Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 4/Representative men: Courtier-philosophers - Bacon, Leibnitz, Voltaire, Goethe, Humboldt
bacon: leibnitz: voltaire: göthe: humboldt.
Some new interest has of late years gathered about the old topic of the companionship between political and intellectual sovereignty—the friendship between princes and philosophers. Old as the topic is, it is always practically fresh, because there are always persons who are dissatisfied if recognition from the Fountain of Honour (the Sovereign), or from the Government, is not afforded to the great philosophical and literary personages of the day; while yet there is a prevalent impression in society that there is no real relation between the honour which can be bestowed by princes or parliaments and that which cannot be withheld by mankind at large. While there is any fluctuation in the mind of society about this matter, it must be useful to study a few examples of that complete success which is assumed to lie in the union of the two kinds of honour on the head of the wise man. Nothing is gained by showing forth the troubles of intellectual men from misfortunes which might not have happened if they had had access to the Court. It must remain wholly uncertain whether they would have been, on the whole, greater or happier if they had had a monarch for a friend and a court for a home: but we may get pretty near the truth if we take up the positive, instead of the negative case, and see how some of the princes of the intellectual world have fared in the presence of the other order of princes.
As we want to reach something like a practical result, we must not travel back for examples to times so wholly unlike our own as that princes were a sort of gods, and intellectual men a sort of prophets or magicians on the one hand, or of household dependents on the other. We must keep within the term of the present organisation of society, or our aim will be diverted from moral to antiquarian purposes. We are accustomed to regard modern society as dating from about three hundred years ago: and just at that time we light on an example of the first order. The Prince of the powers of the Intellect was then about to appear. It is just three hundred years since Francis Bacon was born. He was closely connected with two Sovereigns. What was the result 7
While he was in his teens, his imagination was deeply engaged in both regions of greatness. He had sketched out the scheme of his Novum Organon, which he meant to call “The Noblest Birth of Time;” and he had won the favour of Queen Elizabeth by the discretion and grace with which he discharged a commission from the English ambassador at Paris to her Majesty. By family and official connection he was naturally trained to look to the Court and its favour for whatever he wanted; and this not only explains much of his despair when he was for a time, late in life, banished the Court, but accounts for the large share the Court occupied in his early plan of life. His most earnest desire in the world was to produce his great philosophical work, and lodge it securely in the human mind; and for the sake of this object he was ambitious of every advantage of character and position which he could obtain. It is probable that he let his aim be seen at that early time when the Queen took up her impression of him; for the ground on which his unfriendly cousins, the Cecils, prejudiced the Queen against him was that of his philosophy. He was a speculative man, they told her; and, as the Queen supposed a speculative man could not be fit for any practical business, she set him aside as an unprofitable servant for a Sovereign so occupied with serious affairs as she was. The reversion of a place which yielded him nothing for twenty years was all he obtained from her, though interest was made to the utmost extent which she would admit. Under these circumstances there is something offensive to our notions of manly dignity and English spirit in the tone of whatever Bacon wrote about the Queen—in the “Declaration of the true Causes of the great Troubles,” &c, and yet more in the “Discourse in Praise of his Sovereign,” a piece of adulation which cannot be read without disgust in our day: but it must be remembered that it was a part of a courtier’s breeding in those days to exalt the monarch in that way; that such compositions were regarded as a sort of poems, works of imagination, set forth with the arts of fancy; that the reign and character of Elizabeth were worthy of an enthusiastic style of record, from their grave importance to the whole civilised world,—for which reason it was, probably, that Bacon desired that this eulogium should be published after his death, when the Queen had long been gone; and, above all, we must remember that Bacon risked the Queen’s displeasure, repeatedly and unflinchingly, in the interest of his friend and benefactor, Lord Essex. Thus far we may be satisfied that Bacon had got no more harm morally than he had got good to his fortunes at Court. We should have had more pleasure in thinking of him as pursuing his studies in college or in a country home, or in the learned privacy which may be obtained in London; but the facts of the case were that Bacon was a lawyer, and so poor that he was at least twice arrested for debt. His great work was ever before his mind; but he had his bread to get, in the first place; and he had no hope of his book obtaining due attention, unless he could command that attention for it by his personal influence.
From the beginning of the next reign, we find him often in the royal presence as the spokesman of parliament. He had so skilful a way of placing the grievances and wants of the people before the King without offence that he was regularly deputed to the office; and it afforded a training in fine talk which it is rather disagreeable to think of in connection with such a man: but it was more as a member of parliament than as a courtier that the office was imposed upon him. His professional and parliamentary life at the same time showed how strong was in him the desire of men’s good opinion. After all allowance is made, I think it is clear that Bacon’s love of approbation was excessive; and if so, when once a courtier, he would be more at the mercy of the royal notions and moods than a wise man should be. As a general rule the praisers of other men are vain men: they unconsciously seek a quid pro quo; and even in an age when adulation of Sovereigns was a custom which no one dreamed of breaking through, and when the most laborious flatterer was considered the most accomplished man, a man, philosopher or other, who could stake so much as Bacon did on the favour of the King must have been weak in the quality of self-respect.
The real shock to the reader of our time is in the correspondence with the King about the new book; and in Bacon’s despair under the royal displeasure. The patronising tone of the pedant to the philosopher, and the intimation that the one had as little spare time to read the book as the other to write it, and the promise to commend where commendation was deserved, and the grand condescension at the last of informing the author that the King had had some of the very same ideas as himself, would be comic if we did not remember who it was that felt, or pretended to feel, delighted at this kind and degree of royal favour. We ask ourselves what concern kings, as kings, could have with such a book, and how it could matter to anybody what they thought of it. Some men, more likely to be able to judge of a work on the principles of philosophy than any Sovereign (because Sovereigns have another track to pursue), called the book a very fair production for a Lord Chancellor—showy rather than deep; but a few, a very few, saw something of its import and its scope: and among those few was one who said, “My conceit of his person was never increased towards him by his place or honours; but I have and do reverence him for the greatness that was only proper in himself, and in that he seemed to me ever by his work one of the greatest men, and most worthy of admiration, that had been in many ages.” While the King patted the philosopher on the back, and told him he had been making good use of his time, and that their ideas jumped, Ben Jonson looked up to him with a reverence as manly as it was profound.
Late researches, and a thorough good use of the materials so turned up, have materially changed for the better the aspect of Bacon’s character and conduct. The grossest charges of treachery and venality are questioned, and the perplexity of reconciling so much philosophy with so much vice may disappear: but there is quite enough left that is painful in the records of Bacon’s abject self-abasement before the King, and the King’s servants, and in his ecstacy of gratitude when his punishment was remitted. The passage in his Memorial, applying certain clauses in the Litany to his relations with the King, is too like profaneness to suit our time: but, towards the close, there is a little paragraph which betokens a more healthy state of feeling. He had been urging the King to employ him again; but he was now evidently aware that there was such a thing as life outside “the light of his countenance,” as he called the King’s favour. “I am like ground fresh,” he says. “If I be left to myself, I will grow and bear natural philosophy: but if the King will plough me up again, and sow me on, I hope to give him some yield.”
At last, he found how little the Court was necessary to him in any way. During his years of wealth and official power, he had been the slave of the great above him, and of the mean below him. His servants had preyed upon his substance and his good name. When they rose on his entrance, after his disgrace, he said, “Sit down, my masters; your rise has been my fall!” Once free, he lifted up his head, and found himself with the universe spread about him, and himself at liberty to study it. That study was so reviving, so consoling, so thoroughly congenial to his whole nature, that it is impossible to help regretting that he had not been born and reared far from courtly regions, and under no enticement to seek anything for himself but access to the foundations of philosophy. What might he not have been, and done, if he had never seen the face of Queen or King, except on occasions of royal visits to the University! He found peace at last, however, and learned in his last years how little the philosopher had to do with the favour of kings. There is, in his latest letters and papers, a tone of philosophical cheerfulness very consoling to posterity.
Twenty years after his death, Leibnitz was born. He, too, sought the favour of princes: and there was less excuse for him, from the circumstances of his birth and rearing. He also sacrificed philosophy to courtly objects, to an extent never chargeable against Bacon. Bacon had his profession to occupy him, and the statesmanship to which his profession led. Leibnitz was always the student; and philosophical pursuits should have constituted the business and the pleasure of his life. Unhappily his fancy, which was vivid and excitable, was early turned in the direction in which he found more fret and worry than ease and honour. We like to dwell on the image of the student lad of eighteen, passing the long summer day, from sunrise till dark, in a wood, trying to reconcile the systems of Aristotle and Plato; and we as thoroughly dislike the image of the same student, in the vigour of his years and faculties, spending his precious days in making out genealogies for royal patrons, and drawing out a claim for the crown of Poland in the form of a mathematical demonstration. If, as he says, he had seen the first six books of Euclid reduced into formal syllogisms, by two foolish logicians, he, in his turn, shows us the spectacle of a political question crushed into a mathematical form, and a historical inquiry drowned in a study of chaos, by a philosopher fitted into a wrong place. His singular activity and industry caused him to render great services to the interests of Thought; but his powers were for the most part wasted on work which any diligent man could have done as well.
Leibnitz was the son of a professor of jurisprudence at Leipsic; but his father died when the boy was only six years old. At school, and at college, his mind was intensely active; and he did the work of his comrades as well as his own. He says, that, at the age of fourteen, he wrote three hundred Latin verses in one day. Before he was twenty he had, as people said then, gone “through mathematics and metaphysics,” and was trying, as we saw him in the wood, to make a system out of the systems of other men. It is evident to us now, looking at his life and works, that he was of an imaginative and impressionable cast of character, full of beautiful ideas and happy suggestions, but unable to distinguish between convictions of the understanding and perceptions of the imagination. He had the large credulity which attends the mathematical faculties, and the endless resources for evading the realities of life which are at the command of the metaphysician. What we learn of his person and ways confirms this view. He was extremely shortsighted, and his large head, made heavier by a great excrescence at the top, fell forward as he walked, so that he saw little of external objects. When absorbed in any study, he would scarcely leave his chair for weeks, even to go to bed; yet he was genial, frank, and sympathetic in intercourse, and highly impressionable. It really seems as if those with whom he associated could turn him into any path of pursuit, by engaging his imagination and sympathy in it, though his speculative tendencies sooner or later brought his subject round into his own original track. By some means or other he became early and deeply impressed with the notion that the most fortunate position for a philosopher was in the sunshine and shelter of court favour; and, if he had an immoveable prejudice throughout life, it was this. He suffered under the imputation of avarice; but it is not necessary to suppose him fond of money because his money accumulated when he had no way of spending it. His eagerness about appointments near princes seems to have arisen from his notion that such a mode of life afforded ease, honour, and leisure. This last benefit is precisely what the courtier-philosopher has to give up as hopeless. The ease and honour are questionable enough; the leisure is out of the question, as Leibnitz found.
When he was twenty-one, he became acquainted with the Chancellor of the Elector of Mayence, who recommended him to qualify himself for a post at the Elector’s court. He was scarcely settled there when he was hard at work at his scientific and elaborate demonstration that the Prince of Neuburg ought to be elected to the crown of Poland. The Prince was not chosen; but this new method of electioneering caused much sensation, as it might well do; and it fixed the author in place and favour. Next, at the minister’s solicitation, he wrote a treatise on behalf of orthodoxy, to show that rigid logic was not at variance with the doctrine of the Trinity.
Two or three years after, he obtained leave to travel, and spent a considerable time among the great men of the scientific world in Paris, and then in England, where he received news of the death of his patron, the Elector of Mayence. His friend, the minister, had died while he was at Paris. In pursuance of his constant view of what a philosopher should aim at, he wrote to the Duke of Brunswick about being adrift, and received the hoped-for invitation to be a councillor at the Duke’s court, with a pension, and liberty to travel. Leibnitz was now full of unconcealable happiness; and the first use he made of his patron’s liberality was to live in Paris for fifteen months. As soon as he repaired to his court, he was employed on political matters again; and he devoted his fine faculties to pleading for the Princes of Germany, on certain points of controversy, without losing the favour of Austria. The Duke of Brunswick died in 1679, by which time Leibnitz was three-and-thirty. The new ruler engaged him to write the History of the House of Brunswick! He spent three years in travelling to gather materials, and more in arranging them; and when the result appeared, it was found to be a valuable collection of well-arranged documents, which any industrious man of intelligence could have prepared; with a preface, which it required a speculative mind to write,—going back as it did to the first principles of natural law and the law of nations. As for the History of the House of Brunswick, it was to come in time. It involved, among other collateral tasks, that of a research into the connection of the House of Brunswick with that of Este; and this piece of genealogical handiwork obtained for the philosopher a sinecure post, which would enable him to devote himself exclusively to the history. He spent precious years in collecting all the notices of the Ducal House that had ever been printed, and issued some of them in separate volumes: but as to the History,—how did it repay the sacrifice of such a portion of such a man’s life? It was never written;—and no wonder. It was to have set out from a somewhat remote point—the primitive state of the globe generally, and of Germany in particular. So much for setting speculative philosophers down in courts, to write memoirs of Ducal Houses!
We see him afterwards at the Prussian court, under the patronage of the inquisitive, acute, learned, and somewhat pedantic Queen of Prussia, whose summons the philosopher was obliged to obey, when she wished for metaphysical or scientific conversation, and whose puzzling questions he had to answer as he best could. Her comment, when he failed to satisfy her inquisitiveness about the origin of the universe and the nature of the human soul, was that there was nothing like the mathematicians for credulity:they would put faith in any chimera that was offered to them by their own fancy, or that of other people. Elsewhere than at court, she would perhaps have been asked what could be offered but chimeras, when inquirers insist on being informed of the unknowable?
Leibnitz was consulted by Peter the Great about his Russian reforms, and was made a privy-councillor, in return for his advice on the conduct of civilisation. He went to the Emperor of Austria, to entreat him to establish an Institute like that which he saw to be under doom at Berlin. He was made an Aulic Councillor, and Baron of the Empire, at Vienna; had a pension conferred on him, and was invited to reside there: but the Elector of Hanover was just then made King of England, and the philosopher preferred him for his patron. He lived four years longer at the court of Hanover, writing political works again, and some philosophical pieces, and died there at the age of sixty-eight.
His eulogists dwell on the great variety of topics that he treated, and styles which he attempted. They say that Natural History was the only study which he did not pursue. From another side, the fact of the case looks very mournful. The man’s faculties and years were encroached upon and frittered away by persons who should have humbly waited upon his powers, and left him free to follow his natural bent; and hence he was always busy about unworthy tasks (worthy enough for lesser men), and the prodigious promise of his early years was never fulfilled. He and Newton were making the same mathematical discovery at the same time; and the man who was once Newton’s peer let anybody set him tasks who would give him a place and pension at court. It was no fault of theirs that they took liberties if he laid himself open to them; and they might well patronise him, in all kindness, when he invited patronage; but the world has sustained immense loss by his mistake. What the loss is mankind can never know; and all we can do now is to draw a lesson from the illustration which the life of Leibnitz affords of the unfitness of courts to be the abode or the resort of men whose genius tends to science or philosophy.
We need not dwell long on the case of Voltaire. It was a lustrous example of the situation, certainly; but Voltaire was not the kind of philosopher who needed repose, privacy, and leisure for the accomplishment of his life’s work. His topics were social; he was himself full of social tastes; and life in a court was a spectacle in his way, instead of a mere impediment to business. I am not saying that Voltaire was no philosopher. I am of a contrary opinion; and I feel confident that his deserts will yet be better appreciated than they have been: but he made a mistake, which such a man should have known better than to make, when he went to the court of Frederick the Great at Berlin. If he had been the dishonest and frivolous person he is supposed by some of us to be, the experiment might have answered. As he was honest, and capable of sound thought, it soon came to an end. There was something forced in the bringing together of clever and celebrated men at the King’s supper-table; and, though Voltaire made the conversation as gay and amiable as he could, the constraint wearied him. It wearied him to read and praise the King’s compositions, and to correct his French verses, which, of course, in the case of a homebred German prince, were very bad. The King, with all his desire for his own improvement, and for the welfare of the wise men he gathered about him, was not loveable; the savans were out of their element and jealous of each other. The praise of the Prince, which had begun in sincerity, and a sort of enthusiasm, at a distance, could not be kept up without effort, face to face with the imperious King, who expected more homage rather than less, as time went on. There was nothing in the pension, or the gold key as chamberlain, or the honour of having the King for his chief disciple, which could make up to Voltaire for the constraint, and the bore of correcting the King’s effusions; and he broke away. The King desired and expected him to return; but he was resolved never to enter Prussia again. He was arrested at Frankfort, in order to prevent his carrying with him the volume of the King’s poems, which the author was well aware might afford occasion for quizzing. The arrest caused much delay, expense, and vexation; but the philosopher, with all his ability for satire, was placable and good-natured in matters of personal concern; and he afterwards slid into a literary correspondence with Frederick, and afforded criticism of the King’s productions, as if there had been no rupture.
Here the philosopher wanted nothing, and his resort to the Prussian court was a mere mistaken whim. Voltaire could live where and as he pleased, and needed no patronage from any quarter. He was weak, and perhaps vain, in yielding to an invitation about which he hesitated long, and which he accepted at last with evident doubt and reluctance. He was sufficiently punished by the mortifications which ensued. I bring in the case only because it is the most notorious in modern literary history, and because, while it is the most talked about, it is less important than perhaps any other that can be cited. It cannot be shown that the world has lost anything by the short residence of Voltaire at the court of Prussia.
This can hardly be said of the connection of another literary philosopher with another German court. It is conceivable that Göthe’s work was not materially hindered by his connection with the court of Weimar; but no one probably will undertake to say that the impression of Göthe as courtier is not just so much drawback on the impression of Göthe as man, citizen, poet, and philosopher. It, in fact, blotted out the citizen function from the programme of his life altogether. Right and wrong, despotism and liberty, war and peace, went on between rulers and people in the most critical periods of modern history, without notice from the courtier-philosopher. While, on the one hand, he is represented as much too comprehensive in his view of life to look with any interest on those ebbs and flows, and ripples and surges of events and interests, he is shown, on the other hand, to be much engaged and solemnly interested in the solicitudes of a life of etiquette, which most people consider a smaller matter. While society thought the fate of German nationality and freedom, under the menaces of Napoleon, was a worthy subject for the anxiety and enthusiasm of every student of Man and History, while it mattered little how tea-parties and hunts and the theatre went on at Weimar, Göthe was of the opposite way of thinking; and this is our warrant for supposing his example to rank among the warnings we have that, in great thinkers, the course of thinking is grievously disturbed by a resort to interests which have no affinity with those of Thought.
If in any case the evil could have been escaped, it would have been in Göthe’s; for not only was he independent in his possession of fame and a competence, but the Grand Duke had intellectual tastes, and was ten years younger than Göthe. When he was a boy, the two would ride like the wind over hill and plain, and build a hut in a defile to sleep in, and cook their game-supper in the open air; and the Grand Duke fell into his companion’s habit of inquiring into the why and wherefore of everything he saw or heard of. This habit was strong in death; for, when he was dying at Potsdam, with Humboldt beside him,—when so feeble and suffering as to be drowsy and restless, he poured out incessant questions about the substance of comets, the effects of spots on the sun, the heating of mineral springs, &c. Through life he had thus asked questions; and both Göthe and Humboldt took this for science, in a way which they never would have done in any case but that of a prince. They were so far right, that it is a proof of great superiority for a prince to take habitual pleasure in such subjects. As Göthe himself said, “A prince must take notice of everything; he must know a bit of this, and a bit of that. Under such circumstances, nothing can take root; and it requires a strong natural foundation not to end in smoke, in the face of such constant demands.” He fancied his particular prince to be an exception to this, even ranking him as his own coadjutor in philosophy and literature. “We worked together for fifty years,” he said. Yet no one else dreams of assigning to the Grand Duke any portion of Göthe’s achievements. It was a blessing that the ruler of a state, small or large, should be a man who had some sense of his own ignorance (the great reward of scientific study, after all), and a decided taste for intellectual pursuits: but, to set against this, we have the injury done to Göthe by the connection.
No one will undertake to say how far Göthe would have been different if he had lived as a citizen of Frankfort, instead of a courtier at Weimar: but it may be safely assumed that he would not have devoted so much precious faculty and time to the concerns of the theatre; that he would not, to the close of his life, have made Napoleon his idol; that he would have had some of the feelings of a German citizen; that he would have lost sight sometimes of his purpose of self-culture in emotions of a more generous origin, and have been less consciously a king in his own domain for not having to play the courtier in another. Amidst all the beauty of his manners,—his polished and simple courtesy of mind and speech,—everybody feels that a part of his great heart was withered within him; and reason and experience warrant the belief that court life was the chief reason of it. It is repugnant to our feelings of admiration, and keeps that admiration from rising into enthusiasm, to think of him as putting off his studies to put on his decorations, and as investing all the solemnity he was capable of in court-observances, and as spending hundreds upon hundreds of precious evenings in the dulness of the palace circle. In his estimates of men we see the harm done him. Every individual belonging to the family of his patron was, in his view, so exalted, that each one of them, man or woman, would have been great and distinguished in any rank of life: yet no one of them has left any proof of extraordinary qualifications: and, to say all in a word, Napoleon was his idol. “Napoleon was the man!” he said. Light and clearness being in his view the supreme gifts, he described Napoleon as “always enlightened, always clear and decided, and endowed with sufficient energy to carry into effect whatever he considered advantageous and necessary. His life was the stride of a demi-god. He was found in a state of continual enlightenment. On this account his destiny was more brilliant than any the world had seen before him, or perhaps will ever see after him.”
Such a judgment, proceeding from a German of (what would be in our country) middle-class birth, after having witnessed the humiliation of his country under the heel of the aggressor, is evidence enough of that heartlessness in one important direction which we are accustomed to ascribe to the courtly, rather than the philosophical habit of mind and life. Possibly Göthe might not have written much more if he had lived elsewhere than at Weimar; but we cannot but believe that his life and works would have had a higher vitality. His adorers appeal to time and posterity for evidence of what he was. We, who strongly admire, but do not adore him, are quite willing to refer to the same test; and the more, because time and a new generation have shown what his estimate of Napoleon,—his favourite admiration,—was worth.
As Humboldt delighted Göthe with praises of his prince-friend, so Göthe delighted Humboldt in his turn. He was certain that the then Crown Prince of Prussia was “a very distinguished man.” What Göthe was at Weimar, Humboldt was at Potsdam. The difference to us is that we think of Humboldt as the natural philosopher, and of Göthe as less of a natural philosopher than a poet, and therefore more able perhaps to spare time and attention to court intercourses than his Prussian friend. Another wide difference is that Göthe has left us only solemn and decorous homage of the Grand-Ducal family and household, whereas Humboldt committed to paper his natural feelings under the yoke which he submitted to wear.
His early travels were necessarily under the patronage of his own and other governments. They could not otherwise have been achieved. But one wishes that when he and Bonpland were ranging at will the wild tropical regions of the New World, some of Nature’s voices there had warned him to beware of surrendering his life to the fetters of any conventional restraint which should cramp his powers, and hurt his temper, and destroy his sincere and reverential habit of mind. If he had taken such a warning in the wild woods, and under the tropical midnight sky, he would not have bowed his neck to the yoke the moment he settled at Berlin. He let himself be made a Councillor of State, and undertook tasks in diplomacy which another man could have done as well or better. The world had but one Humboldt; and Prussia could have supplied men enough for all her diplomatic work.
From that time forward, his connection with the Court was the snare, the vexation, and the humiliation of Humboldt’s life. The wise always knew it must be so: the world now knows that it was so. The King and Court were not to blame for this. It was honourable to the King to honour intellectual achievement in Humboldt; and he paid his homage as well as he could. If the philosopher did not assert the value of his own leisure and quiet, how was anybody in a different position in life to understand it? Savans and philosophers understood it; but princes cannot. I know that when Humboldt came over in the King’s train, to the baptism of the Prince of Wales, the scientific and literary men who met him were concerned and humbled at the spectacle. That grand and noble head was out of place in a courtier train: the philosopher’s time was not his own, nor his freedom to go and come. He who was at the head of the realm of knowledge was discrowned in the presence of political royalty: his thoughts were subject to the beck and call of another; his will was not his own; and his ribbons and stars were but counterfeit decorations in his case. While the wise men of our nation pressed to see him, some of them wished he had not come, unless he could come alone, and to his own. What he himself was suffering from his bondage, these sympathising admirers were little aware. By the recent publication of his letters, we now know. “That dreary Potsdam!” he is incessantly complaining of, during and after his visits to the King. “My long and tedious visit to Potsdam,” he speaks of: “the perplexities of my desolate life:” “I am living monotonously and gloomily at Potsdam:” “a wild man of the woods whom they fancy they have tamed at Court.” Such are his groans. More expressly, he says to his friend, in a letter, “Under an appearance of outward splendour, and in the enjoyment of the somewhat fantastic preference of a high-minded prince, I live in a moral and mental isolation, such as can only be produced by the barren condition of the mind of this divided, erudite land;” and that friend notes in his diary, “Humboldt cheerful at Paris: at once melancholy on his return: overwhelmed with complaints and demands, and can do nothing.” The same diary records the “bitter scorn” with which Humboldt spoke of the personages and proceedings of the Court: “and yet his Court position must be held to save him from exile.” Once at least, at an earlier period, we find that “he thinks seriously of retiring,” and we wonder, as his friend did, why he did not retire, while he could still do so with safety as well as honour; but here is discovered to us a yet worse bondage. “The accumulation of business pressed on him, he said; and yet he was not prepared to forego it. Court and company were to him as a club, in which he was in the habit of spending his evenings and taking his glass.” Even this is not the worst. We have seen that the temper of the philosopher, naturally joyous and sanguine, and sure to be raised to a habit of more or less serenity by the congenial pursuit of a lofty kind of knowledge, had become capable of “bitter scorn.” His description of a coterie of princes, heirs to crowns, to whom he had been making his obeisances, is brutally sarcastic. Thus his temper went to ruin. There was something worse still. He lost his simplicity and sincerity—the virtue and grace which, beyond all others, naturally distinguish the eminent man of science in proportion to his eminence. As Humboldt’s scorn became more bitter, his flatteries became more gross. By consenting to a double life he ended with sacrificing the higher to the lower life, and bearing about a double mind. Here I may stop; for a more signal illustration of the liabilities of the courtier-philosopher is not on record.
The practical lesson seems to me short and clear.
It always gives me concern to hear literary and scientific men complaining of the absence of patronage and encouragement of science and letters in England; and, considering what we know, I am almost as much surprised as concerned. Few or none go so far as to desire any such attempts at intimacy between princes and philosophers, on the ground of royalty and philosophy; for such a thing could not at present happen in our Court: but we hear complaints that no royal hospitality is offered to literary men; and yet more frequently and strongly that office is not among the rewards of literary and scientific eminence. In France, we are told, savans and authors are, in virtue of their achievements, conspicuous in the legislature, in the peerage, and in office, whenever France is living under a representative system. Every country is glanced over, and all honours paid to authors and philosophers are cited in rebuke of the neglect with which such merits are treated at home.
I have no sympathy with all this; and not because I desire less honour for intellectual achievement, but more. To me it appears that the natural honours won from society are of a higher kind in all ways than any that can be arbitrarily bestowed. The great discoverer or author is so covered with honours, in the form of general homage, that no Sovereign can confer any that are not of an inferior kind. Title, office, Court intercourse are interruptions to a philosopher’s habit of life. He can gain nothing by them, while he cannot but lose much. As to giving political office to literary or scientific men, it is simply spoiling two good things by attempting to mix them forcibly together. Humboldt’s most adoring friends read his diplomatic despatches with a sort of dismay. “Who could have believed these were Humboldt’s?” they exclaimed. “They have no mark of his hand on them. They are neither better nor worse than any other man would have written:” and then they mourned to think how his proper work was standing still. So it would be with every author or savan who should be sent to parliament, or put into office, on the ground only of his science or letters. If he has peculiar political ability, it would have shown itself before; and its coexistence with his actual genius is improbable to the last degree. The only question is whether such rewards are natural. If they were seen to be otherwise, nobody would desire them. All the evidence we have tends to show that they are not natural; and that such gifts are, in fact, anything but rewards.
Are we then to conclude that nothing should or can be done in recognition of intellectual eminence and service? I am not of that opinion, quite. My feeling certainly is that the less we talk of “rewards” for that which is “its own exceeding great reward,” the better for our morals and manners. Men do not want reward for intelligence any more than for virtue, which is the fruit of intelligence: and it is an equal impertinence to offer reward in either case. In neither case is reward needed to impress the minds of observers; for intellect and goodness are more impressive in themselves than by any recommendation or adornment. The question, then, comes to this. Can anything be done to serve these intellectual princes? I should say “Yes;” but in our age and country not by princes, but by the nation.
Most eminent scientific and literary persons are, in a free country like ours, made wealthy as well as honoured by their own works: but where it is not so, I should like to see them set at ease by means of some permanent, regular resource which would afford them ease, unaccompanied by any pain. We ought to have a national fund, liberal and securely established, for releasing from pecuniary care and injurious restriction the scientific and literary benefactors whose works do not yield them returns in the form of money. Wollaston and Davy made fortunes (which they richly deserved) by their discoveries: but Dr. Priestley had to accept from friends the income necessary to enable him to pursue his chemical researches. Many branches of scientific pursuit are unremunerative, and require means to follow them up at all. The same is the case with some literary enterprises of the very highest value. While the popular novelist, traveller, divine, or poet makes a fortune by his writings, the author of a historical, philological, or honestly speculative work must give his time and labour without immediate return of money or fame, or the hope of it. It is instructive to observe how many of our most valuable works in these kinds were produced by men of private fortune. It will be a good day when we have a national fund, administered under responsibility to parliament, by which intellectual service shall be supported and recognised: and when that day comes, we shall hear no more of literary pensions from the Sovereign, by their very terms too mortifying to be offered or accepted, except as the lesser of two evils. Whatever is done, the main consideration must be, what the philosopher wants and desires. He wants and desires, above all things, liberty, with peace and quiet. As these are incompatible with Court life and its obligations, and with an artificial friendship between princes of two regions which have nothing in common, it is plain that the courtier-philosophers have made a mistake in the conduct of their life; and this seems to me to be shown, with entire clearness, in the five very different cases which I have ventured to detail.