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
It is easy to perceive from the scanty remains of his oratory that the same compactness of expression and richness of fancy which appear in his writings characterized his speeches; and that his extensive acquaintance with literature and history enabled him to entertain his audience with a vast variety of illustrations and illusions which were generally happy and apposite, but which were probably not least pleasing to the taste of that age when they were such as would now be thought childish or pedantic. It is evident also that he was, as indeed might have been expected, perfectly free from those faults which are generally found in an advocate who, after having risen to eminence at the bar, enters the House of Commons; that it was his habit to deal with every great question, not in small detached portions, but as a whole; that he refined little, and that his reasonings were those of a capacious rather than a subtle mind. Ben Jonson, a most unexceptionable judge, has described Bacon’s eloquence in words, which, though often quoted, will bear to be quoted again. There happened in my time one noble speaker who was full of gravity in his speaking. His language, where he could spare or pass by a jest, was nobly censorious. No man ever spoke more neatly, more pressly, more weighty, or suffered less emptiness, less idleness, in what he uttered. No member of his speech but consisted of his own graces. His hearers could not cough or look aside from him without loss. He commanded where he spoke, and had his judges angry and pleased at his devotion. No man had their affections more in his power. The fear of every man that heard him was lest he should make an end. From the mention which is made of judges, it would seem that Jonson had heard Bacon only at the Bar. Indeed, we imagine that the House of Commons was then almost inaccessible to strangers. It is not probable that a man of Bacon’s nice observation would speak in Parliament exactly as he spoke in the Court of Queen’s Bench. But the graces of manner and language must, to a great extent, have been common between the Queen’s Counsel and the Knight of the Shire.
It is remarkable that the practice of separating the two ingredients of which history is composed has become prevalent on the Continent as well as in this country. Italy has already produced a historical novel, of high merit and of still higher promise. In France the practice has been carried to a length somewhat whimsical. M. Sismondi publishes a grave and stately history of the Merovingian Kings, very valuable, and a little tedious. He then sends forth as a companion to it a novel, in which he attempts to give a lively representation of characters and manners. This course, as it seems to us, has all the disadvantages of a division of labour, and none of its advantages. We understand the expediency of keeping the functions of cook and coachman distinct. The dinner will be better dressed, and the horses better managed. But where the two situations are united, as in the Maître Jacques of Molière, we do not see that the matter is much mended by the solemn form with which the pluralist passes from one of his employments to the other.
It seems that the creative faculty and the critical faculty cannot exist together in their highest perfection.
Laws exist in vain for those who have not the courage and the means to defend them.
Men of great conversational powers almost universally practice a sort of lively sophistry and exaggeration which deceives for the moment both themselves and their auditors.
No sophism is too gross to delude minds distempered by party spirit.
Now, of these objects there is none which men in general seem to desire more than the good opinion of others. The hatred and contempt of the public are generally felt to be intolerable. It is probable that our regard for the sentiments of our fellow-creatures springs, by association, from a sense of their ability to hurt or to serve us. But, be this as it may, it is notorious that, when the habit of mind of which we speak has once been formed, men feel extremely solicitous about the opinions of those by whom it is most improbable, nay, absolutely impossible, that they should ever be in the slightest degree injured or benefited. The desire of posthumous fame and the dread of posthumous reproach and execration are feelings from the influence of which scarcely any man is perfectly free, and which in many men are powerful and constant motives of action.
Oligarchy is the weakest and the most stable of governments; and it is stable because it is weak. It has a sort of valetudinarian longevity; it lives in the balance of Sanctorius; it takes no exercise; it exposes itself to no accident; it is seized with an hypochondriac alarm at every new sensation; it trembles at every breath; it lets blood for every inflammation; and thus, without ever enjoying a day of health or pleasure, drags on its existence to a doting and debilitated old age.
Perhaps it may be laid down as a general rule that a legislative assembly, not constituted on democratic principles, cannot be popular long after it ceases to be weak. Its zeal for what the people, rightly or wrongly, conceive to be their interest, its sympathy with their mutable and violent passions, are merely the effects of the particular circumstances in which it is placed. As long as it depends for existence on the public favour, it will employ all the means in its power to conciliate that favour. While this is the case, defects in its constitution are of little consequence. But, as the close union of such a body with the nation is the effect of an identity of interest not essential but accidental, it is in some measure dissolved from the time at which the danger which produced it ceases to exist.
Rulers must not be suffered thus to absolve themselves of their solemn responsibility. It does not lie in their mouths to say that a sect is not patriotic. It is their business to make it patriotic. History and reason clearly indicate the means. The English Jews are, as far as we can see, precisely what our government has made them. They are precisely what any sect, what any class of men, treated as they have been treated, would have been. If all the red-haired people of Europe had, during centuries, been outraged and oppressed, banished from this place, imprisoned in that, deprived of their money, deprived of their teeth, convicted of the most improbable crimes on the feeblest evidence, dragged at horses’ tails, hanged, tortured, burned alive; if, when manners became milder, they had still been subject to debasing restrictions and exposed to vulgar insults, locked up in particular streets in some countries, pelted and ducked by the rabble in others, excluded everywhere from magistracies and honours,—what would be the patriotism of gentlemen with red hair? And if, under such circumstances, a proposition were made for admitting red-haired men to office, how striking a speech might an eloquent admirer of our old institutions deliver against so revolutionary a measure! These men, he might say, scarcely consider themselves as Englishmen. They think a red-haired Frenchman or a red-haired German more closely connected with them than a man with brown hair born in their own parish. If a foreign sovereign patronizes red hair, they love him better than their own native king.
Some people may think the object of the Baconian philosophy a low object, but they cannot deny that, high or low, it has been attained. They cannot deny that every year makes an addition to what Bacon called fruit. They cannot deny that mankind have made, and are making, great and constant progress in the road which he pointed out to them. Was there any such progressive movement among the ancient philosophers? After they had been declaiming eight hundred years, had they made the world better than when they began? Our belief is that, among the philosophers themselves, instead of a progressive improvement there was a progressive degeneracy. An abject superstition which Democritus or Anaxagoras would have rejected with scorn added the last disgrace to the long dotage of the Stoic and Platonic schools. Those unsuccessful attempts to articulate which are so delightful and interesting in a child shock and disgust us in an aged paralytic; and, in the same way, those wild mythological fictions which charm us when we hear them lisped by Greek poetry in its infancy excite a mixed sensation of pity and loathing when mumbled by Greek philosophy in its old age.
That critical discernment is not sufficient to make men poets, is generally allowed. Why it should keep them from becoming poets is not, perhaps, equally evident; but the fact is, that poetry requires not an examining but a believing frame of mind. Those feel it most, and write it best, who forget that it is a work of art; to whom its imitations, like the realities from which they are taken, are subjects, not for connoisseurship, but for tears and laughter, resentment and affection; who are too much under the influence of the illusion to admire the genius which has produced it; who are too much frightened for Ulysses in the cave of Polyphemus to care whether the pun about Outis be good or bad; who forget that such a person as Shakespeare ever existed, while they weep and curse with Lear. It is by giving faith to the creations of the imagination that a man becomes a poet. It is by treating those creations as deceptions, and by resolving them, as nearly as possible, into their elements, that he becomes a critic. In the moment in which the skill of the artist is perceived, the spell of the art is broken. These considerations account for the absurdities into which the greatest writers have fallen when they have attempted to give general rules for composition, or to pronounce judgment on the works of others. They are accustomed to analyze what they feel; they therefore perpetually refer their emotions to causes which have not in the slightest degree tended to produce them. They feel pleasure in reading a book. They never consider that this pleasure may be the effect of ideas which some unmeaning expression, striking on the first link of a chain of associations, may have called up in their own minds,—that they have themselves furnished to the author the beauties which they admire.
The ascendency of the sacerdotal order was long the ascendency which naturally and properly belongs to intellectual superiority.
The church has many times been compared by divines to the ark of which we read in the book of Genesis; but never was the resemblance more perfect than during that evil time when she rode alone, amidst darkness and tempest, on the deluge beneath which all the great works of ancient power and wisdom lay entombed, bearing within her that feeble germ from which a second and more glorious civilization was to spring.
The effect of violent dislike between groups has always created an indifference to the welfare and honor of the state.
The glory of the National Assembly [of France] is this, that they were in truth, what Mr. Burke called them in austere irony, the ablest architects of ruin that ever the world saw. They were utterly incompetent to perform any work which required a discriminating eye and a skilful hand. But the work which was then to be done was a work of devastation. They had to deal with abuses so horrible and so deeply rooted that the highest political wisdom could scarcely have produced greater good to mankind than was produced by their fierce and senseless temerity. Demolition is undoubtedly a vulgar task; the highest glory of the statesman is to construct. But there is a time for everything,—a time to set up, and a time to pull down. The talents of revolutionary lenders and those of the legislator have equally their use and their season. It is the natural, the almost universal, law that the age of insurrections and proscriptions shall precede the age of good government, of temperate liberty, and liberal order. And how should it be otherwise? It is not in swaddling-bands that we learn to walk. It is not in the dark that we learn to distinguish colours. It is not under oppression that we learn how to use freedom.
The instruction derived from history thus written would be of a vivid and practical character. It would be received by the imagination as well as by the reason. It would be not merely traced on the mind, but branded into it. Many truths, too, would be learned, which can be learned in no other manner. As the history of states is generally written, the greatest and most momentous revolutions seem to come upon them like supernatural inflictions, without warning or cause. But the fact is, that such revolutions are almost always the consequences of moral changes which have gradually passed on the mass of the community, and which originally proceed far before their progress is indicated by any public measure. An intimate knowledge of the domestic history of nations is therefore absolutely necessary to the prognosis of political events. A narrative deficient in this respect is as useless as a medical treatise which should pass by all the symptoms attendant on the early stage of a disease and mention only what occurs when the patient is beyond the reach of remedies.
The opinion of the great body of the reading public is very materially influenced even by the unsupported assertions of those who assume a right to criticize.
The reluctant obedience of distant provinces generally costs more than it The Territory is worth. Empires which branch out widely are often more flourishing for a little timely pruning.
He manages little better when he comes to the moderns. He gives us a catalogue of those whom he regards as the greatest writers of later times. It is sufficient to say that in his list of Italians he has omitted Dante, Petrarch, Ariosto, and Tasso; in his list of Spaniards, Lope and Calderon; in his list of French, Pascal, Bossuet, Molière, Corneille, Racine, and Boileau; and in his list of English, Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton.
History, is made up of the bad actions of extraordinary men and woman. All the most noted destroyers and deceivers of our species, all the founders of arbitrary governments and false religions have been extraordinary people; and nine tenths of the calamities that have befallen the human race had no other origin than the union of high intelligence with low desires.
I would hope that there may yet appear a writer who may despise the present narrow limits, and assert the rights of history over every part of her natural domain. Should such a writer engage in that enterprise, in which I cannot but consider Mr. Mitford as having failed, he will record, indeed, all that is interesting and important in military and political transactions; but he will not think anything too trivial for the gravity of history which is not too trivial to promote or diminish the happiness of man. He will portray in vivid colours the domestic society, the manners, the amusements, the conversation, of the Greeks. He will not disdain to discuss the state of agriculture, of the mechanical arts, and of the conveniences of life. The progress of painting, of sculpture, and of architecture, will form an important part of his plan. But, above all, his attention will be given to the history of that splendid literature from which has sprung all the strength, the wisdom, the freedom, and the glory of the western world.
If we went at large into this most interesting subject we should fill volumes. We will, therefore, at present advert to only one important part of the policy of the Church of Rome. She thoroughly understands, what no other church has ever understood, how to deal with enthusiasts. In some sects, particularly in infant sects, enthusiasm is suffered to be rampant. In other sects, particularly in sects long established and richly endowed, it is regarded with aversion. The Catholic Church neither submits to enthusiasm nor proscribes it, but uses it. She considers it as a great moving force, which in itself, like the muscular power of a fine horse, is neither good nor evil, but which may be so directed as to produce great good or great evil; and she assumes the direction to herself. It would be absurd to run down a horse like a wolf. It would be still more absurd to let him run wild, breaking fences and trampling down passengers. The rational course is to subjugate his will without impairing his vigour, to teach him to obey the rein, and then to urge him to full speed. When once he knows his master he is valuable in proportion to his strength and spirit. Just such has been the system of the Church of Rome with regard to enthusiasts. She knows that when religious feelings have obtained the complete empire of the mind they impart a strange energy, that they raise men above the dominion of pain and pleasure, that obloquy becomes glory, that death itself is contemplated only as the beginning of a higher and happier life. She knows that a person in this state is no object of contempt. He may be vulgar, ignorant, visionary, extravagant; but he will do and suffer things which it is for her interest that somebody should do and suffer, yet from which calm and sober-minded men would shrink. She accordingly enlists him in her service, assigns to him some forlorn hope, in which intrepidity and impetuosity are more wanted than judgment and self-command, and sends him forth with her benedictions and her applause.
In Plato's opinion, man was made for philosophy; in Bacon's opinion, philosophy was made for man.
In wit, if by wit be meant the power of perceiving analogies between things which appear to have nothing in common, [Lord Bacon] never had an equal, not even Cowley, not even the author of Hudibras. Indeed, he possessed this faculty, or rather this faculty possessed him, to a morbid degree. When he abandoned himself to it without reserve, as he did in the Sapientia Veterum, and at the end of the second book of the De Augmentis, the feats which he performed were not merely admirable, but portentous, and almost shocking. On those occasions we marvel at him as clowns on a fair-day marvel at a juggler, and can hardly help thinking that the devil must be in him…. Yet we cannot wish that Bacon’s wit had been less luxuriant. For, to say nothing of the pleasure which it affords, it was in the vast majority of cases employed for the purpose of making obscure truth plain, of making repulsive truth attractive, of fixing in the mind forever truth which might otherwise have left but a transient impression.