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tion for war, that might arise from the direct or
indirect interests of any colony but his own.

I have said little of the difficulties arising from
the vast geographic distances that separate these
great outlying communities from one another, and
from the mother country. But those difficulties
exist, and they are in one sense at the root of others
more important than themselves. * Countries separ-
ated by half the globe,' says Mill in his excellent
chapter on the government of dependencies by a
free state, ' do not present the natural conditions for
being members of one federation. If they had suffi-
ciently the same interests, they have not, and never
can have, a sufficient habit of taking counsel together.
They are not part of the same public ; they do not


discuss and deliberate in the same arena, but apart,
and have only a most imperfect knowledge of what
passes in the minds of one another. They neither
know each other's objects nor have confidence in
each other's principles of conduct. Let any English-
man ask himself how he should like his destinies to
depend on an assembly of which one-third was British-
American and another third South African and Aus-
tralian. Yet to this it must come, if there were any-
thing like fair or equal representation; and would
not every one feel that the representatives of Canada
and Australia, even in matters of an imperial character,
could not know or feel any sufficient concern for the
interests, opinions, or wishes of English, Irish, or
Scotch 1'^ Tariffs, as we have seen, are one question,
and the treatment of native races is another, where
this want of sympathy and agreement between Eng-
lishmen at home and Englishmen in the most important
colonies is open and flagrant.

The actual circumstances of federal unions justify
Mill's remark on the impossibility of meeting the
conditions of such polities where the communities
are separated by half the globe; nor does the fact
that New Zealand is now only forty days from the
Thames make any difference. The districts of the
Aetolian, and the towns of the Achaean, League were
in effect neighbours. The Germanic Confederation
was composed of kingdoms and principalities that are
conterminous. The American Union is geographically

^ J. S. Mill On Be2}resentative Government, pp. 317, 318.


solid. So are the cantons of the Swiss Confederation.
The nine millions of square miles over which the
British flag waves are dispersed over the whole
surface of the globe. The fact that this consideration
is so trite and obvious does not prevent it from being
an essential element in the argument. Mr. Seeley's
precedents are not at all in point.

It is no answer to say, with Mr. Forster, that
'English-speaking men and women look at life and
its problems, especially the problems of government,
with much the same eyes everywhere.' For the pur-
poses of academic discussion, and with reference to
certain moral generalities, this might be fairly true.
But the problems of government bring us into a sphere
where people are called upon to make sacrifices, in the
shape of taxation if in no other, and here English-
speaking men and women are wont not by any means
to look at life and its problems, from George Grenville's
Stamp Act down to the 333 articles in the tariff of
Victoria, with the same eyes. The problems of
government arise from clashing interests, and in that
clash the one touch of nature that makes the whole
world kin is the resolution not willingly to make
sacrifices without objects which are thought to be
worth them. If we can both persuade ourselves and
convince the colonists that the gains of a closer con-
federation will compensate for the sacrifices entailed
by it, we shall then look at the problem with the
same eyes : if not, not. Englishmen at home with-
drew the troops from New Zealand because we did


not choose to pay for them. Englishmen in Canada
and Victoria do their best to injure our manufactures
because they wish to nurse their own. The substance
of character, the leading instincts, the love of freedom,
the turn for integrity, the taste for fair play, all the
great traits and larger principles may remain the
same, but there is abundant room in the application
of the same principles and the satisfaction of the
same instincts for the rise of bitter contention and
passionate differences. The bloodiest struggle of our
generation was between English-speaking men of the
North and English-speaking men of the South, because
economic difficulties had brought up a problem of
government which the two parties to the strife looked
at with different eyes from difference of habit and of
interest. It is far from being enough, therefore, to
rely on a general spirit of concord in the broad objects
of government for overcoming the differences which
distance may chance to make in its narrow and par-
ticular objects.

If difficulties of distance, we are asked by the same
statesman, ' have not prevented the government of a
colony from England, why must they prevent the
association of self-governing communities with Eng-
land?' But distance was one of the principal causes,
and perhaps we should not be far wrong in saying
that it was the principal cause, why the time came
when some colonies could no longer be governed
from England — distance, and all those divergencies of
thought and principle referred to by Mill, which


distance permitted or caused to spring into existence
and to thrive.

The present writer claims to belong as little to the
Pessimist as to the Bombastic school — to borrow Mr.
Seeley's phrase — unless it is to be a Pessimist to seek
a foothold in positive conditions and to insist on facing
hard facts. The sense of English kinship is as lively
in us as in other people, and we have the same pride
in English energy, resolution, and stoutness of heart,
whether these virtues show themselves in the young
countries or the old. We agree in desiring a strong
and constant play between the thoughts, the ideals,
the institutions, of Englishmen in the island-home and
Englishmen who have carried its rational freedom and
its strenuous industry to new homes in every sea.
Those who in our domestic politics are most prepared
to welcome democratic changes can have least prejudice
against countrymen who are showing triumphantly
how order and prosperity are not incompatible with
a free Church, with free schools, with the payment of
members, with manhood suffrage, and with the absence
of a hereditary chamber. Neither are we misled by
a spurious analogy between a colony ready for inde-
pendence and a grown-up son ready to enter life on
his own account ; nor by Turgot's comparison of colo-
nies to fruit which hangs on the tree only till it is
ripe. We take our stand on Mr. Seeley's own plain
principles that ' all political unions exist for the good
of their members, and should be just as large, and no
larger, as they can be without ceasing to be beneficial.'


The inquiry is simply whether the good of the members
of our great English union all over the world will be
best promoted by aiming at an artificial centralisation,
or by leaving as much room as possible for the expan-
sion of individual communities along lines and in
channels which they may spontaneously cut out for
themselves. If our ideal is a great Roman Empire,
which shall be capable by means of fleets and armies
of imposing its will upon the world, then it is satis-
factory to think, for the reasons above given, that the
ideal is an unattainable one. Any closer union of the
British Empire attempted with this object would
absolutely fail. The unwieldy weapon would break
in our hands. The ideal is as impracticable as it is
puerile and retrograde.


COMTE is now generally admitted to have been the
most eminent and important of that interesting group
of thinkers whom the overthrow of old institutions
in France turned towards social speculation. Vastly
superior as he was to men like De Maistre on the
one hand, and to men like Saint Simon or Fourier
on the other, as well in scientific acquisitions as in
mental capacity, still the aim and interest of all his
thinking was also theirs, namely, the renovation of
the conditions of the social union. If, however, we
classify him, not thus according to aim, but according
to method, then he takes rank among men of a very
different type from these. What distinguishes him
in method from his contemporaries is his discernment
that the social order cannot be transformed until all
the theoretic conceptions that belong to it have been
rehandled in a scientific spirit, and maturely gathered
up into a systematic whole along with the rest of
our knowledge. This presiding doctrine connects
Comte with the social thinkers of the eighteenth

1 Reprinted by the kind permission of Messrs. A. and C.
Black from the new edition of the Encyclopcedia Britannica,

338 COMTE.

century, — indirectly with Montesquieu, directly with
Turgot, and more closely than either with Condorcet,
of whom he was accustomed to speak as his philo-
sophic father.

Isidore-Auguste-Marie-Fran9ois-Xavier Comte was
born in January 1798, at Montpellier, where his
father was a receiver-general of taxes for the district.
He was sent for his earliest instruction to the school
of the town, and in 1814 was admitted to the Ecole
Polytechnique. His youth was marked by a constant
willingness to rebel against merely official authority ;
to genuine excellence, whether moral or intellectual,
he was always ready to pay unbounded deference.
That strenuous application which was one of his most
remarkable gifts in manhood showed itself in his
youth, and his application was backed or inspired by
superior intelligence and aptness. After he had
been two years at the Ecole Polytechnique he took
a foremost part in a mutinous demonstration against
one of the masters ; the school was broken up, and
Comte like the other scholars was sent home. To
the great dissatisfaction of his parents, he resolved
to return to Paris (1816), and to earn his living there
by giving lessons in mathematics. Benjamin Franklin
was the youth's idol at this moment. 'I seek to
imitate the modern Socrates,' he wrote to a school
friend, ' not in talents, but in way of living. You
know that at five and twenty he formed the design
of becoming perfectly wise, and that he fulfilled his
design. I have dared to undertake the same thing.

COMTE. 339

though I am not yet twenty.' Though Comte's
character and aims were as far removed as possible
from Franklin's type, neither Franklin nor any man that
ever lived could surpass him in the heroic tenacity
with which, in the face of a thousand obstacles, he
pursued his own ideal of a vocation.

For a moment circumstances led him to think of
seeking a career in America, but a friend who pre-
ceded him thither warned him of the purely practical
spirit that prevailed in the new country. 'If Lagrange
were to come to the United States, he could only
earn his livelihood by turning land surveyor.' So
Comte remained in Paris, living as he best could on
something less than £80 a year, and hoping, when
he took the trouble to break his meditations upon
greater things by hopes about himself, that he might
by and by obtain an appointment as mathematical
master in a school. A friend procured him a situa-
tion as tutor in the house of Casimir P^rier. The
salary was good, but the duties were too miscellaneous,
and what was still worse, there was an end of the
delicious liberty of the garret. After a short experi-
ence of three weeks Comte returned to neediness and
contentment. He was not altogether without the
young man's appetite for pleasure ; yet when he was
only nineteen we find him wondering, amid the
gaieties of the carnival of 1817, how a gavotte or a
minuet could make people forget that thirty thousand
human beings around them had barely a morsel to
eat. Hardship in youth has many drawbacks, but

340 COMTE.

it has the immense advantage over academic ease of
making the student's interest in men real, and not
merely literary.

Towards 1818 Comte became associated as friend
and disciple with a man who was destined to exercise
a very decisive influence upon the turn of his specula-
tion. Henry, count of Saint Simon, was second cousin
of the famous duke of Saint Simon, the friend of the
Regent, and author of the most important set of
memoirs in a language that is so incomparably rich in
memoirs. He was now nearly sixty, and if he had
not gained a serious reputation, he had at least ex-
cited the curiosity and interest of his contemporaries
by the social eccentricities of his life, by the multitude
of his schemes and devices, and by the fantastic
ingenuity of his political ideas. Saint Simon's most
characteristic faculty was an exuberant imagination,
working in the sphere of real things. Scientific
discipline did nothing for him ; he had never under-
gone it, and he never felt its value. He was an
artist in social construction; and if right ideas, or
the suggestion of right ideas, sometimes came into
his head, about history, about human progress, about
a stable polity, such ideas were not the products of
trains of ordered reasoning ; they were the intuitional
glimpses of the poet, and consequently as they pro-
fessed to be in real matter, even the right ideas were
as often as not accompanied by wrong ones.

The young Comte, now twenty, was enchanted by
the philosophic veteran. In after years he so far for-

COMTE. 341

got himself as to write of Saint Simon as a depraved
quack, and to deplore his connection with him as
purely mischievous. While the connection lasted he
thought very differently. Saint Simon is described
as the most estimable and lovable of men, and the
most delightful in his relations ; he is the worthiest
of philosophers. Even after the association had come
to an end, and at the very moment when Comte was
congratulating himself on having thrown off the yoke,
he honestly admits that Saint Simon's influence has
been of powerful service in his philosophic education.
'I certainly,' he writes to his most intimate friend,
' am under great personal obligations to Saint Simon ;
that is to say, he helped in a powerful degree to
launch me in the philosophical direction that I have
now definitely marked out for myself, and that I
shall follow without looking back for the rest of my
life.' Even if there were no such unmistakable
expressions as these, the most cursory glance into
Saint Simon's writings is enough to reveal the thread
of connection between the ingenious visionary and
and systematic thinker. We see the debt, and we
also see that when it is stated at the highest possible,
nothing has really been taken either from Comte's
claims as a powerful original thinker, or from his
immeasurable pre-eminence over Saint Simon in
intellectual grasp and vigour and coherence. As
high a degree of originality may be shown in trans-
formation as in invention, as Moli6re and Shakespeare
have proved in the region of dramatic art. In philo-

342 COMTE.

sophy the conditions arc not different. II faut prendre
son hien oil on le trouve.

It is no detriment to Comte's fame that some of
the ideas which he recombined and incorporated in
a great philosophic structure had their origin in
ideas that were produced almost at random in the
incessant fermentation of Saint Simon's brain. Comte
is in no true sense a follower of Saint Simon, but
it was undoubtedly Saint Simon who launched him,
to take Comte's own word, by suggesting to his
strong and penetrating mind the two starting-points
of what grew into the Comtist system — first, that
political phenomena are as capable of being grouped
under laws as other phenomena; and second, that
the true destination of philosophy must be social,
and the true object of the thinker must be the
reorganisation of the moral, religious, and political
systems. We can readily see what an impulse these
far-reaching conceptions would give to Comte's medita-
tions. There were conceptions of less importance
than these, in which it is impossible not to feel that
it was Saint Simon's Vv^rong or imperfect idea that
put his young admirer on the track to a right and
perfected idea. The subject is not worthy of further
discussion. That Comte would have performed some
great intellectual achievement, if Saint Simon had
never been born, is certain. It is hardly less certain
that the great achievement which he did actually
perform was originally set in motion by Saint Simon's
conversation, though it was afterwards directly filiated

COMTE. 343

with the fertile speculations of Turgot and Condorcet.
Comte thought almost as meanly of Plato as he did
of Saint Simon, and he considered Aristotle the
prince of all true thinkers ; yet their vital difference
about Ideas did not prevent Aristotle from calling
Plato master.

After six years the differences between the old
and the young philosopher grew too marked for
friendship. Comte began to fret under Saint Simon's
pretensions to be his director. Saint Simon, on the
other hand, perhaps began to feel uncomfortably
conscious of the superiority of his disciple. The
occasion of the breach between them (1824) was an
attempt on Saint Simon's part to print a production
of Comte's as if it were in some sort connected with
Saint Simon's schemes of social reorganisation. Comte
was never a man to quarrel by halves, and not only
was the breach not repaired, but long afterwards
Comte, as we have said, wdth painful ungraciousness
took to calling the encourager of his youth by very
hard names.

In 1825 Comte married. His marriage was one of
those of which 'magnanimity owes no account to
prudence,' and it did not turn out prosperously. His
family were strongly Catholic and royalist, and they
were outraged by his refusal to have the marriage
performed other than civilly. They consented, how-
ever, to receive his wife, and the pair went on a visit
to Montpellier. Madame Comte conceived a dislike
to the circle she found there, and this was the too

344 COMTE.

early beginning of dispiites wliich lasted for the
remainder of their nnion. In the year of his mar-
riage we find Comte writing to the most intimate of
his correspondents: — 'I liave nothing left but to
concentrate my whole moral existence in my intellec-
tual work, a precious but inadequate compensation ;
and so I must give up, if not the most dazzling, still
the sweetest part of my happiness.' We cannot help
admiring the heroism which cherishes great ideas in
the midst of petty miseries, and intrepidly throws all
squalid interruptions into the background which is
their true place. Still, we may well suppose that the
sordid cares that come with want of money made a
harmonious life none the more easy. Comte tried to
find pupils to board with him, but only one pupil
came, and he was soon sent away for lack of com-
panions. 'I would rather spend an evening,' wrote
the needy enthusiast, ' in solving a difficult question,
than in running after some empty-headed and conse-
quential millionaire in search of a pupil.' A little
money was earned by an occasional article in Le
Produdeur, in which he began to expound the philo-
sophic ideas that were now maturing in his mind.
He announced a course of lectures (1826), which it
was hoped would bring money as well as fame, and
which were to be the first dogmatic exposition of the
Positive Philosophy. A friend had said to him, ' You
talk too freely, your ideas are getting abroad, and
other people use them without giving you the credit;
put your OAViiership on record.' The lectures were

COMTE. 345

intended to do this among other things, and they
attracted hearers so eminent as Humboldt the cosmo-
logist, as Poinsot the geometer, as Blainville the

Unhappily, after the third lecture of the course,
Comte had a severe attack of cerebral derangement,
brought on by intense and prolonged meditation, acting
on a system that was already irritated by the chagrin
of domestic failure. He did not recover his health
for more than a year, and as soon as convalescence
set in he was seized by so profound a melancholy at
the disaster which had thus overtaken him, that he
threw himself into the Seine. Fortunately he was
rescued, and the shock did not stay his return to
mental soundness. One incident of this painful epi-
sode is worth mentioning. Lamennais, then in the
height of his Catholic exaltation, persuaded Comte's
mother to insist on her son being married with the
religious ceremony, and as the younger Madame
Comte apparently did not resist, the rite was duly
performed, in spite of the fact that the unfortunate
man was at the time neither more nor less than
raving mad. To such shocking conspiracies against
common sense and decency does ecclesiastical zealotry
bring even good men like Lamennais. On the other
hand, philosophic assailants of Comtism have not
always resisted the temptation to recall the circum-
stance that its founder was once out of his mind, —
an unworthy and irrelevant device, that cannot be
excused even by the provocation of Comte's own occa

346 COMTE.

sional acerbity. As has been justly said, if Newton
once suffered a cerebral attack without on that account
forfeiting our veneration for the Principia, Comte
may have suffered in the same way, and still not
have forfeited our respect for what is good in the
systems of Positive Philosophy and Positive Polity.

In 1828 the lectures were renewed, and in 1830
was published the first volumaof the Course of Positive
Philosophy. The sketch and ground plan of this great
undertaking had appeared in 1826. The sixth and
last volume was published in 1842. The twelve
years covering the publication of the first of Comte's
two elaborate works were years of indefatigable toil,
and they were the only portion of his life in which
he enjoyed a certain measure, and that a very modest
measure, of material prosperity. In 1833 he was
appointed examiner of the boys in the various pro-
vincial schools who aspired to enter the Ecole Poly-
technique at Paris. This and two other engagements
as a teacher of mathematics secured him an income
of some £400 a year. He made M. Guizot, then
Louis Philippe's minister, the important proposal to
establish a chair of general history of the sciences.
If there are four chairs, he argued, devoted to the
history of philosophy, that is to say, the minute
study of all sorts of dreams and aberrations through
the ages, surely there ought to be at least one to
explain the formation and progress of our real know-
ledge 1 This wise suggestion, which still remains to
be acted upon, was at first welcomed, according to

COMTE. 347

Comte's own account, by Guizot's philosophic instinct,
and then repulsed by his 'metaphysical rancour.'

Meanwhile Comte did his official work conscien-
tiously, sorely as he grudged the time which it took
from the execution of the great object of his thoughts.
We cannot forbear to transcribe one delighful and
touching trait in connection with this part of Comte's
life. ' I hardly know if even to you,' he writes in
the expansion of domestic confidence to his wife, ' I
dare disclose the sweet and softened feeling that
comes over me when I find a young man whose
examination is thoroughly satisfactory. Yes, though
you may smile, the emotion would easily stir me to
tears if I were not carefully on my guard.' Such
sympathy with youthful hope, in union with the
industry and intelligence that are the only means of
bringing the hope to fulfilment, shows that Comte's
dry and austere manner veiled the fires of a generous
social emotion. It was this which made the over-
worked student take upon himself the burden of
delivering every year from 1831 to 1848 a course
of gratuitous lectures on astronomy for a popular
audience. The social feeling that inspired this dis-
interested act showed itself in other ways. He suf-
fered the penalty of imprisonment rather than serve
in the national guard ; his position was that though
he would not take arms against the new monarchy
of July, yet being a republican he would take no
oath to defend it. The only amusement that Comte
permitted himself was a visit to the opera. In his

348 COMTE,

youth he had been a playgoer^ but he shortly came
to the conclusion that tragedy is a stilted and bom-

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Online LibraryJohn MorleyCritical miscellanies (Volume 3) → online text (page 22 of 25)