Revaluations: “The Greatest Victorian”

Bagehot’s Historical Essays

edited with an Introduction by Norman St. John-Stevas
Anchor, 478 pp., $1.95 (paper)

The current intellectual fashion in cultural and social matters calls for simplicity and activism. The subtleties, complications and ambiguities that, in the past two or three decades, have been the mark of serious thought are now taken to signify a failure of nerve, a compromise with evil, an evasion of judgment and responsibility. One is reminded of the distinction between the “once-born” and the “twice-born: the once-born, simple and “healthy-minded,” having faith in a beneficent God and a perfectible universe; the twice-born in awe of His mystery, impressed by the recalcitrance of society and the anomalies of social action.

In Walter Bagehot one may see a reconciliation of the two modes. A political commentator who stopped just short of being a political philosopher, a social critic without the appurtenances of today’s sociologist but with more imagination and wisdom, accorded the title of “The Greatest Victorian” in an intellectual competition that has not since been equalled, Bagehot was not only, as he said, “between sizes in politics,” he was between sizes in everything. He was that rare species of the twice-born who could give proper due to the rights and merits of the once-born. And he did so not by a denial of his own nature but by virtue of the very subleties, complications and ambiguities that informed his nature.

The “dark realities” of life, to which he alluded several times, had an obvious personal as well as social reference. His mother, to whom he was deeply attached, had recurrent fits of insanity, and his half-brother was feeble-minded, both predeceased him by only a few years, so that his entire life was passed in their shadow. “Every trouble in life is a joke compared to madness,” he once remarked. And elsewhere he wrote: “We see but one aspect of our neighbor, as we see but one side of the moon: in either case there is also a dark half which is unknown to us. We all come down to dinner, but each has a room to himself.”

Yet there was nothing tragedy-ridden about Bagehot, either in his person or in his ideas. The point about the twice-born, and preeminently about Bagehot, is that the “dark realities” are only one-half of reality—we all have rooms to ourselves but we do also all come down to dinner. Mr. St. John-Stevas, in his otherwise admirable Introduction to this edition of Bagehot’s Essays, distinguishes between Bagehot the “mystic” and Bagehot the “man of the world,” the one revealing itself in his private life, the other in his writings. But this is to deny the peculiar quality of the man and the genius of his work. For the characteristic of both was the ability to combine the disparate, to keep in focus at the same time both sides of the moon. Bagehot was as much a man of the world as one could want; a man, indeed, of many worlds—banking, journalism and politics; and it was his practical experience of these worlds that gave him his remarkable intellectual power. If his writings abound in irony and paradox, it is because his sense of reality was multi-faceted, shaped by the simple and the complex, the commonplace and the recondite. “How,” he asked, “can a soul be a merchant? What relation to an immortal being have the price of linseed, the fall of butter, the tare on tallow, or the brokerage on hemp? Can an undying creature debit petty expenses and charge for carriage paid?” To which his answer was: “The soul ties its shoes; the mind washes its hands in a basin. All is incongruous.”

This metaphysical incongruity permeated his writings on history, politics, society and biography. It was this that permitted him to see private vices in the guise of public virtues, to appreciate the irony of the fact that “much stupidity” might be “the most essential mental quality for a free people”; or that the statesman who carried the first Reform Act might have done so precisely because he was so bad a speaker and so slow of mind in an assembly that put a premium on facile speech and quick wit. By the same token he saw private virtues functioning as public vices. The lucidity of intellect and sobriety of judgment that distinguished one Liberal politician proved to be a serious political failing, since the absence of passion in himself caused him to mistake the passion in others: “Such extreme calmness of mind is not favorable to a statesman; it is good to be without vices, but it is not good to be without temptations.”

The world is often wiser than any philosopher,” Bagehot rebuked one philosopher who had great contempt for the world. He himself was never failing in respect for the wisdom of the world. Not the wisdom of worldly men alone—businessmen, bankers, politicians; but the wisdom of the common man as well. In rereading these essays, one is caught up by the frequent references to “popular opinion,” “public opinion,” the “public mind,” “popular sentiment,” “popular imagination,” the “sense of the country.” And this not only in respect to the England of his own time—that mid-Victorian period when it might be said that the common people were finally coming into their own as a power so that their opinions were becoming of some moment—but in respect to every period and subject he dealt with. The fact that his most memorable writings, apart from The English Constitution and Physics and Politics, took the form of essays on individual statesmen makes this constant invocation of the commonalty even more striking. Indeed the basic theme of each of these essays (originally published as journal articles, collected posthumously under the title Biographical Studies, and reprinted in part in the present volume) is the relation of its hero to the public. Bolingbroke did not share the “mass of ill-defined prejudice” against the House of Hanover that characterized the “unthinking people of the common sort,” but he made himself the organ of that prejudice; “he became at once important in Parliament, because he was the eloquent spokesman of many inaudible persons.” Pitt’s great gift was the ability to express “in a more than ordinary manner the true feelings and sentiments of ordinary men; not their superficial notions, nor their coarser sentiments, for with these any inferior man may deal, but their most intimate nature, that which in their highest moments is most truly themselves.” Burke, on the other hand, far more brilliant than Pitt, had the defect of his genius: in his mind “great ideas were a supernatural burden, a superincumbent inspiration; he saw a great truth, and he saw nothing else.” Adam Smith popularized political science “in the only sense in which it can be popularized without being spoiled; that is, he has put certain broad conclusions into the minds of hard-headed men, which are all which they need know, and all which they for the most part will ever care for.” Palmerston “was not a common man, but a common man might have been cut out of him”; and he had the good sense to know that he would succeed only so long as he kept faith with the “common part of his mind.” Disraeli unfortunately combined a common mind with an uncommon vanity: “His ideal measures, like his ideal heroes, have always seemed the inventions of a mind on the rack to produce something grand or startling instead of something true and lifelike.”

But there was the other side of the moon. “An English statesman in the present day lives by following public opinion; he may profess to guide it a little; he may hope to modify it in detail; he may help to exaggerate and to develop it; but he hardly hopes for more.” For this very reason, however, because public opinion was so compelling and common sense so urgent—the statesman had to know when to assert himself against the public and his own good sense against the common sense. This was all the more difficult for the “constitutional statesman” (democratic statesman, we would say today), so much of whose mind and time were necessarily given over to oratory. If the relation of the statesman to the public was the main theme of Bagehot’s essays, the nature of the statesman as orator was the sub-theme. For it was in the role of orator that Bagehot saw the statesman as fulfilling himself, performing his essential function, and at the same time exposing himself to the greatest danger. “We know that the popular instinct suspects the judgment of great orators; we know that it does not give them credit for patient equanimity; and the popular instinct is right.” The popular instinct, that is, correctly suspected that the talented orator was too subservient to popular opinion. Bagehot himself judged the “oratorical impulse” to be a profoundly “disorganizing” one, tempting the statesman to shift and turn in obedience to a fluctuating opinion, to advocate what he might privately dislike, to oppose at one time what he might defend at another, to defend or oppose without sufficient reflection, to lose sight of the larger design. It was particularly disorganizing to one like Gladstone, whose mind was naturally “impressible, impetuous, and unfixed,” “defective in the tenacity of first principle,” inclined to an “elastic heroism.” And it was particularly dangerous at a time like Gladstone’s, when what was wanted were deliberative, constructive, far-ranging policies, an adherence to settled principle rather than an accommodation to transient popular moods.

Bagehot’s essay on Peel is a perfect specimen of his thought and a triumph of historical and political analysis. No Marxist, neo-Marxist, or sociologist could hope to improve upon his account of the Lancashire businessman qua statesman. The son of a baronet, educated at Harrow and Christ Church, a Tory MP at the age of twenty-one, possibly never having set foot in the mill that produced the family fortune, Peel nevertheless showed, in the manner, language, and substance of his politics, the ineradicable “grain of the middle class,” of the “transacting and trading multitude.” It was from this heritage that he derived the necessary requisites of the constitutional statesman. A “man of common opinions and uncommon abilities,” having the “powers of a first-rate man and the creed of a second-rate man,” he managed never to be in advance of his time but always in step with it. A great administrator, he had the energy, appetite for detail, patience, tact, and adaptability of the business man—and an absence of those “fixed opinions” that might inhibit these talents. And he had the proper mode of oratory. He could not rival the elegance, fluency, wit, the Greek and Latin embellishments of an older generation of parliamentary orator; but he was a master of “middle-class eloquence,” an eloquence of “exposition, arithmetic detail.” His oratory reflected his ideas, which were not so much his own ideas as the “quiet leavings” of other men’s ideas. And because his intelligence was practical rather than speculative, his rhetoric was “spacious,” giving the impression of plausibility rather than truth.

In other times—as in Gladstone’s—these qualities would have been inadequate, even fatal. Peel lived at a more fortunate time, when his mind and manner were appropriate to his tasks. Most of the necessary legislation involved problems of administration and regulation; and most of the necessary reforms were destructive rather than constructive, requiring the repeal of outmoded laws (corn laws, anti-Catholic laws, criminal statutes…). In Peel, England found the precise virtues and vices that suited it:

If we bear in mind the whole of these circumstances; if we picture in our minds a nature at once active and facile, easily acquiring its opinions from without, not easily devising them from within, a large placid adaptive intellect, devoid of irritable intense originality, prone to forget the ideas of yesterday, inclined to accept the ideas of today—if we imagine a man so formed cast early into absorbing, exhausting industry of detail, with work enough to fill up life, with action of itself enough to render speculation almost impossible—placed too in a position unsuited to abstract thought, of which the conventions and rules require that a man should feign other men’s thoughts, should impugn his own opinions—we shall begin to imagine a conscientious man destitute of convictions on the occupations of his life—to comprehend the character of Sir Robert Peel….

…So long as constitutional statesmanship is what it is now, so long as its function consists in recording the views of a confused nation, so long as success in it is confined to minds plastic, changeful, administrative—we must hope for no better man. You have excluded the profound thinker; you must be content with what you can obtain—the business gentleman.

Lancashire, Bagehot observed on another occasion, was sometimes called “America-and-water”; but he suspected that it was “America and very little water.” One hundred years later it may strike us as pure, unadulterated America. In all the discussions of “style” provoked by the recent presidential succession, in our painful recognition of the anomalies of intellectual gratification and political effectiveness, no one has brought to the analysis of the American Presidency the profound common-sense of Bagehot on Peel. Indeed no one has come so close to analyzing the American Presidency as Bagehot did in analyzing Peel.