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A Wit and a Seer
1898 | Woodrow Wilson

Posted on 04/18/2013 6:16:15 AM PDT by ProgressingAmerica

A WIT AND A SEER

WE are often very glib and confident in our generalizations about the characteristics of the English race, - not noting, perhaps not caring to note when the mood for generalization is upon us, how many individuals of that race escape our classification and show what qualities they please. Under which characteristic of that sturdy and for the most part matter-of-fact people do we place its extraordinary fecundity in every kind of individual genius? Is Shakespeare a typical product, or is he not, - or has the race changed since the sunny and open times of great Elizabeth? Is Milton more natural and native in his kind? It is not a gay nation, nor yet is it saturnine, nor always sober. If it sometimes laugh, it is always in earnest. But it has produced some - nay, a great many - most excellent wits.

No doubt this might be made a mystery, if we chose. The great majority of Englishmen, it is safe to say, look upon a jest with uneasiness, and feel toward an habitual jester a deep distrust. They do not wish the things they think about whipped into a syllabub, and they prefer to take counsel with grave and serious men, - as if life were all counsel, and all counsel matter of logic and calculation, with never a laugh in it anywhere. One recalls Sydney Smith’s jest to his brother." We have reversed the law of nature," he said: "you have risen by your gravity, and I have sunk by my levity." It deeply shocked Englishmen to find a clergyman given to jesting. And then there was Charles Lamb. How uncomfortable he made most sober men! How many good men thought him light-headed, besotted, a sort of whimsical, irreverent, unbalanced child, - and what pleasure he took in making them think so! He is delivered of their company now. He is read and loved in this day which is not his own only by the juster, clearer spirits, bred by nature to be like those who welcomed and relished his comradeship while he lived. This is a large and goodly company, and is likely always to be, God be praised; but it is not a representative company of Englishmen, any more than Lamb’s immediate comrades were in his own generation. You must not demand of the ordinary man, even of the ordinary reading man, that he know his Lamb; and nobody is in the least likely to think of Lamb as of a typical English mind. You do not feel about him as you would feel about a French wit: ah, what a race for the fine turn of the phrase and for the poignant thrusts of a nice wit! And so Congreve and Sheridan seem to belong, of right, across the Channel, and you look to see English comedy, in all ordinary seasons, produce its laugh by comic incident rather than by subtle jest or apt rejoinder.

The subject is a most alluring one, and yet very dangerous. Every prudent writer must avoid it. It defies analysis. No one can explain why the English race has brought forth so much genius of the lighter as well as of the graver sort, and enough readers to keep a wit in countenance. One must simply say that the fact is so, and discreetly pass on. The only excuse I can give for having ventured upon so elusive a topic is that Walter Bagehot was a wit as well as a seer, - one of the most original and audacious wits that the English race has produced, - and I wish to make a proper introduction to speaking of him. Moreover, being a wit, he seems himself to have perceived the incongruity of his being an Englishman. “I need not say," he wrote in his youth, “ I need not say that in real sound stupidity the English people are unrivaled: you ’ll hear more wit and better wit in an Irish street row than would keep Westminster Hall in humor for five weeks."

Bagehot had no literary lineage behind him, nor anything very unusual in his bringing forth that would lead the historian of letters to expect him to be what he so delightfully turned out to be. Upon a plain street in the quiet little town of Langport, in the midst of Somersetshire, there stands a plain but broad and homelike house, with its threshold upon the very footway of the street; and here, in an upper room, Walter Bagehot was born, on the 3d of February, 1826. The house is the residence of the manager of the Somersetshire bank whose offices are but a few rods away upon the same street, where it turns about toward Glastonbury and Wells. This was the business to which Bagehot was born. His father, Thomas Watson Bagehot, was vice-president of the private banking company which Mr. Samuel Stuckey had established there in Langport in the last century, and which had so prospered that its branches were after a while to be found in every considerable place in the county, - which was, indeed, destined to become in our own day the largest private bank of issue in England. The Stuckeys are still the magnates of the little town, the owners of ample green acres that stretch away northward and broaden from the hill which the parish church crowns and adorns.

Thomas Bagehot married a niece of Samuel Stuckey; but not before she had seen a good deal of the large world outside the sequestered town in which her great son was to be born. She had first married a Mr. Estlin, of Bristol; and her life and companionships in Bristol, that old city which had so teemed through more than one great age with commerce of the mind as well as with trade in the stuffs of the Indies and the ends of the earth, had enriched her lively mind not a little in the days when she was most susceptible. She was older than Mr. Bagehot by a goodly number of years, - perhaps it would be ungallant to say how many, - but she was not of the kind to grow old or stagnate, even if she had lived all her life in that quiet house in Langport; and her son, Walter Bagehot, took a good measure of genius by inheritance from her.

Somersetshire is a sunny county, and lies in the midst of that brightest part of England which is thrust with its rising coasts southward toward the heart of the Atlantic; but many dull wits are born thereabouts. For all there is so much poetry in the soft air, with its sunlit mists and its fine mysterious distances, looking toward the sea, it has not bred many poets. Its levels of intelligence have in all ordinary seasons been nearly as flat and featureless as its own fat interior meadows, which used now and again to hold a flood of waters like the sea, with only here and there an island-hill, like that of Avalon, where monks built their abbey of Glastonbury. It is pleasant to see Langport also perched upon one of these infrequent hills, a landmark for the traveler, and to think that it was from this haven Walter Bagehot set out to make his bold voyage into the world of thought, - that “ high-spirited, buoyant, subtle, speculative nature, in which the imaginative qualities were even more remarkable than the judgment," as one of his comrades and fellow voyagers has said, - a man of a ‘gay and dashing humor which was the life of every conversation in which he joined," and of a “visionary nature to which the commonest things often seemed the most marvelous, and the marvelous things the most intrinsically probable." This was the man who was to set the facts of English politics in their true light, - and not the facts of English politics only, but also many of the facts of the world’s political development as well; for it is in the vision of such men that facts appear for what they are,- are seen to consist not simply of what is in them, but also, and even more, of what is behind them and about them, their setting and atmosphere, and are seen not to be intelligible without these. No doubt it was a signal advantage to have had a very brilliant woman for his mother, as Bagehot had, - a woman who had come to the maturity of her charming gifts; and to have had so sterling a man as Thomas Bagehot for his father, - a man of cultivated power, and of great good sense and balance of judgment. But brilliant women are not always generous in giving wit to their sons, and the best of men have begot fools. Neither Somersetshire air nor any certain custom of mental inheritance can explain Walter Bagehot. We must simply accept him as part of the largess of Providence to a race singularly enriched with genius.

Nor is the breeding of the boy much to our purpose. He was not made by his breeding. His mind chose its own training, as such a mind always does, and made its own world of thought in the days of his formal schooling in Bristol and at University College, London, whither he went because his father would not have him stomach the religious tests then imposed at Oxford and Cambridge. Schools and colleges are admirable for drill and discipline of the mind, and give many an ordinary man his indispensable equipment for success; but that is not their use for the exceptional mind of genius. Such a mind does not accept their drill. It takes only their atmosphere, needs only the companionships they afford, uses them with a sort of sovereign selection of what it desires. Bagehot has given us his own statement of the habit of such minds, in an article on Oxford Reform which he published in the Prospective Review for August, 1852." In youth," he says, “the real plastic energy is not in tutors or lectures or in books ‘ got up,’ but in Wordsworth and Shelley; in the books that all read because all like; in what all talk of because all are interested; in the argumentative walk or disputatious lounge; in the impact of young thought upon young thought, of fresh thought on fresh thought, of hot thought on hot thought; in mirth and refutation, in ridicule and laughter: for these are the free play of the natural mind, and these cannot be got without a college." "These cannot be got without a college"! Here is food for reflection for those who look to become men of thought by diligence in attending lectures and thoroughness in "getting up" examinations! No doubt Bagehot was writing thus out of his own experience, as Mr. R. H. Hutton says. Such minds make their own laws and ways of life, and the rest of us, being duller, must take care not to use prescriptions which do not suit our case. Mr. Hutton, who was Bagehot’s college mate and lifelong friend, tells us that “ youth, buoyancy, vivacity, velocity of thought, were of the essence of the impression he made. Such arrogance as he seemed to have in early life was the arrogance as much of enjoyment as of detachment of mind; the insouciance of the old Cavalier as much, at least, as the calm of a mind not accessible to the contagion of social feelings. He always talked, in youth, of his spirits as inconveniently high; and once wrote to me that he did not think they were quite as ‘ boysterous ’ as they had been, and that his fellow creatures were not sorry, for the abatement; nevertheless, he added, ‘I am quite fat, gross, and ruddy.’ He was indeed excessively fond of hunting, vaulting, and almost all muscular effort; so that his life would be wholly misconceived by any one who . . . should picture his mind as a vigilantly observant, far-away intelligence, - such as Hawthorne's, for example. He liked to be in the thick of the melee when talk grew warm, though he was never so absorbed in it as not to keep his mind cool." He liked to talk, indeed, even when there was no one to talk to but himself; for there are elderly men still to be found at the bank in Langport who remember the overflowing vivacity of the bank’s one-time director, and recall how he could oftentimes be overheard talking to himself in his characteristic eager fashion, as he paced all alone up and down the directors‘ room, in the intervals of business. He was a sore puzzle to the sober citizens of his native town, who did not know any means of calculating what this tall, athletic, stirring gentleman would be at next, or what he would say in his whimsical humor. He was asked once (and only once) to read a lecture to the literary society of Langport. His subject was Reading, and he advised his amazed hearers, amongst other things, to read all of the Times newspaper every day, the advertisements included. They did not see the jest, and deemed the advice quite as incomprehensible as the man himself! He was as careless and as whimsical, it would seem, as Lamb himself with regard to the impression he made on most sorts and conditions of men.

London, it turned out, and not Somersetshire, was to be Bagehot’s chief place of residence. Somersetshire was always his home, but London was his place of work. As usual, the provinces were to enrich the capital. Though he first studied law for a little, Bagehot eventually turned to the practical business affairs which have for so many generations seemed the chief and most absorbing interest of all Englishmen. It was, of course, the intellectual side of business that really engaged him, however. He was something more than a Somersetshire banker. He became editor of the London Economist, and brought questions of finance to the light in editorials which clarified knowledge and steadied prediction in such fashion as made him the admiration of the Street. The City had never before seen its business set forth with such lucidity and mastery. London had taught Bagehot a great deal in the days when he was an undergraduate in University College, and he had roamed its streets. haunted by all the memories of deeds and of letters of which the place was so full. Now he learned by a new sort of companionship, - a companionship with the men who were the living forces of the time in business and in politics. It is not easy to overestimate the influence of a great capital upon affairs, or the influence of affairs upon a great capital. London, like Paris, is so much more than a political capital. No public man can remain long at the heart of that vast, abounding life, or mix even for a little in that various society, where men of every sort of thought and power and experience and habit of reason throng and speak their minds, without in some way receiving a subtle and profound instruction in affairs. And the men of the city are themselves, in turn, instructed by their acquaintance at short range with the processes and the forces which control in the policy and business of the state. Such a capital as London is a huge intellectual clearing-house, and men get out of it, as it were, the net balances of the nation’s needs and thoughts.

Bagehot both took and gave a great deal in such a place. His mind was singularly fitted to understand London, and every complex group of men and interests. He had the social imagination that Burke had, and Carlyle, - that every successful student of affairs must have, if he would scratch but a little beneath the surface or lift the mystery from any transaction whatever. For minds with this gift of sight there is a quick way opened to the heart of things. Their acquaintance with any individual man is but a detail in their acquaintance with men; and it is noteworthy that, though they gain in mastery, they do not gain in insight by their contact with men and with the actual business of the world. Burke saw as clearly and with as certain a penetration when he was in his twenties as when he had lived his life out. The years enriched his knowledge with details, and every added experience brought him some concrete matter to ground his thought upon; but the mastery of these things was in him from the first.

Bagehot showed the same precocious power, and saw as clearly at twenty-five as at fifty, though he did not see as much or hold his judgment at so nice a balance. There is full evidence of this in the seven remarkable letters on the third Napoleon’s Coup d’Etat, which he wrote from Paris while he was yet a law student. They are evidently the letters of a young man. Their style goes at a spanking, reckless gait that no older mind would have dared attempt or could have kept its breath at. Their satirical humor has a quick sting in it; their judgments are offhand and unconscionably confident; their crying heresies in matters of politics are calculated to shock English nerves very painfully. They are aggressive and a bit arrogant. But their extravagance is superficial. At heart they are sound, and even wise. The man’s vision for affairs has come to him already. He sees that Frenchmen are not Englishmen, and are not to be judged, ‘or very much aided either, by English standards in affairs. You shall not elsewhere learn so well what it was that happened in France in the early fifties, or why it happened, and could hardly have been staved off or avoided. “You have asked me to tell you what I think of French affairs,” he writes. “I shall be pleased to do so; but I ought perhaps to begin by cautioning you against believing, or too much heeding, what I say.” It is so he begins, with a shrewd suspicion, no doubt, that the warning is quite unnecessary. For he was writing to the editor of The Inquirer, a journal but just established for the enlightenment of Unitarian dissenters, - a people Bagehot had reason to know, and could not hope to win either to the matter or to the manner of his thought. They were sure to think the one radically misleading and erroneous, and the other unpardonably flippant. But it was the better sport on that account to write for their amazement. He undertook nothing less hold than a justification of what Louis Napoleon had done in flat derogation and defiance of the constitutional liberties of France. He set himself to show an English audience, who he knew would decline to believe it, how desperate a crisis had been averted, how effectual the strong remedy had been, and how expedient at least a temporary dictatorship had become. “Whatever other deficiencies Louis Napoleon may have,” he said, “he has one excellent advantage over other French statesmen: he has never been a professor, nor a journalist, nor a promising barrister, nor by taste a littérateur. He has not confused himself with history; he does not think in leading articles, in long speeches, or in agreeable essays.” “ He has very good heels to his boots, and the French just want treading down, and nothing else, - calm, cruel, businesslike oppression, to take the dogmatic conceit out of their heads. The spirit of generalization which, John Mill tells us, honorably distinguishes the French mind has come to this, that every Parisian wants his head tapped in order to get the formulae and nonsense out of it. . . . So I am for any carnivorous government.” Conscious of his audacity and of what will be said of such sentiments among the grave readers of The Inquirer, he hastens in his second letter to make his real position clear. “ For the sake of the women who may be led astray,” he laughs, affecting to quote St. Athanasius, “I will this very moment explain my sentiments.”

He is sober enough when it comes to serious explanation of the difficult matter. Laughing satire and boyish gibe are put aside, and a thoughtful philosophy of politics - Burke’s as well as his own - comes at once to the surface, in sentences admirably calm and wise. In justifying Napoleon, he says plainly and at the outset, he is speaking only of France and of the critical circumstances of the year 1852. “The first duty of society,” he declares, “is the preservation of society. By the sound work of old-fashioned generations, by the singular painstaking of the slumberers in churchyards, by dull care, by stupid industry, a certain social fabric somehow exists; people contrive to go out to their work, and to find work to employ them actually until the evening; body and soul are kept together, - and this is what mankind have to show for their six thousand years of toil and trouble.” You cannot better the living by political change, he maintains, unless you can contrive to hold change to a slow and sober pace, quiet, almost insensible, like that of the evolutions of husbanding growth. If you cannot do that, perhaps it is better to hold steadily to the old present ways of life, under a strong, unshaken, unquestioned government, capable of guidance and command. “ Burke first taught the world at large,” he reminds us, “that politics are made of time and place; that institutions are shifting things, to be tried by and adjusted to the shifting conditions of a mutable world; that in fact politics are but a piece of business, to be determined in every case by the exact exigencies of that case, - in plain English, by sense and circumstances. This was a great step in political philosophy, though it now seems the events of 1848 have taught thinking persons (I fancy) further: they have enabled us to see that of all these circumstances so affecting political problems, by far and out of all question the most important is national character.” “I need not prove to you that the French have a national character,” he goes on," nor need I try your patience with a likeness of it: I have only to examine whether it be a fit basis for national freedom. I fear you will laugh when I tell you what I conceive to be about the most essential mental quality for a free people whose liberty is to be progressive, permanent, and on a large scale: it is much stupidity. I see you are surprised; you are going to say to me, as Socrates did to Polus, ‘My young friend, of course you are right; but will you explain what you mean ? As yet you are not intelligible.’ ” The explanation is easily made, and with convincing force. He means that only a race of steady, patient, unimaginative habits of thought can abide steadfast in the conservative and businesslike conduct of government, and he sees the French to be what Tocqueville had called them, - a nation apt to conceive a great design, but unable to persist in its pursuit, impatient after a single effort,“ swayed by sensations, and not by principles,” her “instincts better than her morality.” “ As people of ‘large roundabout common sense ’ will as a rule somehow get on in life,” says Bagehot, “ no matter what their circumstances or their fortune, so a nation which applies good judgment, forbearance, a rational and compromising habit, to the management of free institutions will certainly succeed; while the more eminently gifted national character will be but a source and germ of endless and disastrous failure, if, with whatever other eminent qualities, it be deficient in these plain, solid, and essential requisites.” It is no doubt whimsical to call “large roundabout common sense,” good judgment, and rational forbearance “stupidity; ” but he means, of course, that those who possess these solid practical gifts usually lack that quick, inventive originality and versatility in resource which we are apt to think characteristic of the creative mind. “ The essence of the French character,” he explains,“ is a certain mobility; that is, a certain ‘ excessive sensibility to present impressions,’ which is sometimes ‘levity,’ for it issues in a postponement of seemingly fixed principles to a momentary temptation or a transient whim; sometimes ‘impatience,’ as leading to an exaggerated sense of existing evils; often ‘excitement,’ a total absorption in existing emotion; oftener ‘inconsistency,’ the sacrifice of old habits to present emergencies,”and these are qualities which, however engaging upon occasion, he is certainly right in regarding as a very serious, if not fatal, impediment to success in self government. “ A real Frenchman,” he exclaims, “ can’t be stupid: esprit is his essence; wit is to him as water, bonsmots as bonsbons.” And yet “ stupidity,” as he prefers to call it, is, he rightly thinks, “nature’s favorite resource for preserving steadiness of conduct and consistency of opinion: it enforces concentration; people who learn slowly learn only what they must.”

This, which reads like the moral of an old man, is what Bagehot saw at twenty-six; and he was able, though a youth and in the midst of misleading Paris, to write quick sentences of political analysis which were fit to serve both as history and as prophecy. “ If you have to deal with a mobile, a clever, a versatile, an intellectual, a dogmatic nation,” he says, “inevitably and by necessary consequence you will have conflicting systems; every man speaking his own words, and giving his own suffrage to what seems good in his own eyes; many holding to-day what they will regret tomorrow; a crowd of crotchety notions and a heavy percentage of philosophical nonsense; a great opportunity for subtle stratagem and intriguing selfishness; a miserable division among the friends of tranquillity, and a great power thrown into the hands of those who, though often with the very best intentions, are practically and in matter of fact opposed both to society and civilization. And moreover, beside minor inconveniences and lesser hardships, you will indisputably have periodically - say three or four times in fifty years - a great crisis: the public mind much excited; the people in the streets swaying to and fro with the breath of every breeze; the discontented ouvriers meeting in a hundred knots, discussing their real sufferings and their imagined grievances with lean features and angry gesticulations; the parliament all the while in permanence very ably and eloquently expounding the whole subject, one man proposing this scheme, and another that; the Opposition expecting to oust the ministers and ride in on the popular commotion, the ministers fearing to take the odium of severe or adequate repressive measures, lest they should lose their salary, their places, and their majority; finally a great crash, a disgusted people overwhelmed by revolutionary violence, or seeking a precarious, a pernicious, but after all a precious protection from the bayonets of military despotism.” Could you wish a better analysis of the affairs of that clever, volatile people, and ‘can you ascribe it wholly to his youth that Bagehot should in 1852 have deliberately concluded that “ the first condition of good government” in France was “a really strong, a reputedly strong, a continually strong executive power” ?

Henry Crabb Robinson, that amiable man of letters and staunch partisan of constitutional liberty, could never recall a name, especially in his old age, we are told; and in conversation with Mr. R. H. Hutton he used to refer to Bagehot by description as “that friend of yours, - you know whom I mean, you rascal! - who wrote those abominable, those disgraceful letters on the Coup d’Etat - I did not forgive him for years after!” We must of course admit, with Mr. Hutton, that the letters were “ airy, and even flippant, on a very grave subject; ” but their airiness and flippancy were not of the substance: they were but a trick of youth, the playful exuberance of a lusty strength, - the colt was “ feeling his oats.” What the critic must note is that there is here already the vivid and effectual style that runs like a light through everything that Bagehot ever wrote. Mr. Hutton tells us that Bagehot “ used to declare that his early style affected him ‘ like the joggling of a cart without springs over a very rough road;’” and no doubt the writing of his maturer years does often go at a more even and placid pace. But you shall not find in him anywhere the measured phrases of the formal, periodic writer, or any studied grace or cadence. The style has always, like the thought, a quick stroke, an intermittent sparkle, a jetlike play, as if it were a bit of sustained talk, and recorded, not so much a course of reasoning, as the successive, spontaneous impressions of a mind alert and quick of sight.

It is singular to find him preferring the dull English way of writing editorials to the sprightly, pointed paragraphs of the French journals, as he does in the extraordinary sigth letter on the Coup d’Etat, in which he hits off the characteristics of the French press with a point and truth I do not know where to match elsewhere. We are apt, upon a superficial impression, to think of Bagehot as himself touched with a certain French quality, and to think of his own writing ‘I as we hear him exclaim of the French journalists, “ How well these fellows write! . . . How clear, how acute, how clever, how perspicuous ! ” But he tells us with what relief and satisfaction, after running for a little with these voluble and witty fellows, he opened the quiet columns of an English paper. “ As long walking in picture galleries makes you appreciate a mere wall,” he says, “ so I felt that I understood for the first time that really dullness had its interest.” “ There was no toil, no sharp theory, no pointed expression, no fatiguing brilliancy.” He quotes an English judge as having said, “ I like to hear a Frenchman talk: he strikes a light, but what light he will strike it is impossible to predict; I think he doesn’t know himself; ” and he frankly confesses his own distaste for such irresponsible brightness. “ Suppose, if you only can,” he cries, “ a House of Commons all Disraelis! It would be what M. Proudhon said of some French Assemblies, ‘ a box of matches.’” You cannot be with the man long without seeing that, for all he is so witty, and as quick as a Frenchman at making a point, there is really no Gallic blood in the matter. His processes of thought are as careful as his style is rapid and his wit reckless.

In 1852, the very year in which the letters on the Coup d’Etat were written, the period of Bagehot’s preparation in the law was completed, and he was in due course called to the bar. But he decided not to enter upon the practice. He had read law with a zest for its systematic ways and its sharp and definite analytical processes, and with an unusual appreciation, no doubt, of the light of businesslike interpretation which it applies to the various undertakings and relationships of society; but he dreaded the hot wigs, the unventilated courts, and the night drudgery which the active practitioner would have to endure, and betook himself instead to the less confining occupations of business. His father was interested in large commercial undertakings, and was a ship-owner as well as a banker, and his son found, in association with him, an active enough life, full of travel and of important errands here and there, upon which he could spend his energies with not a little satisfaction. We are not apt to think of commerce and banking as furnishing matter to satisfy such a mind as Bagehot’s; but business is just as dull, and just as interesting, as you make it. Bagehot always maintained that “ business is much more amusing than pleasure;” and of course it is, if you have mind enough to appreciate it upon all its sides and in all its bearings upon the life of society. Give a mind like Bagehot’s such necessary stuff of life to work upon as is to be found in the commerce of a great nation, and it will at once invest it with the dignity and the charm of a great theme of speculation and study. Bagehot’s contact with business made him a great economist, - an economist sure of his premises, and bigminded and scrupulously careful and guarded in respect of his conclusions. Mr. Hutton tells us that Bagehot “was always absent-minded about minutiae, and himself admitted that he never could ‘add up.’” He was obliged to leave details to his assistants and subordinates. But such has often been the singular failing of men who could nevertheless reason upon details in the mass with an unexampled certainty and power. Bagehot turned always, it would seem as if by instinct, to the larger aspects of every matter he was called upon to handle; and had, no doubt, that sort of imagination for enterprise which has been characteristic of great business men (as of great soldiers and statesmen) in all generations. Such men can put together colossal fortunes; but Bagehot’s career did not lead him that way. The literary instinct was more deepseated and radical in him than the money-making, and he found his right place as a man of business when he became editor of the London Economist. He did not long keep to Langport. His marriage, in 1858, brought him to the characteristic part of his career. His mother had urged him some time before to marry, but he had put her off with his customary banter. “A man‘s mother is his misfortune,” he had said, “but his wife is his fault.” Whether delay brought wisdom or not (when a man of geniu gets a wife to his mind and need it is apt to be mere largess of Providence), certain it is that his marriage endowed him with happiness for the rest of his life, and introduced him to a new and more fruitful use of his gifts. He married the eldest daughter of the Right Honorable James Wilson, who had founded the Economist, and whose death, two years later, in India, in the service of the government, left Bagehot, at thirty-four, to conduct alone the great weekly which his genius was to lift to a yet higher place of influence.

Mr. Hutton believes that it was Bagehot’s connection with the inner world of politics in London to which his marriage gave him entrance that enabled him to write his great works of political interpretation; for he was undoubtedly the first man to strip the English constitution of its “literary theory,” and show it to the world as men of affairs knew it and used it. Mr. Hutton was Mr. Bagehot’s lifelong intimate, and one hesitates to question his judgment in such a matter; but it may at least be said that it can in this case be established only by doubtful inference, even though uttered by a companion and friend. It is not necessary for such a mind as Bagehot’s to have direct experience of affairs, or personal intercourse with the men who conduct them, in order to comprehend either the make-up of politics or the intimate forces of action. A hint is enough. Insight and inspiration do the rest. The gift of imaginative insight in respect of affairs carries always with it a subtle, unconscious power of construction which suffers not so much as the temptation to invent, and which is equally free from taint of abstract or fanciful inference. Somehow, - no man can say by what curious secret process or exquisite delicacy and certainty of intimation, - it reconstructs life after the irregular patterns affected by nature herself, and will build you the reality out of mere inference. Bagehot may have been quickened and assured by an intimate and first-hand knowledge of men and methods, but it seems like mistaking the character of his genius to say that he could not have done without this actual sight of concrete cases and these personal instances of motive and action. The rest of his work justifies the belief that he could have seen without handling.

The power and the character of his imagination are proved by the extraordinary range it took. Most of the literary studies in which he has given us so memorable a taste of his quality as a critic and all-round man of letters were written before his marriage, between his twenty-sixth and his thirty-second years, - the most extraordinary of them all, perhaps, the essay on Shakespeare the Man, in 1853, when he was but twenty-seven; and there is everywhere to be found in those studies a man whose insight into life was easy, universal, and almost unerring; and yet the centre of life for him was quiet Langport in far Somersetshire. His fame as a political thinker was made later, when he was more mature, and his imagination had been trained to its functions by his wide travels in the high company of the men of genius of whom he had written. “ Variety was his taste, and versatility his power,” as he said of Brougham; and the variety of his taste and the versatility of his power showed in what he wrote of economy and of institutions no less than in what he wrote of individual men and books. In his English Constitution, which he published in 1867, he gave an account of the actual workings of parliamentary government, so lucid, so witty, so complete, and for all so concise and without delay about details (which seemed in its clear air to reveal themselves without comment), that it made itself instantly and once for all a part of every man’s thinking in that matter. Everybody saw what he intended them to see: that the English government is a government shaped and conducted by a committee of the House of Commons, called “her Majesty’s ministers;” that the throne serves only to steady the administration of the government, to hold the veneration and imagination of the people; and that the House of Lords is only, at most, a revising and delaying chamber. The book is now a classic.

Two years later (1869) he turned to a broader field of thought in his Physics and Politics, in which he sought to apply the principles of heredity and natural selection to the development of society, showing how political organization was first hardened by custom; then altered and even revolutionized by changes of environment, and by the struggle for existence between banded groups of men; and finally given its nice adaptations to a growing civilization by the subtle, transmuting processes of an age of discussion. There are passages in this little volume which stimulate the thought more than whole treatises written by those who have no imagination whereby to revive the image of older ages of the world. Here, for example, is his striking comment upon the nations which, like the Chinese and the Persian, have stood still the long centuries through, caught and held fast, as he puts it, beneath a cake of antique custom: “ No one will ever comprehend the arrested civilizations unless he sees the strict dilemma of early society. Either men had no law at all, and lived in confused tribes hardly hanging together, or they had to obtain a fixed law by processes of incredible difficulty; those who surmounted that difficulty soon destroyed all those that lay in their way who did not, - and then they themselves were caught in their own yoke. The customary discipline, which could only be imposed on any early men by terrible sanctions, continued with those sanctions, and killed out of the whole society propensities to variation which are the principle of progress. Experience shows how incredibly difficult it is to get men really to encourage the principle of originality.” There is here the same thesis his letters on the Coup d’Etat had advanced, with a sort of boyish audacity, several years before. This is the philosophy of dullness. No nation, while it is forming, hardening its sinews, acquiring its habits of order, can afford to encourage originality. It must insist upon a rigid discipline and subordination. And even after it has formed its habits of order, it cannot afford to have too much originality, or to relax its fibre by too rapid change, - cannot afford to be as volatile as the French. Progress is devoutly to he wished, and discussion is its instrument, - the opening of the mind; those nations are the great nations of the modern world which have dominated the European stage, where there is movement, and the plot advances from ordered change to change. But conservatism and order must even yet be preferred to change, and the nations which do not think too fast are the nations which advance most rapidly. Bagehot speaks somewhere of “the settled calm by which the world is best administered.”

Bagehot’s thought is not often constructive. Its business is generally analysis, interpretation. But in Physics and Politics it is distinctly creative and architectonic. It is always his habit to go at once to the concrete reality of a subject, lingering scarcely a moment upon its conventionalities: he sees always with his own eyes, - never with another’s; and even analysis takes from him a certain creative touch. The object of his thought is so vividly displayed that you seem to see all of it, instead of only some of it. But here, in speaking of ages past and gone, his object is reconstruction, and that direct touch of his imagination makes what he says seem like the report of an eye-witness. You know, after reading this book, what an investigator the trained understanding is, - a sort of original authority in itself. Nor is his humor gone or exiled from these solemn regions of thought. There is an intermittent touch of it even in what he says of the political force of religion. “ Those kinds of morals and that kind of religion which tend to make the firmest and most effectual character,” he explains, “are sure to prevail ” in every struggle for existence between organized groups or nations of men, “ all else being the same; the creeds or systems that conduce to a soft, limp mind tend to perish, except some hard extrinsic force keep them alive. Thus Epicureanism never prospered at Rome, but Stoicism did; the stiff, serious character of the great prevailing nation was attracted by what seemed a confirming creed, and deterred by what looked like a relaxing creed. The inspiriting doctrines fell upon the ardent character, and so confirmed its energy. Strong beliefs win strong men, and then make them stronger. Such is no doubt one cause why Monotheism tends to prevail over Polytheism; it produces a higher, steadier character, calmed and concentrated by a great single object; it is not confused by competing rites, or distracted by miscellaneous deities.” “Mr. Carlyle has taught the present generation many lessons, and one of these is that ‘God-fearing ’ armies are the best armies. Before his time people laughed at Cromwell’s saying, ‘ Trust God, and keep your powder dry.’ But we now know that the trust was of as much use as the powder, if not of more. That high concentration of steady feeling makes men dare everything and do anything.” Is it a misuse of the word to say that a quiet, serious sort of humor lurks amidst these sentences, and once and again peeps out at you with solemn eyes? And there are bold, unconventional sallies of wit in the man as there were in the boy. Take, for example. what he said of one of the qualities which seemed to him very noticeable in that extraordinary and very uncomfortable man, Lord Brougham. “ There is a last quality which is difficult to describe in the language of books, but which Lord Brougham excels in, and which has perhaps been of more value to him than all his other qualities put together. In the speech of ordinary men it is called ‘devil;’ persons instructed in the German language call it ‘the Daemonic element.’ . . . It is most easily explained by physiognomy. There is a glare in some men’s eyes which seems to say, ‘ Beware! I am dangerous; noli me tangere.’ Lord Brougham’s face had this. A mischievous excitability is the most obvious expression of it. If he were a horse, nobody would buy him; with that eye no one could answer for his temper.”

With what apparent irreverence, too, he opens his chapter on the Monarchy, in his English Constitution! “The use of the Queen in a dignified capacity,” he begins, “is incalculable. . . . Most people, when they read that the Queen walked on the slopes at Windsor, that the Prince of Wales went to the Derby, have imagined that too much thought and prominence were given to little things. But they have been in error; and it is nice to trace how the actions of a retired widow and an unemployed youth become of such importance.” And yet he is not laughing. “The best reason why monarchy is a strong government,” he goes on, very seriously, “is that it is an intelligible government. The mass of mankind understand it, and they hardly anywhere in the world understand any other.” His thought turns back to the Coup d’Etat which he had seen in France. “ The issue was put to the French people,” he says; “they were asked, ‘ Will you be governed by Louis Napoleon, or will you be governed by an assembly ?’ The French people said, ‘We will be governed by the one man we can imagine, and not by the many people we cannot imagine.’ ” The man is a conservative; it is only his wit that is a radical.

His Lombard Street is the most outwardly serious of his greater writings. It is his picture of the money market, whose public operations and hidden influences he exhibits with his accustomed, apparently inevitable lucidity. He explains, as perhaps only he could explain, the parts played in the market by the Chancellors of the Exchequer, whose counselor he often was, by the Bank of England, and by the joint-stock banks, such as his own in Somersetshire; the influences, open and covert, that make for crisis or for stability, - the whole machinery and the whole psychology of the subtle game and business of finance. There is everywhere the same close intimacy between the fact and the thought. What he writes seems always a light playing through affairs, illuminating their substance, revealing their fibre. “ As an instrument for arriving at truth,” one of Bagehot’s intimate friends once said, “ I never knew anything like a talk with Bagehot.” It got at once to the heart of a subject. He instantly appreciated the whole force and significance “ of everything you yourself said; making talk with him, as Roscoe once remarked, ‘like riding a horse with a perfect month.’ But most unique of all was his power of keeping up animation without combat. I never knew a power of discussion, of cooperative investigation of truth, to approach to it. It was all stimulus, and yet no contest.” The spontaneity with which he wrote put the same quality into his writings. They have all the freshness, the vivacity, the penetration of eager talk, and abound in those flashes of insight and discovery which make the speech of some gifted men seem like a series of inspirations. He does not always complete his subjects, either, in writing, and their partial incompleteness makes them read the more as if they were a body of pointed remarks, and not a set treatise or essay.

No doubt the best samples of his style are to be found in his literary and biographical essays, where his adept words serve him so discerningly in the disclosure of some very subtle things: the elements of individual genius, the motives and constituents of intellectual power, the diverse forces of differing men. But you shall find the same qualities and felicities in his way of dealing with the grosser and more obvious matters of politics. Here, as everywhere, to quote his own language about Laurence Sterne, his style “bears the indefinable traces which an exact study of words will always leave upon the use of words.” Here, too, there is the same illuminative play of sure insight and broad sagacity. You may illustrate his method by taking passages almost at random. “The brief description of the characteristic merit of the English constitution is,” he says, “ that its dignified parts are very complicated and somewhat imposing, very old and rather venerable; while its efficient part, at least when in great and critical action, is decidedly simple and rather modern. We have made, or rather stumbled on, a constitution which - though full of every species of incidental defect, though of the worst workmanship in all out-of-the-way matters of any constitution in the world - yet has two capital merits: it has a simple efficient part which, on occasion, and when wanted, can work more simply and easily and better than any instrument of government that has yet been tried; and it contains likewise historical, complex, august, theatrical parts, which it has inherited from a long past - which take the multitude - which guide by an insensible but an omnipotent influence the associations of its subjects. Its essence is strong with the strength of modern simplicity; its exterior is august with the Gothic grandeur of a more imposing age.” He is interested to bring out the contrast between English political arrangements and our own. “ When the American nation has chosen its President,” he explains, “its virtue goes out of it, and out of the Transmissive College through which it chooses. But because the House of Commons has the power of dismissal in addition to the power of election, its relation to the Premier is incessant. They guide him, and he leads them. He is to them what they are to the nation. He only goes where he believes they will go after him. But he has to take the lead; he must choose his direction, and begin the journey. Nor must he flinch. A good horse likes- to feel the rider’s bit; and a great deliberative assembly likes to feel that it is under worthy guidance. . . . The great leaders of Parliament have varied much, but they have all had a certain firmness. A great assembly is as soon spoiled by over-indulgence as a little child. The whole life of English politics is the action and reaction between the Ministry and the Parliament. The appointees strive to guide, and the appointors surge under the guidance.” “ The English constitution, in a word, is framed on the principle of choosing a single sovereign authority, and making it good; the American, upon the principle of having many sovereign authorities, and hoping that their multitude may atone for their inferiority. The Americans now extol their institutions, and so defraud themselves of their due praise. But if they had not a genius for politics; if they had not a moderation in action singularly curious where superficial speech is so violent; if they had not a regard for law, such as no great people have yet evinced, and infinitely surpassing ours, the multiplicity of authorities in the American constitution would long ago have brought it to a bad end. Sensible shareholders, I have heard a shrewd attorney say, can work any deed of settlement; and so the men of Massachusetts could, I believe, work any constitution. But political philosophy must analyze political history; it must distinguish what is due to the excellence of the people, and what to the excellence of the laws; it must carefully calculate the exact effect of each part of the constitution, though thus it may destroy many an idol of the multitude, and detect the secret of utility where but few imagined it to lie.”

These are eminently businesslike sentences. They are not consciously concerned with style; they do not seem to stop for the turning of a phrase; their only purpose seems to be plain elucidation, such as will bring the matter within the comprehension of everybody. And yet there is a stirring quality in them which operates upon the mind like wit. They are tonic and full of stimulus. No man could have spoken them without a lively eye. I suppose their “secret of utility" to be a very interesting one indeed, - and nothing less than the secret of all Bagehot's power- Young writers should seek it out and ponder it studiously. It is this: he is never writing "in the air." He is always looking point-blank and with steady eyes upon a definite object; he takes pains to see it, alive and natural, as it really is; he uses a phrase, as the masters of painting use a color, not because it is beautiful, - he is not thinking of that, - but because it matches life, and is the veritable image of the thing of which he speaks. Moreover, he is not writing merely to succeed at that: he is writing, not to describe, but to make alive. And so the secret comes to light. Style is an instrument. and is made imperishable only by embodiment in some great use. It is not of itself stuff to last; neither can it have real beauty except when working the substantial effects of thought or vision. Its highest triumph is to hit the meaning; and the pleasure you get from it is not unlike that which you get from the perfect action of skill. The object is so well and so easily attained! A man’s vocabulary and outfit of phrase should be his thought’s perfect habit and manner of poses’ Bagehot saw the world of his day, saw the world of days antique, and showed us what he saw in phrases which interpret like the tones of a perfect voice, in words which serve us like eyes.

Woodrow Wilson.


TOPICS: Philosophy
KEYWORDS: progressingamerica
Wilson puts his reverence for Walter Bagehot on display again.

First published in 1898, this writing is in the public domain.

1 posted on 04/18/2013 6:16:15 AM PDT by ProgressingAmerica
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