Studies of a Biographer/Walter Bagehot


I have sometimes wondered whether Bagehot has yet received his due fame. His patent of literary rank needs, indeed, no critic's countersign. His intimate friends, R. H. Hutton and Sir R. Giffen, have given admirable appreciations of his intellect and character. Sir M. E. Grant Duff's address in a recent number of this Review[1] shows how deeply he impressed a most competent eye-witness. There is a curious testimony to his interest for more distant readers. Some years ago the 'Travelers' Insurance Company' of Hartford, Connecticut, set a precedent in advertising which authors might desire to see imitated in England. It published a complete edition of Bagehot's works, with its own name printed in the headlines throughout the volumes. It employed, too, a most competent editor. Mr. Forrest Morgan laboured upon Bagehot's text with a zeal unsurpassable by any editor of a classic. Bagehot was either incapable of correcting proofs or calmly indifferent to errors: his pages bristle with misprints and grammatical solecisms; he mangled quotations so strangely that it is difficult to explain how he contrived to do it, and, as he rarely gave references, the task of identifying and correcting was very laborious. Mr. Morgan's zeal was equal to the difficulty, and a British author again owes to an American the first performance of a valuable service. No one can read the collected works without recognising the singular versatility and vivacity of Bagehot's intellect. It is remarkable, says Bagehot, that Ricardo had already made a fortune and transformed the science of economics when he died at the age of fifty-one. Either performance might have been a sufficient life occupation. Bagehot died at precisely the same age, having been a successful man of business, an energetic journalist, and the author of treatises which made a mark upon political, economical, and sociological speculation. Whatever the value of Bagehot's theories, his literary faculty was, of course, incomparably superior to Ricardo's. His books confirm what his friends tell us of his conversation. His mind was so alert, his interest in life so keen, and his powers of illustration so happy, that he could give freshness even to talk upon the British Constitution and liveliness to a discussion of the Bank reserve. He could not, that is, be dull or commonplace even on the driest or tritest of topics.

If, as I fancy, Bagehot scarcely received so ready a welcome as he deserved, one cause is obvious. Authors, if I may adopt a formula which he employed rather too often, may be divided into two classes, the sentimentalists and the cynics. There can be no doubt which is the most popular. Everybody likes 'geniality' in print as in talk; and, of course, everybody is quite right in the main. Yet the genial author has the benefit of a packed jury. Each reader perhaps takes to himself the compliment paid to his species: what good fellows we all are! And then we are all pleased with every accession to the tacit conspiracy for keeping up comfortable illusions. The poor cynic can hardly get a fair hearing. It is surely desirable that somebody should look facts in the face, instead of taking credit for the equivocal virtue called 'seeing the bright side of things.' Things in general have a very dark side; and though the man who dwells upon it gets an unpleasant name, he may be doing us an important service. We always need good assailants of humbug. 'Cynic,' indeed, has a very variable connotation, and it would be altogether wrong to apply the epithet to Bagehot without qualification. In Hutton's life of his friend the word inevitably comes up, but with the explanation that it refers to a youthful failing, more or less outlived. Bagehot, he admits, always scorned a fool, and in early days the scorn was not yet tempered by the compassion which is the growth of later years—when we have come to know how many and what excellent people belong to the class. Bagehot's satirical 'hear, hear,' he tells us, took the heart out of young orators at debating societies and reduced the over-eloquent man to his 'lowest terms.' His 'cynicism' meant anything but indifference. It was combined with exuberantly high spirits and intense enjoyment of intellectual combats. University College, in Gower Street, was then, if Hutton is right, a far more 'awakening' place than most Oxford colleges. Bagehot, like all clever lads, owed less to lecturers than to his contemporaries: to the impact, as he says, of thought upon thought, to 'mirth and refutation, ridicule and laughter,' which are the 'free play of the natural mind.' The young men discussed every topic from the Corn Laws to the question whether 'A is A' can be properly called a 'law of thought.' Oxford, on the contrary, according to Bagehot, was recommended by authorities as a place where 'the appetite for knowledge was repressed,' a sleepy hollow in which the Thirty-nine Articles were taken to represent ultimate logical categories. An orthodox University, of course, looked stupid enough in Gower Street, the natural home of heterodoxy. Oxford men were deeply agitated by what they innocently took to be thought, but to Bagehot, in spite of certain faint proclivities towards Catholicism, their speculations appeared to be futile danglings after extinct phantasms. Oxford, indeed, provided him with one most congenial friend in Arthur Clough. But Clough represented the revolt against the Oxford of Newman developing into a mellow, all-round cynicism. The true cynic should perceive that neither side has a monopoly of humbug. Bagehot's views of many things might be expressed, as Hutton remarks, in Clough's lines—

Old things need not be therefore true,
O brother man; nor yet the new—

which some people, with Emerson, translate as really meaning that 'Nothing is either true or new.' Clough, says his friend, was led to a certain discouragement—a disenchantment; a 'fatigued way of looking at great subjects'—partly, as Bagehot thought, because he had been prematurely forced by Arnold's training into 'moral earnestness.' In fact, he had learnt that Arnold's disciples could be prigs. From that fate Bagehot was preserved by his vivid interest in life. If humbugs abounded all round, he did not become indifferent and fastidious, but only found an ampler field for his combative propensities. How little he was tainted by priggishness or 'moral earnestness' appears from the curious set of letters from Paris upon the coup d'état in 1851. Bagehot there came out as a thorough cynic, and his private letters, Hutton tells us, were even more cynical than those published in the Inquirer. The readers of that paper—good sound believers in the Times and the British Constitution—were naturally scandalised by the audacious young gentleman who argued that it was quite right to gag the Press and to ship off Leaders of the Opposition to Cayenne. Most young Liberals had been roused to enthusiasm by the revolutionary movements of 1848. Bagehot could only see the absurdities and the failures. He superintended the construction of the barricades at Paris to amuse himself; but he was revolted by the 'sallow, sincere, sour' fanatics behind them: the real Montagnards, who would rather shoot him than not. It is not possible, he observes, 'to respect any one who believes in human brotherhood.' That faith is too obviously nonsensical. 'M. Buonaparte is entitled to very great praise. He has very good heels to his boots, and the French just want treading down and nothing else—calm, cruel, business-like oppression to take the dogmatic conceit out of their heads.' J. S. Mill had praised the French spirit of generalisation. That spirit had come to this, that every Parisian wanted his head tapped in order to get the formulæ and nonsense out of it. Bagehot thoroughly accepted the view of the shopkeepers, that revolutions were bad for trade, and that Louis Napoleon, who put them down, was a genuine 'Saviour of Society.' A really eloquent passage upon the power of the Catholic Church suggests the more serious side of his doctrine. You may, he tells the Freethinker, disprove the creeds as much as you please; but in the end you find that the 'poorest priest in the remote region of the Basses Alpes has more power over men's souls than human cultivation. His ill-mouthed masses move women's souls; can you? Ye scoff at Jupiter, yet he at least was believed in; you never have been. Idol for idol, the dethroned is better than the unthroned.' Superstition, that is, may be ridiculous to the reasoner; but to the politician it is a vast and living force to be reckoned with, and therefore to be respected. Bagehot's early leaning to Catholicism meant that he was susceptible to the historical prestige and imaginative fascinations of the Catholic Church. But then he was too thorough a Rationalist to accept Newman's recipe for suppressing doubt—that is, putting it down by an 'act of will.' In point of logic, the creed was false, though in practice, the Church might be not the less useful in its proper place. Though humbug, as Hosea Biglow remarked, has a 'solid value,' he won't believe it for himself. Some humbug, moreover, is purely mischievous. Both in religion and in politics dogmatism pretends to make absolute truths out of any principles that will lead to the desired conclusion. The Revolutionists illustrated the political evil; for in politics all absolute principles are necessarily absurd. Politics, as Burke had first shown, are 'made of time and place'; they are 'a piece of business ... to be determined by sense and circumstance.' The one question is whether institutions will work; not whether they can be ostensibly deduced from some arbitrary bit of abstract logic.

Bagehot's youthful audacity applied this to defend the indefensible. He was, as Hutton says, 'exasperating.' He sang the praises of an 'unprincipled adventurer,' and made light of perjury and violence. His cynicism was paraded with excessive levity, and good people's scruples needlessly flouted. Yet, assuming that Louis Napoleon deserved everything that even Victor Hugo could say of him, the letters show the real value of good, sweeping, outrageous cynicism. They raise the question which, sooner or later, has to be answered. The viler the despot the more important it is to inquire, What is the secret of his despotic power? It is all very well for popular orators to answer, 'Alliance with the devil.' A more philosophic observer will remark that a state of things in which the devil has such power must be radically wrong. In proclaiming the wickedness of the successful you are proving the imbecility of the virtuous. Your own principles may be irrefragable. Then why are they impracticable? The lofty idealist refuses to consider such questions. The error, he assumes, cannot be in his theories, wherever else it may be. The function of the cynic is to force him to descend from the clouds and explain instead of simply denouncing. Bagehot, that is, was really putting a grave difficulty. He was only giving the most paradoxical turn to the convictions which found fuller expression in his later writings. The weaknesses of French politicians which he described with such singular vigour have certainly not wanted illustration from later experience. Nobody could describe more clearly some causes of the instability of the political order in France. Politics mean business, and therefore compromise. When every man is so logical that compromise becomes a deadly sin, how can the antagonists be held together except by a despotism which at least offers material prosperity? Bagehot's special way of putting it is characteristic. Theory in the lump is bad. The most essential quality for a free people, he declares, 'is much stupidity.' He points his moral by describing the pleasure with which, after a surfeit of brilliant French journalism, he came across an article in the Morning Herald. There was no 'sharp theory' in it, 'no pointed expression, no fatiguing brilliancy,' only 'a dull, creeping, satisfactory sensation that there was nothing to admire.' There was some good in the coup d'état, which at least suppressed the useless, endless, empty logic-chopping of smart Parisian theorisers.

Bagehot is seeking point at the expense of accuracy, and will not take the sting out of his paradoxes. His wiser readers may supply the qualifications for themselves. If the less wise are shocked, he will only smile in his sleeve. He had far too much intellect to accept the thoroughly cynical conclusions that since we can know nothing we may believe anything, and since philosophy is delusive give up the attempt to theorise at all. On the contrary, his weakness is a rather excessive tendency to theorise. It appears in the literary criticisms, at which I can here only glance as illustrations of his habitual mental attitude. They have, above all things, the essential merits of freshness and sincerity. If he has not the special knowledge, he is absolutely free from the pedantry, of the literary expert. He has none of the cant of criticism, and never bores us with 'romantic and classical' or 'objective and subjective.' When he wants a general theory—as he always does—he strikes one out in the heat of the moment. He has almost a trick—as I have hinted—of dividing all writers into two classes: philosophers are either 'seers' or 'gropers'; novelists are 'miscellaneous' or 'sentimental'; genius is symmetrical or irregular, and so forth. Such classifications will not always bear reflection: they only give emphasis to a particular aspect; but they show how his mind is always swarming with theories, and how he looks upon literature as a man primarily interested in the wider problems of the life and character which literature reflects. Critics, of course, might find fault with many of his dicta. He is sometimes commonplace because he tells us how things strike him, and not the less that they have struck every competent writer in much the same way. He writes of Shakespeare and Milton as if he had discovered them for the first time; he can at times utter a crude judgment, because he is too indifferent—if that be possible—to orthodox literary authority, and his literary criticism diverges into psychological or political speculations which are hardly relevant. That means that he is really most interested in the man behind the books. It is characteristic that he attacks the common statement about Shakespeare which declares the man to be unknowable. Matthew Arnold's phrase, 'Others abide our question, thou art free!' is used, rightly or wrongly, to justify a theory which Bagehot holds—and I confess that I agree with him—to involve a complete fallacy. It is this interest in character, the comparative indifference to the technical qualities of books, which he values as bringing us into relations with living human beings, that gives a special quality to Bagehot's work. It implies no want of enthusiasm. Bagehot admires some men who had a personal interest for him, Clough and Hartley Coleridge, even more warmly than most authorities would sanction. He shows at any rate—and that is the vital point—how they affected one of their ablest contemporaries.

Bagehot's strong point, indeed, is insight into character: what one of his critics has called his 'Shakespearean' power of perceiving the working of men's minds. To possess that power a man must be a bit of what is harshly called a cynic. He must be able to check the sentimentalist tendency to lose all characterisation in a blaze of light. His hero-worship must be restrained by humour and common-sense. Carlyle, the great prophet of that creed, could draw most admirable portraits because there was a Diogenes behind the enthusiast; and an underlying shrewdness was always asserting itself behind the didactic panegyric. In Bagehot's case, again, this quality appears in the curious attractiveness for him of the more prosaic type of intellect. His article, for example, upon Macaulay shows the struggle in his mind. He accepts the contemporary estimate of that 'marvellous' book—the History—as was natural to a man whose youth coincided with Macaulay's culmination. He especially esteems a writer who can describe a commercial panic as accurately as M'Culloch, the 'driest of political economists,' and yet make his account as picturesque as a Waverley Novel. He feels keenly the limitations of Macaulay's mind: the incapacity ever to develop his early opinions; the 'bookishness' which made him the slave of accepted Whig formulæ; the 'chill nature' (perhaps the word is hardly fair) which made him prefer the prosaic and respectable to the 'passionate eras of our history.' Yet he also recognised what is perhaps too much overlooked, Macaulay's solid common-sense, obscured as it may be by the defects which give so antiquated and wooden an aspect to his political doctrine. Bagehot, on one side, had strong affinities with the old-fashioned Liberalism in which he had been educated. Macaulay showed its merits as well as its defects. He represents that kind of 'stupidity' which Bagehot so thoroughly appreciated—the stupidity which is a safeguard against abstract theories. Macaulay, as Emerson observes, praised Baconian philosophy precisely because it meant by 'good,' good to eat or good to wear; and thought that its merit was 'to avoid ideas and avoid morals.' Bagehot could agree with Macaulay that 'ideas' were dangerous things. He shows in one essay how Bolingbroke was too clever by half. He complains in another that Lowe 'cannot help being brilliant.' He cannot talk 'the monotonous humdrum' which sends men to sleep, and which they suppose must be 'all right.' He has not the 'invaluable faculty' of diffusing the 'oppressive atmosphere of business-like dulness' which is 'invaluable to a Parliamentary statesman.' Lord Althorp was the ideal leader of the Reform Bill time because he was so intellectually clumsy. His mind 'had not an epigram in the whole of it; everything was solid and ordinary.' So Bagehot criticised Gladstone in a very interesting article (1860), complaining of his 'incessant use of ingenious and unqualified principles,' combined with a 'scholastic' skill which enables him to prove that any two principles may be consistent. In an earlier article he had analysed with singular acuteness the character of Sir Robert Peel, to illustrate the thesis that a 'constitutional statesman is a man of common opinions and uncommon abilities.' He has to represent public opinion—the opinion, that is, of the average man; and it will come naturally to such a man to be converted quite honestly and yet just at the right time; that is, just when other men of business are converted. Originality and Byronic force and fervour would make that impossible. Byron's mind was volcanic, and flung out thoughts which crystallised into indestructible forms like lava. Peel's was one in which opinions resembled the 'daily accumulating insensible deposits of a rich alluvial soil.'

Articles in this vein, full of brilliant flashes of insight, show Bagehot's peculiar power. It is quaint enough to observe the audacious, rapid theorist devoting his brightest insight to a serious 'encomium moriæ' and becoming paradoxical in praise of the commonplace. He was quite in earnest. He admired no one more than Sir G. Cornewall Lewis, the very type of the thoroughly prosaic, solid, utilitarian mind; and not the less that he was himself imaginative and, if not a poet, had marked poetical sensibility. The explanation may be suggested by the doctrine which he applied in his most valuable works. A scientific inquirer must accumulate knowledge of facts, for the whole fabric of science is based upon experience. But he must also be always speculating, co-ordinating, and combining his experience; his mind must be incessantly suggesting the theories till he hits upon the one clue that leads through the chaotic labyrinth which experience presents to puzzle us. Bagehot denounced and ridiculed the theorists who asked for no base of experience and placidly assumed that the fact would conform to the theory. So long as such theories prevail, there can be no stability and therefore no progress. 'Stupidity' is invaluable just so far as it involves a tacit demand that theories should be checked by plain practical application. But stupidity absolute—sheer impenetrability to ideas—was so little to his taste that a main purpose of his writing is to consider how it can be effectually kept under. As a dumb instinctive force, it wants a guide, and he is terribly afraid that it will become refractory and end by being master. There is the problem which he has to solve.

First of all, we must see the facts before our eyes. Bagehot's greatest merit is that he perceives and complies with this necessary condition of useful inquiry. He illustrates a maxim which he is fond of quoting from Paley. It is much harder to make men see that there is a difficulty than to make them understand the explanation when once they see the difficulty. We build up elaborate screens of words and formulæ which effectually hide the facts, and make us content with sham explanations. 'The reason,' he says, 'why so few good books are written is that so few people that can write know anything.' An author 'has always lived in a room'; he has read books and knows the best authors, but he does not learn the use of his own ears and eyes. That is terribly true, as every author must sorrowfully admit; and probably it is nowhere truer than of English political philosophers. English statesmen had made any number of acute remarks behind which, one supposes, there ought to lie some general theory; but when they tried to say what it was, they fell into grievous platitudes and the conventional twaddle which is a weariness to the flesh. They took their general principles from Aristotle, and their precedents from the days of John or Queen Anne; and something surely must have been learnt in the interval. Aristotle's remarks have become platitudes—perhaps because they were so wise; but they surely require a little fresh testing. Bagehot's book upon the British Constitution came like a revelation; simply because he had opened his eyes and looked at the facts. They were known to everybody; they had been known to everybody for generations; and yet, somehow or other, nobody had put them together. Every cog and wheel in the machinery had been described to its minutest details, but the theory supposed to be embodied in its working was hopelessly unreal. It was a kind of fossil erudition; and led to singular misconceptions, and, moreover, to misconceptions of grave practical importance.

Bagehot's main point may illustrate his method. When the Constitution of the United States was framed, the philosophy was supplied by the authors of the famous Federalist. They had read Montesquieu, who was a man of genius, but also a Frenchman. He had naturally taken for granted that the conventional maxims of English politicians corresponded to the vital principles of the British Constitution. His disciples supposed that one such principle was the separation of the legislative from the executive power. This, says Bagehot, was the 'literary' and therefore the utterly wrong theory. The Americans naturally had George III. on the brain. George III. represented the executive in England, and had interfered unduly with the legislative. If the American President was the true analogue of the English monarch, the essential point was to provide security against this abuse. Carry out the principle of the division of powers more thoroughly; separate the President from the Congress; and there would be no danger of a Washington or a Jefferson becoming a George III. or a Cromwell. This involved a thorough misconception. The President was really analogous not to the king, but to the Prime Minister. To divide his functions from the functions of Congress would, therefore, be like making the English Prime Minister independent of parliamentary control. That would clearly involve a complete dislocation of the whole English system. The fact—obscured for a time by George III.'s personal influence—was that the Minister had really become the centre of the executive power and the organ of the legislative power. The 'efficient secret of the British Constitution' was, therefore, not the division, but 'the nearly complete fusion' of the two powers. A vital change had been unnoticed because it had taken place by a tacit and gradual process. The Cabinet has no recognised position in our Constitution; its powers are defined by no definite law; and yet its development implies a profound constitutional change. The Cabinet is, says Bagehot, the 'hyphen' which joins the legislative to the executive power. Because the hyphen had not been forged by any legal process, the 'fusion' of powers which it indicated had been ignored. The two powers had coalesced by slow, insensible, and unavowed methods, and the coalescence was therefore supposed not to have taken place at all. The 'literary' theory not only failed to recognise, but implicitly denied, the essential fact. The radical change had been carried out under a mask of uniformity. The Constitution had come to embody a principle which was the very reverse of the ostensible principle; and as we had only looked at the external forms, we had spoken as though the prerogative of the Crown still represented the same facts as in the days of the Tudors.

When Bagehot pointed out that the Cabinet was virtually a Committee of the legislative body, and the real Executive elected by and responsible to the Legislature, he was simply putting together notorious facts. They had, no doubt, been more or less recognised. Yet he was not only clearing away a mass of useless formulæ, but almost making a discovery, and the rarest kind of discovery, that of the already known. He was exposing an error which had misled the ablest founders of the most remarkable of modern Constitutions. They were, without knowing it, exchanging the 'Cabinet' for the 'Presidential' system. Whether the Presidential system had or had not the disadvantages ascribed to it by Bagehot is a different question. At any rate it was true, as he said, that its founders, while intending to develop a system by accepting its ostensible principle, were really inverting it and acting upon a contradictory principle. To have disengaged the facts so clearly from the mass of conventional fictions was a remarkable achievement. Bagehot revealed a plain fact hidden from more pretentious philosophers who had been blinded by traditional formulæ.

Bagehot proceeded to draw conclusions which seemed scandalously cynical to the young reformers who, when his articles first appeared in the Fortnightly Review, were proposing to 'shoot Niagara.' He admitted that the British Constitution was a whole mass of fictions; its ostensible principles were a mere cover for totally inconsistent practice; and yet that was one of its chief merits. It was a vast make-believe, involving an 'organised hypocrisy,' and for that reason the best of all possible Constitutions. We deify a king in sentiment as we once deified him in doctrine. 'This illusion has been, and still is, of incalculable benefit to the human race.' The 'theatrical show of society' impresses the popular imagination; and the 'climax of the play is the Queen.' … 'Philosophers may deride the superstition, but the results are inestimable.' A Cabinet Government is only possible for 'deferential nations': men who can delegate power to 'superior persons.' Public opinion is supreme, and public opinion is the opinion of 'the bald-headed man at the back of the omnibus'—whom, in modern slang, we call 'the man in the street.'[2] He is totally incapable of forming any rational opinion upon any political question whatever; but he can be impressed by his betters. He will choose a 'select few' to rule him. They, too, will be heavy respectable men, the 'last people in the world to whom, if drawn up in a row, an immense nation would ever give an exclusive preference'; but they will have sense enough to elect in their turn an Executive of capable statesmen. Carlyle and Bagehot agreed—what few people can deny—that men are 'mostly fools.' Carlyle inferred that they should be ruled by heaven-sent heroes; Bagehot, that they should be impressed by the 'shams,' as Carlyle would have called them, appropriate to sluggish imaginations. Bagehot delighted in his Somersetshire clown, who regarded the Crimean War as a personal struggle between Queen Victoria and the Emperor Nicholas and did not see how it could be ended till the Queen had caught the Emperor and locked him up. The clown, that is, can only understand loyalty to a person. To reach him you must represent general principles by concrete symbols.

The cynic's merit is to see facts; and these facts are undeniable. I have always wondered how some political theories can survive a walk through the Strand. People argue gravely, and as if it were obviously true, that the sovereign power should simply sum up the opinions of its multitudinous component atoms. How many people would you meet between Temple Bar and Charing Cross who have any real opinion whatever, if 'opinion' implies any process of reasoning? They have blind instincts, no doubt, and strong feelings; but by what chemistry can the vague mass of ignorance and prejudice be transmuted into political wisdom? If 'stupidity' were enough, we should be in no difficulty. We have stupidity—massive, stolid stupidity—in superabundance. That is a great fact. But if stupidity is to be harmless, it must be a stupidity conscious of its own defects. Bagehot's pert French journalist was an adept in using the phrases to take the place of thought, and enable fools to think themselves philosophers. They took phrases for ideas; and cast aside not only the traditional maxims, but the practical wisdom really embodied in the tradition. English 'stupidity' went with docility, 'deferential' habits of mind, and therefore willingness to trust a select few. Bagehot argued in a very able article upon the 'unreformed Parliament' how, with all its abuses, it had more or less encouraged this invaluable tendency. The whole system had trained us to act as became well-meaning stupid people, with just enough brains to recognise their betters. The doctrine takes fresh shape in his most popular book, the Physics and Politics. Bagehot had been profoundly interested in the discussions started by Darwin, and their bearing upon political questions. He was not, and did not in the least affect to be, an original inquirer. He followed the teaching of Mr. Herbert Spencer and Mr. Tylor—though with his own intellect always keenly at work. The book, therefore, is hardly an original contribution to the history of primitive societies, and his dogmas would, I suppose, often require to be stated as more or less plausible conjectures. What especially interests him is their application to contemporary problems. The methods which show how men grew out of monkeys might show how early societies grew out of savage hordes; and, then, as most of us are still, if not in the savage, in the infantile stage, how modern societies are actually held together. He invented the now proverbial phrase, 'the cake of custom,' to express one essential condition. Men can never emerge from pure barbarism till they are capable of forming a body of sacred inviolable laws to hold them together. But, then, if the 'cake' be too solid, they will never get any further. They will crystallise into solid shapes which make progress impossible. How does the 'age of discussion' ever succeed to the age of custom? How does 'contract' succeed 'status'; or, in other words, how do men gain the right to settle their own lives instead of being wedged from birth into a rigid framework? 'One of the greatest pains to human nature,' he says characteristically, 'is the pain of a new idea': it is 'so upsetting.' How does so tender a shoot manage to pierce the soil hardened by sacred traditions? His answer suggests a doctrine which has been elaborately worked out (quite independently, I believe) in the singularly ingenious and suggestive writings of M. Tarde. Bagehot remarks that a force is at work in all times, which shows itself in savages and civilised races, in the greatest and smallest affairs, in making nations and starting fashions. That is the force of 'imitation.' He illustrates it by a literary instance. What, he asks, caused the rise of the Queen Anne literature? Steele—'a vigorous forward man'—struck out the essay; Addison elaborated it and gave it permanent value. Troops of other writers followed and followed, in the main not of set purpose, but by unconscious imitation. The doctrine is, of course, Darwinian. The patronage of favoured forms corresponds to the preservation of the fortunate varieties. As Darwin argued from variation in pigeons to variation of species in general, Bagehot argues from a literary fashion to the most important processes of social growth. Religious doctrines, he says, spread not by argument, but by the attractiveness of the type; and a great political leader dictates the tone of the community. We were all frivolous under Palmerston, and became 'earnest' with Gladstone. Imitation is at work everywhere.

There are obvious criticisms upon which I need not touch. The full development by M. Tarde shows how many consequences may be, at least plausibly, deduced. 'Imitation,' thus understood, discharges a double function. It produces, on the one hand, the uniformity of life which is essential to civilised society. The stupidity or docility of mankind establishes the laws of conduct which are essential if we are to understand each other and to co-operate. If, on the other hand, the uniformity becomes excessive, individual initiative starts new types. The most effective will succeed, but in any case is adopted by an unconscious instinct without foresight of results. The problem, once more, is to facilitate the play of this natural force; for if the wise man imitates the fool, society will stagnate, while it is rather difficult to get the fool to see the merits of the wise. We have to face the old problem: Does not democracy lead to a dead level, and is not democracy incapable of recognising the best men? Bagehot felt that difficulty as keenly as other men to whom intellectual culture represents one main charm of life. Will not that 'bald-headed man in the omnibus' or the proletarian below him get the upper hand and set the fashion to be universally imitated? Bagehot was to a certain point conservative or aristocratic. The old aristocratic system had, in a blundering way, given a predominance to the select few. When the Reform Bill became necessary, the slow, clumsy intellect of Lord Althorp secured the passage of an undoubtedly beneficial measure. Unluckily, he was too clumsy. The aristocracy had intelligence, but very limited ideas, and had terribly missed its opportunities. It had properly abolished the old system which, after an awkward fashion, gave influence to the intellectual classes, but it had provided no equivalent. We have, therefore, to face a tremendous difficulty; we have to induce this 'self-satisfied, stupid, inert mass of men to admit its own insufficiency.' That is hard enough; but it is still harder to suggest remedies, and hardest of all to secure their application. Bagehot discusses Hare's scheme, which Mill had recently declared to provide a panacea, and shows—unanswerably, I think—how it would only lead to the supremacy of caucuses and machine-made politics. He makes a suggestion or two of his own, life-peerages and so forth; but of them it is enough to say that the insufficiency is only too palpable. The democracy is too strong to be hampered by constitutional devices, and very unlikely to adopt any measures deliberately intended to fetter its own powers of action. 'I can venture to say,' he observes in the last addition to his book on the Constitution, 'what no elected Member of Parliament can venture to say, that I am terribly afraid of the ignorant multitude of the new constituencies. We may have a "glut" of stupidity.' Probably, the opinion and the reluctance to utter it are both stronger than when Bagehot wrote (1872). To the democrat, Bagehot's despondency will appear as a proper penalty of his cynicism. One remark is suggested by his whole argument. His essential case is that the British Constitution depends for its excellence upon the elaboration of the purblind political instincts; upon spontaneous 'deference' or docility; upon the guided or enlightened 'stupidity' which corresponds to his favourite virtue, 'animated moderation.' It is obvious that if such instincts die out, no political machinery, neither Hare's scheme nor any other scheme, can create them. The problem, that is, passes beyond the merely legal and becomes essentially moral. Loyalty to the monarchy and 'deference' to the aristocracy, and, therefore, the corresponding institutions, could not, as Bagehot had insisted, be transplanted to America. No mere political institutions will preserve them if the corresponding instincts really decay. Bagehot had dwelt upon the utility of the 'theatrical' elements of the Constitution. It suddenly comes upon him that plain men will take this invaluable element to be superstition and humbug. When you let out the secret that the monarchy is really a part of a stage-play, it will cease to be an effective control of real life. That is the danger which has all along awaited his excessive valuation of 'shams.' His merit was to have shown more clearly the foundations of the political edifice. If they begin to fail us, the problem of replacing them involves vast moral and social difficulties which lay beyond his peculiar province. They will give work for future generations.

The value of his clear insight into fact remains, and I have only to remark, in conclusion, how well it served him in one other inquiry. Bagehot called himself the last of the old economists. He had a strong sympathy with Ricardo, as with all the leaders of the old-fashioned do-nothing Liberalism. And yet he showed most effectually one of their weaknesses. His Lombard Street owes its power to his imaginative vivacity. Instead of the abstract 'economic man'—an embodied formula—he sees the real concrete banker, full of hopes and fires and passions, and shows how they impel him in actual counting-houses. So his discussion of the 'Postulates of Political Economy' is an exposition of the errors which arise when we apply mere abstract formulæ, unless we carefully translate them in terms of the facts instead of forcing the facts into the formulæ. When a dull man of business talks of the currency question, says Bagehot, he puts 'bills' and 'bullion' into a sentence, and does not care what comes between them. He illustrates Hobbes's famous principle that words are the money of fools and the counters of the wise. The word currency loses all interest if we do not constantly look beyond the sign to the thing signified. Bagehot never forgets that condition of giving interest to his writing. Few readers will quite accept the opinion of his editor, that he has made Lombard Street as entertaining as a novel. But he has been wonderfully successful in tackling so arid a topic; and the statement gives the impression made by the book. It seems as though the ordinary treatises had left us in the dull leaden cloud of a London fog, which, in Bagehot's treatment, disperses, to let us see distinctly and vividly the human beings previously represented by vague, colourless phantoms.

  1. National Review for December 1899.
  2. Emerson uses the phrase in the essay on Napoleon in Representative Men.