Ὥσπερ τελεωθὲν βέλτιστον τῶν ζῴων ἄνθρωπος οὕτω καὶ χωρισθὲν νόμου
καὶ δίκης χείριστον πάντων.–ARISTOTLE.
HISTORY, whether founded on reliable record, or on monuments, or on
the scientific analysis of the great fossil tradition called language,
knows nothing of the earliest beginnings. The seed of human society,
like the seed of the vegetable growth, lies under ground in darkness,
and its earliest processes are invisible to the outward eye.
Speculations about the descent of the primeval man from a monkey, of the
primeval monkey from an ascidian, and of the primeval ascidian from a
protoplastic bubble, though they may act as a potent stimulus to the
biological research of the hour, certainly never can form the
starting-point of a profitable philosophy of history.
As revealed in history, man is an animal, not only generically different
from, but characteristically antagonistic to the brute. That which makes
him a man is precisely that which no brute possesses, or can by any
process of training be made to possess. The man can no more be developed
out of the brute than the purple heather out of the granite rock which
it clothes. The relation of the one to the other is a relation of mere
outward attachment or dependency–like the relation which exists
between the painter’s easel and the picture which is painted on
it. The easel is essential to the picture, but it did not make the
picture, nor give even the smallest hint towards the making of it. So
the monkey, as a basis, may be essential to the man without being in any
way participant of the divine indwelling λόγος which makes a man a
man. The two are related only as all things are related, inasmuch as
they are all shot forth from the great fountain-head of all vital
forces, whom we justly call GOD.
The distinctive character of man as revealed in history is threefold.
Man is an inventive animal, and he does not invent from a compulsion of
nature, as bees make cells or as swallows build nests. These are all
prescribed operations which the animal must perform; but the inventive
faculty in man is free, in such a manner that the course of its action
cannot be foreseen or calculated. It revels in variety, and, above all
things, shuns that uniformity which is the servile province of brute
activity. A man may live in a hole like a fox, but his proper humanity
is shown by building a house and inventing a style of architecture. A
man can sing like a bird, but–what the bird cannot do–he can
make a harp or an organ. He can scrape with his nails like a terrier,
but, as a man manifesting his proper manhood, he prefers to make a
shovel of wood and a hatchet of stone or iron. The other animals,
however cunning, and often wonderfully adaptable in their instincts, are
mere machines. Man makes machines. In this respect he is justly entitled
to look upon himself as the God to the lower animals, just as the
sheriff in the counties by delegated right represents the supreme
authority of the Crown. But, above all things, man is a progressive
animal,–not merely progressive as the grass grows from root to
blade and from blade to blossom to perfect its individual type of
vegetable life, but advancing from stage to stage and mounting from
platform to platform for the perfectionation of the race; nor even
progressive as plants and fruits are improved by culture and favourable
surroundings, and what is called forcing, or as the breed of sheep and
cattle is improved by selection. No doubt progress of this kind is made
by man as well as by plants and brutes; but his most distinctive human
progress is made, not by imposition from without, but by projection from
within. These projections from within are what in philosophical language
is called the idea; they proceed from the essential nature of mind,
whose imperial function it is to dictate forms, as it is the servile
function of the senses to receive impressions. These intelligent forms,
coming directly from the divine source of all excellence, and projected
from within with sovereign authority to shape for themselves an outward
embodiment, constitute what in art, in literature, in religion, and in
social organisms, is called the ideal; and man may accordingly be
defined as an animal that lives by the conception of ideals, and whose
destiny it is to spend his strength, and, if need be, to lay down his
life, for the realisation of such ideals. The steps of this realisation,
often slow and painful, and always difficult, are what we mean by human
progress; and it is the dominant characteristic of man, of which amongst
the lower animals there is not a vestige, neither indeed could be; for
so long as they have no ideas, neither reason nor the outward expression
of reason in language–two things so closely bound together that
the wise Greeks expressed them both by one word, λόγος–so
long must it be ridiculous to think of them shaping their career
according to an inborn type of progressive excellence. To do so is
exclusively human. Hence our poems, our high art, our churches, our
legislations, our apostleships, our philosophies, our social
arrangements and devices, our speculations and schemes of all kinds,
which, though they are sometimes foolish, and always more or less
inadequate, deliver the strongest possible proof that man is an animal
who will rather die and embrace martyrdom than be content to live as the
brutes do, neither spurred with the hope of progress nor borne aloft on
the wings of the ideal.
Of the very earliest state of human society, as we have already said,
history teaches nothing; but, as man is a progressive animal, and the
plan of Providence with regard to him seems plain to let him shift for
itself and learn to do right by blundering, as children learn to walk by
tumbling, we may safely say that the easier, more obvious, and more rude
forms of living together must have preceded the more difficult, the more
complex, and the more polished. And in perfect consistency with this
presumption, we find three social platforms rising one above the other
in human value, duly accredited either by monuments, by popular
tradition, or by the evidence of comparative philology. These three
are–(1) The prehistoric or stone period, from which such a rich
store of monuments has been set up in the Copenhagen Museum, and the
existence of which is indicated in Gen. iv. 22 as antecedent to Tubal
Cain, the instructor of every artificer in brass and iron. (2) The
shepherd or pastoral stage, represented by Abel (Gen. iv. 2), in which
men subsisted from the easy dominance which they asserted over wild
animals, and from fruits of the earth requiring no culture. (3) The
agricultural stage, when cereal crops were systematically and
scientifically cultivated, which, of course, implied the limitation of
particular districts of ground to particular proprietors, and those
agrarian laws which caused the Greek Demeter to be honoured with the
title of θεσμοφόρος, or lawgiver–a step of marked and decided advance,
insomuch that we may justly attribute to it the redemption of society
from the _vagus concubitus_ of the earliest times, and the firm
establishment of the family, with all its sanctities and all its binding
power, as the prime social monad. To the priestess of this goddess
accordingly, amongst the Greeks, was assigned the function of ushering
in the newly-married pair to the peculiar duties of their new social
The fact that the family is the great social monad, as it is undoubtedly
one of the oldest and most accredited facts in human tradition, so it
presents to us perhaps the most important of all the lessons that
history teaches–a lesson as necessary to be inculcated at the
present hour as at the earliest stages of social advance; and Aristotle
certainly was never more in the right than when he emphasised this truth
strongly in traversing Plato’s fancy of making the state the
universal family, to the utter absorption of all subordinated family
monads. Here, as in one or two other matters, the great idealist would
be wiser than God; and so his philosophy, so far as that point was
concerned, became only a more sublime attitude of folly. The importance
of the family, as the divinely instituted social monad, depends
manifestly on the happy combination and harmonious blending of authority
and love which grow out of its constitution–two elements with the
full development and true balance of which the well-being and happiness
of all societies is intimately bound up. The fine moral training which
the family relation alone can inspire we find not only at our own door,
in the fidelity and self-sacrificing devotion of our noble Highlanders,
who derived their inspiration from the clan system, of which the family
love and respect is the binding element,[2] as contrasted with the
slavish system of vassalage, the badge of feudalism; but in the habits
and institutions of the three great ancient peoples to whom modern
Europe owes its higher civilisation, Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans,
specially the last,[3] the great masters of the difficult art of
government, who, to use Mommsen’s phrase, carried out the unity of
the family through the virtue of paternal authority “with an
inexorable consistency,” the beneficial effect of which could not
fail to display itself in social life far beyond the sphere from which
it originally emanated; for obedience to authority is the fundamental
postulate of all possibie societies. With the family, if not absolutely,
certainly with the best and normal state of it, most closely connected
is monogamy; for, though instances of bigamy and polygamy, from Lamech
downwards (Gen. iv. 19) to King David and Solomon in the Old Testament
history, crop up here and there in the oldest times, and even in the
post-Babylonian period, without any formal mark of disapprobation, yet
it is quite certain that the Greeks and Romans were guided by a sound
social instinct when they held the practice of bigamy to be inconsistent
with the proper constitution of a family. What troubles are apt to arise
from a multiplication of contending wives and ambitious mothers the
latter story of King David tells in more unhappy episodes than one; and
generally it may be laid down as one of the great lessons of history
that polygamy, in every shape, is one of those acts of Oriental
self-indulgence which may be sweet in the mouth but has a very strong
tendency to be bitter in the belly, and therefore ought by all means to
be avoided.
By the instinct of aggregation, which belongs to an essentially social
animal, families will club together into townships or villages, and
townships will be centralised into states. Humanity without townships
would degenerate into tigerhood, or whatever type of animal existence
might express an essentially self-contained, solitary, and selfish
creature; townships without that sort of headship which the word State
implies, would make society cry halt at a stage of loosely-connected
aggregates which would render common action for any high human purpose
extremely difficult, and, in the general case, as human beings are,
impossible. Hence the centralisation of the Attic townships at Athens in
the legendary traditions of the Athenians attributed to Theseus;[4]
hence also the lax confederation of the earliest Latin states under the
headship of Albalonga; and, after the humiliation of that old
stronghold, the more closely cemented union of those states under the
hegemony of Rome.[5] Whatever may be the evils connected with the growth
of large towns, especially when, as in modern times, they have been
allowed to swell to enormous magnitude without regulation or control, it
is one of the undoubted lessons of universal history that the social
stimulus necessary for the creation of vigorous thought, no less than
the centralised force indispensable to great achievement, is found only
in the large towns. The Christians were called Christian first at
Antioch; and, had there been no Rome to unify a little Latium, there
would have been no great Roman Empire to amalgamate the rude barbarians
of the North with the smooth civilisation of the South by the force of a
common law and common language.[6]
The form of government natural to such infant states as the expansion of
the original social monad, the FAMILY, is a loose but not unkindly
mixture of monarchy, democracy, and aristocracy–the aristocracy
being always the preponderating element. In the single family, of
course, we have only the monarchical element in the father, and the
democratic element in the children; but, as families expand into
townships, it could not be but that the heads of the families composing
it, partly from their age and experience, partly from the force of
individual character, should form a sort of natural aristocracy, while
the less notable and less prominent members would form the δῆμος,
or great body of the constantly increasing multitude of the associated
families. Below these three dominant elements of the body social, there
would always be found a loose company of dependents and
onhangers–the class called Θῆτες in Homer (Od., iv. 644),
and in the Solonian constitution–who had no civic rights any more
than the serfs and vassals of our medieval feudalism. The weakness of
the monarchical and the strength of the aristocratic elements in the
early societies arose from the original equality of the heads of
families, and from the jealousy with which they would naturally look on
any functions of superiority exercised by any of their order naturally
no better than themselves. The king, accordingly, like Agamemnon in
Homer, would claim the homage which the title implies only for purposes
of common action; and even in such cases would always be kept in check
by a βουλή, or council of the aristocracy, of whose will properly
he was only the executive hand; while the great mass of the people,
occupied with the labours that belong to an agricultural and pastoral
population, and unaccustomed to the large views which statesmanship and
generalship require, would come together only on rare occasions of
peculiar urgency.
The element in that loose triad of social forces that was first
formulated into a more distinct type, and endowed with more imperative
efficiency, was the kingship. The power of the king was increased, which
of course implies that the power of the people, and specially of the
aristocracy, was diminished. And here let it be observed generally that
the progress of civilisation in its natural and healthy career is the
progress of limitation and the curtailment in various ways of that
freedom which originally belonged to every member of the community. The
tanned savage of the backwoods is the freest man in existence; next to
him, the nomad or the wandering gipsy, such as may still be seen in
their glory at St. James’ fair in Kelso, whose house is at once
his dwelling-place, his manufactory or place of business, and his
travelling car; least free is the civilised citizen hemmed in on all
sides by police-officers, soldiers, sentinels, door-keepers, and
game-keepers, and the whole fraternity of dignified but unpopular
officials of various kinds whose business it is to the general public to
say No! This accretion of strength to the king proceeded first from his
mere personal influence and the general deference paid to him during the
continuance of a prolonged and easily-exercised sovereignty; all
classes, even the aristocracy, whose ambition is thus kept in check and
their perilous enmities softened, feel the benefit of a wise head and a
firm hand; but the party specially benefited by the kingship is the
demos; for this body, from its position peculiarly liable to be trampled
on by an insolent aristocracy, naturally looks up to the king as the
father of the whole family, who, on his part, feels his position
strengthened and his respect increased by performing with tact and
firmness the delicate functions of a mediator. But the great social
force which operates in giving prominence and predominance to the
monarchy is WAR; and, though war is unquestionably an evil, it is an
evil only as death is, and a form of dying accompanied not seldom with
an exhibition of more manhood than the experience of many a peaceful
deathbed can show. In fact, as stout old Balmerino said on the scaffold
in 1746, “The man who is not ready to die is not fit to
live;” that is, we hold our life under the condition that we may
at any time be called on to sacrifice it, whether for the preservation
of our own self-respect, or for the integrity of the community of which
we are a member. All great nations, in fact, have been cradled in war,
the Hebrews no less than the Greeks and Romans; and it is only an
amiable sentimentalism, pardonable in women, but inexcusable in men,
that, in contemplation of the hard blows, red wounds, and gashed bodies
with which war is accompanied, will allow itself to forget the
hardihood, endurance, courage, self-sacrifice, and devotion to public
duty, of which, under Providence, it has always been the great training
school.[7] There is no profession that I know more favourable to the
growth of noble sentiment and manly action than that of the soldier; and
to its beneficial action in the formation of States every page of
history bears flaming testimony. War, in fact, is the principal agent in
producing that unification so absolutely necessary to social existence,
but which is lost so soon as the headship of the common father of the
expanded clan ceases to be recognised. Thus it was under the compulsion
of war from their Lombardian neighbours on the west and Sclavonians on
the east that the petty democratic communities, which after the
disruption of the Roman Empire occupied the Venetian isles, found
themselves, in the year 697, obliged to elect a king for life, wisely
masking his absolute authority under the name of Doge or Duke. And in a
similar fashion the situation of the Piedmontese, constantly forced to
defend themselves against Gallican and Teutonic ambition, begot in them
a stoutness of self-assertion and a general manhood of character which
up to the present hour has placed them in favourable contrast to the
inhabitants of the southern half of the peninsula; and the manhood
displayed by the Counts of Savoy in asserting their independence against
great odds was no doubt the cause why, in the Peace of Utrecht in 1713,
their lords were allowed to assume and maintain the title of
kings–a circumstance which gave rise to the saying of Frederick
the Great of Prussia, that the lords of Savoy were kings by virtue of
their locality.[8] This is certainly true, not only of Sardinia, but of
all States that ever rose above the loose aggregation of the original
townships. It was the necessity of adjusting matters with troublesome
neighbours that caused a perpetual succession of petty wars; and these
could not be conducted without a prolongation of the power of the
successful general, which acted practically as a kingship. The
successful general in such times did not require to usurp a title which
the people were forward to force upon him; and only a few, we may
imagine, like Gideon (Judges viii. 22), had virtue enough to remain
contented with the distinction belonging to a private station when the
grace of the crown and the authority of the sceptre were formally
pressed upon them by a grateful people. So in Greece we find an early
kingship signalised by the names of Ægeus, Theseus, and Codrus; so in
Rome a succession of seven kings, more or less distinctly outlined, the
last of whom, Tarquin the Proud, stands forward as the head of the great
Latin league, and entering in this capacity into a formal treaty with
Carthage, the great commercial State of the Mediterranean. Closely
connected with war, or, more properly, as the natural development of it
in its more advanced stages, we must mention CONQUEST; that is, the
violent imposition of the results of a foreign civilisation on the
native social foundations of any country. Here, no doubt, there may
often be on the conquering side something very different from a manly
self-assertion–viz. self-aggrandisement at the expense of an
innocent neighbour, greed of territory, lust of power, and the vanity of
mere military glory, which our brilliant neighbours the French were so
fond to have in their mouth. The virtue of war as a training school of
civic manhood does by no means exclude the operation of many forces far
from admirable in their motive; and it is the presence of these unholy
influences, no doubt piously brooded over, that has generated in the
breasts of our mild friends the Quakers that anti-bellicose gospel which
they preach with such lovable persistency. But whatever the motives of
famous conquerors have been, the results of their achievements in the
great history of society have been most important. The imposition of a
foreign type on the peoples of Western Asia by the brilliant conquests
of Alexander the Great, gave to the whole of that valuable part of the
world, along with the rich coast of Northern Africa, a common medium of
culture of the utmost importance to the future civilisation of the race.
The imposition of the Norman yoke 900 years ago on this island gave to
the contentious Saxon kingdoms, by a single vigorous stroke from
without, that social consistency which the bloody strife of five
centuries of petty kings and kinglets among themselves had failed to
produce; while in India the imposition of the most highly advanced
mercantile and Christian civilisation of the West on crude masses of an
altogether diverse type of Asiatic society, presents to the thoughtful
student of history a problem of assimilation of an altogether unique
character, the final solution of which, under the action of many complex
forces, no most sagacious human intellect at the present moment can
divine. On the other hand, it cannot be denied that the blessings which
conquest brings with it, when vigorously managed and wisely used, are
lightly turned into a bane whenever the power which has the force to
conquer has not the wisdom to administer; of which unblissful lack of
administrative capacity and assimilating genius the conquests of the
Turks in Europe, and of the English in Ireland, present a most
instructive example.
The monarchies created in the above fashion, by the combination of old
patriarchal habits with military necessities, however firmly rooted they
may appear at the start, carry with them a certain germ of
dissatisfaction, which, under the influence of popular irritability,
seriously endangers their permanence, and may at any time break up their
consistency. The causes of such dissatisfaction are chiefly the
following:–(1) The original motive for creating a king, the
pressure of foreign war, as war cannot last for ever, in time of peace
will cease to operate, and the instinct of individual liberty, which
belongs to all men, unless when violently stamped out, will revive, and
cause the subjection of all men to the will of one to be looked on with
disfavour. (2) This feeling will be specially strong with the
ἄριστοι, or natural aristocracy, whose individual importance
must diminish as the power of the king increases. (3) A great danger
will arise from the fixation of the order of succession to the throne.
The natural tendency will be to follow the example of succession in
private families, and recognise the right of the son to walk into the
public heritage of his father; but the additional influence thus given
to the king will have a tendency to sharpen the jealousy of the nobles.
And, again, the son may be a weakling or a fool, and utterly unfit to
play the part of a supreme ruler with that mixture of intelligence,
firmness, and tact which the royal function for its fair and full action
requires. (4) And if, in order to avoid these evils, the elective
principle is maintained, either absolutely or within certain limits, the
tendency to faction inherent in all aristocracies, stimulated by the
potent spur of a competition for power, will be increased; and this
factious yeast will work so potently in the blood of the nobles that
they will either reduce the power of the king to a mere name, and change
the government into an exclusive oligarchy, as in Venice, or they will
even go the length of calling in foreign arbiters to heal their
dissensions, which, as in the case of Poland, will naturally end in
subjection to some foreign power; or, lastly, they will dispense with
the kingship altogether, and return to their original mixture of
aristocracy and democracy with more firmly-defined functions and more
reliable guarantees. (5) This result may be precipitated by some
outbreak of that insolence which is so naturally fostered by the
possession of absolute power; the sacredness of personal property and
the reverence of ancestral possession will not be respected by some Ahab
of the day; some young Tarquin or Hipparchus may cast his lustful eye on
the fair daughter of an humble citizen; and then will be unsheathed the
sword of a Brutus, and then uprise the song of a Harmodius and
Aristogeiton, which will sound a long knell to monarchy, during the
manhood of a free, an independent, a self-reliant, and a self-governing
The system of self-government thus introduced, as the natural fruit of
the elements out of which it arose, would be a mixture of aristocracy
and democracy, with a decided predominance of the former element at
starting, but with a gradually increasing momentum on the side of the
inferior factor in proportion as the mass of the people excluded from
aristocratic privileges by a necessary law of social growth advanced in
numbers and in social importance. Greece and Rome, or rather Athens and
Rome, present to us here two types from which important lessons may be
learned. In both the discarding of the kings was the work of the
aristocracy; but, while the germ of the democratic element was equally
strong in both, in Athens, partly from the genius of the people, partly
from peculiar circumstances, this germ blossomed into an earlier, a more
marked, and a more characteristic manhood; whereas in Rome, in the most
brilliant period of its political action, the form of government might
rather be defined as a strong aristocracy limited by a strong democracy
than a pure democracy, to which category Athens undoubtedly belongs. In
both States the aristocratic element did not submit to the necessary
curtailment of its power without a struggle; but in Athens the names of
Solon (600 B.C.), Clisthenes, Aristides, and Pericles distinctly marked
the early formation of a democracy almost totally purged from any
remnant of aristocratic influence, at an epoch in its development
corresponding to which we find Rome pursuing her system of worldwide
conquest under a system of compromise between the patrician and the
plebeian element, similar in some sort to what we see before our eyes at
the present moment in our own country. To Athens, therefore, we look, in
the first place, for an answer to the question, What does history teach
in regard to the virtue of a purely democratic government? And here we
may safely say that, under favourable circumstances, there is no form of
government which, while it lasts, has such a virtue to give scope to a
vigorous growth and luxuriant fruitage of various manhood as a pure
democracy. Instead of choking and strangling, or at least depressing,
the free self-assertion of the individual, by which alone he feels the
full dignity of manhood, such a democracy gives a free career to talent
and civic efficiency in the greatest number of capable individuals; but
it does not follow that, though in this regard it has not been surpassed
by any other form of government, it is therefore absolutely the best of
all forms of government. All that we are warranted to say is, as
Cornewall Lewis does,[9] that without a strong admixture of the
democratic spirit humanity in its social form cannot achieve its highest
results; of which truth, indeed, we have the most striking proof before
our eyes in our own happy island, where, even before the time which Mr.
Green happily designates as Puritan England, powerful kings had received
a lesson that as they had been elected so they might be dismissed from
office by the voice of London burghers. Neither, on the other hand, does
it follow from the shortness of the bright reign of Athenian
democracy–not more than 200 years from Clisthenes to the
Macedonians–that all democracies are short-lived, and must pay,
like dissipated young gentlemen, with premature decay for the feverish
abuse of their vital force. Possible no doubt it is that, if the power
of what we may call a sort of Athenian Second Chamber, the Areiopagus,
instead of being weakened as it was by Aristides and Pericles, had been
built up according to the idea of Æschylus and the intelligent
aristocrats of his day, such a body, armed, like our House of Lords,
with an effective negative on all outbursts of popular rashness, might
have prevented the ambition of the Athenians from launching on that
famous Syracusan expedition which exhausted their force and maimed their
action for the future. But the lesson taught by the short-lived glory of
Athens, and its subjugation under the rough foot of the astute
Macedonian, is not that democracies, under the influence of faction,
and, it may be, not free from venality, will sell their liberties to a
strong neighbour–for aristocratic Poland did this in a much more
blushless way than democratic Greece–but that any loose aggregate
of independent States, given more to quarrel amongst themselves than to
unite against a common enemy, whether democratic, or aristocratic, or
monarchical in their form of government, cannot in the long run maintain
their ground against the firm policy and the well-massed force of a
strong monarchy. Athens was blotted out from the map of free peoples at
Chæronea, not because the Athenian people had too much freedom, but
because the Greek States had too little unity. They were used by Philip
exactly in the same way that Napoleon used the German States at the
commencement of the present century. DIVIDE ET INFERA is the
politician’s most familiar maxim, which, when wisely and
persistently applied, whether by an ancient Macedonia or a modern
Russia, will always give a strong monarchy a decided advantage over
every other form of government. Surround me with a belt of petty
principalities, says the despot, however highly civilised and however
well governed, and I shall know to make them play my game and work
themselves into confusion, till the hour comes when I may appear as a
god to allay by my intervention the troubles which I have fostered by my

So much for Athens. Let us now see what lessons are to be learned from
ROME. And here, on the threshold, it is quite plain that the abolition
of kingship goes in the first place to strengthen the aristocracy, on
whom as a body the supreme functions exercised by the monarch naturally
devolve. The highly aristocratic type of the early Roman republic,
unlimited from above by any superior power, and with only a slight
occasional check from a plebeian citizenship in the tender bud, is
universally admitted. Plainly enough also it stands written on the face
of the early history of the Commonwealth that the administration of the
aristocracy was marked in no ordinary degree by all that exclusiveness,
insolence, selfishness, and rapacity, which are the besetting sins of an
order of men cradled in hereditary conceit, and eating the bread not of
labour, but of privilege, “_das unverbesserliche Junkerthum_,”
as Mommsen calls them. To such an extent did they abuse the natural
vantage ground of their social position that, while the great body of
the substantial yeomanry, who shed their blood in a constant succession
of petty wars for the safety of the State, were stinted of their natural
reward and degraded from their rightful position, the insolent
monopolisers of all dignities and privileges did not blush to take from
the people their natural heritage in the public land, and, for the
enlargement of their own order, to deprive the State of its stoutest
citizens, and the army of its most effective soldiers. The irritation
produced by this insolent and anti-social procedure of the old Roman
landlords, by the law of reaction common to all forces, produced as its
natural consequence a revolt; for, as it has been truly said that the
blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church, no less true is it in
all history that the insolence of the aristocracy is the cradle of the
democracy. That happened accordingly in ancient Rome which Sismondi
prophesied might happen in modern Scotland: “If the mighty thanes who
rule in those trans-Grampian regions begin to think that they can do
without the people, the people may begin to think they can do without
them.”[10] So at least the Roman plebs thought when, in the year of the
city 259, they marched in a body out to the Sacred Mount on the banks of
the Anio, and refused to return to the city till their just claims had
been conceded and their wrongs redressed. Their wrongs were redressed:
conferences, concessions, and compromises, in a hurried and blundering
sort of way, were made; tribunes of the plebs were appointed, with the
absolute power of stopping the whole machinery of the State with a
single negation; and thus was sown the seed of a democracy destined to
grow into monstrous proportions, and ripen into the bloody blossom of a
military despotism by the hands of the very class of persons who were
chiefly interested in preventing it.
The different stages of the battle between plebeians and patricians, or,
as we term it, Whig and Tory, as they evolved themselves by a social
necessity from time to time, belong to the special history of Rome, not
to the general philosophy of history with which we are here concerned.
The seed of democracy sown at the Sacred Mount went on from one stage of
expansion to another, breaking down every barrier of hereditary
privilege between the mass of the people and the old aristocracy, till
it ended in the _Lex Hortensia_, passed B.C. 288, which gave to all
ordinances passed by the _Comitia Tributa_–that is, the
people assembled in local tribes and voting independently of all
aristocratic check or co-operation–the full validity of law. And
in this progress of equalisation between class and class in a community,
the Muse of history sees only a special illustration of a general law
that every aristocracy contending for the maintenance of exclusive
privilege against natural right fights a losing battle. But the
necessity of the adjustment of the opposing claims of a conservative and
a progressive body in the State is a very different thing from the
fashion in which the adjustment may be made, and from the consequences
that may grow out of the adjustment. Here there is room for any amount
of wisdom, and unfortunately also for a large amount of blundering. No
man can say that the Roman constitution as it stood, after the plebeians
had broken through all aristocratic barriers, was a cunningly compacted
machine, or that it afforded any strong guarantee against that
degeneracy into licence towards which all unreined democracies naturally
tend. But one thing certainly was achieved. Out of the plebeian and
patrician elements of the body social, no longer arrayed in hostile
attitude, but fronting one another with equal rights before the law, and
adjusting their forces in a fairly-balanced equilibrium, there was
formed a great political corporation, deliberative and administrative,
which for independence, dignity, patriotism, and sagacity, used its
authority in such a masterly style and to such world-wide issues that it
has earned from Mommsen the complimentary acknowledgment of having been
“the first political corporation of all times.”[11] This
corporation was the Roman Senate, which ruled the policy of Rome for a
period of 200 years, from the passing of the Hortensian Law through a
long period of African and Asiatic wars down to the civil war of Sulla
and Marius, 88 B.C.–a body of which we may perhaps best easily
understand the composition and the virtue if we imagine the best
elements of our House of Commons and the best elements of the House of
Lords merged in one Supreme Assembly of practical wisdom, to the
exclusion at once of the feverish factiousness and multitudinous babble
of the one assembly, and the brainless obstructiveness and incurable
blindness of hereditary class interests in the other. But there was
something else in the mixed constitution of Rome besides the tried
wisdom and the great practical weight of the Senate. What was that?
There was, in the first place, the evil of an elective kingship–for
the Consul was really an annual king under a different name, as the
President of the United States is a quadriennial king, with greatly more
power while his kingship lasts than the Queen of Great Britain; and this
implied an annual fit of social fever, and the annual sowing of a germ
of faction ready to shoot into luxuriance under the strong stimulant of
the love of power. Then, as in the natural growth of society, a new
aristocracy grew up, formed by the addition of the wealthy plebeian
families to the old family aristocracy, and along with it a new and
numerous plebeian body, practically though not legally excluded from the
privilege of the _optimates_, the old antagonism of patrician and
plebeian would revive, and the question arose, What machinery had the
legislation of the previous centuries provided to prevent a collision
and a rupture between the antagonistic tendencies of the democratic and
oligarchic elements in the State? The answer is, None. The authority of
the Senate, great as it was both morally and numerically, was
antagonised by the co-equal legislative authority of the _Comitia
Tributa_–an assembly as open to any agitator for factious or
revolutionary purposes as a meeting of a London mob in Hyde Park, and
composed of elements of the most motley and loose description, ready at
any moment to give the solemn sanction of a national ordinance to any
act of hasty violence or calculated party move which might flatter the
vanity or feed the craving of the masses. But this was not all. The
tribunate, originally appointed simply for the protection of the
commonalty against the rude exercise of patrician power, had now grown
to such formidable dimensions that the popular tribune of the day might
become the most powerful man in the State, and only require re-election
to constitute him into a king whose decrees the consuls and the senators
must humiliate themselves to register. Here was a machinery cunningly,
one might think, constructed for the purpose of working out its own
disruption, even supposing both the popular and aristocratic elements
had been composed of average good materials. But they were not so. In
the age of the Gracchi, 133 B.C., the high sense of honour, the proud
inheritance of an uncorrupted patrician body, and the shrewd sense and
sobriety of a sound-hearted yeomanry, had equally disappeared. The
aristocracy were corrupted by the wealth which flowed in from the spoils
of conquest; they had become lovers of power rather than lovers of Rome;
lords of the soil, not fathers of the people; banded together for the
narrow interests of their own order rather than for the general
well-being of the community. The sturdy yeomanry again, of which the
mass of the original popular assemblies had been composed, had partly
dwindled away under maladministration of the public lands, and partly
were mixed up with motley groups of citizens of no fixed residence, and
of a town rabble who could be induced to vote for anything by any man
who knew to win their favour by a large distribution of Sicilian corn or
the exciting luxury of gladiatorial shows; in a word, the _populus_ had
become a _plebsy_ or, in our language, the people a populace.
Furthermore, let it be noted that this people or populace, tied down to
meet only in Rome, as the high seat of Government, was called upon to
deal with the administration of countries as far apart and as diverse in
character as Madrid and Cairo, or Bagdad and Moscow are from London.
Think of a mob of London artisans, on the motion of a Henry George, or
even a rational Radical like Mr. Chamberlain, drummed together to pass
laws on landed property and taxation through all that vast domain! But
so it was; and most unfortunately also the original fathers of the
agitation which, at the time of the Gracchi, ranged the great rulers of
the world into two hostile factions, stabbing one another in the back
and cutting one another’s throats, and plotting and counter-plotting in
every conceivable style of baseness, after the fashion which is now
being exemplified before us in Ireland,–the authors of this agitation
were not the demagogues, but the aristocracy; as indeed in all cases of
general discontent, social fret, and illegal violence, the parties who
are accused of stirring class against class are not the agitators who
appear on the scene, but the maladministrators who made their appearance
necessary. Man is an animal naturally inclined to obey and to take
things quietly; insurrection is too expensive an affair to be indulged
in by way of recreation; and there is no truth in the philosophy of
history more certain than that whenever the multitude of the ruled rebel
against their rulers, the original fault–I do not say the whole blame,
for as things go on from bad to worse there may be blame and blunders on
both sides–but the original fault and germinative cause of discontent
and revolt unquestionably lies with the rulers. Whatever may be said
about Ireland and the Scottish Highlands, there can be no doubt that in
the case of Rome the original cause of the democratising of the old
constitution and the over-riding of senatorial authority by tribunician
ordinances was the senators themselves, who, in direct contravention of
the public law of the State, with that greed for more land which is the
besetting sin of every aristocracy, had quartered themselves, after the
fashion of colonial squatters, on the public lands, and refused to
surrender them to the State till compelled by the cry of popular right
against might, raised by such patriotic and self-sacrificing agitators
as the Gracchi–patriotic men who attained their object at last by the
only means in their power, but means so drastic that, like doctor’s
drugs, they drave out one devil by bringing in a score, and paid for the
partial healing of an incurable disease by destroying for ever the
balance of the constitution, and inaugurating with their own martyr
blood one of the most woeful epochs in human history–an epoch varied by
periodical assassinations and consummated by wholesale butcheries.
I said the Gracchi attained their object, and that by appointing a
Commission for a distribution of the public lands, such as the friends
of the crofters in the Highlands now propose for the repeopling of the
old depopulated homes of the clan. But I said also that the disease
under which Rome laboured was incurable. How was this? Simply because,
whatever might have been the merits of the special Agrarian Law carried
by the Gracchi, the violent steam by which the State machine was moved
remained the same, the clumsy machine itself remained, and the materials
with which it had to deal in a long and critical course of foreign
conquest became every year larger and more unmanageable. It was not to
be expected either, on the one hand, that a strong and influential
aristocracy should die with a single kick, or, on the other, that a
democracy, which had once learned the power of a popular flood to break
down aristocratic dams, would cease to exercise that power when a
convenient occasion offered. And so the strife of oligarchic and
plebeian factions continued. The political struggle, as always happens
in such cases, became a struggle for personal supremacy; the sanguinary
street battle between the younger Gracchus and the Consul Opimius,
though followed by a lull for a season, was renewed after a few years in
more startling form and much bloodier issues, first between Marius and
Sulla, and finally between Cæsar and Pompey. Such a succession of
embittered civil wars could end only in exhaustion and submission; and
this is the last emphatic lesson which the history of Rome has taught to
the governors of the people. Every constitution of mixed aristocratic
and democratic elements which fails by kindly control on the one side,
and reasonable demand on the other, to achieve that balance of those
antagonising forces which means good government, must end in a military
despotism. That which will not bridle itself must be bridled; and when
constant irritation, fretful jars, and cruel collisions are the bloody
fruit of unchastened liberty, slavery and stagnation seem not too high a
price to pay for peace.
I have enlarged on the development and decay of the Roman republic, not
only because in point of political achievement Rome is by far the most
notable of the great States of the world, but because in the struggle
between aristocracy and democracy which was the salient feature of its
history from the expulsion of the kings to the battle of Actium, it
presents a very close and instructive parallel to what has been going on
amongst ourselves from the revolution settlement of 1688 to the present
hour. If for annual kings with large power we put hereditary kings with
small power, the parallel is complete.[12] Let us now cast a glance, for
time and space allow us no more, over some modern developments. The
modern States of Europe have good reason, upon the whole, to think
themselves fortunate in their having retained the kingship, which the
Greeks and Romans rejected, either as their original type, or elevated
and glorified from the dukedoms, margravates, and electorates with which
they started. There cannot be much doubt, I imagine, that, if the Romans
had retained their king in a hereditary or nearly hereditary form, he
might have exercised a mediatorial function between the contending
parties that would have prevented those bloody strifes and those ugly
civic wounds with which the record of their political career stands now
so sorrowfully defaced. In the experience of their own earliest story,
Servius Tullius had already shown them how a king in the strife of
classes might step in by a peaceful new model to open the ranks of a
close aristocracy with dignity and safety to a rising democracy; and in
modern times the case of Leopold II. of Tuscany does not stand alone as
an example of what good service a wise king may do in the adjustment of
contending claims and smoothing the march of necessary social
transitions. In fact, the most democratic people amongst the ancients,
in order to effect such an adjustment in a peaceful way, had been
obliged to make Solon a king for the nonce; and the Romans, urged by a
like social pressure, named their dictator, or re-elected their consuls
and their tribunes, in order to secure for the need of the moment that
unity of counsel, energy of conduct, and moral authority which is the
grand recommendation of the kingship. No doubt kings in modern as in
ancient times have erred; they have not been able always to keep
themselves sober under the intoxicating influence of absolute power, and
they have paid dearly for their errors; but we were wise in this
country, while beheading one despot and banishing another, to punish the
offender without abolishing the office. True, a thorough-going and
sternly-consistent republican may ask, with an indignant sneer, What is
the use of a king, when we have shorn him of all honours save the grace
of a crown and the bauble of a sceptre–reduced him, in fact, to a
mere machine to register the decrees of a democratic assembly? But such
persons require to be reminded that there is nothing more dangerous, not
only in political, but in all practical matters, than logical
consistency; that the most narrow-minded people are always the most
consistent, and this for the very obvious reason that they have only
room for one idea in their small brain chambers, whereas God’s
world contains many ideas, stiff ideas too, and given to battle, which
must be brought into some friendly balance or compromise, or set about
throat-cutting on a large scale–a process to which consistent
republicans have never shown a less bloody inclination than consistent
monarchists. They must be reminded also that the person of the monarch
is an incarnated, visible, and tangible symbol of the unity of the
nation, of which parties and factions are so apt to be forgetful; and if
our logically-consistent republican may look on this as a matter of
association and sentiment which he will not acknowledge, he must simply
be told that the man who does not acknowledge the important place played
by associations and sentiments in all matters of Church and State knows
nothing of human nature, and is altogether unfit for meddling with the
difficult and dangerous art of politics. He may write books, and lecture
to coteries, and harangue electoral meetings, and delight himself
largely in the reverberation of his own wisdom, but by all means let him
not be a prime minister. To what ends logical consistency can lead a
politician in high places Charles I. and Archbishop Laud learned when it
was too late; and the fate of these two high-perched worthies stands as
a speaking lesson to all politicians, whether of the democratic or the
monarchical type, how easy a thing it is for a man to be a good
Christian and a consistent thinker, and yet on all political matters a
perfect fool.
Among the notable modern States three stand before us with
an exceptional preference for the democratic form of
government–Switzerland, France, and the great trans-Atlantic
Republic. These must be regarded with curious interest and kindly human
sympathy as great social experiments, by no means to be prejudged and
denounced by any sweeping conclusions made from the unfortunate
breakdown of the two celebrated ancient republics. The experiment in
these cases, as made in altogether different circumstances and under
different conditions, cannot warrant any such denunciations. The
representative system which now universally prevails, and which enables
a most widely-scattered and diverse-minded population to vote with a
coolness and a precision and a large survey of which the urban system of
Greece and Rome never dreamed; the general growth of intelligence among
all classes through the action of cheap education and the large
circulation of cheap books; the rapid and ever more rapid travelling of
contagious thought from the centre to the extreme limbs and flourishes
of social unities; and, above all, let us hope the improved tone of
social feeling in all the relations of man to man, which we owe to the
great Christian principle of living as brother with brother, and sister
with sister, under a common heavenly fatherhood,–these are all
forces largely operating in the present day which justify us in hoping
that many a social experiment which signally failed with the ancients
may be crowned in the centuries which are now being inaugurated with
encouraging success. Of the three which we have named, Switzerland is
the country in which, from topographical peculiarities, the interests of
jealous, neighbours, and the traditional habits of a peasant population
well trained to provincial self-government, the permanence of a
democratic federation may be prophesied with the greatest safety, but at
the same time with the least interest to the general march of humanity.
Ancient Rome, had it continued as compact and as little disturbed by
external forces and internal fermentations as modern Switzerland, might
have remained during the whole course of its career as sober-minded and
as stable as in the days of Cincinnatus, and the yeomanry which were
displaced by huge absentee landlords, and Syrian or Sicilian slaves. The
case of France is altogether different. A republic in an over-civilised,
highly-centralised, bureaucratically-governed country, with a
religiously hollow, hasty, violent, excitable, and explosive people,
seems of all social experiments the least hopeful: and that is all that
can wisely be said of it at present. But the social conditions in
America are altogether different; and the experiment of a great
democratic republic for the first time in the history of the
world–for Rome in its best times, as we have seen, was an
aristocracy–will be looked on by all lovers of their species with
the most kindly curiosity and the most hopeful sympathy. Here we have
the stout, self-reliant, sober-minded Anglo-Saxon stock, well trained in
the process of the ages to the difficult art of self-government; here we
have a constitution framed with the most cautious consideration, and
with the most effective checks against the dangers of an over-riding
democracy; here also a people as free from any imminent external danger
as they have unlimited scope for internal progress. Under no
circumstances could the experiment of self-government, on a great scale,
have been made with a more promising start. No doubt they have a
difficult and slippery problem to perform. The frequent recurrence of
elections to the supreme magistracy has always been, and ever must be,
the breeder of faction, the nurse of venality, and the spur of ambition.
Once already has this Titanic confederacy, though only a hundred years
old, by going through a process of a long, bitter, and bloody civil war,
shown that the unifying machinery so cunningly put together by the
conservative genius of a Washington, an Adams, and a Madison, was
insufficient to hold in check the rebellious forces at war within its
womb. No doubt also it were in vain to speak America free from those
acts of gigantic jobbing, blushless venality, and over-riding of the
masses in various ways, which were working the ruin of Rome in the days
of Jugurtha. The aristocracy of gold and the tyranny of capitalists in
Christian New York has shown itself no less able to usurp the public
land and defraud the people of their share in the soil than the lordly
aristocracy and the slave-dealing magnates of heathen Rome. Nevertheless
we need not despair. The sins of American democracy may serve as a
useful hint to us not rashly to tinker our own mixed constitution
without waiting for a verdict on issues, which, as Socrates wisely says,
lie with the gods; nor, on the other hand, is there any wisdom in
ascribing to the American form of government evils which, as belonging
to human nature, crop up with more or less abundance under all forms of
government, and which may be specially rife among ourselves. We also
have our Glasgow banks, our bubble companies of all kinds, our heady
speculations, our hot competitions, our over-productions, our haste to
be rich, our idol worship of mere material magnificence,–these are
evils, and the root of all evil, with the production of which no form of
government has anything to do, and against which every form of
government will be in vain invoked to contend.
In conclusion, we must bear in mind that democracy or social
self-government is the most difficult of all human problems, and must be
approached, not with inflated hopes and rosy imaginations, but with
sobriety and caution and a sound mind, and at critical moments not
without prayer and fasting. Before entering on any scheme for rebuilding
our social edifice on a democratic model, we should consider seriously
what a democracy really implies, and what we may reasonably promise
ourselves from its possible success. Of the two rallying cries which
have made it a favourite with persons given to change, equality and
liberty, the one is no more true than that all the mountains in the
Highlands are as high as Ben Nevis, and can only mean at the best that
all men have an equal right to be called men and to be treated as men,
while the other is only true so far as concerns the removal of all
artificial barriers to the free exercise of each man’s function,
according to his capacity and opportunities. But this is a mere
starting-point in the social life of a great people. When the bird is
out of the cage, which it must be in order to be a perfect bird, the
more serious question emerges, what use it shall make of its
newly-acquired liberty. Here certainly to men, as to birds, there are
great dangers to be faced; and with nations the progress of society, as
already remarked, is measured to a much larger extent by the increase of
limitations than by the extension of liberties. Then, again, the
fundamental postulate of extreme democracy that the majority have
everywhere a right to govern is manifestly false. No man as a member of
society has a natural right to govern: he has a right to be governed,
and well governed; and that can only be when the government is conducted
by the wisest and best men who compose the society. If the numerical
majority is composed of sober-minded, sensible, and intelligent persons
who will either govern wisely themselves or choose persons who will do
so, then democracy is justified by its deeds; but if it is otherwise,
and if, when an appeal is made to the multitude, they will choose the
most daring, the most ambitious, and the most unscrupulous, rather than
the most sensible, the most moderate, and the most conscientious, then
democracy is a bad thing, at least nothing better than the other
_ocracies_ which it supplants. It is manifest, therefore, that of
all forms of government democracy is that which imperatively requires
the greatest amount of intelligence and moderation among the great mass
of the people, especially amongst the lower classes, who have always
been the most numerous; and, as history can point to no quarter of the
world where such a happy condition of the numerical intelligence has
been realised, it cannot look with any favour on schemes of universal
suffrage, even when qualified with a stout array of effective checks.
The system, indeed, of representing every man individually, and giving
every member of a society a capitation vote, as they have a capitation
tax in Turkey, however popular with the advocates of extreme democracy,
seems quite unreasonable. What requires to be represented in a
reasonable representative system is not so much individuals as
qualities, capacities, interests, and types. Every class should be
represented, rather than every man in a class. Besides, the equality of
votes which democracy demands, on the principle that I am as good as you
and perhaps a little better, is utterly false, and tends to nourish
conceit and impertinence, to banish all reverence, and to ignore all
distinctions in society. Anyhow, there can be no doubt that great masses
of men acting together on exciting occasions are peculiarly liable to
hasty resolutions and violent opinions; all democracies, therefore, are
unsafe which are unprovided with checks in the form of an upper chamber
composed of more cool materials, and planted firmly in a position that
makes them independent of the fever and faction of the hour. A strong
democracy stands as much in need of an aristocratic rein as a strong
aristocracy does of a democratic spur. And let it never be
forgotten–what democracies are far too apt to forget–that
minorities have rights as well as majorities; nay, that one of the great
ends to be achieved by a good government is to protect the few against
the natural insolence of a majority glorying in its numbers, and hurried
on by the spring-tide of a popular contagion. A state of society is not
at all inconceivable in which the many shall make all the laws and
monopolise all the offices of a fussy bureaucracy, while the few are
burdened with all the taxes. Never too frequently can we repeat, in
reference to all public acts, no less than to the conduct of individuals
in private life, the great Aristotelian maxim that ALL EXTREMES ARE
WRONG; that every force when in full action tends to an excess which
for its own salvation must be met by a counterpoising force; that all
good government, as all healthy existence, is the balance of opposites
and the marriage of contraries; and that the more mettlesome the charger
the more need of a firm rein and a cautious rider. He who overlooks this
prime postulate of all sane action in this complex world may pile his
democratic house tier above tier and enjoy his green conceit for a
season; but the day of sore trial and civic storm is not far, when the
rain shall descend, and the floods come, and the winds blow and beat
upon that house, and it will fall, because it was founded upon a dream.