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“Let us add one more example, the most striking of all, if the impressiveness of an error is measured by the wisdom and virtue of him who falls into it. If ever any one possessed of power had grounds for thinking himself the best and most enlightened among his contemporaries, it was the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Absolute monarch of the whole civilized world, he preserved through life not only the most unblemished justice, but, what was less to be expected from his stoical breeding, the tenderest heart. The few failings which are attributed to him were all on the side of indulgence, while his writings, the highest ethical product of the ancient mind, differ scarcely perceptibly, if they differ at all, from the most characteristic teachings of Christ. This man, a better Christian in all but the dogmatic sense of the word than almost any of the ostensibly Christian sovereigns who have since reigned, persecuted Christianity. Placed at the summit of all the previous attainments of humanity, with an open, unfettered intellect, and a character which led him of himself to embody in his moral writings the Christian ideal, he yet failed to see that Christianity was to be a good and not an evil to the world, with his duties to which he was so deeply penetrated. Exising society he knew to be in a deplorable state. But such as it was, he saw, or thought he saw, that it was held together, and prevented from being worse, by belief in and reverence of the received divinities. · As a ruler of mankind, he deemed it his duty not to let society fall in pieces, and saw not how, if its existing ties were removed, any others could be formed which could again knit it together. The new religion openly aimed at dissolving these ties; unless, therefore, it was his duty to adopt that religion, it seemed to be his duty to put it down. Inasmuch, then, as the theology of Christianity did not appear to him true or of Divine origin, inasmuch as this strange history of a crucified God was not credible to him, and a system which purported to rest upon a foundation to him so wholly unbelievable could not be foreseen by him to be that renovating agency which, after all abatements, it has in fact proved to be, the gentlest and most amiable of philosophers and rulers, under a solemn sense of duty, authorized the persecution of Christianity. To my mind, this is one of the most tragical facts in all history. It is a bitter thought, how different a thing the Christianity of the world might have been if the Christian faith had been adopted as the religion of the Empire under the auspices of Marcus Aurelius instead of those of Constantine. But it would be equally unjust to him and false to truth to deny that no one plea which can be urged for the punishment of Antichristian teaching was wanting to Marcus Aurelius for punishing as he did the propagation of Christianity. No Christian more firmly believes that atheism
is false, and tends to the dissolution of society, than Marcus Aurelius believed the same things of Christianity, — he who of all men then living might have been thought the most capable of appreciating it. Unless any one who approves of punishment for the promulgation of opinions Aatters himself that he is a wiser and better man than Marcus Aurelius, more deeply versed in the wisdom of his time, more elevated in his intellect above it, more earnest in his search for truth, or more singleminded in his devotion to it when found, let him abstain from that assumption of the joint infallibility of himself and the multitude, which the great Antoninus made with so unfortunate a result." — pp. 48 – 51.
Mr. Mill dwells with much force on the apathy with which an opinion is likely to be held, even though true, when its opponents are forbidden to controvert it. No one can intelligently hold an opinion, without being able to understand and give the reasons upon which he believes it to be true. The ability to state these reasons is likely to be soon lost when they are never required; and as it is absurd to argue the truth of a dogma to a person to whom you deny the liberty of dissent, the very occasion for argument in support of a received opinion is dependent upon the amount of freedom with which it may be contradicted. So that, under a system which discourages controversy, an opinion which is taught comes to be regarded, not as matter of reason, but as matter of obedience to authority, and, if it be a true opinion, “ abides in the mind, but abides as a prejudice, a belief independent of and proof against argument. This is not the way in which truth ought to be held by a rational being. Truth thus held is but one superstition the more, accidentally clinging to the words which enunciate a truth.”
This is illustrated by the phenomenon, so often occurring, of the positive or relative decline of beliefs with the disappearance of opposition. The originator of a new doctrine, whether political or religious, and those who embrace it on his persuasion, are commonly men thoroughly penetrated with a living conviction of its truth and importance, and full of the zeal which is necessary to insure its existence amid the hostility it is likely to meet. The same is the case with all the subsequent believers in the doctrine, so long as there is any danger or inconvenience in professing it, or any need of maintaining its
truth with argument and defence against vigorous opposition. But when the doctrine has triumphed, either completely or so far as to be recognized and respected by the bulk of the community, the energy of support is no longer required, the constant watchfulness and zeal become relaxed. Children inherit the belief from their fathers, without knowing its grounds; and if the doctrine does not decline, it ceases at least to exert that potent influence over men's minds and lives which it once had. “ Then are seen the cases, so frequent in this age of the world as almost to form the majority, in which the creed remains, as it were, outside the mind, incrusting and petrifying it against all other influences addressed to the higher part of our nature; manifesting its power by not suffering any fresh and living conviction to get in, but itself doing nothing for the mind or heart, except standing sentinel over them to keep them vacant.”
Men value most that for which they pay highest. The real use and value of wealth are said to be best known, not by those who have inherited, but by those who have earned it. It is safe to predict that the blessings of an honorable peace in the Republic will be best appreciated by the generation which is now paying its terrible price. In like manner the early Christians, who paid the heavy penalty of outlawry for the convictions which were dearer to them than life, stood in no need of periodical “revivals” to counteract the slumberous tendency of a belief which has outlived opposition.
Closely connected with this division of the subject is the consideration of the lack of individual character, both moral and intellectual, which results inevitably from the success of any attempt at discouraging freedom of thought and discussion. What Mr. Mill fears more than any other danger of the age is that tendency by which men are growing more and more alike in thoughts, actions, and feelings. It is a question how much of this growth in conformity is real, and how much only apparent, and whether outward likeness in dress, forms of speech, manners, and condition really implies the same degree of likeness in character, tastes, and modes of thought. The outward likeness, and perhaps the inward also, is undoubtedly increased by the disappearance of the sharp distinctions between class
VOL. LXXIV. - 5TH S. VOL. XII. NO. I.
and class which existed in the ruder forms of society, and which made noble and peasant, priest and layman, Christian and Jew, so totally distinct in position and mode of life. Furthermore, it might have been foretold that the great ease and power with which wide influences, as of the press, of commerce, of church establishments, work in the present age upon large bodies of men in the same way, affecting them at the same time and to the same ends, would produce in due time a certain uniformity of life in all matters relating to the subjects on which those influences were strongest. It must be confessed, that the increase of knowledge and of the facilities of life has not had the effect of encouraging individual development to any degree at all commensurate with the advancement of the general culture. But Mr. Mill seems to think, not only that this is true, but that the direct tendency of all our civilization thus far has been to make it true. Herein we think he does the age some injustice.
“In ancient history,” he says, “and in a diminishing degree through the long transition from feudality to the present time, the individual was a power in himself, and if he bad either great talents or a high social position, he was a considerable power. At present individuals are lost in the crowd. In politics it is almost a triviality to say that public opinion now rules the world. The only power deserving the name is that of the masses, and of governments while they make themselves the organ of the tendencies and instincts of the masses.” — p. 118.
Now it appears to us that the superior power of an individual in ancient times was the result of the inferior power of his fellow, and did by no means indicate a more general prevalence of energy or individuality. So far as individuality is developed in society, the conspicuousness of any special instance of it is lessened, and to say that to-day the power, political or social, of any community, has passed from the hands of energetic individuals into the hands of the masses, is only to say that the energy and interest of the masses have increased to a degree which makes them capable, not only of wishing to govern, but of governing; and we shall hardly find matter of regret in this, unless we are ready to deny that the moderate elevation in thought and feeling of a whole people
is more desirable than the extreme elevation of here and there an individual, and more trustworthy as a reservoir of political power and wisdom.
The condition of social subserviency to custom which Mr. Mill describes so forcibly is humiliating enough, and is undeniable ; but it is worth while to note, that it does not prevent the occasional, nay, the frequent occurrence of instances in which men and women break through these artificial restraints to enter upon services without precedent, and as noble and lofty as any of which the heroic ages have left us the tradition. And we think it will not be found that in most of these cases the timid public have been backward in recognizing the service, or in paying their tribute of admiration to the individual heroism which effected it. It is doubtful if the enterprise of Florence Nightingale would have been practicable in the Middle Ages, and quite certain that its accomplishment would have met no more instant or hearty recognition than it did eight years ago. And in our own country, the energy with which, on the first perception of the danger from sickness to which our armies were to be exposed in their Southern campaigns, certain individual men undertook to organize a Sanitary Commission for the prevention of the evil even more than for its cure, has certainly no parallel in the history of ancient wars. What Mr. Mill says of the readiness of the age to cry out upon all eccentricity, and all originality which has an air of strangeness, is perfectly true; but we think he will admit, that, spite of all this subserviency and cowardice, it rarely happens that a great enterprise, or even a small enterprise, involving the doing of good to others, fails for want of the individuality to perceive its worth and effect its results.
The whole of this chapter on Individuality, admirable as it is in other respects, is marked by a singular hopelessness of tone; a singular lack of appreciation of the dignity and worth of the national character; an entire want of confidence in the ability of the people to maintain, much more to increase, that dignity, which either speaks very sadly for the real condition of English society, or else is another instance of that unfortunate distrust of the people so common to men of letters, who, mingling little with them, and passing their lives in the