3/24/14

The Age of Reason

I

THE eighteenth century is an excellent illustration of a false historical fashion. It is the fashion of abusing a thing, first for one obvious reason, then for another quite opposite reason; and then leaving it alone with all its incompatible vices unreconciled and unexplained. Any one can describe that age as the age of powder and patches and high-heeled shoes and elaborate bows and mincing compliments. Anybody can describe it as the age of bludgeons and bloody noses and black patches over the eye, as in the pictures of Hogarth; of dirt and drunkenness and brutal sports. As details, they are both true; as generalizations, they cannot be both true. As philosophical explanations, they cannot come within a thousand miles of being true. As explanations, they can not explain anything; for they cannot explain each other.

We may call eighteenth-century people’s dressing and barbering and behaviour artificial, but that gets us no nearer to explaining why we have to complain of them the next moment for being a great deal too natural. For they were virile to the point of violence and anarchy. If it was the age of wigs, it was also the age of wigs on the green. It was not only concerned with the nice conduct of a clouded cane, but often with the nasty conduct of a loaded cudgel. If we only want to make a case against the eighteenth century, we can throw all these ill-matched things at it and leave them there in a heap. But that does not explain anything; not even our own antagonism or our own action.

I have had to deal with a similar fallacy in relation to religious history. I have pointed out that the people who only wanted to make a case against Christianity or the Middle Ages, or what not, were content simply to say that monks were too meek and Crusaders too fierce, and feudalism too crude and heraldry too complicated. In other words, they blamed the age for being as mild as the Confessor and as violent as Coeur de Lion, but they gave no reason for the same thing being two opposite things at once. Many of them, in criticizing what I said, have thought it quite enough to say that the two statements were quite true; and this in itself is also quite true. But you have not understood the thing until you have understood its contradiction; until (especially) you under stand even its misunderstanding.

The only way to understand an age, whether it be the Age of Reason or the Age of Faith, is to get behind these mere criminal charges, which are used to support each other and really destroy each other. It is to find some common spirit that can be polished in that particular way and coarse in that particular way. A mystical conviction is the cause both of the Franciscan being friendly and the Crusader being hostile. A rational conviction is the cause both of Dr Johnson being ceremonious and Dr Johnson being rude. But it is necessary to realize something of what that rational conviction really was; and the only spirit in which it is worth while to study history is the spirit which can feel a certain enthusiasm for the ideal of each time in turn.

The eighteenth century itself is not a century, as centuries go, that is specially attractive to me. There were not enough fairy-tales in it for my taste; certainly there were not anything like so many people believing in fairies then as there are now. It had no great understanding of children. The men of that time had forgotten the Holy Child of medieval times and had not yet heard of the Happy Child of modern literature. They could not imagine a Peter Pan, for they had lost the religious traditions both of Pan and of Peter. They had silenced all those subconscious voices which speak to simple people of the wonders hidden in this world. In short, they were ignorant of all the thousand things that only the ignorant ever know.

But though I should not be individually drawn to wards the Age of Reason as compared with many ages I think really much more reasonable, if I had to deal with that age I should deal with it more reasonably. I should not criticize it as its own rationalistic critics do. I should not pick out things here and there that happened to offend our modern taste, though in totally opposite ways. I should not blame Chesterfield for being foppish and Johnson for being slovenly; call a minuet stilted and a cockfight vulgar; and then heave a sigh and thank God that I live in better days. That is the way in which the stupidest sort of tourist criticizes a foreign country; he thinks everything is being done badly, be cause he has never tried to find out what people are trying to do.

I should begin at the other end and try to find out what the eighteenth century was trying to do. I should ask what spirit really prompted their more spirited efforts. The true historian does not want to be told the realities of the eighteenth century; that is, that they had stuffier bedrooms or stuffier cravats. The true historian wants to be told the ideal of the eighteenth century; the things that a man dreamed of in his stuffy bedroom or thought about when he had forgotten his stock. The mere facts about their vesture or ventilation are not really facts about them; they are rather facts about us. They are the things that we notice, because to us they are new even in being old. It may throw some light on our character or conditions that this or that detail stands out in a startling fashion from the other details. But it does not throw much light on the minds of our ancestors. The really valuable sort of historical imagination is to guess the things they were thinking about.

The religion of the eighteenth century was finely expressed in the motto of a group of Scottish debating societies famous as the Associated Societies of Edinburgh University. It was  Gloria hominis ratio et oratio: the glory of man is reason and speech. Their ideal was public spirit in the true sense of the publishing of things; the power of declaring aloud in the forum the secrets of the palace or the corruptions of the senate. There were secrets and corruptions enough, of course, as there are in all times; not so many, I think, as there are in our own time. But this was the vision, the ambition, the daydream. This was what an honest man wanted to be and a dishonest man pretended to be. The ideal type of that time was what Walpole called a Boy; what the Boy called a Patriot. He was to be a lucid orator denouncing courtiers and placemen; a tribune. He can only be under stood in the light of that great Latin literature which these men loved and studied.

We sneer at the old gentlemen quoting Horace while hobnobbing over their port; as if they only quoted Horace when he was hobnobbing over his Falernian. We forget that quoting Horace meant more often quoting great lines about Regulus defying torture for the Republic or the poet returning to the temples of the gods of Rome. Judged by its own moral ideal, which is the only just judgement, the eighteenth century was not so bad as we make out; possibly was not so bad as we are. We talk of its political corruption, but we talk of it because it was talked about. It was exposed and even punished. Great men like Marlborough, powerful men like Dundas, were really forced to resign; often even forced to disgorge. They were much less completely protected than corrupt politicians in our own time; and it is no very satisfactory proof of their artificiality and our realism that they powdered heads while we whitewash reputations.

II

It seems to me that it would be an extraordinarily interesting study of the mind of the eighteenth century to picture what that mind would really expect to see in the twentieth. There would be something very subtle in the comedy of a gentleman of the eighteenth century dealing with ladies of the twentieth century. It would be curious to note how he would be in some ways more coarse and in some ways more polished. He would probably be plainer in his speech, but more ceremonious in his movements. He would say things to the lady while bowing over her hand which the most sprightly hero of our recent fiction would hardly say to her while sitting on her head. When Marie Antoinette and her courtiers posed in the manner of the shepherds of Watteau, they were already talking about the dawn of a more enlightened and liberal age, and may well have wondered about the world in the twentieth century. When Hogarth was drawing some satiric series like the Stages of Cruelty, he may well have wondered whether the world would still be as barbarous in the twentieth century, or whether by that time reason and philanthropy would have prevailed. Naturally it would depend a great deal on the sort of individual who was precipitated from their age to ours; there were doubtless many commonplace cock-fighting squires who knew as little about the future then as our earnest social prophets know now. But there were already in the eighteenth century some idealists who would have been delighted to see the future triumph of humanity. They would also be a good deal disappointed if they saw it.

What is really interesting about the Age of Reason is that the political economists and practical reformers would every one of them believe what nobody now believes at all. They would not only have believed, most probably, that England would be more prosperous, more happy, and more equal in the twentieth century than in the eighteenth or nineteenth. They would also have believed that it would become more prosperous, free, and equal through commercial competition, through scientific selfishness, through the removal of all restrictions on trading, talking, or anything else. Nothing would have surprised a man like Bentham or a man like Godwin more completely than the discovery that liberty or Laissez Faire had not made a huge addition to human happiness by the beginning of the twentieth century. As a matter of fact, as applied, they have made a huge addition to human muddle and misery, and taken us round by a long detour (and a very dusty road) back to very much where we were before. We have to consider anew the nature of Liberty and its relation to Governments. In that sense we are all of us really back in the eighteenth century.

III

Unless I am much mistaken, modern people are going to have a reaction against democracy before they have tried it. We are always being told that the present system in highly organized industrial states is democracy; and that being so, it is hardly to be wondered at that democracy has become unpopular. But it is not really true that popular government has become unpopular. It is rather that people have ceased to think that in either sense our government is popular. The truth is that those who developed the democratic doctrine in modern times did not intend it for anything at all resembling the modern world, perhaps the most ancient of all possible worlds. They thought of the agricultural commonwealths of antiquity, and went back past even the Roman Empire to find the Roman Republic. But Rome was a republic when Rome was a village. Those eighteenth-century idealists often actually lived in villages; always in countries that were dotted with villages. They did not know what sort of a world of steam and steel their descendants were going to inherit. The French Revolution came before the Industrial Revolution. They were perpetually talking about the citizen, but they thought of him as a citizen and not merely as something in the city. They certainly had no conception of the colossal and complicated thing that we now mean by a city.

It is highly characteristic of the tone of the eighteenth century that they generally talked of London as ‘the town’. They said: ‘All the town is talking about my Lord Banglebury’s duel with Mr Pickles.’ In the sound and sense of the word there was something compact and comfortable; as of a world still small enough to know itself, like a village. When these people talked about democracy they did indeed mean the government of the people, by the people, for the people. But they meant the government of people they knew, by people they knew, for people they knew. They meant the government of people who knew each other, by people who knew each other, for people who knew each other. I think it highly doubtful whether any of the eighteenth-century democratic theorists, whether Payne or Jefferson or Condorcet, would have expected a vast and vague society like ours to be a democracy. I think they would have thought it, however reluctantly, a case for Caesar and the panem et circenses. But it is not, of course, merely the material side of society that has upset such calculations. It is much more the moral factor; which is also, in every sense, alas! a very material factor. It is what the scientific, or those who think themselves scientific, always call the economic factor. It can be expressed better in one word; and that word is not democracy but plutocracy.

It must always be remembered that the scale of financial action was then smaller even for the rich. The Court of Versailles did not handle such sums as any stockjobber will now waste on a week’s luxury. Kings and queens were richer relatively and not positively. And the size of economic operations today is a new and abnormal power in the history of the world. It covers much more of the surface of the world. It is international where the old luxury was almost local. But this vulgar and sprawling plutocracy does not deserve to be called a democracy, even by one who uses it as a term of abuse. The old classic spirit of democracy is much more present in the independent citizen who is ready to resist it, who in this respect is much more like the Stoic and Tribune admired by the Fathers of the Republic.

~G.K. Chesterton: from The Glass Walking Stick (Selections from the Illustrated London News)