctrines which they taught.
The more advanced communities of Europe succeeded, after a terrific struggle, in effecting their total or partial emancipation: in some, the Reformation achieved a victory—in others, a toleration; while, by a fate unhappily too common, the flame which had been kindled where the pile awaited the spark, spread into countries where the materials were not yet sufficiently prepared; and instead of burning down the hateful edifice, it consumed all that existed capable of nourishing itself, and was extinguished. The germs of civilization to come were scorched up and destroyed; the hierarchy reigned stronger than ever, amidst the intellectual solitude which it had made: and the countries which were thus denuded of the means of further advancement, fell back into barbarism irretrievable except by foreign conquest. Such is the inevitable end, when, unhappily, changes to which the spirit of the age is favourable, can be successfully resisted. Civilization becomes the terror of the ruling powers, and that they may retain their seat, it must be their deliberate endeavour to barbarize mankind. There has been, since that day, one such attempt, and only one, which has had a momentary success: it was that of a man in whom all the evil influences of his age were concentered with an intensity and energy truly terrific, less tempered by any of its good influences than could appear possible in the times in which he lived—I need scarcely say that I refer to Napoleon. May his abortive effort to uncivilize human nature, to uncultivate the mind of man, and turn it into a desolate waste, be the last!
It remains to trace the history of moral influence in the nations of Europe, subsequently to the Reformation.