Popular Science Monthly/Volume 30/January 1887/Editor's Table



AN able writer in the "Revue des Deux Mondes" has lately drawn attention to the extent to which what he calls "political skepticism" prevails to-day in France. He believes that it exists in large measure in other countries as well; but he deals with it principally as affecting his own country. He says that, while men are still divided into parties, there is no longer the earnest belief in definite political principles which was still to be found a generation or two ago. Men no longer adhere to their party through strong conviction or overmastering prejudice; on the contrary, their party is something with which they make terms, and which they expect to find their account in serving. The Conservative is not so very conservative as he used to be, and the Liberal has a greatly diminished faith in liberalism. Nobody expects much from the logical application of any set of principles; the general disposition is to let things drift and wait to see the result.

The condition of things described seems to us the natural effect of two definite causes: first, the operation of the party system; and, second, the practice of looking to the government as the conservator and manager of nearly all important social interests. If anything could undermine political conviction it would be the party system. Its very basis is the sacrifice of individual convictions to party exigencies. It organizes the purchase of political support, and reduces statesmanship to the ignoble level of trickery and clap-trap. We do not need to go to France for an exemplification of its working. Here, in the United States, it has produced all its choicest effects. So bent are our leading politicians upon party and personal success that it is the rarest thing to detect in their public speeches one sincere utterance. The art they most sedulously cultivate is that of hedging on all important practical questions; 60 that they may be left free to take whatever course the shifting winds of public opinion, or the varying exigencies of personal interest, may require. "We do not read their speeches for the purpose of knowing what they think, but for the purpose simply of ascertaining what, at the moment, they consider it safe and politic to say. So thoroughly do certain journals recognize that theoretical convictions have nothing to do with politics, that they scarcely hesitate to erect into a principle that politics should be regarded mainly as a scramble for the offices. One of these the other day expressly and most seriously commended the President for having (as was alleged) appointed a cousin of his wife's to a lucrative consulship, the doctrine laid down being that "to the victors belong the spoils," and that the President did the right thing in providing for his own relatives and friends. Such open cynicism is better, perhaps, than a pharisaical and insincere profession of higher principles; but, with such an illustration of political skepticism at hand, we need not go abroad for instances.

In the second place, the altogether undue reliance placed in these days, upon state action for the promotion of the general welfare tends to produce political skepticism through the disappointment that it is certain to produce. An agency of apparently irresistible force is set in motion, and when it fails to yield the results expected of it, men are apt to conclude that those results are unattainable by any means, and they become discouraged. They forget that the only force the state can dispose of is, in the last resort, physical force, and that physical force may not be what is wanted for the ends in view. The state can make laws, and to a certain extent can enforce them, or, at least, exact penalties for their infraction; but the state can not produce right dispositions in the minds of its citizens. The state can organize schools and assume complete control of education, but it can neither give an integral education, nor can it infuse a right spirit into the system that it administers. It can not do the former, on account of the great diversity of opinions existing throughout the community on various fundamental questions; it can not do the latter, partly because it can not do the former, and partly because political considerations of a low order are constantly intruding into public-school management. The state can undertake great works, but it can not make great men, or make men great; and after it has controlled for a certain length of time of any special sphere of action, we may look there with confidence for conspicuous examples of inertness and incapacity. Another evil is that the vast apparent power of the state leads to the cherishing of extravagant hopes and expectations. Men would not expect great reforms in a year or two if they did not count on legislation doing wonders for them. In spite of multiplied proofs to the contrary, they think that, if they can only get a law passed, all the rest will follow of itself. And so, as in the State of Maine, they get a law passed, and then spend forty years in tinkering at it, in the vain effort to find out why it won't work, or why it works in a direction opposite to what they intended.

The remedies, therefore, for political skepticism are obvious. Let us, in the first place, abate the excesses of the party system, and for the future, instead of striving to keep all great public questions "out of politics," let us try to get them into politics; and then let us deal with them with an eye to the greatest good of the nation at large. No doubt there will be differences of opinion as to what is best to do; but, the more there is of honest conviction on such questions, the less there will be of "political skepticism." The mere conflict of opinions will never produce civil discord; it is when theories, in the strict sense, are flung aside, and interests confront one another in battle array, that real danger arises. The question is simply. Shall we or shall we not consult together like loyal citizens for the good of the state? If we determine to do so, we raise politics at once to the level of as noble and honorable a pursuit as any man can engage in. Our object, then, is truth in its application to national affairs, and politics becomes a branch of science. If, on the other hand, we can not, as citizens, summon up enough disinterestedness to think and labor for the general good, but allow ourselves to be marshaled into parties fighting for no determinate object save the spoils of office or the vain satisfaction of a party triumph, then, truly, the reign of political skepticism must ever become more absolute, and the country be brought yearly nearer to the edge of a dangerous convulsion.

We think there are signs of an awakening of the public mind to the evils of the party system; but something more is wanted for a true political equilibrium than the mere cessation of unmeaning party strife. We need to come down to more moderate views of what state action can reasonably be expected to effect. We need a truer perception of the methods by which, and the rate at which, great social reforms are accomplished. We need to repeat to ourselves continually that might does not make right, and that the might of a majority may be as fatally in the wrong as the might of an individual. Before invoking the power of the state, we should ask ourselves whether the case is one in which the power of the state ought to be exerted. The doctrine is now all but officially promulgated, that majorities can not possibly do wrong, and therefore that the power possessed by a majority may at any moment be rightly employed to enforce its will. This is political skepticism with a vengeance, substituting, as it does, the ballot-box for the moral law. The notion is one that we must unlearn, as we value our integrity as a people; for no community can long prosper that has once enthroned force in the place of justice. It is impossible to develop fully within the limits of an article like the present the idea here outlined, but we are convinced that many of the most discouraging characteristics of the present day, including the "political skepticism" above specially referred to, are in great part traceable to the growing habit of looking to the state to do things which, if done at all, should be done by private effort and the growth of opinion.


We find in "The Varsity," a weekly journal published at Toronto. Ontario, in the interest of Toronto University, a wonderful argument for the perpetual retention of the present arbitrary rules of English spelling. "It is a saddening reflection," says our contemporary, "that there should be men, our brothers, whose limbs should be stiffened by day-long labor of the body, and into whose minds no light shines through their lives; but the desire to utterly obliterate whatever may in any way serve to distinguish the man of culture from his illiterate brother must be looked on in no other light than as one of the many manifestations of that misty socialism which is clouding so many minds to-day." Here is intellectual snobbery with a vengeance. Forsooth, we must keep up a difficult and arbitrary mode of spelling in order that the poor man may spell badly, and so be distinguished from the man of culture! When we first began to read about those unhappy men, "our brothers," whose limbs were stiffened by toil, and whose lives were so destitute of light, we thought the editor of "The Varsity" was about to come forward with some chivalrous scheme for diminishing their burdens and helping the light to penetrate into the dark places. But, no; his cry is, "Keep them down! They can never learn to spell English according to the present rules; so let us see to it that we, the nurslings of culture, the children of light, resist all attempts to introduce any simpler, even though more scientific and more philological, system of spelling. Otherwise what will there be to distinguish us intellectually from those poor, toil-stiffened creatures?" One is tempted to say in reply that, if superiority in the matter of spelling is needed to distinguish men of culture from men destitute of culture, then culture itself must be a very poor and unsubstantial thing. Imagine, for a moment, two men, one of whom has had a university education, while the other has lived such a life of bodily toil that no light has shone into his mind; and then imagine, further, the gentleman of the first part asking that spelling may be kept a difficult and mysterious art, in order that there may be something to distinguish him from his illiterate brother, whose condition, however, he hastens to say, excites his profound sympathy! The thing is most ridiculous; but, in so far as it may be held to indicate the spirit in which university journals are conducted, it has its serious and lamentable aide. A university sustained by public moneys should have as its one great object the rendering of service to the community as a whole. If it can only train a limited class, that class should look upon themselves as trustees for the whole people of the superior advantages their education confers upon them. "Why should public money be spent in making A. B. a particularly intelligent and accomplished man, if he is going to put on fine intellectual airs, and even ask for special protection against the unlettered multitude? In this matter we have not yet got down to "hard pan," but we must get down to it. We are no advocates of a "misty socialism"; but we do not only advocate but demand the strict and scrupulous appropriation of public moneys to public purposes in the very widest sense of the term. To establish a system of intellectual caste is not a public purpose nor a social purpose, but an anti-social one. Let men who want to strut in intellectual broadcloth find their finery for themselves; but when a great educational institution has been established by the aid of public funds, let those who avail themselves of its advantages recognize that they are called to a ministry of public usefulness, and that it is theirs to see that, in some way, the toiling classes get a share of the benefits provided. Never shall we have a society worthy of the name, until those who have—whether in a material or an intellectual sense-are actuated by a sense of duty toward those who have not. When that day comes, we shall not hear it urged, as an argument for the retention of a difficult system of spelling, that it serves as a convenient mode of distinguishing the cultured from the uncultured classes. In that day, too, culture will probably mean something more than the ability to spell. It will be a thing of ideas and of real knowledge, a thing expansive by nature, and in the best sense of the word democratic. We should strongly advise the universities of today to prepare for the new culture of the future, and meantime to do their best to purge themselves thoroughly of that spirit of exclusiveness so plainly manifested in the passage quoted from "The Varsity," and of which it probably would not be difficult to gleam examples in other similar quarters.