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actions are always determined by their interests.' ^ He
then adds that the word ' interest ' must be understood to
mean what is commonly termed private, or wordly

It will be unnecessary to enter into the consideration
of the arguments used by ]Mi\ J. S. Mill in this place ;
because in his subsequent work, ' Considerations on
Eepresentative Governments,' p. 55, he has used words
which are conclusive of the whole question. The words
are these : ' Whenever it ceases to be true that mankind,
as a rule, prefer themselves to others, and those nearest
to them to those more remote.' So true is this that even
under the most improved form of representative govern-
ment yet known it may be said that good government is
impossible, as far as experience has yet proved. Under
the latest reforms of the British parhament, those mem-
bers of parliament who vote with the government, and
some who do not, but have powerful tongues, exert their
parliamentary interest to put incompetent persons into
places of profit and trust, provided such incompetent
persons are nearer to them than competent persons who
are passed over. We may reckon the average number
of such members of parliament at more than 200 ;
so that saturation under the representative system
cannot be a very easy matter.

It is contended that the remedy against these evils and
infirmities of representative government would be a rule
that tlie first admission to government employment shaU
be decided by competitive examination ; and the result
of the trying examinations for honours at Oxford and
Cambridge is cited in support of the argument. The

' Mill's Logic, vol. ii. p. 479, 7th edition.


general effect of high university lionours on a man is to
niake him a prig for hfe, I say the general effect, for
there are of course exceptions. But this result produces
a quite sufficiently large annual crop of stunted pedants
and prigs without adding to their number an annual crop
of government clerks. Let us see what competitive
examination has done, that we may judge of what further
it is likely to do. The brilliant idea announced by
M. Comte in regard to the study of biology, of manu-
facturing philosophers by draAving together, as moths
are drawn to the flame of a candle, all the remarkable
calculating ^ boys of a nation, and then scouring their
brains by competitive examinations, has been reduced to
practice in the case of the university of Cambridge for
somewhat more than a century ; and the result has been of
coiu'se a large production of calculating boys. But during
that time has Cambridge produced any physiologist equal
to Harvey, any metaphysician or psychologist equal to
Hartley, or any mathematician and natural philosopher
equal to Newton ? Or has Oxford produced any political
philosopher equal to Adam Smith ? The men who have
done great things, the men who have produced such
works as the 'Principia ' and the * Wealth of Nations,' did
not when young have their brains scoured by competitive
examinations, but were left to pursue their studies
according to the bent of their owm minds, to read the
authors their natural genius led them to read, and to
make their own reflections at their leisure as they read

^ The distinction between computing or calculating and thinking was
pointed out by Berkeley, who was more of a mathematician than most
metaphysicians. — See a note near the end of the essay on Tlobbes. Ilubbes,
on the other hand, was so little of a mathematician, that Wallis, with whom
he had a long controversy, said of something that it was as ditlicult as it
was to make Mr. Ilobbes understand mathematics.


in marginal notes, as Xewton did witli regard to the
* Geometria ' of Descartes and the ' Arithmetica Infinito-
rum ' of WaUis ; and as Adam Smith did with regard to
Hume's ' Treatise of Human Nature.' It is very probable
that Adam Smith would have been beaten in competitive
examination by men without a particle of his genius ;
and even Newton, notwithstanding his wonderful quick-
ness of apprehension in mathematical science, might have
been beaten and thereby discouraged for life by com-
petitors possessing the extraordinary rapidity that distin-
guishes the tribe of remarkable calculating boys.

The question as between monarchical and representa-
tive government may be stated thus. In a representative
government there is httle or no hope of so good a
minister as Turgot ; and there is little or no fear of so
bad a minister as Richelieu or Mazarin, or as Bucking-
ham or Strafford. The conditions necessary to power in
a representative assembly almost preclude the possibility
of the prime minister's being a man possessed of the
highest qualities of statesmanship ; and it is an old obser-
vation that one of the incidents of free governments is
that the highest places in them fall to men in whom
great powers of speech are united to small powers of
judgment. And even though the ' tongue ' may have ' a
garnish of brains,' the ' tongue with a garnish of brains '
may, as in the case of Burke,^ be placed in the official
scale far below the tongue without a garnish of brains.
Nevertheless it is better to suffer this evil than the far
greater curse of submission to some tyrant, whether
capable or incapable, who insists on putting down all

1 ' Our Burke shall be tongue, with a garnish of brains.' — Goldsmith's


opinions Init liis own, on doiiig himself all the thiiikinf^
of the connnunity, and on corrupting and degrading a
whole nation in order to serve his purposes.

James Mill sometimes used very happy and apposite
illustrations. Thus in his article ' Colony,' in the Ency-
clopaidia Britannica, he says : ' Sancho Panza liad a
scheme for deriving advantage from tlie government of
an island. He would sell the people for slaves, and put
the money in his pocket.' And in his ' Fragment on
Mackintosh ' he says : ' Mr. Peter Pounce, in a discussion
with Parson Adams, established the superior merit of
good feelings over good acts ; which, or the consequences
of which, Sir James Mackintosh treats as " cold, uncertain,
dependent, and precarious." " Sir," said Adams, " my defi-
nition of charity is a generous disposition to relieve the
distressed." " There is something in that definition," an-
swered Peter, " which I like well enough ; it is, as you
say, a disposition ; and does not so much consist in the
act as in the disposition to do it." '

While it must be admitted that there is a certain
amount of truth in Lord Macaulay's remark that ' Mr.
Mill's history, though it has undoubtedly great and rare
merit, is not sufficiently animated and picturesque to
attract those who read for amusement, ' there is a remark
of James Mill himself upon the ' Eeport from the
Committee of the House of Commons appointed to inspect
the Lords' Journals in relation to their Proceedings on the
Trial of Warren Hastings,' which describes with great
accuracy the peculiar qualities of his ' History of British
India.' James Mill thus estimates the value of the work
performed in the report referred to : ' The view is incom-
plete, and but superficial, which Mr. Burke, who was the


author of tlie document, takes, even of that small por-
tion of the mass of abuses of which he had occasion to
complain. He neither stretched his eye to the whole
of the subject, nor did he carry its vision to the bottom.'
Tried by this standard, Mill's ' History of British India '
possesses a very high degree of merit ; ' has undoubtedly,'
to borrow Lord Macaulay's words, ' great and rare merit.'
And that merit consists in this. James Mill had studied
legislative and political philosophy far more profoundly
than any other historian has yet done ; and his powerful
and comprehensive mind, stretching its vision over the
whole extent of his subject and also penetrating to the
bottom of it, saw distinctly and described accurately
all those objects, and those only, which were to serve as
means to the end he had in view ; namely, ' to convey
correct and adequate ideas cf the British empire in India,
and of the transactions through wliich it was acquired.'
The terms in which Mill and Macaulay respectively speak
of Francis present an instructive example of what is
meant by the words above quoted, that Mill's history is
' not sufficiently animated to attract those who read for
amusement.' Mill's narrative of the disputes between
Francis and Hastings is certainly not so amusing as that
of Lord Macaulay. Mill is guarded in his conclusions,
carefully weighes the evidence on both sides of a question,
and would be most unlikely to make such an assertion as
that his ' firm belief is that Francis was the author of
the " Letters of Junius ; " ' and that if the argument by
which he has satisfied himself ' does not settle the question,
there is an end of all reasoning on circumstantial evidence.'
No doubt this is the sort of writing which ' attracts those
who read for amusement.' Those who read for amuse-


mcnt like to be saved the trouble of thinking ; and this
is the sort of writing wliicli ])erforms that service for
them. What if Francis should turn out— as he is very
likely to do — not to be the author of the 'Letters of
Junius?' In that case, according to Lord Macaulay,
'there is an end of all reasonincr on circumstantial
evidence.' But what does that mean ? For the meaning
or the purport of the words of some writers who at
first sight appear to be very clear, when looked closely
into, is found to be very far from clear.




The results of an attempt, which has occupied much
time, labour, and thought, to evolve historical truth from
a careful and impartial weighing and sifting of evidence,
have tended to demonstrate to me that to some cases, at
least, the remark of Hume is applicable, that ' if truth be
at all within the reach of human capacity it is certain it
must he very deep and abtruse.' ^ It is very remarkable
that Hume himself should have acted so little in con-
formity with the opinion he thus expressed. From his
extreme carelessness or indifference as to the accuracy of
his statements, I am inclined to think that there are few

1 Hume's Treatise of Human Nature, vol. i. p. 3. It is necessary, in jus-
tice to Hume, to say that I do not find these words in the new form into
which he cast his Treatise of Human Nature, under the titles of An Inquiry
concerning the Human Understanding, An Inquiry concerning the Principles
of Morals, and The Natural History of Religion. These form the 2nd
volume of his Essays and Treatises, a new edition of which, in two vols., was
published at Edinburgh in 1825. In an advertisement prefixed to the 2nd
volume, the Treatise of Human Nature is described as a 'juvenile work
which the author never acknowledged ; ' and the advertisement concludes
thus : — ' Henceforth the author desires that the following pieces may alone
be regarded as containing his philosophical sentiments and principles.' I am
inclined to think that the following words in the 4th section of the Inquiry
concerning the Human Understanding (Hume's Essays, vol. ii. p. 31) cor-
respond to the words quoted in the text from the Treatise of Human
Nature, 'It must certainly be allowed that Nature has kept us at a great
distance from all her secrets ; ' and that Hume, while he thought that philo-
sophical truth lay very deep, either thought that historical truth lay on the
surface, or was indifferent about it.

HUME. 137

modern works of any pretensions that contain more ex-
amples of false generalisation than his. This remark is
by no means confined to his treatment of modern, par-
ticularly Enghsh, history. His essays contain innumerable
instances of conclusions drawn from false premises with
regard to ancient as well as modern history.

Nor was this confined to historical subjects. Some of
his essays contain strange contradictions and inconsist-
encies. Thus, in his section on ' The Eeason of Animals,'
though the beginning of the section is devoted to showing
• that animals, as well as men, learn many things from
experience, and infer that the same events will always
follow from the same causes,' towards the end of the
same section he says : ' Though the instinct be different,
yet still it is an instinct which teaches a man to avoid the
fire, as much as that wliich teaches a bird with such
exactness the art of incubation and tlie whole economy
and order of its nursery.' ^ A man avoids the fire, not by
instinct, but by an act of reasoning from experience.
Instinct does not tell him, nor does he know, that fire will
burn him till he has made the experiment, as is expressed
in the common proverb, 'a burnt child dreads the fire.'
Consequently this is not a case of instinct in men, nor is
it in beasts. A burnt cat dreads the fire and avoids it in
future, as well as a burnt child. A burnt moth is des-
troyed in making the experiment, if not with the fire,
with the candle ; consequently, never profits by that ex-
periment. Hume's essay on ' The Original Contract '
affords another example of just observations in startling
contrast with assertions unsupported by any evidence and
involving many assumptions and contradictions.

' Hume's Essays, vol. ii. p. 108, 2 vols. 8vo. Eilinburnrh, 1825.


In his essay ' Of Civil Liberty ' Hume says : ' I am apt
to entertain a suspicion that the world is still too young
to fix many general truths in politics which will remain
true to the latest posterity. We have not yet had ex-
perience of three thousand years ; so that not only the
art of reasoning is still imperfect in this science, as in all
others, but we even want sufficient materials upon which
we can reason. It is not fully known what degree of
refinement, either in virtue or vice, human nature is
susceptible of, nor what may be expected of mankind
from any great revolution in their education, customs, or
principles. Maehiavelli was certainly a great genius ; but,
having confined his study to the furious and tyrannical
governments of ancient times, or to the little disorderly
principalities of Italy, his reasonings, especially upon
monarchical government, have been found extremely de-
fective ; and there scarcely is any maxim in his ' Prince '
which subsequent experience has not entirely refuted.' ^

David Hume was, hke Maehiavelli, a man of genius.
His mind was one of great power and originality. He
was a most acute and even subtle reasoner. It has been
said that the object of his reasonings was not to attain
truth, but to show that it was unattainable. I am inclined
to think that his frequent failures in attaining truth are
rather attributable to a bad habit he had acquired,
through indolence, of carelessness or indifference about
the accuracy of his facts. Indeed, those conclusions
which are not true or are defective, like Machiavelli's, on
political subjects, can often only be avoided by great
labour and careful and accurate observation. We should
not know, if it were not for the minutes of the proceedings

* Hume's Essays, vol. i. p. 81, Edinburgh, 1825.

HUME. 139

of the Council of State of the Commonwealth of England,
the inaccuracy of the assertions made by politicians and
political writers respecting the number of members
of which a Cabinet or Executive Council of State ought
to consist — assertions wliich form an instructive example
of the truth of a remark of David Hume, ' Tliat where
men are the most sure and arrogant, they are commonly
the most mistaken.' ^

That David Hume, though he might be an acute and
subtle reasoncr, was a careless and inaccurate observer,
appears from his essay ' Of Civil Liberty ' before referred
to. In that essay he says : ' But though all kinds of govern-
ment be improved in modern times, yet monarchical
government seems to have made the greatest advances
tow^ards perfection. It may now be affirmed of civilised
monarchies, what was formerly said in praise of republics
alone, that they are a government of laws, not of men?
They are found susceptible of order, of metliod, and
constancy, to a surprising degree. Property is tliere
secure ; industry encouraged ; the arts flourish ; and the
prince lives secure among his subjects, like a father
among his children.'^

These remarks, and many more to the same effect, show
in Hume a very great ignorance of the real condition of
the great body of the people in France at that time, some
fifty years before the French Eevolution. This ignorance
is the more surprising, as Hume had lived several years
in France. The writings of Turgot, of Mirabeau the
Elder, of Arthur Young, and many others,* show the

' Hume's Essays, vol. ii. p. 315, Edinburirh, 1825.
^ The italics are in the orijrinal. ^ Hume's Essays, vol. i. p. 87.

* Among these I nmy mention Bishop Berkeley, from whose letters I give
one or two extracts which are very signilicaut as to the condition of France,


inaccuracy of Hume's account of the state of France,
where, according to him, ' the prince hves secure among
his subjects, hke a father among his children.' Hume
saw nothing but security, prosperity, and content. The
elder Mirabeau saw the portent, the black foreshadowing
of a great social and political convulsion ; of a revolution
tliat would sadly belie Hume's rose-coloured picture of
paternal government.

Hume begins his essay on the question ' whether the
British Government inclines more to absolute monarchy
or to a repubhc ' with the remark ' that no prudent man,
however sure of his principles, dares prophecy concerning
any event, or foretell the remote consequences of things.' ^
Nevertheless, he concludes his essay by doing what he
says, at the beginning, that no prudent man dares to do.

and present a picture tlie reverse of Hume's. In a letter to Mr. Thomas
Prior, dated Paris, Nov. 25, 1713 (N.S.), Berkeley says :— < I have some
reasons to decline speaking of the country or villages that I saw as I came
along.' And in another letter to the same person, dated Leghorn, Feb. 26,
1714 (N.S.), he says:—' I shall not anticipate your pleasure by any descrip-
tion of Italy or France. Only, with regard to the latter, I cannot help ob-
serving that the Jacobites have little to hope, and others little to fear, from
that reduced nation. The king, indeed, looks as though he wanted neither
meat nor drink, and his palaces are in good repair ; but throughout the land
there is a different face of things.' He mentions in the letter first quoted a
fact in strong contrast with the present speed of travelling :— ' I embarked at
Calais on Nov. 1 in the stage-coach, and that day sennight came to Paris.'
And in another letter, dated Turin, Jan. 6,171 4 (N.S.), he says :— 'Savoy was a
perpetual chain of rocks and mountains almost impassable for ice and snow.
And yet I rode post through it, and came off with only four falls, from which
I received no other damage than the breaking my sword, my watch, and my
snuff-box. On new year's day we passed Mount Cenis. We were carried
in open chairs by men used to scale these rocks and precipices. My life
often depended on a single step.'— Beikeley's Letters prefixed to the Ist
vol. of his works. Berkeley's wearing a sword, as appears from this extract,
might lead to the inference that he was not then in holy orders, were it not
that he was then travelling to Italy ' in quality,' as he says himself in a
letter to Pope, dated Leghorn, May 1 , 1714, ' by the favour of my good friend
the Dean of St. Patrick's (Swift), of chaplain to the earl of Peterborough.'
' Hume's Essays, vol. i. p. 42, Edinburgh, 1825.

UUME. 141

He propliecies concerning tlic dcatli of tlic Britibli con-
stitution, whicli lie says will terminate in an absolute
monarchy. And as far as can yet be seen, I think it may
be said of Hume what Hume has said of Machiavelli, that
his reasonings, especially upon monarchical government,
have been found extremely defective. However, Hume
had not the great facts of the American and French
revolutions to guide his conclusions ; and he might, with
more probability of being right, prophecy that the general
progress was towards absolute monarchy ; while political
writers who have lived after those revolutions have come
to a different conclusion, and said that the general pro-
gress was towards democracy.

Hume is not responsible for not knowing the future,
but he is responsible for not knowing, while he professed
to know, the past. If Hume had possessed even a very
moderate acquaintance with the history of Europe during
the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, though he might
not know ' what degree of refinement, either in virtue or
vice, human nature is susceptible of,' he would have
learnt, by a careful study of the reigns of such kings as
Philip II. of Spain and James VI. of Scotland and I.
of England, and of the lives of such men as Pope Alex-
ander VI. and his son Caesar Borgia, that human nature,
even in that early age of the world, when the world
according to him was ' still too young to fix many general
truths in politics,' was susceptible of a considerable
degree of refinement in vice, at least, if not in virtue.

Notwithstanding the remark at the beginning of this
essay as to the many examples of false generalisation fur-
nished by his works, Hume's mind was one of such power
and fertility that, as Hobbes saw farther into the texture


of human thought than all who had gone before him,
Hume saw farther than any who had gone before him.
Ilume, says James Mill, ' pointed out three great laws or
comprehensive sequences. Ideas followed one another, he
said, according to resemblance, contiguity in time and
place, and cause and effect. The last of these, the
sequence according to cause and effect, was very dis-
tinctly conceived, and even the cause of it explained, by
Hobbes.^ That of contiguity in time and place is thus
satisfactorily explained by Hume. 'It is evident,' he
says, ' that as the senses, in changing their objects, are
necessitated to change them regularly and take them as
they lie contiguous to each other, the imagination must,
by long custom, acquire the same method of thinking,
and run along the parts of space and time in conceiving
its objects."-^ This is a reference to one of the laws pointed
out by Hobbes, namely, that the order of succession
among the ideas follows the order that took place among
the impressions. . . . Hume further remarked, that
what are called our complex ideas are only a particular
class of cases belonging to the same law — the law of the
succession of ideas ; every complex idea being only a
certain number of simple ideas, which succeed each other
so rapidly as not to be separately distinguished without
an effort of thought. This was a great discovery ; but it
must at the same time be owned that it was very imper-
fectly developed by Hume. That philosopher proceeded,
by aid of these principles, to account for the various phe-
nomena of the human mind. But thougli he made some
brilliant developments, it is nevertheless true that he did

^ Tinman Nature, ch. iv.

"^ Treatise on Human Nature, part i. book i. § 4.

HUME. 143

not advance very far in the general object. He was mis-
led by the pursuit of a few surprising and paradoxical
results, and when he had arrived at them he stopped.' ^

Again, James Mill says, in his ' Analysis of the Human
Mind,' ' Names to mark the antecedent and consequent
in all constant successions were found indi-spensuble.
Cause and Effect are the names we employ. In all
constant successions. Cause is the name of the antecedent,
Effect the name of the consequent. And, besides this, it
has been proved by philosophers that these names denote
absolutely nothing.' ^ The writer adds in a note that this
has been proved ' chiefly by Dr. Brown, of Edinburgh, in
a work entitled " Inquiry into the Eelation of Cause and
Effect ; " one of the most valuable contributions to science
for which we are indebted to the last generation.'

Now it may be observed, as one example of the fertility
of Hume's mind, which, like Hobbes's, often threw out, in
a sentence or two, and in the course of other inquiries,
new ideas which might have formed the subject of
volumes, that Hume, in the eighth section of his ' Enquiry
concerning the Human Understanding,' a section on the
subject of 'Liberty and Necessity,' has expressed in a

Online LibraryAndrew BissetEssays on historical truth → online text (page 11 of 40)