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would have been impossible, and without our astronomy “our ships, our colonies, our seamen,” all which makes modern life modern life, could not have existed. Ages of sedentary, quiet, thinking people were required before that noisy existence began, and without those pale preliminary students it never could have been brought into being. And nine-tenths of modern science is in this respect the same: it is the produce of men whom their contemporaries thought dreamers, who were laughed at for caring for what did not concern them, who as the proverb went “walked into a well from looking at the stars," who were believed to be useless if any one could be such. And the conclusion is plain that if there had been more such people, if the world had not laughed at those there were, if rather it had encouraged them, there would have been a great accumulation of proved science ages before there was. It was the irritable activity, the “wish to be doing something," that prevented it, -most men inherited a nature too eager and too restless to be quiet and find out things: and even worse, with their idle clamor they “disturbed the brooding hen"; they would not let those be quiet who wished to be so, and out of whose calm thought much good might have come forth.
If we consider how much science has done and how much it is doing for mankind, and if the overactivity of men is proved to be the cause why science came so late into the world and is so small and scanty still, that will convince most people that our over-activity is a very great evil; but this is only part and perhaps not the greatest part of the harm that over-activity does. As I have said, it is inherited from times when life was simple, objects were plain, and quick action generally led to desirable ends: if A kills B before B kills A, then A survives and the human race is a race of A's. But the issues of life are plain no longer: to act rightly in modern society requires a great deal of previous study, a great deal of assimilated information, a great deal of sharpened imagination; and these prerequisites of sound action require much time, and I was going to say much "lying in the sun," a long period of “mere passiveness. Even the art of killing one another, which at first particularly trained men to be quick, now requires them to be slow: a hasty general is the worst of generals nowadays; the best is a sort of Von Moltke, who is passive if any man ever was passive, who is "silent in seven languages," who possesses more and better accumulated information as to the best way of killing people than any one who ever lived. This man plays a restrained and considerate game of chess with his enemy. I wish the art of benefiting men had kept pace with the art of destroying them; for though war has become slow, philanthropy has remained hasty. The most melancholy of human reflections, perhaps, is that on the whole it is a question whether the benevolence of mankind does most good or harm. Great good, no doubt, philanthropy does, but then it also does great evil: it augments so much vice, it multiplies so much suffering, it brings to life such great populations to suffer and to be vicious, that it is open to argument whether it be or be not an evil to the world; and this is entirely because excellent people fancy that they can do much by rapid action, that they will most benefit the world when they most relieve their own feelings, that as soon as an evil is seen “something” ought to be done to stay and prevent it. One may incline to hope that the balance of good over evil is in favor of benevolence; one can hardly bear to think that it is not so: but anyhow it is certain that there is a most heavy debit of evil, and that this burden might almost all have been spared us if philanthropists as well as others had not inherited from their barbarous forefathers a wild passion for instant action.
Even in commerce, which is now the main occupation of mankind, and one in which there is a ready test of success and failure wanting in many higher pursuits, the same disposition to excessive action is very apparent to careful observers.
Part of every mania is caused by the impossibility to get people to confine themselves to the amount of business for which their capital is sufficient, and in which they can engage safely. In some degree, of course, this is caused by the wish to get rich; but in a considerable degree too by the mere love of activity. There is a greater propensity to action in such men than they have the means of gratifying: operations with their own capital will only occupy four hours of the day, and they wish to be active and to be industrious for eight hours, and so they are ruined; if they could only have sat idle the other four hours, they would have been rich men. The amusements of mankind, at least of the English part of mankind, teach the same lesson: our shooting, our hunting, our traveling, our climbing have become laborious pursuits; it is a common saying abroad that “an Englishman's notion of a holiday is a fatiguing journey,” and this is only another way of saying that the immense energy and activity which have given us our place in the world have in many cases descended to those who do not find in modern life any mode of using that activity and of venting that energy.
Even the abstract speculations of mankind bear conspicuous traces of the same excessive impulse. Every sort of philosophy has been systematized; and yet as these philosophies utterly contradict one another, most of them cannot be true. Unproved abstract principles without number have been eagerly caught up by sanguine men, and then carefully spun out into books and theories which were to explain the whole world; but the world goes clear against these abstractions, and it must do so, as they require it to go in antagonistic directions. The mass of a system attracts the young and impresses the unwary, but cultivated people are very dubious about it; they are ready to receive hints and suggestions, and the smallest real truth is ever welcome, but a large book of deductive philosophy is much to be suspected: no doubt the deductions may be right, - in most writers they are so,- but where did the premises come from ? who is sure that they are the whole truth and nothing but the truth of the matter in hand? who is not almost sure beforehand that they will contain a strange mixture of truth and error, and therefore that it will not be worth while to spend life in reasoning over their consequences? In a word, the superfluous energy of mankind has flowed over into philosophy, and has worked into big systems what should have been left as little suggestions.
And if the old systems of thought are not true as systems, neither is the new revolt from them to be trusted in its whole vigor: there is the same original vice in that also; there is an excessive energy in revolutions if there is such energy anywhere. The passion for action is quite as ready to pull down as to build up; probably it is more ready, for the task is easier.
“Old things need not be therefore true,
And yet consider it again."* But this is exactly what the human mind will not do: it will act somehow at once; it will not “consider it again."
But it will be said, What has government by discussion to do with these things ? will it prevent them, or even mitigate them? It can and does do both, in the very plainest way. If you want to stop instant and immediate action, always make it a condition that the action shall not begin till a considerable number of persons have talked over it and have agreed on it. If those persons be people of different
* Arthur Hugh Clough.
temperaments, different ideas, and different educations, you have an almost infallible security that nothing or almost nothing will be done with excessive rapidity. Each kind of persons will have their spokesman; each spokesman will have his characteristic objection and each his characteristic counter-proposition: and so in the end nothing will probably be done, or at least only the minimum which is plainly urgent. In many cases this delay may be dangerous, in many cases quick action will be preferable; a campaign, as Macaulay well says, cannot be directed by a “debating society," * and many other kinds of action also require a single and absolute general: but for the purpose now in hand — that of preventing hasty action and insuring elaborate consideration — there is no device like a polity of discussion.
The enemies of this object — the people who want to act quickly - see this very distinctly: they are forever explaining that the present is “an age of committees,” that the committees do nothing, that all evaporates in talk. Their great enemy is parliamentary government: they call it, after Mr. Carlyle, the “national palaver”; they add up the hours that are consumed in it and the speeches which are made in it, and they sigh for a time when England might again be ruled, as it once was, by a Cromwell, – that is, when an eager absolute man might do exactly what other eager men wished, and do it immediately. All these invectives are perpetual and many-sided ; they come from philosophers each of whom wants some new scheme tried, from philanthropists who want some evil abated, from revolutionists who want some old institution destroyed, from new-eraists who want their new era started forthwith: and they all are distinct admissions that a polity of discussion is the greatest hindrance to the inherited mistake of human nature, — to the desire to act promptly, which in a simple age is so excellent, but which in a later and complex time leads to so much evil.
*“Debating club." — “Hist. England,” Chap. v., on Argyle's expedition.