John Morley.

Notes on politics & history; a university address online

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THESE pages are a version, amplified and recast, of
an Address delivered by the writer as Chancellor
of the University of Manchester, in the summer of
1912. The strict rules that limit the contents of
a Bill in parliament by its Title, would be fatal
to an academic address like this. I only hope
that my Notes are not too dispersive to prevent
some points of thought from being of use in the
way of suggestion, interrogatory, and perhaps as
spur to curiosity.



WHEN I had the pleasure of coming among you a
few months ago, I offered some remarks upon the
obvious truth that democracy in the discussions
of the day means government working directly
through public opinion ; and upon the equally
urgent importance of a body, like this University,
making it one part of its office to help in forming
those habits of mind and temper upon which,
along with knowledge of the right facts, the sound-
ness of opinion depends.

To-night I propose to harp upon the same
string, and to say something about politics and
history. I intend a double subject with a single
object. I need your indulgence, for of history
I know too little, and of politics some of you may
think I know too much, and know it wrong.
Pretty manifest roots of mischief easily spoil both
contemporary politician and historian ; both the
minister or the elector of to-day, and the interpreter
of days long ago. Looseness of mind is one ;

i B


narrowness of vision is another. Plenty of
infirmities besides are left. You know the worst
of them, at least by distant report indolence,
impatience, procrastination, incoherence, pugnacity.
I include pugnacity among defects, for it is no vice
of intellect if our first attitude towards new opinion
is one of readiness and attentive response, rather
than instantaneous combat ; to give a hearing,
before rushing to controversial fire-arms. A recep-
tive mind is after all no hindrance to firm love of
truth. On the other hand life is short, and there
are limits to patience with quackish fungoids. You
have not, I would fain believe, forgotten the spirit
of a passage from Spinoza that I quoted here last
time : " When I applied my mind to politics, so that
I might examine what belongs to politics, with the
same precision of mind as we use for mathematics,
I have taken my best pains not to laugh at the
actions of mankind, not to groan over them, not
to be angry with them, but to understand them."
By understanding them, he says, he means looking
at all the motives of human feeling, love, hatred,
envy, ambition, pity, not as vices of human
nature, but as properties belonging to it, just as
heat, cold, storm, thunder belong to air and sky.
signs of So much to begin with the mood and temper :

the times. ...

then the application and occasion. Any re-
flective observer, if he likes, can sketch some of
the signs of the times in rather formidable outline.


Let us look at it. Political power is described as
lying in the hands of a vast and mobile electorate,
with scanty regard for tradition or history. What
is history to me ? asks the plain busy man. Demo-
cracy, they warn us, is going to insist on writing
its own programme. The structure of executive
organs and machinery is undergoing half-hidden
but profound alterations. The two Houses of our
Parliament are being fundamentally transformed
before our eyes. The Cabinet, keystone of the
arch, in size and in prerogative is not altogether
safe against invasion. The great wholesome system
of party is said to be melting into groups and
coalitions. The growth of special interests, each
claiming for itself a representative Minister in the
Cabinet, has turned it into a noun of multitude
indeed, and a noun not wholly favourable to that
concentrated deliberation which was possible when
Pitt had first six, then seven colleagues, Peel twelve,
and Gladstone fourteen. To-day we are a score.

A body of professional experts is now united to committee

i -i i i r i -I f Imperial

a selected body of ministers, to shape conclusions Defence.
in the sphere of military defence, and therefore of
expenditure ; and such conclusions, though nomin-
ally advisory or for information only, naturally
carry a weight that cannot but affect the judgment
and responsibility of a Cabinet. The appearance,
moreover, of a leader of Opposition in this important
committee seems to point to the neutralisation both


of military and foreign affairs (for each of these
must necessarily depend upon the other), and to
their withdrawal from the field of party contention.
This would not be the first instance in our history
of a vast slow silent disguised transformation in the
constitution of the empire, without either embodi-
ment in any single instrument, or any coherent and
systematic transaction. Everybody knows, though
nobody has ever exactly comprehended, the famous
plan of Sir William Temple in the time of Charles II.
Ingenious observers may trace, if they like, a sort of
return to Temple's scheme in what they take to be
the slow re-modelling of our cabinet system, turning
it into a sort of supreme imperial senate, but
always owing its existence to a majority of the
House of Commons a vital condition entirely
alien to Temple's age and mind. Another important
element cannot be left out of even the barest
summary. Self-governing commonwealths over the
seas are making initial claims for a direct voice in
the control of imperial affairs. The most recent
move in this direction the adjustment of naval
contribution has not so far been decisive.
National More than all this alteration in machinery, are
8 P eTe and signs of change in national atmosphere. These, we
have good reason to hope, may be only superficial
and transient, for nothing is more certain than that
in a survey of the modern world, national character
is slowest of all things to alter in its roots. Mean-


while, we discover a shaken attitude towards law
as law ; a decline in reverence for institutions as
institutions ; a latter-day antinomianism. Even
powerful lawyers use language that treats a statute
as a cobweb ; and sealed agreements by great in-
dustrial organizations, are sometimes no better than
ropes of sand. Nor is the change peculiar to
England. American citizens of a reflective turn
sometimes tell us of the same thing even there. If
we remember, for instance, that administration of
law is the keystone of all civilized government, it is
startling to hear American statesmen who have
held posts of supreme responsibility, passionately
denouncing the administration of criminal law as a
disgrace to their country, and declaring the English
system of judges appointed for life to be better than
their system of elected judges. Or else on the other
hand they demand appeal to a popular referendum
against decisions of State Courts on constitutional
issues, and are for cashiering the judges who made
them in either case shattering the foundations of
the judicial fabric. Weakened confidence in our
parliament would be formidable, but confidence
destroyed in courts of justice would be taking out
the linch-pin. Yet it would not be at all true to
say that sense of political curiosity, interest, and
obligation has declined. The case is just the
opposite. Political obligation as tested by the
numbers who take part at elections is in fact


stronger rather than weaker, and sense of social
duty, which is not by any means the same thing as
political obligation, has vastly grown alike in
strength and range.

May I, without peril, here add another engrossing
element in the political landscape ? You have all
heard how, just before the revolutionary storm
broke over France in 1789, Siey&s published one of
the most effective pamphlets ever written : its title
was this : " What is the Third Estate ? Every-
thing. What has it been in politics until now ?
Nothing. What does it ask ? To become something"
A good critic of to-day warns us that behind the
third estate, behind the fourth estate, a fifth estate
has risen, with which we have to count. " Women
who were nothing, and who rather claim to be
everything, to-morrow are going to be something."
Some People capable of serious rumination will ask

SdaT themselves, what is the precise connection, if any
Iange ' connection at all, between the embarrassing changes
of the hour, and, say, five profound changes in our
scheme of national life and thought within the last
fifty years ? Such changes are these. Predominant
political power has been transferred from a landed
and hereditary aristocracy and the middle class to
the nation as a whole. A system of compulsory
education has been spread over the length and
breadth of the land. Old ecclesiastical pretensions

1 Faguct, Prob. Pol. xvi.


have vanished, and a singular elasticity is working its
way into the forms, symbols, and standards of theo-
logical creed. Science and the scientific spirit have,
for the time at least, mounted into the thrones of
literature and art. Finally, the whole conception of
the State has been enormously extended. The exer-
tion of all the powers and duties of a State is every
day more and more insistently demanded. One
result of this last advance concerns that change in
the cabinet system to which I have already referred,
for it means extension of departmental labour for
the minister, and this makes the task of miscellane-
ous deliberation all the more arduous or impossible.
Nothing is easier than to make a crisis out of close

, . . , . . , observation

this signal conjuncture of interesting, perplexing, the
and exciting circumstance. Still the long experi-
ence of our national history shows it safest, wisest, tlon '
soundest, in respect of all English-speaking com-
munities, to be in no hurry to believe that, in John
Bunyan's pithy phrase, " passion will have all
things now." Let us pray to be delivered from
exaggeration, and to have vouchsafed to us that
cautious sense of proportion, which is one of the
main differences between a wise man and a foolish.
Above all, how well it would be for everybody, if
you who have a share in the moulding of the future
in your hands, would write on the tablets of your
minds the words of a man who first brought scientific
method effectively to bear on social problems. The


present writer, said Malthus of himself, is in no
temper to find plans for the future improvement of
society visionary. " But he has not acquired that
command over his understanding which would
enable him to believe what he wishes, without
evidence, or to refuse his assent to what might
be unpleasing, when accompanied with evidence."
This is the temper that we may expect to see grow
up and spread in universities.

value of Our present case, as to social cause and effect,
etho8. rslty offers tempting material for high party dispute,
and sectarian recrimination and reproach, but
nothing is to be gained on that line here to-night.
An important observer of our own day looks for
progress to a social force, new in magnitude if not
in kind, described by him as the modern alliance
between pure science and industry. 1 How far
this new force will go maybe dubious, but what-
ever strength it has, must be centred in these
great teaching corporations. They must be its
main organs. It is their ethos, their inner genius,
that must, apart from the instruction they provide,
lead and sustain us in the march.

Universities have been boldly ranked by com-
petent historians with trial by jury and parliaments,
among leading institutions of the Middle Ages. At
any rate in England the power of universities and the

1 Decadence. Sidgwick Memorial Lecture. By A. J. Balfour.


public schools that feed them, has been immeasur-
able in the working of other institutions. They
have been main agents in moulding both our secular
and ecclesiastical politics. They have worked too
often for darkness as well as light. Too often and
too long have they been the mirror of stolid pre-
judices and childish conventions ; the appendages
of old social form and institution, rather than great
luminaries dispensing knowledge, and kindling that
ardent love of new truth for which youth is the
irrevocable season. Power of this high dimension
is not likely to be missing in our new universities,
though its forms are undergoing rapid revolution.
Well was it said, " C'est toujours le beau monde qui
gouverne le monde" That is still a great deal more
true than people think, even in countries like our
own where aristocratic polity has in large degree
gone down. But the privileges of the fine world
of social class must yield henceforth to the forces
that shape temper, judgment, and range of public
interest, in educational centres such as yours.

The infusion of their thought and temper is what
will impart its colour to the general discussion.
It will reduce the number of those who think
they have opinions, when in truth they have not.
Universities, besides imparting special knowledge,
are meant for reason's refuge and its fortress.
The standing enemies of reason, in spite of new
weapons, altered symbols, changing masks, are what


they have always been everywhere. I will spare
you the catalogue of man's infirmities, of which I
said enough when I began. It is both pleasanter
and sounder to turn our eyes the other way, to
man's strength, and not his weakness towards
equity, candour, diligence, application, charity,
disinterestedness for public ends, courage without
presumption, and all the other rare things that are
inscribed in epitaphs on men of whom kind friends
thought well. Wide and stirring is the field.

There is no unkindness, and there is useful
truth, especially under popular governments, in
pressing people to realize the whole bearings of the
commonplace, that time and mutations of political
atmosphere are incessantly attaching a different
significance to the same ideas and the same words.
We are so apt to go on with our manful battles as
if the flags and banners and vehement catchwords
all stood for old causes. This is only one side of all
the changing aspects of the time. I ventured to
speak of narrowness of vision. The vision would
indeed be narrow, that overlooked the reaction
on our own affairs of circumstances outside the
new map of Europe, the shifting balances of
fighting strength, Hague tribunals, tariffs, the
Panama Canal, strange currents racing in full
blast through the rolling worlds of white men,
black men, brown men, yellow men.



The most dogmatic agree that truth is pro-
digiously hard to find. Yet what rouses intenser "
anger than balanced opinion ? It would be the
ruin of the morning paper. It takes fire out of
conversation. It may destroy the chance of a seat
in the Cabinet, and, if you are not adroit, may
weary constituents. The reason is simple. For
action, for getting things done, the balanced
opinion is of little avail or no avail at all. " He
that leaveth nothing to chance," said the shrewd
Halifax, " will do few things ill, but he will do
very few things." As King Solomon put it, " He
that considereth the wind shall not sow, and he
that looketh to the clouds shall not reap." Modera-
tion is sometimes only a fine name for indecision.
The partisan temperament is no gift in a judge, and
it is well for everybody to see that most questions
have two sides, though it is a pity in a practical world
never to be sure which side is right, and to remain
as " a cake that is not turned." You even need
the men of heroic stamp with whom " a hundred
thousand facts do not prevail against one idea."
Nations are lucky when the victorious idea happens
to have at its back three or four facts that weigh
more than the hundred thousand put together.
Some well-trained observers find history abounding


in volcanic outbreaks of fire and flame, seeming
only to leave behind hardened lava and frozen
mud. Only too true. Only too familiar is the
exaggerated and mis-shapen rationalism that shuts
out imagination, distrusts all sentiment, despises
tradition, and makes short work alike of the past,
and of anything like collective or united faith and
belief in the present. But to be over-impatient
with what may prove by and bye to be fertilizing
Nile floods, is pure foolishness. They will subside,
and a harvest well worth saving remain for the
hand of the reaper.

Generous Ardent spirits have common faults in an expect-
and the ant age. We know them all. They are so apt to
struggle, begin where they should end. Pierced by thought
of the ills in the world around them, they are over-
whelmed by a noble impatience to remove, to lessen,
to abate. Before they have set sail, they insist
that they already see some new planet swimming
into their ken, they already touch the promised land.
An abstract a priori notion, formed independently of
experience, independently of evidence, is straight-
way clothed with all the sanctity of absolute
principle. Generous aspiration, exalted enthusiasm,
is made to do duty for reasoned scrutiny. They
seize every fact or circumstance that makes their
way, they are blind to every other. Inflexible pre-
conceptions hold the helm. They exaggerate.
Their sense of proportion is bad.


If party politicians are with us, they will observe,
that in this place to-night I am bound to carry
political impartiality to the point of passion, and
they will not quarrel with me for saying that such
vices of political method as I have hinted at the
substitution of generous illusion for cool induction
are just as common among glowing conservatives as
among glowing liberals. Nobody in any camp will
quarrel with the view that one of the urgent needs
of to-day is a constant attempt to systematize
political thoughts, and to bring ideals into closer
touch with fact. There can be no reason why that
should turn brave and hopeful men into narrow,
dry, or cold-hearted. The French Revolution has
not realized its ideals. But then no more has the
Reformation. Even as to Christianity itself, one of
the most famous sayings of the eighteenth century
that " Christianity had been tried and failed, the
religion of Christ remained to be tried," is not even
now quite out of date. In a thousand forms, the
Manichean struggle between Good and Evil, be-
tween Good and Better, persists. About one-third
of the inhabitants of our planet are Christian, the
adherents of the Roman Communion being put at
240 millions, the Protestant Communions at 150,
the Greek Church at 100 millions. The Jews, only
10 millions, lowest in number, but possessing a
vast effective power of various kinds in the politics
of Europe. The relation of creeds to new phases of


social idealism must break into cardinal issues,
and light may be thrown upon the interesting
question what proportion of the ideas that men
live with and live upon, are held open to discussion
in their minds, and how many of them are inexor-
able and sacrosanct. There is good promise that
the common temper of willingness to try all things,
and hold fast that which is good, will prevail. 1
Misuse of It will do us no harm to digest a sobering
mlhf'root thought from Locke : "If any one shall well
fusion. consider the errors and obscurity, the mistakes
and confusion, that are spread in the world by an
ill use of words, he will find some reason to doubt
whether language, as it has been employed, has
contributed more to the improvement or hindrance
of knowledge among mankind." Dismal as this
may be at any time, how especially perturbing to
people with such questions before them, as we are
called upon to face to-day. Now, if ever, what
mistakes and confusion are likely to follow an
ill use of political words, and of the ideas that
words stand for. What would become of a lawyer
in the Courts who argued his cases with the
looseness in point and language, the disregard of
apt precedents, the slack concatenation of premiss
and conclusion, the readiness to take one authority

1 For a remarkable consideration of Religion in respect of Politics,
see Lord Hugh Cecil's little volume, Conservatism (Williams and
Norgate, 1912).


for as good as another, which even the best
of us so often find good enough for politics ?
Is there any other field where Bacon's hoary
idols of Theatre, Tribe, Market Place, and Cave,
keep such contented house together ? Five-and-
twenty centuries have passed since one great Greek
historian, perhaps casting a stone at another, re-
buked in famous words the ignorant carelessness
of mankind. " People do not distinguish ; without
a test they take things from one another : even on
things of their own day, not dulled in memory by
time, Hellenes are apt to be all wrong. So little
pains will most men take in search for truth : so
much more readily they turn to what comes first." *

To these hints of mine an American newspaper An
supplied an apt illustration. The number of mustr"
questions, says the writer, now before the American
people, on which it is urgent that they should have
an intelligent opinion, is staggering. Take one of the
most intricate of them all, what to do with Trusts.
How are the masses going to know the precise legal
and financial effect of the decree of the court dissolv-
ing the Tobacco Trust ? They see eminent lawyers
radically differing. They hear politicians railing.
Nobody can seriously argue that the intricacies of
Trust repression and regulation can be mastered
by " the wisdom of the people." What the people

1 Thuc. i. 20 ; OVTWS araAaiTrwpos TO?S TroAAoi? 17 1771^7-15 T^S
s, KCU 7rt TO. Toi/ia /iaAAov


can do is to form clear and strong convictions upon
the fundamental conceptions that underlie the
whole question. A sound public opinion can be
formed on the main questions, whether we should
try to maintain in trade and industry the possibility
of effective competition, or whether combination
and monopoly should be undertaken, controlled,
and supervised by the State. Get these essentials
settled, then legislative, executive, and tribunals
can find proper and effective form. Such is an
American case. It would be easy, though more
delicate, for us to find illustrations quite as apt
in the United Kingdom as in the United States.
Easy words The ideas and words that seem simplest turn
quarrels, out most complex. If anybody doubts, ask him
to try his hand, say on Liberty, Equality, and
Fraternity. 1 He will be very lucky if, besides being
complex, he does not find their contents and applica-
tions directly self-contradictory. Of liberty, we
have been told on the best authority, there are two
hundred definitions. Yet, said Lincoln in their
war, " the world has never had a good definition of
the word liberty, and the American people, just
now, are much in want of one. We all declare for
liberty ; but in using the same word we do not all
mean the same thing. We assume the word liberty

1 Any one who seeks to explore this all-important field, should
not miss F. W. Maitland, Collected Papers, i. 1-161 ; nor Sir
James Stephen's three little volumes, Horae Sabbaticae (1892), full
of hard close thinking, needing answer and capable of answer.


may mean for each man to do as he pleases with
himself, and the product of his labour ; while with
others the same word may mean for some men to
do as they please with other men, and the product of
other men's labour."

Then men will not soon forget Cavour's memor-
able formula " A free Church in a free State." What
could be simpler, what more direct, what more
pleasant and easy jingle to the politician's ear ? Yet
of what harsh and intractable discords was that
theme the prelude ? The erection of a kingdom of

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Online LibraryJohn MorleyNotes on politics & history; a university address → online text (page 1 of 7)