Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/A season of unreason

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2992944Once a Week, Series 1, Volume VII — A season of unreason
1862Harriet Martineau


Some recent events have brought my old friend Mr. Hallam strongly before my mind. When I listened to him as the younger generation delighted to listen to one who knew so much, and who took such care to preserve a dispassionate habit of mind, he told me that he could admit nothing that was grounded on any assumption that the human race, or its work of human society, was progressive. He believed it probable that there were periods of progress, now and then, here and there; but it seemed plain to him that affairs recurred to their old position, and that there were men as wise and as good in the most ancient as in the most modern times. Whether en masse, or in regard to the best specimens of each age, it was to him very doubtful whether we got on; and indeed he considered that the evidence tended to another conclusion. I was a good deal surprised at the moment at a doctrine which I, for one, had not been in the way of hearing: and I do not, at the end of thirty years, agree in it: but I am occasionally reminded of my old friend’s exposition of his view; and the incidents of the time seem to awaken his voice again, and to set his remarkable countenance before me, with that peculiar expression which it wore when evidence reached him in confirmation of views to which he stood pledged. At this time I seem to see him watching the manifestations of unreason about social affairs which threaten to make the present year a discreditable one in the world’s annals.

We have all early read the history of the first French Revolution with inexpressible surprise, that men and women in a civilised age could be so frantic, so silly, and so devilish. We have regarded the Gordon riots of 1780 as a sort of inexplicable mistake in the course of affairs. We remember (to descend to a humbler illustration), that our mothers and our sisters could find no words to express their amazement at the folly of the women of the last century who wore hoops and powdered their hair. Mr. Hallam would have told the news that hair-powder is coming in again, and would have pointed to the crinolines of the present day, as a warning that, as the most excessive folly may recur, so the excesses of tyranny and cruelty may break out again, and that there may be religious riots as long as there are different religions. The riots, Irish and English, of this autumn would not have surprised him. I do not say that they surprise me, while yet I have no doubt whatever of the capacity for progress of the human mind in society.

It would take us too deep to explain why, in my view, it is still possible, at this time of day, to question the fact of human advancement, and in what direction we must look for the discovery of the way out of our labyrinth, or our charmed circle, in which we are always moving, whether we get on or not. My own conviction is that the discovery is made; and that it is held by some who will bequeath it to coming generations, for application as circumstances permit. The centuries may not have been wasted in bringing us up to this discovery, though it has been long in appearing: and it may be that, the right path having been found, no such question may survive for future Hallams as whether men and society improve on the whole, from one five thousand years to another.

However this may be, it ought never to be wonderful to us that epidemics of social passion should recur while we do nothing to improve the reason of each generation as it arises. We talk of education; and we enjoy talking of it, and its pleasures. Mr. Roebuck enjoyed talking of it on behalf of the peasant last year; and Lord Palmerston enjoyed talking of it on behalf of the young last week. We are all so sensible of the pleasures and advantages of intellectual acquisition and entertainment, that we are delighted to open institutes for the working-classes, and schools for children. But, amidst all the spread of education, and all the multiplying of schools and colleges, how much is done towards curing the unreason which is the great evil of human life and character to all but the very few who are gifted with a judgment which seems scarcely to need cultivating, but only employment on varied material? The children of educated parents are brought up in and with their parents’ opinions; if they quit those opinions, it is usually to betake themselves to views precisely opposite, and under the influence of prejudices as strong as those of their education. The children of uneducated parents, who are sent to school by the State, under one form or another, are actually excluded, by the very conditions of education, from any effective use or cultivation of their reason. It is the one thing never proposed, never conceived of by anybody but a very small sprinkling of parents, who, reasonable themselves, endeavour to put their children in the way of being so. The events of this autumn may show us some of the consequences. Far and wide, abroad and at home, this year seems to be the jubilee of unreason: and if Mr. Hallam had been living, he would have said:

“We will not infer too much from a single juncture; but what do you think now of your progress of society?”

At the present moment,—now that the Elector of Hesse Cassel has slipped out of view,—the King of Prussia seems to be the very Prince of Unreason. There may be,—and considering the history of his eccentric family,—there probably are grounds of excuse for him; but he is incited, supported, made a tool of, by a clique of old Tories and religious sentimentalists: and he has no more use of his reason than the most boorish child in his dominions has of his analytical faculty. Professing fidelity to the Constitution while throwing it overboard; making professions towards his people while snatching from them their rights, and insulting them whenever he opens his lips to them; a student of history, and therefore aware of the career of the Stuarts and the Bourbons, he is following in the footsteps of both, confident of an opposite result to himself, his son, and his people. For insensibility to reality, for coarse irreverence towards the noblest human faculties, and a selfish preference for the lower,—for neglect of reason and fact, and indulgence in sentimentalism and imagination, no age can have produced a more flagrant instance than the present King of Prussia.

If we glance over the thrones of Europe, we may see Unreason seated in all of them which are not guarded by a well-grounded and well-fenced constitutional reason. The sovereign who is supposed to know what he is about better than most rulers is a world’s wonder, for his unreason, at this hour. His Mexican scrape on the one hand, and his Roman difficulty on the other, speak for themselves. His vulgar policy of repression at home, leading directly and inevitably to political convulsion, long ago settled the case in regard to the strength and rectitude of the Emperor Napoleon’s reason. The rashness of his foreign policy of this year simply reminds all readers of history of the old maxim, that the gods spoil the reason of those whom they mean to destroy.

In Italy we may perhaps find the extremes of reason and unreason in the closest contrast. The political aptitude of the Italian people, naturally great, has evidently been trained to efficiency by the kind and degree of adversity which the nation has endured. In modern times,—perhaps in all time,—no people has ever evinced such a political capacity and morale as the Italians since 1858; and nowhere in modern times has such a spectacle of imbecility in high places been seen as at Rome. This seems to be altogether undisputed, except by a handful of bigots and hirelings, whose opinions are not worth a comment. The singular incident of the case and time is the flagrant unreason of an eminent man who leads on the reasonable side, and the peril thus caused to the peace of Europe. And this at once compels us, the people of England, to look at home.

During the whole of Mazzini’s course, there has been more or less sympathy,—of late smouldering very feebly,—with his professed patriotism; this sympathy being just sufficient to show that our supposed materialistic, mechanical, and selfish tendencies had not altogether destroyed our faculty of sentiment and our power of sympathy. Every year, however, the world has grown more weary of Mazzini’s unreason,—his incessant manœuvres, followed by failures, his pretentious addresses, his vagueness of thought, and his sameness of sentiment; and when it appeared that he could not accept freedom and nationality for Italy under the form of constitutional monarchy, it was no wonder that England fell away from him, except in regard to the one hold of compassion, and the principle and habit of hospitality. When the genuine liberator arose, the whole heart of England went out to him and adored him. Garibaldi was known to us by deeds, and by successful deeds, and reason warranted our homage. I own that I, for one, have enjoyed the overthrow of the supposition that our prosperity had quenched our moral enthusiasm; and that our material achievements had deadened our sympathy with political efforts. I, like the multitude of our own people, have felt it a privilege to be living at that memorable moment when Garibaldi met Victor Emmanuel, and hailed him “King of Italy!” All this was well: but if a change was to come over the scene, it is of inexpressible importance that we should be able to discern it, and not to sink into unreason, because a true hero does so. This is the great interest of the hour.

There have been evidences of Garibaldi’s defect of reason from month to month since he enabled the kingdom of Italy to be. Of his moral quality there is no doubt whatever among men capable of an opinion. Of his utter unsusceptibility of reason there is also no doubt. The homage of human hearts may naturally seem to him to invest him with authority over human minds; or at least it may prevent his suspecting his own weakness of judgment in affairs which interest him supremely through his highest virtues. Untrained as we are in reason, moral and political, because the one involves theological and the other historical controversies, some of us have been drawn into serious mistakes by our enthusiasm for Garibaldi: and these mistakes are exactly such as might warrant the inquiry, whether we have really improved since the days when men flew at one another’s throats, or celebrated senseless triumphs, about some political controversy which, in the eyes of sensible people, admitted of no controversy at all.

Whatever may have have been the inducement, Garibaldi has attempted civil war. He has attempted to take the direction of national affairs, in opposition to the King and the Constitution. Under the circumstances of his failure, it was permissible to console him, to minister to his wants, to take for granted his personal safety in a way which would go far to secure it from his own government. So far good. But enthusiasm has led too many of us further. It has led us to make light of the crime, because the adventurer himself has not reason enough to see that he has done ill and not well. Some of us have forgotten our attachment to our own principle and method of political society, and have exalted sedition at the expense of authority founded on popular consent. Some of us have gone further and done worse: we have taken advantage of the sedition of a hero to put a pressure on the tyrant he opposes. There have been public meetings in England for extolling Garibaldi for his one indefensible course of action; and those who are answerable for the meetings have plunged into the desperate error of arraigning the conduct of the French Emperor from the illicit foothold of Garibaldi’s selfwill and insubordination, instead of from the unimpeachable ground of reason and political experience.

It is true, and it is fortunate, that a check has been put upon this sort of demonstration, since the amnesty published from Turin has assured the world of Garibaldi’s safety, and has thereby extinguished the occasion for these meetings. But, on the whole, the impression created everywhere this autumn must be that the English, supposed to be reared and nourished in the very spirit and aliment of constitutional government, have, in considerable numbers, cast their influence into the scale of revolution, where revolution was utterly unreasonable, hopeless, and therefore inexcusable. This impression has produced its natural consequences. It has caused breaches of law in many places, and under circumstances of increasing aggravation. It has given occasion to outbreaks of popular passion, which have raised once more the question whether we are indeed politically wiser and better than former generations. It has proved that whenever accident unseals the fountain of Irish unreason, the floods burst out and spread abroad with undiminished volume and force.

The world has had abundant excuse for supposing that the faculty of reason is the weakest part of the genuine Irish constitution. England thought that the education of half a million of Irish children would show, after two generations of pupils had grown up, whether the fact was so. From time to time we have hoped that the proof would turn out what we wished; but such confidence has again been invariably checked. The impression is everywhere much what it was thirty years ago—that there is in the Irish a disastrous combination of wrong-headedness and constitutional proneness to illegality, which makes the case of Ireland still the great puzzle of rulers, and of reasonable people of all sorts. In passing this judgment we do not sufficiently remember how utter is the ignorance of the Catholic Irish generally of something else than theology—of history. It is the great drawback on any large scheme of popular education that history cannot be taught; or, at least, that modern and national history out of which political ideas, principles, and feelings grow. We are apt to forget that the Catholic Irish are utterly uninstructed in everything which is rooted in the Reformation, or has grown out of it for the three centuries which have renewed our nation and our country, politically, morally, and socially, as well as religiously. If we did consider duly the bearings of this peculiarity—that one portion of our nation has no knowledge whatever, but vast prejudices instead, on the national history of the last three centuries—we should feel it a grave political duty to spare that wrong-headedness to the utmost, waiting with all willingness till, by the course of events, the ignorance dies out, and fair play is afforded for sense to act, and reason to be trained. If we give up for Protestant children the immense advantage of enjoying the story of the reception of the Armada, and of the Revolution of 1688, and many another heart-warming chapters in our history, because Catholic children cannot share in such teaching, we might surely go one step further, and abstain from rousing the prejudices and passions of those Irish children when they have become men and women. This is, however, what most Irish and some English Protestants cannot see it right to do. Not only the Orangemen—who, in their origin, had a strong case—persist in occasionally stimulating the passions of Catholics whom they know to be ignorant, but the clergy of Protestant sects do the same thing in the name of liberty. The recent Belfast riots are as flagrant a specimen of unreason on both sides as could be found at any former date. The Rev. Mr. Hanna, and even the Presbyterian Dr. Cooke, and the whole body of their followers, in their demonstration at Belfast have thought fit to apply a perilous test, by which they have proved that their unreason is sure to be met by another unreason, the two together degrading the society in which they live to a barbaric state for the hour. The spectacle of Ireland under a new access of illegality about land and tenancy for many months past, should have deterred all reasonable people from asserting a right of meeting and discussion which nobody questioned; but we have witnessed that peculiar manifestation of unreason which makes wise men look gravest,—that reckless selfishness which pursues a legal right, perfectly undisputed, at the expense of the public peace, and of causing many a weak brother to offend.

The thing has spread like an epidemic. The same process must be gone through out of Ireland, and where Irishmen abounded. It was well known in London that everybody (except perhaps Lord Normanby) wishes for the establishment of a complete kingdom of Italy, provided the Pope’s spiritual dominion and worldly dignity are secured to him,—everybody but the low Irish who know nothing of the question but what they are told on authority, which no reasonable person thinks good.

In the face of such facts there have been enthusiasts who would not be deterred from holding meetings in Hyde Park on Sundays, to say what did not need saying (as most people think) and which could not be said without rousing fierce passion in ignorant and credulous people. The consequence was just what might have been expected. It matters little whether the Hyde Park rioters had their hire in their pockets, or what their priests said, from Cardinal Wiseman (after the occasion) to the lowest bully of the order. The course of bigotry and violence is always the same in these religious rows. The essential point of the case is the unreason on both sides,—at least as flagrant as in those public assemblages of the Middle Ages when the lectures of innovating teachers were broken up by mobs, and half the lifetime of the scholars, orators, and popular politicians of the time were spent in complaining of persecution.

No time was lost, after the Hyde Park affrays; in lapsing still lower. Irish unreason, once brought into full play, broke all bounds. At Birkenhead the occasion was not a public meeting, nor any sort of offensive demonstration. It was a discussion in a school-room; and there was no reason why the members should give up their right of meeting and of speech. The unreason was there all on one side; and it was desperate in proportion to the absence of restraint or opposition. Nobody’s religious or political opinions were attacked till the Irish rioters broke heads and windows, and flung stones previously collected. The language and behaviour of certain priests bewilders us with surprise. It makes us consider whether society has really advanced to anything like the extent we are accustomed to suppose, if a clergy, including such men as Mr. Brundrit, is actually entrusted with the spiritual charge of any class of people.

In the main Christian characteristics, the Protestant Hannas and Catholic Brundrits, may be a fair match: but their influence and operation are not co-extensive; and hence the lapse at Birkenhead into a lower stage of unreason and violence than either at Belfast or in Hyde Park. In several instances there has been prudence and good sense. Several intended Garibaldian meetings have been given up, either because the main point was secured when the hero was amnestied, or because the risk of riot was greater than the occasion could excuse. This is well: but the events of the autumn have reminded us too plainly of the vitality of unreason, which seems as vigorous now as in the worst days of Trades-Union tyranny, or the administration of Brigham Young in the Far West, or the universal notion of Judaism, and the popular behaviour to Jews, as far east as Damascus.

When we look at the way in which the Head of the Woods and Forests has acted in the Hyde Park matter—when we read Sir G. Bowyer’s letter to the “Times,” and note the grounds of Cardinal Wiseman’s injunctions, and Dr. Grant’s suggestions, and look what the Birkenhead magistrates were about during the riots, we may well ask whether the instincts of liberty, and the reverence for law, are really impaired among us to such an extent as this state of things would seem to show. Any great occasion would, I trust, prove that they are not. But it is a grave question whether a great national peril is required to assure us that our best safeguards may be fully relied on. Meantime, the confusion of ideas on the one hand, and the licence of passion on the other, shown by the events of this autumn, fairly justify the doubts of thinkers who ask, whether it is quite certain that men outgrow their unreason,—in other words, whether society is progressive. In proportion as we believe that it is, we must be ashamed and grieved at the unreason which has appeared all round since Garibaldi took the false step which can never be sufficiently lamented.

From the Mountain.