« PoprzedniaDalej »
THE famous letter or pamphlet contained in this volume represents the workings of an extraordinary mind at an extraordinary crisis: and can therefore be compared with few things that have ever been spoken or written. Composed in a literary age, it scarcely belongs to literature; yet it is one of the greatest of literary masterpieces. It embodies nothing of history save fragments which have mostly lost their interest, yet no book in the world has more historical significance. It scorns and defies philosophy, but it discloses a compact and unique system of its own. It tramples on logic, yet carries home to the most logical reader a conviction that its ill-reasoning is substantially correct. No one would think of agreeing with it in the mass, yet there are parts to which every candid mind will assent. Its many true and wise sayings are mixed up with extravagant and barefaced sophistry: its argument, with every semblance of legal exactness, is disturbed by hasty gusts of anger, and broken by chasins which yawn in the face of the least observant reader. It is an intellectual puzzle, not too abstruse for solution: and hence few books are better adapted to stimulate the attention and judgment, and to generate the invaluable habit of mental vigilance. To discover its defects is easy enough. No book in the world yields itself an easier prey to hostile criticism: there are thousands of school-boys, 'with liberal notions under their caps,' to whom the greatest intellect of our nation since Milton 1, represented by the best known parts of the present work, might well seem little better than a fool. After a time, this impression disappears; eloquence and deep conviction have done their work, and the wisdom of a few pages, mostly dealing in generalities, is constructively extended to the whole. But the reader now vacillates again and this perpetual alternation of judgment on the part of a reader not thoroughly in earnest constitutes a main part of that fascination which Burke universally exercises. It is like the
1 So Macaulay has styled Burke.
fascination of jugglery: now you believe your eyes, now you distrust them: the brilliancy of the spectacle first dazzles, and then satisfies: and you care little for what lies behind. This is what the author intended: the critical faculty is disarmed, the imagination is enthralled.
What did Burke propose to himself when he sat down to write this book? The letter to Dupont is obviously a mere peg upon which to hang his argument: the book is written for the British public. He believed himself to foresee whither the revolutionary movement in France was tending: he saw one party in England regarding it with favour, the other with indifference: he saw clear revolutionary tendencies on all sides among the people and not a single arm was as yet raised to avert the ¦ impending catastrophe. Burke aimed at recalling the English | nation to its ancient principles, and at showing the folly and imprudence of the French political movement. Burke's independence led him even to the extent of revolting from his own party. The great historical Whig party, the party of Somers, of Walpole, and of Chatham, was slowly passing through a painful transformation, which many observers mistook for dissolution. Burke found himself constrained to desert it, and that upon an occasion which afforded an opportunity of rendering it material support. From that time forward he became a marked man. Even for Burke the act of thinking for himself was stigmatised as a crime. While the events of the French Revolution commended themselves to the leaders of his party, he ought not to have allowed it to be seen that they aroused in him nothing but anger and scorn; nor ought he to have appealed to the nation at large to support him in his opposition. Such an appeal to the general public was characteristic of definite change of allegiance. Hence the obloquy which overwhelmed the last years of his life, raised by those who had been his associates during a career of a quarter of a century. Hence his counter-denunciation of them as' New Whigs,' as renegades from the principles of the English Revolution, by virtue of the countenance they gave to the political changes which were taking place in France.
Are Burke's opinions in the present work consistent with those contained in the first volume? Notwithstanding that fundamental unity which may be justly claimed for Burke's opinions,
it would be idle to deny that the present treatise, like his subsequent writings, contains, on comparison with his earlier ones, certain very great discrepancies. They are, however, but few; they are obvious, and lie upon the surface. It is hard for those who live a hundred years after the time to say whether such discrepancies were or were not justifiable. Scrutiny will discover that they turn mainly upon words. The House of Lords, for instance, in the first volume of these Select Works, is asserted to be a form of popular representation; in the present, the Peers are said to hold their share in the government by original and indefeasible right. Twenty years before, Burke had said that the tithes were merely a portion of the taxation, set apart by the national will for the support of a national institution. In the present work, he argues that Church property possesses the qualities of private property. In the former volume it is asserted that all governments depend on public opinion: in the present, Burke urges that public opinion acts within much narrower limits. On the strength of such differences, it has been supposed that Burke had now either completely abandoned the political principles which had guided him through a career of twenty-five years, or else that he really was, what a Tory writer has called him, 'the most double-minded man that ever lived.' But a man who is not thus far double-minded can never be a politician, though he may be a hero and a martyr. Abstract truths, when embodied in the form of popular opinion, sometimes prove to be moral falsehoods. And popular opinion in the majority of cases proves to be a deceptive and variable force. Institutions stand or fall by their material strength and cohesion; and though these are by no means unconnected with the arguments which are advanced for or against them, the names and qualities with which they are invested in argument are altogether a secondary consideration. The position of the Church, for instance, or the Peerage, has not been materially influenced by either way of regarding them. They have stood, as they continue to stand, because they are connected by many ties which are strong, though subtle and complicated, with the national being. They stand, in some degree, because it is probable that the stronger half of the nation would fight for them. 'National taxation' and 'private property,' 'descendible right' and 'popular representation,' are, in point of fact, little more than ornamental antitheses.
It is not to such obvious discrepancies that we owe the fact that the connexion between the present treatise and those contained in the former volume is less easily traced by points of resemblance than by points of contrast. The differencing causes lie deeper and spread wider. In the first place, Burke in the present volume is appealing to a larger public. He is appealing directly to the whole English Nation, and indirectly to every citizen of the civilised world.
In his early denunciations of the French Revolution, Burke stood almost alone. At first sight he appeared to have the most cherished of English traditions against him. If there was one word which for a century had been sacred to Englishmen, it was the word Revolution. Those to whom it was an offence were almost wholly extinct: and a hundred years' prescription had sanctified the English Revolution even in the eyes of the bitterest adversaries of Whiggism. The King, around whom the discontented Whigs and the remnant of the Tories had rallied, was himself the creature of the Revolution. Now the party of Fox recognised a lawful relation between the Revolution of 1688, and that which was entering daily on some new stage of its mighty development in France. There was really but little connexion between the two. Burke never said a truer thing than that the Revolution of 1688 was 'a revolution not made, but prevented.' The vast convulsions of 1789 and the following years were ill-understood by the Foxite Whigs. Pent in their own narrow circle, they could form no idea of a political movement on a bigger scale than a coalition: to them the French Revolution seemed merely an ordinary Whiggish rearrangement of affairs which would soon settle down into their places, the King, as in England, accepting a position subordinate to his ministers. Nor were Pitt and his party, with the strength of Parliament and the nation at their back, disposed to censure it. There was a double reason for favouring it, on the part of the English Premier. On the one hand, it was a surprise and a satisfaction to see the terrible monarchy of France collapse without a blow, and England's hereditary foe deprived, to all appearance, of all power of injury or retaliation. On the other, Mr. Pitt conceived that the new Government would naturally be favourable to those liberal principles of commercial intercourse which he had with so much difficulty forced on the old one. Neither side saw, as
Burke saw it, the real magnitude of the political movement in France, and how deep and extensive were the interests it involved. Burke, in the unfavourable impression which he conceived of the Revolution, was outside of both parties. He could find no audience in the House of Commons, where leading politicians had long looked askance upon him. They laughed, not altogether without reason, when he told them that he looked upon France as 'not politically existing.' Discouraged in the atmosphere of Parliament, Burke resolved to appeal to the whole nation. He had in his portfolio the commencement of a letter to a young Frenchman who had solicited from him an expression of opinion, and this letter he resolved to enlarge and give to the world. He thus appealed from the narrow tribunal of the House of Commons to the Nation at large. It was the first important instance of the recognition, on the part of a great statesman, of the power of public opinion in England in its modern form. Burke here addresses his arguments to a much wider public than of old. He recognises, what is now obvious enough, that English policy rests on the opinion of a reasonable democracy.
The reader, in comparing the two volumes, will notice this difference in the tribunal to which the appeal is made. Public opinion in the last twenty years had gone through rapid changes. The difference between the condition of public opinion in 1770 and in 1790 was greater than between 1790 and 1874. In 1770 it was necessary to rouse it into life: in 1790 it was already living, watching, and speaking for itself. The immorality of the politicians of the day had awakened the distrust of the people: and the people and the King were united in supporting a popular minister. There was more activity, more public spirit, and more organisation. In England, as in France, communication with the capital from the remotest parts of the kingdom had become frequent and regular. London had in 1790 no less than fourteen daily newspapers; and many others appeared once or twice a week. No one can look over the files of these newspapers without perceiving the magnitude of the space which France at this time occupied in the eye of the English world. The rivalry of the two nations was already at its height. The Bourbon kingdoms summed up, for the Englishman, the idea of foreign Powers: and disturbances in France told on England