Full Text Archive logoFull Text Archive — Free Classic E-books

Colloquies on Society by Robert Southey

Part 3 out of 3

Adobe PDF icon
Download this document as a .pdf
File size: 0.3 MB
What's this? light bulb idea Many people prefer to read off-line or to print out text and read from the real printed page. Others want to carry documents around with them on their mobile phones and read while they are on the move. We have created .pdf files of all out documents to accommodate all these groups of people. We recommend that you download .pdfs onto your mobile phone when it is connected to a WiFi connection for reading off-line.

may be designed, the present aspects in these kingdoms are
nevertheless rather for evil than for good. Sum you up now upon the
hopeful side.

Montesinos--First, then. I rest in a humble but firm reliance upon
that Providence which sometimes in its mercy educes from the errors
of men a happier issue than could ever have been attained by their
wisdom;--that Providence which has delivered this nation from so
many and such imminent dangers heretofore.

Looking, then, to human causes, there is hope to be derived from the
humanising effects of Literature, which has now first begun to act
upon all ranks. Good principles are indeed used as the stalking-
horse under cover of which pernicious designs may be advanced; but
the better seeds are thus disseminated and fructify after the ill
design has failed.

The cruelties of the old criminal law have been abrogated. Debtors
are no longer indiscriminately punished by indefinite imprisonment.
The iniquity of the slave trade has been acknowledged, and put an
end to, so far as the power of this country extends; and although
slavery is still tolerated, and must be so for awhile, measures have
been taken for alleviating it while it continues, and preparing the
way for its gradual and safe removal. These are good works of the
government. And when I look upon the conduct of that government in
all its foreign relations, though there may be some things to
disapprove, and some sins of omission to regret, it has been, on the
whole, so disinterested, so magnanimous, so just, that this
reflection gives me a reasonable and a religious ground of hope.
And the reliance is strengthened when I call to mind that
missionaries from Great Britain are at this hour employed in
spreading the glad tidings of the Gospel far and wide among heathen

Descending from these wider views to the details of society, there,
too, I perceive ground, if not for confidence, at least for hope.
There is a general desire throughout the higher ranks for bettering
the condition of the poor, a subject to which the government also
has directed its patient attention: minute inquiries have been made
into their existing state, and the increase of pauperism and of
crimes. In no other country have the wounds of the commonwealth
been so carefully probed. By means of colonisation, of an improved
parochial order and of a more efficient police, the further increase
of these evils may be prevented; while, by education, by providing
means of religious instruction for all by savings banks, and perhaps
by the establishment of Owenite communities among themselves, the
labouring classes will have their comforts enlarged, and their well-
being secured, if they are not wanting to themselves in prudence and
good conduct. A beginning has been made--an impulse given: it may
be hoped--almost, I will say, it may be expected--that in a few
generations this whole class will be placed within the reach of
moral and intellectual gratifications, whereby they may be rendered
healthier, happier, better in all respects, an improvement which
will be not more beneficial to them as individuals, than to the
whole body of the commonweal.

The diffusion of literature, though it has rendered the acquirement
of general knowledge impossible, and tends inevitably to diminish
the number of sound scholars, while it increases the multitude of
sciolists, carries with it a beneficial influence to the lower
classes. Our booksellers already perceive that it is their interest
to provide cheap publications for a wide public, instead of looking
to the rich alone as their customers. There is reason to expect
that, in proportion as this is done--in proportion as the common
people are supplied with wholesome entertainment (and wholesome it
is, if it be only harmless) they will be less liable to be acted
upon by fanaticism and sedition.

You have not exaggerated the influence of the newspaper press, nor
the profligacy of some of those persons, by whom this unrestrained
and irresponsible power is exercised. Nevertheless it has done, and
is doing, great and essential good. The greatest evils in society
proceed from the abuse of power; and this, though abundantly
manifested in the newspapers themselves, they prevent in other
quarters. No man engaged in public life could venture now upon such
transactions as no one, in their station half a century ago, would
have been ashamed of. There is an end of that scandalous jobbing
which at that time existed in every department of the State, and in
every branch of the public service; and a check is imposed upon any
scandalous and unfit promotion, civil or ecclesiastical. By
whatever persons the government may be administered, they are now
well aware that they must do nothing which will not bear daylight
and strict investigation. The magistrates also are closely observed
by this self-constituted censorship; and the inferior officers
cannot escape exposure for any perversion of justice, or undue
exercise of authority. Public nuisances are abated by the same
means, and public grievances which the Legislature might else
overlook, are forced upon its attention. Thus, in ordinary times,
the utility of this branch of the press is so great that one of the
worst evils to be apprehended from the abuse of its power at all
times, and the wicked purposes to which it is directed in dangerous
ones, is the ultimate loss of a liberty, which is essential to the
public good, but which when it passes into licentiousness, and
effects the overthrow of a State, perishes in the ruin it has
brought on.

In the fine arts, as well as in literature, a levelling principle is
going on, fatal, perhaps, to excellence, but favourable to
mediocrity. Such facilities are afforded to imitative talent, that
whatever is imitable will be imitated. Genius will often be
suppressed by this, and when it exerts itself, will find it far more
difficult to obtain notice than in former times. There is the evil
here that ingenious persons are seduced into a profession which is
already crowded with unfortunate adventurers; but, on the other
hand, there is a great increase of individual and domestic
enjoyment. Accomplishments which were almost exclusively
professional in the last age, are now to be found in every family
within a certain rank of life. Wherever there is a disposition for
the art of design, it is cultivated, and in consequence of the
general proficiency in this most useful of the fine arts, travellers
represent to our view the manners and scenery of the countries which
they visit, as well by the pencil as the pen. By means of two
fortunate discoveries in the art of engraving, these graphic
representations are brought within the reach of whole classes who
were formerly precluded by the expense of such things from these
sources of gratification and instruction. Artists and engravers of
great name are now, like authors and booksellers, induced to employ
themselves for this lower and wider sphere of purchasers. In all
this I see the cause as well as the effect of a progressive
refinement, which must be beneficial in many ways. This very
diffusion of cheap books and cheap prints may, in its natural
consequences, operate rather to diminish than to increase the number
of adventurers in literature and in the arts. For though at first
it will create employment for greater numbers, yet in another
generation imitative talent will become so common, that neither
parents nor possessors will mistake it for an indication of
extraordinary genius, and many will thus be saved from a ruinous
delusion. More pictures will be painted but fewer exhibited, more
poetry written but less published, and in both arts talents which
might else have been carried to an overstocked and unprofitable
market, will be cultivated for their own sakes, and for the
gratification of private circles, becoming thus a source of sure
enjoyment and indirectly of moral good. Scientific pursuits will,
in like manner, be extended, and pursuits which partake of science,
and afford pleasures within the reach of humble life.

Here, then, is good in progress which will hold on its course, and
the growth of which will only be suspended, not destroyed, during
any of those political convulsions which may too probably be
apprehended--too probably, I say, because when you call upon me to
consider the sinfulness of this nation, my heart fails. There can
be no health, no soundness in the state, till government shall
regard the moral improvement of the people as its first great duty.
The same remedy is required for the rich and for the poor. Religion
ought to be so blended with the whole course of instruction, that
its doctrines and precepts should indeed "drop as the rain, and
distil as the dew, as the small rain upon the tender herb, and as
the showers upon the grass"--the young plants would then imbibe it,
and the heart and intellect assimilate it with their growth. We
are, in a great degree, what our institutions make us. Gracious God
were those institutions adapted to Thy will and word--were we but
broken in from childhood to Thy easy yoke--were we but carefully
instructed to believe and obey--in that obedience and belief we
should surely find our temporal welfare and our eternal happiness!

Here, indeed, I tremble at the prospect! Could I look beyond the
clouds and the darkness which close upon it, I should then think
that there may come a time when that scheme for a perpetual peace
among the states of Christendom which Henri IV. formed, and which
has been so ably digested by the Abbe St. Pierre, will no longer be
regarded as the speculation of a visionary. The Holy Alliance,
imperfect and unstable as it is, is in itself a recognition of the
principle. At this day it would be practicable, if one part of
Europe were as well prepared for it as the other; but this cannot
be, till good shall have triumphed over evil in the struggles which
are brooding, or shall have obtained such a predominance as to allay
the conflict of opinions before it breaks into open war.

God in his mercy grant that it be so! If I looked to secondary
causes alone, my fears would preponderate. But I conclude as I
began, in firm reliance upon Him who is the beginning and the end.
Our sins are manifold, our danger is great, but His mercy is

Sir Thomas More.--Rest there in full faith. I leave you to your
dreams; draw from them what comfort you can. And now, my friend,

The look which he fixed on me, as he disappeared, was compassionate
and thoughtful; it impressed me with a sad feeling, as if I were not
to see him again till we should meet in the world of spirits.

Book of the day:
Facebook Google Reddit StumbleUpon Twitter Pinterest