In Praise of the Eighteenth Century

“ THE eighteenth century was an age of strong and brave men, and my father was one of the strongest and bravest of them,” wrote John Stuart Mill of his father. The stoical character and levelheaded idealism of the younger Mill doubtless gave him an understanding of the eighteenth century that was conspicuously lacking in such sons of thunder as Carlyle, Ruskin, and many other writers of our own period, who have all united in decrying the virtues and philosophy of that great epoch. We are by this time weary of being told that our forefathers reveled in an atmosphere of cant, that they hated nature and loved artificial pleasures, and that their view of life was utterly prosaic.

If there were ever a century of cant, it is probably our own, — for the very reason that we are barely conscious of our own insincerity. The politicians of our time are disingenuous, because they are hypnotized by the mob into imagining that their catchwords mean something more than catchwords and our writers think confusedly because the echoing hubbub conceals from them their own lack of coherence. By a similar process of development, the limpid melodies of a Haydn or Mozart have been ousted by the grandiose discords of a Wagner. The older generation did indeed set much store on ceremony as the outward and visible sign of human dignity, but they clearly distinguished between what was conventional and what was not. They did not pretend, for example, as in modern England, to give posts to aristocrats on account of their being more competent than any one else, but frankly admitted that the exigencies of their society demanded a hereditary class of rulers, which would often achieve more through its collective traditions than through the capacity of individuals.

Who would seriously maintain that we enjoy simple pleasures? We rush madly from continent to continent in search of the more bizarre aspects of man and nature, rarely lingering in any one place, where a sojourn of a few weeks would give us an understanding of past or alien civilizations, which can never be gained from years of globe-trotting. We discard sunshine for electric light, the scent of warm grass for drawing-room perfumes, and the music of wood and stream for street noises that kill the nervous system.

What a dingy contrast to Walpole’s delight in his Norfolk home, to Johnson’s ecstasies in the rapid post chaise, to Voltaire on the Lake of Geneva, to Goethe in the Weimar woods!

“ My regard for you is greater almost than I have words to express; but I do not chuse to be always repeating it; write it down in the first leaf of your pocket-book and never doubt of it again,” was a typical reply of Johnson to the unfortunate Boswell. Such reticence is becoming unintelligible to our own world. Nothing can be taken for granted, unless, of course, it is printed in a newspaper ; no emotion is too sacred to defy publicity. No eminent man may fly to the citadel of his own soul ; for it has long been prostituted to the eyes of the vulgar.

In such melancholy retrospection as this, the English tourist may sometimes yearn for a vision of eighteenth-century America even more than of eighteenthcentury England. Washington, writes Mr. Goldwin Smith, conforms more than any other leader of the Revolution (and he might perhaps have added any other President of the United States) to the ideal of the English gentleman, and few monuments excite such genuine veneration in the transatlantic visitor as the sight of Mount Vernon. The household relics and the Elizabethan garden leave him with a sense of real kinship and of pride in the common heroes of the English-speaking race, which is rather stifled than aroused by the cosmopolitan immensity of New York or Chicago. For there the very arts that have annihilated space and time between the two continents have also bred a new swarm of men who have now a nationality of their own, but whose aspirations have suffered more than a sea change. While we rejoice in the birth of new commonwealths and boldly face the vast activities of the future, we cannot help a wistful regret for our “ strong and brave ” forbears.