Browning and the Special Interests

Come now let each of us awhile cry truce to spe-
cial interests.

Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau.


To the poet, not to Mr. La Follette, belongs the distinction of sending the phrase ‘special interests’ to the mint. When it rolled from the poet’s pen, however, it was less bulky with connotation than now. To envisage the ‘ interests’ of Browning’s Prince HohenstielSchwangau one must begin by stripping the phrase of some of its more recent honors. ‘The Saviour of Society’ was written in 1871. Mr. Roosevelt had not yet entered upon his career, and we in America had not been taught to think of oil and tobacco, sugar and copper, as predatory interests. Watts, in the brutal splendor of his Mammon, has helped us to clothe the idea in color.

Browning, we recall, would have us see the thing at a different angle. One of the political enigmas of the last generation was Napoleon III, the target at once of furious scorn and adulation. In a poem of some two thousand lines, Browning gives this client, under the title of Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau, opportunity to defend himself and his theory of civilization.

In that leisurely apology the quartette of glowing causes — ‘Liberty, Philanthropy, Enlightenment, and Patriotism,’ which since Rousseau have been declaimed uninterruptedly — are styled ‘the special interests.’ As the Prince saw it, the most insidious lobby against which civilization must brace itself is the activity of gracious sentiments. He believed that only by holding these interests in the leash of common sense can society be maintained on a decent footing. The Prince had reason for the faith that was in him, and Browning with the urbanity of a good listener lets him tell his unromantic story.

The audacity of the Prince lies in his irreverent imputation. To place Liberty, Philanthropy, Enlightenment, and Patriotism in the same fetid lobby with sugar, oil, and tobacco is to toy perilously with romanticism. We have been taught to think of these dignitaries with respect. To call Philanthropy a special interest, along with soap and copper, is an insult to the spacious sentiments of our time.

But the poet lays down his hand before the whole goodly company of us, — agitators, reformers, philanthropists, clergymen, and all the restless adventurers of light. ‘ I call you special interests,’ he seems to say. ‘You declaim about Enlightenment, Progress, and Philanthropy. These are interests I grant you, but they are special. Civilization has its other concerns as well,'—“workshop, manufactory, exchange and market-place, seaport and customhouse o’ the frontier, mouths that, wanted bread, hands that supplicated handiwork, men with wives and women with the babes, — all these pleading just to live, not die.” ’

Now, once grant that any interest is ‘special,’ with all the potential alarm of that phrase, and you have disarmed it. There is no real danger to democracy from any special interest branded as such. By classifying it, we have plucked the sting of its eloquence and compelled it to defend its innocency of intention before the bar of public opinion.

But the heady atmosphere of reform has been too tonic for the growth of humility on the part of Liberty, Philanthropy, Enlightenment, and Patriotism. We may expose the so-called ‘special interests’ and hale them into court, but who in this enlightened century dares summon Philanthropy into court and say, ‘You must have supervision and control?’

It requires courage to urge indictment against these ‘interests.’ There is an appealing chivalry about their calling, and they know it. Their benevolent intention shelters a goodly brood of noble causes — shorter hours for labor, child-labor laws, mothers’, widows’, and orphans’ pensions, child culture, eugenics, and all the insurgent forces of modernity. Benign enough these interests look as we name them in glowing capitals, ‘Liberty, Philanthropy, Enlightenment, and Patriotism ’; but oppose their lobby and we shall discover their power. A legion of forces have they at command, — power to petition and to plead, to pamphleteer and denounce, to organize leagues, to storm the halls of legislation and compel us into joining or losing our sociological position in the community. Never were sharper claws hid beneath pussier cushions.


In the realm of religion, things have fallen pretty much into the hands of one of the four big interests—‘Enlightenment.’ Here the specialist stalks through the land unmolested. Thus far the plain people have been less a prey to Enlightenment than the clergy, and only the initiated are disturbed when one reads in our most modern authority such a paragraph regarding the Apostle Paul as this: ‘The peculiarity of the mysticism which arises out of the Apocalyptic is that it does not bring the two worlds into contact in the mind of the individual as Greek and Mediæval mysticism did, but dovetails one into the other, and thus creates for the moment at which the one passes over into the other an objective, temporarily conditioned mysticism. This, however, is available only for these who by their destiny belong to both worlds. Eschatological mysticism is predestinarian.’

Now I know this, and the distinguished author knows it, but did St. Paul know it? Tolstoï once wrote: ‘It is the worst of educated men that they cannot speak about any great question till they have read everything that has been written about it, for fear that some one should say, “But have you read Schwartzenburg?” Then, if they have not read Schwartzenburg, they are done.’

But the moment one starts upon the business of ‘reading up’ in religion, he finds Schwartzenburgs springing up like mushrooms in the night, and he falls at once into the hands of special interests. For example: Comparative Religion has been maintaining for years a most insidious lobby against the faith once delivered to the Saints. It is battening on the credulous. Of all the interests which despoil the innocent of their rights, comparative religion is the most arrogant.

One can get on very well with his religion till he starts to reading up. It is the Schwartzenburg interests which undo him. One recalls how under one of these benevolent specialists he was first let in on the ground floor of some rich vein of discovery which Comparative Religion had just struck in Asia Minor.

One month there fell into my hands, the current Hibbert Journal, Gilbert Murray’s Four Types of Greek Religion, and Schweitzer’s Paul and his Interpreters, and I was tossed helplessly about among a number of mutually exclusive theories of Christianity. One Heitmuller, with unctuous consideration for weaker minds, as if loath to break distressing news, yet firmly as who should say, ‘ You must sooner or later be told and who better than I to soften the news,’ — Heitmuller admits us into the garish light of the most modern discovery when he tells us that our beloved Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is merely an expansion of the ancient Pagan custom of eating one’s God in order to obtain the God’s special virtue.

Trembling in every article of my creed, I cut the pages of my Hibbert Journal, hoping for some word of denial of this terrible report from Germany, and lo! I am again regaled with the ‘Peter versus Paul’ explanation of the New Testament, and its hard sayings are convincingly explained by a theological quarrel in the college of the Apostles.

But my card has been in the circulating library awaiting the return of Schweitzer’s Paul and his Interpreters, and just as I am about to throw up the flag of surrender before the bombardment of light from the specialists in Comparative Religion, behold Schweitzer comes to my rescue with battalion upon battalion of footnotes, Schwartzenburgs, Kabishes, Gunkels, Maurenbreckers and the rest, all in battle-array, to smash the lines of Comparative Religion. The battle over, I venture forth wounded in spirit; but at least my Sacrament is safe. But I am not yet out of the hands of the Special Interests. Schweitzer, too, must have his little fling, and I am now let in for eschatology, which is his mollifying mixture of scholarship and orthodoxy. Again I begin to see the thing single and whole. Why had I not seen it before? There it is, clear as daylight, between the lines of the Gospels.

If only the specialists would let the matter rest there, all would be well, but I have a friend who goes seriously into this business of reading up and whose religion is pitched to the highest key of modernism. He finds me poring over my Schweitzer and rather patronizingly asks, ‘But have you read Reitzenstein?’ Whereupon, refusing further to face the light, I reach for my Borrow, hoping to find sanctuary in his eighteenthcentury evangelicalism, unchilled as yet by Schwartzenburgs. My solace comes from The Bible in Spain. The Schoolmaster of Cohares had been telling Borrow that he had a copy of the New Testament in his possession which Borrow desired to see; but on examining it he says, ‘I discovered it was only the Epistle by Pereira, with copious notes. I asked him whether he considered that there was harm in reading the Scriptures without notes: he replied that there was certainly no harm in it, but simple people, without the help of notes, could derive little benefit from Scripture, as the greatest part would be unintelligible to them; whereupon I shook hands with him, and, on parting, said that there was no part of Scripture so difficult to understand as those very notes which were intended to elucidate it, and that it would never have been written if not calculated of itself to illumine the minds of all classes of mankind.’

What damaging opaqueness to Enlightenment, but how in secret we envy his smug detachment from Modernism. I am not decrying scholarship as an aid to the study of religion, but if one is to keep his House of Faith in perfect repair he must be ever on the alert to catch the latest Schwartzenburg on the wing.


But there is a group of Special Interests with interlocking directorates which ought to be indicted for conspiracy in restraint of morals and religion. They have won almost complete control of the press, schools, and politics, and they are beginning to invade the churches with their efficiency tests. Sociology is one of these interests. It started its benevolent career as meek as any missionary. That is the way with the interests until they obtain certain valuable concessions. Sociology seemed amiable enough until it began to set forth certain cubist conceptions of morals and to meddle with religion.

Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau did not include religion among his special interests, but he did mention philanthropy. Philanthropy, with its kindred sciences, is certainly a pampered interest battening on tax-ridden religion and government franchises. It is dictating terms to our churches, exacting time and tribute from the clergy, rewriting our theology, and to-day is robbing us of our last ancestral relic, — the sense of sin.

In the short Catechism the obligations involved in man’s duty toward his neighbor are set forth with the frankness and precision of the out-and-out realist. There they are, just as we meet them in real life: obedience to the law; to keep my hands from picking and stealing and my tongue from evil-speaking, lying, and slandering; to keep my body in temperance and chastity; not to covet or desire other men’s property; but to learn and labor to get mine own living, and to do my duty in that state of life unto which it shall please God to call me.

The programme thus set forth is matter-of-fact and unscientific. Nothing is said about inheritance or environment, wages, or cubic feet of air-space affecting chastity. The fascinating problem of responsibility which we are impotent to solve, it does not undertake to handle. The Catechism does not attempt to explain exhaustively why people go wrong. It goes no further into psychology than the warning that it is impossible to live a clean, honorable, and Christian life without Special Grace, which we ‘must learn at all times to call for by diligent prayer.’ There is, you see, a decent tactful restraint in this old-fashioned treatment of sin. It saves our self-respect and also our morality.

But the soft-hearted philanthropists feel a more anxious concern for humanity than did the writers of the Catechism. Little Emily, now famous through the investigations of the State Senate Vice-Investigating Committee of Illinois regarding the relationship between wages and prostitution, is taught by the most modern school of philanthropy not to call upon God by diligent prayer if she would preserve her chastity, but to call upon Brown, Jones & Company for higher wages, and the state legislature for a minimum-wage law.

I shall not undertake to deny that wages and prostitution, ventilation and morals, food and faith, shelter some common factor; but in the interest of decency, the fact must not be over-emphasized. The last rag of respectability to which the sinner desperately clings is a sense of sin. Rob him of that and you have robbed him of his good name. He has sold his birthright and is no longer a child of God. Little Emily on the witness-stand, unless betrayed by the sociologist, does not wish the world to think that her chastity is an affair which rests entirely with labor legislation.

Here is my quarrel with so many of the public-service sciences. They are robbing us of our self-respect. St. Paul’s psychology was more true to human nature, and far more chivalrous. There is a mechanical side to morals, as eugenic experts and the futurists in morals undertake to show; but they have overcapitalized the shabby fact.

In one of the late art exhibitions, I was brought to pause before a futurist cow. The picture called for a radical readjustment of my old-fashioned notions of fitness of form and figure. Were cows really made in such dissonant, warring entanglements of lines and surfaces? But the next time I visited my dairy I caught my best Ayrshire in the very act of reproducing the futurist attitude — its massive spreading back in veritable imitation of those awkward masses. There, behold, was the cubist cow in all her garish disregard of classical detail, flaunting her futurism in my face! Had she too been to the art exhibition, and had I here proof of Oscar Wilde’s contention that Nature slavishly copies art?

My quarrel with the futurist was that he had betrayed me. He had taken my best Ayrshire and with his foul wand converted her into a cubist monster. Henceforth I must wander through dairy and pasture seeing cubist bovines where once Nature exulted in comely masses of tans and brownish reds spreading in graceful surfaces upon the ground.

Something like this is happening all the while at the hands of our specialists,—neurologists, criminologists, psychologists, sociologists, and the rest. They betray the confidence placed in them. In certain matters they speak with authority. They have a truth but they overcapitalize it. They have read Schwartzenburg, taken time-reaction tests, gathered statistics relating to wages, ventilation, prostitution, sewage, tenement-house dimensions, child culture and infant mortality; then they begin to generalize about life.

The cow in some respects does resemble the cubist presentment of her, but has she not other delight ful appearances as well? Why tarry in the slough of an occasional degrading fact? The futurist, riding his mechanical truth, has failed to grasp the cow’s real æsthetic intention and the redemptive lines of her beauty. In clothing one of our dear old racial possessions in the odious garment of his special idea, he has outraged and betrayed us.


None of the Special Interests can rightly be called predatory until it allies itself with government. Here is the real stigma attached to sugar, oil, and other odious specials which have brought the so-called ‘Interests’ into bad repute. But of late Philanthropy has been despoiling the interests of their most facile weapon, taxation. St. Francis no longer takes the open road bent upon errands of mercy. He light-heartedly boards a tram for the Halls of Legislation. That is the simplest way ‘to fix the matter up.’ Instead of helping our neighbor in the old-fashioned way, modern philanthropy is more constructive. It is teaching him to go to the public treasury and help himself.

Mind you, there is nothing indecorous about these newer interests, — none of the rough scrambling for concessions as among the old money barons under the robust régime of plutocracy. All is courteous and generous-minded. The advocates of the six-hour day for workingmen graciously wave forward the advocates of the eight-hour day with, ‘After you. There is enough to go round and plenty for everybody.’

Any theory is harmless so long as it good-naturedly submits to the law of the survival of the fittest. That is the real gospel of Democracy. Everybody given a chance, and everybody a good listener. Since religion accepted these terms, it has been getting along amicably with its neighbors. We have abolished the rack, and instituted the religious quarterly and Parliaments of Religion. Conflicting theories can fight the matter out in debate till everybody is convinced or bored and no particular harm is done. It is the subsidized theory which is dangerous. If, for example, Comparative Religion were to add to its arrogant demeanor the ancient weapon of the law, we should think it highly predatory. Fortunately Schwartzenburg has not gone into politics.

We must treat some of the pretentious chivalry of the Special Interests with restrained admiration. There is a skeleton in their closet. Brotherly love, on which the Public-Service sciences are builded, presupposes sacrifice. But ‘love, justice, self-sacrifice,’ as Nietzsche points out, ‘are generally praised by the wrong people. You talk of selfsacrifice,’ he exclaims to his contemporaries, ‘but you have nothing to sacrifice. You are weak persons who desire that others should sacrifice themselves to you.’

Heretofore the Millennium has been deemed a spiritual task. It involved a cross. Religion has, in the past, bred men and women extravagantly willing to pay for their unselfish dream out of their own earnings. Martyr’s blood has enriched the programme of the saints. But the Millennium is now in the hands of less robust teachers. It is no longer the gospel of sacrifice, but a dexterous triumph of legislation.

There is many a facile programme for bringing in the kingdom of happiness here on earth. We are persuaded that if only we can get more — more health, more money for our labor, more comforts and play — we shall have solved our problems and supplied our moral deficiencies. But, despite our restless efforts for the common good, we are not made brothers. The disintegrating forces of envy and suspicion are tearing at the heart of life. The special interests of the ‘have-nots’ do battle with the special interests of the ‘haves,’ and while both are ‘cajoling and cudgeling the state’ into granting concessions, they cleave us further asunder.

‘The atmosphere of a common will’ can come not by the monopoly of any special interest nor yet by magnanimous concessions to pity, but by the regenerating power of a great idea. Religion claims this power. But she too, in the lean seasons of her loyalty, became a special interest. Then Humanitarianism undertook the neglected task. Because her chivalrous intention led us to expect the best, we will not accept from her a meagre millennium of loaves and fishes for the poor.

We have lately seen how, in England, a new patriotism inspired by the war has welded together the dissenting and predatory groups into self-forgetful servants of the state. Religion, if we despair not of her, will yet again lift us out of our separate interests and make us partners in the tasks of life.