Eminent English liberals in and out of Parliament/John Morley
EMINENT LIBERALS OUT OF PARLIAMENT.
"He was a scholar, and a ripe and good one,
Exceeding wise, fair spoken, and persuading."
OF all Swift's bitter sayings, the bitterest, perhaps, was his observation that mankind are about as well fitted for flying as for thinking. If this be true,—and it is not necessary to be much of a misanthrope to admit, that, generally speaking, the human mind is a very imperfect instrument,—nothing can be more deplorable than the slight esteem in which the ablest thinkers are held by the majority of English electors.
"Thirty millions of people, mostly fools," and without so much as the capacity to discern the importance of putting the helm of the state into the hands of the least foolish! Howbeit, the phenomenon is not new. "There was a little city, and few men within it; and there came a great king against it, and besieged it, and built great bulwarks against it. Now, there was found in it a poor wise man, and he by his wisdom delivered the city; yet no man remembered that same poor man." The true "saviours of society" are, after all, its original thinkers. Of these England has at no time been without her share; and, in her treatment of them, politically speaking, she has walked with remarkable fidelity in the footsteps of the men of "the little city" Witness Mill and Westminster. Westminster, in a moment of illumination, elected as her representative in Parliament the greatest political thinker in the kingdom, but soon felt the honor she had thus done herself more than she could bear, and returned in haste to her vomit. In no other civilized country except England could such a man have been excluded for any length of time from the national councils. In France half a dozen signed articles would probably have brought him about as many offers of seats in the legislature, while in the United States he would, to a certainty, have been made an ambassador of the first rank. Even Spain values her Castelars and Pi y Margalls. England alone keeps on, if not absolutely stoning the prophets, at least studiously neglecting them. The result we see in the heavy arrears of domestic legislation, the helplessness and criminality of our diplomacy abroad, and, worse than all, the disgust with representative institutions which a Parliament of intellectual imbeciles is sure, sooner or later, to inspire.
That so distinguished an authority as Mr. Morley, on nearly every one of the great questions—political and ethical—which agitate modern society, should never yet have found a place at St. Stephen's is a standing impeachment of the political sagacity of popular constituencies. And it would be an additional cause for rejoicing if a scholar and a gentleman like Mr. Morley could be made to replace one or other of the corrupt ring of ignorant, vainglorious, aldermanic gluttons who have taken so many of the London constituencies captive. The contrast of political type would be sharp and salutary, and an important outpost of the city Tammany might thus be carried. Westminster, after discarding Mr. Mill, was hardly entitled to have it placed in her power to reject the greatest of his disciples.
As in the case of most speculative writers, the story of Mr. Morley's life is exceedingly simple,—almost necessarily an autour de ma chambre affair. His life is in his books, which have influenced the thoughts of many who have never read them. He was born at Blackburn in December, 1838, the son of a physician in good practice. The father set great store by learning, was somewhat eccentric, and a not wholly judicious parent. As might be expected in such circumstances, the future editor of "The Fortnightly" went the regular round of school, college, and bar. He was educated at Cheltenham College, whence he proceeded to Oxford, where he graduated in 1859. Subsequently he kept terms at Lincoln's Inn, and was duly "called" to the bar by that honorable society, but never practised.
It is not a little remarkable that all this time Mr. Morley showed no particular aptitude or even liking for study. He who has since dug so sedulously about the very roots of the tree of knowledge, among the primary conceptions of the human race, he who is now in the very vanguard of "free thought," was at college something of a mooning "Evangelical." Who in this mysterious world can foresee himself? What a contrast, for example, is here to the experience of his friend Mill, whose old pagan father, James, is credibly said to have imparted to him when an urchin the somewhat startling intelligence that there is no God, coupled with a prudent injunction to keep the information to himself! Yet John Stuart Mill, if he had lived much longer, was apparently bidding fair to take a high place, not, certainly, among orthodox believers, but among the worthies of the Unitarian calendar. Most powerful intellects are either religious or religiously anti-religious, superstitious or superstitiously anti-superstitious. Mr. Morley belongs to the latter category, and the fact is not inexplicable. At a certain period of youth, when the passions are strong and reflection is weak, religious emotions very frequently come in—and come in opportunely—to supply the restraining influence of reason. When they are no longer needed, they die out; and, if they have been very fervid, the more ingenuous order of minds is but too apt to resent them as idle delusions, and to rush into opposite extremes. Weaker and less ingenuous natures profess to feel them after they have ceased to influence, and so become religious hypocrites. The transition is not easy to make, and I am not sure that Mr. Morley has been quite successful in the operation. Throughout his writings, with all their patient truthfulness and candor, I think I can discern a certain undercurrent of unconscious bias on the question of religion, as if the pendulum of reason had swung back with such violence as to become slightly overbalanced. Unlike Mill, who approached the subject from a unique stand-point of impartiality, he makes at once too much and too little of the theme. But, of this, more anon.
In 1860 Mr. Morley commenced his career as a journalist and man of letters, and from the first he laid the hand of a master on whatever he touched. His earliest contributions were to "The Leader," then an organ of advanced Liberalism, of which George Henry Lewes was the first editor. He worked with a will, and soon became known to those whose business it is to gauge intellectual capacity. In 1863 he joined the staff of "The Saturday Review," on which he remained for five or six years. During that period he had for collaborateurs three of the most formidable intellectual gladiators in England; viz., Sir James Fitzjames Stephen, Sir William Vernon Harcourt, and Sir Henry Maine.
"Tis heavy odds against the gods
When they will match with Myrmidons."
But Mr. Morley was equal to the occasion. Many of his "Saturday Review" articles were characterized by striking originality of thought and fearlessness of expression. One in particular, entitled "New Ideas," made so deep an impression on Mr. John Stuart Mill, that he wrote to a friend anxiously inquiring who the author might be; and thus were laid the foundations of a lifelong friendship of no ordinary intimacy and reciprocal esteem. I know hardly any thing finer in prose than the reverence, without obsequiousness, which pervades Mr. Morley's article on the death of Mill. It is the very poetry of a manly sorrow. "The nightingale which he longed for fills the darkness with music, but not for the ear of the dead master: he rests in the deeper darkness where the silence is unbroken forever. We may console ourselves with the reflection offered by the dying Socrates to his sorrowful companions: He who has arrayed the soul in her own proper jewels of moderation and justice and courage and nobleness and truth is ever ready for the journey when his time comes. We have lost a great teacher and example of knowledge and virtue; but men will long feel the presence of his character about them, making them ashamed of what is indolent or selfish, and encouraging them to all disinterested labor, both in trying to do good and in trying to find out what the good is, which is harder."
Ever ready to do battle in the front rank of Liberalism, Mr. Morley chivalrously undertook to edit "The Morning Star" at a time when, for reasons chiefly connected with the commercial management, success was no longer possible. Through no fault of his, it was permitted to expire, and Radicalism thus lost a most faithful and competent advocate. From that day till the moment when he recently assumed the editorship of "The Pall Mall Gazette," that loss remained unrepaired, and it has been one of no ordinary seriousness to the party and to the country; for since that time metropolitan Radicalism can hardly be said to have been represented in the daily press.
In 1867 Mr. Morley succeeded Mr. Lewes in the editorship of "The Fortnightly," and in his hands a hitherto colorless magazine soon became the recognized medium of all manner of new and, not unfrequently, very unpopular ideas. And this bold, uncompromising policy, I am glad to think, has met with a gratifying measure of success. "The Fortnightly" is a tower of strength to Radicalism in all its higher walks, and its editor is ever vigilant and resolute to "hold the fort" against all comers.
In the same year that Mr. Morley became the editor of "The Fortnightly," he paid a short visit to the United States, and was introduced at the White House to the then President, Andrew Johnson. He did not, like certain weak-minded travellers, with whom we are all acquainted, return professing to be cured for life of republican ideals. On the contrary, he came back favorably impressed with the simplicity of American official life, and confirmed generally in his democratic sympathies.
In 1869, at a by-election, Mr. Morley contested his native Blackburn in the Radical interest, but without success. The "Conservative working-man" was against him. In certain Lancashire constituencies it can no longer be doubted that this anomalous being exists, and exists in force. Conservatism implies that there is something to conserve; but in these Godforsaken regions you have the effect without the cause,—men guarding rigorously what they never possessed. It is as if a slave with freedom within his grasp should cling tenaciously to his chains. Howbeit, Mr. Morley made as stubborn a fight as he did at Westminster at the last general election, and showed himself as cogent with his tongue on the platform as with his pen in the closet. He is a most skilful and persuasive speaker, with hardly a trace of those oratorical defects which generally mar the public utterances of great authors. He knows the difference between the written and the spoken linguistic mould, and can deftly cast his thoughts in either. Dissenting, as he does, even from the most heterodox Dissenters, I have yet heard him speak with rare acceptance on a Liberation Society's platform to the pink and flower of English Nonconformity. Such a spectacle of mutual toleration is among the most hopeful signs of English public life. But it is at home in his literary workshop that the editor of "The Fortnightly" will be seen to most advantage. The appointments of Berkeley Lodge, Putney, are such as to make the mouths of more obscure journalists water. The ample library looks out on a beautifully embowered lawn, while every domestic detail is perfect. A man who cannot write well with such happy surroundings has hopelessly mistaken his calling. And best of all is the frank, truthful, earnest conversation of the host himself. There is no evasion, no hedging. When I first met him, we plunged right into the questions of Deity, of the immortality of the soul, of the republic, of Robespierre, of Burke, of his friend Chamberlain, et de omni scibili, in an hour's time.
In reflecting, he has a curious habit of listening, as it were, to the tones of some far-off voice. I could not agree with many of his positions, but felt the greatest difficulty in maintaining my own. His religious scepticism is very deep and subtle. He might, I dare say if hard pressed, admit that there are evidences of divine arrangement in the universe amounting to a low degree of probability; and, as regards a life beyond the grave, he might go the length of dreading, with Hamlet, "what dreams may come in that sleep of death." But, in any case, he would turn away from such conjectural speculations, and substitute social for religious duties. This at once raises the intricate question of the influence of religion on morality. Is the connection necessary, or accidental? It would not be difficult, for example, to show that the pagan Cetewayo was, throughout the Zulu troubles, a pattern of justice as compared with our eminently Christian High Commissioner, Sir Bartle Frere; or that so public-spirited a citizen and infidel as Mr. Charles Bradlaugh would be a much more trustworthy custodian of other people's moneys than the pious directors of the City of Glasgow Bank.
But, granted that a man's religion has little or no influence over his moral conduct, what then? Man will ponder the strange problem of his destiny; and those who believe that religion is a mere mental infirmity must be prepared boldly to sum it up in the terrible words of Richter: "Of the world will become a world-machine, of God a force, and of the second world a coffin." Such teaching, it can hardly be doubted, would profoundly alter the hopes, if not the moralities, of the more energetic portion of the human family. Burns, in his most despairing poem, sang—
"The poor, oppressed honest man
Had surely ne'er been born
Had there not been some recompense
To comfort those who mourn."
No comfort, alas! no recompense. In such sore plight humanity, I fear, would be disposed to say with Marcus Antoninus, "It were well to die if there be gods, and sad to live if there be none."
With respect to the question of a republic, Mr. Morley's attitude, as might be expected in so courageous a political thinker, is clearly defined. He recognizes that, until the republican banner is boldly unfurled, we who are Radicals are condemned to strike at phantoms. He is, of course, at the same time, no partisan of any revolution other than a revolution of public opinion. In his powerful treatise on "Compromise," he says, "Our conviction is not, on the present hypothesis, that monarchy ought to be swept away in England, but that monarchy produces certain mischievous consequences to the public spirit of the communit3^ And so what we are bound to do is to take care not to conceal this conviction; to abstain scrupulously from all kinds of action and observance, public or private, which tend ever so remotely to foster the ignoble and degrading elements that exist in a court, and spread from it outwards; and to use all the influence we have, however slight it may be, in leading public opinion to a right attitude of contempt and dislike for these ignoble and degrading elements, and the conduct engendered by them." This is not the language of saponaceous bishops or of turtle-fed aldermen; but it is "the voice of sense and truth," albeit it was never heard at the Guildhall.
With nearly all that Mr. Morley has written on Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, Turgot, and the French Revolution, I cordially concur. To Robespierre alone I think he has done scant justice, while to Burke he has been more than kind. With the impartiality of a judge, and the insight of a statesman rather than of a man of letters, he has succeeded in dispelling much of the obscurity in which Mr. Carlyle is chiefly responsible for having involved the greatest movement of the mind of modern Europe. Carlyle's "French Revolution" is undoubtedly a work of genius; but so has a lurid "nocturne" by Mr. Whistler been pronounced to be a work of genius. The trouble is that neither has the smallest resemblance to the original. The time is coming when, it is to be hoped, the English people will have forgotten all about the "sea-greenness" of Robespierre, and remember only his unquestioned and unquestionable "incorruptibility." Mr. Morley's objection to Carlyle's bogey does not lie in a nickname; but I think he would, perhaps, have regarded Robespierre with a kindlier eye if he had not been the author of the dictum, "Atheism is aristocratic. The idea of a Great Being who watches over oppressed innocence and punishes triumphant crime is essentially the idea of the people."
Mr. Morley's admiration for Burke I am wholly unable to comprehend. To bracket him with Milton is like comparing a penny whistle to an organ. Nay, those who thought only of dining when he thought of convincing were not so culpable as has been insinuated. It would have been greatly to the advantage of England and of Europe if Burke had never crossed St. George's Channel.
As a practical politician, Mr. Morley has strenuously exerted himself to secure two great objects,—to level down the Church politically, and to level up the working-class socially, with a view to unite the whole people in the pursuit of national as distinguished from sectional ideals. As president of the Midland Institute, in 1876, he delivered a remarkable address on "Popular Culture" in the Birmingham Town Hall,—an address which will be found to embody opinions of the highest wisdom, and sentiments of the noblest aspiration. It ends thus, and with it this notice must also end: "When our names are blotted out and our place knows us no more, the energy of each social service will remain, and so, too, let us not forget, will each social disservice remain like the unending stream of one of Nature's forces. The thought that this is so may well lighten the poor perplexities of our daily life, and even soothe the pang of its calamities. It lifts us from our feet as on wings, opening a larger meaning to our private toil and a higher purpose to our public endeavor; it makes the morning as we awake 'to its welcome, and the evening like a soft garment as it wraps us about; it nerves our arm with boldness against oppression and injustice, and strengthens our voice with deeper accents against falsehood, while we are yet in the full noon of our days; yes. and perhaps it will shed some ray of consolation when our eyes are growing dim to it all, and we go down into the Valley of Darkness."