LETTERS TO THE PRESS (9)
Is the Marriage Contract Eternal?
[Buchanan’s two letters on this subject, written in response to Gladstone’s piece about divorce in the December 1889 issue of the North American Review, were printed in The Daily Telegraph, then reprinted in The Coming Terror, and other essays and letters (London: William Heinemann, 1891). Buchanan’s play, Man and the Woman received its first (and, as it turned out, only) performance at a matinée at the Criterion Theatre on 19th December, 1889. The theme of the play was a ‘bad marriage’ and so it could be the case that either Buchanan’s letters were prompted by his current interest in the problem, or, perhaps, he was trying to drum up a bit of publicity for his play.]
The Daily Telegraph (16 December, 1889 - p.4)
IS THE MARRIAGE CONTRACT ETERNAL?
TO THE EDITOR OF “THE DAILY TELEGRAPH.”
SIR—Mr. Gladstone’s ideas on the subject of “Marriage and Divorce,” as set forth in the current number of the North American Review, have been familiar to us all ever since the publication of his paper on the same subject which appeared among the “Ecclesiastical Essays.” For my own part, much as I dissent from the views expressed, I honour and reverence them, as symbolic of a perfectly stainless and beautiful wedded life. I know that every word they contain comes from the bottom of one of the noblest hearts beating on this planet, and in presuming to correct so apostolic a person as Mr. Gladstone, a man who belongs to the high priesthood of human nature, I am restrained by no little reverence and affection. But I know well, as all sane men must know by this time, that our great leader would prefer to any half-hearted acquiescence a firm yet respectful contradiction. “Great is the truth, and it must prevail,” has been his watchword throughout his life, and he will forgive now, for the truth’s sake, the denial of one who sympathises, but who is not a disciple.
Veiled in the golden cloud of a happy destiny, crowned with the lilies and roses of that perfect conjugal peace which Swedenborg justly thought the noblest blessing of human life, Mr. Gladstone—confident of his individual happiness—forgets the conditions of human nature. His appeal to Christian documents, his erudite citation of the Christian Fathers, to prove a point which can only be established by Christian science, may be gently set aside for the present as irrelevant. To contend upon Biblical evidence that Marriage is a Contract for Eternal Life, never to be entered into with a new individual after bodily and spiritual separation from another, is not much more tenable than to hold carnal Love itself a thing to be avoided because the Apostle Paul rebuked the fleshly appetites and held matrimony only a little better than concupiscence. Surely that Protestantism which Mr. Gladstone loves so well decided long ago that human conscience is superior to any constituted authority; and surely also Free Thought, the heir male of Protestantism, has convinced us at last that Knowledge is antecedent to, and supreme over, the domination of any Documents. As I have elsewhere written, the man who says that a Book can corrupt his Soul ranks his Soul lower than a Book, and even when a Book is wise beyond the possibility of corruption, it is poorer and feebler at best than the human inspiration out of which it came. Unless the sun of human intelligence, like the sun of Joshua, has stood and is standing still, the later inspiration must supplement the earlier, and the Bible of Humanity remain incomplete, until many another Book is written. Generations ago Milton added to it one luminous page, that in which, starting from Mr. Gladstone’s side of the compass, he vindicated the right of Divorce in the name of the Christian documents; and Milton, were he living now, had he learned what Man knows now, would have uttered truer, though not mightier words, in the name of Christian inspiration.
For surely, Sir, the hour has come when the rights and needs of human nature are no longer to be decided by the straggling traditions, the vagrant and often feeble utterances, of those who were Martyrs and Apostles of Liberty once, but who, were they living now, and waging the same conflict against social science, would be regarded as fit subjects for Bedlam. Since the age of St. Athanasius we have had the age of St. Servetus, whom I, for my own part, value more highly than most saints in the Church’s Calendar. We have drained our cities, reformed our manners, invented soap as an adjunct to water, and become, if a little less credulous of documents, a great deal more tolerant to Inspiration. The Poet and the Philosopher may now get in a word occasionally in the intervals of pastoral homilies and domiciliary exhortations. True, many of our discoveries, and a little even of our inspiration, are of comparatively small value. To find magnesium in the moon is perhaps not much more precious than to ascertain, with Panurge, that the moon is made of green cheese, while to establish the caudal ancestry of man is merely to corroborate the irony of Voltaire, and to verify the fanciful flights of Lord Monboddo. Even Goethe’s discovery of the intermaxillary bone, though precious to sheer scientists, has had very little effect on human nature. A larger and certainly less doubtful discovery is the quasi-legal one—that no contracts are really binding when the very nature of a contract is unintelligible to the contracting individuals; and since, pace Christian documents, the Marriage Contract is very seldom made in Heaven, and is very frequently entered into by practically irrational persons, the corollary of our discovery in this direction is—that such a Contract as Marriage should certainly not be eternal.
To argue this part of the question thoroughly out would far transcend the limits of a newspaper letter. I must, therefore, leave those thousands of your readers who disputed whether Marriage was a Failure, to decide for themselves whether it should be everlasting. Far more important to the present issue is Mr. Gladstone’s extraordinary suggestion that the laxness of public opinion on the subject of the Marriage Contract is the main cause of the loose morals of modern society. Even here, up to a certain point, I am with the modern apostle. I believe true Marriage to be in its very nature Divine, but that is only another way of saying that conjugal Love is of necessity eternal. Well has it been said that “he who loves once can never love again.” Perfect love between man and woman means complete fusion of two beings into one immortal Soul. But when this Love comes—and it does come, since miracles are daily wrought—we do not talk any longer of a contract; it is abolished, it has vanished; for the parties to it have no separate identity—they are
Two souls with but a single thought,
Two hearts that beat as one.
Unfortunately, however, the miracle, if it happens at all, only happens once in a life-time, and after, in the majority of cases, many episodes of dishallucination. Are we to be told, in the face of experience, of reason, of knowledge in ourselves and around us, that, because a man or a woman has blindly signed one contract, has reached out loving arms and clasped only corruption, has awakened from a dream of Heaven to the realisations of an Inferno, that he or she is to be precluded for ever from that moral redemption which Love alone can give? Through the imperfection of even our present civilisation many individuals commit in lawful marriage an innocent and pitiful wrong. Is the sin so committed, by those who in thought are sinless, to be ratified, to be eternalised and christened “holy,” by any so-called Law of God, by any belated Spectres of the Apostles? Is eternal solitude, eternal isolation from all that makes life beautiful, eternal misery and shame, to be the portion of the creature who has been blinded, who has been hoodwinked, who has been charmed by Circe, poisoned treacherously by the Siren, polluted shamefully by the Satyr? If Christianity had taught this, it would have long ago been cold and dead as the stones of the Sepulchre. It has not taught, and it does not teach it. At its highest point of aspiration it embraces and uplifts, instead of corrupting, misleading, and destroying poor human nature. It teaches us that the one Divine thing in Humanity is Love. It convinces us that when Love attains its apogee, it is not when stooping to sign a contract, but when soaring to an apotheosis.
If the morals of modern society are lax (as Mr. Gladstone premises, and as may possibly be the case), it is precisely because we have elevated marriage, as an institution, as a contract, and have lowered the standard of conjugal love; it is because there has come, following man’s conventional scorn of woman, woman’s revolt against and contempt for man. I do not myself believe that humanity has suffered in the least from the clear line of rationalism; I do believe that it has suffered, and is still suffering, from the miasma of moral superstition. I have no respect whatever for the Marriage Contract, for any contract, per se. I want first to limn the character of the contracting parties, and their physical and spiritual relation to each other. When asthmatic January weds buxom May I know the wedding-bells are being rung by the Devil. When two mistaken souls embrace in the sanctuary, and discover sooner or later that Nature never meant them to mingle into one, I say, “Tear that blundering contract; put the poor creatures back to back, and let them march, far as the ends of earth, from one another.” When one soul turns apart in cold disdain, and another soul vainly tries to draw it back, I think “all this is hopeless—say the sad word, Farewell.” For unless a union of souls is consecrated by Love, that union is an embrace of dead branches on two withering trees. Shall the light and the dew and the pure air fall on neither—and for ever? Set the trees asunder, and each may grow; the eglantine shall come to one and the woodbine to the other, and both may become green and glad in the garden of the World.
True Marriage, indeed, is but the symbol (beautiful, like all symbols of things spiritual) of which the reality is Love. But reason teaches us, experience warns us, that there may be a symbol for things bodily as well as one for things spiritual. To the great majority of human beings the marriage contract means no more than a pledge to be kind and faithful, to resist temptation, to fulfil gently and affectionately the duties of the household. Such a contract is excellent, and suffices for the needs of large classes of the community; but surely there is nothing in its nature to warrant the assumption that it cannot be broken, if by no slighter cause, at least by the death of the individual. Out of the body it grew, and it perishes with the body. Love had little to do with it, indeed nothing; for Love is of the Soul.
I have no space, at least now, to traverse the whole ground of an argument which Mr. Gladstone carefully confines to the region of orthodox belief. The Dome of Heaven is wider than that of St. Peter’s or St. Paul’s, and the Bible of Humanity is broader even than the Old and New Testaments and the whole library of the Christian Fathers. It is sad, yet beautiful, in this nineteenth century, in the era of religious freedom and moral emancipation, to behold a great and good man gazing mildly backwards on the fairylands of Palestine and Judæa, and in order to find some vanished star of Love, waving aside such cloudy apparitions as the countless wives and concubines of Solomon. Most strange of all it is to be told at the present period of social despair, that a Man or a Woman has only one solitary stake for happiness, and that, although the bride is a Faustina, or the bridegroom a Trimalchio-Cæsar, the Marriage Contract is nevertheless eternal!—Yours truly,
London, Dec. 15, 1889.
Changes in the version published in The Coming Terror:
‘noblest hearts’ changed to ‘bottom of one of the kindest hearts’
‘our great leader’ changed to ‘this great leader’
‘Christian science’ changed to ‘human Science’
‘in the name of Christian inspiration’ changed to ‘in the name of human inspiration’
‘very little effect on human nature’ changed to ‘very little effect on human knowledge’
‘limits of a newspaper letter.’ changed to ‘limits of a brief letter.’
‘I must, therefore, leave those thousands of your readers who disputed whether Marriage was a Failure, to decide for themselves whether it should be everlasting.’ - sentence omitted
‘commit in lawful marriage an innocent and pitiful wrong.’ changed to ‘commit in lawful marriage an innocent and pitiful adultery.’
‘the clear line of rationalism’ changed to ‘the clear laws of Rationalism’
‘I want first to limn the character’ changed to ‘I want first to know the character’
‘It is sad, yet beautiful, in this nineteenth century,’ changed to ‘It is sad, yet pitiful, in this nineteenth century,’ ]
The Daily Telegraph (17 December, 1889 - p.5)
IS THE MARRIAGE CONTRACT ETERNAL?
TO THE EDITOR OF “THE DAILY TELEGRAPH.”
SIR—In discussing the question whether or not a man and woman who, by publicly going through the marriage ceremony, according to Christian prescriptions and rites, agree to live together thereafter in community of feeling and interest, conclude a contract as indestructible as matter itself, there is little or nothing whereupon to base argument besides mere human opinion. This is the case with respect to all questions having relation to an after life. They are not susceptible of being settled by demonstration or proof; no facts are forthcoming in connection with them; they can only suggest conjecture or generate opinion. Now the opinion of one intelligent person is of no greater value to mankind at large than that of another, if neither be founded on grounds more solid than those laid down by dogma, tradition, or sentiment. Dogma itself, by which Œcumenical Councils, for instance, have for many centuries past professed their capacity to settle questions respecting which no human being has ever yet really known anything, or obtained any trustworthy information whatsoever—dogma is only a consensus of opinion arrived at by a number of men for certain purposes in which they are commonly interested. How much more directly they are guided by expedience than by conviction was shown with sufficient clearness by the result of the last council, many of whose members, having energetically opposed the promulgation of the Infallibility Dogma throughout the Œcumenical debates and proceedings, finished by recording their votes in its favour. Nobody in his senses supposes that these eminent prelates, learned, intellectual men of ripe years and matured judgment, changed their opinions through the effect upon their minds of controversial argument or even of supernatural revelation, specially vouchsafed to them for the correction of their errors. Not a bit of it. They yielded to Papal pressure. It was urged upon them that, by dissenting from the dogma, they would create a scission in the bosom of the Roman Church, thereby practically stultifying its pretensions to perfect unity. This appeared to them a greater evil than promulgating a dogma in which they did not believe; so they plumped for infallibility almost to a man, and the dogma came out fully endorsed by some dozens of bishops, who notoriously regarded it as an absurdity.
In all probability no two men of approximately equal brain-power, educational training, and intellectual culture, entertain exactly identical opinions upon any speculative subject appealing to imagination and sympathy, rather than to the logical faculty. With regard to such matters, each man who is capable of thinking thinks for himself, and his thoughts are the outcome, so to speak, of his own particular mental individuality. When, therefore, Mr. Gladstone tells us that the marriage-tie is eternally indissoluble, we say to ourselves: “That is Mr. Gladstone’s opinion, doubtless carefully thought out and conscientiously pronounced; unquestionably interesting, because it sets forth with luminous distinctness the conclusion to which half a century’s felicitous personal experience of matrimony, combined with a steadfast belief in the assumption that certain so-called Fathers of the Church were divinely inspired, has conducted one of the most powerful and versatile intellects of this or any other age. But it is only Mr. Gladstone’s opinion after all. We see already that another acute and profound thinker differs from it. So, no doubt, do thousands of other men of more than average ability, whose faith in the essential principles of Christianity is as fervent as that of Mr. Gladstone himself, but who regard marriage as a human, not a Divine or even exclusively ecclesiastical institution.”
That members of the Roman Catholic Church should agree with Mr. Gladstone as to the perpetuity of the marriage contract and the inadmissibility of divorce is readily comprehensible. From their point of view marriage is a sacrament, and as such peculiarly hallowed. It can only be revoked by their supreme ecclesiastical authority, whom they regard as God’s immediate vicegerent upon earth, and who exercises his power of annulment very charily. They are of opinion that no human law can dissolve an union sanctified by the Church. For them the whole question of divorce is settled, beyond doubt or dispute, by the sentence of their marriage-service commencing “Quos Deus conjunxit.” We Protestants—a vast number of us, at least—accord a more liberal interpretation to these words, which, translated into the vernacular, form a part of our own matrimonial ritual. It appears to us that if married persons manifestly violate the solemn obligations to the Church, as well as to one another, which they have vowed to fulfil, the Church is not bound to insist upon their living together “until death does them part,” in conditions altogether different from those to which it ties them down, before consenting to pronounce them man and wife—one in flesh and spirit. Of course, there is nothing so beautiful in life, or even in poetry, as the idea of the perfect fusion of two souls for all time; the theory that for every man living there exists one particular woman providentially intended to complement his entity, and vice versa. To all men and women of noble natures and lofty inspirations the realisation of this beautiful ideal should be a paramount object, to be steadfastly aimed at and worked for during youth, and to be faithfully and lovingly “lived up to” throughout the married state. That this absolute, life-long psychical union is rarely realised is due to human imperfection, and to the complicated character of that marvellous combination of qualities—intellectual, moral, and physical—which is requisite to bring it about and sustain it. The eternity of the marriage-contract is a tender and fascinating notion, which cannot fail to recommend itself to every poetic imagination. Faith itself, informed by reason, might accept it as a possibility, if marriage itself—considered as a mundane institution—afforded a fair amount of satisfactory evidence that those who enter into it do so mainly seeking to effect a fusion of two souls into one, and that their choice of one another is guided—let us say in one case of every hundred—by mutual study of character, resulting in the conviction that each of them has really found his or her eternal complement in the other. This happy consummation, however, is proved by every man’s experience to be a rare exception to the rule of careless selection, prompted by motives far less ethereal than the desire to wed kindred souls for ever.—I am, Sir, yours obediently,
London, Dec. 16.
The Yorkshire Post (17 December, 1889 - p.4)
Mr. Robert Buchanan maintains that the marriage contract is not eternal, and tells Mr. Gladstone—with a deal of periphrases and seeming respect, it is true—that it he says the contrary he does not know what he is talking about. Mr. Gladstone’s own marriage has been so happy that he must have imagined everybody else’s is or ought to be the same, thereby, in Mr. Buchanan’s language, “forgetting the conditions of human nature.” Mr. Buchanan invites those thousands who took part in the Daily Telegraph controversy, “Is Marriage a Failure?” to draw the pen once more and decide whether, in spite of Mr. Gladstone, the Fathers, the Church of Rome, and (some may think) the Bible, the marriage tie should under any and every conceivable circumstances be everlasting. The invitation, if responded to, will be productive of a much bigger boom than the Telegraph has been trying to work up during the dull season over the question of justice to workwomen. Mr. Buchanan has no doubt whatever on the subject himself. If Asthmatic January marries Buxom May. or a Soulful body marries a Soul-less, then the contract becomes invalid and should be dissolved, for Mr. Buchanan knows that the wedding bells are rung by that very objectionable personage whose name we are as naturally loth to mention as Mr. Gladstone is to mention Mr. Chamberlain’s. Copying Mr. Gladstone’s methods, we should say it begins with a “D” and ends with an “l.”
Aberdeen Evening Express (17 December, 1889 - p.2)
MR GLADSTONE’S VIEWS ON DIVORCE.
Mr Robert Buchanan writes a letter to the “Daily Telegraph” in reply to the article by Mr Gladstone on divorce. Mr Buchanan says Mr Gladstone’s appeal to Christian documents, his erudite citation of the Christian fathers to prove a point which can only be established by Christian science, may be gently set aside for the present as irrelevant. Surely that Protestantism which Mr Gladstone loves so well decided long ago that human conscience is superior to any constituted authority, and surely also free thought, the heir male of Protestantism, has convinced us at last that knowledge is antecedent to, and more supreme than, the domination of any documents. To the great majority of human beings the marriage contract means no more than a pledge to be kind and faithful, to resist temptation, to gently and affectionately fulfil the duties of the household. Such a contract is excellent, and suffices for the needs of large classes of the community; but surely there is nothing in its nature to warrant the assumption that it cannot be broken, if by no slighter cause, at least be the death of the individual.
The Daily Telegraph (18 December, 1889 - p.3)
IS THE MARRIAGE CONTRACT ETERNAL?
TO THE EDITOR OF “THE DAILY TELEGRAPH.”
SIR—The basis of the idea of perpetuity applied to marriage is that it differs from all other contracts. It is hallowed by the most sacred feelings of men’s and women’s hearts; it is endeared by the love of children and the ties of home; it is ennobled by the readiness of each to endure pain or sacrifice pleasure in order to secure the happiness of the other. It is, therefore, higher and holier than any other agreement or any other partnership. But Mr. Gladstone’s argument seems influenced to some extent by the fact that it is a Church sacrament, and that this blessing of the priest gives the union its especial claim to eternal maintenance. The words used in the service, “Those whom God hath joined let no man put asunder,” emphasise this view of matrimony. Let us examine this plea more closely.
If the words “God hath joined” refer exclusively to a rite performed by a priest or minister, then some men and women are not married at all in the sacred sense. Scotchmen are generally considered a religious people, yet many of them have been “joined together” by their own declarations attested by a layman. In such cases there was no “vow before God,” as Mr. Gladstone calls it, but a statement sufficiently clear from a legal point of view. Does he contend that a man may break a marriage if he does not invoke the Deity at the time, or does not demand the blessing of a minister or priest, but must regard as indissoluble or sacred a ceremony confirmed by ecclesiastical presence or sanction? If so, he differs from Roman law and the Church itself. According to ancient practice both in Pagan Rome and in the primitive Church the essence of a marriage was the consent of both parties to it; the priest was a witness to that consent, and added his blessing. The vows attained no additional binding force in conscience because of the sacred edifice or the ordained rite; they were held equally binding if the man and woman were forced by circumstances to dispense with functions of the priest, though, as a matter of discipline, they were afterwards ordered to fulfil them. If an unfrocked priest married a couple the union was good. If two prohibited persons intermarried they were held to be man and wife, although penance was imposed. This was the view of the Church itself, which generally exalts its own offices. The higher conscience of man takes the same ground. It accords with custom, feeling, and reverence for the Supreme Being that something especially sacred should be associated with the grave and solemn decision of a man and a woman to bind themselves together for life in sickness and in health, through pain, poverty, or disaster. Hence the call upon the services of religion. But it is not the Church that makes the marriage—it is the firm resolve of both to be true to one another through life to death. Abraham Lincoln, dedicating the great graveyard at Gettysburg, where thousands of Federal soldiers were buried, said, in one of the finest pieces of oratory known to the English tongue: “It is not we who dedicate this ground. They dedicated it by their deeds.” So it is not the Church that makes a marriage sacred; it is the reciprocal trust and love of two true hearts. When that is present the union is consecrated, not otherwise. Vows before God are not made only in churches or chapels; God is with us when we make such resolutions or pledges in the secrecy of our own rooms, and these are sacred to a man of conscience, though no minister has heard them, and no priest has given his blessing. The Church simply steps in to invoke a benediction on the love already alight in the hearts of both.
It is clear from the conditions which attend it that this duty of the Church is simply official and perfunctory—registering the fact, not making it. The clergyman has no option. He may see a dotard of eighty leading to the altar a girl of eighteen, who has sold herself for money or a title, or a position, or a home. The Church implores a blessing and solemnises the marriage. A profligate woman of forty, attracting men by her very vices, may fascinate a silly boy of twenty-one and capture him as a husband. The Church lends its aid, and speaks of the ill-mated couple as “those whom God hath joined.” We know that it is not so in these cases—that mercenary motives, or sensuality, or caprice, or the faltering of a weak will has led up to the unholy union. Where, then, is the sacredness said to belong to all marriages performed before a priest or in a church or chapel? It is obvious that the Church itself cannot make holy what is essentially based on bad motives, and which in some cases is less sacred, not more, than an agreement for service or hire.
I therefore contend that, while marriage honestly undertaken is a serious and solemn contract, intended to be for life and not to be lightly dissolved, it is not in itself essentially sacred. All depends on the circumstances. The law of England therefore wisely steps in to permit of separation in some cases and of complete divorce in others. If the husband and wife find their tempers utterly incompatible, if the home is a daily scene of strife, then without any infidelity on either side it may be wise to permit them to live apart, especially if they agree as to the disposal of the children, if any. But there are graver reasons that seem to me to justify entire divorce. If the wife runs away with another man, is the husband to be doomed to solitude or sin all his life because he once made a terrible mistake? If a woman is finally deserted by a faithless husband, who openly lives with another woman, is she also to be denied release?
It is said that, independently of the high ground of a sacred vow, expediency dictates that all marriages should be indissoluble. This can only be tested by facts. Now in the Latin countries, where the Church of Rome has its greatest power, the marriage tie has been for years absolutely indissoluble. Yet what have been the results? It is notorious, from the literature and the lives of Italians, Spaniards, and Frenchmen, that they do not respect the marriage tie. The hero of their thousands of tales is the lover who deceives a husband, the heroine a wife who betrays her lord. The favourite boast of a Frenchman is the number of married women who have loved him. Conjugal infidelity is written plain in the fiction, the drama, the journalism, and the literature of all the Latin lands. And this result is distinctly traceable to the absence of divorce. The Lothario is safe because he cannot be forced to marry his victim. In France during the last few years there has been a change in the law, but this has been too recent to have any great influence on literature. It has had some effect on life, according to recent observers. Profligate men and vicious women have, it is said, become more cautious, as they have found that wronged wives or betrayed husbands can have their revenge in divorce.
The opposite extreme to indissolubility is presented in some American States, where marriages are too easily dissolved. It appears to me that in England we hit the happy mean. Our marriages are meant to be for life; but if, through grave offences, the home is broken up, we allow divorce with due precautions.
Mr. Gladstone attacks the Act of 1857, and speaks of it as if it were the origin of evil. Now, in strict law, there were no English divorces before that Act, for the special Acts of Parliament simply declared particular marriages null and void. But it came to the same thing. Divorce was then a luxury reserved for the rich—a poor man must cling to his wife, a wealthy man could get rid of his unfaithful spouse. We never heard that Mr. Gladstone denounced that state of the law. Indeed, it was currently reported that when his friend Lord Lincoln sought divorce from his runaway Countess, Mr. Gladstone assisted him both by counsel and personal services. Thus, in fact, since the Reformation of England has not acknowledged the indissolubility of the marriage tie, and the Act of 1857 simply opened to the poor a means of redress already available by opulent Englishmen.
Finally, it is clear that the greatest amount of conjugal fidelity and happiness has been exhibited in those Teutonic countries where the marriage tie has not been regarded as indissoluble, but as a solemn contract not to be broken except for grave cause.
London, Dec. 17.
The Daily Telegraph (19 December, 1889 - p.5)
IS THE MARRIAGE CONTRACT ETERNAL?
TO THE EDITOR OF “THE DAILY TELEGRAPH.”
SIR—I have studied the debate on the above question, so far as it has proceeded in your columns, with peculiar interest. We often hear it charged against the present age that it is given over to the dominion of the actual; that it declines to concern itself with matters beyond the cognisance of the senses; and that it believes truth to be unattainable on any subject save those on which certain positive data of knowledge are antecedently forthcoming. I cannot but think, Sir, that this charge has received a complete and even a noble refutation in the controversy which your able and earnest correspondents are carrying on. It is, if I may say so, a controversy the parties to which have chivalrously agreed to dispense with any data whatsoever; while their common indifference to the fact that no definite conclusion can possible be arrived at by either of them attests their lofty superiority to the petty vanity of contending for argumentative victory. A discussion of this kind is an exercise after my own heart, and I shall take it as a great kindness on your part, Sir, if you will permit me to make a brief contribution to it.
The question, as I understand it, is whether the marriage contract concluded between a man and woman on this earthly sphere holds good or not in a later and higher state of existence. Mr. Gladstone, as we know, is very confidently of opinion that it does; and Mr. Gladstone, unlike your correspondents, who do not admit the binding force of the Conciliar pronouncements and Patristic dicta to which he appeals, has undoubtedly certain data of his own to go upon. It is upon the decrees and declarations aforesaid that he mainly rests his case, and that they have satisfied his own judgment is a fact which I can accept with as ready a belief as will always be commanded in my mind by the statement that anything has convinced him of anything else. But even as regards Mr. Gladstone’s conviction on this point I must be permitted to observe, if a professional criticism may be forgiven me, that it has been arrived at by him in defiance of the legal rule which insists on the production of “the best evidence” obtainable. For he would admit, I suppose, that the testimony of Councils and Fathers must yield in point of authority to the plain words of Scripture, and the only pages which can be cited from Holy writ as having any bearing on this question undoubtedly fail to lend the slightest support to his contention. The recorded answer of the Founder of Christianity to the interrogatory addressed to him as to the spiritual status of the woman who had married several different husbands assuredly does not help the case of those who affirm the eternity of the marriage tie. If anything, it goes to show that the sublunary relation of wedlock, in that it cannot be contracted in heaven (“There shall be neither marrying nor giving in marriage”) is not recognised in the celestial world at all; and that the severance of the union between body and soul, in fact, operates also as a dissolution of the marriage bond. If, however, this apparent declaration of Scripture against the post-mundane continuance of the matrimonial contract be regarded as “void for uncertainty”; and, if further, as I think will be agreed, the authority of Councils and Fathers on such a point as this would be generally rejected by the Protestant world, we must endeavour to arrive at an answer to the question by way of “the reason of the thing.” In other words, we must ask ourselves whether, having regard to the purposes for which the institution of marriage exists, there is any rational ground for supposing that its incidents and obligations will be perpetuated in a future state of being.
Now the purposes of that institution have been set forth in complete and even embarrassing fulness of detail in the office prescribed in the Anglican Prayer-book for the solemnisation of matrimony; and without here enumerating them, I think it is safe to say that they are none of them objects which can be conceived as material, if even possible, to be attained in a spiritual state of existence. What the conditions of that existence may be is, in itself, indeed, a point of so much obscurity that we cannot with confidence predict even the perpetual association of those who have been united on earth; so that to affirm dogmatically that husband and wife will not only be ascended there but will be associated in the continuing relation of husband and wife, is an even bolder flight of imaginative inference. Assuming, however, for the sake of argument, that the eternity of the marriage contract may be affirmed as a general proposition, we are still a long way from being able to turn the abstract truth to any practical account. We are confronted to begin with by the difficulty of determining what is a valid marriage, within the meaning of the above proposition. What a valid marriage is in the mundane sense of the term it is easy enough to say. The conditions of its validity are prescribed by the law of the country in which it is contracted, and these conditions being fulfilled, it is valid for that country at any rate, if for no other; and the parties to it acquire there the legal status of husband and wife, with all the reciprocal rights thereto appertaining. But the question of its “transcendental validity” is one upon which no conscientious lawyer, however wide his experience, would venture, even under the temptation of the highest fee, to pronounce a confident opinion. If he did, he might quite conceivably find his view at direct variance with that of an ecclesiastical expert—presumably a higher authority—on the same question. We know, for instance, that the Catholic Church refuses, wherever it has the power of doing so effectively, to recognise a civil marriage. Probably our own High-Churchmen have their doubts of the spiritual efficacy of consent in wedlock unless ratified by the blessing of the Church. Is a marriage contract witnessed only by a registrar eternal? If it is not, the parties to these unions will hereafter be placed in a very anomalous position compared with other English couples ecclesiastically united. If on the other hand the contract is eternal, the emoluments of the registrar are certainly inadequate to the importance of his powers. Nor do we escape our perplexities by rejecting the institution of civil marriage altogether, and pronouncing only those couples to be eternally married whose union has been solemnised by the rites of the Church. For then another question immediately arises. The rites of what Church? Our own Church, as we know, consents to marry parties related to each other in degrees of consanguinity which forbid their marriage, except under Papal dispensation, by the rites of the Catholic Church. Does a marriage contract ratified on such terms in this country possess the attribute of eternity? Can a man eternally marry his deceased wife’s sister in the Australian colonies? Can he contract an eternal marriage in the State of Ohio or Indiana?—where, so far as its mundane incidents are concerned, the matrimonial tie is of a more easily soluble nature than anywhere else in the world. If all these questions are to be answered in the affirmative the irresistible inference must be that the recognition or non-recognition of the eternity of marriage in a future state depends upon the “lex loci contractus.” Yet if that be the case and if the law of the country in which the contract was concluded is recognised in the spiritual world, it seems singularly inconsistent that its law of divorce, which has precisely the same sanction as its marriage law, should not be recognised also. And what provision moreover is to be made for the case of the law being altered after the death of a particular couple, so to give validity to an invalid form of marriage such as that which they had contracted, or vice versa. If the change in the law does not affect them, then the arrangements of the spiritual world in this instance deviate from the principle of following the “;ex loci contractus.” If it does affect them then we have the startling paradox of an eternal relation modified by a temporal enactment. In short, Sir, the whole question so bristles with difficulties that I am glad to feel that the evidence in favour of Mr. Gladstone’s proposition is wholly insufficient to support it—I am, Sir, yours obediently,
London, Dec. 18.
The Daily Telegraph (21 December, 1889 - p.3)
IS THE MARRIAGE CONTRACT ETERNAL?
TO THE EDITOR OF “THE DAILY TELEGRAPH.”
SIR—I entertain no doubt that to the above question affirmative answers will be rendered more frequently by women than by men, for the following reasons: Among women the accepted theory is that “Man’s love is of man’s life a thing apart; ’Tis woman’s whole existence.” When, however, Byron wrote these words, he doubtless had in his mind either an innocent unmarried ingénue, or a passionate, loving, sinful woman, like the “Julia” of his “Don Juan.” I, Sir, am neither one nor the other, but simply an ordinary, everyday, humdrum, prosaic, commonplace sort of a contented wife, who have long ago realised that the love created in anticipation by an idle girl’s idle fancy is nothing more than a coinage of the brain, which will not stand the rough strain of married experience for many weeks. In other words, the eager, enthusiastic dream of love felt before marriage by a woman for the man to whom she is about to give her hand, and as she supposes her heart, is necessarily and inevitably one of the most transitory and evanescent of passions. It is succeeded, swiftly succeeded, by friendship and respect or by total indifference, and happy are the wives, and still happier the husbands, in whom friendship and respect for each other are the results of experience. For it is only after marriage that men and women are alike taught that perfect identity between two human beings is a dream, an impossibility. “Not e’en the tenderest heart and next our own Knows half the reasons why we smile or sigh,” writes Keble, and my own settled conviction as to the human rather than the divine nature of marriage arises from the certainty felt by me that in the “many mansions” of Eternity the earthly relations of husband to wife and of wife to husband will not make them sharers of a common or identical lot in the next world. Personally, and speaking with all humility, I believe that the future existence of my husband will be higher than mine, and that our spiritual no less than our conversational intercourse will for ever be terminated by death. That, however, does not prevent my striving in every way that I can to raise myself to the highest level that my abilities permit me to aim at.
To speak disrespectfully of love is, I know, high treason in the eyes of the young, and especially the young of my own sex. There are few, however, who will fail to find how soon the love is lost in the husband no less than in the wife, and that all that remains to each is to win the friendship and esteem of the other. Women are naturally more constant than men, and must make up their minds to win the friendship of their husbands by banishing jealousy. It is, I know, not an easy part for a good and faithful wife to play; but my experience of life is that to avoid shipwreck of happiness, absence of jealousy and suspicion from the wife’s heart must be feigned even if it cannot be felt. For myself I have not been much tried in this respect, but I have seen scores of wives who estranged their husbands and drove them into sin by resenting what were at first harmless flirtations. I own that I do not and cannot ascend to the altitude of Mr. Gladstone’s estimate of the sanctity of the marriage vow when I see how often it is violated and set at naught by men and women whom I meet daily. Marriage is a contract jumped into rather than deliberately entered upon by nineteen-twentieths of those who perpetrate it. It is no more immortal in my opinion than the ridiculous garb invented by milliners in which the hapless bride is led to the altar, to be “the cynosure of neighbouring eyes.”
I wonder whether any of those who may chance to read these words have ever come across one of the strongest books ever written by a female hand—“A Vindication of the Rights of Woman,” by Mary Wollstonecraft. It was published about a century since, when Rousseau’s primitive views prevailed that the whole tendency of female education should be directed to one point—to render women pleasing. Upon this pernicious doctrine Mary Wollstonecraft falls with beak and claw. “Let me reason,” she writes, “with the supporters of this opinion who have any knowledge of human nature. Do they imagine that marriage can eradicate the habitude of a life? The woman who has only been taught to please will soon find that her charms are but oblique sunbeams, and that they cannot have much effect on her husband’s heart when they are seen every day, or when their summer-glow is gone and past. Will she then have sufficient native energy to look into herself for comfort, and to cultivate his dormant faculties? Is it not more rational to expect that she will try to please other men, and in the pleasurable emotions raised by the expectation of new conquests endeavour to forget the mortification her love or pride has received? When the husband ceases to be a lover—and the time will inevitably and swiftly come—her desire of pleasing will grow languid or become a spring of bitterness; and Love, the most evanescent of all passions, will give place to jealousy or vanity. Why must the female mind be tainted by coquettish arts to gratify the sensualist and prevent love from subsiding into friendship or compassionate tenderness when there are not qualities over which friendship can be built?”
Regard for your space, Sir, forbids my picking out more of Mary Wollstonecraft’s gems, and subjecting them to your readers. I can but recommend them, in conclusion, to get the book, and with it to study Marivaux’s inimitable essay, “Qu’est que c’est qu’une Femme?” The moral of both is that husbands and wives pass alone through the gate of death, and have no engagements or interdependencies beyond the grave. It will do no harm to either, in my opinion, to keep on repeating—and to act through life in accordance with—Pascal’s sentiment, “Je mourrai seul.”—Yours obediently,
A CONTENTED WIFE AND MOTHER.
Lancaster-gate, Dec. 17.
The Daily Telegraph (24 December, 1889 - p. 2)
IS THE MARRIAGE CONTRACT ETERNAL?
TO THE EDITOR OF “THE DAILY TELEGRAPH.”
SIR—I regret for many reasons that your correspondent “Realist,” in commenting upon the subject of Marriage and Divorce, has imparted into the discussion that polemical bias which so often sets honest arguers by the ears. This is no question of Œcumenical Councils, of Papal influences, of Infallibility, of Agnostic Cardinals; it can be debated, I think, without awakening the religious prejudices of any class of believers. There are many Roman Catholics, sound to the core who are in sympathy with the intellectual progress of mankind; nay, there have been far-seeing and saintly souls, even at the Vatican. The hope and moral salvation of the world lie now in the fusion of the creeds into one High Creed of Humanity, and the healing of the world lies in its thousand nameless saints. Whatever my creed may be, I bow my head before Father Damien and that noble priest—truly, priest of God—who during the recent trouble which threatened our whole social system stepped bravely forward and proved the one infallibility—that of Goodness. Let us not drift backward to these old charges and counter-charges—these battles of the books, these vilifications of one creed by another. It is not merely because he is a dogmatic Christian, but because he is a thinker open to all the gentle influence of spiritual forces, that Mr. Gladstone has become the champion of marriage as an eternal contract, never to be broken save at the risk of moral destruction. There can be no doubt that he would think as he thinks on this subject even if he were as free a rationalist as Mr. John Morley. It is his temperament, not merely his religion, which makes him regard the marriage bond as a holy thing. The documents in which he believes seem to verify his human instinct, that is all.
The history of the Churches is one thing; the history of the Christian ideal is another. Baffled for centuries by the adamantine and indestructible logic framed by the Apostles, from John downwards—those Titans who scaled the very walls of heaven, and only just failed in their attempt to set the Cross above the seat of Jehovah—religion has at last resolved to seek its premises, not in any religious dogma, not in any metaphysical chimera, not in any crude physical discovery, but in the highest science of all, that of human sentiment. This science—a product of all moral and religious inspiration—has established as one of its cardinal principles that nothing is really holy which conflicts either with the natural instincts or with the verified insight of human nature. It has rejected the dogma of Eternal Punishment because that dogma is repellent to common justice and common sense, and it has rejected the no less dreary rationalistic dogma that man is only one of the beasts that perish, because that dogma too, though promulgated so eagerly by the philosophic undertaker, is opposed at every point to common instinct. It utterly refuses, also, in the light of social knowledge, to regard marriage as invariably and essentially sacramental. To accept a sacrament of any kind a man or a woman must be purified, must be “born again.” Beautiful, indeed, is marriage when the recipients of its happiness can accept it as a sacrament. How many do so? For how many is to do so possible? To the great majority of human beings, love is (as I said in my first letter) of the body. Now the time is long past when the science of human sentiment is content to assume that man is a spiritual being only, without flesh and blood, without passions, without animal instincts, without those corporeal attributes which are often the beauty, and now and then the glory, of humanity. By his mouth is he fed, by his appetites is his life conditioned. “Carnal, carnal!” cried St. Simeon of the Pillar, and so cry the saint’s emasculated modern descendants. But the very spirit of Christian theology asserts in its supremest sacrament that flesh and blood may be themselves divine. During the fierce asceticism of the early centuries of Christianity (see the great historian of Rationalism, passim) every human sentiment, every natural affection, was repudiated as carnal, as emanating from the spirit of evil. Fathers, to prove their spirituality, dashed out the brains of their little children; sons, to prove their purity, turned in loathing from their own mothers. To be indifferent to every human tie, scornful of every human impulse, was to be certain of the hall-mark of salvation.
Well, that is all over. There is no danger to poor human nature in that direction. Science, which is only Religion veiled, has taught us to reverence the abodes of flesh in which we dwell, has proved to us that, so surely as we desecrate them, so surely shall the house of life fall in ruins about our ears. We believe now that there is sweetness and wholesomeness in every human function, that neither asceticism (which degraded the body of man) nor impurity (which became a rock of wretchedness for women) is necessarily holy in itself. Purity, like Love, attains its apogee when the soul fulfils, through the perfect organisation of natural passions and instincts, the sane and lovely laws of life.
As I write these words, there bounces in upon me, flushed and fluent, the “Wife and Mother” who has told you, in resonant periods, that the highest bond of love is all nonsense, and that she is content, for her part, to take her husband as he is (a very fragile specimen of humanity), and to shake hands with him for ever at the gates of Death. Now this frank, honest, “dish-and-all-swallowing” matron pleases me well, as the rooks in the rookery and the cattle in the fields please me. Right honestly she admits that the father of her children is a cleverer being than herself, and must therefore have plenty of rope to wander astray with.
“Oh, naughty, naughty world!” she cries,
“Men are a dear immoral set!”
And flirts her fan and winks her eyes,
And gaily turns a pirouette!
She is, doubtless, one of those purely beautiful creatures who have made men what they are. Talking the other day with a friend of fair intelligence, I was assured by him that Man, being an intellectual being, was independent of the moral restrictions incumbent on Woman, who is not intellectual. Men of genius more particularly, my friend averred, were to be allowed to do exactly as they pleased. The question of the relative intelligence of men and women is too long to be discussed here; but in a remarkable work recently published, Dr. Campbell’s book on the “Causation of Disease,” the evidence will be found fairly weighed. I should say myself, from the little I have observed, that the average man is in no respect superior intellectually to the average woman, while the names of Mary Somerville, of George Sand, of Mrs. Browning, and of many others, are sufficient to establish that women of genius are tall and strong enough to stand beside men of genius now and for ever. But genius—so-called—is to me a very unknown quantity. I deny that it has any privileges whatever, or that it can make any laws for itself outside the laws of love and sympathy by which the highest and the lowest live. So far as this very question of marriage is concerned, our men and women of genius have often got into serious trouble—not, I think, because they have erred in their interpretation of its sanctions, but because they have generally, in the face of public opinion, overlooked the contract and searched everywhere for the sacrament. Nothing proves so completely the necessity of a science of human sentiment as opposed to the still lingering dogmas of non-human spirituality, than the conduct of men like Shelley and women like George Sand. Twenty-fold intellectual power would not save them from condemnation. Unless Genius is a synonym for Goodness, it is a sham and a phantom; and Goodness, the soul of human sentiment, believes that no intellectual power whatever can justify the shameless profanation of any one human function, the cruel rending asunder of any one human tie.
The point upon which I am now touching is more important than it may seem at first sight. For many centuries man has justified his infamies to woman on the score of his intellectual superiority, while individual men of genius have considered themselves entitled—on the score of their flatulent “inspiration”—to base their pyramid of greatness on broken hearts. Lacking the temper of hero-worship, and having little or no reverence for mere cleverness, I follow the records of certain famous lives with much the same feeling that I peruse the “Newgate Calendar,” and I could, with little or no compunction, see Rousseau whipped at the cart’s tail, or Alexander Pope put in the pillory. The right of indiscriminate and limitless aberration claimed for men of genius is claimed, in most matters of conduct, for men generally. Common sense recognises neither claim. If his artistic gift does not render a man saner and wiser it is a mere false counter, worth nothing. If the superior cleverness claimed by men over women does not enable them to keep their souls saner and their bodies purer it is only the cleverness of the parrot or the ape. Physiologists and sociologists are very fond of telling us that since there is a radical difference between the two sexes it is absurd to lay down laws of conduct for both alike. While the wife sits at home among her children, the husband is free to amuse himself at his own sweet will. It is indeed in the very nature of things that, to quote the vulgarism, he “may do as he darn pleases.” The majority of women accept this condition as inevitable. Even women of genius are found ready to proclaim the superior intellectual power, and the greater moral freedom of men. And thus, in the very land where a gray modern apostle proclaims that marriage is eternal, we find the eternal mockery of the two meanest of all privileges, that of intelligence and that of sex; we find that, to be a little cleverer than one’s neighbour is only to be a little meaner, a little fouler both in mind and appetite; we find that to be a man, hailed as the highest of creatures, is only to exist on the same plane of passions as the beast. No wonder the world is getting tired of the Christian ideal, of the faith which recognises only one privilege—that of truth, of goodness, of purity, both personal and spiritual. No wonder the laughter echoes from club to club at the mere notion that the matrimonial farce, the humour of which consists of jokes about male hypocrisy and female toleration, is to be played on for ever!
In asking whether marriage is an eternal contract, we mean by the word “eternal” simply the period of moral consciousness. Whether or not we believe in eternal life is neither here nor there. It matters little whether a soul is married or single when it has been absorbed into such abstract states of practical nonentity as the “Immanence” of Spinoza, the “Will” of Schopenhauer, or the “Unconscious” of Hartmann. Marriage, be it contract or sacrament, is a relation only possible to a state of individuality. The whole question, therefore, narrows itself thus—so long as we are conscious creatures, whether in this world or another, have we the right to marry a second time? I have answered that question in the affirmative, while asserting that, when marriage is really and absolutely sacramental, it must of its own nature be permanent. The fusion of two perfectly united souls lasts for ever, survives all bodily conditions. This, I am aware, is regarded by the world in general, and by your merry “wife and mother” in particular, as the very madness of sentimental optimism. Well, it is the optimism of the science I am upholding, that of human sentiment. Just as surely as the moment of supreme insight comes with the sacrament of death, touching our tearful eyelids with the euphrasy of glorious pain, so does the moment of supreme marriage come with the sacrament of love. There are men who can stand in a death-chamber and see only the stone mask and the shadow of mysterious dread. There are men who can come fresh from Belshazzar’s Feast—fresh from the very handwriting on the wall—and put on over their uncleanness and their impurity the white robes of the bridegroom. For such men marriage may serve as a contract; it is all they need for self-protection, all society needs for its security. To tie such creatures by a sacrament is monstrous; they are incapable by very temperament of understanding its nature. But, over and above the lower strata of humanity, there exist those who have seen death transfigured and known love unveiled; men and women, many of them, who are stained and fallen, who have experienced endless dishallucinations, who have been in revolt against the conventions, nay even against the very sanctities of society. These men know that love, like death, comes to the soul but once; that love and death may come hand in hand, that once, together. Far, far more beautiful than the sight of a Shelley standing on Harriet Westbrook’s grave, or running from his next wife’s chamber to follow the frisky heels of homebred or foreign ladies, is the picture of poor Byron, besmirched with his own mad sensuality from head to foot, yet still dreaming of the sacrament, the sublime moment, the eternal passion, which never came. The old couple sitting side by side and crooning “John Anderson, my Joe,” as gentle Death opens its arms to receive them, are diviner still. In a few short hours all England will be looking reverently on while the body of Robert Browning is committed to its native dust. The crown and glory of that great man’s life was its consecration to one serene and sacramental passion. Through all these years of loneliness, amid literary detraction or coterie, fume and incense, in the midst of the busy world or out of it, in the silence of his own chamber, Browning listened to that immortal voice which sings of eternal love:
O, lyric Love, half angel and half bird,
And all a wonder and a wild desire!
Thus, for the instruction and beatification of humanity, the supremely great remained the supremely good, and in his great song his great goodness, completed in a transfiguration of Love and Death, eternally survives. It is better, perhaps, even in these days of unbelief, to listen to the song of the poet than to the purr of the contented matron, who looks cheerfully forward to the inevitable moment of saying, “Good bye, old fellow, we’ve got along very comfortably on the whole, and we part on the best of terms.” Poor little matron! Does she really live, or is she only a male cynic masquerading in a petticoat? If she lives I see no reason why she should not be very happy. The legal contract was made for her, and suits her admirably. I see no reason, moreover, why she should not, if occasion offers, renew it just as often as she pleases. The Sacrament of Love is another thing.—I am, yours truly,
17, Cavendish-place, Dec. 20, 1889.
Changes in the version published in The Coming Terror:
‘impurity’ changed to ‘Virginity’
‘non-human’ changed to ‘unhuman’
‘mockery’ changed to ‘parade’
‘meaner’ changed to ‘baser’
‘Christian’ changed to ‘religious’
The two letters in The Coming Terror are followed by a ‘Note on the Preceding: Mr. Gladstone’s Ecclesiastical Essays’ which is available here.]
Are Men Born Free and Equal?
[Another series of letters from The Daily Telegraph, reprinted in The Coming Terror. This time, Buchanan was responding to Professor Huxley’s article, ‘The Natural Inequality of Men’, published in The Nineteenth Century of January 1890.]
The Daily Telegraph (23 January, 1890 - p.8)
ARE MEN BORN FREE AND EQUAL?
TO THE EDITOR OF “THE DAILY TELEGRAPH.”
SIR—No more crowning illustration of the incapacity of the scientific mind to grasp philosophical propositions could possibly be found than the criticism of the Socialistic theories of Rousseau, just published by Professor Huxley in the “Nineteenth Century.” Admirably as he is equipped for the light skirmishing of popular knowledge, Professor Huxley fails altogether to understand the great French idealist, just as surely as he fails, in his perversion of Herbert Spencer, to grasp the meaning of our greatest English philosopher; and, both in the matter of his argument and in the manner of its expression, he exhibits the logical insecurity of the specialist transformed into the dilettante. Great wisdom and insight, attaining to almost prophetic vision, cannot be combated by the random shots of mere intelligence, and all the professor’s cleverness, all his liberal culture, does not save him from the fate of those who criticise great propaganda unsympathetically, and from the outside. So serious a social issue, however, hangs on the advocacy by a distinguished man of retrograde and anti-human political theories, that it may be worth while to point out the fallacy, nay the absurdity, of Professor Huxley’s main contention.
Nothing is easier, as we all know, than to ridicule the extravagances into which Rousseau was carried by his discovery, viá Hobbes and Locke, of the natural equality of men by showing how his splendid imagination ran riot among extraordinarily fanciful pictures of primitive perfection. He was careful, nevertheless, to warn us that these pictures were possibly imaginary and illusory—as science has, indeed, proved them to be—and were rather premonitions of what would be than visions of what had been. When, however, he asserted that men were born free and equal, and that civilisation had destroyed to a perilous extent their natural freedom and equality, he never meant to say—as Professor Huxley makes him say—that the physical and intellectual faculties of individuals were uniform in quality. His thesis was a sane and a sublime one, already recognised in our jurisprudence, that so far as moral rights were concerned, all human beings, by the Law of Nature, stand in the same practical category. Gifts of genius and of insight, although the birthright of individuals, confer no prescriptive rights of moral exemption; they distinguish certain men, as colour and odour distinguish certain flowers, as fleetness and beauty distinguish certain animals, but they do not free the possessors from the ordinary conditions of physical and moral being, to which conditions all men alike are born. Shakespeare the Seer resembles Hodge the boor in all the characteristics of an eating, drinking and sleeping animal, and, further, as a unit in the body political and social. The two are equal by nature in all the fundamental conditions of life, in all the limitations of human vitality; but Rousseau went a great deal further than this. He contended that intellectual culture, or civilisation, so far from necessarily improving the individual man, not unfrequently led to moral deterioration—a monstrous assumption from the point of view of specialists like Professor Huxley, but a perfectly tenable one from the standpoint of those who set instinct and insight above special acquirement. The history of mankind, more particularly the biographies of great men, is full of incidents which establish the paradox that a wise man is frequently a fool, and that a man of strong reasoning power is often a moral weakling. It is questionable, in fact, whether the advance of the race in sociology, in art, in literature, in science, has been accompanied with any real advance of the individual—whether, to put the issue into other words, any amount of personal culture renders a man superior to his fellows in those primary sympathies and affections which condition the lives of the lordliest and the least intelligent. Humanity has doubtless developed in power and knowledge, but individual men remain very much what they have been from the beginning of society. To grasp this point thoroughly and to understand whither the mighty insight of Rousseau was directed, we must understand that in the eyes of the philosopher of Geneva, as in those of the founder of Christian ethics, moral qualities were absolute, while intellectual gifts were merely relative and subsidiary. Let us take, by way of analogy, one day of a great and wise man’s life, and contrast it for a moment with another of a life which is neither great nor wise.
William Wordsworth, Poet and Recluse, gets up in the morning, washes and dresses, and after a walk in his garden, goes in to breakfast. Reads the news from London, and à propos of some new production of Keats or Shelley, avers that it “contains no more poetry than a pint-pot.” Goes for a long walk over the mountains with his sister Dorothy, and being full of matter for a new poem, scarcely perceives that his companion is wearied out and waning in health. Towards afternoon, feels again the pangs of a hungry animal, and returns to feed. Possibly, like his pet terrier, has a little nap after dinner. Wakens, and listens to a little music. In the evening, does his correspondence, and adds a few touches to a manuscript poem. A starry night: he stands at his door and surveys the constellations.Certain fine thoughts flow through his mechanism, as the wind agitating an Æolian harp. Feels convinced that there is a benevolent Personal God, and that, on the whole, it is a very beautiful and excellently regulated world. Prays to the Giver of all Good, and, being tired and sleepy, goes to bed early and sleeps the sleep of the Just.
Now, in all this, as possibly in most of the days of other poets and philosophers, there is nothing, except the power of writing fine poetry, to distinguish Wordsworth from the uneducated mountain Shepherd who lives in the neighbourhood, and who knows only one book—the Bible of his fathers. The Shepherd gets up, washes, dresses, and after driving his flock from the fold to their pasture, either returns to eat or feeds on bread and cheese on the mountain side. He reads no news, but meeting some neighbour, hears the latest gossip from the market town. Spends the day loafing on the mountain, and when he is hungry and thirsty, eats and drinks again. If the weather is fine, has a nap among the heather. Drives home his flock in the evening, and sits down for a smoke among his family. Glances out at the shiny night and feels—or, possibly, does not feel—a certain sense of awe and loneliness. Remembers what his father has taught him, that there is a God up yonder. Prays to that God, and throwing himself down on his humble bed, sleeps the same sleep as his neighbour the poet at Rydal Mount.
These two men have all day fulfilled the same primary functions, and in every process of their day there is more resemblance than divergence; in other words, the preponderance both of action and feeling is in favour of natural equality. “Ah, but,” cries the hero-worshipper, “you have left out the one sign distinguishing one from the other—that of superior intelligence, that of the poetic gift.” I think Wordsworth himself would have been the first to admit that, apart from the accomplishment of written speech, the Shepherd’s insight, sympathy, and affections might have been fully equal to his own; for if the poet of Rydal has taught us anything, it is that the poor and uninstructed, the ignorant of men and books, are among the most beautiful souls of humanity. The gift of song is glorious in a man, as it is in a nightingale, but it does not necessarily make him better as a human being, and certainly does not free him from the weaknesses and necessities of his human inheritance. Being a gift, it belongs rather to God than to himself. It certainly gives him no privilege of moral superiority.
Be that as it may, my illustration may help the reader to understand what Rousseau really meant when he proclaimed the natural equality of human beings. He meant that men are born equal, inasmuch as they are subject to the same laws and entitled to the same advantages. He meant that no man, however powerful, had a right to accept any pleasure which any other man might not receive on the same terms. He meant that worldly knowledge, including book knowledge, is at the best a limited thing, seeing that all man knows is “that nothing can be known.” He meant that class distinctions, class prejudices, class pride, class privileges, are the merest appropriation of unlimited selfishness, infringing the rights of humanity at large. He meant that men would be happier without physical luxury, and purer without intellectual pride. True, in picturing his ideal state he went too far, but, going as far as he did, he reached and he defined the limits of the area of social and political freedom. He attained the apogee of his prophetic life when he wrote the Savoyard Vicar’s Prayer, which embodies the noblest of his teaching, and answers still the innermost yearning of the heart of man.
How far Professor Huxley is from understanding the Religion of Equality may be gathered from several of his own expressions. We already know that, speaking as a scientific specialist, he rejects Mr. Spencer’s masterly definition of absolute political ethics; but he goes farther, and finds nothing absolute in any ethics whatever. No man of philosophic perception could have affirmed that “the equality of men before God is an equality either of insignificance or of imperfection”; no man of political insight could have suggested that universal suffrage is synonymous with laissez faire. Professor Huxley describes himself as among those “who do not care for sentiment and do care for truth,” forgetting that there is no real sentiment which is not a truth’s adumbration, and assuming, in the true spirit of the age, that what is sentimental must necessarily be false. The series of questions with which he cross-examines modern democrats on the thesis that “all men are born free and equal,” is surely a reductio ad absurdum of the quasi-scientific manner. No one ever talked, as he makes his witnesses talk, of “the political status of a new-born child,” no one ever contended that, because freedom is born within the human flesh, it becomes an actual factor before that flesh is conditioned into moral intelligence; but it is when we reach the Professor’s own conclusions that we discover what his derision of equality and freedom really means. His defence of the status quo, of the topsy-turvydom of modern society, of the condition of affairs which gives Jacob all the fruits of the earth and leaves Esau to starve in the wilderness, is founded on the plea of “practical expediency”—a plea on which even Nero might have justified himself to what he termed his conscience in planning the conflagration of Rome. “There is much to be said,” Professor Huxley thinks, echoing poor Carlyle, “for the opinion that force, effectually and thoroughly used, so as to render further opposition hopeless, establishes an ownership which should be recognised as soon as possible!” “For the welfare of society, as for that of individual men,” he continues, “it is surely essential that there should be a statute of limitations in respect of the consequences of wrongdoing!” Surely here we have teaching worthier of Mr. Jonathan Wild than of a popular Professor in a State whose very religion is founded on the à priori assumptions he despises. Science itself should have instructed Professor Huxley, just as surely as Religion does its votaries, that the penalties of wrongdoing are exacted even to the uttermost generation. Is there a statute of limitations to the law of heredity, to the law by which the sins and follies of the fathers are visited upon their children? If no such statute prevails in the physical, why should it do so in the social and political worlds? Only one thing can cure evil, and that is the destruction of it, at any cost, at any sacrifice. So long as it exists it is a canker and a curse. Assume that our social system is founded on wrongdoing—and Professor Huxley has admitted it—by what possible standard of ethics would he keep it permanent? Because it “exists,” and because, since it exists, it is “expedient.” Talk of the “sham sentiment” of Rousseau; it becomes sublime doctrine by the side of the sham reason of his critic, who, while scorning and despising the gospel of laissez faire, in the same breath preachs the essence of that gospel.
In a second letter I will, with your permission, endeavour to explain more fully than is at present possible the ethical standpoint of those propagandists who, in suggesting crucial reforms of our present social and political systems, base their arguments on the absolute principle of the natural freedom and equality of men.—I am, &c.,
17, Cavendish-place, Jan. 15.
In The Coming Terror ‘democrats is changed to ‘revolters’ in the following sentence: ‘The series of questions with which he cross-examines modern democrats on the thesis that “all men are born free and equal,” is surely a reductio ad absurdum of the quasi-scientific manner.’]
The Daily Telegraph (24 January, 1890 - p.5)
MR. BUCHANAN has not yet done with Professor HUXLEY. This is a fact which the readers of the interesting and vivacious letter published yesterday in our columns will doubtless be glad to learn. Already, it is true, he has handled that eminent man with unsparing, some may even think with cruel severity; but there is apparently more—say “another seven dozen”—to come, and the Professor, therefore need not be in a hurry to retire from “the triangles.” If his teaching, as set forth in the recent article in the “Nineteenth Century” which has so excited his castigator’s ire be really, as Mr. BUCHANAN declares it is, “worthier of Mr. JONATHAN WILD than of a popular Professor in a State whose very religion is founded on the à priori assumption he despises,” why, of course, the popular Professor deserves to hear of it again. But, without desiring to stand between the culprit and the flagellant, we confess to a hope that Mr. BUCHANAN’S second letter will, as indeed he seems to promise, be devoted less to the denunciation of his opponent’s views than to the exposition of his own. As his wrath has waxed so hot against Professor HUXLEY for denying in the review-article in question the dogma of the “natural freedom and equality of man,” we may assume that Mr. BUCHANAN himself holds that dogma, though we do not find any actual affirmation of it in his first letter, and the form in which he appears to hold it divests it of all political and even all practical significance whatsoever. ROUSSEAU, according to Mr. BUCHANAN, never meant to say, in asserting the natural freedom and equality of man, what Professor HUXLEY makes him say—that “the physical and intellectual faculties of individuals were uniform in quality.” Nothing so paradoxical. He merely meant to lay down the sane and sublime thesis that, “so far as moral rights were concerned, all human beings by the law of nature stand in the same category.” “Gifts of genius and insight confer no prescriptive rights of moral exemption; they distinguish certain flowers, but they do not free the possessors from the ordinary conditions of physical and moral being, to which conditions all men alike are born.” It will certainly be a surprise to many of us to hear that it was by the enunciation of such harmless truisms as these that ROUSSEAU contributed so powerfully to the overthrow of the “ancien régime.” The more commonly accepted idea is that ROUSSEAU, not content with laying down the harmless proposition that all men have equal “moral rights,” proceeded to erect upon it an elaborate structure of social and political rights, built up from basement to coping-stone, in the loftiest disregard of the fact that the so-called right to be or to do this or that, without the effective power of being or doing it, either at all, or as well as some other person or persons having an equal right to do it, is the merest “words and wind.”
“Moral qualities,” urges Mr. BUCHANAN, “are absolute, while intellectual gifts are merely relative and subsidiary.” We cordially agree, and we object to nothing in Mr. BUCHANAN’S statements, except his implied suggestion that it needed the “mighty insight” of ROUSSEAU to discover a truth to which every honest man, and indeed many a dishonest man also, gives practical recognition every day of his life. If the world owes any fuller appreciation of this truth to ROUSSEAU, its debt is due, not so much to his “mighty insight” as to his scoundrelly example. The peculiar “moral qualities” displayed by him in punctually lodging in the Foundling Hospital the children born to him of TERESA LE VASSEUR have not been reduced to unimportance in the estimation of posterity by the splendour of huis intellectual gifts. And, if only as much as a drop of honour had gone to the gallon of sentiment in his composition, he would have refrained, humanity apart, from so outrageously ridiculous a commentary on his theory that all men are “born free and equal” as he gave mankind for ever in the fate of those unhappy brats, congratulating themselves, we suppose, in the “basket” at the door of the Enfants Trouvés, on their freedom from the embarrassing attentions of maternity, and their equality with all other children who happen to have been deserted by their parents. It was superfluous, we need hardly say, for Mr. BUCHANAN to call ROUSSEAU as a witness to the primacy of the moral virtues, the more so as it is evident that, though the truth is an all-important one as regards the individual, the domestic, and, in a certain very limited sense, the social life, it is of hardly any importance at all in its relation either to the political or to that larger kind of the social intercourse of men on which the State, as an organism, depends. Mr. BUCHANAN is so apt to misunderstand his critics, and has such a store of hard words for those whom he does misunderstand, that we will take one of his own illustrations to explain our meaning. By way of showing how much one man is like another as a moral being—and therefore, if moral rather than intellectual qualities be the main thing, how much equality there naturally is among men—Mr. BUCHANAN compares a day in the life of WORDSWORTH with a day in the life of a mountain shepherd. He has little difficulty, of course, in showing at the end of the day that the two men have throughout it “fulfilled the same primary functions, and that in every process of their day there is more resemblance than divergence”; that, in other words, the preponderance of action and feeling is in favour of natural equality. No doubt it is; but how singular that Mr. BUCHANAN should not have seen that to isolate the individual, as he does in both these cases, is the worst possible preliminary to laying down a series of propositions concerning him as a member of society! For all purposes of man as a social being, both the WORDSWORTH and the Shepherd of the above comparison might be the inhabitant of a desert island, where the question of human equality never arises to trouble ROBINSON CRUSOE, though it may be remembered that it did arise the moment FRIDAY appeared, and that FRIDAY at once declared himself an adherent of the views of Professor HUXLEY by accepting a subordinate position.
Even Mr. BUCHANAN’S illustration, however, ingeniously as it is selected, does not bear examination. The slightest indulgence of a natural curiosity to know more than the two men he has depicted brings out much more of inequality than of equality. Why was WORDSWORTH not keeping sheep himself? Why has the shepherd the privilege of keeping sheep, which the hungry tramp on the hillside so envies, or thinks he envies? To answer these questions is, in effect, to bring society on the scene at once, and to remind us immediately that the two men have also their places in a system in which equality of moral virtues counts for very much less than inequality of powers. The answer to the question why WORDSWORTH is not keeping sheep would be because he possessed certain powers which the shepherd has not, and which fitted him to become a distributor of stamps. It is, perhaps, better to insist upon this point of superiority, inasmuch as without it the poet might quite possible have had to combine sheep-tending with the cultivation of the Muse. If, again, we are asked why it is the shepherd, and not the tramp, who is keeping the sheep, the answer again will be that the one can do the work, and the other cannot. The tramp might conceivably, though we do not think probably, be fully the equal of the shepherd in moral worth, but to do his work for him, or to share it with him, he would have to acquire an equal competence to perform it. Possibly he might succeed in acquiring it; but it is far more likely that the other would be found to possess natural aptitudes with which no mere training could enable his would-be rival to compete. The owner of the sheep would certainly not consent, except as an act of charity, to take on a less efficient shepherd because his moral virtues were on a par with those of his present employé; and let amiable theorists like Mr. BUCHANAN and his school kick against them as hard as they please, it is on these principles that all the work of the world, whether on the largest or on the smallest scale, has always had, and will always have, to be carried on. He promises in his next letter to “explain more fully than is at present possible the ethical standpoint of those propagandists who, in suggesting crucial reforms of our present social and political systems, base their arguments on the absolute principle of the freedom and equality of men.” What he will make of the “ethical standpoint of those propagandists” we do not know. Very likely he may prove to demonstration that crucial reforms based on the principle aforesaid commend themselves most powerfully to the moral sense; or, in other words, that it would be eminently gratifying to man as a moral being. When, however, he proceeds—we presume he intends to proceed—beyond this, and undertakes the work of proving that crucial reforms, or any reform based on an absolute principle which the experience of every day of our lives contradicts, are practicable and workable, we shall watch his steps, we own, with extreme curiosity.
The Daily Telegraph (25 January, 1890 - p.5)
ARE MEN BORN FREE AND EQUAL?
TO THE EDITOR OF “THE DAILY TELEGRAPH.”
SIR—I, for one, have not been born Mr. Robert Buchanan’s equal, for what he writes perplexes me extremely, whereas I feel convinced that nothing I—or “any other man,” for that matter—can write will puzzle him for a moment. I have read and re-read his remarkable letter, published, under the above heading, in your issue of the 23rd inst., with no less earnest effort than desire to get at its real meaning and purpose, but am still at a loss to understand what he was driving at when he penned it. In one part he seems to uphold Rousseau’s absurd theory of innate human equality, and to be unphilosophically angry with Professor Huxley for refuting it; in another he points out one fact after another as fatal to that theory as the Irishman’s definition, viz., that “one man is as good as another, and a great deal better too.” “Gifts of genius,” writes Mr. Buchanan, “distinguish certain men”; “a wise man is frequently a fool, and a man of strong reasoning power is often a moral weakling.” If this be true, where doe the equality between such men come in? It is useless to reply, “They were born equal, but education has made them unequal.” The differences of character, disposition, and ability distinguishing man from man are not extrinsic, but intrinsic. Education has nothing to do with their origination, and little with their development. If it were otherwise—in a country like Prussia, for instance, where the bulk of the nation’s boyhood, gentle and simple, rich and poor, goes through one and the same educational curriculum, and has done so for more than half a century past—all men would be turned out after an identical moral and intellectual pattern, which they are very far from doing. Such men as the Humboldts, the Bunsens, as Ranke, Liebig, Mommsen, Helmholz, Gneist, and a hundred other German lights of science and literature belonging to our century underwent exactly the same course of schooling as their numberless contemporaries, unknown to fame. Was there any equality between these and those at the time of their birth? If so, would not an identical education have tended rather to confirm that equality than to dissipate it? When Otto von Bismarck was a scholar at the famous “Grey Cloister” in Berlin, under the eminent pedagogue Bonnell, his schoolmates numbered over a hundred. Is there any reason for believing that any one of them was his equal, in quality of intellect or temper of soul? Yet he and they were put through the same educational mill, and passed, or did not pass, the same exams, in which—as Latinist and mathematician alike—he was excelled by several of his “Prima” class-fellows.
It may be that all men are equal at the moment of their birth, though even that contingency seems to me to resemble the one set forth in the quaint old law, “Pigs may fly, but they are blanked unlikely birds.” Their equality, however, if it exist at all, is so evanescent as to be unworthy of serious consideration. Even the outward resemblance of one new-born baby to another is more apparent than real. Each is endowed with a distinct individuality, as well as physique, altogether preclusive of equality. As the “father of the man” emerges from the dream of infancy into the realities of childhood, this individuality asserts, or at the very least discloses, itself with ever-increasing significance. It is the real inborn human possession—not equality, which is merely a term, and a delusive one—indeed, perhaps the most deceptive of the three fallacies linked together in the Republican shibboleth, although liberty is a scarcely less misleading word. No man is or can be perfectly free, any more than he is or can be exactly equal with any other man. From the cradle to the grave he is a bondslave to the laws of his being, as well as to the laws of the land he may happen to inhabit. Similarly, he may be his fellow-man’s superior, or inferior, or both, in different respects; but he cannot be his equal. There is no such thing as natural equality, and liberty can only be relative, not absolute. One man may be freer than another, either by his own action, by the force of circumstances with the fashioning and arrangement of which he has had nothing to do; but he must wear his fetters for all that, though they may be lighter than those of his neighbour. How unequal men are is a truth which every thinking and observant human being can illustrate, only too copiously, from his or her own store of personal experiences. Which of us has not had occasion to notice the inequalities in character, intellect, physique, temper, and propensities of two children, identical in sex, born of the same parents, brought up in the same nursery and schoolroom, subject for eight or ten years to the same external influences of association and entourage? The one will grow up studious, truthful, obedient, courageous, self-denying; the other will turn out idle, mendacious, rebellious, cowardly, and selfish. Such a contrast, even in the case of twins—the nearest conceivable approach to human identity—has come within my own cognisance. As for anyone being born free, the very idea of such a condition is so ludicrously at variance with fact that one wonders how it can ever have been entertained for a second by such intelligent persons as Rousseau and Buchanan. Why, restriction and control are exercised upon every infant as soon as it has inflated its lungs by the instinctive squall that may be taken as a protest against the tyranny awaiting it throughout its after-life. What baby, five minutes old, would be washed, were it a free agent? Childhood is a long servitude—a period of chronic repression, rendered more or less tolerable by episodes of indulgence, the frequency of which by no means depends upon the “libre arbitre” of the small slave, but upon the will or caprice of its rulers for the time being, who in their turn are the servants of somebody else—and so ad infinitum, like the fleas immortalised in humorous rhyme. The higher you rise in the scale of age, position, wealth, the weightier—though perhaps the less apparent—does the yoke of human servitude become. Rich, noble, learned people are slaves to fashion, ambition, scientific fads, que sais-je?—some to their passions, some to their relatives, some to superstition, some to Mrs. Grundy. Where, I ask again, does their “inborn liberty” come in? I pause, like Brutus, for a reply, but, unlike him, not expectant of one that will prove in the least satisfactory to, yours obediently,
South Hampstead, Jan. 24.
The Daily Telegraph (27 January, 1890 - p.3)
ARE MEN BORN FREE AND EQUAL?
TO THE EDITOR OF “THE DAILY TELEGRAPH.”
SIR—I have read Mr. Robert Buchanan’s letter, which has been kindly sent to me. I would not, on any account, interfere with so characteristic a development of latter-day Rousseauism—so many people fancy that it is dead and buried, and that I have wasted my time in slaying the slain.—I am, faithfully yours,
T. H. HUXLEY.
3, Jevington-gardens, Eastbourne, Jan. 24.
TO THE EDITOR OF “THE DAILY TELEGRAPH.”
SIR—I had hoped, in the present discussion, to avoid current politics altogether; for it is impossible to touch on political issues—especially in the columns of a daily newspaper—without awakening a storm of prejudice and misunderstanding. I shall still endeavour to steer clear of contemporary broils, although your own comments on my first letter do certainly invite polemical treatment. Will you permit me to say, however, that I am more astonished at your indirect championship of the doctrines of expediency than at your quite irrelevant attack on the personal character and conduct of Rousseau? Perhaps, however, you do not quite realise that your attack is less upon the religion of modern Socialism than upon the Creed of Christianity itself. The strongest, or, at any rate, the most accepted, argument against that creed has been that, although theoretically excellent, it is practically impossible. Society has refused from time immemorial to be ruled in the conduct of life by either its principles or its precepts. Men hoard up riches in this world, and when one cheek is smitten they do not offer the other. They pray in the temple, but they curse and cheat in the market-place. Interrogated on this inconsistency, they explain that adherence to the absolute tenets of their religion would be suicidal. Even some of our most Christian teachers have protested that the Christ was too superhuman, too transcendently impolitic, to be followed quite all the way along the thorny path of self-abnegation. So that when you say that Rousseau’s doctrine is refuted at every point by the facts of life, you should add that Christianity also is so refuted; and you would be, from the political and historical point of view, perfectly right. The founder of Christianity, however, carefully distinguished between the adherence we may find it expedient to give to Cæsar and that higher adherence we must give to God. He paused at first principles and went no further, hoping against hope that those first principles were seeds which would grow surely in the conscience of Humanity. “Love one another” was his highest and holiest admonition—one which we, in this Christian country, carry out by allowing wealth to accumulate and men to decay; by permitting, as in the case of the deer forests of Scotland, the accumulated capital of one or two men to mean the destruction and expatriation of thousands; by suffering, as in Ireland, a landlordism without even the excuse of capital to drive a whole nation into despair and into crime.
You ask me, naturally enough, if somewhat flippantly, to name those absolute ethical principles on which I and far more able propagandists would base the reconstruction of Society, while at the same time you seek to stultify my advocacy by suggesting that it is doubtless purely sentimental, and must conflict on every side with the results of daily experience. Sir, it would be idle as well as impertinent for me, at the very time when the sanest and clearest intellect known to us at present on this planet has occupied itself with the exposition of absolute principles in ethics (to the great mental confusion of scientific Philistia and Professor Huxley), to attempt in my perfunctory way to define those principles. For their definition I must refer you to Mr. Herbert Spencer’s more recent writings—luminous as all that comes from that crystal pen, unanswerable as most of the arguments that come from that master mind. Mr. Spencer himself has told us, in words of dignified remonstrance, that his exposition has been misunderstood and perverted at every point by Professor Huxley; and so, if we examine the matter closely, we shall find the case to be. Mine is a far humbler task, to explain as far as possible to the hasty readers of a great daily newspaper, in as clear and popular language as is at my command, a few simple points of that propagandism which proposes to redress centuries of wrongdoing, and, possibly, to reconstruct Society.
One word, before I proceed, concerning your own estimate of the teachings of Rousseau, which estimate varies little, if at all, from that of Professor Huxley. Forgetful altogether that I began by agreeing with Rousseau on the subject of first principles, and not by approving the hastily designed political and social structure he based upon them, you resort to the stereotyped mode of polemics, that of attacking the great doctrinaire’s personal character. Here, however, you unconsciously support my main thesis—that great intellect has little or nothing to do with moral goodness, and that Rousseau, in much of his conduct, was a sort of philosophical Jack Shepherd. It should be remembered, however, that Rousseau made no concealment whatever of his moral distemperature and social larcenies; that standing, as he expressed it, before the Judgment Seat, he made a clean breast of his sins and weaknesses, whereas most other men have chosen to hide, rather than to discover, their moral littleness. While I doubt the expediency of such revelations, I believe them to have been made in all sincerity, and I am also quite sure that the record of most men, if so made public, would shock propriety as much as the record of Rousseau. The one charge which you revive against the husband of poor Thérese—that of abandoning his children to the foundling basket—is, though horrible enough, capable of some defence, in so much as the suppression of personal instincts it involves is quite consistent with the theory that the care of offspring should devolve upon the community at large. It is superfluous, however, to extenuate the conduct of a man who was in the private concerns of life scarcely a sane agent, who was swept into endless folly and inconsistency by sheer force of temperament. For the rest, the good old fallacy resuscitated by you, that Rousseau was personally responsible for the excesses of the Revolution, was killed and buried long ago. The Revolution was the direct consequence of the wrong-doing of society, causing the collapse of an ancient and effete political system, and had little or nothing to do, either directly or indirectly, with literature. It came from the masses who had never learned to read, and who sought not books, but bread. Rousseauism, and all the other “isms” of the pre-Revolutionary period, were the amusement of the aristocracy of culture, and were to the masses of the French nation, previous to the promulgation of certain catchwords by the leaders of the national movement, about as intelligible as double Dutch. You suggest, moreover, that the points which I mention as illustrative of Rousseau’s insight are mere “truisms” which no one denies or ever did deny, and that the really important matter in Rousseau’s teaching is the constructive portion of the “Social Contract.” Had this been so, Rousseau would have been forgotten long ago. It was his perception of those very “truisms” which made him a prophet and a seer. It is his insight into first principles which makes him living to this hour. How many of us admit even now, or prove by their conduct to their fellows, that moral goodness is better than intellectual power? How many of us feel in our hearts and illustrate in our lives that luxury and pride, arrogance of knowledge or of birth, are evil things? How many of us proclaim that the war between nations, like the war between individuals, daily mocks the commandment which said, “Thou shalt not kill”? Truisms, say you? Truisms to which almost every institution of our society, every glory of our civilisation, gives the lie; truisms in the teeth of which a successful soldier may rise up and recommend to us, as General Wolseley did the other day, the example of a nation of atheists and martinets as one worthy of English imitation; truisms which no one practically admits to be true; truisms which, when advanced to justify the enthusiasm of humanity, you and other publicists smile at, and relegate to the regions of sentimental superstition. Sir, Christianity itself has become a truism—a fetish to swear by when we rob our neighbour and corrupt our neighbour’s wife. Its excellent moral principles are admitted, even by those who dismiss its dogmas, as so firmly established as scarcely to be worth discussion. What I and other propagandists want, however, is for that religion, which is essentially the Religion of Equality, to be tried in practice. It has never been tried yet, save by a few isolated individuals from Father Damien backwards. Who knows but that, after all, it might serve; that it might be better, at any rate, than the Gospel according to the Printer’s Devil and St. Mammon’s current Epistle to the Philistines? Who knows but that, with a little scientific adjustment, it might prove almost as practicable as the political creed which tells us that the status quo of the Impenitent Thief, who still holds the plunder his ancestor stole, is to be respected and consolidated, according to a certain “statute of limitations?”
The true political problem, placed before themselves by those propagandists who, like Mr. Spencer, are Socialists only in the good and philosophical sense, and who are not, like mere Communists, enemies of all vested interests whatsoever, is to regenerate society without destroying that part of its structure which experience proves to be sound. The principle that men are born free and equal does not imply, as its opponents frequently suggest, that absolute intellectual equality is possible, or that men, being free, are free to do exactly as they please; it merely means, as I have said, that each unit of society has equal rights of membership, and complete liberty of action within the scope of the common organisation. Absolute individual freedom is of course impossible, as citizenship, i.e., equality and fraternity, implies due recognition of the rights of others. The difficulty then, is how to adjust the relations of human beings in such a manner as to secure the utmost amount of liberty and equality possible. While the degrees of power and wealth can never be exactly the same, and while due allowance should be made for the rewards of individual energy and industry, care should be taken that the accumulation of power and wealth from generation to generation should not lead to the aggrandizement of one class at the expense of another, or to the security of any one individual through the social destruction of any of his fellows. This means, translated into other words, that the rights of acquired property are subservient to those of the general prosperity; that such luxury as an individual possesses in excess of his rational needs is conditioned by the destruction of certain other individuals to whom that luxury might have provided the necessaries of life. Here we reach, without turning aside into a very difficult region of political economy, a first great principle—that every working member of society has a right to a share of those necessaries which alone make existence possible. Can it be argued, in the face of the statistics of existing poverty, with the knowledge of the daily and hourly shipwreck of human lives, that the necessaries of life are so distributed?
Here, again, we touch one of those “truisms” which every one admits, but few or no men act upon; and we shall find, indeed, that each principle of true Socialism is in the nature of a truism. We have already shown, however, contra Rousseau, that social freedom is limited, unlike natural or moral freedom, which is absolute. Certain rights of property would still remain intact, under any disintegration caused by the first principle, or truism, already named. “I do not want to touch your treasures,” said even Robespierre, “however impure their source. I am far more anxious to make poverty honourable than to proscribe wealth; the thatched roof of Fabricius need never envy the palace of Crœsus.”
The second principle which I would name, as founded on the natural freedom and equality of men, is equal freedom of opportunity. This freedom is being to a large extent secured by the spread of national education, since no man can fulfil the rights of citizenship to whom social neglect and selfishness have denied the very vocabulary of civilisation. It is possibly impracticable at present that every man should have exactly the same start in life, the same chance of securing social prosperity; but what the Socialist propagandum demands is some sort of approximation of starts and chances.The present arbitrary division of classes is founded on an arrangement which overworks and denies rational leisure to large classes of the community in order that other classes may “eat, drink, and be merry.” Equal freedom of opportunity, then, means just distribution of labour—means that society should not be divided into idlers and drones, that all men should share to a certain extent in the practical work of the world. Is this the case? In the face of the ignorance and misery of our labouring classes, of the lives blackened out of human likeness by cruel and endless toil, of our sempstresses spinning out the thin thread of life for a few pence, can any sane man suggest that freedom of opportunity is, under our present social system, possible?
True, there will always be idlers, and possibly, until the Millennium, there will always be drones. The problem of the higher Socialism is to limit the number of both, by rendering the prizes and the honours of civilisation open to all. How to solve that problem. Surely we should go a long way to its solution if we averaged the hours of leisure to all men, and so recognised that want of rest is as certain a sign of pauperisation as want of bread.
Here, perhaps you say, is a manifest contradiction, since I postulated in my first letter that natural freedom and equality were, being absolute, altogether independent of relative culture or intellectual acquirement. What I did say was in no sense contradictory, being merely that intellectual culture did not necessarily imply moral advance. For a state of natural freedom and equality, however, the primary vocabulary of civilisation is essential. A blind man cannot see the sun, and a man-beast of burthen cannot perform the rational duties of society. I contended, however, that the accumulation of mere knowledge meant nothing, morally speaking—indeed, knowledge is specialism, and is only valuable in so far as it discovers those laws which become the common property of all. Thomas Carlyle would certainly be called a man of culture, of wide and phenomenal information, quite apart from his quasi-prophetic faculty; yet what was the culture worth which led him to rail against all mankind, and to revenge the natural freedom and equality of a troublesome liver by abusing the world at large? To St. Thomas of Chelsea, the nigger was “a servant” by grace of God; Macaulay, a “squat, low-browed, commonplace object”; Coleridge, a “weltering, ineffectual being”; Wordsworth, a “small diluted contemptibility”; Keble, of the “Christian Year,” a “little ape,” and Keats’s poems “dead dog”; Charles Lamb, a “detestable abortion”; Grote, a person with a “spout mouth”; Cardinal Newman, one without “the intellect of a moderate-sized rabbit”; Mr. Gladstone, “one of the contemptiblest men, a spectral kind of phantasm”; and Mill, his dear friend Mill, a “frozen-out logic-chopping machine.” True, great genius is great wisdom, and from this point of view great genius is very rare. Yet who can help thinking, in glancing over the lives of our cleverest and greatest men, that increase in special knowledge too often means increase in obtusity, in folly? Even the gentle Darwin, a soul at peace with all men, and wise surely in his generation, has told us that the only imaginative delight of his age (when all his splendid faculties still remained intact) was to read trashy novels, that he “hated” Shakespeare, and that to turn to a play of Shakespeare “made him sick”! Reading these records of men, justly esteemed for their power and knowledge, one is almost disposed to exclaim, with Voltaire, that “the good folk who have no fixed principles on the nature of things, who do not know what is, but know very well what is not, these are our true philosophers.”
To illustrate all the principles which the higher Socialism accepts as absolute would be utterly impossible in the space of a newspaper letter. I will mention only one other, of the most paramount importance at the present juncture. A corollary of the thesis that men are born free and equal, morally speaking, is the certainty that no unnecessary or arbitrary limits should be made to freedom of private action and private conduct. Mr. Spencer has pointed out, with his own unequalled lucidity, the dangers which society is at present running from over-legislation in matters social. The tendency of even modern philanthropy is to class groups of men and women in comfortable pigeonholes, and to arrange for them down to the smallest details the functions and duties of life; and Science itself, like a gigantic Mrs. Pardiggle, is assuming the airs of a social censor and peripatetic district-visitor. Heaven forbid that the services which true Science has done to spread the common particles of Light, and to remedy human ignorance and human wretchedness, should be overlooked or forgotten! But moral legislation based on empirical knowledge, like religious legislation based on barren dogma, may go too far. Talking the other day with a London physician of great experience, and in full sympathy with the scientific reorganisation of society, I was surprised to hear him express the opinion that the “model” dwellings prepared for the working classes had been far from an unmixed blessing; that they were comfortless and cheerless for beings who were often unable to provide necessary food and fuel, and that they destroyed in a great measure the sense of personal independence. Elsewhere, indeed, we are threatened, no longer, as of old, with the religious tyranny of the priest, but with the presumption of the moral and social legislator. County councils, vigilance committees, societies for moral sanitation, have encroached upon the liberty of the subject, even to the extent of determining what he may read and know. Not content with regulating his physical well-being, they have endeavoured to regulate the amount of Light and Knowledge he may enjoy; and hence the deathless bigotry of English Puritanism, collaborating in despair with the new-born bigotry of scientific discovery, is limiting human freedom in almost every walk of life.
I have named three principles, on the triumph or failure of which depends the future of society: equal freedom to share the necessaries of life, equal freedom of opportunity to advance, equal freedom to shape individual thought and action within the necessary limitations of political organization. If the status quo admits these principles, and if they are allowed free scope of activity, then nothing more is to be said. The higher Socialism contends that they may be recognised generally, even as “truisms,” but that, in most of the affairs of life, in nearly all its practical conduct, they are entirely disregarded. Large bodies of the community have practically no food to eat, no freedom to earn even common sustenance; still larger classes, though they may gain the common necessaries of life, are, by the cruelty of their labour for bare bread and from the pressure of the organisation around them, forbidden the opportunity to advance a single step; and classes even yet larger are, by the spirit of temporising and compromising (approved as we have seen by even scientists like Professor Huxley), denied the natural freedom of human beings, on the plea that, under a political “statute of limitations,” the force originally founded on wrongdoing ought to be respected!
Well, Rousseau’s sublime paradox still holds: “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” It is useless, or it seems useless, to argue against those who, like Professor Huxley and your wandering-witted “Hereditary Bondsman,” contend that the freedom and equality of Nature means (what it was never supposed even by Rousseau to mean) that all men are alike, that there is no such thing as differentiation of power or character, and that one man, however degraded and uninstructed, is as good as any other. This is merely the reductio ad absurdum—very useful to the holders of vested interests, of the argument which proves that every member of the community has a born right to share the common benefits and privileges of humanity; that, in other words, neither the aristocracy of power nor the aristocracy of culture is entitled, beyond the necessities of the common preservation, to limit the action of human freedom, human enjoyment, and human opportunity. Men advance more surely by freedom than by restraint, necessary as certain restraints may be. Before the outbreak of the English Revolution, personal prerogative, the arbitrary will of one sincere political bigot, had strangulated English Liberty. Englishmen arose en masse, and Liberty, in the political sense, was saved. Before the outbreak of the great French Revolution, Catholicism had almost destroyed the conscience of a great nation. The inevitable cataclysm came, with what terrible accompaniments we all know. At the present hour, at the very time when the free thought of England is at its brightest and best; when the scientific and historic methods have disintegrated the whole mass of religious superstition, another great upheaval is imminent, to the peril, perhaps the destruction, of our whole social system.
Le passé n’est pour nous qu’un triste souvenir;
Le présent est affreux, s’il n’est point d’avenir,
Si la nuit du tombeau détruit l’être qui pense.
So sang Voltaire. A colossal Hand, which some call the hand of Destiny and others that of Humanity, is putting out the lights of Heaven one by one, like candles after a feast. It behoves us, then, to watch heedfully that the same Hand, having emptied the heavens, does not touch the lowly but life-illumining lights of earth. The fairest of these lights is Liberty, is the principle of natural freedom and equality, without which individual growth would be impossible, and social organisation, as men now understand it, an impossibility.—I am, &c.,
P.S.—Some idea of the absurdities of over-legislation may be gathered from the regulations of Saint Just, quoted in Von Sybel’s “History of the French Revolution”:—No servants, no gold and silver utensils, no child under sixteen to eat meat, nor any adult to eat meat on three days of the decade; boys at the age of seven to be handed over to the national school, where they will be taught to speak little, to endure hardships, and to train for war; divorce to be free to all; friendship ordained a public institution, every citizen on attaining majority being bound to proclaim his friends, and if he had none, to be banished; if any one committed a crime, his friends were to be banished, &c. This, it must be admitted, is the Code of Nature with a vengeance!
Changes in The Coming Terror:
‘your quite irrelevant attack on the personal character and conduct of Rousseau?’ - ‘attack’ changed to ‘diatribe’
the accumulated capital of one or two men to mean the destruction and expatriation of thousands;’ - ‘accumulated capital’ changed to ‘ accidental wealth’
‘who, like Mr. Spencer, are Socialists only in the good and philosophical sense’ - ‘Mr. Spencer’ changed to ‘myself’
‘that each principle of true Socialism is in the nature of a truism.’ - ‘true’ replaced by ‘just’
‘We have already shown, however, contra Rousseau,’ - ‘shown’ replaced by ‘learned’]
Letters to the Press - continued
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