Littell's Living Age/Volume 133/Issue 1715/Walter Bagehot

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From Spectator.


The sudden death of the editor of the Economist, in the fulness of his powers, has been thought of, and will continue to be thought of, in relation to the public life of Englishmen, chiefly as the sudden loss of a cool, sagacious, wise, and unusually independent element in the formation of the economical and financial opinion of the world to which he belonged. And that assuredly it is. If Mr. Bagehot's mind, as a factor in political opinion of any kind, had a defect, that defect was the very unusual one of its too complete independence of the influence of the thought around him. He had what Dr. Newman has called "intellectual detachment" in as high a degree probably as any man of his generation, - so high that he sometimes found it all but impossible to understand the force of the ordinary currents of feeling around him and consequently at times allowed too much and at times also too little for those external influences of which he rather guessed than gauged the strength. But those who knew Mr. Bagehot well will probably find it hard to remember in him the economist at all. Much of his time as he devoted to these subjects, and greatly as he influenced the opinion of his day upon them, it will remain very difficult for his personal friends to think chiefly of economical subjects when they remember him. And even those who have studied none of his writings except those devoted to these subjects, will in some degree be able to understand how this may be. For what he introduced into these as into all subjects on which he wrote at all, was life, animation, the real view of a man who had mastered the abstract theory indeed, and attached to it the first importance, but who cared chiefly to consider its bearing on the facts of the world of business, and the manner in which it blended with and modified the transactions of living men. No one can have read the financial and economical papers of Mr. Bagehot for many years without seeing that the various kinds of city men, the merchant, the stockbroker, the banker, were all living figures to him, and that he loved to dissect, with that realistic humor of which he was a master, the relative bearing of their disturbing passions and conventions on that instinct of gain which forms the sole basis of economical reasoning.

And it was the life, humor, and animation, looking out of the glance of those large and brilliant black eyes, and often presenting a curious contrast with the supposed dryness of the subjects with which Mr. Bagehot so frequently dealt, that made him what he was to his friends. In spite of his detached, cool, solitary intellect, he was the most buoyant of men, the loss of whom is like the loss of sunlight to his friends' dimmer lives. As a young man, his nonsense was the most enjoyable of all nonsense, for with all its extravagance, it had strong and piercing discrimination for its chief ground but while always following the lead of some true perception, he lashed out in all directions into caricature of his meaning with all the animation of high spirits and a bold imagination. He was a dashing rider, too, and a fresh wind was felt blowing through his earlier literary efforts, as though he had been thinking in the saddle, - an effect wanting in his later essays, where you see chiefly the calm analysis of a lucid observer. What animation there is, for example, in this description of Shakespeare - "The reverential nature of Englishmen has carefully preserved what they thought the great excellence of their poet, - that he made a fortune . . . It was a great thing that he, the son of the wool-comber, the poacher, the good-for-nothing, the vagabond (for so, we fear, the phrase went in Shakespeare's youth), should return upon the old scene a substantial man, a person of capital, a freeholder, a gentleman to be respected, and over whom even a burgess could not affect the least superiority. The great pleasure in life is doing what people say you can't do. Why did Mr. Disraeli take the duties of chancellor of the exchequer with so much relish? Because people said he was a novelist, an ad cartandum man … who could not add up. No doubt it pleased his inmost soul to do the work of the red-tape people better than those who could do nothing else. And so with Shakespeare, - it pleased him to be respected by those whom he had respected with boyish reverence - but who had rejected the imaginative man - on their own ground and in their own subject, by the only title which they would regard, in a word, as a moneyed man. We seem to see him eyeing the burgesses with good-humored fellowship, and genial though suppressed and half-conscious contempt, drawing out their old stories, acquiescing in their foolish notions, with everything in his head and easy sayings upon his tongue, a full mind and a deep dark eye that played upon an easy scene - now in fanciful solitude, now in cheerful society, now occupied with deep thoughts, now and equally so with trivial recreations, forgetting the dramatist in the man of substance, and the poet in the happy companion; beloved and even respected, with a hope for every one and a smile for all." Mr. Bagehot's own success as a banker and economist certainly pleased him not a little, and for the same reason. As a boy he was thought a metaphysical dreamer by those who did not know him well. And he was always laughing at himself because he could not make figures "add up." Nevertheless, after a year or two's study of law, and after being called to the Bar, he exchanged the law for the counting-house, with some tinge probably of the same motive which he here attributes to Shakespeare. Certainly much of the pleasure of his great success - and a great success it was; for the leading men of both Liberal and Conservative governments consulted him eagerly on financial questions, and often followed his advice - consisted in the thought that he had attained that success in the most practical and apparently the least dreamy of all pursuits, in spite of an imagination that ranged into the highest subjects, and at one time gained him the reputation of incapacity for practical life.

Again, what vividness is there in this description of the historian Gibbon! - "Grave, tranquil, decorous pageantry is a part, as it were, of the essence of the last age. There is nothing more characteristic of Gibbon. A kind of pomp pervades him. He is never out of livery. He ever selects for narration the themes which look most like a levée. Grave chamberlains seem to stand throughout; life is a vast ceremony, the historian at once the dignitary and the scribe … [Nevertheless] the manner of the 'Decline and Fall' is almost the last which should be recommended for strict imitation. It is not a style in which you can tell the truth. … The petty order of sublunary matters, the common gross existence of ordinary people, the necessary littlenesses of necessary life, are little suited to his sublime narrative." And again, "The truth clearly is, that Gibbon had arrived at the conclusion that he was the sort of person a populace kill. People wonder a great deal why very many of the victims of the French Revolution were particularly selected; the Marquis de Custine especially cannot divine why they executed his father. The historians cannot show that they committed any particular crime. The marquises and marchionesses seem very inoffensive. The fact is, they were killed for being polite. The world felt itself unworthy of it. There were so many bows, such regular smiles, such calm, supreme condescension, - could a mob be asked to stand it? Have we not all known a precise, formal, patronizing old gentleman, - bland, imposing, something like Gibbon? Have we not suffered from his dignified attentions? If we had been on the Committee of Public Safety, can we doubt what would have been the fate of that man? Just so, wrath and envy destroyed in France an upper-class world." This was taken partly from his own observation. Mr. Bagehot was in France at the time of the coup d'état of 1851, and very vividly he described the impression which the revolutionary passion of the Reds made upon him. "Of late," he wrote to a friend, "I have been devoting my entire attention to the science of barricades, which I found amusing. They have systematized it in a way which is pleasing to the cultivated intellect. We had only one good day's fighting, and I naturally kept out of cannon-shot. But I took a quiet walk over the barricades in the morning, and superintended the construction of three with as much keenness as if I had been clerk of the works. You've seen lots, of course, at Berlin, but I should not think those Germans were up to a real Montagnard, who is the most horrible being to the eye I ever saw, - sallow, sincere, sour fanaticism, with grizzled moustaches, and a strong wish to shoot you rather than not. The Montagnards are a scarce commodity, the real race, - only three or four, if so many, to a barricade. The rest are mere shop-boys and gamins, who get knocked about by the Fraternité fanatics, if they put the stones wrong, or don't upset the cabs to an inch." "Till the Revolution came, I had no end of trouble to find conversation, but now they'll talk against everybody, and against the president like mad, - and they talk immensely well, and the language is like a razor, capital if you are skilful, but sure to cut you if you aren't. A fellow can talk German in crude forms, and I don't see it sounds any worse, but this stuff is horrid unless you get it quite right. A French lady made a striking remark to me: 'C'est une revolution qui a sauvé la France. Tous mes amis sont mis en prison.' She was immensely delighted that such a pleasing way of saving her country had been found."

Mr. Bagehot's stay in France, short as it was, confirmed him in his profound English reserve and also in his lively dread of that ready-made, neat-looking theory which, even to his mind, added so much to the attractiveness of French literature, while it squared so ill with the complexity of actual life. Yet his admiration for the effectiveness and perspicuity of French style was almost unlimited, though he regarded the French audacity of generalization as a grave warning, not as a seductive example. Perhaps his familiarity with it taught him that disposition to scoff at mere literature, and that deep belief in the educating power of all large mercantile life, which he was always expressing, sometimes with humorous exaggeration, sometimes with earnest conviction. "You see," he once wrote to a friend, "I have hunting, banking, ships, publishers, an article, and a Christmas to do, all at once, and it is my opinion they will all get muddled. A muddle will print, however, though it won't add up, - which is the real advantage of literature."

It is of course difficult to decide, as it is difficult to answer all hypothetical questions, whether Mr. Bagehot would have succeeded if he had ever got into Parliament, - as in 1866 he was within eight votes of doing for Bridgewater. It is certain enough that dozens of vastly inferior men have at various times succeeded in making a great Parliamentary and political reputation. But it does not follow that because he was a man of much higher and wider intellectual range than many of them, he would have succeeded too. As we have said, his mind was not a mind which got merged in his work and duties. It was a mind which he kept singularly detached from them, and this was one of the great obstacles to his popularity. He was a thorough Liberal so far as a steady belief in the educational advantages of popular institutions, and especially of wide and directly practical discussions, could make him a Liberal, but he had no sympathy with the "enthusiasms" of the Liberal party, and was, in a humorous way, almost proud of belonging to a county which, as he used to say, "would not subscribe a thousand pounds to be represented by an archangel." "I hate the Liberal enthusiast," he once wrote to a friend. "I feel inclined to say, 'Go home, sir, and take a dose of salts, and see if it won't clean it all out of you.' Nature did not mean me for a popular candidate." Clearly not; and even if he had got over that stage of the business, we are not sure that Mr. Bagehot did not a little too distinctly realize the wide chasm between his views and those of the popular party to which he must have belonged, to have exercised a perfectly natural and therefore a powerful influence over political opinion. He was a Liberal of the middle party, and always approved Liberal governments resting on the Liberal-Conservatives, and Conservative governments resting on the Conservative-Liberals, rather than governments of energy, enthusiasm, and action. Yet Mr. Bagehot was a Liberal from conviction, not from prepossession. His book on the British Constitution - much the ablest, indeed the only book on the real working of that constitution, and one which has been eagerly welcomed in Germany and France as quite a new light on the true meaning of the British political system - shows that intellectually he would have preferred a conservative republic to a constitutional monarchy, if it had but had the same magic hold on the British people. He did not like the many unreal fictions of constitutional monarchy, nor did he esteem highly the prepossessions in which national fidelity to a hereditary dynasty is rooted. Nevertheless, he steadily maintained that mankind being what it is, the position of a constitutional monarch, if used by a wise and patient sovereign, is one of the most powerful, and one conferring power of the most enviable kind, that exists in the world. He would have liked to be one.

Mr. Bagehot had a keen delight in following the methods of modern scientific investigation, and his remarkable book on "Physics and Politics" sufficiently shows how strong a hold Mr. Darwin's theories of the elimination of inefficient competitors in the struggle for life, and Sir Henry Maine's studies on the relation of ancient customs to law, had got of his mind. He held that the doctrine of evolution and natural selection gave a far higher conception of the Creator than the old doctrine of mechanical design, but, nevertheless, he never took the materialistic view of evolution. One of his early essays, written while at college, on some of the many points of the Kantian philosophy which he then loved to discuss, concluded with a remarkable sentence, which would probably have fairly expressed, even at the close of his life, his profound belief in God and his partial sympathy with the agnostic view that we are, in great measure, incapable of apprehending more than very dimly his mind or purposes: "Gazing after the infinite essence, we are like men watching through the drifting clouds for a glimpse of the true heavens on a drear November day; layer after layer passes from our view, but still the same immovable grey rack remains." Yet he held to the last that the religious instincts have their own significance and a significance with which scientific reasoning cannot and will not ultimately interfere; and the haunting sense which he often strongly expressed of the eternal continuity of personal life doubtless also remained with him to the end.

Not very many perhaps, outside Mr. Bagehot's own inner circle, will carry about with them that hidden pain, that burden of emptiness, inseparable from an image which has hitherto been one full of the suggestions of life and power when that life and power are no longer to be found, - for Mr. Bagehot was intimately known only to the few. But those who do, will hardly find again in this world a store of intellectual sympathy of so high a stamp, so wide in its range, and so full of original and fresh suggestion, a judgment to lean on so real and so sincere, or a friend so frank and constant, with so vivid and tenacious a memory for the happy associations of a common past, and so generous in recognizing the independent value of divergent convictions in the less pliant present.