John Morley.

Notes on politics and history; a university address online

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Nefo gorft


Att rights reterved



Set up and electrotyped. Published January, 1914.

J. 8. Gushing Co. Berwick & Smith Co.
Norwood, Mass., U.S.A.




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 ad-
dress 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 universities

. -, -r rv i and political

among you a tew months ago, 1 ottered habitof
some remarks upon the obvious truth mind -
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 soundness 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 mis-
chief easily spoil both contemporary
politician and historian ; both the minis-
ter or the elector of to-day, and the
interpreter of days long ago. Looseness
of mind is one; 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 receptive 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 pre-
cision 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 under-
standing 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

signs of the So much to begin with the mood
and temper : then the application and
occasion. Any reflective 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 de-
scribed 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. Democ-
racy, they warn us, is going to insist on
writing its own programme. The struc-
ture of executive organs and machinery
is undergoing half-hidden but profound
alterations. The two Houses of our Par-
liament are being fundamentally trans-
formed before our eyes. The Cabinet,


keystone of the arch, in size and in pre-
rogative 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 repre-
sentative 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 pos-
sible 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 committee
united to a selected body of ministers,
to shape conclusions in the sphere of
military defence, and therefore of expen-
diture; and such conclusions, though
nominally advisory or for information
only, naturally carry a weight that can-


not but affect the judgment and respon-
sibility of a Cabinet. The appearance,
moreover, of a leader of Opposition in this
important committee seems to point to
the neutralization 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 constitu-
tion 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. An-
other 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.

More than all this alteration in National

i . . p i , , atmosphere

machinery, are signs or change in national ^ charac .
atmosphere. These, we have good rea- ter<
son 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 rever-
ence for institutions as institutions ; a
latter-day antinomianism. Even power-
ful lawyers use language that treats a
statute as a cobweb; and sealed agree-
ments by great industrial organizations,
are sometimes no better than ropes of
sand. Nor is the change peculiar to
England. American citizens of a reflec-
tive 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 respon-
sibility, 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 founda-
tions 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 land-
scape ? You have all heard how, just
before the revolutionary storm broke
over France in 1789, Sieves published one
of the most effective pamphlets ever writ-
ten : its title was this : " What is the Third
Estate ? Everything. 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." l

1 Faguet, Prob. Pol. xvi.


People capable of serious rumination Some

11 i i-i causes of

will ask themselves what is the precise social
connection, if any 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 have
vanished, and a singular elasticity is
working its way into the forms, symbols,
and standards of theological 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 insist-
ently 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 depart-
mental labour for the minister, and this
makes the task of miscellaneous delibera-
tion all the more arduous or impossible.
close obser- Nothing is easier than to make a crisis
out of this signal conjuncture of interest-

ofreflec- jjjg^ perplexing, and exciting circum-


stance. Still the long experience of our
national history shows it safest, wisest,
soundest, in respect of all English-speak-
ing communities, 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 exaggera-
tion, 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 im-
provement 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

ethoT Slty effect, 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 indus-
try. 1 How far this new force will go may
be dubious, but whatever strength it has,
must be centred in these great teaching cor-
porations. 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.

1 Decadence. Sidgwick Memorial Lecture. By A. J.
Balfour. 1908.


Universities have been boldly ranked
by competent historians with trial by jury
and parliaments, among leading institu-
tions of the Middle Ages. At any rate
in England the power of universities and
the public schools that feed them, has
been immeasurable 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 prejudices 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 infirmi-
ties, 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 catch-
words 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 circum-
stances 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.


ideals and The most dogmatic agree that truth is
prodigiously 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 con-
versation. 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 every-
body 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 out-
breaks 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 ration-
alism 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.

Ardent spirits have common faults in Generous
an expectant age. We know them all.
They are so apt to begin where they


should end. Pierced by thought of the
ills in the world around them, they are
overwhelmed 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, inde-
pendently of evidence, is straightway
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
preconceptions 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 Mani-
chean struggle between Good and Evil,
between 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.


Misuse of
terms, a
main root
of con-

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 pro-
portion of the ideas that men live with
and live upon, are held open to discussion
in their minds, and how many of them are
inexorable 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

It will do us no harm to digest a sober-
ing thought from Locke: "If any one
shall well consider the errors and obscur-
ity, the mistakes and confusion, that are

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


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 man-
kind." 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 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, rebuked in famous
words the ignorant carelessness of man-
kind. " People do not distinguish ; with-
out 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." 1

An To these hints of mine an American

illustration, newspaper supplied an apt illustration.

1 Thuc. i. 20 ', ovrcas draXadrwpos TO?J woXXots >] f^TTjais rrjs
\-rjOetas Kal (irl rd e-roF/xa juaXXov Tpti


The number of 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 dissolving the Tobacco Trust?
They see eminent lawyers radically dif-
fering. They hear politicians railing.
Nobody can seriously argue that the
intricacies of Trust repression and regula-
tion can be mastered by "the wisdom of
the people." What the people can do is
to form clear and strong convictions upon
the fundamental conceptions that under-
lie 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 possi-
bility 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
quarrels. turn 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 com-

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, Horce Sabbaticce
(1892), full of hard close thinking, needing answer and capable
of answer.


plex, he does not find their contents and
applications directly self-contradictory.
Of liberty, we have been told on the best
authority, there are two hundred defini-
tions. Yet, said Lincoln in their war,
"the world has never had a good defini-

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Online LibraryJohn MorleyNotes on politics and history; a university address → online text (page 1 of 8)