RIP VAN WINKLE EX CATHEDRA.
THE Chair of Casuistry—or of Moral Philosophy, as it has in modern times been called—at Cambridge has been filled for more than thirty years by men of remarkable ability and striking personal character. The ambitious, assertive, and somewhat intemperate spirit of Dr. Whewell gave a certain iolat to his tenure of the Professorship which had the effect at least of drawing the world's gaze upon the office ; and though Professor John Grote had neither the brilliant parts nor the dogmatic temperament of his pre- decessor, his indisputable power as a thinker, both in pure metaphysical speculation and in the working out of an ethical system, obtained sufficient academia if not general recognition. Then came the election of Mr. Maurice to the Chair, and the moral philosophy lectures at Cambridge once more became a centre of interest for the speculative intelligence of the country. All the world felt that when Professor Maurice died, the University of Cambridge was pat to a severe teat in being expected to choose a worthy successor. When the name of Mr. Birks, which, we may say, was hardly known to a single philosophical student who had not been trained at Cambridge, was published as that of the new occupant of the Chair which Whewell, Grote, and Maurice had filled, there was a feeling of amazement qualified only by a determination to give the new expositor of Cambridge ethics fair-play. We have waited until Mr. Birks' inaugural discourse has made us master, not, indeed, of his ethical theory, but of the relation which he conceives moral philosophy to bear to the active life of our every-day world. And we must admit that Mr. Birks has vindicated his claim to a notoriety more extensive than he has heretofore enjoyed.
A great part of his lecture was occupied with politics, and indeed moral philosophy descended only now and then from the clouds in which the Professor wrapped her to promise healing for the fatal fever of the time. For in what is called modern progress Mr. Birks sees nothing but a swift lapse into utter and irremediable ruin. How it comes that he has been born in our age and has dwelt among us—we cannot say that he has lived with us—is a mystery. He seems to have fallen asleep in some mythical past, surrounded by imaginary thrones and churches and covenants and philosophies ; and to this land of dreams his waking mind is unconsciously drawn back. By these visionary standards he judges the motion and action around him, to the consciousness of which he has been, as it were, aroused on a sudden ; and that his judgments are curiously erroneous is thus easily explained. Mr. Birks, indeed, is a political Rip van Winkle, but the Sleepy Hollow out of which he emerges to preach his strange dogmas of politics and morality has not, and never had, any objective existence. The past by which Mr. Birks measures the present, is not the past of our national history connected with our present by unbroken links of political and social continuity, and animated, under forms however different, by the same national spirit. Mr. Birks' past is a dream of schoolmen, the fabric of priestly imagination, concocted, conned over, and cherished in cloisters and common- rooms, preached from academic pulpits, handed down tradi- tionally from generation to generation of University Tories. Precisely the same sort of folly that Mr. Birks talks was talked by his predecessors before the Reform and Emanci- pation Acts, when the approaching downfall of the Constitu- tion was predicted as lugubriously as the Cambridge Professor of Moral Philosophy could desire. The curious reader will find some remarkable parallelisms with Mr. Birks' dreariest vaticinations—set forth, it must be allowed, with all the advantages of an admirable English style—in Southey's almost forgotten "Colloquies on Society." Still earlier the same gloom brooded over the academic politicians who denounced a pacific policy towards France or America, and supported George III, in his most foolish and futile acts of arbitrary power. In the previous generation this very class of persons, so zealous now for the Protestant succession, were plotting for the return of the Stuarts, and were writing surreptitious pamphlets on divine right. They were driving Locke out of Oxford, as a generation before they had been treating Milton with ignominy at Cambridge. But in spite of the resistance of these darkened spirits, the world has moved, and they have moved with it into the light, so' that not even Mr. Birks, however resolutely he may close his eyes, can quite shut out the day. And in spite, too, of their ever-recurring predictions that the country has been going from bad to worse, and is at each particular moment of warning on the actual verge of destruction, England has obstinately evaded the menaced catastrophes, and Englishmen have persisted in believing that neither morally, intellectually, nor physically have they deteriorated from their fathers. Shall we, who have not been convinced by the dismal prophecies of Mr. Birks' forerunners,— who have seen them indeed refuted by facts,—shall we credit the melancholy forecasts of the Cambridge Professor ? We may, at least, be permitted to doubt and wait, till we see what he would offer us in exchange for the modern English Constitution and the political impulses of the age.
The political ideal to which Mr. Birks looks back, but which, as we have said, never had any real existence, is thus most im- perfectly defined by him :—" Oar British Constitution originally placed the seat of national power in the Sovereign succeeding by fixed laws—reigning by the grace of God, brought under oath and covenant, and guided by the advice and judgment of two distinct Houses, one representing the past historical life of the nation, and the other the wishes, desires, and hopes of the living generation." What Mr. Birks means by" originally" we cannot guess, but as he mentions the two Houses, we pre- sume he does not carry the "origin" of the English Constitu- tion further back than the reign of Henry IIL Probably Simon de Montfort would have been considerably astonished if he had been told what the Knights of the Shire and Bus-
gesses assembled in Parliament represented, according to the metaphysical interpretation of Mr. Birks ; nor would the Barons of that day have been less amazed to hear that they re- presented not "the wishes, desires, and hopes of the living generation," but "the past historical life of the nation."
Passing by this difficulty, however, we see that in a certain sense Mr. Birks' description of the British Constitution is actually true at the present time. The Sovereign succeeds by "fixed laws," or laws at least as " fixed " as any human legis- lation can fix them ; "reigns by the grace of God," as the coins of the realm bear witness, and is advised by the two Houses of Parliament. What, then, are Mr. Birks' accusations against the innovating spirit of modern democracy? The first is that the Sovereign has to be guided by the Ministers of the Crown, who in fact are subject to the will of the House of Commons. We do not see what article of the " Con- stitution " above recited this doctrine offends against, unless Mr. Birks believes, which is likely enough, that no King who follows the advice of Ministers rather than the caprices of his own will can be said to "reign by the Grace of God." Next we are told that the House of Lords "is sinking to the lower level of a fly-wheel," and dares not oppose the Commons. But according to Mr. Birks' version of the Con- stitution, the Sovereign is guided by the advice of the two Houses ; when their advice differs, the one or the other must give way ; why should it be the Commons rather than the Peers? Here, again, we fail to see any infraction of Mr. Birks' Constitution. The fact is, he has not ventured to put into shape his theory of government. Plainly he believes in per- sonal authority based on divine right, and exercised according to the free will of the Sovereign without the consent of the subjects for certain objects which, to Mr. Birks, seem good. This is what we have called the imaginary past, back to which Mr. Birks vainly reaches. If the Stuart Kings had been suc- cessful in their unprincipled attacks upon the liberties of England, Mr. Birks' ideal might have been realised, and the principles of Filmer might have supplanted those of Locke as the foundation of the English theory of Government. This Mr. Birks does not seem to understand. He forgets that we have travelled so far since Filmer's time, that we can- not even understand the frame of mind in which such a sys- tem could have been seriously offered to Englishmen, and accepted even in the dim, romantic light of college cloisters ; and with this mythical monarchy as his standard of excellence, he is so much appalled at the democratic doctrine of majori- ties, that he rushes into a wild confusion of metaphors. Instead of "the laws of morality, ancient covenants, and oaths, and the lessons of religious faith," we are told "the addition- table is to be enthroned," which in its revolutionary rule is to obliterate "the family, the guild, the neighbourhood, the county, the distinctions of wealth, experience, birth, education, the trusts and covenants inherited from former ages." With the highest respect, and even regard, for the addition-table, we hesitate to take Mr. Birks' word for it that all these things will " disappear " before the democratic sovereignty, subse- quently described as "the genius of arithmetic unvexed by the disturbing forces of religion and morality." If, however, we fail to follow Mr. Birks in this part of his lamentation, we find an excuse for him in an error which we are happy to be able to correct. He labours under an apprehension that the Ballot Act is not only "the new basis on which our national hopes and prosperity are to depend "—an arrange- ment which we are quite prepared to admit would be eminently unsatisfactory—but has actually been devised "to replace the Christian religion, the Protestant succession, and the Coronation Oath." The contemplation of a Statute so destructive as this may well excuse some metaphorical maundering. But we fear Mr. Birks has not perused the Ballot Act with the "seeing eye." Mr. Birks may be assured that if the restraining forces of religion and morality have been so weakened that they cannot stand the test of secret-voting and an extended suffrage, the catastrophe he predicts would come, whatever the "covenants" —a word which seems to have all the consolatory unction of " Mesopotamia " for Mr. Birks—the oaths, the privileges of monarchs and nobles preserved in defiance of the Modern Spirit. How childish is it to assume that the conscience of men will be affected by the mere external machinery for dis- charging, once in a way, a political function! If the national conscience is sound, it will matter little whether men vote by Ballot or not ; if it is unsound, the eulbute generale must come sooner or later. Does Mr. Birks, calling himself a Professor of Moral Philosophy, mean to assert that an Act of Parliament can change the nature of a people Yet this is what his argument, that morality and religion are inconsistent with universal suffrage and secret voting, really comes to. We are going straight to the rule of mere numbers, he says, and by way of that to a military despotism. The costly and elaborate organisation of modern warfare gives, as he thinks, an enor- mous advantage to the ambitious, unscrupulous man. This danger may be a real one, though there are considerations of which Mr. Birks takes no account to be weighed on the other aide. But would any form of absolute monarchy avert a risk of the kind ? Even could we revive again the belief in divine right of kings—a belief never accepted in the English mind so far as to extinguish the thought that insurrection might be necessary and justifiable—we know how easily military ambitions can find pretences for resisting a kingly government. Neither in feudal France nor in feudal England have rebellions and pretenders been unknown. The absolute monarchies, quite as much as the republics, have had to depend on the reasonable loyalty, not on the superstitious veneration, of the people. Convince the people that change is a gain, and the change will come one day ; if too long delayed, will come in ruin and terror. Convince them, on the other hand, that they will lose by change, and they grow, like the French peasants, the most stubborn of conservatives. Of course, if you can enlarge the view of the masses so that they will take into their calculations of gain and loss the higher considerations of morality, you pro- vide additional security for the nobler interests of a country. But the work of thus opening men's minds is slow ; nor will it be expedited, we are afraid, in spite of Mr. Birks' excellent intentions, by the sort of Moral Philosophy that is now preached from the Chair of Casuistry at Cambrige.