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Political Thought in England from Locke to Bentham By Harold Joseph Laski Characters: 18634

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

The eighteenth century may be said to begin with the Revolution of 1688; for, with its completion, the dogma of Divine Right disappeared for ever from English politics. Its place was but partially filled until Hume and Burke supplied the outlines of a new philosophy. For the observer of this age can hardly fail, as he notes its relative barrenness of abstract ideas, to be impressed by the large part Divine Right must have played in the politics of the succeeding century. Its very absoluteness made for keen partisanship on the one side and the other. It could produce at once the longwinded rhapsodies of Filmer and, by repulsion, the wearisome reiterations of Algernon Sidney. Once the foundations of Divine Right had been destroyed by Locke, the basis of passionate controversy was absent. The theory of a social contract never produced in England the enthusiasm it evoked in France, for the simple reason that the main objective of Rousseau and his disciples had already been secured there by other weapons. And this has perhaps given to the eighteenth century an urbaneness from which its predecessor was largely free. Sermons are perhaps the best test of such a change; and it is a relief to move from the addresses bristling with Suarez and Bellarmine to the noble exhortations of Bishop Butler. Not until the French Revolution were ultimate dogmas again called into question; and it is about them only that political speculation provokes deep feeling. The urbanity, indeed, is not entirely new. The Restoration had heralded its coming, and the tone of Halifax has more in common with Bolingbroke and Hume than with Hobbes and Filmer. Nor has the eighteenth century an historical profundity to compare with that of the zealous pamphleteers in the seventeenth. Heroic archivists like Prynne find very different substitutes in brilliant journalists like Defoe, and if Dalrymple and Blackstone are respectable, they bear no comparison with masters like Selden and Sir Henry Spelman.

Yet urbanity must not deceive us. The eighteenth century has an importance in English politics which the comparative absence of systematic speculation can not conceal. If its large constitutional outlines had been traced by a preceding age, its administrative detail had still to be secured. The process was very gradual; and the attempt of George III to arrest it produced the splendid effort of Edmund Burke. Locke's work may have been not seldom confused and stumbling; but it gave to the principle of consent a permanent place in English politics. It is the age which saw the crystallization of the party-system, and therein it may perhaps lay claim to have recognized what Bagehot called the vital principle of representative government. Few discussions of the sphere of government have been so productive as that in which Adam Smith gave a new basis to economic science. Few controversies have, despite its dullness, so carefully investigated the eternal problem of Church and State as that to which Hoadly's bishopric contributed its name. De Lolme is the real parent of that interpretative analysis which has, in Bagehot's hands, become not the least fruitful type of political method. Blackstone, in a real sense, may be called the ancestor of Professor Dicey. The very calmness of the atmosphere only the more surely paved the way for the surprising novelties of Godwin and the revolutionists.

Nor must we neglect the relation between its ethics and its politics. The eighteenth century school of British moralists has suffered somewhat beside the greater glories of Berkeley and Hume. Yet it was a great work to which they bent their effort, and they knew its greatness. The deistic controversy involved a fresh investigation of the basis of morals; and it is to the credit of the investigators that they attempted to provide it in social terms. It is, indeed, one of the primary characteristics of the British mind to be interested in problems of conduct rather than of thought. The seventeenth century had, for the most part, been interested in theology and government; and its preoccupation, in both domains, with supernatural sanctions, made its conclusions unfitted for a period dominated by rationalism. Locke regarded his Human Understanding as the preliminary to an ethical enquiry; and Hume seems to have considered his Principles of Morals the most vital of his works. It may be true, as the mordant insight of Mark Pattison suggested, that "those periods in which morals have been represented as the proper study of man, and his only business, have been periods of spiritual abasement and poverty." Certainly no one will be inclined to claim for the eighteenth century the spiritual idealism of the seventeenth, though Law and Bishop Wilson and the Wesleyan revival will make us generalize with caution. But the truth was that theological ethics had become empty and inadequate, and the problem was therefore urgent. That is why Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, Hume and Adam Smith-to take only men of the first eminence-were thinking not less for politics than for ethics when they sought to justify the ways of man to man. For all of them saw that a theory of society is impossible without the provision of psychological foundations; and those must, above all, result in a theory of conduct if the social bond is to be maintained. That sure insight is, of course, one current only in a greater English stream which reaches back to Hobbes at its source and forward to T.H. Green at perhaps its fullest. Its value is its denial of politics as a science distinct from other human relations; and that is why Adam Smith can write of moral sentiments no less than of the wealth of nations. The eighteenth century saw clearly that each aspect of social life must find its place in the political equation.

Yet it is undoubtedly an age of methods rather than of principles; and, as such its peaceful prosperity was well suited to its questions. Problems of technique, such as the cabinet and the Bank of England required the absence of passionate debate if they were in any fruitful fashion to be solved. Nor must the achievement of the age in politics be minimized. It was, of course, a complacent time; but we ought to note that foreigners of distinction did not wonder at its complacency. Voltaire and Montesquieu look back to England in the eighteenth century for the substance of political truths. The American colonies took alike their methods and their arguments from English ancestors; and Burke provided them with the main elements of justification. The very quietness, indeed, of the time was the natural outcome of a century of storm; and England surely had some right to be contented when her political system was compared with the governments of France and Germany. Not, indeed, that the full fruit of the Revolution was gathered. The principle of consent came, in practice and till 1760, to mean the government of the Whig Oligarchy; and the Extraordinary Black Book remains to tell us what happened when George III gave the Tory party a new lease of power. There is throughout the time an over-emphasis upon the value of order, and a not unnatural tendency to confound the private good of the governing class with the general welfare of the state. It became the fixed policy of Walpole to make prosperity the mask for political stagnation. He turned political debate from principles to personalities, and a sterile generation was the outcome of his cunning.

Not that this barrenness is without its compensations. The theories of the Revolution had exhausted their fruitfulness within a generation. The constitutional ideas of the seventeenth century had no substance for an England where Anglicanism and agriculture were beginning to lose the rigid outlines of overwhelming predominance. What was needed was the assurance of safety for the Church that her virtue might be tested in the light of nonconformist practice on the one hand, and the new rationalism on the other. What was needed also was the expansion of English commerce into the new channels opened for it by the victories of Chatham. Mr. Chief Justice Holt had given it the legal categories it would require; and Hume and Adam Smith were to explain that commerce might grow with small danger to agricultural prosperity. Beneath the apparent calm of Walpole's rule new forces were fast stirring. That can be seen on every side. The sturdy morality of Johnson, the new literary forms of Richardson and Fielding, the theatre which Garrick founded upon the ruins produced by Collier's indignation, the revival of which Law and Wesley are the great symbols, show that the stagnation was sleep rather than death. The needed events of shock were close at hand. The people of England would never have discovered the real meaning of 1688 if George III had not denied its principles. When he enforced the resignation of the elder Pitt the theories at once of Edmund Burke and English radicalism were born; for the Present Discontents and the Society for the Support of the Bill of Rights are the dawn of a splendid recovery. And they made possible the speculative ferment which showed that England was at last awake to the meaning of Montesquieu and Rousseau. Just as the shock of the Lancastrian wars produced the Tudor despotism, so did t

he turmoil of civil strife produce the complacency of the eighteenth century. But the peace of the Tudors was the death-bed of the Stuarts; and it was the stagnant optimism of the early eighteenth century which made possible the birth of democratic England.

The atmosphere of the time, in fact, is deep-rooted in the conditions of the past. Locke could not have written had not Hobbes and Filmer defended in set terms the ideal of despotic government. He announced the advent of the modern system of parliamentary government; and from his time the debate has been rather of the conditions under which it is to work, than of the foundations upon which it is based. Burke, for example, wrote what constitutes the supreme analysis of the statesman's art. Adam Smith discussed in what fashion the prosperity of peoples could be best advanced. From Locke, that is to say, the subject of discussion is rather politik than staatslehre. The great debate inaugurated by the Reformation ceased when Locke had outlined an intelligible basis for parliamentary government. Hume, Bolingbroke, Burke, are all of them concerned with the detail of political arrangement in a fashion which presupposes the acceptance of a basis previously known. Burke, indeed, toward the latter part of his life, awoke to the realization that men were dissatisfied with the traditional substance of the State. But he met the new desires with hate instead of understanding, and the Napoleonic wars drove the current of democratic opinion underground. Hall and Owen and Hodgskin inherited the thoughts of Ogilvie and Spence and Paine; and if they did not give them substance, at least they gave them form for a later time.

Nor is the reason for this preoccupation far to seek. The advance of English politics in the preceding two centuries was mainly an advance of structure; yet relative at least to continental fact, it appeared liberal enough to hide the disharmonies of its inner content. The King was still a mighty influence. The power of the aristocracy was hardly broken until the Reform Bill of 1867. The Church continued to dominate the political aspect of English religious life until, after 1832, new elements alien from her ideals were introduced into the House of Commons. The conditions of change lay implicit in the Industrial Revolution, when a new class of men attained control of the nation's economic power. Only then was a realignment of political forces essential. Only then, that is to say, had the time arrived for a new theory of the State.

The political ideas of the eighteenth century are thus in some sort a comment upon the system established by the Revolution; and that is, in its turn, the product of the struggle between Parliament and Crown in the preceding age. But we cannot understand the eighteenth century, or its theories, unless we realize that its temper was still dominantly aristocratic. From no accusation were its statesmen more anxious to be free than from that of a belief in democratic government. Whether Whigs or Tories were in power, it was always the great families who ruled. For them the Church, at least in its higher branches, existed; and the difference between nobleman and commoner at Oxford is as striking as it is hideous to this generation. For them also literature and the theatre made their display; and if Dr. Johnson could heap an immortal contumely upon the name of patron, we all know of the reverence he felt in the presence of the king. Divine Right and non-resistance were dead, but they had not died without a struggle. Freedom of the press and legal equality may have been obtained; but it was not until the passage of Fox's Libel Act that the first became secure, and Mr. and Mrs. Hammond have recently illumined for us the inward meaning of the second. The populace might, on occasion, be strong enough to force the elder Pitt upon an unwilling king, or to shout for Wilkes and liberty against the unconstitutional usurpation of the monarch-ridden House of Commons. Such outbursts are yet the exception to the prevailing temper. The deliberations of Parliament were still, at least technically, a secret; and membership therein, save for one or two anomalies like Westminster and Bristol, was still the private possession of a privileged class. The Revolution, in fact, meant less an abstract and general freedom, than a special release from the arbitrary will of a stupid monarch who aroused against himself every deep-seated prejudice of his generation. The England which sent James II upon his travels may be, as Hume pointed out, reduced to a pathetic fragment even of its electorate. The masses were unknown and undiscovered, or, where they emerged, it was either to protest against some wise reform like Walpole's Excise Scheme, or to become, as in Goldsmith and Cowper and Crabbe, the object of half-pitying poetic sentiment. How deep-rooted was the notion of aristocratic control was to be shown when France turned into substantial fact Rousseau's demand for freedom. The protest of Burke against its supposed anarchy swept England like a flame; and only a courageous handful could be found to protest against Pitt's prostitution of her freedom.

Such an age could make but little pretence to discovery; and, indeed, it is most largely absent from its speculation. In its political ideas this is necessarily and especially the case. For the State is at no time an unchanging organization; it reflects with singular exactness the dominating ideas of its environment. That division into government and subjects which is its main characteristic is here noteworthy for the narrowness of the class from which the government is derived, and the consistent inertia of those over whom it rules. There is curiously little controversy over the seat of sovereign power. That is with most men acknowledged to reside in the king in Parliament. What balance of forces is necessary to its most perfect equilibrium may arouse dissension when George III forgets the result of half a century's evolution. Junius may have to explain in invective what Burke magistrally demonstrated in terms of political philosophy. But the deeper problems of the state lay hidden until Bentham and the revolutionists came to insist upon their presence. That did not mean that the eighteenth century was a soulless failure. Rather did it mean that a period of transition had been successfully bridged. The stage was set for a new effort simply because the theories of the older philosophy no longer represented the facts at issue.

It was thus Locke only in this period who confronted the general problems of the modern State. Other thinkers assumed his structure and dealt with the details he left undetermined. The main problems, the Church apart, arose when a foreigner occupied the English throne and left the methods of government to those who were acquainted with them. That most happy of all the happy accidents in English history made Walpole the fundamental statesman of the time. He used his opportunity to the full. Inheriting the possibilities of the cabinet system he gave it its modern expression by creating the office of Prime Minister. The party-system was already inevitable; and with his advent to full power in 1727 we have the characteristic outlines of English representative government. Thenceforward, there are, on the whole, but three large questions with which the age concerned itself. Toleration had already been won by the persistent necessities of two generations, and the noble determination of William III; but the place of the Church in the Revolution State and the nature of that State were still undetermined. Hoadly had one solution, Law another; and the genial rationalism of the time, coupled with the political affiliations of the High Church party, combined to give Hoadly the victory; but his opponents, and Law especially, remained to be the parents of a movement for ecclesiastical freedom of which it has been the good fortune of Oxford to supply in each succeeding century the leaders. America presented again the problem of consent in the special perspective of the imperial relation; and the decision which grew out of the blundering obscurantism of the King enabled Burke nobly to restate and amply to revivify the principles of 1688. Chatham meanwhile had stumbled upon a vaster empire; and the industrial system which his effort quickened could not live under an economic régime which still bore traces of the narrow nationalism of the Tudors. No man was so emphatically representative of his epoch as Adam Smith; and no thinker has ever stated in such generous terms the answer of his time to the most vital of its questions. The answer, indeed, like all good answers, revealed rather the difficulty of the problem than the prospect of its solution; though nothing so clearly heralded the new age that was coming than his repudiation of the past in terms of a real appreciation of it. The American War and the two great revolutions brought a new race of thinkers into being. The French seed at last produced its harvest. Bentham absorbed the purpose of Rousseau even while he rejected his methods. For a time, indeed, the heat and dust of war obscured the issue that Bentham raised. But the certainties of the future lay on his side.

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