Imagini ale paginilor
PDF
ePub

No. V.

THE AGE OF DISCUSSION.

The greatest living contrast is between the old Eastern and customary civilisations and the new Western and changeable civilisations. A year or two ago an inquiry was made of our most intelligent officers in the East, not as to whether the English Government were really doing good in the East, but as to whether the natives of India themselves thought we were doing good; to which, in a majority of cases, the officers who were the best authority, answered thus : No doubt you are giving the Indians many great benefits : you give them continued peace, free trade, the right to live as they like, subject to the laws; in these points and others they are far better off than they ever were; but still they cannot make you out. What puzzles them is your constant disposition to change, or as you call it, improvement. Their own life in every detail being regulated by ancient usage, they cannot comprehend a policy which is always bringing something new; they do not a bit believe that the desire to make them comfortable and happy is the root of it; they believe, on the contrary, that you are aiming at something which they do not understandthat you mean to “take away their religion;" in a word, that the end and object of all these continual changes is to make Indians not what they are and what they like to be, but something new and different from what they are, and what they would not like to be. In the East, in a word, we are attempting to put new wine into old bottles—to pour what we can of a civilisation whose spirit is progress into the form of a civilisation whose spirit is fixity, and whether we shall succeed or not is perhaps the most interesting question in an age abounding almost beyond example in questions of political interest.

Historical inquiries show that the feeling of the Hindoos is the old feeling, and that the feeling of the Englishman is a modern feeling. 'Old law rests,' as Sir Henry Maine puts it, 'not on contract but on status.' The life of ancient civilisation, so far as legal records go, runs back to a time when every important particular of life was settled by a usage which was social, political, and religious, as we should now say, all in one-which those who obeyed it could not have been able to analyse, for those distinctions had no place in their mind and language, but which they felt to be a usage of imperishable import, and above all things to be kept unchanged. In former papers I have shown, or at least tried to show, why these customary civilisations were the only ones which suited an early society; why, so to say, they alone could have been first; in what manner they had in their very structure a decisive ar: vantage over all competitors. But now comes the further question : If fixity is an invariable ingredient in early civilisations, how then did any civilisation become unfixed ? No doubt most civilisations stuck where they first were; no doubt we see now why stagnation is the rule of the world, and why progress is the very rare exception; but we do not learn what it is which has caused progress in these few cases, or the absence of what it is which has denied it in all others.

To this question history gives a very clear and very remarkable answer. It is that the change from the age of status to the age of choice was first made in states where the government was to a great and a growing extent a government by discussion, and where the subjects of that discussion were in some degree abstract, or, as we should say, matters of principle. It was in the small republics of Greece and Italy that the chain of custom was first broken. · Liberty said, Let there be light, and, like a sunrise on the sea, Athens arose,' says Shelley, and his historical philosophy is in this case far more correct than is usual with him. A free statestate with liberty—means a state, call it republic or call it monarchy, in which the sovereign power is divided between many persons, and in which there is a discussion among those persons. Of these the Greek republics were the first in history, if not in time, and Athens was the greatest of those republics.

a

[ocr errors]

It may

After the event it is easy to see why the teaching of history should be this and nothing else.

It is easy to see why the common discussion of common actions or common interests should become the root of change and progress. In early society, originality in life was forbidden and repressed by the fixed rule of life. not have been quite so much so in Ancient Greece as in some other parts of the world. But it was very much 80 even there. As a recent writer has well said, 'Law then presented itself to men's minds as something venerable and unchangeable, as old as the city; it had been delivered by the founder himself, when he laid the walls of the city, and kindled its sacred fire.' An ordinary man who wished to strike out a new path, to begin a new and important practice by himself, would have been peremptorily required to abandon his novelties on pain of death; he was deviating, he would be told, from the ordinances imposed by the gods on his nation, and he must not do so to please himself.

On the contrary, others were deeply interested in his actions. If he disobeyed, the gods might inflict grievous harm on all the people as well as him. Each partner in the most ancient kind of partnerships was supposed to have the power of attracting the wrath of the divinities on the entire firm, upon the other partners quite as much as upon himself. The quaking bystanders in a superstitious

age

would soon have slain an isolated bold man in the beginning of his innovations. What Macaulay

[ocr errors]

so relied on as the incessant source of progress.--the desire of man to better his condition--was not then permitted to work; man was required to live as his ancestors had lived.

Still further away from those times were the free thought' and the advancing sciences' of which we now hear so much. The first and most natural subject upon wbich human thought concerns itself is religion; the first wish of the half-emancipated thinker is to use his reason on the great problems of human destiny—to find out whence he came and whither he goes, to form for himself the most reasonable idea of God which he can form.

But, as Mr. Grote happily said— This is usually what ancient times would not let a. man do. His gens or his opatpia required him to believe as they believed.' Toleration is of all ideas the most modern, because the notion that the bad religion of A cannut impair, here or hereafter, the welfare of B, is, strange to say, a modern idea. And the help of science, at that stage of thought, is still more nugatory. Physical science, as we conceive it—that is, the systematic investigation of external nature in detail-did not then exist. A few isolated observations on surface things-a half-correct calendar, secrets mainly of priestly invention, and in priestly custody-were all that was

en imagined ; the idea of using a settled study of nature as a basis for the discovery of new instruments and new things, did not then exist. It is indeed a

« ÎnapoiContinuați »