Open main menu

Eminent English liberals in and out of Parliament/Edward Spencer Beesly

< Eminent English liberals in and out of Parliament



"Thou, Humanity, art my goddess: to thy law
 My services are bound; wherefore should I
 Stand in the plague of custom?"

LAST issue, in writing of Mr. Joseph Arch, I ran no inconsiderable risk of losing sight of the man in the magnitude of the cause with which his name is identified. This week I am in similar and greater peril; for, if it be one thing to face National Agricultural Unionism as the subject-matter of Radical effort, it is quite another to tackle the whole duty of man — the religion of humanity—as revealed in the fulness of these later times by Auguste Comte.

To those who know any thing of the writings of that extraordinary man, I need scarcely say, that, whatever may be thought of his ulterior conclusions, his was one of the most powerful, laborious, and all-embracing intellects of any time or clime. If one cannot accept his ideas, it is still necessary to revise one's own in the light of them; for, as Moses was fitted for his mission by being learned in all the learning of the Egyptians, so assuredly Auguste Comte was superlatively conversant with all modern sciences,—with astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology; and, being so conversant, he made, some sixty years ago now, a notable discovery. He found that each of these sciences had in the course of its development passed through three stages,—a theological, a metaphysical, and a positive. Take, for example, life in man and brute: what is it? The answer of primitive man—the theological answer—is, God breathed into their nostrils the breath of life, and they became living creatures. Then came the metaphysical explanation: they live because their blood is pervaded by a mysterious sublimated essence called "vital spirits," or "physiological units." Then at last the question why they live is given up as hopeless; and it is only asked how they live, and by what means the conditions of life can be modified for their profit or loss. This is the last or positive stage which is ultimately reached in every science.

From 1822 to 1842 Comte was busily engaged in verif3'ing the above profound generalization in detail. Heureka! He had found a master-key to the whole history of mankind, religious, philosophical, moral, and political. The foundations of a true science of sociology might at last be confidently laid. The gods and the metaphysicians might now be safely, nay, advantageously, bowed out of the great Temple of Humanity, in appropriate niches of which should be placed such miscellaneous benefactors of the race as Moses, Christ, Mohammed, the Buddha, St. Thomas Aquinas; Plato, Socrates, Æschylus, Confucius, Shakespeare, Dante; Thales, Archimedes, Newton, Kepler; Ariosto, Cervantes, Moliere; Julius Caesar, Trajan, Danton, and a great company of other prophets, who, in their day and generation, had worked hard in the sacred cause of Humanity, without, of course, apprehending very clearly what they were about. Some of them, no doubt, had concerned themselves much about super-naturalities, immortalities, and such like childish things, according as they were in the theological or metaphysical stage; but they had all agreed in this, "to live not for themselves, but for others."

Here then, is the "Open sesame" of the future. The pillars which support the great fane of Humanity are three,—Affection, Order, Progress: the first representing the principle; the second, the basis; the third, the end of the new creed. And whosoever builds on any other foundation, let him be anathema maranatha. Not quite so strong as that, perhaps, but still not far from it; for good Comtists attribute the sum of political strifes and social miseries to the conflict which necessarily arises from the fact that large masses of mankind are some of them still in the theological, some in the metaphysical, and only an elect few in the positive, stage of belief. Until all have been brought into the positive fold, war's and rumors of wars are inevitable. Like other millenniums, alas! that of the positivists has been postponed sine die, and to a necessarily distant day too.

I should be sorry indeed if any one were to suppose that the above is other than the faintest outline of the creed of which the learned professor of history in University College, London, is so devoted and fearless an exponent. It cost him ten years' patient study to attain to settled convictions on the subject, and even yet he is not in the priesthood of positivism. He is only a sort of lay deacon, or stalworth doorkeeper, at the Temple of Humanity. This being so, I feel that it is not a little presumptuous in me, who have given but little attention to this new and most difficult of cults, to attempt in any way to pass judgment on it; and, were it not that Mr. Beesly's political conduct and historical writings have been so directly inspired by Comtism, I should most willingly give it a wide berth. There is so much that is admirable, and so many things at the same time that traverse one's most cherished opinions,—prejudices, a Comtist would doubtless say,—in the system of Comte, that it becomes a matter of no ordinary difficulty to renew Mr. Beesly's career, simple as have been the incidents, with impartiality and discrimination.

Edward Spencer Beesly was born at Feckenham, Worcestershire, in January, 1831 . His father was vicar of the place,—a sincere, sober-minded evangelical of the old school, who kept up intimate relations with the leaders of his own party in the Church, and with few others. His son Edward he found leisure to educate at home till the young man was of age to be entered as a student at nowise illustrious "Wadham," Oxford. This home training may in some measure account for the fact that the Englishman who in public life has most frequently and audaciously made light of the tenderest susceptibilities of all manner of reputable people "with gigs," is in the bosom of his family a model of gentleness and every domestic virtue. At "Wadham College Mr. Beesly was lucky in his friendships, having for tutor Mr. Congreve (then the Rev. Richard), and for fellow-students Mr. Frederic Harrison and Mr. J. H. Bridges. Congreve was a man of admitted ability,—one of the most accomplished Aristotelians of his day. Sincere but eccentric, no one was very much astonished when, one fine morning, it was rumored in Oxford that he had been formally admitted into the church of Auguste Comte. In time he was followed by Beesly, Harrison, and Bridges; Beesly, as I have said, taking ten years to acquaint himself with the evangel of the Parisian before relinquishing that of the Nazarene. In 1854 Mr. Beesly graduated with honors, and was appointed an assistant master in Marlborough College. Subsequently he sought for and obtained the position of principal of University Hall, Gordon Square, London, in succession to Dr. Carpenter, who had been preceded by Mr. Hutton, now of "The Spectator," by the gifted Arthur Clough, and nominally by F. W. Newman, the first principal designate who had never acted. The hall is tenanted by students of all religious denominations, and no proselytizing is permitted. There is a complete pax ecclesiastica maintained at University Hall, almost unknown in similar institutions. In 1860 Mr. Beesly was appointed professor of history in University College,—an office the duties of which he was peculiarly fitted both by predilection and training to discharge.

The professor in his class-room is always interesting. He is unconventional without being familiar, and he has a happy knack of presenting the purely human aspect of his subject, however far it may appear to be removed from the domain of current interests, which seldom fails to leave the desired impression. The Comtian principle of the continuity of human life enables Mr. Beesly to irradiate the darkness of the past by the light of the present with no ordinary success. The last time I was in his class-room (the class is a mixed one of young ladies and gentlemen, the propriety of whose behavior is a standing disproof of the fears of timid moralists), he was comparing the cardinal features of the religion of ancient Rome with those more particularly of Christianity. The great goddess of the Romans was really Roma, the "abstract double" of the Eternal City. There was one Rome built by the hands of many generations of Romans, and another built up by the imaginations of many generations of Quirites. This process of creating a divinity after their own image did not shock the Roman people. They were in the theological stage of development. Well, it struck me very forcibly that this delusive object of Roman worship was hardly less an imposture than the object of Comtist veneration,—the Being of Humanity. The Being of Humanity is the thinly disguised "abstract double" of an indefinite number of men and women, past, present, and to come, "mostly fools," with a considerable infusion of knaves. I, for one, absolutely refuse to worship at the shrine of such a Mumbo Jumbo. Having been once brought out of the theological wilderness by a process so painful, I positively decline to be again led back into it by a shabbier road than I entered it.

Of course I shall be told that I do not understand the Comtist religion, or perhaps that I am incapable of understanding it; for, like all possessors of absolute truths, Comtists have a short way with unbelievers. My only consolation is,—and I admit it is a poor one,—I am still in a majority in this country. I do not forget, for example, that Christianity was once in a minority of one; and, if the avowed English co-religionists of Mr. Beesly number only some sixty or seventy souls at present, I am free to grant that they have among them proportionaly by far the best brains in England. And they are diligent in season and out of season,—zealous in every good work, as they understand good works. Mr. Beesly's labors in connection, for example, with the translation of Comte's "Politique Positive" into English, are enough to make any member of the company of biblical revisers blush for very shame. He is likewise a frequent contributor to the columns of "La Revue Occidentale," the organ of the orthodox positivists, conducted by the primate of the body, Pierre Laffitte,—a personal disciple of Comte.

It may be necessary to explain how it comes to pass that Mr. Beesly is an orthodox, and not a heterodox, positivist. The seamless coat of Comte has, alas! already been rent. Dr. Congreve has disavowed the headship of Laffitte, and so has become schismatic, taking half of the Comtist Church in England and its dependencies with him. He has turned his back on Paris, as Henry VIII. turned his back on Rome. He has set up an independent island Church, and may be regarded as a sort of Comtist Protestant. On the other hand, Mr. Beesly, Dr. Bridges, Mr. Harrison, Mr. Vernon Lushington, Mr. Cotter Morison, and others still remain Ultramontanes, repairing from time to time to Paris to engage in the solemnities which annually take place at Comte' s old abode on the anniversary of his death. The house is kept exactly as when the founder of the new religion died, and is the sacred rendezvous, the kaaba, of the faithful. The meeting- place of the orthodox is the Cavendish Rooms, Mortimer Street, Langham Place, where a course of lectures of an expositional character are delivered on Sunday evenings during the winter months by Mr. Beesly, Mr. Harrison, and other qualified laymen.

It remains to glance at some of Mr. Beesly's political opinions, acts, and historical writings, which are one and all penetrated through and through by the principles and spirit of his master, Comte. They have all for their central idea or governing principle the far-reaching Comtian dictum, "The working-class is not, properly speaking, a class at all, but constitutes the body of society. From it proceed the various special classes which we regard as organs necessary to that body." Woe to the aforesaid special classes if they cease to be necessary organs! Woe to Mr. Gladstone, woe to Earl Beaconsfield, woe to Parliament, woe to all men who are unduly friendly to special classes! Let them but show their baneful partiality, and the professor will smite them with remorseless impartiality. To him the Trojan Whig and the Tyrian Tory have ever been much alike. Nay, he has even been known to speak disrespectfully of parliamentary institutions themselves, as Sydney Smith said Lord Jeffrey once spoke depreciatingly of the equator. He has scoffed at the respectability of our middle class, and treated our greatest plutocrats as if they were nobodies. In all things he is pre-eminently un-English, affirming, as he does, the immense superiority of Frenchmen and French institutions over Englishmen and English institutions. England' s function among the nations is merely to play the part of the "horrible example." She will do nothing at home that is not base and hypocritical; nothing abroad that is not tyrannical and suicidal. The cup of her iniquities is almost full to overflowing.

Mr. Beesly would give up India to-morrow, to say nothing, of course, of Afghanistan. He would make an ample apology to Cetewayo, and replace him on the throne of Zululand. He would surrender Gibraltar to Spain, and make a present of Ireland to Mr. Parnell or to anybody else who might care to take it off our hands. He would concentrate all our military and naval strength in and around Great Britain; and, having thus fortified the island by lopping off its rotten outlying members, the country would be in a position to enter on the discharge of international duties meet for civilization, conformable to the religion of humanity. England, along with France, would then be in a position to protect free Denmark, free Holland, free Belgium, from German or other autocratic aggression; and, as opportunity occurred, a blow for the resuscitation of Poland might perchance be struck. The neo-imperialists, at all events, can hardly be expected to regard this as the "voice of sense and truth;" but it is unquestionably positive politics as understood by Auguste Comte, and his disciple is not the man to shrink from any of the consequences of his master's teaching.

With respect to only one point in this programme do I care meantime to pronounce an opinion. The Comtists have never ceased to protest against our conquests in Hindostan, and our opium wars with China. Mr. Beesly in particular has lifted up his voice against these cold-blooded enterprises, which fill the mind of every sagacious observer with the gloomiest forebodings, with an energy that does him the greatest credit. It is one of the saving graces of the Comtist creed that it includes the most abject sons of men in the adorable Being of Humanity. They may be in the backward metaphysical state, like the Hindoos, or in the yet more unredeemed theological condition of the Zulus; but they are not, therefore, fit subjects for Christian oppression. They are where the most civilized peoples once were, straggling weary and footsore along the dusty highway of human progress, which all must tread. If they fall among thieves, it is ours to play the part of the good Samaritan, and lift them out of the ditch into which the footpads have cast them. But we, alas! are the footpads. I shall not speedily forget the righteous indignation with which Mr. Beesly recently spoke to me of the Zulu war. He felt the misdeeds of our representatives as a stain on his personal honor. The name of Frere, even more than that of Eyre, ought to go down with infamy to the latest posterity.

The mentioning of Eyre recalls to my mind an incident in Mr. Beesly's career which brought down on his head an extraordinary torrent of journalistic and other invective. At a public meeting held in connection with the Broadhead murders in 18G7, he somewhat infelicitously observed that Eyre "had committed his crime in the interest of employers, just as Broadhead had committed his crime in the interest of workmen." The wealthy class, he argued, had approved, while the working-class had condemned, murder. This was enough: he was declared to have "apologized" for Broadhead's crimes, and even to have converted him "into a hero." So far was this from being the fact, that it was subsequently proved that Mr. Beesly had, on the first intimation of the atrocities, gone out of his way to urge the unions to "ferret out any member guilty of a breach of the law. and drag him to justice." This was, however, not enough. A victim was wanted, and for a time the vials of class calumny continued to be poured out on the professor's devoted head. Had he been a weak man, he would have succumbed to the violence of the storm. As it was, he stood erect and immovable as a pillar, and the tempest gradually died away.

But the Broadhead incident was by no means Professor's Beesly's first offence against society. On the twenty-eighth day of September, 1864, he had actually presided at the first meeting of "the International," in a room of St. Martin's Hall, Long Acre. There Tolain submitted his memorable project, and Marx, Eccarius, Odger, Lucraft, Llama, and Wolff were named as a provisional committee. Here at least was one highly educated English gentleman with the courage of his opinions, whom no political Mrs. Grundy could intimidate. In 1875 occurred the iniquitous conviction of the five cabinet-makers—Read, Weiler, Ham, Hibbert, and Matthews—for the offence of picketing. Again Mr. Beesly came boldly to the front. During the term of their imprisonment he lectured at the Eleusis Club on their behalf. When they were released, he was among the first to welcome them at the prison-door; and he presided at the complimentary dinner at which they were subsequently entertained, supported b}^ the Hon. L. Stanley, Mr. John Morley, Dr. Congreve, Mr. Ashton Dilke, Professor Hunter, and others.

In March, 1877, died George Odger, the Epaminondas of English politicians. He was interred in the Brompton Cemetery; and, from a broken column near his grave, Professor Beesly pronounced a befitting eulogium on his career in presence rather than in the hearing of a countless multitude. "George Odger," he said, "was not only a good, but a great citizen,—one who put his public in the first rank of duties, and was prepared to sacrifice all private interests to that consideration,"—a meed of praise not less deserved by the eulogized dead than by the living eulogist. There is not, I am sure, a more inflexibly honest politician or cultivated gentleman in England than Professor Beesly.

But I am bound to say that I think many of his political conceptions are mistaken. Like all Comtists, his admiration for France is excessive, and he dangerously undervalues the importance of parliamentary government. I acknowledge with gratitude the immense sacrifices which the French people have made in the cause of human emancipation. France is pre-eminently

"The poet of the nations,
 That dreams on and wails on
 While the hoxisehold goes to wreck."

All the same I cannot conceive with Mr. Beesly that English workmen, as such, have any very vital stake in the evolution of the social and political life of France. If they cannot, with the aid of the less selfish and more intelligent section of the middle class, combine in their own way to establish on the ruins of monarchy and aristocracy in England a stable republic, not based on birth and privilege, but on merit and equal rights, then let them throw up the sponge once and for all, and, betaking themselves, not in then- thousands, but their millions, to the free, open-armed United States of America, leave behind them a solitude wherein their oppressors may meditate at their leisure on the consequences of their own selfishness and folly.

A word or two on Mr. Beesly' s vigorous vindication of Catiline, Clodius, and Tiberius, and I am done. To him these besmirched historic personages are standard-bearers of the Roman Revolution, the lineal descendants of the illustrious Gracchi and of Drusus. According to this view, Cato and Cicero, Brutus and Cassius, were the Beaconsfields and Salisbury's, while the Catilines and the Clodii were the DUkes and Chamberlains of the time. The cause of the latter triumphed eventually when Julius Caesar crushed the Senate and became the saviour of society,—the great world-prototype of personal rulers. In a sense the advent of Roman imperialism was a popular gain. It replaced many tyrants by one. But it gave the death-blow to whatever little public spirit remained in Rome, and that calamity was irreparable. I grant the republican oligarchy was largely corrupt and oppressive. Unhappily, it never occurred to any one to renovate the Roman legislative assemblies by the admission of representatives from the provincial communes. Representative government as now understood was the discovery of a later age. As it was, Cato and Cicero, Brutus and Cassius, saw the image of constitutional freedom receding day by day, and they clung desperately to her skirts. In such evil times Radicals became Conservatives, and Conservatives ostensible Radicals. Mr. Beesly seems to me to forget that even a hateful middle class may be crushed at too great a cost. Like all Comtists, he is too partial to able men placed in authority by brute masses. For my part, had I lived in the days of Brutus and Cassius, I am certain that I should have been among the republican legionaries who were cut to pieces at Philippi, just as I should have been at the coup d'état, or as I should be if ever M. Gambetta, for example, were to show symptoms of following in the footprints of Napoleon.