The Mind of Gladstone: Religion, Homer and Politics 
by David Bebbington.
Oxford, 331 pp., £55, March 2004, 0 19 926765 0
Show More
Show More

What is Gladstone trying to tell us? Through the matted undergrowth of his prose, with its vatic pronouncements, its interminable subordinate clauses, its ponderous hesitations and protestations, its sudden whimsical excursions and conjectures, something – not a message exactly but not a philosophy either, perhaps the only word would be a mind – is struggling to declare itself. A mind, moreover, that insists on its continuing vivacity, and claims our attention not merely as a brilliant relic of its own time but as an unstilled voice in the conversation of ours. We may explore and even admire the minds of Gladstone’s mentors and contemporaries: Peel’s earnest reforming zeal, Palmerston’s gung-ho gunboat liberalism, Disraeli’s sugar castles of empire – though each is splendid in its way, they do not speak to us directly. But Gladstone haunts us still; he is the greatest of the undead.

Over the past ten years and more, I have become aware – a little reluctantly because he never used to be one of my heroes – that we are faced in Britain with an agenda that Gladstone would have recognised as his own: the devolution of power to the four nations of the United Kingdom, the revival of the little platoons and the protecting of local government from the pretensions of Whitehall, the shrinking of the overblown state (‘retrenchment and reform’, to use his never-improved-on phrase), and then the most ticklish question of all, how to undo the disadvantages of the poor without denting their self-confidence and damaging their independence. In the wider world, our present agenda has an even more Gladstonian ring: the defence of human rights, the protection of small, faraway oppressed nations, the defeat of piracy and terrorism, the restoration of the European balance. Is there a single theme that Blair has articulated which Gladstone did not articulate before him, and with greater resonance? More than once in the past couple of years, politicians have been unable to resist quoting Gladstone’s reminder that ‘the sanctity of life in the hill villages of Afghanistan, among the winter snows, is as inviolable in the eyes of Almighty God as can be your own.’

The Gladstonian agenda does not apply solely to government, or even to a single party. Over the past two decades, each of the three main parties has experienced a Gladstonian moment: first, Labour came to understand that individual self-development was not compatible with state socialism and that only free trade could maximise prosperity. Then the Conservatives came to the conclusion that there was such a thing as society after all; or rather they remembered that they had always thought so and wondered why they’d ever found themselves spouting such crude Manchester liberalism. Finally, over the past few months, the Liberal Democrats have rediscovered retrenchment and reform and begun to shuffle away from the vapid tax-and-spend policies they had drifted into. Their new spokesmen – Vincent Cable, David Laws and Mark Oaten – are the first prominent Liberals since Jo Grimond who could seriously claim to be heirs of the Grand Old Man.

Political commentators point out that parties make such shifts because otherwise they have little hope of getting elected. Gladstone himself, whose eye for the main chance remained undimmed, would not have thought that an unhealthy motive. But there were deeper motives at work, too. In all three parties there was a dawning awareness that the dogmas they had come to adopt did not fit the case: they failed either to relate to the circumstances of modern British society or to echo the underlying philosophy that was supposed to drive the party. Gladstone would have recognised these intimations: he felt them at recurring moments both in his long political career and in his personal religious and philosophical life.

Why then are we not more eager to attend to Gladstone’s revisions and recantations as the forerunners of our own? Why is David Bebbington’s The Mind of Gladstone such a lonely enterprise? First, because of the sheer difficulty of reading Gladstone. His contemporaries often found his writings ‘diffuse and laboured’, a criticism that with his habitual self-chastisement he took to heart by underlining it. ‘Sometimes,’ the Athenaeum remarked in 1879, ‘we have a sentence so long and involved that nothing but a passionate intensity of meaning and a profuse vocabulary could have avoided a disastrous collapse.’ T.H. Huxley, perhaps the most ferocious and unwavering of all Gladstone’s opponents, accused him, with some justice, of rhetorical artifice. Many other critics, such as Mrs Humphry Ward, denounced him for lacking any sense of evidence and for being ready to make sweeping deductions from narrow premises.

Gladstone was well aware of his defects as a writer. As early as his thirties, he confessed to his brother-in-law that he wrote ‘not by a genuine elasticity of spirit but by a plodding movement’. He knew his shortcomings as a scholar, too, and resolved in his diary that he would in future be ‘avoiding scholarship on account of inability’. He noted of a damning review by E.A. Freeman of his Studies on Homer and the Homeric Age that it ‘ought to humble me’.

But it didn’t. On the contrary, he went on and on, and then some. His early Church Principles Considered in Their Results, which he described as ‘a work of very sanguine Anglicanism’, was 528 pages long. Much taken by Farini’s Stato Romano, largely for its denunciation of the Jesuits, he translated it into four volumes of about four hundred pages each – and then reviewed it himself, anonymously, in the Edinburgh Review. Studies on Homer, by no means his only writings on Homer, ran to three volumes of 576, 533 and 616 pages respectively. Then there were his sermons, mostly delivered to his family and servants, which fill a further three volumes. As prime minister, he became worried that he might be thought to devote too much time to these pursuits and hastened to write a letter to the Spectator denying the allegation that he began every day with ‘his old friend Homer’.

The verdicts that these massive works provoked were often scorching. Sir George Cornewall Lewis, Gladstone’s successor as chancellor of the exchequer and a formidable classical scholar, said that he was ‘fundamentally wrong’ about Homer. Tennyson thought his opinions on Homeric religion ‘hobbyhorsical’. Huxley denounced Gladstone’s ventures into palaeontology as ‘the intrusion of an utter ignoramus into scientific questions’. True, Huxley was also increasingly enraged by Gladstone’s appeal to the masses and by his failure to provide more state funding for science (plus ça change), but on this occasion he was on strong ground, since Gladstone’s attempt to defend the historical veracity of the account of creation in Genesis had carelessly argued that birds came before land creatures.

This amateurishness, combined with the intolerable length of Gladstone’s writings, has provided posterity with an excuse for not reading them and justified his biographers in dismissing them in a page or two as ‘somewhat crackbrained’, to quote Richard Shannon. Shannon’s two-volume life offers a fuller account of Gladstone’s intellectual development than other modern biographies, yet even he allots as much space to Macaulay’s mesmerisingly destructive review of The State in Its Relations with the Church as he does to the contents of the book itself.

There is, besides, the natural tendency of political biographers to concentrate on the political struggle. Roy Jenkins’s life gives us an entrancing account of the life of Victorian politicians: when they went to bed and got up, what they drank, what trains they took (Jenkins was a Bradshaw buff). But about what went on in Gladstone’s head Jenkins leaves us not much the wiser. Here was a marvellous character, a great man, no doubt of that. But what precisely was he on about? Gladstone’s contemporaries were just as puzzled. The knockdown vigour with which he put forward his opinions was equalled only by the alacrity with which he abandoned them. Gladstone said of his great mentor that ‘there is a manifest and peculiar adaptation in Peel’s mind to the age in which he lives and to its exigencies and to the position he holds as a public man.’ But Peel’s ‘adaptations’ were nothing compared with Gladstone’s.

‘The rising hope of those stern unbending Tories’ (the opening phrase of Macaulay’s lacerating review) began political life by passionately opposing the Great Reform Bill in the Oxford Union. The man who in old age was to be both revered and mocked as the People’s William started out with the firm conviction that ‘the majority will be in the wrong.’ And the startling steps by which he found himself among the Liberals were interpreted by many of his associates not as a journey of honest discovery but as timeserving in the most literal sense.

Is there then anything more coherent, more deserving of our attention, than the zigzags of a charismatic, volcanic politician whose make-up was a queer mixture of genuine piety and ill-disguised humbug? Are Gladstone’s U-turns and doublings back prompted by anything more profound than a politician’s need to respond to the great challenges of the middle and later 19th century: Irish nationalism, the rise of the industrial working class, the decay of faith and the unstoppable march of Darwinism (‘the darling of our age’, Gladstone called the doctrine, while at the same time claiming that ‘there is nothing in his account of the production of man which ought in the slightest degree to shake the faith of the Christian’ – God had simply farmed out the business of creation to natural selection, a matter of devolution rather than evolution)? Was Gladstone engaged in anything more intellectually formidable than a lifelong rearguard action?

Bebbington, in his patient, clearsighted way, demonstrates both that Gladstone’s thought does possess a coherent purpose and that this purpose is what makes him so alive and relevant. The Mind of Gladstone has at least three virtues that its subject’s works seldom exhibit: it is unfailingly lucid, it is not a word too long and it never strays into overarguing its case.

Bebbington takes Gladstone’s mind seriously. He is not blind to the self-seeking aspects of his conduct or the embarrassing weaknesses of his outpourings, but his working assumption is that we shall never understand him properly unless we follow him all the way down. It is not enough simply to mark his classical and religious studies according to how far they measure up to the scholarship of his day or ours. Gladstone did like to be thought well of by contemporary scholars in the fields into which he so blithely trespassed, and he badgered them for sources that might help to prop up his dicier speculations. But his ultimate aim was not so much to provide scientific explanations as to re-create imaginative realms from which political, social and religious lessons might be drawn.

Unless we appreciate how passionately these enquiries absorbed Gladstone, his political actions will often appear mysterious, not to say dotty. Take the first great crisis of his political life, and his first U-turn, the Maynooth affair. It had been a routine matter ever since the Act of Union for Parliament to renew each year the modest government grant to the Catholic seminary of St Patrick’s, Maynooth, a few miles from Dublin. Why should Gladstone so violently object to the 1838 renewal? Why did he change his mind and vote for renewal in 1842? Why, above all, having caved in, did he then resign on the matter in 1845? Worldly men were baffled at the time, and worldly biographers today are still scratching their heads.

The violence of Gladstone’s opposition in 1838 arose largely from his being enmeshed in the final stages of The State in Its Relations with the Church, which stipulated in passionate terms that in the interests of national harmony the state had a duty to uphold the national church and so by extension to deny support to any other church. In relation to Ireland, this meant concentrating support on the Church of Ireland – an absurd proposition since the overwhelming majority were unbudgably Roman Catholic. Macaulay had no difficulty in making mincemeat of Gladstone, teasing him for his half-measures: ‘Why not roast Dissenters at slow fires?’

The would-be theocrat soon abandoned the implications of his position, regretfully dismissing them as impractical in an imperfect world. But by following him through the steps of the argument, Bebbington shows us what he was trying to get at. We start life, Gladstone argued as a young man (and this was the basic position he never abandoned), born into a state as well as into a family: ‘Each man came into the world and practical life of the world under a heavy debt, in extent such as he could not estimate and in kind such as he could not pay . . . Hence each successive man has found a government and his first duty has been to submit to it.’

‘It is historically untrue,’ Gladstone asserts, ‘that existing governments emanated from popular will.’ The idea of a social contract is a pernicious fiction. He might in the course of time become something that could be labelled a Liberal, but he never became a Lockean, still less a Rawlsian. All his life he remained a dedicated follower of Aristotle and a believer that the most important fact about man was that he was a social animal. Gladstone was an Aristotelian Christian. Civil association was God’s will. Genesis had declared that it was ‘not good that man should be alone’. The polis was the highest form of koinonia, of that common life which demanded a surrender of the individual will. And the spirit of community had to be nurtured by reverence.

Bebbington shows very clearly how this dwelling on the key quality of reverence led Gladstone astray into the extremist programme of The State in Its Relations with the Church. But the underlying question remains, even if now more often couched in secular terms, and it is still being tossed around, as Bebbington points out, by communitarians and others on both sides of the Atlantic, notably Amitai Etzioni, Charles Taylor and Alasdair MacIntyre. Utilitarianism is not enough. If solidarity is to be a real presence in our lives rather than a hollow slogan, then there must be some shared focus of – I can’t think of a better word than reverence.

Speeches by David Blunkett and Gordon Brown last year signalled a sea change in Labour’s attitude on this question. It no longer appears to be Labour’s aim to foster a multicultural society in which no particular set of beliefs and customs may aspire to dominate. On the contrary, in our public practices, such as the ceremonies for welcoming new British citizens, we are to celebrate an overarching monoculture, comprising all its traditional elements, including – glory be – an oath of allegiance to the queen. It is only within such a framework of reverence that minority religions and traditions can flourish. Stripped of its confessional bias, Gladstone’s argument is closely attuned to the latest revisions of New Labour.

Gladstone wasn’t insensitive to the difficulties of reconciling reverence with tolerance. Long before he became a Liberal, he was decidedly liberal in his attitudes to other sects and faiths. He annoyed the Tractarian ultras by sticking up for Dissenters, then annoyed them again by speaking in favour of Jewish emancipation, then stuck up for them when they in turn were being hounded. ‘The ultimate issue,’ he declared in 1848, only a few years after Maynooth, ‘is social justice, or proportionate dealing as between man and man.’

This expansion of tolerance accompanied – and was fuelled by – the decisive shifts in his religious allegiance, from the narrow evangelicalism of his youth to an Anglo-Catholicism as broad as it was high. This included above all a theological shift from his early concentration on the Atonement to a deep and lasting love of the doctrine of the Incarnation: that is, from a doctrine that emphasised the fallen state of man to one that celebrated the dignity that Christ had brought by assuming human flesh.

There was an exuberant fleshliness about the religion of the mature Gladstone, a quality so strange and rich that it unnerves us as much as it unnerved his contemporaries. The night-walks with prostitutes began when he was at Oxford. They were a recurring source of temptation, to which his diaries make it fairly clear that he succumbed in one way or another. But these long conversations into the small hours betokened also his recognition of the equal worth of every human being, a worth which wasn’t diminished if the girl failed to reform. You get the feeling, in fact, that reform was only a secondary goal: the communion was the thing.

The same carnality is a crucial quality in Gladstone’s writings on Homer. In scholarly terms, his claims to have discovered the origins of the Christian narrative in the fables of Mount Olympus may have been ‘nonsense’, to quote Jowett. Anthropologists joined with orthodox clergymen in an unusual alliance against Gladstone’s thesis and his picturesque illustrations of it. It was absurd to suggest that the doctrine of the Trinity had any connection with Poseidon’s trident. And to claim that Homer’s Latona prefigured the Virgin was to advance one of those theories which, as Matthew Arnold caustically remarked, was attended by the inconvenience ‘that there really exist no data for determining them’. Gladstone climbed down a bit, in his usual furtive, roundabout style, and admitted that much early religious practice could be explained as simple nature worship. But he persisted in his efforts to inject the religion of Homer into the British bloodstream as a corrective to the other-worldly tendencies of Christianity. Homeric religion was ‘filled with human geniality and warmth’, greatly preferable to what he termed ‘the Christianity of isolation’. Its anthropomorphic quality was what ‘associated it so closely with the whole detail of life’. Rather than finding the character of Zeus an embarrassment, Gladstone described the father of the gods as ‘the masterpiece of the Homeric mythology’, a figure whose frailties made him as sympathetic as Falstaff.

For Gladstone, the Incarnation was not a formal charade (rather like those festivals of misrule at some schools when the masters take on the role of the boys); it was a full-blooded entering into the human state. And with this revaluation of human dignity comes a revaluation of liberty. In 1878, he admitted: ‘I did not learn when I was at Oxford that which I have learned since – namely, to set a due value on the imperishable and inestimable principles of human liberty.’ Far from insisting on unquestioning submission as he had in youth, he now thought it ‘the business of every oppressed people to rise upon every reasonable opportunity against the oppressor’. Moreover, the working people were the best judges of their destiny: the masses were more likely to be right than the classes, by which he meant those vested interests which came together only for selfish purposes.

He was no communist or socialist: ‘It is the individual mind and conscience, it is the individual character, on which human happiness or misery depends.’ Self-reliance was indispensable to a sturdy polis: ‘The best thing the government can do for the people is to help them to help themselves.’ So much, as Bebbington remarks, for the nanny state. This is Thatcherite rhetoric, but it is also the common political language of the 21st century. As an old man in 1892, Gladstone commented that although retrenchment was currently out of fashion it would be enforced again whenever the people demanded it – which was the case nearly a century later.

Gladstone’s political ideas were too manifold and multi-ocular to be confined within a single political creed. If part of his philosophy finds echoes in present-day communitarianism, another part finds echoes in Michael Oakeshott’s ideas of the self-fashioning human agent; and another part again in Isaiah Berlin’s argument that diverse and incommensurable goals are endemic to the human condition. It is ironic that neither of these two latter-day sages, infinitely amiable as they were in many other ways, could bear to hear a good word said of the other. Yet both their doctrines have much in common with the thinking of the mature Gladstone.

The reconciliation of solidarity and self-reliance remains the most difficult of political undertakings. As yet, the British political class, while perceiving its necessity, has fashioned only the preliminary rhetoric for it. By contrast, its actions in government throughout the 20th century tended towards a more or less benign managerialism, mediated partly through the welfare state and partly through the state corporations such as the BBC and the publicly owned industries. Opportunities for the masses to make their own lives have been sparse and cramped. And there hasn’t been much perceptible convergence between what Gladstone called the masses and the classes. Equality of opportunity is supposed to bridge the gap. But is equality of opportunity a sufficient social creed, even if it were being abundantly realised, which it isn’t? No politician today would dream of imitating Gladstone’s words to a gathering of artisans in Greenwich in 1875: ‘Be not eager to raise your children out of the working class but be desirous that they should remain in that class and elevate the work of it.’ But is that so very far from what William Morris had in mind? If, by contrast, we place all our hopes on social mobility, some of us are bound to be disappointed.

Gladstone annoyed almost everyone in one way or another. Liberals like Acton could not abide his insistence on the supreme importance of national allegiance. Conservatives were suspicious of his claims to trust the judgment of working men. Socialists did not care for his unabashed inegalitarianism. Capitalists were made uneasy by his assertion that material prosperity threatened the morale not of the poor, but of the prosperous classes. Progressives did not like his description of the late Victorian period as ‘the age of sham’, symbolised by the arrival on the market of a butter substitute called ‘oleo-margarine’ – to the unhealthy influence of which he skittishly attributed the irrational revolt among the educated elite against the obvious virtues of Home Rule.

What was intolerable above all was the old man’s oracular certainty, the insistence of that harsh voice with its flat Lancashire a. Labouchere did not object, as he indelibly put it, to Gladstone always having the ace of trumps up his sleeve but only to his pretence that God had put it there. And the worst of these divinely inspired revelations was that they never stopped.

Can we imagine five thousand working men turning out today in pouring rain to listen to Gladstone for two or three hours, as they did again and again in the Midlothian campaign? Curiously enough, I think we can. For it was the same restless refusal to be satisfied which showed the people that he had not forgotten them.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences