« EdellinenJatka »
use of it to perpetuate these abuses. Doubtless, they are always sufficiently inclined to do so ; but a privileged class, or a despot, is always a mere handful against the great body of the people ; and unless their power is supported by the force of general opinion, founded on experienced utility upon the whole, it could not maintain its ground a single week. And this explains a fact observed by an able and ingenious writer of the present day,* that if almost all the great convulsions recorded in history are attentively considered, it will be found that, after a brief period of strenuous, and often almost superhuman effort, on the part of the people, they have terminated in the establishment of a government and institutions differing scarcely, except in name, from that which had preceded the struggle. It is hardly necessary to remark how striking a confirmation the English revolution of 1688, and the French of 1830, afford of this truth.
And this explains what is the true meaning of, and solid foundation for, that reverence for antiquity which is so strongly implanted in human nature, and is never forgotten for any considerable time without inducing the most dreadful disasters upon society. It means that those institutions which have descended to us in actual practice from our ancestors come sanctioned by the experience of ages ; and that they could not have stood so long a test unless they had been recommended, in some degree at least, by their utility. It is not that our ancestors were wiser than we are ; they were certainly less informed, and probably were, on that account, in the general case, less judicious. But time has swept away their follies, which were doubtless great enough, as it has done the worthless ephemeral literature with which they, as we, were overwhelmed ; and nothing has stood the test of ages, and come down to us through a series of generations, of their ideas or institutions, but what had some utility in human feelings and necessities, and was on the whole expedient at the time when it arose.
Its utility may have ceased by the change of manners or of the circumstances of society—that may be a good reason for cautiously modifying or altering it—but rely upon it, it was once useful if it has existed long; and the presumption of present and continuing utility requires to be strongly outweighed by forcible considerations before it is abandoned. Lord Bacon has told us, in words which can never become trite, so profound is their wisdom, that our changes, to be beneficial, should resemble those of time, which, though the greatest of all innovators, works out its alterations so gradually that they are never perceived. Guizot makes, in the same spirit, the following fine observation on the slow march of Supreme wisdom in the government of the world :
* Mr James's Preface to Mary of Burgundy.
“If we turn our eyes to history, we shall find that all the great developments of the human mind have turned to the advantage of society-all the great struggles of humanity to the good of mankind. It is not, indeed, immediately that these effects take place; ages often elapse, a thousand obstacles intervene, before they are fully developed ; but when we survey a long course of ages we see that all has been accomplished. The march of Providence is not subjected to narrow limits; it cares not to develop to-day the consequences of a principle which it has established yesterday; it will bring them forth in ages, when the appointed hour has arrived ; and its course is not the less sure that it is slow. The throne of the Almighty rests on time-it marches through its boundless expanse as the gods of Homer through space-it makes a step, and ages have passed away. How many ages elapsed, how many changes ensued, before the regeneration of the inner man, by means of Christianity, exercised on the social state its great and salutary influence! Nevertheless, it has at length succeeded. No one can mistake its effects at this time.”—Lecture i. 24.
In surveying the progress of civilisation in modern as compared with ancient times, two features stand prominent as distinguishing the one from the other. These are the church and the feudal system. They were precisely the circumstances which gave the most umbrage to the philosophers of the eighteenth century, and which awakened the greatest transports of indignation among the ardent multitudes who, at its close, brought about the French Revolution. Very different is the light in which the eye of true philosophy, enlightened by the experience of their abolition, views these great distinctive features of modern society.
“ Immense,” says Guizot, " was the influence which the Christian church exercised over the civilisation of modern Europe. In the outset, it was an incalculable advantage to have a moral power, a power destitute of physical force, which reposed only on mental convictions and moral feelings, established amidst that deluge of physical force and selfish violence which overwhelmed society at that period. Had the Christian church not existed, the world would have been delivered over to the influence of physical strength, in its coarsest and most revolting form. It alone exercised a moral sway. It did more; it spread abroad the idea of a rule of obedience, a heavenly power, to which all human beings, how great soever, were subjected, and which was above all human laws. That of itself was a safeguard against the greatest evils of society; for it affected the minds of those by whom they were brought about; it professed the belief—the foundation of the salvation of humanity—that there is above all existing institutions, superior to all human laws, a permanent and divine law, sometimes called Reason, sometimes Divine Command, but which, under whatever name it goes, is for ever the same.
" Then the church commenced a great work—the separation of the spiritual and temporal power. That separation is the origin of liberty of conscience; it rests on no other principle than that which lies at the bottom of the widest and most extended toleration. The separation of the spiritual and temporal power rests on the principle, that physical force is neither entitled to act, nor can ever have any lasting influence, on thoughts, conviction, truth ; it flows from the eternal distinction between the world of thought and the world of action, the world of interior conviction and that of external facts. In truth, that principle of the liberty of conscience, for which Europe has combated and suffered so much, which has so slowly triumphed, and often against the utmost efforts of the clergy themselves, was first founded by the doctrine of the separation of the temporal and spiritual power, in the cradle of European civilisation. It is the Christian church which, by the necessities of its situation to defend itself against the assaults of barbarism, introduced and maintained it. The presence of a moral influence, the maintenance of a Divine law, the separation of the temporal and spiritual power, are the three great blessings which the Christian church has diffused in the dark ages over European society.
“ The influence of the Christian church was great and beneficent for another reason, The bishop and clergy ere long became the principal municipal magistrates: they were the chancellors and ministers of kings-the rulers, except in the camp and the field, of mankind. When the Roman empire crumbled into dust, when the central power of the emperors and the legions disappeared, there remained, we have seen, no other authority in the state but the municipal functionaries. But they themselves had fallen into a state of apathy and despair; the heavy burdens of despotism, the oppressive taxes of the municipalities, the incursions of the fierce barbarians, had reduced them to despair. No protection to society, no revival of industry, no shielding of innocence, could be expected from their exertions. The clergy, again, formed a society within itself-fresh, young, vigorous, sheltered by the prevailing faith, which speedily drew to itself all the learning and intellectual strength that remained in the state. The bishops and priests, full of life and of zeal, naturally were recurred to in order to fill all civil situations requiring thought or information. It is wrong to reproach their exercise of these powers as an usurpation; they alone were capable of exercising them. Thus has the natural course of things prescribed for all ages and countries. The clergy alone were mentally strong and morally zealous: they became all-powerful. It is the law of the universe.”—Lecture iii. 27, 31 ; Civilisation Européenne.
Nothing can be more just or important than these observations ; and they throw a new and consoling light on the progress and ultimate destiny of European society. They are as original as they are momentous. Robertson, with his honest horror of the innumerable corruptions which, in the time of Leo X. and Luther, brought about the Reformation-Sismondi, with his natural detestation of a faith which had urged on the dreadful cruelties of the crusade of the Albigenses, and which produced the revocation of the
Edict of Nantes—have alike overlooked these important truths, so essential to a right understanding of the history of modern society. They saw that the arrogance and cruelty of the Romish clergy had produced innumerable evils in later times ; that their venality in regard to indulgences and abuse of absolution had brought religion itself into discredit ; that the absurd and incredible tenets which they still attempted to force on mankind, had gone far to alienate the intellectual strength of modern Europe, during the last century, from their support. Seeing this, they condemned it absolutely, for all times and in all places. They fell into the usual error of men in reasoning on former from their own times. They could not make “ the past and the future predominate over the present.” They felt the absurdity of many of the legends which the devout Catholics received as undoubted truths, and they saw no use in perpetuating the belief in them; and thence they conceived that they must always have been equally unserviceable, forgetting that the eighteenth was not the eighth century; and that, during the dark ages, violence would have rioted without control, if, when reason was in abeyance, knowledge scanty, and military strength alone in estimation, superstition had not thrown its unseen fetters over the barbarian's arms. They saw that the Romish clergy, during five centuries, had laboured strenuously, and often with the most frightful cruelty, to crush independence of thought in matters of faith, and chain the human mind to the tenets, often absurd and erroneous, of her Papal creed ; and they forgot that, during five preceding centuries, the Christian church had laboured as assiduously to establish the independence of thought from physical coercion, and had alone kept alive, during the interregnum of reason, the sparks of knowledge and the principles of freedom.
In the same liberal and enlightened spirit, Guizot views the feudal system, the next grand characteristic of modern times.
“ A decisive proof that, in the tenth century, the feudal system had become necessary, and was, in truth, the only social state possible, is to be found in the universality of its adoption. Universally, upon the cessation of barbarism, the feudal forms were adopted. At the first moment of barbarian conquest, men saw only the triumph of chaos. All unity, all general civilisation disappeared; on all sides society was seen falling to pieces ;
and in its stead arising a multitude of little, obscure, isolated communities. This appeared to all the contemporaries nothing short of universal anarchy. The poets, the chroniclers of the time, viewed it as the approach of the end of the world. It was, in truth, the end of the ancient world; but the commencement of a new one, placed on a broad basis, and with large means of social improvement and individual happiness.
Then it was that the feudal system became necessary, inevitable. It was the only possible means of emerging from the general chaos. The whole of Europe, accordingly, at the same time adopted it. Even those portions of society which were most strangers, apparently, to that system, entered warmly into its spirit, and were fain to share in its protection. The crown, the church, the communities, were constrained to accommodate themselves to it. The churches became suzerain or vassal ; the burghs had their lords and their feuars ; the monasteries and abbeys had their feudal retainers, as well as the temporal barons. Royalty itself was disguised under the name of a feudal superior. Everything was given in fief; not only lands, but certain rights flowing from them, as that of cutting wood, fisheries, or the like. The church made subinfeudations of their casual revenues, as the dues on marriages, funerals, and baptisms."
The establishment of the feudal system thus universally in Europe, produced one effect, the importance of which can hardly be exaggerated. Hitherto the mass of mankind had been collected under the municipal institutions which had been universal in antiquity, in cities, or wandered in vagabond hordes through the country. Under the feudal system these men lived isolated, each in his own habitation, at a great distance from each other. A glance will show that this single circumstance must have exercised on the character of society, and the course of civilisation, a preponderating influence; the government of society passed at once from the towns to the country--private took the lead of public property—private prevailed over public life. Such was the first effect, and it was an effect purely material, of the establishment of the feudal system. But other effects, of still greater consequence, followed, of a moral kind, which have exercised the most important effects on the European manners and mind.
“The feudal proprietor established himself in an isolated place, which, for his own protection, he rendered secure. He lived there, with his wife, his children, and a few faithful friends, who shared his hospitality, and contributed to his defence. Around the castle, in its vicinity, were established the farmers and serfs who cultivated his domain. In the midst of that inferior, but yet allied and protected population, religion planted a church, and introduced a priest. He was usually the chaplain of the castle, and at the same time the curate of the village; in subsequent ages these two characters were separated : the village pastor resided beside his church. This was the primitive feudal society—the cradle, as it were, of the European and Christian world.