Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/What next for Christendom?

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2718356Once a Week, Series 1, Volume IX — What next for Christendom?
1863Harriet Martineau


In the “Saturday Review” of May 30th there is an interesting article on Gibbon’s great work; and, of many striking passages in the article, none is more impressive than a suggestion, dwelt upon once and again, that the civilised world is now in circumstances and in a temper strongly resembling those of human society in the ages which witnessed the rise of Christianity and Mohammedanism, amidst the decline and fall of the Roman empire. Gibbon’s work, says the “Saturday Beviewer” “is a comprehensive view of one great stage in the history of the world; and those who stand at the beginning of another stage, probably still more momentous, must contemplate the prospect which his work opens with endless interest and sympathy.” As the question then was, why Christianity, and Mohammedanism in its early and progressive stage, did not prevent the fall of the Roman empire, so the question is now, why the disclosure and development of new natural and social science are not preventing the lapse of the civilised world into barbaric disturbance, which had been supposed to be left behind for ever, within the bounds of Christendom. As the two great monotheistic faiths proved to have a relation to a period beyond that of the Roman civilisation, so, we may suppose, the new natural and political philosophy of our time may be in affinity with the new condition of human society, on the verge of which we are now standing.

The condition of Christendom at this hour is, in fact, so remarkable,—so unlike what was anticipated by our fathers when the last development of physical, political, and economical science became recognised by all—that it is to the last degree interesting to ascertain where the mistakes of anticipation lay, and what will be the destiny of the coming generations.

Ours has been the generation for a great development—we might say the invention—of the philosophy of History. Its leading principles may be regarded as established, and the key to the interpretation of human experience in social affairs as found and proved: but it was inevitable that some anticipations based on so new an arrangement of facts should turn out to be erroneous. One instance of this concerns us here. The successive phases of human society have been correctly described and distinguished, up to the close of the Military Period. To this has succeeded, by natural laws, the Commercial Period. It has been too hastily concluded that the combative tendencies of mankind would steadily decline when the interests and occupations of all ranks of society related to objects of a pacific and uniting quality. It is true that philosophers have always insisted that there is no sharp line of division between one social period and another, but that, on the contrary, the temper and practices of one period must extend far forward into the next succeeding stage. Thus, for instance, it was not to be expected that the warlike spirit and habit of life should at once disappear when commerce and the other arts of peace should prevail; but we were told that such wars as should occur would be for commercial objects, in some way or other.

The first great contradiction which awaited this expectation was the career of the first Bonaparte: and great has been the lamentation over the untoward appearance of a great military genius, which has turned back for a time the course of civilisation, and plunged Europe once more into turmoils which have deprived at least one generation of those blessings of progression to which they had a natural right. This was the interpretation of a quarter of a century ago. But now, still another generation is rising up to witness and suffer a yet more perplexing and painful lapse into barbarism. Looking round the whole circuit of Christendom, we perceive, not only symptoms of disturbance and imminent peril of a general war in Europe, but a character of barbarism in both the warfare itself, and in the political facts which occasion it, which make us ask whether we are really living in the nineteenth century, and in the Commercial Period of civilisation.

What ought we, on philosophical grounds, to be seeing? And what are we actually seeing?

We ought to be seeing the foremost nations of the world out of danger from despotic rule: growing comfortable, through all their social ranks, by progressive industry and arts, wrangling, no doubt, and sometimes fighting with one another, but for new kinds of quarrel, and in a spirit very different from that of the Middle Ages. Such quarrels as there are should be for the possession of the few remaining mouths of rivers (if any in fact now remain) for the establishment of colonies; or from jealousies about the exploration of new countries or wild tribes; or from encroachments on the safety of the seas, or on treaty rights for commercial objects. There might be rivalries about discovering geographical mysteries, or about cutting through isthmuses; there might be difficulties about slave traffic, or about tolls on straits, or about the freedom of great rivers, or about rights of fishery. There might be plenty of strife, we were told, and armies and navies would be honourable institutions for a generation or two to come: but we should see no more wars of sheer tyranny,—no more territorial wars,—no more fighting for fighting’s sake, on any pretence or none.

Now, what is it that we do see?

We see warfare for the old reasons, in an age when such reasons require disguise to pass the ordeal of public opinion at all, or are too flagrant to permit any appeal to opinion at all. We see warfare assuming a character of ferocity and barbarism which was pronounced a disgrace four centuries ago. It is true, we see men and nations less hasty in plunging into war; but, once in for it, their temper is of a lower quality than it was during the Military Period, when a state of peace is rather the exception than the rule with the European nations, as with the less-advanced races of men.

We see, first, the great Military Power of all—Russia—apparently going to pieces, and becoming ferocious in proportion to her weakness. This may be fairly called a confirmation of the theory of philosophers, because Russia can neither conquer in arms, nor prosper in peace—from poverty and exhaustion, from want of a commercial middle class, and of capital, and trade, and manufacturing interests, and agricultural improvement, and the popular education which attends on these pursuits. It is because Russia is a military power in a non-military age, that she is sinking into ruin. But then there is the fact of the unparalleled ferocity of her mode of warfare,—and of her mode of governing,—a barbarity which makes us throw down our newspapers from inability to bear the mere reading of what she is daily doing and inflicting. Then there is France,—a Military Power also, but something else as well. We see there a people actually longing for peace, but unable to get it. We see there a people deplorably backward in agriculture, and poverty stricken accordingly in its peasant class; a people advancing rapidly in manufacturing industry, and leading the whole world in certain arts of ornamentation; a people weary of debt and taxation,—weeping at home over the conscription, and shuddering at the bloodshed, and trembling at the arrival of news from any quarter; yet a people whose armies are fighting on all the continents, and threatening to fight for any of the islands of the globe. We see them rushing to the war in Italy, and, instead of finishing it off, keeping up the strife between Rome and the Italian nation, sustaining a brigandage as horrible as any known five centuries ago. We see them preventing any part of Europe from settling down in the repose of peace, and for ever menacing some neighbour with assault or interference. We see them pouring out blood and treasure in an incomprehensible war in Asia, as they have already done in Africa, in the unseasonable attempt to found a colony on a military basis; and, as if Algiers and Cochin China were not costly and destructive enough, we see them perpetrating the most inexcusable of invasions in America,—bearing down with the whole weight of their military power on Mexico, with no more pretence of right than any warrior tribe of the Middle Ages.

To pass rapidly over the rest:—we have seen Spain show herself retrograde in her invasion of the Moors, and in her support of the slave-trade, and in her insensibility to commercial honour, both in retaining the money which was paid her for abolishing that trade, and in so failing to pay the interest of her debts as to be excluded from the exchanges of all Europe. We see the ruler of Prussia appealing to arms as the foundation and support of his throne, and sustaining Russia in her tyranny, and picking a quarrel with Denmark in order to obtain a field for warfare. We see a strife growing to such a deadly strength between the Christian races and the Turks in the east of Europe that nobody doubts that one of the ferocious old religious wars will come up again, to disgust and terrify humanity. We see the Head of Christendom claiming powers and immunities which the age cannot permit, and living and working in a spirit of vindictiveness, pride, and complicity with cruelty which make the world ask what the Papacy now has to do with Christianity.—On the other Christian continent, we see the fiercest civil war raging that has occurred in human history. No war ever has been, or ever could be, more malignant in its spirit,—and none more wantonly and unpardonably entered upon than the revolt of the Slave States against the Free States of the American Union: and in destructiveness it is unequalled in history.

Such is the aspect of the combative part of Christendom in the nineteenth century of its date. If it was before, an eager question why the rise of the Christian religion, with its morality, did not arrest the decline and prevent the fall of the Roman empire, it may well be the most interesting of questions now, how Christendom itself—the seat of the religion of peace and love—can be the scene of strife and murder, of revenge and hellish cruelty,—of national vanity and imperial ambition, and hard unscrupulousness,—which we see it in our day. If the passions of the Greek and Roman churches are as bad as any strife of Moslems and Christians, and if the Protestant nations can be, as Prussia is, as retrograde as Rome itself; and if they can fly at one another’s throats as the Americans are doing,—if this is the temper and behaviour of Christians in this age of a religion which has had eighteen centuries to operate in, and in the present stage of philosophy and the arts, what are we to think and to expect?

Before casting about for the answer to this, let me say that I am not overlooking the more favourable features of the time. If the case were one of comparison between the whole good and evil of the old and the present days, I should have to dwell on such pleasant topics as the uprising of United Italy; the abolition of slavery, as far as it has gone; the freedom of trade, and other freedoms; the extension of popular rights in some countries, and the advance of education in more; and (the most striking thing just now) the character and conduct of the negro race in America, as brought out by the war, through which a million of slaves have become free in the course of six months, without giving a single occasion for complaint of any sort of outrage, while yet so spirited and brave as to compose the best part of the army to which they belong,—thirty thousand of them being now trained soldiers, working out the emancipation of their race by their own services and qualities. These are pleasant sights, and full of promise: but they do not touch upon the problem—what to say, do, and expect, while Christendom is so unlike the spirit of its faith, and so unworthy of the philosophy of its age.

In a Protestant country like ours there is no need to enlarge on the point that such mischief must always happen where religion is treated as a kingdom of this world, and where it is made an object of action, instead of the temper of the life. Through such a misapprehension of the entire intent and spirit of the Gospel we see Papal government the infamous abuse that it is: we see the shocking annual wrangle at Jerusalem, when a Turkish magistrate has to separate the Christians of the Greek and Latin churches who are clutching each other by the throat: we see the Czar worshipped as a god by a peasantry who have been sunk below humanity in the name and by the influence of the religion of the country: we see the Queen of Spain and her ministers ruining by imprisonment and banishment the quiet and loyal citizens who have done nothing worse than reading the Bible; and we see the whole east of Europe agitated by a religious quarrel which may burst into a flame of war at any moment. Truly, when we see the monkish old Pope playing the sovereign over quick-witted and clear-sighted Italians, and forcing on a schism in his church; and the Russians practising an idolatry scarcely less monstrous than Hindooism; and the misery of Poland prolonged by the theological strife; and the graves in the Crimea, which are the fruit of the question of the Holy Places; we could almost suppose that the Bible is a lost book, leaving no faithful traditions. How can a religion of unworldliness, humility, spirituality, gentleness, harmlessness, and generosity, be represented by the political rule of the Pope, the high-priestship of the Czar, the religious wars of Eastern Europe, invasions of Asiatic and American countries, and, in Protestant empires, by multiplying schisms in the churches, and by strifes such as render Ireland the opprobrium of our own empire?

It is clearly by religion being applied to a purpose for which it was never intended. It might have prevented the decline and fall of the Roman empire if it could have pursued its proper work on individual character, and, through that channel, on the fortunes of society, instead of becoming implicated with the state and its rulers; and in our time it has failed to land the nations in a region of peace and progress, because its character and function are still misunderstood and abused; so that the most absolute unlikeness to Christ and his religion is found in the persons and transactions which make the most ostentatious profession of his name and authority. Christendom is as little like a kingdom of Christ as can well be imagined; and it can never grow more like till theology is altogether separated from worldly government and political relations.

We were all glad to hear, the other day, that no report of any daughter of our Queen marrying the King of Greece can be true, now or at any time, because no English prince or princess will ever become a member of the Greek church, or any grandchildren of our Queen be consigned to that church as a condition of royalty in Greece. The abuse of religion for state objects will not be kept up by England beyond the operation of her own state religion, which produces, by its political character, particular troubles within its own realm.

The most special and distinctive troubles of our time, however, may be ascribed to a more special cause. In all ages of the world, men have suffered from the religious abuse: but in our own age there is a kind of trouble never known before in the same style or degree, from the break-down in the relations of the three elements which make up the organised society of Christendom.

The three elements are the Sovereign, the Aristocracy, and the People: and they may make, and have made, a variety of junctions: and according to the success or failure of these alliances is the welfare or the unprosperousness of the respective nations. Where the king and the people unite, as against the aristocracy, there cannot be any permanent establishment of popular freedom; and after the aristocracy has perished out of sight and action—as it is sure to do—either the sovereign or the people gets the upper hand, and liberty is lost under the reign of either despotism or democracy. This is how France has failed in her political career; and this is why Russia cannot get her political career begun. The old aristocracy of France is politically extinct; and the fortunes of the nation vibrate between the ascendency of despotism and revolution. In Russia, the aristocracy has only lately been exempted from the knout, as a punishment at the pleasure of the Czar; and it is only as a bureaucracy that the nobles have any political power. The Czar is thus in the closest connection, called paternal, with his people; but they are not the better for it; and the actual state of things is, that the nation consists of a peasantry of mere servile habits, above whom there is no middle class; of a nominal nobility who have no function in the state, but who live by functionarism; and of an autocrat, who is supposed to do what he likes, but who lives under the illicit control of a body of public servants, the most corrupt in Europe. Such is the present fate of countries where, during the settling of the three elements of society, the aristocratic element has been sacrificed.

For the other extreme, the alliance of the sovereign and aristocracy against the people, we look, not only to ecclesiastical states, like Rome, but to Germany, and, in a certain sense, to Sweden. In Sweden, the national character and condition suffer much from the excessive number of the aristocracy, who extend downwards among the shopkeepers, and even lower; one consequence of which is the difficulty of getting rid of several pernicious old feudal practices, and of making progress in freedom, religious and civil. What the German aristocracy are, all of us who have travelled in Germany have some idea; and it is quite unnecessary to describe the manners which are a proverb throughout Europe for insolence and egotism. The meek helplessness of the people is equally well known; and Prussia now affords as good an illustration as could be given of the state of a society in which the royal and aristocratic elements have effected a too close alliance, offensive and defensive, against the third element.

The remarkable case of a dominant aristocracy, which practically exercises the kingly and lordly functions in one, may now be best seen in the Southern Confederacy of the American States. There, again, as in Russia, there is no middle class; and the labourers are slaves: there is no popular freedom; and the entire power is in the hands of the aristocracy, restrained only by the fear of insurrection. This is no example for any European state; but rather a specimen of the crude social organisation of the Europe of a thousand years ago, revived in our time by peculiar influences which do not concern us here.

There remains the other combination—the alliance of the aristocracy and the people for the control of royalty. I need not point out that our own England is the one stable and illustrious example of this happiest combination. As the alliance grew up naturally, during the ages when sovereignty was a quite sufficiently weighty element, it was the securest process that any nation could go through. We have had our troubles, like every other people: those troubles have arisen from attempts in some quarter to alter the natural relations of the three parts of the social organisation; and all such disturbances have proved the national attachment to both monarchy and aristocracy, and have simply restored matters to their natural course. An ancient aristocracy, with real functions, political and social, and sustained and replenished by the people, forms with us a true link between the throne and the people at large. To this organisation we find ourselves now owing the dignity and security of our sovereign, in days when scarcely any other monarch in Christendom knows what security is. To this we owe that quality of mind in our nobles which enables them to learn, and to work, and to modify their desires and aims, to a degree never perhaps seen before, in any such body; and to this we owe the practical freedom of the citizen,—the true “liberty of the subject,” which in all civilised countries is a phrase borrowed from English history. Whatever may be the great and beneficent principles and arrangements which are to appear in the organic state of society which is to succeed the present critical one, the best scheme, up to this date, is unquestionably that which renders us now the tranquil, progressive, and hopeful nation that we are, at a time when despotisms and democracies are tottering or falling, in preparation for the next great new period. We have no desire to be alone in our privileges. It has been the highest political treat of our time to see Italy taking a path parallel with ours; and if Prussia tries to recover the right track, out of which her Court and aristocracy are forcing her, nobody will rejoice more heartily than England.

Thus we see how it is that the troubles which disturb and darken the world’s day of progress are mainly retributions for old mistakes, and the working of the dregs of old abuses. We see how it is that growing enlightenment and fresh discoveries are not yet making society so tranquil and happy as might have been supposed. What, then, is to be hoped? Nothing, certainly, from going back. Aristocracies, especially, cannot be made to order or at need: and the throne is but a shaky seat, unless it has grown up out of the soil. The lesson to be derived from the past is not to restore the external appearance of old institutions, but rather to learn how to prepare for and undergo change. When philosophers show us how the democratic element of society is growing, and must grow stronger, we are asked what will be the good, by and-by, of our moderate throne and aristocracy, which we now contemplate so thankfully? The answer is, that the best thing about both is, their ability to live and learn. For as long as we can see, they will no doubt live and learn, as at present: and we expect from them that just and natural influence which will keep the democratic element moderate in its strength and safe in its growth, instead of being like what democracy is where a despot humours, flatters, and betrays it, or a stupid aristocracy defies it, and gets destroyed in consequence.

There is a great deal to be got over before an organic period can set in;—before new wisdom can issue in a tranquil and orderly, though vigorous and active, condition of society. There is much to be witnessed,—much to be endured,—much to be done, to make Christians,—to make men, indeed,—of the creatures who are doing what is doing now in the woods of Poland, and the mountains of Southern Italy, and on the banks of the Mississippi; and wherever freedom is persecuted or repressed. There is much to do: but it will be done.

One happy circumstance is the timely destination of so many young princes and princesses to thrones in Europe. Our four eldest royal children will all be rulers or wives of rulers: and the Denmark family has precisely the same prospect. If Popes and Kings will drive the world to count their years and watch their health, they must not mind hearing the fact that they are old and sickly. If the Czar is seldom sober, he must expect all Europe to see and say how hopeless, with that aggravation, is the prospect for himself and his people,—and for his victims, the Poles. On the other hand, the young candidates for thrones must understand how imperative is the call upon them for diligent study and thoughtful contemplation, in proportion to the capacity of each for moral and political wisdom.

No one of them, however, is so likely as persons of a different order to feel the impressiveness of a lot cast as ours is,—on the verge of the disclosure of a new period of society, and a new age of human life. If we long to know how men felt and behaved when Christianity was expelling paganism, or when the representative principle was discrediting feudal modes of living, we ought to be awake to the fact that we also are witnessing the preparation for a new social age in the existence of ideas, of knowledge, of desires and anticipations, which we do not know how to use and apply. It is a serious position: our times are very solemn: we believe, on the whole, that society is advancing; yet we witness turmoils and barbarities that shake our very souls within us. Let us watch; let us account for what we can, and hope for what we may,—steady and confident in hopefulness from the certainty that there can be no extensive lapse into barbarism while knowledge and philosophy are advancing. The brutes and ruffians, high and low, are always a handful in comparison with the kindly quiet people who pass through life in a spirit of love and peace: and from these broad seedfields of good, great harvests will be growing when the fetid political swamps of all autocracies, spurious or corrupted, and all despotisms disguised as republics, are drained away into the black sea of the past.

The “Saturday Reviewer” has led us very far. It was Gibbon, however, who made the road: and we can hardly have wasted our time in trying to get some views from it.

From the Mountain.