British Poet,Historian, Essayist, Biographer, Secretary of War, Paymaster-General and Whig Politician
Thomas Macaulay, fully Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay, 1st Baron Macaulay
British Poet,Historian, Essayist, Biographer, Secretary of War, Paymaster-General and Whig Politician
We deplore the outrages which accompany revolutions. But the more violent the outrages, the more assured we feel that a revolution was necessary.
Timid and interested politicians think much more about the security of their seats than about the security of their country.
The study of the properties of numbers, Plato tells us, habituate the mind to the contemplation of pure truth, and raises us above the material universe. He would have his disciples apply themselves to this study, not that they may be able to buy or sell, not that they may qualify themselves to be shopkeepers or traveling merchants, but that they may learn to withdraw their minds from the ever-shifting spectacle of this visible and tangible world, and fix them on the immutable essences of things.
The smallest actual good is better than the most magnificent promise of impossibilities.
The essence of politics is compromise.
Real security... is to be found in its benevolent morality, in its exquisite adaption to the human heart, in the facility with which its scheme accommodates itself to the capacity of every human intellect, in the consolation which it bears to every house of mourning, in the light with which it brightens the great mystery of the grave.
Our judgment ripens; our imagination decays. We cannot at once enjoy the flowers of the Spring of life and the fruits of its Autumn.
Our estimate of a character always depends much on the manner in which; that character affects our own interests and passions.
No man correctly informed as to the past will be disposed to take a morose or desponding view of the present.
Knowledge advances by steps, and not by leaps.
It is the nature of man to overrate present evil and to underrate present good; to long for what he has not, and to be dissatisfied with what he has.
In taste and imagination, in the graces of style, in the arts of persuasion, in the magnificence of public works, the ancients were at least our equals.
History is a compound of poetry and philosophy.
Half-knowledge is worse than ignorance.
A politician must often talk and act before he has thought and read. He may be very ill informed respecting a question: all his notions about it may be vague and inaccurate; but speak he must. And if he is a man of ability, of tact, and of intrepidity, he soon find that, even under such circumstances, it is possible to speak successfully.
The style of Dante is, if not his highest, perhaps his most peculiar excellence. I know nothing with which it can be compared. The noblest models of Greek composition must yield to it. His words are the fewest and the best which it is possible to use. The first expression in which he clothes his thoughts is always so energetic and comprehensive that amplification would only injure the effect. There is probably no writer in any language who has presented so many strong pictures to the mind. Yet there is probably no writer equally concise. This perfection of style is the principal merit of the Paradiso, which, as I have already remarked, is by no means equal in other respects to the two preceding parts of the poem. The force and felicity of the diction, however, irresistibly attract the reader through the theological lectures and the sketches of ecclesiastical biography with which this division of the work too much abounds. It may seem almost absurd to quote particular specimens of an eloquence which is diffused over all his hundred cantos. I will, however, instance the third canto of the Inferno, and the sixth of the Purgatorio, as passages incomparable in their kind. The merit of the latter is, perhaps, rather oratorical than poetical; nor can I recollect anything in the great Athenian speeches which equals it in force of invective and bitterness of sarcasm. I have heard the most eloquent statesman of the age remark that, next to Demosthenes, Dante is the writer who ought to be most attentively studied by every man who desires to attain oratorical excellence.
There are other rules of the same kind without end. Shakespeare, says Rymer, ought not to have made Othello black; for the hero of a tragedy ought always to be white.
There is only one cure for the evils which newly-acquired freedom produces; and that cure is freedom. When a prisoner first leaves his cell, he cannot bear the light of day: he is unable to discriminate colours or recognize faces. But the remedy is, not to remand him into his dungeon, but to accustom him to the rays of the sun. The blaze of truth and liberty may at first dazzle and bewilder nations which have become half blind in the house of bondage. But let them gaze on, and they will soon be able to bear it. In a few years men learn to reason. The extreme violence of opinion subsides. Hostile theories correct each other. The scattered elements of truth cease to contend, and begin to coalesce. And at length a system of justice and order is educed out of the chaos.
This being admitted, can it be denied that the education of the common people is a most effectual means of securing our persons and our property?
Those who have read history with discrimination know the fallacy of those panegyrics and invectives which represent individuals as effecting great moral and intellectual revolutions, subverting established systems, and imprinting a new character on their age. The difference between one man and another is by no means so great as the superstitious crowd supposes. But the same feelings which in ancient Rome produced the apotheosis of a popular emperor, and in modern times the canonization of a devout prelate, lead men to cherish an illusion which furnishes them with something to adore. By a law of association, from the operation of which even minds the most strictly regulated by reason are not wholly exempt, misery disposes us to hatred, and happiness to love, although there may be no person to whom our misery or our happiness can be ascribed. The peevishness of an invalid vents itself even on those who alleviate his pain. The good humour of a man elated by success often displays itself towards enemies. In the same manner, the feelings of pleasure and admiration to which the contemplation of great events gives birth make an object where they do not find it. Thus nations descend to the absurdities of Egyptian idolatry and worship stocks and reptiles,—Sacheverells and Wilkeses. They even fall prostrate before a deity to which they have themselves given the form which commands their veneration, and which, unless fashioned by them, would have remained a shapeless block. They persuade themselves that they are the creatures of what they have themselves created. For, in fact, it is the age that forms the man, not the man that forms the age.
To Plato, the science of medicine appeared to be of very disputable advantage. He did not indeed object to quick cures for acute disorders, or for injuries produced by accidents. But the art which resists the slow sap of a chronic disease, which repairs frames enervated by lust, swollen by gluttony, or inflamed by wine, which encourages sensuality by mitigating the natural punishment of the sensualist, and prolongs existence when the intellect has ceased to retain its entire energy, had no share of his esteem. A life protracted by medical skill he pronounced to be a long death. The exercise of the art of medicine ought, he said, to be tolerated so far as that art may serve to cure the occasional distempers of men whose constitutions are good. As to those who have bad constitutions, let them die; and the sooner the better. Such men are unfit for war, for magistracy, for the management of their domestic affairs, for severe study and speculation. If they engage in any vigorous mental exercise, they are troubled with giddiness and fulness of the head, all which they lay to the account of philosophy. The best thing that can happen to such wretches is to have done with life at once. He quotes mythical authority in support of this doctrine; and reminds his disciples that the practice of the sons of Æsculapius, as described by Homer, extended only to the cure of external injuries.
Walpole’s Letters are generally considered as his best performances, and, we think, with reason. His faults are far less offensive to us in his correspondence than in his books. His wild, absurd, and ever-changing opinions about men and things are easily pardoned in familiar letters. His bitter, scoffing, depreciating disposition does not show itself in so unmitigated a manner as in his Memoirs. A writer of letters must in general be civil and friendly to his correspondent at least, if to no other person. He loved letter-writing, and had evidently studied it as an art. It was, in truth, the very kind of writing for such a man, for a man very ambitious to rank among wits, yet nervously afraid that, while obtaining the reputation of a wit, he might lose caste as a gentleman. There was nothing vulgar in writing a letter. Not even Ensign Northerton, not even the Captain described in Hamilton’s Bawn,—and Walpole, although the author of many quartos, had some feelings in common with those gallant officers,—would have denied that a gentleman might sometimes correspond with a friend. Whether Walpole bestowed much labour upon the composition of his letters, it is impossible to judge from internal evidence. There are passages which seem perfectly unstudied; but the appearance of ease may be the effect of labour. There are passages which have a very artificial air; but they may have been produced without any effort by a mind of which the natural ingenuity had been improved into morbid quickness by constant exercise. We are never sure that we see him as he was. We are never sure that what appears to be nature is not disguised art. We are never sure that what appears to be art is not merely habit which is become second nature.
We know no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality. In general, elopements, divorces, and family quarrels pass with little notice. We read the scandal, talk about it for a day, and forget it. But once in six or seven years our virtue becomes outrageous. We cannot suffer the laws of religion and decency to be violated. We must make a stand against vice. We must teach libertines that the English people appreciate the importance of domestic ties. Accordingly, some unfortunate man, in no respect more depraved than hundreds whose offences have been treated with lenity, is singled out as an expiatory sacrifice. If he has children, they are to be taken from him. If he has a profession, he is to be driven from it. He is cut by the higher orders and hissed by the lower. He is, in truth, a sort of whipping-boy, by whose vicarious agonies all the other transgressors of the same class are, it is supposed, sufficiently chastised. We reflect very complacently on our own severity, and compare with great pride the high standard of morals established in England with the Parisian laxity. At length our anger is satiated. Our victim is ruined and heart-broken. And our virtue goes quietly to sleep for seven years more.
We should very much like to know how the Utilitarian principle would run when reduced to one plain imperative proposition? Will it run thus—pursue your own happiness? This is superfluous. Every man pursues it, according to his light, and always has pursued it, and always must pursue it. To say that a man has done anything, is to say that he thought it for his happiness to do it. Will the principle run thus—pursue the greatest happiness of mankind, whether it be your own greatest happiness or not? This is absurd and impossible, and Bentham himself allows it to be so. But if the principle be not stated in one of these ways, it is an identical proposition,—true, but utterly barren of consequences. Stated in the other way, it is a contradiction in terms. Mr. Bentham has distinctly declined the absurdity. Are we then to suppose that he adopts the truism?