Puritanism and Manners
MR. MATTHEW ARNOLD has recently published an interesting and suggestive plea for “equality.” By equality Mr. Arnold means the adoption of some such law as holds in France, where a testator is forced to divide among his children a portion of his landed property, the amount over which he has full testamentary control being dependent upon the number of his children. Mr. Arnold does not look for the immediate adoption of his suggestions. He says that one can hardly, without laughing, imagine Lord Hartington proposing an equal division of land among a proprietor’s children as a palliative for the social evils which press upon his constituents. The plea is made, so to speak, in vacuo, as being in accordance with “the unalterable rule of right and the eternal fitness of things.”
Now, in America we have equality. The regularity with which attempts are made to set aside discriminating wills, the assumption of insanity or weakness of mind in such cases, may be cited as showing the resentment which is excited by any effort to violate the absolute equality of all men. It may be interesting, therefore, to consider whether we enjoy the advantages which, according to Mr. Arnold, attend this system of equality.
Mr. Arnold distinguishes four great civilizing powers: (1.) The Power of Conduct, preëminent in England, and shown in her religion, industry, and love for public order and stability. (2.) The Power of Beauty, most highly developed in Italy, where the common people are natural-born judges of works of art, of the drama, of poetry. (3.) The Power of Knowledge, of which Germany is the best example, where, without a widespread and broad culture, as Mr. Arnold very truly hints, there is a strong sense of “ the necessity of knowing scientifically ” what needs to be known. (4.) The Power of Life and Manners, of which France is the great exemplar, the effect of which is to be seen in the general intelligence, so that an educated man may talk with a peasant, and feel that he is talking with an equal.
The objection that is raised by Mr. Arnold to the one-sided civilization of England is that it misses the “ goodness and agreeableness of life.” The accumulation of large fortunes in a few hands, and the difficulty of transferring land, tend to materialize the upper class, to vulgarize the middle class, to brutalize the lower class. The social boundaries are so rigid that the lower and middle classes settle back hopelessly: the latter to its Puritanism, with its ‘‘type of life and manners fatally condemned by its hideousness and its immense ennui; ” the former to its brutal want of feeling, — to its “ beer and gin and fun,” as an acute French observer puts it.
This brutality, vulgarity, and dullness of the lower and middle classes of England, which so appall a Frenchman, find no parallel in France. The spirit of society, tending towards equality, has, according to Mr. Arnold, developed a keenness and quickness of intelligence, a delicacy of perception, a native tact and grace, which have produced that remarkable result, enabling an educated man to talk with an illiterate Frenchman, and to feel that he is talking with an equal. It has developed in France a type of life and manners devoid of the hideousness, the immense ennui, which brood over the social life of England. A general keenness of intelligence and a good and agreeable type of life are happy possessions. Are they the direct result of the spirit of society and equality?
There is one remarkable social phenomenon in England which Mr. Arnold notices, indeed, but indirectly, and without, as it seems, assigning its true cause. His paper on Equality was originally a lecture delivered before the Royal Institution, and Mr. Arnold accounts for his advocating such a chimerical scheme by a complimentary estimate of the intelligence of his audience. He quotes Mr. Charles Sumner. His audience was largely composed, he assumed, of that class which so struck Mr. Sumner, — the large class of gentlemen distinct from the nobility, with abundance, amongst them, of “ serious knowledge, high accomplishment, and refined taste.” Mr. Arnold merely notices this remarkable class as enabling him to propose an almost revolutionary scheme, and he explains its existence by referring to it as a “ seemly product of the energy and power to rise” of Englishmen.
We can account for it more adequately. That it is confined to England should have warned Mr. Arnold to look for some peculiarities in English law rather than satisfy himself with a passing allusion to so vague a thing as race power. This class owes its existence to the very cause to which Mr. Arnold refers the one-sidedness of English civilization.
The struggle to rise above the condition in which one is born is dwarfed by the struggle to avoid sinking below that condition. The natural result is that the younger sons of the nobility and gentry are forced to adopt one of the professions. Debarred from inheritance of any considerable portion of the family estates, and spurred on by the dread of losing caste, it is not strange that as a body they manifest the qualities which Mr. Sumner ascribes to them,—good breeding, good education, good habits, observance of convention, refinement. Add “ energy and power to rise,” and the superiority of this class becomes almost a matter of course. These young men have been educated in accordance with the social position and fortunes of their fathers. The roll of England’s warriors and statesmen includes more than one illustrious younger son. The diplomatic ranks are constantly recruited from the same source. In Baroness Tautphേus’s Initials, her hero claims a sort of natural right to brains, by virtue of being a younger son, which merely means that while the heirs are under no necessity of using their brains, and consequently do not use them, the younger sons must exert themselves or sink.
Whether this class compensates England for the stolidity of her aristocracy, the vulgarity of her middle class, the brutality of her lower class, may be doubted. Mr. Arnold, while he grants that it is a civilized class, says that it does not constitute a civilizing power. But to the inequality which operates so badly on the three great social divisions of England must be set off whatever credit is reflected from the high cultivation of professional men.
This class we cannot have in America. Can we hope, through the equality which we do have, to secure that type of life and manner, that goodness and agreeableness of life, which France possesses so preëminently? They are not ours now. Equality we have had ever since we have had anything. How long are we to wait for its beneficent product?
Of the four civilizing powers enumerated by Mr. Arnold, but one seems at all active in America. It is the same which is alone active in England, — the power of conduct. We show this feeling for conduct, as England does, in our religion, our industry, our love of order and stability. The habits of the people, even their exaggerated respect for puritanical observances and modes of life, are strong testimony to the force of this feeling for conduct. There are indeed indications of a relaxation of this feeling. The tone of commercial honor, the sense of the necessity of uprightness, is visibly lowered. A satirist must have some foundation of truth for his exaggerations, and the gibes on the profitableness of failing in business, the assumption that the officers of corporations must be rascals, the appallingly frequent cases of breach of trust, and the callousness of the community with reference to this state of things seem to mark very clearly a weakening of moral fibre. On the other hand, the course and method of legislation, the low tone of our legislative bodies, point the same way. It is a suggestive sign when general culture is considered a disqualification for political life, or when one is told that he must not assume to discuss politics because he is a “ damned literary fellow.”
Yet, despite these and other symptoms, there are reasons to hope that the relaxation is temporary, although nothing could be more inimical to the fulfillment of these hopes than a current theory that the evil will “ right itself.” That is not the province nor the habit of evil. With a passing away of the long train of evil effects of the war, the molding into something like a harmonious mass of the discordant elements furnished by foreign immigration, the fuller settlement of the country and resulting greater stability of population, it may be that the feeling for conduct will resume its force. But, to repeat, it will not do so altogether of itself.
Such as it is, we owe this good, this civilizing power, to England; and it is our only one. We have no sense of the claims of beauty, none of the claims of knowledge, none of the claims of social life and manners.
Let us consider these claims in succession. Mr. Arnold alludes to the English theatre as perhaps the most contemptible in Europe. Ours is even worse, and that is saying a good deal. This may be more clearly perceived if we observe that dramatic criticism, as it is understood in France, is a thing unknown here. The same is true in music; to a great extent in literature; even more so in art. Now, where there is so complete an absence of proper criticism, it is because there is an absence of the thing which criticism feeds upon. High art and competent criticism go hand in hand. To go still further: apply the test which, according to Cardinal Antonelli, may be applied to the mass of common people in Italy. Pick out a factory operative or a farm hand and ask his opinion on a play, a song, a picture. One knows what would be the result. That there is a love for music, for example, among enough to maintain half a dozen orchestras in the country does not indicate a national turn for music. So, too, that there is a tendency just at present to buy indiscriminately bricabrac, or a fashionable but injudicious enthusiasm for what is known as household decoration, indicates an innate lack rather than an innate strength of artistic sense; even more is this lack manifested in the common belief that artistic sensibility is a thing which can be learned or acquired, or even purchased.
Do we pay any higher regard to the claims of knowledge? Here I shall be reminded of our lecture systems, our common schools, our popular science journals and text-hooks, the eagerness of the people to learn something of the great questions of the day. But these things, good or bad, do not show that we are possessed and governed by a “ strong sense of the necessity of knowing scientifically” what needs to be known. Why, for example, does an ordinary man go to a popular lecture? If we get at the real motive, we shall find, in nine cases out of ten, that his object is to escape the intolerable burden of his own society; he goes to pass away an hour, and listens to what is told him with a misleading impression that he is doing something to cultivate himself. The vice of our fondness for lectures is that it substitutes a mild mental titillation for serious work. An ordinary lecture, as has been wittily said, does not make you think; it merely makes you think that you think. The lecture, in short, has become a species of amusement,— so strangely confused are our ideas of amusement. This view is sometimes met by the argument that it is better that a little information should be gained even in this way than not at all, and that with most, persons, if similar sources of acquiring information are taken away, the innate desire for knowledge will not be strong enough to induce them to any other and more serious efforts.
This argument seems to be equivalent to saying that if you take away from a child his sugar-plums and pies he will not be induced to eat wholesome food. A smattering of miscellaneous information, imperfectly remembered and wholly undigested, does not mean knowledge, nor beget keenness of intelligence. On the contrary, its tendency is to prevent the acquisition of knowledge, and by dulling the intellect’s avidity to impair its healthy action.
As for our common schools, much as they are to be respected when they confine themselves to their proper function of teaching the necessary elements of the ordinary branches, they may, on the whole, safely be left to the political orators. On the other hand, the multiplication of popular science periodicals and text-books, so far from bearing witness to our sense of the necessity of knowing scientifically what needs to be known, is another indication of our propensity for doing things superficially. It is simply a variation of the lecture process. We alternate a little desultory reading of our own with a little listening to the results of the desultory reading of another. The very eagerness of our people to know something of the great questions of the day is by no means a wholly admirable trait. It is far better, as a matter of selfculture, to learn one thing thoroughly than half a dozen things unscientifically. And the ready adaptive power of Americans is only another side of our lack of intellectual persistence in any one direction.
We may perhaps, in odd moments, have a dim perception of the claims of beauty and of knowledge, though we quickly forget them. Of the claims of manners we have not the slightest perception. " Hideousness, immense ennui,” press heavily upon our homes. “ Those who offer us the Puritan type of life,” says Mr. Arnold, “offer us a religion not true, the claims of intellect and knowledge not satisfied, the claim of beauty not satisfied, the claim of manners not satisfied.” We derive our type of life and manners from the puritanical middle class of England. No words can exaggerate the barrenness, the angularity, the lack of elasticity, of our ordinary domestic life. Our topics of conversation, the round of daily thought, the common interests that take up our attention, — we are so used to them that we forget there can he anything better. How many were struck by the absolute lack of resource which was revealed, a year or two ago, by the popularity of spelling matches? The editor of a prominent magazine thought it worth while recently to devote a large part of his space to a discussion by well-known clergymen of the doctrine of future punishment. Doubtless many considered the discussion futile, but no one seemed to think it strange.
But we have in America that legal equality which France has. How, then, if Mr. Arnold’s theory of the benign influence of equality is correct, is it that we wholly miss France’s good and agreeable type of life and manners? How is it that, if an educated American talks to a factory operative or farm hand, there will be on the part of one a condescending desire to avoid condescension, and on the part of the other a bumptious self-assertion? Why is it that not oven the best disposed observer can discover in the American laboring classes that quickness and keenness of intelligence, that native tact and grace, which Mr. Arnold and Mr. P. G. Hamerton find in the French peasantry, and which raise that peasantry, in one sense, to a level with the cultivated classes?
The inevitable answer seems to be that precisely as our inherited sense for conduct has, on the whole, succeeded in maintaining its ascendency against the influences of immigration, the civil war, the constant shifting of population, so our inherited Puritanism, with the hideousness and ennui of its life and manners, on the whole maintains its evil ascendency against the influences of the humanizing force of equality.
Any improvement must be slow, the work of generations. It lies in us of today, by careful examination and proper attention, to assist in bringing into existence a better type of life a generation or two generations before it would otherwise appear. This is the duty which rests especially upon the dissatisfied: to make a comfortable world uncomfortable, if comfort means stagnation; to arouse the heavy slumberers; to create a proper discontent, — for discontent is the gift of the gods to man, by which he may raise himself to their level.
And it seems the necessary result of all this is to declare war upon Puritanism, that we may free ourselves from the bondage in which we have lain for two hundred years. It is chiefly Puritanism that lies in the way of our profiting by the equality we have. Were England to adopt Mr. Arnold’s ideas, and introduce equality in inheritance and descent, the type of manners and life would continue to be as unlovely as it is to-day, and as ours is. I do England an injustice, perhaps. There is a refuge for an Englishman who is oppressed by the hideousness of English life: he has a history in which he can take refuge; he has a past, with its monuments and bequests; he has a country, nearly every inch of which bears testimony to past greatness and present stability, — a country which has in the highest degree the beauty of civilization, in spite of so many “ counties overhung by smoke.”
But we who are born in the midst of a narrower and harsher Puritanism even than that which environs an Englishman, — we have no past, no national tradition, no history, with one melancholy exception; and the hideousness of the type of life and manners begotten by Puritanism is emphasized by our unlovely villages, by the barrenness of our rectangular cities, by our ragged, illtended country, where the only beauty is that of unhumanized nature. The consequence is that when a man seeks to break the bonds of Puritanism, to burst forth from the prison where our spirit has lain for two hundred years enchained, he almost inevitably becomes an iconoclast, a radical by profession, — not for truth’s sake, but for radicalism’s sake. And this is not a proper condition.
These are the two cases we have to meet. To strike the mean; to ease the bonds gradually, so that freedom need not mean excess; to come easily to the proper point; to habituate ourselves to the light, so that we shall not go about running our heads against blind walls, — all this will be no easy work. On its proper performance rests, I believe, all hope of our ever acquiring a beautiful type of life and manners; of our infusing into our daily existence something of the goodness and agreeableness of life; of our adding to our one predominant civilizing power, the power of conduct, another, the power of social life and manners, which shall beautify and regulate it.
F. G. Ireland.