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Physics and Politics by Walter Bagehot

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full of free Greek discussion, and suggested by the experience,
already considerable, of the Greeks in the results of discussion.
The age of debate is beginning, and even Herodotus, the least of a
wrangler of any man, and the most of a sweet and simple narrator,
felt the effect. When we come to Thucydides, the results of
discussion are as full as they have ever been; his light is pure,
'dry light,' free from the 'humours' of habit, and purged from
consecrated usage. As Grote's history often reads like a report to
Parliament, so half Thucydides reads like a speech, or materials for
a speech, in the Athenian Assembly. Of later times it is unnecessary
to speak. Every page of Aristotle and Plato bears ample and
indelible trace of the age of discussion in which they lived; and
thought cannot possibly be freer. The deliverance of the speculative
intellect from traditional and customary authority was altogether

No doubt the 'detachment' from prejudice, and the subjection to
reason, which I ascribe to ancient Athens, only went down a very
little way among the population of it. Two great classes of the
people, the slaves and women, were almost excluded from such
qualities; even the free population doubtless contained a far
greater proportion of very ignorant and very superstitious persons
than we are in the habit of imagining. We fix our attention on the
best specimens of Athenian culture--on the books which have
descended to us, and we forget that the corporate action of the
Athenian people at various critical junctures exhibited the most
gross superstition. Still, as far as the intellectual and cultivated
part of society is concerned, the triumph of reason was complete;
the minds of the highest philosophers were then as ready to obey
evidence and reason as they have ever been since; probably they were
more ready. The rule of custom over them at least had been wholly
broken, and the primary conditions of intellectual progress were in
that respect satisfied.

It may be said that I am giving too much weight to the classical
idea of human development; that history contains the record of
another progress as well; that in a certain sense there was progress
in Judaea as well as in Athens. And unquestionably there was
progress, but it was only progress upon a single subject. If we
except religion and omit also all that the Jews had learned from
foreigners, it may be doubted if there be much else new between the
time of Samuel and that of Malachi. In Religion there was progress,
but without it there was not any. This was due to the cause of that
progress. All over antiquity, all over the East, and over other
parts of the world which preserve more or less nearly their ancient
condition, there are two classes of religious teachers--one, the
priests, the inheritors of past accredited inspiration; the other,
the prophet, the possessor of a like present inspiration. Curtius
describes the distinction well in relation to the condition of
Greece with which history first presents us:--

'The mantic art is an institution totally different from the
priesthood. It is based on the belief that the gods are in constant
proximity to men, and in their government of the world, which
comprehends every thing both great and small, will not disdain to
manifest their will; nay, it seems necessary that, whenever any
hitch has arisen in the moral system of the human world, this should
also manifest itself by some sign in the world of nature, if only
mortals are able to understand and avail themselves of these divine

'For this a special capacity is requisite; not a capacity which can
be learnt like a human art or science, but rather a peculiar state
of grace in the case of single individuals and single families whose
ears and eyes are opened to the divine revelations, and who
participate more largely than the rest of mankind in the divine
spirit. Accordingly it is their office and calling to assert
themselves as organs of the divine will; they are justified in
opposing their authority to every power of the world. On this head
conflicts were unavoidable, and the reminiscences living in the
Greek people, of the agency of a Tiresias and Calchas, prove how the
Heroic kings experienced not only support and aid, but also
opposition and violent protests, from the mouths of the men of

In Judaea there was exactly the same opposition as elsewhere. All
that is new comes from the prophets; all which is old is retained by
the priests. But the peculiarity of Judaea--a peculiarity which I do
not for a moment pretend that I can explain--is that the prophetic
revelations are, taken as a whole, indisputably improvements; that
they contain, as time goes on, at each succeeding epoch, higher and
better views of religion. But the peculiarity is not to my present
purpose. My point is that there is no such spreading impetus in
progress thus caused as there is in progress caused by discussion.
To receive a particular conclusion upon the ipse dixit, upon the
accepted authority of an admired instructor, is obviously not so
vivifying to the argumentative and questioning intellect as to argue
out conclusions for yourself. Accordingly the religious progress
caused by the prophets did not break down that ancient code of
authoritative usage. On the contrary, the two combined. In each
generation the conservative influence 'built the sepulchres' and
accepted the teaching of past prophets, even while it was slaying
and persecuting those who were living. But discussion and custom
cannot be thus combined; their 'method,' as modern philosophers
would say, is antagonistic. Accordingly, the progress of the
classical states gradually awakened the whole intellect; that of
Judaea was partial and improved religion only. And, therefore, in a
history of intellectual progress, the classical fills the superior
and the Jewish the inferior place; just as in a special history of
theology only, the places of the two might be interchanged.

A second experiment has been tried on the same subject--matter. The
characteristic of the Middle Ages may be approximately--though only
approximately--described as a return to the period of authoritative
usage and as an abandonment of the classical habit of independent
and self-choosing thought. I do not for an instant mean that this is
an exact description of the main mediaeval characteristic; nor can I
discuss how far that characteristic was an advance upon those of
previous times; its friends say it is far better than the
peculiarities of the classical period; its enemies that it is far
worse. But both friends and enemies will admit that the most marked
feature of the Middle Ages may roughly be described as I have
described it. And my point is that just as this mediaeval
characteristic was that of a return to the essence of the customary
epoch which had marked the pre-Athenian times, so it was dissolved
much in the same manner as the influence of Athens, and other
influences like it, claim to have dissolved that customary epoch.

The principal agent in breaking up the persistent medieval customs,
which were so fixed that they seemed likely to last for ever, or
till some historical catastrophe overwhelmed them, was the popular
element in the ancient polity which was everywhere diffused in the
Middle Ages. The Germanic tribes brought with them from their
ancient dwelling-place a polity containing, like the classical, a
king, a council, and a popular assembly; and wherever they went,
they carried these elements and varied them, as force compelled or
circumstances required. As far as England is concerned, the
excellent dissertations of Mr. Freeman and Mr. Stubbs have proved
this in the amplest manner, and brought it home to persons who
cannot claim to possess much antiquarian learning. The history of
the English Constitution, as far as the world cares for it, is, in
fact, the complex history of the popular element in this ancient
polity, which was sometimes weaker and sometimes stronger, but which
has never died out, has commonly possessed great though varying
power, and is now entirely predominant. The history of this growth
is the history of the English people; and the discussions about this
constitution and the discussions within it, the controversies as to
its structure and the controversies as to its true effects, have
mainly trained the English political intellect, in so far as it is
trained. But in much of Europe, and in England particularly, the
influence of religion has been very different from what it was in
antiquity. It has been an influence of discussion. Since Luther's
time there has been a conviction more or less rooted, that a man may
by an intellectual process think out a religion for himself, and
that, as the highest of all duties, he ought to do so. The influence
of the political discussion, and the influence of the religious
discussion, have been so long and so firmly combined, and have so
effectually enforced one another, that the old notions of loyalty,
and fealty, and authority, as they existed in the Middle Ages, have
now over the best minds almost no effect.

It is true that the influence of discussion is not the only force
which has produced this vast effect. Both in ancient and in modern
times other forces cooperated with it. Trade, for example, is
obviously a force which has done much to bring men of different
customs and different beliefs into close contiguity, and has thus
aided to change the customs and the beliefs of them all.
Colonisation is another such influence: it settles men among
aborigines of alien race and usages, and it commonly compels the
colonists not to be over-strict in the choice of their own elements;
they are obliged to coalesce with and 'adopt' useful bands and
useful men, though their ancestral customs may not be identical,
nay, though they may be, in fact, opposite to their own. In modern
Europe, the existence of a cosmopolite Church, claiming to be above
nations, and really extending through nations, and the scattered
remains of Roman law and Roman civilisation co-operated with the
liberating influence of political discussion. And so did other
causes also. But perhaps in no case have these subsidiary causes
alone been able to generate intellectual freedom; certainly in all
the most remarkable cases the influence of discussion has presided
at the creation of that freedom, and has been active and dominant in

No doubt apparent cases of exception may easily be found. It may be
said that in the court of Augustus there was much general
intellectual freedom, an almost entire detachment from ancient
prejudice, but that there was no free political discussion at all.
But, then, the ornaments of that time were derived from a time of
great freedom: it was the republic which trained the men whom the
empire ruled. The close congregation of most miscellaneous elements
under the empire, was, no doubt, of itself unfavourable to inherited
prejudice, and favourable to intellectual exertion. Yet, except in
the instance of the Church, which is a peculiar subject that
requires a separate discussion, how little was added to what the
republic left! The power of free interchange of ideas being wanting,
the ideas themselves were barren. Also, no doubt, much intellectual
freedom may emanate from countries of free political discussion, and
penetrate to countries where that discussion is limited. Thus the
intellectual freedom of France in the eighteenth century was in
great part owing to the proximity of and incessant intercourse with
England and Holland. Voltaire resided among us; and every page of
the 'Esprit des Lois' proves how much Montesquieu learned from
living here. But, of course, it was only part of the French culture
which was so derived: the germ might be foreign, but the tissue was
native. And very naturally, for it would be absurd to call the
ancien regime a government without discussion: discussion abounded
there, only, by reason of the bad form of the government, it was
never sure with ease and certainty to affect political action. The
despotism 'tempered by epigram,' was a government which permitted
argument of licentious freedom within changing limits, and which was
ruled by that argument spasmodically and practically, though not in
name or consistently.

But though in the earliest and in the latest time government by
discussion has been a principal organ for improving mankind, yet,
from its origin, it is a plant of singular delicacy. At first the
chances are much against its living. In the beginning, the members
of a free state are of necessity few. The essence of it requires
that discussion shall be brought home to those members. But in early
time, when writing is difficult, reading rare, and representation
undiscovered, those who are to be guided by the discussion must hear
it with their own ears, must be brought face to face with the
orator, and must feel his influence for themselves. The first free
states were little towns, smaller than any political division which
we now have, except the Republic of Andorre, which is a sort of
vestige of them. It is in the market-place of the country town, as
we should now speak, and in petty matters concerning the market-
town, that discussion began, and thither all the long train of its
consequences may be traced back. Some historical inquirers, like
myself, can hardly look at such a place without some sentimental
musing, poor and trivial as the thing seems. But such small towns
are very feeble. Numbers in the earliest wars, as in the latest, are
a main source of victory. And in early times one kind of state is
very common and is exceedingly numerous. In every quarter of the
globe we find great populations compacted by traditional custom and
consecrated sentiment, which are ruled by some soldier--generally
some soldier of a foreign tribe, who has conquered them, and, as it
has been said, 'vaulted on the back' of them, or whose ancestors
have done so. These great populations, ruled by a single will, have,
doubtless, trodden down and destroyed innumerable little cities who
were just beginning their freedom.

In this way the Greek cities in Asia were subjected to the Persian
Power, and so OUGHT the cities in Greece proper to have been
subjected also. Every schoolboy must have felt that nothing but
amazing folly and unmatched mismanagement saved Greece from conquest
both in the time of Xerxes and in that of Darius. The fortunes of
intellectual civilisation were then at the mercy of what seems an
insignificant probability. If the Persian leaders had only shown
that decent skill and ordinary military prudence which it was likely
they would show, Grecian freedom would have been at an end. Athens,
like so many Ionian cities on the other side of the AEgean, would
have been absorbed into a great despotism; all we now remember her
for we should not remember, for it would never have occurred. Her
citizens might have been ingenious, and imitative, and clever; they
could not certainly have been free and original. Rome was preserved
from subjection to a great empire by her fortunate distance from
one. The early wars of Rome are with cities like Rome--about equal
in size, though inferior in valour. It was only when she had
conquered Italy that she began to measure herself against Asiatic
despotisms. She became great enough to beat them before she advanced
far enough to contend with them. But such great good fortune was and
must be rare. Unnumbered little cities which might have rivalled
Rome or Athens doubtless perished without a sign long before history
was imagined. The small size and slight strength of early free
states made them always liable to easy destruction.

And their internal frailty is even greater. As soon as discussion
begins the savage propensities of men break forth; even in modern
communities, where those propensities, too, have been weakened by
ages of culture, and repressed by ages of obedience, as soon as a
vital topic for discussion is well started the keenest and most
violent passions break forth. Easily destroyed as are early free
states by forces from without, they are even more liable to
destruction by forces from within.

On this account such states are very rare in history. Upon the first
view of the facts a speculation might even be set up that they were
peculiar to a particular race. By far the most important free
institutions, and the only ones which have left living
representatives in the world, are the offspring either of the first
constitutions of the classical nations or of the first constitutions
of the Germanic nations. All living freedom runs back to them, and
those truths which at first sight would seem the whole of historical
freedom, can be traced to them. And both the Germanic and the
classical nations belong to what ethnologists call the Aryan race.
Plausibly it might be argued that the power of forming free states
was superior in and peculiar to that family of mankind. But
unfortunately for this easy theory the facts are inconsistent with
it. In the first place, all the so-called Aryan race certainly is
not free. The eastern Aryans--those, for example, who speak
languages derived from the Sanscrit--are amongst the most slavish
divisions of mankind. To offer the Bengalese a free constitution,
and to expect them to work one, would be the maximum of human folly.
There then must be something else besides Aryan descent which is
necessary to fit men for discussion and train them for liberty; and,
what is worse for the argument we are opposing, some non-Aryan
races have been capable of freedom. Carthage, for example, was a
Semitic republic. We do not know all the details of its
constitution, but we know enough for our present purpose. We know
that it was a government in which many proposers took part, and
under which discussion was constant, active, and conclusive. No
doubt Tyre, the parent city of Carthage, the other colonies of Tyre
besides Carthage, and the colonies of Carthage, were all as free as
Carthage. We have thus a whole group of ancient republics of non-
Aryan race, and one which, being more ancient than the classical
republics, could not have borrowed from or imitated them. So that
the theory which would make government by discussion the exclusive
patrimony of a single race of mankind is on the face of it

I am not prepared with any simple counter theory. I cannot profess
to explain completely why a very small minimum of mankind were, as
long as we know of them, possessed of a polity which as time went on
suggested discussions of principle, and why the great majority of
mankind had nothing like it. This is almost as hopeless as asking
why Milton was a genius and why Bacon was a philosopher. Indeed it
is the same, because the causes which give birth to the startling
varieties of individual character, and those which give birth to
similar varieties of national character, are, in fact, the same. I
have, indeed, endeavoured to show that a marked type of individual
character once originating in a nation and once strongly preferred
by it, is likely to be fixed on it and to be permanent in it, from
causes which were stated. Granted the beginning of the type, we may,
I think, explain its development and aggravation; but we cannot in
the least explain why the incipient type of curious characters broke
out, if I may so say, in one place rather than in another. Climate
and 'physical' surroundings, in the largest sense, have
unquestionably much influence; they are one factor in the cause, but
they are not the only factor; for we find most dissimilar races of
men living in the same climate and affected by the same
surroundings, and we have every reason to believe that those unlike
races have so lived as neighbours for ages. The cause of types must
be something outside the tribe acting on something within--something
inherited by the tribe. But what that something is I do not know
that any one can in the least explain.

The following conditions may, I think, be historically traced to the
nation capable of a polity, which suggests principles for
discussion, and so leads to progress. First, the nation must possess
the PATRIA POTESTAS in some form so marked as to give family life
distinctness and precision, and to make a home education and a home
discipline probable and possible. While descent is traced only
through the mother, and while the family is therefore a vague
entity, no progress to a high polity is possible. Secondly, that
polity would seem to have been created very gradually; by the
aggregation of families into clans or GENTES, and of clans into
nations, and then again by the widening of nations, so as to include
circumjacent outsiders, as well as the first compact and sacred
group--the number of parties to a discussion was at first augmented
very slowly. Thirdly, the number of 'open' subjects--as we should
say nowadays--that is, of subjects on which public opinion was
optional, and on which discussion was admitted, was at first very
small. Custom ruled everything originally, and the area of free
argument was enlarged but very slowly. If I am at all right, that
area could only be enlarged thus slowly, for Custom was in early
days the cement of society, and if you suddenly questioned such
custom you would destroy society. But though the existence, of these
conditions may be traced historically, and though the reason of them
may be explained philosophically, they do not completely solve the
question why some nations have the polity and some not; on the
contrary, they plainly leave a large 'residual phenomenon'
unexplained and unknown.


In this manner politics or discussion broke up the old bonds of
custom which were now strangling mankind, though they had once aided
and helped it. But this is only one of the many gifts which those
polities have conferred, are conferring, and will confer on mankind.
I am not going to write an eulogium on liberty, but I wish to set
down three points which have not been sufficiently noticed.

Civilised ages inherit the human nature which was victorious in
barbarous ages, and that nature is, in many respects, not at all
suited to civilised circumstances. A main and principal excellence
in the early times of the human races is the impulse to action. The
problems before men are then plain and simple. The man who works
hardest, the man who kills the most deer, the man who catches the
most fish--even later on, the man who tends the largest herds, or
the man who tills the largest field--is the man who succeeds; the
nation which is quickest to kill its enemies, or which kills most of
its enemies, is the nation which succeeds. All the inducements of
early society tend to foster immediate action; all its penalties
fall on the man who pauses; the traditional wisdom of those times
was never weary of inculcating that 'delays are dangerous,' and that
the sluggish man--the man 'who roasteth not that which he took in
hunting'--will not prosper on the earth, and indeed will very soon
perish out of it. And in consequence an inability to stay quiet, an
irritable desire to act directly, is one of the most conspicuous
failings of mankind.

Pascal said that most of the evils of life arose from 'man's being
unable to sit still in a room;' and though I do not go that length,
it is certain that we should have been a far wiser race than we are
if 'we had been readier to sit quiet--we should have known much
better the way in which it was best to act when we came to act. The
rise of physical science, the first great body of practical truth
provable to all men, exemplifies this in the plainest way. If it had
not been for quiet people, who sat still and studied the sections of
the cone, if other quiet people had not sat still and studied the
theory of infinitesimals, or other quiet people had not sat still
and worked out the doctrine of chances, the most 'dreamy moonshine,'
as the purely practical mind would consider, of all human pursuits;
if 'idle star-gazers' had not watched long and carefully the motions
of the heavenly bodies--our modern astronomy would have been
impossible, and without our astronomy 'our ships, our colonies, our
seamen,' all which makes modern life modern life could not have
existed. Ages of sedentary, quiet, thinking people were required
before that noisy existence began, and without those pale
preliminary students it never could have been brought into being.
And nine-tenths of modern science is in this respect the same: it is
the produce of men whom their contemporaries thought dreamers--who
were laughed at for caring for what did not concern them--who, as
the proverb went, 'walked into a well from looking at the stars'--
who were believed to be useless, if any one could be such. And the
conclusion is plain that if there had been more such people, if the
world had not laughed at those there were, if rather it had
encouraged them there would have been a great accumulation of proved
science ages before there was. It was the irritable activity, the
'wish to be doing something,' that prevented it. Most men inherited
a nature too eager and too restless to be quiet and find out things;
and even worse--with their idle clamour they 'disturbed the brooding
hen,' they would not let those be quiet who wished to be so, and out
of whose calm thought much good might have come forth.

If we consider how much science has done and how much it is doing
for mankind, and if the over-activity of men is proved to be the
cause why science came so late into the world, and is so small and
scanty still, that will convince most people that our over-activity
is a very great evil. But this is only part, and perhaps not the
greatest part of the harm that over-activity does. As I have said,
it is inherited from times when life was simple, objects were plain,
and quick action generally led to desirable ends. If A kills B
before B kills A, then A survives, and the human race is a race of
A's. But the issues of life are plain no longer. To act rightly in
modern society requires a great deal of previous study, a great deal
of assimilated information, a great deal of sharpened imagination;
and these pre-requisites of sound action require much time, and, I
was going to say, much 'lying in the sun,' a long period of 'mere
passiveness.' Even the art of killing one another, which at first
particularly trained men to be quick, now requires them to be slow.
A hasty general is the worst of generals nowadays; the best is a
sort of Von Moltke, who is passive if any man ever was passive; who
is 'silent in seven languages;' who possesses more and better
accumulated information as to the best way of killing people than
any one who ever lived. This man plays a restrained and considerate
game of chess with his enemy. I wish the art of benefiting men had
kept pace with the art of destroying them; for though war has become
slow, philanthropy has remained hasty. The most melancholy of human
reflections, perhaps, is that, on the whole, it is a question
whether the, benevolence of mankind does most good or harm. Great
good, no doubt, philanthropy does, but then it also does great evil.
It augments so much vice, it multiplies so much suffering, it brings
to life such great populations to suffer and to be vicious, that it
is open to argument whether it be or be not an evil to the world,
and this is entirely because excellent people fancy that they can do
much by rapid action--that they will most benefit the world when
they most relieve their own feelings; that as soon as an evil is
seen 'something' ought to be done to stay and prevent it. One may
incline to hope that the balance of good over evil is in favour of
benevolence; one can hardly bear to think that it is not so; but
anyhow it is certain that there is a most heavy debit of evil, and
that this burden might almost all have been spared us if
philanthropists as well as others had not inherited from their
barbarous forefathers a wild passion for instant action.

Even in commerce, which is now the main occupation of mankind, and
one in which there is a ready test of success and failure wanting in
many higher pursuits, the same disposition to excessive action is
very apparent to careful observers. Part of every mania is caused by
the impossibility to get people to confine themselves to the amount
of business for which their capital is sufficient, and in which they
can engage safely. In some degree, of course, this is caused by the
wish, to get rich; but in a considerable degree, too, by the mere
love of activity. There is a greater propensity to action in such
men than they have the means of gratifying. Operations with their
own capital will only occupy four hours of the day, and they wish to
be active and to be industrious for eight hours, and so they are
ruined. If they could only have sat idle the other four hours, they
would have been rich men. The amusements of mankind, at least of the
English part of mankind, teach the same lesson. Our shooting, our
hunting, our travelling, our climbing have become laborious
pursuits. It is a common saying abroad that 'an Englishman's notion
of a holiday is a fatiguing journey;' and this is only another way
of saying that the immense energy and activity which have given us
our place in the world have in many cases descended to those who do
not find in modern life any mode of using that activity, and of
venting that energy.

Even the abstract speculations of mankind bear conspicuous traces of
the same excessive impulse. Every sort of philosophy has been
systematised, and yet as these philosophies utterly contradict one
another, most of them cannot be true. Unproved abstract principles
without number have been eagerly caught up by sanguine men, and then
carefully spun out into books and theories, which were to explain
the whole world. But the world goes clear against these
abstractions, and it must do so, as they require it to go in
antagonistic directions. The mass of a system attracts the young and
impresses the unwary; but cultivated people are very dubious about
it. They are ready to receive hints and suggestions, and the
smallest real truth is ever welcome. But a large book of deductive
philosophy is much to be suspected. No doubt the deductions may be
right; in most writers they are so; but where did the premises come
from? Who is sure that they are the whole truth, and nothing but the
truth, of the matter in hand? Who is not almost sure beforehand that
they will contain a strange mixture of truth and error, and
therefore that it will not be worth while to spend life in reasoning
over their consequences? In a word, the superfluous energy of
mankind has flowed over into philosophy, and has worked into big
systems what should have been left as little suggestions.

And if the old systems of thought are not true as systems, neither
is the new revolt from them to be trusted in its whole vigour. There
is the same original vice in that also. There is an excessive energy
in revolutions if there is such energy anywhere. The passion for
action is quite as ready to pull down as to build up; probably it is
more ready, for the task is easier.

'Old things need not be therefore true, O brother men, nor yet the
new; Ah, still awhile the old thought retain, And yet consider it

But this is exactly what the human mind will not do. It will act
somehow at once. It will not 'consider it again.'

But it will be said, What has government by discussion to do with
these things? Will it prevent them, or even mitigate them? It can
and does do both in the very plainest way. If you want to stop
instant and immediate action, always make it a condition that the
action shall not begin till a considerable number of persons have
talked over it, and have agreed on it. If those persons be people of
different temperaments, different ideas, and different educations,
you have an almost infallible security that nothing, or almost
nothing, will be done with excessive rapidity. Each kind of persons
will have their spokesman; each spokesman will have his
characteristic objection, and each his characteristic counter-
proposition, and so in the end nothing will probably be done, or at
least only the minimum which is plainly urgent. In, many cases this
delay may be dangerous; in many cases quick action will be
preferable. A campaign, as Macaulay well says, cannot be directed by
a 'debating society;' and many other kinds of action also require a
single and absolute general. But for the purpose now in hand--that
of preventing hasty action, and ensuring elaborate consideration--
there is no device like a polity of discussion.

The enemies of this object--the people who want to act quickly--see
this very distinctly. They are for ever explaining that the present
is 'an age of committees,' that the committees do nothing, that all
evaporates in talk. Their great enemy is parliamentary government;
they call it, after Mr. Carlyle, the 'national palaver;' they add up
the hours that are consumed in it, and the speeches which are made
in it, and they sigh for a time when England might again be ruled,
as it once was, by a Cromwell--that is, when an eager, absolute man
might do exactly what other eager men wished, and do it immediately.
All these invectives are perpetual and many-sided; they come from
philosophers, each of whom wants some new scheme tried; from
philanthropists, who want some evil abated; from revolutionists, who
want some old institution destroyed; from new aeraists, who want
their new aera started forthwith. And they all are distinct
admissions that a polity of discussion is the greatest hindrance to
the inherited mistake of human nature, to the desire to act
promptly, which in a simple age is so excellent, but which in a
later and complex time leads to so much evil.

The same accusation against our age sometimes takes a more general
form. It is alleged that our energies are diminishing; that ordinary
and average men have not the quick determination nowadays which they
used to have when the world was younger; that not only do not
committees and parliaments act with rapid decisiveness, but that no
one now so acts. And I hope that in fact this is true, for according
to me, it proves that the hereditary barbaric impulse is decaying
and dying out. So far from thinking the quality attributed to us a
defect, I wish that those who complain of it were far more right
than I much fear they are. Still, certainly, eager and violent
action IS somewhat diminished, though only by a small fraction of
what it ought to be. And I believe that this is in great part due,
in England at least, to our government by discussion, which has
fostered a general intellectual tone, a diffused disposition to
weigh evidence, a conviction that much may be said on every side of
everything which the elder and more fanatic ages of the world
wanted. This is the real reason why our energies seem so much less
than those of our fathers. When we have a definite end in view,
which we know we want, and which we think we know how to obtain, we
can act well enough. The campaigns of our soldiers are as energetic
as any campaigns ever were; the speculations of our merchants have
greater promptitude, greater audacity, greater vigour than any such
speculations ever had before. In old times a few ideas got
possession of men and communities, but this is happily now possible
no longer. We see how incomplete these old ideas were; how almost by
chance one seized on one nation, and another on another; how often
one set of men have persecuted another set for opinions on subjects
of which neither, we now perceive, knew anything. It might be well
if a greater number of effectual demonstrations existed among
mankind; but while no such demonstrations exist, and while the
evidence which completely convinces one man seems to another
trifling and insufficient, let us recognise the plain position of
inevitable doubt. Let us not be bigots with a doubt, and persecutors
without a creed. We are beginning to bee this, and we are railed at
for so beginning. But it is a great benefit, and it is to the
incessant prevalence of detective discussion that our doubts are
due; and much of that discussion is due to the long existence of a
government requiring constant debates, written and oral.

This is one of the unrecognised benefits of free government, one of
the modes in which it counteracts the excessive inherited impulses
of humanity. There is another also for which it does the same, but
which I can only touch delicately, and which at first sight will
seem ridiculous. The most successful races, other things being
equal, are those which multiply the fastest. In the conflicts of
mankind numbers have ever been a great power. The most numerous
group has always had an advantage over the less numerous, and the
fastest breeding group has always tended to be the most numerous. In
consequence, human nature has descended into a comparatively
uncontentious civilisation, with a desire far in excess of what is
needed; with a 'felt want,' as political economists would say,
altogether greater than the 'real want.' A walk in London is all
which is necessary to establish this. 'The great sin of great
cities' is one vast evil consequent upon it. And who is to reckon up
how much these words mean? How many spoiled lives, how many broken
hearts, how many wasted bodies, how many ruined minds, how much
misery pretending to be gay, how much gaiety feeling itself to be
miserable, how much after mental pain, how much eating and
transmitted disease. And in the moral part of the world, how many
minds are racked by incessant anxiety, how many thoughtful
imaginations which might have left something to mankind are debased
to mean cares, how much every successive generation sacrifices to
the next, how little does any of them make of itself in comparison
with what might be. And how many Irelands have there been in the
world where men would have been contented and happy if they had only
been fewer; how many more Irelands would there have been if the
intrusive numbers had not been kept down by infanticide and vice and
misery. How painful is the conclusion that it is dubious whether all
the machines and inventions of mankind 'have yet lightened the day's
labour of a human being.' They have enabled more people to exist,
but these people work just as hard and are just as mean and
miserable as the elder and the fewer.

But it will be said of this passion just as it was said of the
passion of activity. Granted that it is in excess, how can you say,
how on earth can anyone say, that government by discussion can in
any way cure or diminish, it? Cure this evil that government
certainly will not; but tend to diminish it--I think it does and
may. To show that I am not making premises to support a conclusion
so abnormal, I will quote a passage from Mr. Spencer, the
philosopher who has done most to illustrate this subject:--

'That future progress of civilisation which the never-ceasing
pressure of population must produce, will be accompanied by an
enhanced cost of Individuation, both in structure and function; and
more especially in nervous structure and function. The peaceful
struggle for existence in societies ever growing more crowded and
more complicated, must have for its concomitant an increase of the
great nervous centres in mass, in complexity, in activity. The
larger body of emotion needed as a fountain of energy for men who
have to hold their places and rear their families under the
intensifying competition of social life, is, other things equal, the
correlative of larger brain. Those higher feelings presupposed by
the better self-regulation which, in a better society, can alone
enable the individual to leave a persistent posterity, are, other
things equal, the correlatives of a more complex brain; as are also
those more numerous, more varied, more general, and more abstract
ideas, which must also become increasingly requisite for successful
life as society advances. And the genesis of this larger quantity of
feeling and thought in a brain thus augmented in size and developed
in structure, is, other things equal, the correlative of a greater
wear of nervous tissue and greater consumption of materials to
repair it. So that both in original cost of construction and in
subsequent cost of working, the nervous system must become a heavier
tax on the organism. Already the brain of the civilised man is
larger by nearly thirty percent, than the brain of the savage.
Already, too, it presents an increased heterogeneity--especially in
the distribution of its convolutions. And further changes like these
which have taken place under the discipline of civilised life, we
infer will continue to take place.... But everywhere and always,
evolution is antagonistic to procreative dissolution. Whether it be
in greater growth of the organs which subserve self-maintenance,
whether it be in their added complexity of structure, or whether it
be in their higher activity, the abstraction of the required
materials implies a diminished reserve of materials for race-
maintenance. And we have seen reason to believe that this antagonism
between Individuation and Genesis becomes unusually marked where the
nervous system is concerned, because of the costliness of nervous
structure and function. In Section 346 was pointed out the apparent
connection between high cerebral development and prolonged delay of
sexual maturity; and in Sections 366, 367, the evidence went to show
that where exceptional fertility exists there is sluggishness of
mind, and that where there has been during education excessive
expenditure in mental action, there frequently follows a complete or
partial infertility. Hence the particular kind of further evolution
which Man is hereafter to undergo, is one which, more than any
other, may be expected to cause a decline in his power of

This means that men who have to live an intellectual life, or who
can be induced to lead one, will be likely not to have so many
children as they would otherwise have had. In particular cases this
may not be true; such men may even have many children--they may be
men in all ways of unusual power and vigour. But they will not have
their maximum of posterity--will not have so many as they would have
had if they had been careless or thoughtless men; and so, upon an
average, the issue of such intellectualised men will be less
numerous than those of the unintellectual.

Now, supposing this philosophical doctrine to be true--and the best
philosophers, I think, believe it--its application to the case in
hand is plain. Nothing promotes intellect like intellectual
discussion, and nothing promotes intellectual discussion so much as
government by discussion. The perpetual atmosphere of intellectual
inquiry acts powerfully, as everyone may see by looking about him in
London, upon the constitution both of men and women. There is only a
certain QUANTUM of power in each of our race; if it goes in one way
it is spent, and cannot go in another. The intellectual atmosphere
abstracts strength to intellectual matters; it tends to divert that
strength--which the circumstances of early society directed to the
multiplication of numbers; and as a polity of discussion tends,
above all things, to produce an intellectual atmosphere, the two
things which seemed so far off have been shown to be near, and free
government has, in a second case, been shown to tend to cure an
inherited excess of human nature.

Lastly, a polity of discussion not only tends to diminish our
inherited defects, but also, in one case at least, to augment a
heritable excellence. It tends to strengthen and increase a subtle
quality or combination of qualities singularly useful in practical
life-a quality which it is not easy to describe exactly, and the
issues of which it would require not a remnant of an essay, but a
whole essay to elucidate completely. This quality I call ANIMATED

If anyone were asked to describe what it is which distinguishes the
writings of a man of genius who is also a great man of the world
from all other writings, I think he would use these same words,
'animated moderation.' He would say that such writings are never
slow, are never excessive, are never exaggerated; that they are
always instinct with judgment, and yet that judgment is never a dull
judgment; that they have as much spirit in them as would go to make
a wild writer, and yet that every line of them is the product of a
sane and sound writer. The best and almost perfect instance of this
in English is Scott. Homer was perfect in it, as far as we can
judge; Shakespeare is often perfect in it for long together, though
then, from the defects of a bad education and a vicious age, all at
once he loses himself in excesses. Still, Homer, and Shakespeare at
his best, and Scott, though in other respects so unequal to them,
have this remarkable quality in common--this union of life with
measure, of spirit with reasonableness.

In action it is equally this quality in which the English--at least
so I claim it for them--excel all other nations. There is an
infinite deal to be laid against us, and as we are unpopular with
most others, and as we are always grumbling at ourselves, there is
no want of people to say it. But, after all, in a certain sense,
England is a success in the world; her career has had many faults,
but still it has been, a fine and winning career upon the whole. And
this on account of the exact possession of this particular quality.
What is the making of a successful merchant? That he has plenty of
energy, and yet that he does not go too far. And if you ask for a
description of a great practical Englishman, you will be sure to
have this, or something like it, 'Oh, he has plenty of go in him;
but he knows when to pull up.' He may have all other defects in him;
he may be coarse, he may be illiterate, he may be stupid to talk to;
still this great union of spur and bridle, of energy and moderation,
will remain to him. Probably he will hardly be able to explain why
he stops when he does stop, or why he continued to move as long as
he, in fact, moved; but still, as by a rough instinct, he pulls up
pretty much where he should, though he was going at such a pace

There is no better example of this quality in English statesmen than
Lord Palmerston. There are, of course, many most serious accusations
to be made against him. The sort of homage with which he was
regarded in the last years of his life has passed away; the spell is
broken, and the magic cannot be again revived. We may think that his
information was meagre, that his imagination was narrow, that his
aims were short--sighted and faulty. But though we may often object
to his objects, we rarely find much to criticise in his means. 'He
went,' it has been said, 'with a great swing;' but he never tumbled
over; he always managed to pull up 'before there was any danger.'--
, He was an odd man to have inherited Hampden's motto; still, in
fact, there was a great trace in him of MEDIOCRIA FIRMA--as much,
probably, as there could be in anyone of such great vivacity and

It is plain that this is a quality which as much as, if not more
than, any other multiplies good results in practical life. It
enables men to see what is good; it gives them intellect enough for
sufficient perception; but it does not make men all intellect; it
does not' sickly them o'er with the pale cast of thought;' it
enables them to do the good things they see to be good, as well as
to see that they are good. And it is plain that a government by
popular discussion tends to produce this quality. A strongly
idiosyncratic mind, violently disposed to extremes of opinion, is
soon weeded out of political life, and a bodiless thinker, an
ineffectual scholar, cannot even live there for a day. A vigorous
moderateness in mind and body is the rule of a polity which works by
discussion; and, upon the whole, it is the kind of temper most
suited to the active life of such a being as man in such a world as
the present one.

These three great benefits of free government, though great, are
entirely secondary to its continued usefulness in the mode in which
it originally was useful. The first great benefit was the
deliverance of mankind from the superannuated yoke of customary law,
by the gradual development of an inquisitive originality. And it
continues to produce that effect upon persons apparently far remote
from its influence, and on subjects with which it has nothing to do.
Thus Mr. Mundella, a most experienced and capable judge, tells us
that the English artisan, though so much less sober, less
instructed, and less refined than the artisans of some other
countries, is yet more inventive than any other artisan. The master
will get more good suggestions from him than from any other.

Again, upon plausible grounds--looking, for example, to the position
of Locke and Newton in the science of the last century, and to that
of Darwin in our own--it may be argued that there is some quality in
English thought which makes them strike out as many, if not more,
first-rate and original suggestions than nations of greater
scientific culture and more diffused scientific interest. In both
cases I believe the reason of the English originality to be that
government by discussion quickens and enlivens thought all through
society; that it makes people think no harm may come of thinking;
that in England this force has long been operating, and so it has
developed more of all kinds of people ready to use their mental
energy in their own way, and not ready to use it in any other way,
than a despotic government. And so rare is great originality among
mankind, and so great are its fruits, that this one benefit of free
government probably outweighs what are in many cases its accessory
evils. Of itself it justifies, or goes far to justify, our saying
with Montesquieu, 'Whatever be the cost of this glorious liberty, we
must be content to pay it to heaven.'

No. VI.


The original publication of these essays was interrupted by serious
illness and by long consequent ill--health, I and now that I am
putting them together I wish to add another which shall shortly
explain the main thread of the argument which they contain. In doing
so there is a risk of tedious repetition, but on a subject both
obscure and important, any defect is better than an appearance of

In a former essay I attempted to show that slighter causes than is
commonly thought may change a nation from the stationary to the
progressive state of civilisation, and from the stationary to the
degrading. Commonly the effect of the agent is looked on in the
wrong way. It is considered as operating on every individual in the
nation, and it is assumed, or half assumed, that it is only the
effect which the agent directly produces on everyone that need be
considered. But besides this diffused effect of the first impact of
the cause, there is a second effect, always considerable, and
commonly more potent--a new model in character is created for the
nation; those characters which resemble it are encouraged and
multiplied; those contrasted with it are persecuted and made fewer.
In a generation or two, the look of the nation, becomes quite
different; the characteristic men who stand out are different, the
men imitated are different; the result of the imitation is
different. A lazy nation may be changed into an industrious, a rich
into a poor, a religious into a profane, as if by magic, if any
single cause, though slight, or any combination of causes, however
subtle, is strong enough to change the favourite and detested types
of character.

This principle will, I think, help us in trying to solve the
question why so few nations have progressed, though to us progress
seems so natural-what is the cause or set of causes which have
prevented that progress in the vast majority of cases, and produced
it in the feeble minority. But there is a preliminary difficulty:
What is progress, and what is decline? Even in the animal world
there is no applicable rule accepted by physiologists, which settles
what animals are higher or lower than others; there are
controversies about it. Still more then in the more complex
combinations and politics of human beings it is likely to be hard to
find an agreed criterion for saying which nation is before another,
or what age of a nation was inarching forward and which was falling
back. Archbishop Manning would have one rule of progress and
decline; Professor Huxley, in most important points, quite an
opposite rule; what one would set down as an advance, the other
would set down as a retreat. Each has a distinct end which he wishes
and a distinct calamity which he fears, but the desire of the one is
pretty near the fear of the other; books would not hold the
controversy between them. Again, in art, who is to settle what is
advance and what decline? Would Mr. Buskin agree with anyone else on
this subject, would he even agree with himself or could any common
enquirer venture to say whether he was right or wrong?

I am afraid that I must, as Sir Wm. Hamilton used to say, 'truncate
a problem which I cannot solve.' I must decline to sit in judgment
on disputed points of art, morals, or religion. But without so doing
I think there is such a thing as 'verifiable progress,' if we may
say so; that is, progress which ninety-nine hundredths or more of
mankind will admit to be such, against which there is no established
or organised opposition creed, and the objectors to which,
essentially varying in opinion themselves, and believing one thing
and another the reverse, may be safely and altogether rejected.

Let us consider in what a village of English colonists is superior
to a tribe of Australian natives who roam about them. Indisputably
in one, and that a main sense, they are superior. They can beat the
Australians in war when they like; they can take from them anything
they like, and kill any of them they choose. As a rule, in all the
outlying and uncontested districts of the world, the aboriginal
native lies at the mercy of the intruding European. 'Nor is this
all. Indisputably in the English village there are more means of
happiness, a greater accumulation of the instruments of enjoyment,
than in the Australian tribe. "The English have all manner of books,
utensils, and machines which the others do not use, value, or
understand. And in addition, and beyond particular inventions, there
is a general strength which is capable of being used in conquering a
thousand difficulties, and is an abiding source of happiness,
because those who possess it always feel that they can use it."

If we omit the higher but disputed topics of morals and religion, we
shall find, I think, that the plainer and agreed--on superiorities
of the Englishmen are these: first, that they have a greater command
over the powers of nature upon the whole. Though they may fall short
of individual Australians in certain feats of petty skill, though
they may not throw the boomerang as well, or light a fire with
earthsticks as well, yet on the whole twenty Englishmen with their
implements and skill can change the material world immeasurably more
than twenty Australians and their machines. Secondly, that this
power is not external only; it is also internal. The English not
only possess better machines for moving nature, but are themselves
better machines. Mr. Babbage taught us years ago that one great use
of machinery was not to augment the force of man, but to register
and regulate the power of man; and this in a thousand ways civilised
man can do, and is ready to do, better and more precisely than the
barbarian. Thirdly, | civilised man not only has greater powers over
nature, but knows better how to use them, and by better I here mean
better for the health and comfort of his present body and mind. He
can lay up for old age, which a savage having no durable means of
sustenance cannot; he is ready to lay up because he can distinctly
foresee the future, which the vague--minded savage cannot; he is
mainly desirous of gentle, continuous pleasure, I whereas the
barbarian likes wild excitement, and longs for stupefying repletion.
Much, if not all, of these three ways may be summed up in Mr.
Spencer's phrase, that progress is an increase of adaptation of man
to his environment, that is, of his internal powers and wishes to
his external lot and life. Something of it too is expressed in the
old pagan idea 'mens sana in corpore sano.' And I think this sort
of progress may be fairly investigated quite separately, as it is
progress in a sort of good everyone worth reckoning with admits and
I agrees in. No doubt there will remain people like the aged savage,
who in his old age went back to his savage tribe and said that he
had 'tried civilisation for forty years, and it was not worth the
trouble.' But we need not take account of the mistaken ideas of
unfit men and beaten races. On the whole the plainer sort of
civilisation, the simpler moral training, and the more elementary
education are plain benefits. And though there may be doubt as to
the edges of the conception yet there certainly is a broad road of
'verifiable progress' which not only discoverers and admirers will
like, but which all those who come upon it will use and value.

Unless some kind of abstraction like this is made in the subject the
great problem 'What causes progress?' will, I am confident, long
remain unsolved. Unless we are content to solve simple problems
first, the whole history of philosophy teaches that we shall never
solve hard problems. This is the maxim of scientific humility so
often insisted on by the highest enquirers that, in investigations,
as in life, those 'who exalt themselves shall be abased, and those
who humble themselves shall be exalted;' and though we may seem mean
only to look for the laws of plain comfort and simple present
happiness, yet we must work out that simple case first, before we
encounter the incredibly harder additional difficulties of the
higher art, morals and religion.

The difficulty of solving the problem even thus limited is
exceedingly great. The most palpable facts, are exactly the contrary
to what we should expect. Lord Macaulay tells us that 'In every
experimental science there is a tendency towards perfection. In
every human being there is a tendency to ameliorate his condition;'
and these two principles operating everywhere and always, might well
have been expected to 'carry mankind rapidly forward.' Indeed,
taking verifiable progress in the sense which has just been given to
it, we may say that nature gives a prize to every single step in it.
Everyone that makes an invention that benefits himself or those
around him, is likely to be more comfortable himself and to be more
respected by those around him. To produce new things ' serviceable
to man's life and conducive to man's estate,' is, we should say,
likely to bring increased happiness to the producer. It often brings
immense reward certainly now; a new form of good steel pen, a way of
making some kind of clothes a little better or a little cheaper,
have brought men great fortunes. And there is the same kind of prize
for industrial improvement in the earliest times as in the latest;
though the benefits so obtainable in early society are poor indeed
in comparison with those of advanced society. Nature is like a
schoolmaster, at least in this, she gives her finest prizes to her
high and most instructed classes; Still, even in the earliest
society, nature helps those who can help themselves, and helps them
very much.

All this should have made the progress of mankind--progress at least
in this limited sense-exceedingly common; but, in fact, any progress
is extremely rare. As a rule (and as has been insisted on before) a
stationary state is by far the most frequent condition of man, as
far as history describes that condition; the progressive state is
only a rare and an occasional exception. Before history began there
must have been in the nation which writes it much progress; else
there could have been no history. It is a great advance in
civilisation to be able to describe the common facts of life, and
perhaps, if we were to examine it, we should find that it was at
least an equal advance to wish to describe them. But very few races
have made this step of progress; very few have been capable even of
the meanest sort of history; and as for writing such a history as
that of Thucydides, most nations could as soon have constructed a
planet. When history begins to record, she finds most of the races
incapable of history, arrested, unprogressive, and pretty much where
they are now.

Why, then, have not the obvious and natural causes of progress (as
we should call them) produced those obvious and natural effects? Why
have the real fortunes of mankind been so different from the
fortunes which we should expect? This is the problem which in
various forms I have taken up in these papers, and this is the
outline of the solution which I have attempted to propose.

The progress of MAN requires the co--operation of MEN for its
development. That which any one man or any one family could invent
for themselves is obviously exceedingly limited. And even if this
were not true, isolated progress could never be traced. The rudest
sort of cooperative society, the lowest tribe and the feeblest
government, is so much stronger than isolated man, that isolated man
(if he ever existed in any shape which could be called man), might
very easily have ceased to exist. The first principle of the subject
is that man can only progress in 'co-operative groups;' I might say
tribes and nations, but I use the less common word because few
people would at once see that tribes and nations ARE co-operative
groups, and that it is their being so which makes their value; that
unless you can make a strong co-operative bond, your society will be
conquered and killed out by some other society which has such a
bond; and the second principle is that the members of such a group
should be similar enough to one another to co-operate easily and
readily together. The co-operation in all such cases depends on a
FELT UNION of heart and spirit; and this is only felt when there is
a great degree of real likeness in mind and feeling, however that
likeness may have been attained.

This needful co-operation and this requisite likeness I believe to
have been produced by one of the strongest yokes (as we should think
if it were to be reimposed now) and the most terrible tyrannies ever
known among men--the authority of 'customary law.', In its earlier
stage this is no pleasant power--no 'rosewater' authority, as
Carlyle would have called it--but a stern, incessant, implacable
rule. And the rule is often of most childish origin, beginning in a
casual superstition or local accident. 'These people,' says Captain
Palmer of the Fiji,' are very conservative. A chief was one day
going over a mountain-path followed by a long string of his people,
when he happened to stumble and fall; all the rest of the people
immediately did the same except one man, who was set upon by the
rest to know whether he considered himself better than the chief.'
What can be worse than a life regulated by that sort of obedience,
and that sort of imitation? This is, of course, a bad specimen, but
the nature of customary law as we everywhere find it in its earliest
stages is that of coarse casual comprehensive usage, beginning, we
cannot tell how, deciding, we cannot tell why, but ruling everyone
in almost every action with an inflexible grasp.

The necessity of thus forming co-operative groups by fixed customs
explains the necessity of isolation in early society. As a matter of
fact all great nations have been prepared in privacy and in secret.
They have been composed far away from all distraction. Greece,
Borne, Judaea, were framed each by itself, and the antipathy of each
to men of different race and different speech is one of their most
marked peculiarities, and quite their strongest common property. And
the instinct of early ages is a right guide for the needs of early
ages. Intercourse with foreigners then broke down in states the
fixed rules which were forming their characters, so as to be a cause
of weak fibre of mind, of desultory and unsettled action; the living
spectacle of an admitted unbelief destroys the binding authority of
religious custom and snaps the social cord.

Thus we see the use of a sort of 'preliminary' age in societies,
when trade is bad because it prevents the separation of nations,
because it infuses distracting ideas among occupied communities,
because it 'brings alien minds to alien shores. And as the trade
which we now think of as an incalculable good, is in that age a
formidable evil and destructive calamity; so war and conquest, which
we commonly and justly see to be now evils, are in that age often
singular benefits and great advantages. It is only by the
competition of customs that bad customs can be eliminated and good
customs multiplied. Conquest is the premium given by nature to those
national characters which their national customs have made most fit
to win in war, and in many most material respects those winning
characters are really the best characters. The characters which do
win in war are the characters which we should wish to win in war.

Similarly, the best institutions have a natural military advantage
over bad institutions. The first great victory of civilisation was
the conquest of nations with ill-defined families having legal
descent through the mother only, by nations of definite families
tracing descent through the father as well as the mother, or through
the father only. Such compact families are a much better basis for
military discipline than the ill-bound families which indeed seem
hardly to be families at all, where 'paternity' is, for tribal
purposes, an unrecognised idea, and where only the physical fact of
'maternity' is thought to be certain enough to be the foundation of
law or custom. The nations with a thoroughly compacted family system
have 'possessed the earth,' that is, they have taken all the finest
districts in the most competed-for parts; and the nations with loose
systems have been merely left to mountain ranges and lonely islands.
The family system and that in its highest form has been so
exclusively the system of civilisation, that literature hardly
recognises any other, and that, if it were not for the living
testimony of a great multitude of scattered communities which are
'fashioned after the structure of the elder world,' we should hardly
admit the possibility of something so contrary to all which we have
lived amongst, and which we have been used to think of. After such
an example of the fragmentary nature of the evidence it is in
comparison easy to believe that hundreds of strange institutions may
have passed away and have left behind them not only no memorial, but
not even a trace or a vestige to help the imagination to figure what
they were.

I cannot expand the subject, but in the same way the better
religions have had a great physical advantage, if I may say so, over
the worse. They have given what I may call a CONFIDENCE IN THE
UNIVERSE. The savage subjected to a mean superstition, is afraid to
walk simply about the world--he cannot do THIS because it is
ominous, or he must do THAT because it is lucky, or he cannot do
anything at all till the gods have spoken and given him leave to
begin. But under the higher religions there is no similar slavery
and no similar terror.

The belief of the Greek [words in Greek] the belief of the Roman
that he was to trust in the gods of Borne, for those gods are
stronger than all others; the belief of Cromwell's soldiery that
they were 'to trust in God and keep their powder dry,' are great
steps in upward progress, using progress in its narrowest sense.
They all enabled those who believed them 'to take the world as it
comes,' to be guided by no unreal reason, and to be limited by no
mystic scruple; whenever they found anything to do, to do it with
their might. And more directly what I may call the fortifying
religions, that is to say, those which lay the plainest stress on
the manly parts of morality--upon valour, on truth and industry--
have had plainly the most obvious effect in strengthening the races
which believed them, and in making those races the winning races.

No doubt many sorts of primitive improvement are pernicious to war;
an exquisite sense of beauty, a love of meditation, a tendency to
cultivate the force of the mind at the expense of the force of the
body, for example, help in their respective degrees to make men less
warlike than they would otherwise be. But these are the virtues of
other ages. The first work of the first ages is to bind men together
in the strong bond of a rough, coarse, harsh custom; and the
incessant conflict of nations effects this in the best way. Every
nation, is an 'hereditary co-operative group,' bound by a fixed
custom; and out of those groups those conquer which have the most
binding and most invigorating customs, and these are, as a rough
rule, the best customs. The majority of the 'groups' which win and
conquer are better than the majority of those which fail and perish,
and thus the first world grow better and was improved.

This early customary world no doubt continued for ages. The first
history delineates great monarchies, each composed of a hundred
customary groups, all of which believed themselves to be of enormous
antiquity, and all of which must have existed for very many
generations. The first historical world is not a new-looking thing
but a very ancient, and according to principle it is necessary that
it should exist for ages. If human nature was to be gradually
improved, each generation must be born better tamed, more calm, more
capable of civilisation--in a word, more LEGAL than the one before
it, and such inherited improvements are always slow and dubious.
Though a few gifted people may advance much, the mass of each
generation can improve but very little on the generation which
preceded it; and even the slight improvement so gained is liable to
be destroyed by some mysterious atavism--some strange recurrence to
a primitive past. Long ages of dreary monotony are the first facts
in the history of human communities, but those ages were not lost to
mankind, for it was then that was formed the comparatively gentle
and guidable thing which we now call human nature.

And indeed the greatest difficulty is not in preserving such a world
but in ending it. We have brought in the yoke of custom to improve
the world, and in the world the custom sticks. In a thousand cases--
in the great majority of cases--the progress of mankind has been
arrested in this its earliest shape; it has been closely embalmed in
a mummy-like imitation of its primitive existence. I have
endeavoured to show in what manner, and how slowly, and in how few
cases this yoke of custom was removed. It was 'government by
discussion ', which broke the bond of ages and set free the
originality of mankind. Then, and then only, the motives which Lord
Macaulay counted on to secure the progress of mankind, in fact,
begin to work; THEN 'the tendency in every man to ameliorate his
condition' begins to be important, because then man can alter his
condition while before he is pegged down by ancient usage; THEN the
tendency in each mechanical art towards perfection begins to have
force, because the artist is at last allowed to seek perfection,
after having been forced for ages to move in the straight furrow of
the old fixed way.

As soon as this great step upwards is once made, all or almost all,
the higher gifts and graces of humanity have a rapid and a definite
effect on 'verifiable progress'--on progress in the narrowest,
because in the most universally admitted sense of the term. Success
in life, then, depends, as we have seen, more than anything else on
'animated moderation,' on a certain combination of energy of mind
and balance of mind, hard to attain and harder to keep. And this
subtle excellence is aided by all the finer graces of humanity. It
is a matter of common observation that, though often separated, fine
taste and fine judgment go very much together, and especially that a
man with gross want of taste, though he may act sensibly and
correctly for a while, is yet apt to break out, sooner or later,
into gross practical error. In metaphysics, probably both taste and
judgment involve what is termed 'poise of mind,' that is the power
of true passiveness--the faculty of 'waiting' till the stream of
impressions, whether those of life or those of art have done all
that they have to do, and cut their full type plainly upon the mind.
The ill-judging and the untasteful are both over-eager; both move
too quick and blur the image. In this way the union between a subtle
sense of beauty and a subtle discretion in conduct is a natural one,
because it rests on the common possession of a fine power, though,
in matter of fact, that union may be often disturbed. A complex sea
of forces and passions troubles men in life and action, which in the
calmer region of art are hardly to be felt at all. And, therefore,
the cultivation of a fine taste tends to promote the function of a
fine judgment, which is a main help in the complex world of
civilised existence. Just so too the manner in which the more
delicate parts of religion daily work in producing that 'moderation'
which, upon the whole, and as a rule, is essential to long success,
defining success even in its most narrow and mundane way, might be
worked out in a hundred cases, though it would not suit these pages.
Many of the finer intellectual tastes have a similar restraining
effect they prevent, or tend to prevent, a greedy voracity after the
good things of life, which makes both men and nations in excessive
haste to be rich and famous, often makes them do too much and do it
ill, and so often leaves them at last without money and without

But there is no need to expand this further. The principle is plain
that, though these better and higher graces of humanity are
impediments and encumbrances in the early fighting period, yet that
in the later era they are among the greatest helps and benefits, and
that as soon as governments by discussion have become strong enough
to secure a stable existence, and as soon as they have broken the
fixed rule of old custom, and have awakened the dormant
inventiveness of men, then, for the first time, almost every part of
human nature begins to spring forward, and begins to contribute its
quota even to the narrowest, even to 'verifiable' progress. And this
is the true reason of all those panegyrics on liberty which are
often so measured in expression but are in essence so true to life
and nature. Liberty is the strengthening and developing power--the
light and heat of political nature; and when some 'Caesarism'
exhibits as it sometimes will an originality of mind, it is only
because it has managed to make its own the products of past free
times or neighbouring free countries; and even that originality is
only brief and frail, and after a little while, when tested by a
generation or two, in time of need it falls away.

In a complete investigation of all the conditions of 'verifiable
progress,' much else would have to be set out; for example, science
has secrets of her own. Nature does not wear her most useful lessons
on her sleeve; she only yields her most productive secrets, those
which yield the most wealth and the most 'fruit,' to those who have
gone through a long process of preliminary abstraction. To make a
person really understand the 'laws of motion' is not easy, and to
solve even simple problems in abstract dynamics is to most people
exceedingly hard. And yet it is on these out-of-the-way
investigations, so to speak, that the art of navigation, all
physical astronomy, and all the theory of physical movements at
least depend. But no nation would beforehand have thought that in so
curious a manner such great secrets were to be discovered. And many
nations, therefore, which get on the wrong track, may be distanced--
supposing there to be no communication by some nation not better
than any of them which happens to stumble on the right track. If
there were no 'Bradshaw' and no one knew the time at which trains
started, a man who caught the express would not be a wiser or a more
business-like man than he who missed it, and yet he would arrive
whole hours sooner at the capital both are going to. And unless I
misread the matter, such was often the case with early knowledge. At
any rate before a complete theory of 'verifiable progress' could be
made, it would have to be settled whether this is so or not, and the
conditions of the development of physical science would have to be
fully stated; obviously you cannot explain the development of human
comfort unless you know the way in which men learn and discover
comfortable things. Then again, for a complete discussion, whether
of progress or degradation, a whole course of analysis is necessary
as to the effect of natural agencies on man, and of change in those
agencies. But upon these I cannot touch; the only way to solve these
great problems is to take them separately. I only profess to explain
what seem to me the political prerequisites of progress, and
especially of early progress, I do this the rather because the
subject is insufficiently examined, so that even if my views are
found to be faulty, the discussion upon them may bring out others
which are truer and better.


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