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companion, and the most amiable of friends, but
nothing was further from his thoughts than to pose
as guide and philosopher. His conversation was par-
ticularly neat and pointed. He had a lucidity of
phrase such as is more common in French society
than among ourselves. The vice of small talk and

W. R. GREG : A SKETCH. 249

the sin of prosing he was equally free from ; and if
he did not happen to be interested, he had a great
gift of silence.

The grace of humility is one of the supreme moral
attractions in a man. Its outward signs are not
always directly discernible ; and it may exist under-
neath marked intrepidity, confidence in one's own
judgment, and even a strenuous push for the honours
of the world. But without humility, no veracity.
There is a genuine touch of it in a letter which
Greg wrote to a friend who had consented to be the
guardian of his children : —

I have no directions as to their education to give.
I have too strong a sense of the value of religion myself,
not to wish that my children should have so much of it
(I speak of feeling, not of creed) as is compatible with
reason. I have no ambition for them, and can only
further say in the dying words of Julie, ' N'en faites point
des savans — faites-en des hommes bienfaisans et justes.'
If they are this, they will be more than their father ever
was, and all he ever desired to be.

This sentiment of the unprofitable servant was deep
in his nature — as it may well be in all who are not
either blinded by inborn fatuity, or condemned by
natural poverty of mind to low and gross ideals.

Though he took great delight in the enchanted
land of pure literature, apart from all utility, yet he
was of those, the fibres of whose nature makes it
impossible for them to find real intellectual interest

250 W. R. GREG : A SKETCH.

outside of what is of actual and present concern to
their fellows. Composition, again, had to him none
of the pain and travail that it brings to most wi'iters.
The expression came with the thought. His ideas
were never vague, and needed no laborious translation.
Along with them came apt words and the finished
sentence. Yet his fluency never ran off into the fatal
channels of verbosity. Ease, clearness, precision, and
a certain smooth and sure-paced consecutiveness, made
his written style for all purposes of statement and
exposition one of the most telling and effective of his
day. This gift of expression helped him always to
appear intellectually at his best. It really came from
a complete grasp of his own side of the case, and that
always produces the best style next after a complete
grasp of both sides. Few men go into the troubled
region of pamphleteering, article-writing, public con-
troversy, and incessant dialectics, without suffering a
deterioration of character in consequence. Mr. Greg
must be set down as one of these few. He never fell
into the habitual disputant's vice of trying to elude
the force of a fair argument ; he did not mix up his
own personality in the defence of his thesis ; differ-
ences in argument and opinion produced not only no
rancour, but even no soreness.

The epicurean element was undoubtedly strong in
him. He liked pleasant gardens ; set a high value on
leisure and even vacuity ; did not disdain novels ; and
had the sense to prefer good wine to bad. When he
travelled in later life he showed none of the over-praised

W. E. GREG : A SKETCH. 251

desire to acquire information for information's sake.
While his companions were ' getting up ' the Pyra-
mids, or antiquities in the Troad, or the great tomb
of Alyattis, Mr. Greg refused to take any trouble to
form views, or to pretend to find a sure footing among
the shifting sands of archteological or pre-historic re-
search. He chose to lie quietly among the ruins, and
let the beauty and wonder of the ancient world float
silently about him. For this poetic indolence he had
a great faculty. To a younger friend whom he sus-
pected of unwholesome excess of strenuousness, he
once propounded this test of mental health : ' Could
you sit for a whole day on the banks of a stream,
doing nothing and thinking of nothing, only throwing
stones into the water?'

The ascetic view of things was wholly distasteful
to him. He had a simple way of taking what was
bright and enjoyable in life, refusing to allow any-
thing but very distinct duty to interfere with the
prompt acceptance of the gifts of the gods. Yet, as
very seldom happens in natures thus composed, he
was before all things unselfish. That is to say, he
struck those who knew him best as less of a centre
to himself than most other people are. Though
thoroughly capable of strong and persistent wishes,
and as far as possible from having a character of faint
outlines and pale colours, it came to him quite natur-
ally and without an effort to think of those for whom
he cared, and of himself not at all. There was some-
thing of the child of nature in him. Though nobody

252 W. E. GREG : A SKETCH.

liked the fruits of cultivated life better — order, neat-
ness, and grace in all daily things — yet nobody was
more ready to make short work of conventionalities
that might thrust shadows between him or others and
the substance of happiness.

It would be difficult for me here to examine Mr.
Greg's writings with perfect freedom and appropriate-
ness. The man rather than the author has prompted
this short sketch. His books tell their own story.
There is not one of them that does not abound in sug-
gestion both in politics and in subjects where there is
more room for free meditation and the subtler quali-
ties of mind than politics can ever afford. Mr. Greg
is not one of the thinkers whom we can place in any
school, still less in any party. It may be safely said
of him that he never took up an idea or an opinion,
as most writers even of high repute are not afraid of
doing, simply because it was proffered to him, or be-
cause it was held by others with whom in a general
way he was disposed to agree. He did not even
shrink from what looked like self-contradiction, so
honest was his feeling for truth, and so little faith
had he in the infallibility of sect and the trustworthi-
ness of system. In the Enigmas of Life (1875) there
is much that is hard to reconcile with his own funda-
mental theology, and he was quite aware of it. He
was content with the thought that he had found
fragments of true ore. Hence the extraordinary diffi-
culty of classifying him. One would be inclined to
place him as a Theist, yet can we give any other

W. R. GREG : A SKETCH. 253

name but xignostic to a man who speaks in such terms
as these 1 —

I cannot for a moment not believe in a Supreme
Being, and I cannot for a moment doubt that His arrange-
ment must be right and wise and benevolent. But I
cannot also for a moment feel confident in any doctrines
or oi^inions I could form on this great question, ^

The same impossibility of classification meets us in
his politics. He was certainly, in a philosophic sense,
a Conservative ; he was anti-popular and anti-demo-
cratic. Yet he was an ardent champion of the popular
and democratic principle of Nationalities ; he was all
for the Greeks and Bulgarians against the Turks,
and all for the Hungarians and Italians against the
Austrians.2 -^q^ h^d he any sympathy with the old
ordering of society as such. He had no zeal, as far as
one can see, for an hereditary peerage and an estab-
lished church. He threw himself into the memorable
battle of the Keform Bill of 1832 with characteristic
spirit and energy. His ideal, like that of most liter-
ary thinkers on politics, was an aristocracy, not of
caste, but of education, virtue, and public spirit. It
was the old dream of lofty minds from Plato down to
Turgot. Every page of Greg's political writing is
coloured by this attractive vision. Though as anxious

1 To the Rev. E. White.

2 'When the Hungarian exiles were in England,' writes Pro-
fessor F. W. Newman, 'he was not too rich, nor had I any
close relations with him, but he voluntarily gave me ten pounds
for any service to them which I judged best.'

254 W. R. GREG : A SKETCH.

as any politician of his time for practical improve-
ments, and as liberal in his conception of their scope
and possibility, he insisted that they could only be
brought about by an aristocracy of intellect and
virtue.^ But then the great controversy turns on
the best means of securing sense and probity in a
government. The democrat holds that under repre-
sentative institutions the best security for the interests
of the mass of the community is, that the mass shall
have a voice in their own affairs, and that in propor-
tion as that security is narrowed and weakened, the
interests of the mass will be subordinate to those of
the class that has a decisive voice. Mr. Greg had no
faith in the good issues of this rough and spontaneous
play of social forces. The extension of the suffrage
in 1867 seemed to him to be the ruin of representa-
tive institutions ; and when that was capped by the
Ballot in 1872, the cup of his dismay was full. Per-
haps, he went on to say, some degree of safety might
be found by introducing the Ballot inside the House
of Commons. De Tocqueville wrote Mr. Greg a long
and interesting letter in 185.3, which is well worth
reading to-day in connection with scrutin de lisie and
the Ballot.^ De Tocqueville was for both. He was,
as has been said, 'an aristocrat who accepted his
defeat,' and he tried to make the best of democracy.
Greg fought against the enemy to the last, and clung

1 See his two volumes of reprinted articles, Essays on Polili-
:al and Social Science (1853).

"^ Correspondence, vol. ii. pp. 212-220.

W. R. GREG : A SKETCH. 255

to every device for keeping out the deluge. He could
not get on to common ground with those who believe
that education is no sort of guarantee for political
competency ; that no class, however wise and good,
can be safely trusted with the interests of other
classes ; and finally, that great social and economic
currents cannot be checked or even guided by select
political oligarchies, on whatever base any such
oligarchy may rest.

Lord Grey's prescription for correcting the prac-
tical faults revealed by experience in our present
system of representation, consisted of the following
ingredients : — the cumulative vote ; not fewer than
three seats to each constituency ; universities and
some other constituencies, necessarily consisting of
educated men, to have increased representation; a
limited number of life members to be introduced into
the House of Commons, the vacancies to be filled,
when not less than three had occurred, by cumulative
vote within the House itself. On all this Mr. Greg
wrote to Lord Grey (May 28, 1874) : 'I quite agree
with you that this impending danger we both foresee
might be averted, if our country would listen either
to you or to me.'

Tenderness for these truly idle devices for keeping
power in the hands of a restricted class was all the
less to be expected in Mr. Greg, as he had made a
serious study of French politics prior to 1848. Now
the Monarchy of July maintained a narrow and ex-
clusive franchise, and its greatest minister was the

256 W. R. GREG : A SKETCH.

very type of the class from Avhom Mr. Greg would
have sought the directors of national affairs. If ever
there was a statesman who approached the fulfilment
of Mr. Greg's conditions, it was Guizot. Guizot had
undergone years of patient historic study ; nobody of
his time had reflected more carefully on the causes
and forces of great movements ; he had more of Avhat
is called the calm philosophic mind, than any one then
eminent in literature ; he overflowed with wliat Mr.
Greg describes as the highest kind of wisdom; his
moral pretensions were austere, lofty, and unbending
to a fault. No man of any time would seem to have
been better entitled to a place among the Wise and
the Good whom nations ought to seek out to rule over
them. Yet this great man was one of the very worst
statesmen that ever governed France. The severe
morality of the student was cast behind him by the
minister. He did not even shrink from defending,
from considerations of political convenience, the mal-
versations of a colleague. The pattern of wisdom and
goodness devised and executed a cynical and vile in-
trigue, from which Sir Eobert AValpole would have
shrunk with masculine disgust, and that would have
raised scruples in Dubois or Calonne. Finally, this
famous professor of political science possessed so little
skill in political practice, that a few years of his policy
wrecked a constitution and brought a dynasty to the

All these political regrets and doubts, however,
cannot lessen or affect our interest in those ingenious.

W. R. GREG : A SKETCH. 257

subtle, and delicate speculations which Mr. Greg called
Enigmas of Life. Though his Creed of Christendom
may have made a more definite and recognisable
mark, the later book rapidly fell in with the needs of
many minds, stirred much controversy of a useful and
harmonious kind, and attracted serious curiosity to a
wider variety of problems. It is at this moment in
its fifteenth edition. The chapters on Malthus and
on the Non-Survival of the Fittest make a very
(genuine and oriaiinal contribution to modern thought.
But it is the later essays in the little volume that
touched most readers, and will for long continue to
touch them. They are as far as possible from being
vague, or misty, or aimless. Yet they have, what is
so curiously rare in English literature, the charm of
reverie. As the author said, they 'contain rather
suggested thoughts that may fructify in other minds
than distinct propositions which it is sought argumen-
tatively to prove.' They have the ever seductive
note of meditation and inwardness, which, when it
sounds true, as it assuredly did here, moves the spirit
like a divine music. There is none of the thunder of
Carlyle (which, for that matter, one may easily come
in time to find prodigiously useless and unedifying) ;
there is not the piercing concentrated ray of Emerson :
but the complaints, the misgivings, the aspirations of
our generation find in certain pages of Mr. Greg's
book a voice of mingled fervour and recueillement, a
imion of contemplative reason with spiritual sensi-
bility, Avhich makes them one of the best expressions


258 W. R. GREG : A SKETCH.

of one of the highest moods of this bewildered time.
They are in the true key for religious or spiritual
composition, as Rousseau's Savoyard Vicar is ; thought
and emotion are fused without the decorations of mis-
placed rhetoric. That meditations so stamped with
sincerity, and so honestly directed to the actual per-
plexities of thoughtful people, should have met with
wide and grateful acceptance, is no more than might
have been expected. Least of all can their fine
qualities be underrated even by those who, like the
present writer, believe that, ponder these great
enigmas as we may, we shall never get beyond
Goethe's majestic psalm : —

Edel sey der Mensch,
Hiilfreicli und gut !
Denn das allein
Unterscheidet ihn
Von alien Wesen
Die wir kennen. . . .

Denn unfiihlend

1st die Natur :

Es leuchtet die Sonne

Ueber Bos' und Gute,

Und dem Verbrecher

Glanzen, wie dem Besten,

Der Mond und die Sterne. . . .

Nach ewigen, elirnen
Grossen Gesetzen '

Miissen wir alle
Unseres Dasoyns
Kreise vollenden.

W. R. GREG : A SKETCH. 259

Nur allein der Mensch
Vermag das Unmogliclie ;
Er unterscheidet
Wahlet und richtet
Er kann dem Augenblick
Dauer verleihen.


The announcement that one of the most ingenious and
accomplished men of letters in Europe was engaged
upon a history of the French Eevolution, raised some
doubts among those who have thought most about the
qualifications proper to the historian. M. Taine has
the quality of the best type of a man of letters ; he
has the fine critical aptitude for seizing the secret of
an author's or an artist's manner, for penetrating to
dominant and central ideas, for marking the abstract
and general under accidental forms in which they are
concealed, for connecting the achievements of literature
and art with facts of society and impulses of human
character and life. He is the master of a style which,
if it seems to lack the breadth, the firmness, the
sustained and level strength of great writing, is yet
always energetic, and fresh, and alive with that
spontaneous reality and independence of interest
which distinguishes the genuine writer from the mere
weaver of sentences and the servile mechanic of the

1 Les Origines de la France Contemporaine. Tom. i. L'Ancien
liegimc. Par H. Taine. Paris : Hachette. 1876.


pen. The matter and form alike of M. Taine's best
work — and we say best, for his work is by no means
uithout degrees and inequalities of worth — i)rove
that he has not shrunk from the toil and austerity of
the student, from that scorn of delight and living of
laborious days, by which only can men either get
command of the art of just and finished expression,
or gather to themselves much knowledge.

But with all its attractiveness and high uses of its
own, the genius for literature in its proper sense is
distinct from the genius for political history. The
discipline is different, because the matter is different.
To criticise Rousseau's Social Contract requires one
set of attainments, and to judge the proceedings of
the Constituent Assembly or the Convention requires
a set of quite different attainments. A man may
have the keenest sense of the filiation of ideas, of
their scope and purport, and yet have a very dull or
uninterested eye for the play of material forces, the
wayward tides of great gatherings of men, the rude
and awkward methods that sometimes go to the
attainment of wise political ends.

It would perhaps not be too bold to lay down this
proposition ; that no good social history has ever been
written by a man who has not either himself taken a
more or less active part in public affairs, or else been
an habitual intimate of persons who were taking such
a part on a considerable scale. Everybody knows
what Gibbon said about the advantage to the historian
of the Roman Empire of having been a member of the


English parliament and a captain in the Hampshire
grenadiers. Thucydides commanded an Athenian
squadron, and Tacitus filled the offices of prsetor and
consul. Xenophon, Polybius, and Sallust, were all
men of afifairs and public adventure. Guicciardini
was an ambassador, a ruler, and the counsellor of
rulers ; and Machiavel was all these things and more.
Voltaire was the keen -eyed friend of the greatest
princes and statesmen of his time, and was more than
once engaged in diplomatic transactions. Eobertson
was a powerful party chief in the Assembly of the
Scotch Church. Grote and Macaulay were active
members of parliament, and Hallam and Milman
were confidential members of circles where afiairs of
State were the staple of daily discussion among the
men who were responsible for conducting them to
successful issues. Guizot was a prime minister, Finlay
Avas a farmer of the Greek revenue. The most learned
of contemporary English historians a few years ago
contested a county, and is habitually inspired in his
researches into the past by his interest in the politics
of the present. The German historians, whose gifts
in reconstructing the past are so valuable and so
singular, have for the most part been as actively
interested in the public movements of to-day, as in
those of any century before or since the Christian
era. Niebuhr held more than one political post of
dignity and importance ; and of historical writers in
our time, one has sat in several Prussian parliaments ;
another, once the tutor of a Prussian prince, has lived


in the atmosphere of higli politics ; while all the best
of them have taken their share in the preparation of the
political spirit and ideas that have restored Germany
to all the fulness and exaltation of national life.

It is hardly necessary to extend the list. It is
indeed plain on the least reflection that close contact
with political business, however modest in its preten-
sions, is the best possible element in the training of
any one who aspires to understand and reproduce
political history. Political preparation is as necessary
as literary preparation. There is no necessity that
the business should be on any majestic and imperial
scale. To be a guardian of the poor in an East-End
parish, to be behind the scenes of some great strike
of labour, to be an active member of the parliamentary
committee of a Trades Council or of the executive
committee of a Union or a League, may be quite as
instructive discipline as participation in mightier
scenes. Those who write concrete history, without
ever having taken part in practical politics, are, one
might say, in the position of those ancients who wrote
about the human body without ever having effectively
explored it by dissection. Mr. Carlyle, it is true, by
force of penetrating imaginative genius, has reproduced
in stirring and resplendent dithyrambs the fire and
passion, the rage and tears, the many-tinted dawn and
the blood-red sunset of the French Revolution ; and
the more a man learns about the details of the Revolu-
tion, the greater is his admiration for Mr. Carlyle's
magnificent performance. But it is dramatic presenta-


tion, not social analysis ; a masterpiece of literature,
not a scientific investigation; a prodigy of poetic
insight, not a sane and quantitative exploration of
the complex processes, the deep -lying economical,
fiscal, and political conditions, that prepared so im-
mense an explosion.

We have to remember, it is true, that M. Taine is
not professing to write a history in the ordinary sense.
His book lies, if we may use two very pompous but
indispensable words, partly in the region of historio-
graphy, but much more in the region of sociology.
The study of the French Revolution cannot yet be a
history of the past, for the French still walk per ignes
siipjmitos, and the Revolution is still some Avay from
being fully accomplished. It was the disputes betAveen
the Roman and the Reformed churches which inspired
historical research in the sixteenth and seventeenth
centuries ; it is the disputes among French parties
that now inspire what professes to be historiography,
but what is really a sort of experimental investigation
in the science of society. They little know how long
and weary a journey lies before them, said Burke,
who undertake to bring great masses of men into the
political unity of a nation. The process is still going
on, and a man of M. Taine's lively intellectual sensi-
bility can no more escape its influences than he can
escape the ingredients of the air he breathes. We
may add that if his work had been really historic, he
must inevitably have gone further back than the
eighteenth century for the ' Origins ' of contemporary


France. The very slight, vague, and unsubstantial
chapter with which ho opens his work cannot be
accepted as a substitute for what the subject really
demanded — a serious summary, however condensed
and rapid, of the various forces, accidents, deliberate
lines of policy, which, from the breaking up of the
great fiefs down to the death of Lewis the Fourteenth,
had prepared the distractions of the monarchy under
Lewis's descendants.

Full of interest as it is, M. Taine's book can hardly
be described as containing much that is new or
strikingly significant. He develops one idea, indeed,
which we have never before seen stated in its present
form, but which, if it implies more than has been often
advanced by previous writers in other forms, cannot
be accepted as true. This is perhaps a point better
worth discussing than any other which his book raises.
The rest is a very elaborate and thorough description
of the structure of society, of its physiognomy in
manners and characteristics, the privileges, the burdens,
the daily walk and conversation of the various classes
which made up the French people between the
Regency and the Revolution. M, Taine's method of
description does not strike one as altogether happy.
It is a common complaint against French historians
that they are too lax about their authorities, and too

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Online LibraryJohn MorleyCritical miscellanies (Volume 3) → online text (page 17 of 25)