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 truth is, that every man is, to a great extent, the creature of the age. It is to no purpose that he resists the influence which the vastness, in which he is but an atom, must exercise on him. He may try to be a man of the tenth century; but he cannot. Whether he will or no, he must be a man of the nineteenth century. He shares in the motion of the moral as well as in that of the physical world. He can no more be as intolerant as he would have been in the days of the Tudors than he can stand in the evening exactly where he stood in the morning. The globe goes round from west to east; and he must go round with it. When he says that he is where he was, he means only that he has moved at the same rate with all around him. When he says that he has gone a good way to the westward, he means only that he has not gone to the eastward quite so rapidly as his neighbours.
There are two feelings which often prevent an unprincipled layman from becoming utterly depraved and despicable, domestic feeling and chivalrous feeling. His heart may be softened by the endearments of a family. His pride may revolt from the thought of doing what does not become a gentleman. But neither with the domestic feeling nor with the chivalrous feeling has the wicked priest any sympathy. His gown excludes him from the closest and most tender of human relations, and at the same time dispenses him from the observation of the fashionable code of honour.
There is, we think, only one solution of the phenomena which we find in the history and in the drama of that age. The religion of the English was a mixed religion, like that of the Samaritan settlers, described in the second book of Kings, who feared the Lord, and served their graven images; like that of the Judaizing Christians who blended the ceremonies and doctrines of the synagogue with those of the church; like that of the Mexican Indians, who, during many generations after the subjugation of their race, continued to unite with the rites learned from their conquerors the worship of the grotesque idols which had been adored by Montezuma and Guatemozin.
This evil the progress of the human mind tends to remove. As a taste for books becomes more and more common, the patronage of individuals becomes less and less necessary. In the middle of the last century a marked change took place. The tone of literary men, both in this country and in France, became higher and more independent. Pope boasted that he was the one poet who had pleased by manly ways; he derided the soft dedications with which Halifax had been fed, asserted his own superiority over the pensioned Boileau, and gloried in being not the follower, but the friend, of nobles and princes. The explanation of all this is very simple. Pope was the first Englishman who by the mere sale of his writings realized a sum which enabled him to live in comfort and in perfect independence. Johnson extols him for the magnanimity which he showed in inscribing his Iliad not to a minister or a peer, but to Congreve. In our time this would scarcely be a subject for praise. Nobody is astonished when Mr. Moore pays a compliment of this kind to Sir Walter Scott, or Sir Walter Scott to Mr. Moore. The idea of either of those gentlemen looking out for some lord who would be likely to give him a few guineas in return for a fulsome dedication seems laughably incongruous. Yet this is exactly what Dryden or Otway would have done; and it would be hard to blame him for it. Otway is said to have been choked with a piece of bread which he devoured in the rage of hunger; and, whether this story be true or false, he was beyond all question miserably poor. Dryden, at near seventy, when at the head of the literary men of England, without equal or second, received three hundred pounds for his Fables, a collection of ten thousand verses, and of such verses as no man then living, except himself, could have produced. Pope, at thirty, had laid up between six and seven thousand pounds, the fruits of his poetry. It was not, we suspect, because he had a higher spirit or a more scrupulous conscience than his predecessors, but because he had a larger income, that he kept up the dignity of the literary character so much better than they had done.
Thou hast a strange alacrity in sinking.
To so conservative a frame of mind had the excesses of the French Revolution brought the most illustrious reformers of that time. And why is one person to be singled out from among millions, and arraigned before posterity as a traitor to his opinions, only because events produced on him the effect which they produced on a whole generation? People who, like Mr. Brothers in the last generation, and Mr. Percival in this, have been favoured with revelations from heaven, may be quite independent of the vulgar sources of knowledge. But such poor creatures as Mackintosh, Dumont, and Bentham had nothing but observation and reason to guide them; and they obeyed the guidance of observation and of reason. How is it in physics? A traveller falls in with a berry which he has never before seen. He tastes it, and finds it sweet and refreshing, he praises it, and resolves to introduce it into his own country. But in a few minutes he is taken violently sick; he is convulsed; he is at the point of death. He of course changes his opinion, pronounces this delicious food a poison, blames his own folly in tasting it, and cautions his friends against it. After a long and violent struggle he recovers, and finds himself much exhausted by his sufferings, but free from some chronic complaints which had been the torment of his life. He then changes his opinion again, and pronounces this fruit a very powerful remedy, which ought to be employed only in extreme cases and with great caution, but which ought not to be absolutely excluded from the Pharmacopœia. And would it not be the height of absurdity to call such a man fickle and inconsistent, because he had repeatedly altered his judgment? If he had not altered his judgment, would he have been a rational being? It was exactly the same with the French Revolution. That event was a phenomenon in politics. Nothing that had gone before enabled any person to judge with certainty of the course which affairs might take. At first the effect was the reform of great abuses; and honest men rejoiced. Then came commotion, proscription, confiscation, bankruptcy, the assignats, the maximum, civil war, foreign war, revolutionary tribunals, guillotinades, noyades, fusillades. Yet a little while, and a military despotism rose out of the confusion, and menaced the independence of every state in Europe. And yet again a little while, and the old dynasty resumed, followed by a train of emigrants eager to restore the old abuses. We have now, we think, the whole before us. We should therefore be justly accused of levity or insincerity if our language concerning these events were constantly changing. It is our deliberate opinion that the French Revolution, in spite of all its crimes and follies, was a great blessing to mankind. But it was not only natural, but inevitable, that those who had only seen the first act should be ignorant of the catastrophe, and should be alternately elated and depressed as the plot went on disclosing itself to them. A man who had held exactly the same opinion about the Revolution in 1789, in 1794, in 1804, in 1814, and in 1834, would have been either a divinely inspired prophet or an obstinate fool.
We can by no means agree with Mr. Leigh Hunt, who seems to hold that there is little or no ground for the charge of immorality so often brought against the literature of the Restoration. We do not blame him for not bringing to the judgment-seat the merciless rigour of Lord Angelo; but we really think that such flagitious and impudent offenders as those who are now at the bar deserved at least the gentle rebuke of Escalus. Mr. Leigh Hunt treats the whole matter a little too much in the easy style of Lucio; and perhaps his exceeding lenity disposes us to be somewhat too severe. And yet it is not easy to be too severe. For in truth this part of our literature is a disgrace to our language and our national character. It is clever, indeed, and very entertaining; but it is, in the most emphatic sense of the words, earthly, sensual, devilish. Its indecency, though perpetually such as is condemned not less by the rules of good taste than by those of morality, is not, in our opinion, so disgraceful a fault as its singularly inhuman spirit. We have here Belial, not, as when he inspired Ovid and Ariosto, graceful and humane, but with the iron eye and cruel sneer of Mephistopheles. We find ourselves in a world in which the ladies are like very profligate, impudent, and unfeeling men, and in which the men are too bad for any place but Pandæmonium or Norfolk Island. We are surrounded by foreheads of bronze, hearts like the nether millstone, and tongues set on fire of hell.
We must judge of a form of government by its general tendency, not by happy accidents. Every form of government has its happy accidents. Despotism has its happy accidents. Yet we are not disposed to abolish all constitutional checks, to place an absolute master over us, and to take our chance whether he may be a Caligula or a Marcus Aurelius. In whatever way the House of Commons may be chosen, some able men will be chosen in that way who would not be chosen in any other way. If there were a law that the hundred tallest men in England should be Members of Parliament, there would probably be some able men among those who would come into the House by virtue of this law. If the hundred persons whose names stand first in the alphabetical list of the Court Guide were made Members of Parliament, there would probably be able men among them. We read in ancient history that a very able king was elected by the neighing of his horse; but we shall scarcely, I think, adopt this mode of election.
We would speak first of the Puritans, the most remarkable body of men, perhaps, which the world has ever produced. The odious and ridiculous parts of their character lie on the surface. He that runs may read them; nor have there been wanting attentive and malicious observers to point them out. For many years after the Restoration, they were the theme of unmeasured invective and derision. They were exposed to the utmost licentiousness of the press and of the stage, at the time when the press and the stage were the most licentious. They were not men of letters; they were, as a body, unpopular; they could not defend themselves; and the public would not take them under its protection. They were therefore abandoned, without reserve, to the tender mercies of the satirists and dramatists. The ostentatious simplicity of their dress, their sour aspect, their nasal twang, their stiff posture, their long graces, their Hebrew names, the Scriptural phrases which they introduced on every occasion, their contempt of human learning, their detestation of polite amusements, were indeed fair game for the laughers. But it is not from the laughers alone that the philosophy of history is to be learnt. And he who approaches this subject should carefully guard against the influence of that potent ridicule which has already misled so many excellent writers.