December 31, 2019


Meet Mr. Bagehot : How 'the greatest Victorian' speaks to us. (Gertrude Himmelfarb, September 9, 2013, Weekly Standard)

After graduating from college (University College London, not Oxford as his mother would have preferred, because his father objected to its religious requirement), Bagehot started the study of law, but found that uncongenial--starving, he complained, his "higher half thoughts, half instincts." A visit to Oxford acquainted him with the followers of John Henry Newman and prompted him to read and admire the man, although not to agree with him. Reflecting on the division in his own life between his mother's Anglicanism and his father's Unitarianism, Bagehot came to a view of religion that transcended any doctrinal creed: "In religious matters, it is prudent to venerate what we do not comprehend. .  .  . We cannot prove that God is infinite, omnipotent and good, but we require the assumption that He is so or all is dark." "Despite my doubting temper," he concluded, "I sought a rational, consoling creed."   

Another visit, this time to Paris, brought to the fore the political side of his "doubting temper." He came there in 1851, at the age of 25, just in time to witness the coup d'état of Louis-Napoleon and report upon it in a series of articles for the Inquirer, a Unitarian weekly. In a mood that might be interpreted, he confessed, as "satiric playfulness," even "cynicism," he proceeded to shock his "high-minded" liberal readers by defending the coup. "I am pleased to have seen a revolution, but once is enough," he told them. 

That "revolution" turned out to be for the young Bagehot what the momentous French Revolution was for Edmund Burke, moving him to entertain ideas that were at odds not only with those of his friends but with those of most of his countrymen. Unlike Burke, however, Bagehot approved of this revolution. "The first duty of society is the preservation of society," he reminded his readers. It was in the face of a threatening social anarchy that Napoleon was justified in taking over the government and asserting a strong executive power tantamount to dictatorship. 

Almost apologetically, Bagehot introduced another theme to account for the coup: "national character .  .  . the least changeable thing in this ever-changeful world." It was the distinctive national characters of the two countries that made French politics so volatile and the English so stable. It was at this point that Bagehot "provocatively," as he said, used the word "stupidity" to explain the character of the English people and thus the stability of their regime: 

The most essential mental quality for a free people whose liberty is to be progressive, permanent, and on a large scale, is what I provocatively call stupidity. .  .  . Stupidity [is] the roundabout common sense and dull custom that steers the opinion of most men. .  .  . Nations, just as individuals, may be too clever to be practical, and not dull enough to be free. Dullness is the English line, as cleverness is that of the French. 

Many years later, expressed somewhat more delicately, but still provocatively, this was to be one of the leading themes of The English Constitution.

[originally posted: 08/31/13]
Enhanced by Zemanta

Posted by at December 31, 2019 5:57 PM