“Literary politician” is not a label much in vogue, and may need first of all a justification, lest even the man of whom I am about to speak should decline it from his very urn. I do not mean a politician who affects literature; who seems to appreciate the solemn moral purpose of Wordsworth’s Happy Warrior, and yet is opposed to ballot reform. Neither do I mean a literary man who affects politics; who earns his victories through the publishers, and his defeats at the hands of the men who control the primaries. I mean the man who has the genius to see deep into affairs, and the discretion to keep out of them, — the man to whom, by reason of knowledge and imagination and sympathy, governments and policies are as open books, but who, instead of trying to put haphazard characters of his own into those books, wisely prefers to read their pages aloud to others. A man this who knows polities, and yet does not handle policies.
There is, no doubt, a very widespread skepticism as to the existence of such a man. Many people would ask you to prove him as well as define him; and that, as they assume, upon a very obvious principle. It is a rule of universal acceptance in theatrical circles that no one can write a good play who has no practical acquaintance with the stage. A knowledge of greenroom possibilities and of stage machinery, it is held, must go before all successful attempts to put either passion or humor into action on the boards, if pit and gallery are to get a sense of reality from the performance. No wonder that Sheridan’s plays were effective, for Sheridan was both author and actor; but abundant wonder that simple Goldsmith succeeded with his exquisite She Stoops to Conquer, — unless we are to suppose that an Irishman of the last century, like the Irishman of this, had some sixth sense which enabled him to understand other people’s business better than his own; for poor Goldsmith could not act (even off the stage), and his only connection with the theatre seems to have been his acquaintance with Garrick. Lytton, we know, had Macready constantly at his elbow, to give and enforce suggestions calculated to render plays playable. And in our own day, the authors of what we indulgently call dramatic literature find themselves constantly obliged to turn tragedies into comedies, comedies into farces, to satisfy the managers; for managers know the stage, and pretend to know all possible audiences also. The writer for the stage must be playwright first, author second.
Similar principles of criticism are not a little affected by those who play the parts, great and small, on the stage of politics. There is on that stage, too, it is said, a complex machinery of action and scene-shifting, a greenroom tradition and practice as to costume and make-up, as to entry and exit, necessities of concession to footlights and of appeal to the pit, quite as rigorous and quite as proper for study as are the concomitants of that other art which we frankly call acting. This is an idea, indeed, accepted in some quarters outside the political playhouse as well as within it. Mr. Sidney Colvin, for example, declares very rightly that —
“Men of letters and of thought are habitually too much given to declaiming at their ease against the delinquencies of men of action and affairs. The inevitable friction of practical politics,” he argues, “generates heat enough already, and the office of the thinker and critic should be to supply, not heat, but light. The difficulties which attend his own unmolested task—the task of seeking after and proclaiming salutary truths—should teach him to make allowance for the far more urgent difficulties which beset the politician; the man obliged, amidst the clash of interests and temptations, to practice from hand to mouth, and at his peril, the most uncertain and at the same time the most indispensable of the experimental arts.”
Mr. Colvin is himself of the class of men of letters and of thought; he accordingly puts the case against his class rather mildly, — much more mildly than the practical politician would desire to see it put. Practical politicians are wont to regard closeted writers upon politics with a certain condescension, dashed with slight traces of apprehension, or at least of uneasy concern. “Literary men can say strong things of their age,” observes Mr. Bagehot, “for no one expects that they will go out and act on them. They are a kind of ticket-of-leave lunatics, from whom no harm is for the moment expected; who seem quiet, but on whose vagaries a practical public must have its eye.” I suppose that the really serious, practical man in politics would see nothing of satirical humor in this description. He would have you note that, although traced with a sharp point of wit, the picture is nevertheless true. He can cite you a score of instances illustrative of the danger of putting faith in the political judgments of those who are not politicians bred in the shrewd and moving world of political management.
The genuine practical politician, such as (even our enemies being the witnesses) we must be acknowledged to produce in great numbers and perfection in this country, reserves his acidest contempt for the literary man who assumes to utter judgments touching public affairs and political institutions. If he be a reading man, as will sometimes happen, lie is able to point you, in illustration of what you are to expect in such cases, to the very remarkable essays of the late Mr. Matthew Arnold on parliamentary policy and the Irish question. If he be not a reading man, as sometimes happens, he is able to ask, much to your confusion, “What does a fellow who lives inside a library know about politics, anyhow?” You have to admit, if you are candid, that most fellows who live in libraries know little enough. You remember Macaulay, and acknowledge that, although lie made admirable speeches in Parliament, held high political office, and knew all the considerable public men of his time, he did imagine the creation to have been made in accordance with Whig notions; did hope to find the judgments of Lord Somers some day answering mankind as standards for all possible times and circumstances. You recall Gibbon, and allow, to your own thought at least, that, had he not remained silent in his seat, a very few of his sentences would probably have sufficed to freeze the House of Commons stiff. The ordinary literary man, even though lie be an eminent historian, is ill enough fitted to be a mentor in affairs of government. For, it must be admitted, things are for the most part very simple in books, and in practical life very complex. Not all the bindings of a library inclose the various world of circumstance.
But the practical politician should discriminate. Let him find a man with an imagination which, though it stands aloof, is yet quick to conceive the very things in the thick of which the politician struggles. To that man he should resort for instruction. And that there is occasionally such a man we have proof in Bagehot, the man who first clearly distinguished the facts of the English constitution from its theory.
Walter Bagehot is a name known to not a few of those who have a zest for the juiciest things of literature, for the wit that illuminates and the knowledge that refreshes. But his fame is still singularly disproportioned to his charm; and one feels once and again like publishing him at least to all spirits of his own kind. It would be a most agreeable good fortune to introduce Bagehot to men who have not read him! To ask your friend to know Bagehot is like inviting him to seek pleasure. Occasionally, a man is born into the world whose mission it evidently is to clarify the thought of his generation, and to vivify it; to give it speed where it is slow, vision where it is blind, balance where it is out of poise, saving humor where it is dry, — and such a man was Walter Bagehot. When he wrote of history, he made it seem human and probable; when he wrote of political economy, he made it seem credible, entertaining, — nay, engaging, even; when he wrote criticism, he wrote sense. You have in him a man who can jest to your instruction, who will beguile you into being informed beyond your wont and wise beyond your birthright. Full of manly, straightforward meaning, earnest to find the facts that guide and strengthen conduct, a lover of good men and seers, full of knowledge and a consuming desire for it, he is yet genial withal, with the geniality of a man of wit, and alive in every fibre of him, with a life he can communicate to you. One is constrained to agree, almost, with the verdict of a witty countryman of his, who happily still lives to cheer us, that when Bagehot died he “carried away into the next world more originality of thought than is now to be found in the three Estates of the Realm.”
An epitome of Bagehot’s life can be given very briefly. He was born in February, 1826, and died in March, 1877, the month in which one would prefer to die. Between those two dates he had much quaint experience as a boy, and much sober business experience as a man. He wrote essays on poets, prose writers, statesmen, whom he would, with abundant insight, but without too much respect of persons; also books on banking, on the early development of society, and on English politics, kindling a flame of interest with these dry materials such as made men stare who had often described the facts of society themselves, but who had never dreamed of applying fire to them, as Bagehot did, to make them give forth light and wholesome heat. He set the minds of a few fortunate friends aglow with the delights of the very wonderful tongue which nature had given him through his mother. And then he died, while his power was yet young. Not a life of event or adventure, but a life of deep interest, none the less, because a life in which those two things of our modern life, commonly deemed incompatible, business and literature, namely, were combined without detriment to either; and from which, more interesting still, politics gained a profound expounder in one who was no politician and no party man, but, as he himself said, “between sizes in politics.”
Mr. Bagehot was born in the centre of Somersetshire, that southwestern county of old England whose coast towns look across Bristol Channel to the highlands of Wales: a county of small farms, and pastures that keep their promise of fatness to many generous milkers; a county broken into abrupt hills, and sodden moors hardly kept from the inroads of the sea, as well as rural valleys open to the sun; a county visited by mists from the sea, and bathed in a fine soft atmosphere all its own; visited also by people of fashion, for it contains Bath; visited now also by those who have read Lorna Doone, for within it lies part of that Exinoor Forest in which stalwart John Ridd lived and wrought his mighty deeds of strength and love: a land which the Celts kept for long against both Saxon and Roman, but which Christianity easily conquered, building Wells Cathedral and the monastery at Glastonbury. Nowhere else, in days of travel, could Bagehot find a land of so great delight save in the northwest corner of Spain, where a golden light lay upon everything, where the sea shone with a rare, soft lustre, and where there was a like varied coast-line to that he knew and loved at home. He called it “a sort of better Devonshire:” and Devonshire is Somersetshire, — only more so! The atmospheric effects of his county certainly entered the boy Bagehot, and colored the nature of the man. He had its glow, its variety, its richness, and its imaginative depth.
But better than a fair county is a good parentage, and that, too, Bagehot had; just the parentage one would wish to have who desired to be a force in the world’s thought. His father, Thomas Watson Bagehot, was for thirty years managing director and vice-president of Stuckey’s Banking Company, one of the oldest and best of those sturdy joint-stock companies which have for so many years stood stoutly up alongside the Bank of England as managers of the vast English fortune. But he was something more than a banker. He was a man of mind, of strong liberal convictions in politics, and of an abundant knowledge of English history wherewith to back up his opinions. He was one of the men who think, and who think in straight lines; who see, and see things. His mother was a Miss Stuckey, a niece of the founder of the banking company. But it was not her connection with bankers that made her an invaluable mother. She had, besides beauty, a most lively and stimulating wit; such a mind as we most desire to see in a woman, — a mind that stirs without irritating you, that rouses but does not belabor, amuses and yet subtly instructs. She could preside over the young life of her son in such a way as at once to awaken his curiosity and set him in the way of satisfying it. She was brilliant company for a boy, and rewarding for a man. She had suggestive people, besides, among her kinsmen, into whose companionship she could bring her son. Bagehot had that for which no university can ever offer an equivalent, — the constant and intelligent sympathy of both his parents in his studies, and their companionship in his tastes. To his father’s strength his mother added vivacity. He would have been wise, perhaps, without her; but he would not have been wise so delightfully.
Bagehot got his schooling in Bristol, his university training in London. In Bristol lived Dr. Prichard, his mother s brother-in-law, and author of a notable book on the Races of Men. From him Bagehot unquestionably got his bent towards the study of race origins and development. In London, Cobden and Bright were carrying on an important part of their great agitation for the repeal of the corn laws, and were making such speeches as it stirred and bettered young men to hear. Bagehot had gone to University Hall, London, rather than to Oxford or Cambridge, because his father was a Unitarian, and would not have his son submit to the religious tests then required at the great universities. But there can be no doubt that there was more to be had at University Hall in that day than at either Oxford or Cambridge. Oxford and Cambridge were still dragging the very heavy chains of a hindering tradition; the faculty of University Hall contained many thorough and some eminent scholars; what was more, University Hall was in London, and London itself was a quickening and inspiring teacher for a lad in love with both books and affairs, as Bagehot was. He could ask penetrating questions of his professors, and he could also ask questions of London, seek out her secrets of history, and so experience to the full the charm of her abounding life. In after-years, though he loved Somersetshire and clung to it with a strong home-keeping affection, he could never stay away from London for more than six weeks at a time. Eventually he made it his place of permanent residence.
His university career over, Bagehot did what so many thousands of young graduates before him had done, — he studied for the bar; and then, having prepared himself to practice law, followed another large body of young men in deciding to abandon it. He joined his father in his business as ship-owner and banker in Somersetshire, and after a time succeeded to the office of vice-president of the banking company. For the rest of his life, this man, whom the world knows as a man of letters, was first of all a man of business. In his later years, however, he identified himself with what may be called the literary side of business by becoming editor of that great financial authority, the London Economist. He had, so to say, married into this position. His wife was the daughter of the Rt. Hon. James Wilson, who was the mind and manager, as well as the founder, of the Economist. Wilson’s death seemed to leave the great financial weekly by natural succession to Bagehot, and certainly natural selection never made a better choice. It was under Bagehot that the Economist became a sort of financial providence for business men on both sides of the Atlantic. Its sagacious prescience constituted Bagehot himself a sort of supplementary chancellor of the exchequer, the chancellors of both parties resorting to him with equal confidence and solicitude. His constant contact with London, and with the leaders of politics and opinion there, of course materially assisted him also to those penetrating judgments touching the structure and working of English institutions which have made his volume on the English Constitution and his essays on Bolingbroke and Brougliam and Peel, on Mr. Gladstone and Sir George Cornewall Lewis, the admiration and despair of all who have read them.
Those who know Bagehot only as the writer of some of the most delightful and suggestive literary criticisms in the language wonder that he should have been an authority on practical politics; those who used to regard the London Economist as omniscient, and who knew him only as the editor of it, marvel that he dabbled in literary criticism, and incline to ask themselves, when they learn of his vagaries in that direction, whether he can have been so safe a guide as they deemed him, after all; those who know him through his political writings alone venture upon the perusal of his miscellaneous writings with not a little surprise and misgiving that their master should wander so far afield. And yet the whole Bagehot is the only Bagehot. Each part of the man is incomplete, not only, but a trifle incomprehensible, also, without the other parts. What delights us most in his literary essays is their broad practical sagacity, so uniquely married as it is with pure taste and the style of a rapid artist in words. What makes his financial and political writings whole and sound is the scope of his mind outside finance and politics, the validity of his observation all around the circle of thought and affairs. There is constant balance, there is just perspective everywhere. He was the better critic for being a competent man of business and a trusted financial authority. He was the more sure-footed in his political judgments because of his play of mind in other and supplementary spheres of human activity.
The very appearance of the man was a sort of outer index to the singular variety of capacity that has made him so notable a figure in the literary annals of England. A mass of black, wavy hair; a dark eye, with depths full of slumberous, playful fire; a ruddy skin that bespoke active blood, quick in its rounds; the lithe figure of an excellent horseman; a nostril, full, delicate, quivering, like that of a blooded racer, — such were the fitting outward marks of a man in whom life and thought and fancy abounded; the aspect of a man of unflagging vivacity, of wholesome, hearty humor, of a ready intellectual sympathy, of wide and penetrative observation. It is no narrow, logical shrewdness or cold penetration that looks forth at you through that face, even if a bit of mockery does lurk in the privatest corner of the eye. Among the qualities which he seeks out for special praise in Shakespeare is a broad tolerance and sympathy for illogical and common minds. It seems to him an evidence of size in Shakespeare that he was not vexed with smallness, but was patient, nay, sympathetic even, in his portrayal of it. “If every one were logical and literary,” he exclaims, “how would there be scavengers, or watchmen, or caulkers, or coopers? A patient sympathy, a kindly fellow-feeling for the narrow intelligence necessarily induced by narrow circumstances, — a narrowness which, in some degrees, seems to be inevitable, and is perhaps more serviceable than most things to the wise conduct of life, — this, though quick and half-bred minds may despise it, seems to be a necessary constituent in the composition of manifold genius. ‘How shall the world be served?’ asks the host in Chaucer. We must have cart-horses as well as race-horses, draymen as well as poets. It is no bad thing, after all, to be a slow man and to have one idea a year. You don’t make a figure, perhaps, in argumentative society, which requires a quicker species of thought, but is that the worse?”
One of the things which strikes us most in Bagehot himself is his capacity to understand inferior minds; and there can be no better test of sound genius. He stood in the midst of affairs, and knew the dull duty and humdrum fidelity which make up the equipment of the ordinary mind for business, for the business which keeps the world steady in its grooves and makes it fit for habitation. He perceived quite calmly, though with an odd, sober amusement, that the world is under the dominion, in most things, of the average man, and the average man he knows. He is, he explains, with his characteristic covert humor, “a cool, common person, with a considerate air, with figures in his mind, with his own business to attend to, with a set of ordinary opinions arising from and suited to ordinary life. He can’t bear novelty or originalities. He says, ‘Sir, I never heard such a thing before in my life;’ and he thinks this a reductio ad absurdum. You may see his taste by the reading of which he approves. Is there a more splendid monument of talent and industry than the Times? No wonder that the average man—that any one—believes in it. … But did you ever see anything there you had never seen before ? … Where are the deep theories, and the wise axioms, and the everlasting sentiments which the writers of the most influential publication in the world have been the first to communicate to an ignorant species? Such writers are far too shrewd. … The purchaser desires an article which he can appreciate at sight, which he can lay down and say, ‘An excellent article, very excellent; exactly my own sentiments.’ Original theories give trouble; besides, a grave man on the Coal Exchange does not desire to be an apostle of novelties among the contemporaneous dealers in fuel; he wants to be provided with remarks he can make on the topics of the day which will not be known not to be his, that are not too profound, which he can fancy the paper only reminded him of. And just in the same way,” — thus he proceeds with the sagacious moral, — “precisely as the most popular political paper is not that which is abstractedly the best or most instructive, but that which most exactly takes up the minds of men where it finds them, catches the floating sentiment of society, puts it in such a form as society can fancy would convince another society which did not believe, so the most influential of constitutional statesmen is the one who most felicitously expresses the creed of the moment, who administers it, who embodies it in laws and institutions, who gives it the highest life it is capable of, who induces the average man to think, ‘I could not have done it any better if I had had time myself.’”
See how his knowledge of politics proceeds out of his knowledge of men. “You may talk of the tyranny of Nero and Tiberius,” he exclaims, “but the real tyranny is the tyranny of your next-door neighbor. What law is so cruel as the law of doing what he does? What yoke is so galling as the necessity of being like him? What espionage of despotism comes to your door so effectually as the eye of the man who lives at your door? Public opinion is a permeating influence, and it exacts obedience to itself; it requires us to think other men’s thoughts, to speak other men’s words, to follow other men’s habits. Of course, if we do not, no formal ban issues, no corporeal pain, the coarse penalty of a barbarous society, is inflicted on the offender, but we are called ‘eccentric;’ there is a gentle murmur of ‘most unfortunate ideas, singular young man,’ ‘well intentioned, I dare say, but unsafe, sir, quite unsafe.’ The prudent, of course, conform.”
There is, no doubt, a touch of mockery in all this, but there is unquestionable insight in it, too, and a sane knowledge also of the fact that dull, common judgments are, after all, the cement of society. It is Bagehot who says somewhere that it is only dull nations, like the Romans and the English, who can become or remain for any length of time self-governing nations, because it is only among them that duty is done through lack of knowledge sufficient or imagination enough to suggest anything else to do; only among them that the stability of slow habit can be had.
It would be superficial criticism to put forward Bagehot’s political opinions as themselves the proof of his extraordinary power as a student and analyst of institutions. His life, his broad range of study, his quick versatility, his shrewd appreciation of common men, his excursions through all the fields that men traverse in their thought of one another and in their contact with the world’s business, — these are the soil out of which his political judgments spring, from which they get their sap and bloom. In order to know institutions, you must know men; you must be able to imagine histories, to appreciate characters radically unlike your own, to see into the heart of society and assess its notions, great and small. Your average critic, it must be acknowledged, would be the worst possible commentator on affairs. He has all the movements of intelligence without any of its reality. But a man who sees authors with a Chaucerian insight into them as men, who knows literature as a realm of vital thought conceived by real men, of actual motive felt by concrete persons, this is a man whose opinions you may confidently ask, if not on current politics, at any rate on all that concerns the permanent relations of men in society.
It is for such reasons that one must first make known the most masterly of the critics of English political institutions as a man of catholic tastes and attainments, shrewdly observant of many kinds of men and affairs. Know him once in this way, and his mastery in political thought is explained. If I were to make choice, therefore, of extracts from his works with a view to recommend him as a politician, I should choose those passages which show him a man of infinite capacity to see and understand men of all kinds, past and present. By showing in his case the equipment of a mind open on all sides to the life and thought of society, and penetrative of human secrets of many sorts, I should authenticate his credentials as a writer upon politics, which is nothing else than the public and organic life of society.
Examples may be taken almost at random. There is the passage on Sydney Smith, in the essay on The First Edinburgh Reviewers. We have all laughed with that great-hearted clerical wit; but it is questionable whether we have all appreciated him as a man who wrote and wrought wisdom. Indeed, Sydney Smith may be made a very delicate test of sound judgment, the which to apply to friends of whom you are suspicious. There was a man beneath those excellent witticisms, a big, wholesome, thinking man; but none save men of like wholesome natures can see and value his manhood and his mind at their real worth.
“Sydney Smith was an after-dinner writer. His words have a flow, a vigor, an expression, which is not given to hungry mortals. … There is little trace of labor in his composition; it is poured forth like an unceasing torrent, rejoicing daily to run its course. And what courage there is in it! There is as much variety of pluck in writing across a sheet as in riding across a country. Cautious men … go tremulously, like a timid rider; they turn hither and thither; they do not go straight across a subject, like a masterly mind. A few sentences are enough for a master of sentences. The writing of Sydney Smith is suited to the broader kind of important questions. For anything requiring fine nicety of speculation, long elaborateness of deduction, evanescent sharpness of distinction, neither his style nor his mind was fit. He had no patience for long argument, no acuteness for delicate precision, no fangs for recondite research. Writers, like teeth, are divided into incisors and grinders. Sydney Smith was a molar. He did not run a long, sharp argument into the interior of a question; he did not, in the common phrase, go deeply into it; but lie kept it steadily under the contact of a strong, capable, jawlike understanding, — pressing its surface, effacing its intricacies, grinding it down. Yet this is done without toil. The play of the molar is instinctive and placid; he could not help it; it would seem that he had an enjoyment in it.”
One reads this with a feeling that Bagehot both knows and likes Sydney Smith, and heartily appreciates him as an engine of Whig thought; and with the conviction that Bagehot himself, knowing thus and enjoying Smiths free-hand method of writing, could have done the like himself, — could himself have made English ring to all the old Whig tunes, like an anvil under the hammer. And yet you have only to turn back a page in the same essay to find quite another Bagehot, a Bagehot such as Sydney Smith could not have been. He is speaking of that other militant Edinburgh reviewer, Lord Jeffrey, and is recalling, as every one recalls, Jeffrey’s review of Wordsworth’s Excursion. The first words of that review, as everybody remembers, were, “This will never do;” and there followed upon those words, though not a little praise of the poetical beauties of the poem, a thoroughly meant condemnation of the school of poets of which Wordsworth was the greatest representative. Very celebrated in the world of literature is the leading case of Jeffrey v. Wordsworth. It is in summing up this case that Bagehot gives us a very different taste of his quality: —
“The world has given judgment. Both Mr. Wordsworth and Lord Jeffrey have received their reward. The one had his own generation, the laughter of men, the applause of drawing-rooms, the concurrence of the crowd; the other a succeeding age, the fond enthusiasm of secret students, the lonely rapture of lonely minds. And each has received according to his kind. If all cultivated men speak differently because of the existence of Wordsworth and Coleridge; if not a thoughtful English book has appeared for forty years without some trace for good or evil of their influence; if sermon-writers subsist upon their thoughts; if ‘sacred poets’ thrive by translating their weaker portions into the speech of women; if, when all this is over, some sufficient part of their writing will ever be found fitting food for wild musing and solitary meditation, surely this is because they possessed the inner nature, — ‘an intense and glowing mind,’ ‘the vision and the faculty divine.’ But if, perchance, in their weaker moments, the great authors of the Lyrical Ballads did ever imagine that the world was to pause because of their verses, that Peter Bell would be popular in drawing-rooms, that Christabel would be perused in the city, that people of fashion would make a bandbook of The Excursion, it was well for them to be told at once that this was not so. Nature ingeniously prepared a shrill artificial voice, which spoke in season and out of season, enough and more than enough, what will ever be the idea of the cities of the plain concerning those who live alone among the mountains, of the frivolous concerning the grave, of the gregarious concerning the recluse, of those who laugh concerning those who laugh not, of the common concerning the uncommon, of those who lend on usury concerning those who lend not; the notion of the world of those whom it will not reckon among the righteous, — it said, ‘This won’t do!’ And so in all time will the lovers of polished Liberalism speak concerning the intense and lonely prophet.”
This is no longer the Bagehot who could “write across a sheet” with Sydney Smith. It is now a Bagehot whose heart is turned away from the cudgeling Whigs to see such things as are hidden from the bearers of cudgels, and revealed only to those who can await in the sanctuary of a quiet mind the coming of the vision.
Single specimens of such a man’s writing do not suffice, of course, even as specimens. They need their context to show their appositeness, the full body of the writing from which they are taken to show the mass and system of the thought. Even separated pieces of his matter prepare us, nevertheless, for finding in Bagehot keener, juster estimates of difficult historical and political characters than it is given the merely exact historian, with his head full of facts and his heart purged of all imagination, to speak. There is his estimate of the cavalier, for example: “A cavalier is always young. The buoyant life arises before us, rich in hope, strong in vigor, irregular in action: men young and ardent, framed in the prodigality of nature; open to every enjoyment, alive to every passion, eager, impulsive; brave without discipline, noble without principle; prizing luxury, despising danger; capable of high sentiment, but in each of whom the
addiction was to courses vain;
His companies unlettered, rude, and shallow;
His hours filled up with riots, banquets, sports,
And never noted in him any study,
Any retirement, any sequestration
From open haunts and popularity.
The political sentiment is part of the character; the essence of Toryism is enjoyment. … The way to keep up old customs is to enjoy old customs; the way to be satisfied with the present state of things is to enjoy the present state of things. Over the cavalier mind this world passes with a thrill of delight; there is an exultation in a daily event, zest in the ‘regular thing,’ joy at an old feast.”
Is it not most natural that the writer of a passage like that should have been a consummate critic of politics, seeing institutions through men, the only natural way? It was as necessary that he should be able to enjoy Sydney Smith and recognize the seer in Wordsworth as that he should be able to conceive the cavalier life and point of view; and in each perception there is the same power. He is as little at fault in understanding men of his own day. What would you wish better than his celebrated character of a “constitutional statesman,” for example? “A constitutional statesman is a man of common opinions and uncommon abilities.” Peel is his example. “His opinions resembled the daily accumulating insensible deposits of a rich alluvial soil. The great stream of time flows on with all things on its surface; and slowly, grain by grain, a mould of wise experience is unconsciously left on the still, extended intellect. … The stealthy accumulating words of Peel seem like the quiet leavings of some outward tendency, which brought these, but might as well have brought others. There is no peculiar stamp, either, on the ideas. They might have been any one’s ideas. They belong to the general diffused stock of observations which are to be found in the civilized world. … He insensibly takes in and imbibes the ideas of those around him. If he were left in a vacuum, he would have no ideas.”
What strikes one most, perhaps, in all these passages, is the realizing imagination which illuminates them. And it is an imagination with a practical character all its own. It is not a creating, but a conceiving imagination; not the imagination of the fancy, but the imagination of the understanding. Conceiving imaginations, however, are of two kinds. For the one kind the understanding serves as a lamp of guidance; upon the other the understanding acts as an electric excitant, a keen irritant. Bagehot’s was evidently of the first kind; Carlyle’s, conspicuously of the second. There is something in common between the minds of these two men as they conceive society. Both have a capital grip upon the actual; both can conceive without confusion the complex phenomena of society; both send humorous glances of searching insight into the hearts of men. But it is the difference between the men that most arrests our attention. Bagehot has the scientific imagination, Carlyle the passionate. Bagehot is the embodiment of witty common sense; all the movements of his mind illustrate that vivacious sanity which lie has himself called animated moderation. Carlyle, on the other hand, conceives men and their motives too often with a hot intolerance; there is heat in his imagination, — a heat that sometimes scorches and consumes. Life is for him dramatic, full of fierce, imperative forces. Even when the world rings with laughter, it is laughter which, in his ears, is succeeded by an echo of mockery; laughter which is but a defiance of tears. The actual which you touch in Bagehot is the practical, operative actual of a world of workshops and parliaments, — a world of which workshops and parliaments are the natural and desirable products. Carlyle flouts at modern legislative assemblies as “talking shops,” and yearns for action such as is commanded by masters of action; preaches the doctrine of work and silence in some thirty volumes octavo. Bagehot points out that prompt, crude action is the instinct and practice of the savage; that talk, the deliberation of assemblies, the slow concert of masses of men, is the cultivated fruit of civilization, nourishing to all the powers of right action in a society which is not simple and primitive, but advanced and complex. He is no more imposed upon by parliamentary debates than Carlyle is. He knows that they are stupid, and, so far as wise utterance goes, in large part futile, too. But he is not irritated, as Carlyle is, for, to say the fact, he sees more than Carlyle sees. He sees the force and value of the stupidity. He is wise, along with Burke, in regarding prejudice as the cement of society. He knows that slow thought is the ballast of a self-governing state. Stanch, knitted timbers are as necessary to the ship as sails. Unless the hull is conservative in holding stubbornly together in the face of every argument of sea weather, there’ll be lives and fortunes lost. Bagehot can laugh at unreasoning bias. It brings a merry twinkle into his eye to undertake the good sport of dissecting stolid stupidity. But he would not for the world abolish bias and stupidity. He would much rather have society hold together; much rather see it grow than undertake to reconstruct it. “You remember my joke against you about the moon,” writes Sydney Smith to Jeffrey; “d—n the solar system—bad light—planets too distant—pestered with comets—feeble contrivance; could make a better with great ease.” There was nothing of this in Bagehot. He was inclined to be quite tolerant of the solar system. He understood that society was more quickly bettered by sympathy than by antagonism.
Bagehot’s limitations, though they do not obtrude themselves upon your attention as his excellencies do, are in truth as sharp-cut and clear as his thought itself. It would not be just the truth to say that his power is that of critical analysis only, for he can and does construct thought concerning antique and obscure systems of political life and social action. But it is true that he does not construct for the future. You receive stimulation from him and a certain feeling of elation. There is a fresh air stirring in all his utterances that is unspeakably refreshing. You open your mind to the fine influence, and feel younger for having been in such an atmosphere. It is an atmosphere clarified and bracing almost beyond example elsewhere. But you know what you lack in Bagehot if you have read Burke. You miss the deep eloquence which awakens purpose. You are not in contact with systems of thought or with principles that dictate action, but only with a perfect explanation. You would go to Burke, not to Bagehot, for inspiration in the infinite tasks of self-government, though you would, if you were wise, go to Bagehot rather than to Burke if you wished to realize just what were the practical daily conditions under which those tasks were to be worked out.
Moreover, there is a deeper lack in Bagehot. He has no sympathy with the voiceless body of the people, with the “mass of unknown men.” He conceives the work of government to be a work which is possible only to the instructed few. He would have the mass served, and served with devotion, but he would tremble to see them attempt to serve themselves. He has not the stout fibre and the unquestioning faith in the right and capacity of inorganic majorities which makes the democrat. He has none of the heroic boldness necessary for faith in wholesale political aptitude and capacity. He takes democracy in detail in his thought, and to take it in detail makes it look very awkward indeed.
And yet surely it would not occur to the veriest democrat that ever vociferated the sovereignty of the people to take umbrage at anything Bagehot might chance to say in dissection of democracy. What he says is seldom provokingly true. There is something in it all that is better than a “saving clause,” and that is a saving humor. Humor ever keeps the whole of his matter sound; it is an excellent salt that keeps sweet the sharpest of his sayings. Indeed, Bagehot’s wit is so prominent among his gifts that I am tempted here to enter a general plea for wit as fit company for high thoughts and weighty subjects. Wit does not make a subject light; it simply beats it into shape to be handled readily. For my part, I make free acknowledgment that no man seems to me master of his subject who cannot take liberties with it; who cannot slap his propositions on the back and be hail-fellow well met with them. Suspect a man of shallowness who always takes himself and all that he thinks seriously. For light on a dark subject commend me to a ray of wit. Most of your solemn explanations are mere farthing candles in the great expanse of a difficult question. Wit is not, I admit, a steady light, but ah! its flashes give you sudden glimpses of unsuspected things such as you will never see without it. It is the summer lightning, which will bring more to your startled eye in an instant, out of the hiding of the night, than you will ever be at the pains to observe in the full blaze of noon.
Wit is movement, is play of mind; and the mind cannot get play without a sufficient playground. Without movement outside the world of books, it is impossible a man should see aught but the very neatly arranged phenomena of that world. But it is possible for a man’s thought to be instructed by the world of affairs without the man himself becoming a part of it. Indeed, it is exceedingly hard for one who is in and of it to hold the world of affairs off at arm’s length and observe it. He has no vantage-ground. He had better for a while seek the distance of books, and get his perspective. The literary politician, let it be distinctly said, is a very fine, a very superior species of the man thoughtful. He reads books as he would listen to men talk. He stands apart, and looks on, with humorous, sympathetic smile, at the play of policies. He will tell you for the asking what the players are thinking about. He divines at once how the parts are cast. He knows beforehand what each act is to discover. He might readily guess what the dialogue is to contain. Were you short of scene-shifters, he could serve you admirably in an emergency. And lie is a better critic of the play than the players.
Had I command of the culture of men, I should wish to raise up for the instruction and stimulation of my nation more than one sane, sagacious, penetrative critic of men and affairs like Walter Bagehot. But that, of course. The proper thesis to draw from his singular genius is this: It is not the constitutional lawyer, nor the student of the mere machinery and legal structure of institutions, nor the politician, a mere handler of that machinery, who is competent to understand and expound government; but the man who finds the materials for his thought far and wide, in everything that reveals character and circumstance and motive. It is necessary to stand with the poets as well as with lawgivers; with the fathers of the race as well as with your neighbor of to-day; with those who toil and are sick at heart as well as with those who prosper and laugh and take their pleasure; with the merchant and the manufacturer as well as with the closeted student; with the schoolmaster and with those whose only school is life; with the orator and with the men who have wrought always in silence; in the midst of thought and also in the midst of affairs, if you would really comprehend those great wholes of history and of character which are the vital substance of politics.
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