DEMOCRACY AND TRUTH.
THE recent advice given by two clergymen to the farm- labourers of England, respecting their vote in the ensuing election—advice on which we have already commented, and to the political aspect of which we do not propose to return— must have revived an old problem to the minds of many of our readers. Where do the claims of truth stand, when they are weighed against other claims ? May we not give false informa- tion to those who have no right to any ? This question is one we have considered before, and we will now merely remark, as a contribution towards the answer, that the claims of truth and of every other duty should be looked at from a different point of view, according as the breach is a matter of retrospect or of prospect. There is no inconsistency in looking mainly at the excuse for an accomplished action, for which, while it was still in the future, we had nothing but disapproval. If anybody were to pour forth a flood of righteous indignation against a ploughman who failed to keep a promise he had given his landlord about the ensuing election, we should feel no sympathy with the denunciation; but when, on the other hand, we hear the ploughmen of England encouraged to make promises they intend to break, the fact we are most sure of in an entangled question is that to guard against any exaggerated scruple about an extorted promise in addressing a set of working-men is about as necessary as to put on the drag in going up-hill. The first question anybody who gives advice to a class should ask himself is,—How will it look from below ? How will it tell on a weak nature? Not to allow for this in any social maxim is like making arrangements for machinery and not allowing for friction. And what would be the effect of teaching uneducated people that any falsehood is comparatively innocent, is a pro- blem we should have thought to which the answer was at least as clear as that to any political question whatever. It might probably be expressed in the confession once made by a candid gamekeeper, "I suppose anybody would tell a lie to save a noise." However, these considerations are too obvious to need any elaborate discussion.
But it does not seem superfluous, nor is the occasion un- fitting, to point out the claims of that part of duty which we sum up in the word truth, and especially to consider how far it is desirable to be on our guard against untruthfulness as characteristic of a class. We may, without offence, assume that whatever is characteristic of a nation is characteristic of a class, and respect for truth is certainly unknown to some of the most civilised races of the globe. This quality forms a link between the intellectual and moral halves of our nature, and shows its complex character in its varied aspects. No two desirable things arc more dissimilar than the eagerness of a scientific man to verify some new principle, and the resolution of a poor man to refrain from some lucrative lie. The scientific man, it is evident, is considering truth as it is opposed to ignor- ance; the poor man is considering truth as it is opposed to falsehood. Now truth, as it is opposed to ignorance, is evidently not an idea that suggests itself to an ignorant mind. And troth, as opposed to falsehood, is wholly a negative ideal. Reserve is
no breach of truthfulness. Properly speaking, the love of truth is a wrong expression. We are obliged to -use it if we would make ourselves understood; but if any one thinks what the "love of truth" means, he will see that the words are absurd. "The love of truth !" The love of the fact that a man's income stands at so much, when .he has to state it with a view to income-tax ! The love of the fact that a servant-girl has broken a jug, on the part of that servant-girl ! Falsehood is an original act which may very well be hated, an initial movement of authorship which creates a very definite sense of responsibility in the mind. Truth- fulness is a mere repression of one's own individuality in the face of a course of events which one may regard with feelings the very opposite of love. A virtue so purely negative has no root in the emotional part of the nature, and can have but a com- paratively slight hold on an uneducated min& And while it has weak allies, it has strong foes. The desire to see things as they are may often become the antagonist of the desire to make things what they should be. Some charac- ters need nothing more urgently than an atmosphere of such anticipation as none could form who knew them. It is not anxious precaution which most soothes an irritable temper; the fearless touch of one who knows nothing of sore subjects has often a marvellous power to soothe a spirit that anxious and guarded tenderness would only ruffle. It is not burning indignation which best represses the first promptings of the lower impulses of our nature. The neighbourhood of unconscious purity silences many a whisper of evil which the denunciation of righteous severity raises to a deafening clamour. Woe to the nation that is divided between vice and wrath ! The last loses its best instrument, the first its most healing medicine, when they stand face to face, and each considers the other alone. A thinker in the extreme twilight of the old world saw in the fable of Orpheus a warning to the spirit which, escaping from the shadow of sin, turns back to gaze into the darkness even for the sake of some precious thing that it hopes to recover. It is a profound truth, which Boethius here read into the legend of a race perhaps not deeply enough exercised in the experience of moral conflict to have discerned it; and so far as it is a truth, it must be allowed to be an enemy to what we mean by truthful. ness.
If the claims of Truth be only of a negative character, and if it has so many foes, it is surely far more necessary to give it all the influence that words can give, than it is in the case of that other hemisphere of duty which belongs to a part of our nature more remote from all that language can express. The duty of love, in all its forms—pity, reverence, kindness, pardon —is not one which is much elucidated or strengthened by any words that human lips can utter. We must preach that with our lives, rather than with our lips ; and as there is not much help in what can be said for it, so there is no very great danger in what can be said against it. Its advocate is often silenced by passion and interest, but rarely confronted by sophistry. But with the duty of truth it is different. This unemotional, un- impulsive duty, this sternly impersonal virtue, demands an intellectual soil to attain its full vigour ; it should be the especial duty of the cultivated classes to strengthen its claims upon those whose circumstances are such as sufficiently to exhibit all the ex- cuses for transgressing it. A member of the wages-receiving class, who is as truthful as the average English gentleman, probably overcomes more temptations to deceit in a week than the gentle. man does in a year. These considerations about what one would do if one could save one's life by telling a lie, which we have been reading in the newspaper for the last week or two, have not indeed been presented to the intellect of a poor man ; but what- ever truth they contain has been distilled into his daily experi- ence, and drawn into his moral constitution. The necessities of life have impressed on him the excusableness of sometimes telling a lie. Whatever theory we present to his mind should go the other way. And we must always remember that if our sermons in favour of difficult duty go but a little way, our argu- ments against difficult duty may go a great deal farther than we intend that they should. Truthfulness on a non-intellectual soil becomes honesty, and an argument which in a cultivated mind is discerned as merely pointing out the relative character of the claim of truth, tells on an uncultivated one as lowering the claim of honesty. It is quite as true that the lady who leaves her change on her dressing-table must share the responsi- bility of the theft with the servant who takes it, as that the squire who canvasses for his party must share the responsibility of the lie with the tenant who deceives him, and no one, surely, would think the first fact was one to put before the tempted party. It seems to us just as wrong in the case of the second.
What the duty of the poor man is who has had a promise extorted from him to vote for the candidate he disapproves, we do not attempt to decide. It seems to us a mistake for one man ever to decide for another when he should relax a principle in favour of a strong inclination. We cannot see the distinction between truth and any other duty in this respect set forth by a correspondent in these columns. Nothing would justify us in com- mitting a murder, says Sir Edward Strachey. If that be a truth, it is an identical proposition. A murder has no other meaning than a homicide that nothing can justify. Prove that you could save your own life only by killing the man who rushed upon you,. mistaking you for a burglar, and you have not committed a murder in killing him. It does not follow that that man deserved to be put to death ; society may possibly be the loser by his life having been sacrificed to yours. When the- man is slain, when the untruth is told, we must decide whether the killing was murder, the deceiving was a lie. In both cases it is surely a mistake to put before the person whose interest would be to kill or deceive, the innocence of such an action in possible cases. To have addressed the arguments which justi- fied the acquittal of Baretti for murder, to a man who was likely to be thrown among a set of vicious ruffians like the one he stabbed, would be as wrong as to tell the labourers they may innocently break their promise. When a wise man deceives another person, if he ever does so, he is choosing what he supposes to be best. " This is better than that" ie the form in which he makes his decision. But it is a strictly individual• decision. "This " and " that " are both concrete lines of action, clearly discernible to his mind's eye ; the moment they were- generalised into rules of conduct, he would feel that he was• committed to something he might condemn. The reason why this is more obvious in the case of truth than in the case of such a duty as not taking life is partly because the ways of civilised life remove the last temptation from our habitual contemplation,- but still more because the reasons against taking life are rooted in our moral sympathies and apparent to everybody, and the reasons for telling the truth are of an intellectual nature, and fully apprehended only by a cultivated mind.
Although the aspects of truth are various, its root is one.. The truth of science is as closely connected with, as it is entirely separate from, the truth of honesty. The connection between the two seems to us strikingly illustrated in the address of one of the clergymen who recommended his parishioners to give a false promise to canvassers. He reminds them of the prayer of Solomon, and suggests that they should consider their acquisition of the vote as a similar opportunity to the invitation given to the Jewish monarch to ask for whatever he desired.. The clergyman who made this suggestion did not, of course, suppose that there was any real analogy between an offer from Omnipotence to grant the desires of its creature and the oppor- tunity given to a voter to bring the claims of his class before- Parliament. No educated man is so ignorant as to be capable of such a notion, though unfortunately many uneducated men are. What he meant, probably, was something of this kind :- Here are these poor creatures suffering from all sorts of need and misfortune that legislation might do a good deal to alter,. and unless they ask for it very urgently they are not likely to get it. Political life is new to them ; they want some strong- stimulus to put their energy into that channel. I am quite aware that Parliament is very far indeed from being omnipotent; but still, it might do a good deal more than it does for the poor, and till it has done that, the poor may as well think it could do everything.' We should desire no better illustration of what irreverence for truth means than the trans- lation of such a fact into such a fiction. It was probably allied with a real compassion for the sufferings of the poor; but it is- calculated to do them more injury than any misfortune "that laws could cause or cure." We want to impart to the unedu- cated a firm, unalterable conviction that behind all the laws that men make and execute are laws which they must simply obey, or take the consequences. We want to save them from the misery of believing that we are close to the garden of Eden, and that somebody has hidden the key. We want to encourage that fortitude of which the worst foe is the belief that all suffering and privation is somebody's fault. The poor need,. above all things, to be taught that we inhabit a world of inex- orable sequences,—a world in which Will finds granite barriers,, and works efficaciously only when it recognises them. And
those who would benefit the new electorate begin by teaching them that when a few hundred Englishmen seat themselves in a large house at Westminster, they suddenly become omnipotent ! In the name of Truth, in the name of political science, in the name .of a true Liberalism, we protest against the propagation of such fictions.
Perhaps it is from the last side that the protest may be made with most effect. We would entreat all who think it no harm to translate their belief that Parliament might do for the poor more than it has done, into the assertion that a claim on the Legislature may be made in the same spirit in which a prayer was recorded by the Jewish Scriptures to be made to the Almighty, to consider whether they are not preparing a vehement reaction in favour of any party which has not opened the door to such antici- pations as these words create and foster. A wise Conservative would desire nothing more ardently than that such preachers as these should have a large audience. Their advice might take a great effect for the time, and it might not be very soon that that effect would pass away ; but there is no recoil so hopeless as that from unreasonable hope, and no infidelity so deep as that .which has sprung from the caifident application of a wrong test. It is not, however, on the impolicy of such Liberalism as this that we would base our remonstrance with Liberals. We would appeal to that reverence for the humanity in every man which should be the strength of Democracy. Nothing more con- temptuous than the theory that truth is a luxury for the rich was ever invented by an aristocrat who looked down on the .canaille. Let us try to give the poor man twenty shillings a week by all means, if there is any possibility of doing it. But, in the meantime, let us treat him as a freeman. Do not let us initiate his civil career by the hypothesis that he must tell a lie. Let ns beware how we implant on the soil of a new Democracy the weeds of a region we have left behind us. It is far easier to transport the tares than the wheat. There are excellences in an aristocratic Constitution which we must con- 13nt to forego in the new scheme of things. Let us not incorpo- rate in that new scheme its worst evils ; let us not confuse the barriers of the moral and the social world, and suppose that when we cross the line which separates the gentleman from the peasant we have left behind us all aspirations after truth, all fortitude in danger, all resolution to bear ills rather than to
• lower the standard of right and stain the purity of a lofty ideal.