Зображення сторінки
PDF
ePub

in.] "THE CLASSES." 107

equalities of fact. The modern democratic principle of "Every man a vote, then let them fight it out," of delegation from the numerical majority with a prime minister to carry out the will of that majority, is the lowest form, the moneron, of the political organism. There are elements in the body politic far more important than mere numbers; and these cannot be set aside or ignored without a grievous, nay, fatal, loss in the long run. Civilization is bound up with what Mr. Gladstone calls "the classes," and with their tenure of their proper place and special function in the social organism. There are in human life principles of solidarity, of subordination, which must be differently applied in differing ages of the world, but the due recognition of which is always essential to the well-being, nay, to the continued existence, of the public order. "If you would found durable institutions," Lacordaire urged, upon a memorable occasion, "write above the Avord 'liberty,' 'obedience '; above 'equality' 'hierarchy '; above 'fraternity' 'veneration'; above the august symbol of rights, the divine symbol of duty."

CHAPTER IV.

PUBLIC OPINION.

One consequence of the gradual gravitation of political power to the populace, during the present century, has been the ever-increasing importance of what is called Public Opinion. Democracy is a vague term, covering many varieties of polity, a fact not generally recognized by those who talk about it most glibly. It means one thing in Italy, another in England. Its ethos in France is very different from its ethos in Germany. National temperament, national history, go a long way in determining its character and in shaping its form. But everywhere, throughout the world, it has one common characteristic. Everywhere it means that Public Opinion exercises a great, nay, a preponderating influence on legislation and policy. This is the necessary consequence of the advent of the masses to power. The agglomeration of numbers tends towards the formation of impersonal forces. Of course the influence of popular sentiment, popular aspirations, popular ideals is no new thing in the annals of our race. On the contrary, we may truly say that the Iv.] THE POWER OF IDEAS. 109

currents of thought and opinion arc the chief v. factors in history. They are factors, I may add, K. which have been most inadequately appreciated by ,. most historians. Nay, how many even of those \, who specially lay claim to the title of philosophic, lose themselves in vague generalities about necessitated transformation and movement, and the inexorable march of events; not in the least appreciating the spiritual and intellectual forces of which the transformation and movement and events arc the outcome. Ideas are the strongest things in the world, for they are the only real things. They penetrate men's intellects with supreme subtlety, and sway their lives with irresistible force. "The nation," for example, exists nowhere, save in idea. But what stronger force has the world known than nationality? Emerson, in one of the best things he ever wrote, his Essay on Politics, has well observed: "Persons are organs of moral or supernatural force. Under the dominion of an idea which possesses the minds of multitudes, as civil freedom, or the religious sentiment, the powers of persons are no longer subjects of caleulation. A nation of men unanimously bent on freedom or conquest, can easily confound the arithmetic of statists, and achieve extravagant actions out of all proportion to their means, as the Greeks, the Saracens, the Swiss, the Americans, and the French have done."

Public Opinion, then, in all ages of the world,

has been a great power. But in these days, owing chiefly to the almost universal establishment of representative government, to the vast development of the newspaper press, and to the marvellously increased facilities for intercommunication, it has acquired an authority quite unexampled in any former period of history. What it sanctions, what it condemns, what it will bear, what it rejects, are questions which statesmen, in all countries, have constantly to ask themselves. To it is the ultimate appeal in every public issue. It is a Shibboleth which all are expected to pronounce, with due reverence, under pain of social reprobation. It is a sort of oracle, a present deity. By it kings reign, whore they still reign, and princes decree justice, or what does duty for justice. Nay, not only in strictly public matters, but in things which properly appertain to the ordering of private life, its sovereignty is felt. What are social manners, customs, fashions, but an expression of Public Opinion; its lex non scripta, not to be disobeyed under penalty of ostracism?

"Wonderful Force of Public Opinion! Wo must walk and act in all points as it prescribes—follow the traffic it bids us, realise the sum of money, the degree of influence it expects of us—or we shall be lightly esteemed. Certain mouthfuls of articulate wind will be blown at us, and this what mortal courage can front ?" * So Mr. Carlyle. In a like * Miscellanies, vol. ii. p. 115.

iv. J INDIVIDUALITY. Ill

spirit a thinker of a very different school, Mr. John Stuart Mill, expresses himself in his Essyy on Liberty. "The modern regime of public opinion is, in an unorganized form, what the Chinese educational and political systems are in an organized; and unless individuality shall be able to assert itself successfully against this yoke, Europe, notwithstanding its noble antecedents and its professed Christianity, will tend to become another China." Public Opinion Mr. Mill thought hostile to individuality, in which he rightly discerned one of the essential elements of well-being. It cannot be doubted that much justification exists for this view. As we look through the annals of the world, do we not find that in every age it has been the penalty of greatness—which is most individual—not to be understood? Superiority is a heavy burden. Every high mission means the cross. The bread of genius is always watered with tears. The false prophet receives the rewards of divination. The true is killed and persecuted by those to whom he is sent, although their sons build his sepulehre. For it is his office to bear witness to the truth. And this witness—as the word gives evidence—is martyrdom. The democratic movement is unquestionably hostile to superiority. It cannot but be so. For it is impossible for mediocrity to appreciate high gifts. And mediocrity is, and must ever be, the lot of the masses. "The infallibility of Public Opinion!" a leading statesman once remarked

« НазадПродовжити »