Transcribed from the 1887 Cassell and Company edition by David Price, email: email@example.com
COLLOQUIES ON SOCIETY.
BY ROBERT SOUTHEY.
CASSELL & COMPANY, Limited: LONDON, PARIS, NEW YORK & MELBOURNE. 1887.
It was in 1824 that Robert Southey, then fifty years old, published "Sir Thomas More, or Colloquies on the Progress and Prospects of Society," a book in two octavo volumes with plates illustrating lake scenery. There were later editions of the book in 1829, and in 1831, and there was an edition in one volume in 1837, at the beginning of the reign of Queen Victoria.
These dialogues with a meditative and patriotic ghost form separate dissertations upon various questions that concern the progress of society. Omitting a few dissertations that have lost the interest they had when the subjects they discussed were burning questions of the time, this volume retains the whole machinery of Southey's book. It gives unabridged the Colloquies that deal with the main principles of social life as Southey saw them in his latter days; and it includes, of course, the pleasant Colloquy that presents to us Southey himself, happy in his library, descanting on the course of time as illustrated by the bodies and the souls of books. As this volume does not reproduce all the Colloquies arranged by Southey under the main title of "Sir Thomas More," it avoids use of the main title, and ventures only to describe itself as "Colloquies on Society, by Robert Southey."
They are of great interest, for they present to us the form and character of the conservative reaction in a mind that was in youth impatient for reform. In Southey, as in Wordsworth, the reaction followed on experience of failure in the way taken by the revolutionists of France, with whose aims for the regeneration of Europe they had been in warmest accord. Neither Wordsworth nor Southey ever lowered the ideal of a higher life for man on earth. Southey retains it in these Colloquies, although he balances his own hope with the questionings of the ghost, and if he does look for a crowning race, regards it, with Tennyson, as a
"far off divine event To which the whole Creation moves."
The conviction brought to men like Wordsworth and Southey by the failure of the French Revolution to attain its aim in the sudden elevation of society was not of vanity in the aim, but of vanity in any hope of its immediate attainment by main force. Southey makes More say to himself upon this question (page 37), "I admit that such an improved condition of society as you contemplate is possible, and that it ought always to be kept in view; but the error of supposing it too near, of fancying that there is a short road to it, is, of all the errors of these times, the most pernicious, because it seduces the young and generous, and betrays them imperceptibly into an alliance with whatever is flagitious and detestable." All strong reaction of mind tends towards excess in the opposite direction. Southey's detestation of the excesses of vile men that brought shame upon a revolutionary movement to which some of the purest hopes of earnest youth had given impulse, drove him, as it drove Wordsworth, into dread of everything that sought with passionate energy immediate change of evil into good. But in his own way no man ever strove more patiently than Southey to make evil good; and in his own home and his own life he gave good reason to one to whom he was as a father, and who knew his daily thoughts and deeds, to speak of him as "upon the whole the best man I have ever known."
In the days when this book was written, Southey lived at Greta Hall, by Keswick, and had gathered a large library about him. He was Poet Laureate. He had a pension from the Civil List, worth less than 200 pounds a year, and he was living at peace upon a little income enlarged by his yearly earnings as a writer. In 1818 his whole private fortune was 400 pounds in consols. In 1821 he had added to that some savings, and gave all to a ruined friend who had been good to him in former years. Yet in those days he refused an offer of 2,000 pounds a year to come to London and write for the Times. He was happiest in his home by Skiddaw, with his books about him and his wife about him.
Ten years after the publishing of these Colloquies, Southey's wife, who had been, as Southey said, "for forty years the life of his life," had to be placed in a lunatic asylum. She returned to him to die, and then his gentleness became still gentler as his own mind failed. He died in 1843. Three years before his death his friend Wordsworth visited him at Keswick, and was not recognised. But when Southey was told who it was, "then," Wordsworth wrote, "his eyes flashed for a moment with their former brightness, but he sank into the state in which I had found him, patting with both his hands his books affectionately, like a child."
Sir Thomas More, whose ghost communicates with Robert Southey, was born in 1478, and at the age of fifty-seven was beheaded for fidelity to conscience, on the 6th of July, 1535. He was, like Southey, a man of purest character, and in 1516, when his age was thirty-eight, there was published at Louvain his "Utopia," which sketched wittily an ideal commonwealth that was based on practical and earnest thought upon what constitutes a state, and in what direction to look for amendment of ills. More also withdrew from his most advanced post of opinion. When he wrote "Utopia" he advocated absolute freedom of opinion in matters of religion; in after years he believed it necessary to enforce conformity. King Henry VIII., stiff in his own opinions, had always believed that; and because More would not say that he was of one mind with him in the matter of the divorce of Katherine he sent him to the scaffold.
COLLOQUY I.—THE INTRODUCTION.
"Posso aver certezza, e non paura, Che raccontando quel che m' e accaduto, Il ver diro, ne mi sara creduto."
"Orlando Innamorato," c. 5. st. 53.
It was during that melancholy November when the death of the Princess Charlotte had diffused throughout Great Britain a more general sorrow than had ever before been known in these kingdoms; I was sitting alone at evening in my library, and my thoughts had wandered from the book before me to the circumstances which made this national calamity be felt almost like a private affliction. While I was thus musing the post-woman arrived. My letters told me there was nothing exaggerated in the public accounts of the impression which this sudden loss had produced; that wherever you went you found the women of the family weeping, and that men could scarcely speak of the event without tears; that in all the better parts of the metropolis there was a sort of palsied feeling which seemed to affect the whole current of active life; and that for several days there prevailed in the streets a stillness like that of the Sabbath, but without its repose. I opened the newspaper; it was still bordered with broad mourning lines, and was filled with details concerning the deceased Princess. Her coffin and the ceremonies at her funeral were described as minutely as the order of her nuptials and her bridal dress had been, in the same journal, scarce eighteen months before. "Man," says Sir Thomas Brown, "is a noble animal, splendid in ashes, and pompous in the grave; solemnising nativities and deaths with equal lustre, nor omitting ceremonies of bravery in the infamy of his nature." These things led me in spirit to the vault, and I thought of the memorable dead among whom her mortal remains were now deposited. Possessed with such imaginations I leaned back upon the sofa and closed my eyes.
Ere long I was awakened from that conscious state of slumber in which the stream of fancy floweth as it listeth by the entrance of an elderly personage of grave and dignified appearance. His countenance and manner were remarkably benign, and announced a high degree of intellectual rank, and he accosted me in a voice of uncommon sweetness, saying, "Montesinos, a stranger from a distant country may intrude upon you without those credentials which in other cases you have a right to require." "From America!" I replied, rising to salute him. Some of the most gratifying visits which I have ever received have been from that part of the world. It gives me indeed more pleasure than I can express to welcome such travellers as have sometimes found their way from New England to those lakes and mountains; men who have not forgotten what they owe to their ancient mother; whose principles, and talents, and attainments would render them an ornament to any country, and might almost lead me to hope that their republican constitution may be more permanent than all other considerations would induce me either to suppose or wish.
"You judge of me," he made answer, "by my speech. I am, however, English by birth, and come now from a more distant country than America, wherein I have long been naturalised." Without explaining himself further, or allowing me time to make the inquiry which would naturally have followed, he asked me if I were not thinking of the Princess Charlotte when he disturbed me. "That," said I, "may easily be divined. All persons whose hearts are not filled with their own grief are thinking of her at this time. It had just occurred to me that on two former occasions when the heir apparent of England was cut off in the prime of life the nation was on the eve of a religious revolution in the first instance, and of a political one in the second."
"Prince Arthur and Prince Henry," he replied. "Do you notice this as ominous, or merely as remarkable?"
"Merely as remarkable," was my answer. "Yet there are certain moods of mind in which we can scarcely help ascribing an ominous importance to any remarkable coincidence wherein things of moment are concerned."
"Are you superstitious?" said he. "Understand me as using the word for want of a more appropriate one—not in its ordinary and contemptuous acceptation."
I smiled at the question, and replied, "Many persons would apply the epithet to me without qualifying it. This, you know, is the age of reason, and during the last hundred and fifty years men have been reasoning themselves out of everything that they ought to believe and feel. Among a certain miserable class, who are more numerous than is commonly supposed, he who believes in a First Cause and a future state is regarded with contempt as a superstitionist. The religious naturalist in his turn despises the feebler mind of the Socinian; and the Socinian looks with astonishment or pity at the weakness of those who, having by conscientious inquiry satisfied themselves of the authenticity of the Scriptures, are contented to believe what is written, and acknowledge humility to be the foundation of wisdom as well as of virtue. But for myself, many, if not most of those even who agree with me in all essential points, would be inclined to think me superstitious, because I am not ashamed to avow my persuasion that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in their philosophy."
"You believe, then, in apparitions," said my visitor.
Montesinos.—Even so, sir. That such things should be is probable a priori; and I cannot refuse assent to the strong evidence that such things are, nor to the common consent which has prevailed among all people, everywhere, in all ages a belief indeed which is truly catholic, in the widest acceptation of the word. I am, by inquiry and conviction, as well as by inclination and feeling, a Christian; life would be intolerable to me if I were not so. "But," says Saint Evremont, "the most devout cannot always command their belief, nor the most impious their incredulity." I acknowledge with Sir Thomas Brown that, "as in philosophy, so in divinity, there are sturdy doubts and boisterous objections, wherewith the unhappiness of our knowledge too nearly acquainteth us;" and I confess with him that these are to be conquered, "not in a martial posture, but on our knees." If then there are moments wherein I, who have satisfied my reason, and possess a firm and assured faith, feel that I have in this opinion a strong hold, I cannot but perceive that they who have endeavoured to dispossess the people of their old instinctive belief in such things have done little service to individuals and much injury to the community.
Stranger.—Do you extend this to a belief in witchcraft?
Montesinos.—The common stories of witchcraft confute themselves, as may be seen in all the trials for that offence. Upon this subject I would say with my old friend Charles Lamb—
"I do not love to credit tales of magic! Heaven's music, which is order, seems unstrung. And this brave world (The mystery of God) unbeautified, Disordered, marred, where such strange things are acted."
The only inference which can be drawn from the confession of some of the poor wretches who have suffered upon such charges is, that they had attempted to commit the crime, and thereby incurred the guilt and deserved the punishment. Of this indeed there have been recent instances; and in one atrocious case the criminal escaped because the statute against the imaginary offence is obsolete, and there exists no law which could reach the real one.
Stranger.—He who may wish to show with what absurd perversion the forms and technicalities of law are applied to obstruct the purposes of justice, which they were designed to further, may find excellent examples in England. But leaving this allow me to ask whether you think all the stories which are related of an intercourse between men and beings of a superior order, good or evil, are to be disbelieved like the vulgar tales of witchcraft?
Montesinos.—If you happen, sir, to have read some of those ballads which I threw off in the high spirits of youth you may judge what my opinion then was of the grotesque demonology of the monks and middle ages by the use there made of it. But in the scale of existences there may be as many orders above us as below. We know there are creatures so minute that without the aid of our glasses they could never have been discovered; and this fact, if it were not notorious as well as certain, would appear not less incredible to sceptical minds than that there should be beings which are invisible to us because of their subtlety. That there are such I am as little able to doubt as I am to affirm anything concerning them; but if there are such, why not evil spirits, as well as wicked men? Many travellers who have been conversant with savages have been fully persuaded that their jugglers actually possessed some means of communication with the invisible world, and exercised a supernatural power which they derived from it. And not missionaries only have believed this, and old travellers who lived in ages of credulity, but more recent observers, such as Carver and Bruce, whose testimony is of great weight, and who were neither ignorant, nor weak, nor credulous men. What I have read concerning ordeals also staggers me; and I am sometimes inclined to think it more possible that when there has been full faith on all sides these appeals to divine justice may have been answered by Him who sees the secrets of all hearts than that modes of trial should have prevailed so long and so generally, from some of which no person could ever have escaped without an interposition of Providence. Thus it has appeared to me in my calm and unbiassed judgment. Yet I confess I should want faith to make the trial. May it not be, that by such means in dark ages, and among blind nations, the purpose is effected of preserving conscience and the belief of our immortality, without which the life of our life would be extinct? And with regard to the conjurers of the African and American savages, would it be unreasonable to suppose that, as the most elevated devotion brings us into fellowship with the Holy Spirit, a correspondent degree of wickedness may effect a communion with evil intelligences? These are mere speculations which I advance for as little as they are worth. My serious belief amounts to this, that preternatural impressions are sometimes communicated to us for wise purposes: and that departed spirits are sometimes permitted to manifest themselves.
Stranger.—If a ghost, then, were disposed to pay you a visit, you would be in a proper state of mind for receiving such a visitor?
Montesinos.—I should not credit my senses lightly; neither should I obstinately distrust them, after I had put the reality of the appearance to the proof, as far as that were possible.
Stranger.—Should you like to have an opportunity afforded you?
Montesinos.—Heaven forbid! I have suffered so much in dreams from conversing with those whom even in sleep I knew to be departed, that an actual presence might perhaps be more than I could bear.
Stranger.—But if it were the spirit of one with whom you had no near ties of relationship or love, how then would it affect you?
Montesinos.—That would of course be according to the circumstances on both sides. But I entreat you not to imagine that I am any way desirous of enduring the experiment.
Stranger.—Suppose, for example, he were to present himself as I have done; the purport of his coming friendly; the place and opportunity suiting, as at present; the time also considerately chosen—after dinner; and the spirit not more abrupt in his appearance nor more formidable in aspect than the being who now addresses you?
Montesinos.—Why, sir, to so substantial a ghost, and of such respectable appearance, I might, perhaps, have courage enough to say with Hamlet,
"Thou com'st in such a questionable shape, That I will speak to thee!"
Stranger.—Then, sir, let me introduce myself in that character, now that our conversation has conducted us so happily to the point. I told you truly that I was English by birth, but that I came from a more distant country than America, and had long been naturalised there. The country whence I come is not the New World, but the other one: and I now declare myself in sober earnest to be a ghost.
Stranger.—A veritable ghost, and an honest one, who went out of the world with so good a character that he will hardly escape canonisation if ever you get a Roman Catholic king upon the throne. And now what test do you require?
Montesinos.—I can detect no smell of brimstone; and the candle burns as it did before, without the slightest tinge of blue in its flame. You look, indeed, like a spirit of health, and I might be disposed to give entire belief to that countenance, if it were not for the tongue that belongs to it. But you are a queer spirit, whether good or evil!
Stranger.—The headsman thought so, when he made a ghost of me almost three hundred years ago. I had a character through life of loving a jest, and did not belie it at the last. But I had also as general a reputation for sincerity, and of that also conclusive proof was given at the same time. In serious truth, then, I am a disembodied spirit, and the form in which I now manifest myself is subject to none of the accidents of matter. You are still incredulous! Feel, then, and be convinced!
My incomprehensible guest extended his hand toward me as he spoke. I held forth mine to accept it, not, indeed, believing him, and yet not altogether without some apprehensive emotion, as if I were about to receive an electrical shock. The effect was more startling than electricity would have produced. His hand had neither weight nor substance; my fingers, when they would have closed upon it, found nothing that they could grasp: it was intangible, though it had all the reality of form.
"In the name of God," I exclaimed, "who are you, and wherefore are you come?"
"Be not alarmed," he replied. "Your reason, which has shown you the possibility of such an appearance as you now witness, must have convinced you also that it would never be permitted for an evil end. Examine my features well, and see if you do not recognise them. Hans Holbein was excellent at a likeness."
I had now for the first time in my life a distinct sense of that sort of porcupinish motion over the whole scalp which is so frequently described by the Latin poets. It was considerably allayed by the benignity of his countenance and the manner of his speech, and after looking him steadily in the face I ventured to say, for the likeness had previously struck me, "Is it Sir Thomas More?"
"The same," he made answer, and lifting up his chin, displayed a circle round the neck brighter in colour than the ruby. "The marks of martyrdom," he continued, "are our insignia of honour. Fisher and I have the purple collar, as Friar Forrest and Cranmer have the robe of fire."
A mingled feeling of fear and veneration kept me silent, till I perceived by his look that he expected and encouraged me to speak; and collecting my spirits as well as I could, I asked him wherefore he had thought proper to appear, and why to me rather than to any other person?
He replied, "We reap as we have sown. Men bear with them from this world into the intermediate state their habits of mind and stores of knowledge, their dispositions and affections and desires; and these become a part of our punishment, or of our reward, according to their kind. Those persons, therefore, in whom the virtue of patriotism has predominated continue to regard with interest their native land, unless it be so utterly sunk in degradation that the moral relationship between them is dissolved. Epaminondas can have no sympathy at this time with Thebes, nor Cicero with Rome, nor Belisarius with the imperial city of the East. But the worthies of England retain their affection for their noble country, behold its advancement with joy, and when serious danger appears to threaten the goodly structure of its institutions they feel as much anxiety as is compatible with their state of beatitude."
Montesinos.—What, then, may doubt and anxiety consist with the happiness of heaven?
Sir Thomas More.—Heaven and hell may be said to begin on your side the grave. In the intermediate state conscience anticipates with unerring certainty the result of judgment. We, therefore, who have done well can have no fear for ourselves. But inasmuch as the world has any hold upon our affections we are liable to that anxiety which is inseparable from terrestrial hopes. And as parents who are in bliss regard still with parental love the children whom they have left on earth, we, in like manner, though with a feeling different in kind and inferior in degree, look with apprehension upon the perils of our country.
"sub pectore forti Vivit adhuc patriae pietas; stimulatque sepultum Libertatis amor: pondus mortale necari Si potuit, veteres animo post funera vires Mansere, et prisci vivit non immemor aevi."
They are the words of old Mantuan.
Montesinos.—I am to understand, then, that you cannot see into the ways of futurity?
Sir Thomas More.—Enlarged as our faculties are, you must not suppose that we partake of prescience. For human actions are free, and we exist in time. The future is to us therefore as uncertain as to you; except only that having a clearer and more comprehensive knowledge of the past, we are enabled to reason better from causes to consequences, and by what has been to judge of what is likely to be. We have this advantage also, that we are divested of all those passions which cloud the intellects and warp the understandings of men. You are thinking, I perceive, how much you have to learn, and what you should first inquire of me. But expect no revelations! Enough was revealed when man was assured of judgment after death, and the means of salvation were afforded him. I neither come to discover secret things nor hidden treasures; but to discourse with you concerning these portentous and monster-breeding times; for it is your lot, as it was mine, to live during one of the grand climacterics of the world. And I come to you, rather than to any other person, because you have been led to meditate upon the corresponding changes whereby your age and mine are distinguished; and because, notwithstanding many discrepancies and some dispathies between us (speaking of myself as I was, and as you know me), there are certain points of sympathy and resemblance which bring us into contact, and enable us at once to understand each other.
Montesinos.—Et in Utopia ego.
Sir Thomas More.—You apprehend me. We have both speculated in the joys and freedom of our youth upon the possible improvement of society; and both in like manner have lived to dread with reason the effects of that restless spirit which, like the Titaness Mutability described by your immortal master, insults heaven and disturbs the earth. By comparing the great operating causes in the age of the Reformation, and in this age of revolutions, going back to the former age, looking at things as I then beheld them, perceiving wherein I judged rightly, and wherein I erred, and tracing the progress of those causes which are now developing their whole tremendous power, you will derive instruction, which you are a fit person to receive and communicate; for without being solicitous concerning present effect, you are contented to cast your bread upon the waters. You are now acquainted with me and my intention. To-morrow you will see me again; and I shall continue to visit you occasionally as opportunity may serve. Meantime say nothing of what has passed—not even to your wife. She might not like the thoughts of a ghostly visitor: and the reputation of conversing with the dead might be almost as inconvenient as that of dealing with the devil. For the present, then, farewell! I will never startle you with too sudden an apparition; but you may learn to behold my disappearance without alarm.
I was not able to behold it without emotion, although he had thus prepared me; for the sentence was no sooner completed than he was gone. Instead of rising from the chair he vanished from it. I know not to what the instantaneous disappearance can be likened. Not to the dissolution of a rainbow, because the colours of the rainbow fade gradually till they are lost; not to the flash of cannon, or to lightning, for these things are gone as so on as they are come, and it is known that the instant of their appearance must be that of their departure; not to a bubble upon the water, for you see it burst; not to the sudden extinction of a light, for that is either succeeded by darkness or leaves a different hue upon the surrounding objects. In the same indivisible point of time when I beheld the distinct, individual, and, to all sense of sight, substantial form—the living, moving, reasonable image—in that self-same instant it was gone, as if exemplifying the difference between to be and not to be. It was no dream, of this I was well assured; realities are never mistaken for dreams, though dreams may be mistaken for realities. Moreover I had long been accustomed in sleep to question my perceptions with a wakeful faculty of reason, and to detect their fallacy. But, as well may be supposed, my thoughts that night, sleeping as well as waking, were filled with this extraordinary interview; and when I arose the next morning it was not till I had called to mind every circumstance of time and place that I was convinced the apparition was real, and that I might again expect it.
COLLOQUY II.—THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE WORLD.
On the following evening when my spiritual visitor entered the room, that volume of Dr. Wordsworth's ecclesiastical biography which contains his life was lying on the table beside me. "I perceive," said he, glancing at the book, "you have been gathering all you can concerning me from my good gossiping chronicler, who tells you that I loved milk and fruit and eggs, preferred beef to young meats, and brown bread to white; was fond of seeing strange birds and beasts, and kept an ape, a fox, a weasel, and a ferret."
"I am not one of those fastidious readers," I replied, "who quarrel with a writer for telling them too much. But these things were worth telling: they show that you retained a youthful palate as well as a youthful heart; and I like you the better both for your diet and your menagerie. The old biographer, indeed, with the best intentions, has been far from understanding the character which he desired to honour. He seems, however, to have been a faithful reporter, and has done as well as his capacity permitted. I observe that he gives you credit for 'a deep foresight and judgment of the times,' and for speaking in a prophetic spirit of the evils, which soon afterwards were 'full heavily felt.'"
"There could be little need for a spirit of prophecy," Sir Thomas made answer, to "foresee troubles which were the sure effect of the causes then in operation, and which were actually close at hand. When the rain is gathering from the south or west, and those flowers and herbs which serve as natural hygrometers close their leaves, men have no occasion to consult the stars for what the clouds and the earth are telling them. You were thinking of Prince Arthur when I introduced myself yesterday, as if musing upon the great events which seem to have received their bias from the apparent accident of his premature death."
Montesinos.—I had fallen into one of those idle reveries in which we speculate upon what might have been. Lord Bacon describes him as "very studious, and learned beyond his years, and beyond the custom of great princes." As this indicates a calm and thoughtful mind, it seems to show that he inherited the Tudor character. His brother took after the Plantagenets; but it was not of their nobler qualities that he partook. He had the popular manners of his grandfather, Edward IV., and, like him, was lustful, cruel, and unfeeling.
Sir Thomas More.—The blood of the Plantagenets, as your friends the Spaniards would say, was a strong blood. That temper of mind which (in some of his predecessors) thought so little of fratricide might perhaps have involved him in the guilt of a parricidal war, if his father had not been fortunate enough to escape such an affliction by a timely death. We might otherwise be allowed to wish that the life of Henry VII. had been prolonged to a good old age. For if ever there was a prince who could so have directed the Reformation as to have averted the evils wherewith that tremendous event was accompanied, and yet to have secured its advantages, he was the man. Cool, wary, far-sighted, rapacious, politic, and religious, or superstitious if you will (for his religion had its root rather in fear than in hope), he was peculiarly adapted for such a crisis both by his good and evil qualities. For the sake of increasing his treasures and his power, he would have promoted the Reformation; but his cautious temper, his sagacity, and his fear of Divine justice would have taught him where to stop.
Montesinos.—A generation of politic sovereigns succeeded to the race of warlike ones, just in that age of society when policy became of more importance in their station than military talents. Ferdinand of Spain, Joam II. whom the Portuguese called the perfect prince, Louis XI. and Henry VII. were all of this class. Their individual characters were sufficiently distinct; but the circumstances of their situation stamped them with a marked resemblance, and they were of a metal to take and retain the strong, sharp impress of the age.
Sir Thomas More.—The age required such characters; and it is worthy of notice how surely in the order of providence such men as are wanted are raised up. One generation of these princes sufficed. In Spain, indeed, there was an exception; for Ferdinand had two successors who pursued the same course of conduct. In the other kingdoms the character ceased with the necessity for it. Crimes enough were committed by succeeding sovereigns, but they were no longer the acts of systematic and reflecting policy. This, too, is worthy of remark, that the sovereigns whom you have named, and who scrupled at no means for securing themselves on the throne, for enlarging their dominions and consolidating their power, were each severally made to feel the vanity of human ambition, being punished either in or by the children who were to reap the advantage of their crimes. "Verily there is a God that judgeth the earth!"
Montesinos.—An excellent friend of mine, one of the wisest, best, and happiest men whom I have ever known, delights in this manner to trace the moral order of Providence through the revolutions of the world; and in his historical writings keeps it in view as the pole-star of his course. I wish he were present, that he might have the satisfaction of hearing his favourite opinion confirmed by one from the dead.
Sir Thomas More.—His opinion requires no other confirmation than what he finds for it in observation and Scripture, and in his own calm judgment. I should differ little from that friend of yours concerning the past; but his hopes for the future appear to me like early buds which are in danger of March winds. He believes the world to be in a rapid state of sure improvement; and in the ferment which exists everywhere he beholds only a purifying process; not considering that there is an acetous as well as a vinous fermentation; and that in the one case the liquor may be spilt, in the other it must be spoilt.
Montesinos.—Surely you would not rob us of our hopes for the human race! If I apprehended that your discourse tended to this end I should suspect you, notwithstanding your appearance, and be ready to exclaim, "Avaunt, tempter!" For there is no opinion from which I should so hardly be driven, and so reluctantly part, as the belief that the world will continue to improve, even as it has hitherto continually been improving; and that the progress of knowledge and the diffusion of Christianity will bring about at last, when men become Christians in reality as well as in name, something like that Utopian state of which philosophers have loved to dream—like that millennium in which saints as well as enthusiasts have trusted.
Sir Thomas More.—Do you hold that this consummation must of necessity come to pass; or that it depends in any degree upon the course of events—that is to say, upon human actions? The former of these propositions you would be as unwilling to admit as your friend Wesley, or the old Welshman Pelagius himself. The latter leaves you little other foundation for your opinion than a desire, which, from its very benevolence, is the more likely to be delusive. You are in a dilemma.
Montesinos.—Not so, Sir Thomas. Impossible as it may be for us to reconcile the free will of man with the foreknowledge of God, I nevertheless believe in both with the most full conviction. When the human mind plunges into time and space in its speculations, it adventures beyond its sphere; no wonder, therefore, that its powers fail, and it is lost. But that my will is free, I know feelingly: it is proved to me by my conscience. And that God provideth all things I know by His own Word, and by that instinct which He hath implanted in me to assure me of His being. My answer to your question, then, is this: I believe that the happy consummation which I desire is appointed, and must come to pass; but that when it is to come depends upon the obedience of man to the will of God, that is, upon human actions.
Sir Thomas More.—You hold then that the human race will one day attain the utmost degree of general virtue, and thereby general happiness, of which humanity is capable. Upon what do you found this belief?
Montesinos.—The opinion is stated more broadly than I should choose to advance it. But this is ever the manner of argumentative discourse: the opponent endeavours to draw from you conclusions which you are not prepared to defend, and which perhaps you have never before acknowledged even to yourself. I will put the proposition in a less disputable form. A happier condition of society is possible than that in which any nation is existing at this time, or has at any time existed. The sum both of moral and physical evil may be greatly diminished both by good laws, good institutions, and good governments. Moral evil cannot indeed be removed, unless the nature of man were changed; and that renovation is only to be effected in individuals, and in them only by the special grace of God. Physical evil must always, to a certain degree, be inseparable from mortality. But both are so much within the reach of human institutions that a state of society is conceivable almost as superior to that of England in these days, as that itself is superior to the condition of the tattooed Britons, or of the northern pirates from whom we are descended. Surely this belief rests upon a reasonable foundation, and is supported by that general improvement (always going on if it be regarded upon the great scale) to which all history bears witness.
Sir Thomas More.—I dispute not this: but to render it a reasonable ground of immediate hope, the predominance of good principles must be supposed. Do you believe that good or evil principles predominate at this time?
Montesinos.—If I were to judge by that expression of popular opinion which the press pretends to convey, I should reply without hesitation that never in any other known age of the world have such pernicious principles been so prevalent
"Qua terra patet, fera regnat Erinnys; In facinus jurasse putes."
Sir Thomas More.—Is there not a danger that these principles may bear down everything before them? and is not that danger obvious, palpable, imminent? Is there a considerate man who can look at the signs of the times without apprehension, or a scoundrel connected with what is called the public press, who does not speculate upon them, and join with the anarchists as the strongest party? Deceive not yourself by the fallacious notion that truth is mightier than falsehood, and that good must prevail over evil! Good principles enable men to suffer, rather than to act. Think how the dog, fond and faithful creature as he is, from being the most docile and obedient of all animals, is made the most dangerous, if he becomes mad; so men acquire a frightful and not less monstrous power when they are in a state of moral insanity, and break loose from their social and religious obligations. Remember too how rapidly the plague of diseased opinions is communicated, and that if it once gain head, it is as difficult to be stopped as a conflagration or a flood. The prevailing opinions of this age go to the destruction of everything which has hitherto been held sacred. They tend to arm the poor against the rich; the many against the few: worse than this, for it will also be a war of hope and enterprise against timidity, of youth against age.
Montesinos.—Sir Ghost, you are almost as dreadful an alarmist as our Cumberland cow, who is believed to have lately uttered this prophecy, delivering it with oracular propriety in verse:
"Two winters, a wet spring, A bloody summer, and no king."
Sir Thomas More.—That prophecy speaks the wishes of the man, whoever he may have been, by whom it was invented: and you who talk of the progress of knowledge, and the improvement of society, and upon that improvement build your hope of its progressive melioration, you know that even so gross and palpable an imposture as this is swallowed by many of the vulgar, and contributes in its sphere to the mischief which it was designed to promote. I admit that such an improved condition of society as you contemplate is possible, and hath ought always to be kept in view: but the error of supposing it too near, of fancying that there is a short road to it, is, of all the errors of these times, the most pernicious, because it seduces the young and generous, and betrays them imperceptibly into an alliance with whatever is flagitious and detestable. The fact is undeniable that the worst principles in religion, in morals, and in politics, are at this time more prevalent than they ever were known to be in any former age. You need not be told in what manner revolutions in opinion bring about the fate of empires; and upon this ground you ought to regard the state of the world, both at home and abroad, with fear, rather than with hope.
Montesinos.—When I have followed such speculations as may allowably be indulged, respecting what is hidden in the darkness of time and of eternity, I have sometimes thought that the moral and physical order of the world may be so appointed as to coincide; and that the revolutions of this planet may correspond with the condition of its inhabitants; so that the convulsions and changes whereto it is destined should occur, when the existing race of men had either become so corrupt as to be unworthy of the place which they hold in the universe, or were so truly regenerate by the will and word of God, as to be qualified for a higher station in it. Our globe may have gone through many such revolutions. We know the history of the last; the measure of its wickedness was then filled up. For the future we are taught to expect a happier consummation.
Sir Thomas More.—It is important that you should distinctly understand the nature and extent of your expectations on that head. Is it upon the Apocalypse that you rest them?
Montesinos.—If you had not forbidden me to expect from this intercourse any communication which might come with the authority of revealed knowledge, I should ask in reply, whether that dark book is indeed to be received for authentic Scripture? My hopes are derived from the prophets and the evangelists. Believing in them with a calm and settled faith, with that consent of the will and heart and understanding which constitutes religious belief, and in them the clear annunciation of that kingdom of God upon earth, for the coming of which Christ himself has taught and commanded us to pray.
Sir Thomas More.—Remember that the Evangelists, in predicting that kingdom, announce a dreadful advent! And that, according to the received opinion of the Church, wars, persecutions, and calamities of every kind, the triumph of evil, and the coming of Antichrist are to be looked for, before the promises made by the prophets shall be fulfilled. Consider this also, that the speedy fulfilment of those promises has been the ruling fancy of the most dangerous of all madmen, from John of Leyden and his frantic followers, down to the saints of Cromwell's army, Venner and his Fifth-Monarchy men, the fanatics of the Cevennes, and the blockheads of your own days, who beheld with complacency the crimes of the French Revolutionists, and the progress of Bonaparte towards the subjugation of Europe, as events tending to bring about the prophecies; and, under the same besotted persuasion, are ready at this time to co-operate with the miscreants who trade in blasphemy and treason! But you who neither seek to deceive others nor yourself, you who are neither insane nor insincere, you surely do not expect that the millennium is to be brought about by the triumph of what are called liberal opinions; nor by enabling the whole of the lower classes to read the incentives to vice, impiety, and rebellion which are prepared for them by an unlicensed press; nor by Sunday schools, and religious tract societies; nor by the portentous bibliolatry of the age! And if you adhere to the letter of the Scriptures, methinks the thought of that consummation for which you look, might serve rather for consolation under the prospect of impending evils, than for a hope upon which the mind can rest in security with a calm and contented delight.
Montesinos.—To this I must reply, that the fulfilment of those calamitous events predicted in the Gospels may safely be referred, as it usually is, and by the best Biblical scholars, to the destruction of Jerusalem. Concerning the visions of the Apocalypse, sublime as they are, I speak with less hesitation, and dismiss them from my thoughts, as more congenial to the fanatics of whom you have spoken than to me. And for the coming of Antichrist, it is no longer a received opinion in these days, whatever it may have been in yours. Your reasoning applies to the enthusiastic millenarians who discover the number of the beast, and calculate the year when a vial is to be poured out, with as much precision as the day and hour of an eclipse. But it leaves my hope unshaken and untouched. I know that the world has improved; I see that it is improving; and I believe that it will continue to improve in natural and certain progress. Good and evil principles are widely at work: a crisis is evidently approaching; it may be dreadful, but I can have no doubts concerning the result. Black and ominous as the aspects may appear, I regard them without dismay. The common exclamation of the poor and helpless, when they feel themselves oppressed, conveys to my mind the sum of the surest and safest philosophy. I say with them, "God is above," and trust Him for the event.
Sir Thomas More.—God is above—but the devil is below. Evil principles are, in their nature, more active than good. The harvest is precarious, and must be prepared with labour, and cost, and care; weeds spring up of themselves, and flourish and seed whatever may be the season. Disease, vice, folly, and madness are contagious; while health and understanding are incommunicable, and wisdom and virtue hardly to be communicated! We have come, however, to some conclusion in our discourse. Your notion of the improvement of the world has appeared to be a mere speculation, altogether inapplicable in practice; and as dangerous to weak heads and heated imaginations as it is congenial to benevolent hearts. Perhaps that improvement is neither so general nor so certain as you suppose. Perhaps, even in this country there may be more knowledge than there was in former times and less wisdom, more wealth and less happiness, more display and less virtue. This must be the subject of future conversation. I will only remind you now, that the French had persuaded themselves this was the most enlightened age of the world, and they the most enlightened people in it—the politest, the most amiable, and the most humane of nations—and that a new era of philosophy, philanthropy, and peace, was about to commence under their auspices, when they were upon the eve of a revolution which, for its complicated monstrosities, absurdities, and horrors, is more disgraceful to human nature than any other series of events in history. Chew the cud upon this, and farewell
COLLOQUY III.—THE DRUIDICAL STONES.—VISITATIONS OF PESTILENCE.
Inclination would lead me to hibernate during half the year in this uncomfortable climate of Great Britain, where few men who have tasted the enjoyments of a better would willingly take up their abode, if it were not for the habits, and still more for the ties and duties which root us to our native soil. I envy the Turks for their sedentary constitutions, which seem no more to require exercise than an oyster does or a toad in a stone. In this respect, I am by disposition as true a Turk as the Grand Seignior himself; and approach much nearer to one in the habit of inaction than any person of my acquaintance. Willing however, as I should be to believe, that anything which is habitually necessary for a sound body, would be unerringly indicated by an habitual disposition for it, and that if exercise were as needful as food for the preservation of the animal economy, the desire of motion would recur not less regularly than hunger and thirst, it is a theory which will not bear the test; and this I know by experience.
On a grey sober day, therefore, and in a tone of mind quite accordant with the season, I went out unwillingly to take the air, though if taking physic would have answered the same purpose, the dose would have been preferred as the shortest, and for that reason the least unpleasant remedy. Even on such occasions as this, it is desirable to propose to oneself some object for the satisfaction of accomplishing it, and to set out with the intention of reaching some fixed point, though it should be nothing better than a mile-stone, or a directing post. So I walked to the Circle of Stones on the Penrith road, because there is a long hill upon the way which would give the muscles some work to perform; and because the sight of this rude monument which has stood during so many centuries, and is likely, if left to itself, to outlast any edifice that man could have erected, gives me always a feeling, which, however often it may be repeated, loses nothing of its force.
The circle is of the rudest kind, consisting of single stones, unhewn and chosen without any regard to shape or magnitude, being of all sizes, from seven or eight feet in height, to three or four. The circle, however, is complete, and is thirty-three paces in diameter. Concerning this, like all similar monuments in Great Britain, the popular superstition prevails, that no two persons can number the stones alike, and that no person will ever find a second counting confirm the first. My children have often disappointed their natural inclination to believe this wonder, by putting it to the test and disproving it. The number of the stones which compose the circle, is thirty-eight, and besides these there are ten which form three sides of a little square within, on the eastern side, three stones of the circle itself forming the fourth; this being evidently the place where the Druids who presided had their station; or where the more sacred and important part of the rites and ceremonies (whatever they may have been) were performed. All this is as perfect at this day as when the Cambrian bards, according to the custom of their ancient order, described by my old acquaintances, the living members of the Chair of Glamorgan, met there for the last time,
"On the green turf and under the blue sky, Their heads in reverence bare, and bare of foot."
The site also precisely accords with the description which Edward Williams and William Owen give of the situation required for such meeting places:
"—a high hill top, Nor bowered with trees, nor broken by the plough: Remote from human dwellings and the stir Of human life, and open to the breath And to the eye of Heaven."
The high hill is now enclosed and cultivated; and a clump of larches has been planted within the circle, for the purpose of protecting an oak in the centre, the owner of the field having wished to rear one there with a commendable feeling, because that tree was held sacred by the Druids, and therefore, he supposed, might be appropriately placed there. The whole plantation, however, has been so miserably storm-stricken that the poor stunted trees are not even worth the trouble of cutting them down for fuel, and so they continue to disfigure the spot. In all other respects this impressive monument of former times is carefully preserved; the soil within the enclosure is not broken, a path from the road is left, and in latter times a stepping-stile has been placed to accommodate Lakers with an easier access than by striding over the gate beside it.
The spot itself is the most commanding which could be chosen in this part of the country, without climbing a mountain. Derwentwater and the Vale of Keswick are not seen from it, only the mountains which enclose them on the south and west. Lattrigg and the huge side of Skiddaw are on the north; to the east is the open country towards Penrith expanding from the Vale of St. John's, and extending for many miles, with Mellfell in the distance, where it rises alone like a huge tumulus on the right, and Blencathra on the left, rent into deep ravines. On the south-east is the range of Helvellyn, from its termination at Wanthwaite Crags to its loftiest summits, and to Dunmailraise. The lower range of Nathdalefells lies nearer, in a parallel line with Helvellyn; and the dale itself, with its little streamlet, immediately below. The heights above Leatheswater, with the Borrowdale mountains, complete the panorama.
While I was musing upon the days of the Bards and Druids, and thinking that Llywarc Hen himself had probably stood within this very circle at a time when its history was known, and the rites for which it was erected still in use, I saw a person approaching, and started a little at perceiving that it was my new acquaintance from the world of spirits. "I am come," said he, "to join company with you in your walk: you may as well converse with a ghost as stand dreaming of the dead. I dare say you have been wishing that these stones could speak and tell their tale, or that some record were sculptured upon them, though it were as unintelligible as the hieroglyphics, or as an Ogham inscription."
"My ghostly friend," I replied, "they tell me something to the purport of our last discourse. Here upon ground where the Druids have certainly held their assemblies, and where not improbably, human sacrifices have been offered up, you will find it difficult to maintain that the improvement of the world has not been unequivocal, and very great."
Sir Thomas More.—Make the most of your vantage ground! My position is, that this improvement is not general; that while some parts of the earth are progressive in civilisation, others have been retrograde; and that even where improvement appears the greatest, it is partial. For example; with all the meliorations which have taken place in England since these stones were set up (and you will not suppose that I who laid down my life for a religious principle, would undervalue the most important of all advantages), do you believe that they have extended to all classes? Look at the question well. Consider your fellow-countrymen, both in their physical and intellectual relations, and tell me whether a large portion of the community are in a happier or more hopeful condition at this time, than their forefathers were when Caesar set foot upon the island?
Montesinos.—If it be your aim to prove that the savage state is preferable to the social, I am perhaps the very last person upon whom any arguments to that end could produce the slightest effect. That notion never for a moment deluded me: not even in the ignorance and presumptuousness of youth, when first I perused Rousseau, and was unwilling to feel that a writer whose passionate eloquence I felt and admired so truly could be erroneous in any of his opinions. But now, in the evening of life, when I know upon what foundation my principles rest, and when the direction of one peculiar course of study has made it necessary for me to learn everything which books could teach concerning savage life, the proposition appears to me one of the most untenable that ever was advanced by a perverse or a paradoxical intellect.
Sir Thomas More.—I advanced no such paradox, and you have answered me too hastily. The Britons were not savages when the Romans invaded and improved them. They were already far advanced in the barbarous stage of society, having the use of metals, domestic cattle, wheeled carriages, and money, a settled government, and a regular priesthood, who were connected with their fellow-Druids on the Continent, and who were not ignorant of letters. Understand me! I admit that improvements of the utmost value have been made, in the most important concerns: but I deny that the melioration has been general; and insist, on the contrary, that a considerable portion of the people are in a state, which, as relates to their physical condition, is greatly worsened, and, as touching their intellectual nature, is assuredly not improved. Look, for example, at the great mass of your populace in town and country—a tremendous proportion of the whole community! Are their bodily wants better, or more easily supplied? Are they subject to fewer calamities? Are they happier in childhood, youth, and manhood, and more comfortably or carefully provided for in old age, than when the land was unenclosed, and half covered with woods? With regard to their moral and intellectual capacity, you well know how little of the light of knowledge and of revelation has reached them. They are still in darkness, and in the shadow of death!
Montesinos.—I perceive your drift: and perceive also that when we understand each other there is likely to be little difference between us. And I beseech you, do not suppose that I am disputing for the sake of disputation; with that pernicious habit I was never infected, and I have seen too many mournful proofs of its perilous consequences. Towards any person it is injudicious and offensive; towards you it would be irreverent. Your position is undeniable. Were society to be stationary at its present point, the bulk of the people would, on the whole, have lost rather than gained by the alterations which have taken place during the last thousand years. Yet this must be remembered, that in common with all ranks they are exempted from those dreadful visitations of war, pestilence, and famine by which these kingdoms were so frequently afflicted of old.
The countenance of my companion changed upon this, to an expression of judicial severity which struck me with awe. "Exempted from these visitations!" he exclaimed; "mortal man! creature of a day, what art thou, that thou shouldst presume upon any such exemption! Is it from a trust in your own deserts, or a reliance upon the forbearance and long- suffering of the Almighty, that this vain confidence arises?"
I was silent.
"My friend," he resumed, in a milder tone, but with a melancholy manner, "your own individual health and happiness are scarcely more precarious than this fancied security. By the mercy of God, twice during the short space of your life, England has been spared from the horrors of invasion, which might with ease have been effected during the American war, when the enemy's fleet swept the Channel, and insulted your very ports, and which was more than once seriously intended during the late long contest. The invaders would indeed have found their graves in that soil which they came to subdue: but before they could have been overcome, the atrocious threat of Buonaparte's general might have been in great part realised, that though he could not answer for effecting the conquest of England, he would engage to destroy its prosperity for a century to come. You have been spared from that chastisement. You have escaped also from the imminent danger of peace with a military tyrant, which would inevitably have led to invasion, when he should have been ready to undertake and accomplish that great object of his ambition, and you must have been least prepared and least able to resist him. But if the seeds of civil war should at this time be quickening among you—if your soil is everywhere sown with the dragon's teeth, and the fatal crop be at this hour ready to spring up—the impending evil will be a hundredfold more terrible than those which have been averted; and you will have cause to perceive and acknowledge, that the wrath has been suspended only that it may fall the heavier!"
"May God avert this also!" I exclaimed.
"As for famine," he pursued, "that curse will always follow in the train of war: and even now the public tranquillity of England is fearfully dependent upon the seasons. And touching pestilence, you fancy yourselves secure, because the plague has not appeared among you for the last hundred and fifty years: a portion of time, which long as it may seem when compared with the brief term of mortal existence, is as nothing in the physical history of the globe. The importation of that scourge is as possible now as it was in former times: and were it once imported, do you suppose it would rage with less violence among the crowded population of your metropolis, than it did before the fire, or that it would not reach parts of the country which were never infected in any former visitation? On the contrary, its ravages would be more general and more tremendous, for it would inevitably be carried everywhere. Your provincial cities have doubled and trebled in size; and in London itself, great part of the population is as much crowded now as it was then, and the space which is covered with houses is increased at least fourfold. What if the sweating-sickness, emphatically called the English disease, were to show itself again? Can any cause be assigned why it is not as likely to break out in the nineteenth century as in the fifteenth? What if your manufactures, according to the ominous opinion which your greatest physiologist has expressed, were to generate for you new physical plagues, as they have already produced a moral pestilence unknown to all preceding ages? What if the small-pox, which you vainly believed to be subdued, should have assumed a new and more formidable character; and (as there seems no trifling grounds for apprehending) instead of being protected by vaccination from its danger, you should ascertain that inoculation itself affords no certain security? Visitations of this kind are in the order of nature and of providence. Physically considered, the likelihood of their recurrence becomes every year more probable than the last; and looking to the moral government of the world, was there ever a time when the sins of this kingdom called more cryingly for chastisement?"
Sir Thomas More.—I denounce no judgments. But I am reminding you that there is as much cause for the prayer in your Litany against plague, pestilence, and famine, as for that which entreats God to deliver you all from sedition, privy conspiracy, and rebellion; from all false doctrine, heresy, and schism. In this, as in all things, it behoves the Christian to live in a humble and grateful sense of his continual dependence upon the Almighty: not to rest in a presumptuous confidence upon the improved state of human knowledge, or the altered course of natural visitations.
Montesinos.—Oh, how wholesome it is to receive instruction with a willing and a humble mind! In attending to your discourse I feel myself in the healthy state of a pupil, when without one hostile or contrarient prepossession, he listens to a teacher in whom he has entire confidence. And I feel also how much better it is that the authority of elder and wiser intellects should pass even for more than it is worth, than that it should be undervalued as in these days, and set at nought. When any person boasts that he is—
"Nullias addictus jurare in verba magistri,"
the reason of that boast may easily be perceived; it is because he thinks, like Jupiter, that it would be disparaging his own all-wiseness to swear by anything but himself. But wisdom will as little enter into a proud or a conceited mind as into a malicious one. In this sense also it may be said, that he who humbleth himself shall be exalted.
Sir Thomas More.—It is not implicit assent that I require, but reasonable conviction after calm and sufficient consideration. David was permitted to choose between the three severest dispensations of God's displeasure, and he made choice of pestilence as the least dreadful. Ought a reflecting and religious man to be surprised, if some such punishment were dispensed to this country, not less in mercy than in judgment, as the means of averting a more terrible and abiding scourge? An endemic malady, as destructive as the plague, has naturalised itself among your American brethren, and in Spain. You have hitherto escaped it, speaking with reference to secondary causes, merely because it has not yet been imported. But any season may bring it to your own shores; or at any hour it may appear among you homebred.
Montesinos.—We should have little reason, then, to boast of our improvements in the science of medicine; for our practitioners at Gibraltar found themselves as unable to stop its progress, or mitigate its symptoms, as the most ignorant empirics in the peninsula.
Sir Thomas More.—You were at one time near enough that pestilence to feel as if you were within its reach?
Montesinos.—It was in 1800, the year when it first appeared in Andalusia. That summer I fell in at Cintra with a young German, on the way from his own country to his brothers at Cadiz, where they were established as merchants. Many days had not elapsed after his arrival in that city when a ship which was consigned to their firm brought with it the infection; and the first news which reached us of our poor acquaintance was that the yellow fever had broken out in his brother's house, and that he, they, and the greater part of the household, were dead. There was every reason to fear that the pestilence would extend into Portugal, both governments being, as usual, slow in providing any measures of precaution, and those measures being nugatory when taken. I was at Faro in the ensuing spring, at the house of Mr. Lempriere, the British Consul. Inquiring of him upon the subject, the old man lifted up his hands, and replied in a passionate manner, which I shall never forget, "Oh, sir, we escaped by the mercy of God; only by the mercy of God!" The governor of Algarve, even when the danger was known and acknowledged, would not venture to prohibit the communication with Spain till he received orders from Lisbon; and then the prohibition was so enforced as to be useless. The crew of a boat from the infected province were seized and marched through the country to Tavira: they were then sent to perform quarantine upon a little insulated ground, and the guards who were set over them, lived with them, and were regularly relieved. When such were the precautionary measures, well indeed might it be said, that Portugal escaped only by the mercy of God! I have often reflected upon the little effect which this imminent danger appeared to produce upon those persons with whom I associated. The young, with that hilarity which belongs to thoughtless youth, used to converse about the places whither they should retire, and the course of life and expedients to which they should be driven in case it were necessary for them to fly from Lisbon. A few elder and more considerate persons said little upon the subject, but that little denoted a deep sense of the danger, and more anxiety than they thought proper to express. The great majority seemed to be altogether unconcerned; neither their business nor their amusements were interrupted; they feasted, they danced, they met at the card-table as usual; and the plague (for so it was called at that time, before its nature was clearly understood) was as regular a topic of conversation as the news brought by the last packet.
Sir Thomas More.—And what was your own state of mind?
Montesinos.—Very much what it has long been with regard to the moral pestilence of this unhappy age, and the condition of this country more especially. I saw the danger in its whole extent and relied on the mercy of God.
Sir Thomas More.—In all cases that is the surest reliance: but when human means are available, it becomes a Mahommedan rather than a Christian to rely upon Providence or fate alone, and make no effort for its own preservation. Individuals never fall into this error among you, drink as deeply as they may of fatalism; that narcotic will sometimes paralyse the moral sense, but it leaves the faculty of worldly prudence unimpaired. Far otherwise is it with your government: for such are the notions of liberty in England, that evils of every kind—physical, moral, and political, are allowed their free range. As relates to infectious diseases, for example, this kingdom is now in a less civilised state than it was in my days, three centuries ago, when the leper was separated from general society; and when, although the science of medicine was at once barbarous and fantastical, the existence of pesthouses showed at least some approaches towards a medical police.
Montesinos.—They order these things better in Utopia.
Sir Thomas More.—In this, as well as in some other points upon which we shall touch hereafter, the difference between you and the Utopians is as great as between the existing generation and the race by whom yonder circle was set up. With regard to diseases and remedies in general, the real state of the case may be consolatory, but it is not comfortable. Great and certain progress has been made in chirurgery; and if the improvements in the other branch of medical science have not been so certain and so great, it is because the physician works in the dark, and has to deal with what is hidden and mysterious. But the evils for which these sciences are the palliatives have increased in a proportion that heavily overweighs the benefit of improved therapeutics. For as the intercourse between nations has become greater, the evils of one have been communicated to another. Pigs, Spanish dollars, and Norway rats, are not the only commodities and incommodities which have performed the circumnavigation, and are to be found wherever European ships have touched. Diseases also find their way from one part of the inhabited globe to another, wherever it is possible for them to exist. The most formidable endemic or contagious maladies in your nosology are not indigenous; and as far as regards health therefore, the ancient Britons, with no other remedies than their fields and woods afforded them, and no other medical practitioners than their deceitful priests, were in a better condition than their descendants, with all the instruction which is derived from Sydenham and Heberden, and Hunter, and with all the powers which chemistry has put into their hands.
Montesinos.—You have well said that there is nothing comfortable in this view of the case: but what is there consolatory in it?
Sir Thomas More.—The consolation is upon your principle of expectant hope. Whenever improved morals, wiser habits, more practical religion, and more efficient institutions shall have diminished the moral and material causes of disease, a thoroughly scientific practice, the result of long experience and accumulated observations, will then exist, to remedy all that is within the power of human art, and to alleviate what is irremediable. To existing individuals this consolation is something like the satisfaction you might feel in learning that a fine estate was entailed upon your family at the expiration of a lease of ninety-nine years from the present time. But I had forgotten to whom I am talking. A poet always looks onward to some such distant inheritance. His hopes are usually in nubibus, and his expectations in the paulo post futurum tense.
Montesinos.—His state is the more gracious then because his enjoyment is always to come. It is however a real satisfaction to me that there is some sunshine in your prospect.
Sir Thomas More.—More in mine than in yours, because I command a wider horizon: but I see also the storms which are blackening, and may close over the sky. Our discourse began concerning that portion of the community who form the base of the pyramid; we have unawares taken a more general view, but it has not led us out of the way. Returning to the most numerous class of society, it is apparent that in the particular point of which we have been conversing, their condition is greatly worsened: they remain liable to the same indigenous diseases as their forefathers, and are exposed moreover to all which have been imported. Nor will the estimate of their condition be improved upon farther inquiry. They are worse fed than when they were hunters, fishers, and herdsmen; their clothing and habitations are little better, and, in comparison with those of the higher classes, immeasurably worse. Except in the immediate vicinity of the collieries, they suffer more from cold than when the woods and turbaries were open. They are less religious than in the days of the Romish faith; and if we consider them in relation to their immediate superiors, we shall find reason to confess that the independence which has been gained since the total decay of the feudal system, has been dearly purchased by the loss of kindly feelings and ennobling attachments. They are less contented, and in no respect more happy—that look implies hesitation of judgment, and an unwillingness to be convinced. Consider the point; go to your books and your thoughts; and when next we meet, you will feel little inclination to dispute the irrefragable statement.
COLLOQUY IV.—FEUDAL SLAVERY.—GROWTH OF PAUPERISM.
The last conversation had left a weight upon me, which was not lessened when I contemplated the question in solitude. I called to mind the melancholy view which Young has taken of the world in his unhappy poem:
"A part how small of the terraqueous globe Is tenanted by man! the rest a waste, Rocks, deserts, frozen seas and burning sands, Wild haunts of monsters, poisons, stings, and death. Such is earth's melancholy map! But, far More sad, this earth is a true map of man."
Sad as this representation is, I could not but acknowledge that the moral and intellectual view is not more consolatory than the poet felt it to be; and it was a less sorrowful consideration to think how large a portion of the habitable earth is possessed by savages, or by nations whom inhuman despotisms and monstrous superstitions have degraded in some respects below the savage state, than to observe how small a part of what is called the civilised world is truly civilised; and in the most civilised parts to how small a portion of the inhabitants the real blessings of civilisation are confined. In this mood how heartily should I have accorded with Owen of Lanark if I could have agreed with that happiest and most beneficent and most practical of all enthusiasts as well concerning the remedy as the disease!
"Well, Montesinos," said the spirit, when he visited me next, "have you recollected or found any solid arguments for maintaining that the labouring classes, who form the great bulk of the population, are in a happier condition, physical, moral, or intellectual, in these times, than they were in mine?"
Montesinos.—Perhaps, Sir Thomas, their condition was better precisely during your age than it ever has been either before or since. The feudal system had well-nigh lost all its inhuman parts, and the worse inhumanity of the commercial system had not yet shown itself.
Sir Thomas More.—It was, indeed, a most important age in English history, and, till the Reformation so fearfully disturbed it, in many respects a happy and an enviable one. But the process was then beginning which is not yet completed. As the feudal system relaxed and tended to dissolution the condition of the multitude was changed. Let us trace it from earlier times! In what state do you suppose the people of this island to have been when they were invaded by the Romans?
Montesinos.—Something worse than the Greeks of the Homeric age: something better than the Sandwich or Tonga islanders when they were visited by Captain Cook. Inferior to the former in arts, in polity, and, above all, in their domestic institutions; superior to the latter as having the use of cattle and being under a superstition in which, amid many abominations, some patriarchal truths were preserved. Less fortunate in physical circumstances than either, because of the climate.
Sir Thomas More.—A viler state of morals than their polyandrian system must have produced can scarcely be imagined; and the ferocity of their manners, little as is otherwise known of them, is sufficiently shown by their scythed war-chariots, and the fact that in the open country the path from one town to another was by a covered way. But in what condition were the labouring classes?
Montesinos.—In slavery, I suppose. When the Romans first attacked the island it was believed at Rome that slaves were the only booty which Britain could afford; and slaves, no doubt, must have been the staple commodity for which its ports were visited. Different tribes had at different times established themselves here by conquest, and wherever settlements are thus made slavery is the natural consequence. It was a part of the Roman economy; and when the Saxons carved out their kingdoms with the sword, the slaves, and their masters too, if any survived, became the property of the new lords of the land, like the cattle who pastured upon it. It is not likely even that the Saxons should have brought artificers of any kind with them, smiths perhaps alone excepted. Trades of every description must have been practised by the slaves whom they found. The same sort of transfer ensued upon the Norman conquest. After that event there could have been no fresh supply of domestic slaves, unless they were imported from Ireland, as well as carried thither for sale. That trade did not continue long. Emancipation was promoted by the clergy, and slavery was exchanged for vassalage, which in like manner gradually disappeared as the condition of the people improved.
Sir Thomas More.—You are hurrying too fast to that conclusion. Hitherto more has been lost than gained in morals by the transition; and you will not maintain that anything which is morally injurious can be politically advantageous. Vassalage I know is a word which bears no favourable acceptation in this liberal age; and slavery is in worse repute. But we must remember that slavery implies a very different state in different ages of the world, and in different stages of society.
Montesinos.—In many parts of the East, and of the Mohammedan world, as in the patriarchal times, it is scarcely an evil. Among savages it is as little so. In a luxurious state more vices are called into action, the condition of the slave depends more upon the temper of the owner, and the evil then predominates. But slavery is nowhere so bad as in commercial colonies, where the desire of gain hardens the heart—the basest appetites have free scope there; and the worst passions are under little restraint from law, less from religion, and none from public opinion.
Sir Thomas More.—You have omitted in this enumeration that kind of slavery which existed in England.
Montesinos.—The slavery of the feudal ages may perhaps be classed midway between the best description of that state and the worst. I suppose it to have been less humane than it generally is in Turkey, less severe than it generally was in Rome and Greece. In too many respects the slaves were at the mercy of their lords. They might be put in irons and punished with stripes; they were sometimes branded; and there is proof that it has been the custom to yoke them in teams like cattle.
Sir Thomas More.—Are you, then, Montesinos, so much the dupe of words as to account among their grievances a mere practice of convenience?
Montesinos.—The reproof was merited. But I was about to say that there is no reason to think their treatment was generally rigorous. We do not hear of any such office among them as that of the Roman Lorarii, whose office appears by the dramatists to have been no sinecure. And it is certain that they possessed in the laws, in the religion, and probably in the manners of the country, a greater degree of protection than existed to alleviate the lot of the Grecian and Roman slaves.
Sir Thomas More.—The practical difference between the condition of the feudal slave, and of the labouring husbandman who succeeded to the business of his station, was mainly this, that the former had neither the feeling nor the insecurity of independence. He served one master as long as he lived; and being at all times sure of the same sufficient subsistence, if he belonged to the estate like the cattle, and was accounted with them as part of the live stock, he resembled them also in the exemption which he enjoyed from all cares concerning his own maintenance and that of his family. The feudal slaves, indeed, were subject to none of those vicissitudes which brought so many of the proudest and most powerful barons to a disastrous end. They had nothing to lose, and they had liberty to hope for; frequently as the reward of their own faithful services, and not seldom from the piety or kindness of their lords. This was a steady hope depending so little upon contingency that it excited no disquietude or restlessness. They were therefore in general satisfied with the lot to which they were born, as the Greenlander is with his climate, the Bedouin with his deserts, and the Hottentot and the Calmuck with their filthy and odious customs; and going on in their regular and unvaried course of duty generation after generation, they were content.
Montesinos.—"Fish, fish, are you in your duty?" said the young lady in the Arabian tales, who came out of the kitchen wall clad in flowered satin, and with a rod in her hand. The fish lifted up their heads and replied, "Yes, yes; if you reckon, we reckon; if you pay your debts we pay ours; if you fly we overcome, and are content." The fish who were thus content, and in their duty, had been gutted, and were in the frying- pan. I do not seek, however, to escape from the force of your argument by catching at the words. On the other hand, I am sure it is not your intention to represent slavery otherwise than as an evil, under any modification.
Sir Thomas More.—That which is a great evil in itself become relatively a good when it prevents or removes a greater evil; for instance, loss of a limb when life is preserved by the sacrifice, or the acute pain of a remedy by which a chronic disease is cured. Such was slavery in its origin: a commutation for death, gladly accepted as mercy under the arm of a conqueror in battle, or as the mitigation of a judicial sentence. But it led immediately to nefarious abuses; and the earliest records which tell us of its existence show us also that men were kidnapped for sale. With the principles of Christianity, the principles of religious philosophy—the only true policy, to which mankind must come at last, by which alone all the remediable ills of humanity are to be remedied, and for which you are taught to pray when you entreat that your Father's kingdom may come—with those principles slavery is inconsistent, and therefore not to be tolerated, even in speculation.
Montesinos.—Yet its fitness, as a commutation for other punishments, is admitted by Michaelis (though he decides against it) to be one of the most difficult questions connected with the existing state of society. And in the age of the Revolution, one of the sturdiest Scotch republicans proposed the reestablishment of slavery, as the best or only means for correcting the vices and removing the miseries of the poor.
Sir Thomas More.—The proposal of such a remedy must be admitted as full proof of the malignity of the disease. And in further excuse of Andrew Fletcher, it should be remembered that he belonged to a country where many of the feudal virtues (as well as most of the feudal vices) were at that time in full vigour. But let us return to our historical view of the subject. In feudal servitude there was no motive for cruelty, scarcely any for oppression. There were no needy slave-owners, as there are in commercial colonies; and though slaves might sometimes suffer from a wicked, or even a passionate master, there is no reason to believe that they were habitually over-tasked, or subjected to systematic ill-treatment; for that, indeed, can only arise from avarice, and avarice is not the vice of feudal times. Still, however, slavery is intolerable upon Christian principles; and to the influence of those principles it yielded here in England. It had ceased, so as even to be forgotten in my youth; and villenage was advancing fast towards its natural extinction. The courts decided that a tenant having a lease could not be a villein during its term, for if his labour were at the command of another how could he undertake to pay rent? Landholders had thus to choose between rent and villenage, and scarcely wanted the Field of the Cloth of Gold at Ardres to show them which they stood most in need of. And as villenage disappeared, free labourers of various descriptions multiplied; of whom the more industrious and fortunate rose in society, and became tradesmen and merchants; the unlucky and the reprobate became vagabonds.
Montesinos.—The latter class appears to have been far more numerous in your age than in mine.
Sir Thomas More.—Waiving for the present the question whether they really were so, they appear to have been so partly in consequence of the desperate wars between the houses of York and Lancaster, partly because of the great change in society which succeeded to that contest. During those wars both parties exerted themselves to bring into the field all the force they could muster. Villeins in great numbers were then emancipated, when they were embodied in arms; and great numbers emancipated themselves, flying to London and other cities for protection from the immediate evils of war, or taking advantage of the frequent changes of property, and the precarious tenure by which it was held, to exchange their own servile condition for a station of freedom with all its hopes and chances. This took place to a great extent, and the probabilities of success were greatly in their favour; for whatever may have been practised in earlier and ruder times, in that age they certainly were not branded like cattle, according to the usage of your sugar islands.