Characteristics of the Present Age/Lecture 14


It was Christianity which assembled together the social elements of a New Age, and wrought out their spiritual regeneration;—it was the administrators of this Christianity, now become a Politico-Spiritual Central Power, who upheld the New State, now broken up into a Republic of Nations, in this condition of separation; who ordered the reciprocal relations of Individual States, and even constrained them by outward motives to coalesce into one acting power; and under whose protection each particular State enjoyed and exercised its independence, and the liberty of developing its own resources and of acquiring new strength.

The nations of Modern Europe,—partly because they could never be thoroughly penetrated by the principle upon which the authority of the Spiritual Power depended,—i.e. that to it the office of Mediator between God and men belonged,—partly on account of their original and hereditary love of political independence;—these nations, I say, could only submit to this guardianship so long as the individual States were still occupied in strengthening their own internal authority, and, amid the daily pressure of conflicting elements, could not attain a distinct consciousness of their own strength.

This internal conflict was stimulated by a peculiarity in the earlier constitution of the Germanic Races, as well as by their national character, and it was carefully maintained and employed by the Spiritual Central Power, which was well acquainted with the conditions of the influence of that peculiarity. The firmest and only permanent relation among these otherwise inconstant and ever-changing masses was unquestionably, in the case of the Germanic Races, the personal connexion between the willing and faithful Follower and the Leader to whom he had freely attached himself.

The Germanic conquerors and founders of States were essentially such Leaders, and in their loyal Followers, personally devoted to them in life and death, the true strength and efficiency of their hosts consisted, to which other wandering masses only attached themselves. Pledged to the maintenance of their Followers, the conquerors bestowed lands upon them, and transferred to the possession of the land that bond which had previously been a mere personal agreement; so that the reciprocal obligations of both the parties to this covenant afterwards even became hereditary. The former voluntary and personal bond became a permanent political bond, and the Feudal System arose. But this state of things could not continue. The Germanic nations might indeed subject themselves voluntarily out of admiration for the personal superiority of their Leaders, but their love of independence could not brook a political subjugation. The vassals struggled to acquire this independence; the Rulers opposed them with the aid of recognised authority; and the Spiritual Central Power, supported in like manner, sought to hold the balance between both parties, and thus to perpetuate the struggle, and therewith the necessity of its mediation, and the internal insufficiency of the individual States. This struggle ended, the outer rampart of its empire would be thrown down. There were two ways in which the struggle might come to a close:—either by the overthrow of the vassals, as occurred in one of the leading States of Christendom (France); or by the defeat of the ruling power, as occurred in another leading State (Germany.) If we suppose that in the latter case considerable masses remained united, so that the former vassals now associated themselves into States and could bind their vassals in turn, a complete resolution of the strife did not ensue. In the latter country, the Church-Reformation united itself as by a miracle with these victorious beginnings, and those who struggled for emancipation received in it a new confederate, whom they knew well how to employ against the power of the Empire which desired their subjugation; and against the Spiritual Power, which did not indeed desire their subjugation, but looked with as little favour on their complete independence.

The political principles of this Reformation, in so far as they were directed against the influence of the Spiritual Central Power, found admission even in quarters where they should not have been employed against the highest power of the State, and where the dogmatic principles of the Reformation were rejected. And in this way the political influence of that Spiritual Central Power was brought to a close, and it retained only its dogmatic and disciplinary Ecclesiastical sway in those places to which the Church-Reformation did not extend.

By means of this complete reform of the realm of Culture, its bond of union as the one and undivided Christian Republic received an entirely new foundation and support, as well as new modifications. This union was no longer clearly recognised and distinctly acted upon as a principle; but it, as well as the fundamental conceptions which proceeded from it, and which we have set forth in our last lecture, became rather a dim instinct,—an accustomed supposition, made and acted upon without distinct consciousness;—and it passed from the guardianship of the Church to that of Public Opinion, of History, and of Authors in general.

In the first place:—There is a necessary tendency in every cultivated State, to extend itself generally, and to include all men within the unity of its Citizenship. Such is the case in Ancient History. In Modern Times a barrier was opposed to this tendency by the internal weakness of the States, and by the Spiritual Central Power, whose interest it was that the Realm of Culture should remain divided. As the States became stronger in themselves and cast off that foreign power, the tendency towards a Universal Monarchy over the whole Christian World necessarily came to light; and this so much the more since it was but one common Culture which had developed itself in the different States, though with various modifications. In reference to these particular modifications they had all received only a partial cultivation; and in such a state of partial culture, as we have already remarked, each State is tempted to consider its own civilization as the best, and to imagine that the inhabitants of other countries would esteem themselves very fortunate were they but Citizens of its Realm.

This tendency towards Universal Monarchy, as well as the conquest of other Christian States, was rendered so much the easier in this realm of Christendom inasmuch as the manners and customs of the European Nations and their Political Constitutions are almost everywhere alike. Besides there are one or two Languages which are common to the cultivated classes among all nations, while those which are not so generally known may, in case of necessity, be easily acquired. On this account the conquered, finding themselves in nearly the same position under their new government as under the old, have little interest in the question who shall be their ruler; and thus the conquerors can in a short time, and with little trouble, recast the new provinces in the form of the old, and use the former as freely as the latter. Through the Reformation, indeed, many forms of the one essentially indivisible Christianity have arisen; and among these, in part, a most hostile aversion. Against this source of distraction, however, each State has the easy remedy of peaceful Toleration and equal rights to all; and thus once more, as formerly in the Heathen Roman Empire, Religious Toleration and accommodation in particulars to the manners of other nations, have become an excellent means of making and maintaining conquests; while at the same time, the union of several creeds in one political body efficiently promotes the purpose which, in our former lecture, we have described as the absolute purpose of Christianity,—the complete separation of Religion from the State,—since the State must thus become neutral and indifferent towards all creeds.

This tendency towards a Christian-European Universal Monarchy has shown itself successively in the several States which could make pretensions to such a dominion, and, since the fall of the Papacy, it has become the sole animating principle of our History. We by no means seek by this assertion to determine whether this notion of Universal Monarchy has ever been distinctly entertained as a definite plan;—the Historian may even lead a negative proof, and attempt to show that this thought has never attained a clear and distinct acceptance in any individual mind, without our principle being thereby overthrown. Whether clearly or not,—it may be obscurely,—yet has this tendency lain at the root of the undertakings of many States in Modern Times, for only by this principle can these undertakings be explained. Many States, already powerful in themselves, and indeed the more on that account, have exhibited a marked desire for yet more extensive dominion, and have constantly sought to acquire new provinces by intermarriage, treaty, or conquest;—not from the realms of Barbarism, which would give another aspect to the business, but within the empire of Christianity itself. To what purpose did they propose to apply this accession of power, and to what purpose did they actually apply it when it was attained? To acquire yet more extensive possessions. And where would this progress have had an end, had matters but proceeded according to the desire of these States? Only at the point where there was nothing more left to satiate the desire of acquisition. Although no individual Epoch may have contemplated this purpose, yet is this the spirit which runs through all these individual Epochs, and invisibly urges them onward.

Against this desire of aggrandizement, the less powerful States are now compelled to contrive means for their own preservation;—one condition of which is the preservation of other States, in order that the power of the natural enemy may not be increased by the acquisition of any of these States to the prejudice of the rest:—in one word, it becomes the business of the less powerful States to maintain a Balance of Power in Christendom. ‘What we ourselves cannot acquire, no other shall acquire, because his power would thereby obtain a disproportionate addition;’ and thus the care of the greater States for their own preservation is at the same time the protection of the weaker communities:—or, ‘If we cannot hinder others from aggrandizing themselves, then we must also secure for ourselves a proportionate aggrandizement.’

No State, however, strives to maintain this Balance of Power in the European Republic of Nations, except on account of its being unable to attain something still more desirable; and because it cannot yet realize the purpose of its individual aggrandizement, and the idea of Universal Monarchy which lies at the foundation of that purpose:—whenever it becomes more powerful it surely embraces this design. Thus each State either strives to attain this Universal Christian Monarchy, or at least to acquire the power of striving after it;—to maintain the Balance of Power when it is in danger of being disturbed by another; and, in secret, for power that it may eventually disturb it itself.

This is the natural and necessary course of things, whether it be confessed or not,—whether it be even recognised or not. That a State, even when taken on the very point of warfare, should solemnly assert its love of peace and its aversion to conquest, is nothing;—for, in the first place, it must make this averment and so hide its real intention if it would succeed in its design; and the well-known principle, ‘Threaten war that thou mayest have peace,’ may also be inverted in this way—‘Promise peace that thou mayest begin war with advantage;’—and, in the second place, it may be wholly in earnest with this assurance at the time, so far as it knows itself: but let the favourable opportunity for aggrandizement present itself and the previous good resolution is forgotten. And thus, in the ceaseless struggles of the Christian Republic do weak States gradually raise themselves first to an equality, and then to a superiority, of power; while others which before had boldly strode onwards to Universal Monarchy, now contend only for the maintenance of the Balance of Power; and a third class, who perhaps have formerly occupied both of these positions, and still remain free and independent with respect to their internal affairs, have yet, in their external relations, and as regards their political power in Europe, become mere appendages to other and more powerful States. And so, by means of these vicissitudes, Nature strives after, and maintains, an equilibrium, through the very struggles of men for superiority.

A less powerful State, simply because it is less powerful, cannot extend itself by foreign conquest. How then shall it attain any considerable importance within this necessary limitation? There is no other means possible but the cultivation of internal strength. Should it not even acquire a single foot of new ground, yet if its ancient soil be better peopled, more rich in all human purposes,—then, without gaining territory, it has gained men as the strength and muscle of its State; and should they have come to it from other States, it has won them from its natural rivals. This is the first peaceful conquest, with which each less powerful State in Christian Europe may commence to work out its own elevation;—for the Christian Europeans are essentially but one people; recognise this common Europe as their one true Fatherland; and, from one end of it to the other, pursue nearly the same purposes, and are actuated by similar motives. They seek Personal Freedom,—Justice, and Laws under which all men shall be equal, and by which all shall be protected without exception or favour; they seek opportunity to earn their subsistence by labour and industry; they seek Religious Toleration for their creeds; Mental Freedom,—that they may think according to their own religious and scientific opinions, express these openly, and form their judgments thereby. Where any one of these elements is awanting, thence they long to depart; where these are secured to them, there they gladly resort. Now all these elements already belong to the necessary purposes of the State as such:—in the present position of individual States towards each other, these purposes are also forced upon it by necessity, and by the care for its own preservation; for the fear of subjugation compels it to self-aggrandizement, and it has, at first, no other means of aggrandizement than that which we have pointed out.

But there is another way by which the State may attract to itself, if not the men of neighbouring States, yet the powers of these men, and may make these powers tributary to itself; and this method plays too important a part in Modern History to be passed over in silence. It consists in a State monopolizing universal Commerce, acquiring exclusive possession of commodities which are generally sought for, and of money, the universal medium of exchange;—thenceforward determining prices for the rest of the world, and so compelling the whole Christian Republic of Nations to pay for those wars which it has from time to time undertaken against the whole Christian Republic for the purpose of maintaining this superiority; and to defray the interest of a National Debt contracted for the same purpose. It might possibly be found upon calculation, that when the inhabitant of a country thousands of miles distant has paid for his daily meal, he has spent one-half or three-fourths of the produce of his day’s labour for the purposes of this foreign State.—I mention this method, not for the purpose of recommending it; for its success is founded only on the imbecility of the rest of the world, and it would return with fearful retribution upon its inventors were this imbecility removed; but I mention it only in order to point out the remedy against it. This remedy consists in rejecting the use of these commodities; in ceasing to think that the wealth of this State is the only wealth; and in believing that a State which has made itself independent in a mercantile respect can make wealth of what it pleases. But upon this point there is a veil over the eyes of the Age which it is impossible to remove; and it is in vain to waste words on the subject.

When a less powerful State has in the first place acquired internal strength by the methods which we have pointed out; and perhaps thereby become sufficiently powerful to attempt foreign conquest; and, it maybe, has succeeded in this undertaking; it then encounters a new difficulty:—it has entirely destroyed the previous Balance of Power, and the order of things then existing; and the new-comer excites the jealousy and distrust of other States more strongly than those powers with which they are already familiar. It must henceforward be always on its guard, maintain its energies in a state of constant readiness and efficiency, and leave no means unemployed to add at least to its internal strength when no favourable opportunity presents itself for outward expansion. With reference to external affairs, it is a part of this policy to take the weaker neighbouring States under its protection, and thereby make its interest in its own preservation likewise theirs, so that, in possibly succeeding wars, it may be able to calculate upon their power as well as its own. With reference to internal affairs, there are likewise other cares which belong to this policy,—besides the methods which we have already pointed out, of attracting new dwellers to the country, and retaining its old inhabitants;—namely, the care for the preservation and increase of the Human Race, by encouraging marriage and the rearing of children, by sanitary regulations, &c.,—the promotion of the dominion of man over Nature, which we have already sufficiently described, by the systematic and progressive improvement of Agriculture, Manufactures, and Commerce, and by the maintenance of the necessary equilibrium between these three branches of Industry; in short, by all that may be comprehended in the idea of Political Science, when that idea is thoroughly understood. Those who deride such endeavours under the name of Economy, have only looked upon the outward vesture, and have not penetrated to the essential nature and true meaning of these forms of Industry. Among other questions, this one too has been proposed:—Whether the population of a State may not become too large? In our opinion, the indolent and unproductive Citizen is at all times, and in every state of the population, superfluous and unnecessary; but when, with a growing population, Agriculture, Manufactures, and Commerce also increase in suitable proportions to each other, then the country can never have too many inhabitants; for the productiveness of Nature, when systematically cultivated, may be regarded as inexhaustible.

All these measures are, as we have shown above, the proper and natural purposes of the State;—in the present Political System, however, they are even forced upon it by necessity. It is quite possible that, in what we have now set forth, we may have merely described that which existing States, who lay claim to high culture, actually do and practise; but we have set it forth with a new significance. We have seen that these things are not done by mere chance, but that these States are compelled to them by necessity; and we have thereby pointed out the guarantee which we possess that they must continue to do these things, and to do them more and more thoroughly, if they would not lose their place in the onward throng of Nations, and be finally vanquished and overthrown.

Finally, there is, in the present Political System of Europe, another purpose given to the State by the same necessity,—namely, that establishment of Equal Rights for all men which has never yet been realized in the world, and the gradual abolition of those social inequalities which still exist in Christian Europe as remnants of the Feudal System. I touch upon this subject in my present position without fear; I believe that I should do wrong to the honourable assembly whom I address were I to harbour the slightest doubt of their willingness to have this subject discussed. Who is there among us who thinks himself superior to the People, who, even with such distinctions, has not, directly or indirectly, reaped advantage from them? It is right that we should accept whatever is offered to us by our Age, but we ought also to be content at all times to relinquish Privileges which the Age can no longer confer.

The necessity which is thus imposed on the State arises in the following way:—Compelled, constantly and regularly, to call forth and appropriate as much of the power of its less favoured citizens as they can devote to it consistently with their own personal freedom and subsistence, it cannot, when there is need of still greater effort, exact more from them than it has already received. There remains no other way of escape from the difficulty, than to call upon the Privileged Orders and Classes. Although this may occur at first only in a passing emergency, the desire to command, at all times and by right, the power which it has once commanded, will easily be excited; and the way to its accomplishment, once discovered, will be readily found again. Add to this, that even the unprivileged members of the State would render more efficient service to it if they were not forced to be subservient to the Privileged Orders. A State which constantly seeks to increase its internal strength, is thus forced to desire the gradual abolition of all Privileges, and the establishment of Equal Rights for all men, in order that it, the State itself, may enter upon its own true Right,—to apply the whole surplus power of all its Citizens, without exception, for the furtherance of its own purposes. The truest and most fruitful view of these Privileges, would thus, in our opinion, be the following:—They are a public treasure, committed by the infant State, which neither required to employ its whole powers nor knew how to employ them, to the hands of its more cultivated members, to be freely employed by them, according to their best judgment, for the promotion of free Culture. The more fully and efficiently this purpose has been carried out, the more is the internal strength of the State gradually increased through the services of these privileged members, and the longer may they be left in possession of the trust which they so faithfully administer. But should a time arrive when this free Culture must give place to an Artificial Civilization proceeding according to Laws; and when the State must undertake the direct administration, by its own hands, of this capital hitherto deposited with them; then it must demand restitution of these Privileges, but in such a manner that no sudden overthrow of existing relations may ensue,—and therefore a gradual restitution. The truly Free and Noble will readily make this sacrifice as an offering on their country’s altar: those who need to be compelled to this restitution only prove thereby that they have never been worthy to hold the trust committed to them.

To preclude the possibility of any misconception on this point, I shall at once set forth the highest principle of my views upon the Equality of Human Rights. The common trivial theory supposes the State to have been preceded by an imaginary lawless state of Nature in which mere force was the master;—the stronger appropriating all that fell within their grasp, and the weaker going away empty. The results of this state of lawlessness are afterwards confirmed by Law, which makes that just which in itself was absolutely unjust; and the State exists only for the purpose of protecting the powerful in the enjoyment of their hoards by whatever means these may have been accumulated, and of preventing those who went away empty from the division from ever acquiring any possession. Apart from the fact that this view is wholly unhistorical, at least so far as regards Modern History, and that according to this view, all right of property has arisen out of the previous establishment of the State; it is also opposed to Reason, and its opposition to Reason is very obvious in the expression which we have given to it above. Every man as such has a right to the possession of property; this right is equal in all men; whatever is convertible into property ought therefore by Right to be equally divided among all; and it is the gradual accomplishment of this Equal Division of that which Nature and Accident have divided unequally, towards which, under the guidance of Nature itself, the State is impelled by necessity and by the care for its own preservation.

All that I have now set forth in detail is that gradual interpenetration of the Citizen by the State which I have laid down as the political characteristic of our Age; and it is now your business to determine whether such is the actual state of things at least in those countries where the State has attained the highest degree of Culture, i.e. the greatest internal strength, and the greatest amount of commanding influence upon the Christian Republic of Nations. We have explained unequivocally enough, and so as to place our meaning beyond the reach of misconception, that this interpenetration of the Citizen by the State, and the changing of his whole outward activity into an instrument of the State, is not here made the subject of censure, as it has been by a certain visionary scheme of unrestricted freedom, which sometimes calls itself Philosophy; but, on the contrary, we have shown it to be a necessary purpose of the State and of Nature. We do indeed desire Freedom, and we ought to desire it;—but true Freedom can be obtained only by means of the highest obedience to Law. How it necessarily arises therefrom, we have, I think, clearly shown on two different occasions, in the course of these lectures. And we have not forgotten to show likewise, that the State having once obtained possession of the National Power,—a possession which indeed it will never relinquish,—it will yet not always employ this Power for the narrow and exclusive purpose of its own preservation,—a purpose imposed on it only by the faults of the time;—but when that Endless Peace shall be born to which we must surely come at last, it will then direct it towards worthier aims.

The most cultivated State in the European Republic of Nations is in every Age without exception the most active and enterprising; and each State strives most energetically in that Epoch of its existence when it is no longer under the necessity of struggling to maintain its relative position among other Nations, but now rather endeavours to acquire sufficient strength itself to direct and modify, or even at pleasure to destroy, the general Balance of Power; the latter power being impossible without the former;—and these efforts will be the more profitable for the advancement of Culture the less such a State is favoured by accident, and the more it on that account requires, and continues to require, the exercise of the sagacious policy of increasing and strengthening its internal resources. A State which has yet anxiously to struggle for the maintenance of Equilibrium must be deficient in internal Freedom and Independence, and in all its proceedings must be too frequently under the necessity of taking into consideration the purposes of neighbouring States. A State which feels itself in possession of secure and undisputed Superiority easily becomes careless; surrounded by enterprising competitors it gradually loses its superiority; and it may perhaps require the discipline of grievous disasters to bring it back to the care of its own interests.

In these collective peculiarities of our Age lies the guarantee which Nature herself has given us for the continued excellence of our Governments, and the compulsion which, without our assistance, she exercises for our advantage over the constraining powers of Government.

Throughout Christian Europe almost every independent State now pursues its purpose with all the energy it possesses, and the means both of internal and external aggrandizement are not unknown. In this general struggle of Powers, it is necessary that no advantage should be allowed to escape, for in that case some neighbour would surely seize upon it at once, and besides depriving us of it would assuredly employ it against us;—that no single maxim of good Government, and no possible branch of Administration should be overlooked, for it is also a maxim of our neighbour to take every possible advantage of our neglect. In this contest that State which does not move onwards falls behind, and declines more and more, until at length it loses its Political Independence altogether, becomes in the first place a mere make-weight to some other State in the general Balance of Power, and is ultimately broken up into provinces under the dominion of Foreign States. Every Political Error carries with it the punishment of ultimate ruin unless the neighbouring States are equally unwise; and the State that would not meet destruction must avoid such Errors.

But should it be unwise and fall into Error? I ask, in return, where then is the Fatherland of the truly cultivated Christian European? In general it is Europe;—in particular it is that State in Europe which occupies the highest rank of Culture. The State which commits a fatal Error must indeed fall in course of time, and therefore cease to hold this rank. But although it falls and must fall,—nay, on this very account,—others arise, and among them one especially which now occupies the rank which the other held before. Let then mere Earthborn men, who recognise their Fatherland in the soil, the rivers, and the mountains, remain Citizens of the fallen State,—they retain what they desire, and what constitutes their happiness;—the Sun-like Spirit, irresistibly attracted, will wing its way wherever there is Light and Liberty. And in this cosmopolitan frame of mind we may look with perfect serenity on the actions and the fate of Nations, for ourselves and our successors, even to the end of Time.