Athenian View

Michael Brock

  • Public Moralists: Political Thought and Intellectual Life in Britain, 1850-1930 by Stefan Collini
    Oxford, 383 pp, £40.00, September 1991, ISBN 0 19 820173 7

In seven of the nine chapters in this fine book Dr Collini depicts the denizens of the Athenaeum in its great days. T.H. Huxley, having left his umbrella at Matthew Arnold’s, asks his friend to ‘bring it next time you come to the club’. Leslie Stephen, elected in 1877 on the strength of his History of English Thought in the 18th Century, enjoys the irony that this defence of free thought has given him ‘admission to a respectable haunt of bishops and judges’. By 1850, the Disruption in the Kirk has done its work: the Athenians have moved south from Edinburgh. The dominance of the dons and of the British Academy is still below the horizon. The world of the ‘public moralist’ revolves around Waterloo Place.

After setting his scene, and explaining the economics of public moralising, Dr Collini deploys his two principal theses. ‘I want to suggest,’ he writes,

that the texture of moral response among the most prominent Victorian intellectuals was marked at least as much by an obsession with the role of altruism and a concern for the cultivation of feelings as it was by any commitment to the premises of self-interest and rational calculation ... This is a widely ramifying theme, discussion of which must inevitably be open-ended and somewhat untidy ... I am suggesting that the ideal of character ... enjoyed a prominence in the political thought of the Victorian period that it had apparently not known before and that it has, arguably, not experienced since. Here I shall explore the ramifications of that centrality and enquire into the psychological and cultural assumptions which conferred such authority on the moral ambitions it represented.

This branch-to-branch search is centred on John Stuart Mill, Henry Fawcett and Leslie Stephen. He then traces the change in style and tone which came as the academic profession and the public service spread their tentacles. He discusses three legal theorists who epitomised this transition – Henry Maine, Fitzjames Stephen, and A.V. Dicey; and he ends by analysing the cult of The Mill Who Never Was in the academic pantheon, and the adoption by consensus of the Whig interpretation of English literature.

Dr Collini’s two theses seem irrefutable. The members of the emerging professional meritocracy needed to distance themselves both from the place-hunters of an earlier era and from the Gradgrinds of the new industries. On one side of them were Lord Melbourne’s successors, with their liking for a Garter which had ‘no damned merit’ about it: on the other Mr Scrooge. They had no inhibitions about proclaiming their altruism and the way in which they had acquired their sterling characters by steady training and the cumulative effect of good habits. Their readers were habituated to sermons. Altruism and character were their strong suit.

‘The representative Victorian intellectual,’ Collini explains, had a ‘need for purposes – the kind of purposes which, when supported by the appropriate feelings, are sufficient to motivate to action’. There was ‘a constant anxiety about apathy and infirmity of the will’. Assuming as they did that ‘altruistic aims’ would motivate, ‘Victorian intellectuals found social work an antidote to doubt.’ This is an important insight: but in the area of loss of faith Dr Collini’s touch is not sure. Robert Elsmere rightly receives his attention. Mrs Humphry Ward was Matthew Arnold’s niece, her place in the circle being given posthumous confirmation by her husband’s History of the Athenaeum. Robert Elsmere’s enormous sale showed what a resonance her religious and moral views had among the later Victorians. The understanding shown here of her main message is imperfect. Robert Elsmere, we read, ‘loses his faith in Christianity’. This is true only if the Christian faith is defined as Dr Pusey defined it; and it seems odd to adopt his definition rather than Mrs Ward’s for the purposes of this study. Here are a few of the remarks which Mrs Ward gives Elsmere: ‘I trust God ... with the soul that is His breath, His work in us.’ ‘Granted that the true story of Jesus of Nazareth was from the beginning obscured by error and mistake ... What then? The fact is merely a call ... to go back to the roots of things, to reconceive the Christ, to bring him afresh into our lives.’ ‘The world has grown since Jesus preached in Galilee and Judaea. We cannot learn the whole of God’s lesson from him now – nay, we could not then! But all that is most essential to man ... that he has still for you and me, as he had it for the men and women of his own time.’

The substantial quotation from Robert Elsmere in Dr Collini’s book ends at the words: ‘It is man’s will which is eternally defective, eternally inadequate.’ Two more sentences should have been quoted, for in that passage Elsmere concludes: ‘Without religion you cannot make the will equal to its tasks. Our present religion fails us: we must, we will have another.’ The Modernists thought that they were refining the Christian faith, not abandoning it. In 1880 T.H. Green’s teaching was both the greatest religious influence in Oxford and an object of intense suspicion to all of the University’s High Anglicans. ‘You must believe in God,’ Jowett told the young Margot Tennant, ‘in spite of what the clergy tell you.’ The effects of Biblical criticism and scientific advances on the household of faith take a deal of disentangling. Some leading Late Victorians sought in social work the motivating force which they had once found in religious faith. Others followed Shaftesbury unshaken: to them, such work was enjoined by their faith. Yet others adopted, as T.H. Green did, a faith which was, in their eyes, both modern and a practical motivator of the first order.

All of the ‘public moralists’ operated within a cultural milieu in which religious ideas and images were salient. They relied on this milieu, but reacted against it. They were not part of any establishment, ecclesiastical or civil. Mill thought of himself as standing for spontaneity and rationality against relics of superstition and barbarism. Writings such as his compounded reason and extremism in a way possible only for those who wore the very lightest official harness or none at all. His intense dislike of some aspects of the competitive market led him to the startling conclusion that, until these were removed, ‘military life’ would remain ‘the chief school of moral cooperation’. His attempts on the Jamaica Committee to have Eyre tried for murder were anything but moderate. When the Liberal Government honoured their predecessors’ pledge and decided to pay Eyre’s legal expenses, he wrote: ‘I shall henceforth wish for a tory government.’ Arnold was as detached about the barbarians as about Philistines and populace. The group to which these two belonged and spoke nourished Parliamentary ambitions; but they did not exercise executive influence or undergo strong institutional constraints. The Athenaeum harboured some ‘outsiders’ among its members in its greatest days.

The change came most quickly in the law, as Dr Collini’s chapter shows. Maine, Fitzjames Stephen, and Dicey ended in high positions bewailing democratic politics. If the Irish question had been taken beyond 1886 still more striking examples of academic caution than those cited would have come to hand. Strongly as Strachan-Davidson objected to Home Rule, he declined to sign Milner’s petition when the crisis came in March 1914. As Master of Balliol, he explained, he had always preached to his colleagues ‘that they should refrain from taking part in contentious proceedings.’

These were not the only successors to the great outsiders. With the onset of bureaucracy and popular politics there was a division of the inheritance. One of the heirs was a youngster of 31 elected to the Athenaeum in the Diamond Jubilee year under Rule 2 for ‘distinguished eminence in Literature’. Though Rudyard Kipling does not feature in Dr Collini’s pages he was undoubtedly a public moralist; like Mill and Arnold, he relied on religious resonances while standing obliquely to Christian faith; and he was an archetypal outsider, being, as James Barrie dubbed him, ‘the man from nowhere’.