Page:Littell's Living Age - Volume 133.djvu/165

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Authority in matters of opinion.
From The Nineteenth Century.


Many are the tricks of speech; and it has become almost a commonplace of our time to set up, in matters of opinion, an opposition between authority and truth, and to treat them as excluding one another. It would be about as reasonable to set up an opposition between butcher's meat and food. Commonplaces of this character are no better than expressions of a sentiment, which the understanding, betraying its trust, allows to pass unexamined because it flatters the prevailing fashion, For the fashion is to call in question, and to reject as needlessly irksome, all such rules of mental discipline as, within the sphere of opinion, require from us a circumspect consideration, according to the subject-matter, of the several kinds as well as degrees of evidence. These rules are troublesome rules; they sadly detract from the ease and slacken the rapidity of the journey towards our conclusions, and thus postpone the enjoyment of mental rest.

Sir Gilbert Lewis has done good service, which I hope rather than expect will be appreciated, in republishing the valuable work by his elder brother, Sir George, "On the Influence of Authority in Matters of Opinion." It is perhaps the best monument of that learned, modest, most dispassionate, and most able man. The volume had become extremely rare, and could only be obtained at a high price. Yet though the admirers were in earnest, the circle of them was very narrow. Only a few, a very few, hundred copies ever passed into the hands of the public. It appeared in 1849, at a time when comparative calm prevailed in the world of philosophy and speculation. The remarkable sobriety of the author, his abhorrence of paradox, his indifference to ornament, his rigidly conscientious handling, made it difficult for him to please the palate of the public, which even then required, as it now greatly more requires, highly seasoned food. Still, this unpretending book, it seems, could not die. Its republication may probably make the work known to a new set of readers; and, as the students of such a book are ordinarily men who severally act upon the minds of others, it may, and I hope will, attain to an influence relatively wide. It must be owned that the volume contains a considerable amount of matter which would be more appropriately placed in a treatise on the science of politics. But the main argument is so important, that I am desirous to present a summary which may convey a fair conception of its contents, and invite to a direct examination. Nor will this be done in the spirit of a partisan; for I shall try to extend the conclusion of this weighty writer on a point of the utmost weight, affecting not the frame of his argument, but its application.

I begin, too, with stating a difference, though one of small moment. Sir George Lewis traces the origin of the word authority through the Latin auctor; and the account he gives is that "an auctor meant the creator or originator of anything. . . . Hence any person who determines our belief is called an auctor. . . . As writers, particularly of history, were the authorities for facts, auctor came to mean a writer."[2] But the word augeo properly means to increase, to make to grow, not to create;[3] and, while it is plain that auctor means on the one hand maker or originator, and on the other hand voucher, surety, witness, I cannot but think that the last-named is the original sense, and the preceding one secondary. The proper idea is that of one who adds. In strictness, this must be adding to what existed before, as a witness adds to the thing his testimony about the thing; a surety, his own liability to the liability of the principal. From this original form the meaning passes on to a gradual creation, the creation of something that receives successive increment, as in "auctor frugum;"[4] "generis nec Dardanus auctor."[5] If my view be sound, the use of the word author for writer is strictly correct, and belongs to the original sense. An "author" comes between us and the facts or ideas, and adds to them a πίστις, or ground of belief, in his own assurance to us respecting them. And Dante is dealing with the word in its first intention when he says, addressing Virgil,

Tu se' il mio maestro, e 'l mio autore.[6]

So he himself explains it in the "Convito" as "degno di fede e di ubbidienza;" "des Gehorsams und Glaubens würdig" in the

  1. An Essay on the Influence of Authority in Matters of Opinion. By George Cornewall Lewis, Esq. London, 1849; 2nd edit. 1875.
  2. P. 6, note, edit. 1849.
  3. Scheller cites Lucr. v. 323 and 389, as bearing the sense of creation, but they in no degree require it; and I think this interpretation of the word auctor has been, so to speak, reflected upon it from the known use of the derivative authority.
  4. Georg. i. 27.
  5. Æn. iv. 365.
  6. Inferno, i. 83.