Hugh Miller: Leading Articles (8)

Home Up Autobiography First Impressions Scenes and Legends Tales and Sketches The Betsey Miscellanea Main Index Site Search


 

[Previous Page]


PULPIT DUTIES NOT SECONDARY.
――― ♦ ―――


THERE are two antagonist perils to which all evangelical Churches, whether established or unendowed, are exposed in an age in which men's minds are so stirred by the fluctuations of opinion, that though there may not be much progress, there is at least much motion.  They lie open, on the one hand, to the danger of getting afloat on the tide of innovation, and so drifting from the fixed position in which Churches, as exponents of the mind of Christ, possess an authoritative voice, into the giddy vortices of some revolving eddy of speculation, in which they can at best assume but the character of mere advocates of untried experiment; or, on the other hand, they are liable to fall into the opposite mistake of obstinately resisting all change—however excellent in itself, and however much a consequence of the onward march of the species—and this not from any direct regard to those divine laws, of which one jot or tittle cannot pass away, but simply out of respect to certain peculiar views and opinions entertained by their ancestors in ages considerably less wise than the times which have succeeded them.

    An evangelistic Church cannot fall into the one error without losing its influential voice as a Church.  It may gain present popularity by throwing itself upon what chances to be the onward movement of the time; but it is a spendthrift popularity, that never fails in the end to leave it exhausted and weak.  The political ague has always its cold as certainly as its hot fever fits: action produces reaction; great exertion induces great fatigue; the desired object, even when fully gained, is sure always, like all mere sublunary objects of pursuit, to disappoint expectation; and the Church that, forgetting where its real power lies, seeks, Antæus-like, to gather strength in this way from the earth, contracts in every instance but the soil and weakness inherent in those earthy and unspiritual things to which it attaches itself.  It, too, comes to have its cold ague fits and its reaction—periods of exhaustion, disappointment, and decline.  And the opposite error of clinging to the worn-out and the obsolete produces ultimately the same effect, though it operates in a different way.  A Church that, in behalf of some antiquated type of thought or action, opposes itself to what is in reality the onward current of the age, is sure always to fare like stranded ice-floes, that, in a river flooded by thaw, retain the exact temperature under which they were formed, when the temperature all around them has altered.  The ice-floes and the obsolete Church may be alike successful for a time in keeping up the ancient state of things within their own lessening limits, but both are eventually absorbed and disappear.  While the more versatile ecclesiastical body, tossed by the cross currents and eddies of novel and uncertain change, loses its true course and makes shipwreck, the rigidly immoveable one, anchored over the worn-out peculiarities of bygone days, is borne down by the irresistible rush of the stream, and founders at its moorings.

    The Free Church, as a body, is, we trust, not greatly in danger from either extreme.  They are the extremes, however, which in the present day constitute her true Scylla and Charybdis; and it were perhaps well that she should keep the fact steadily before her, by laying them down as such on their chart.  Not from the gross and earthy fires of political movement in the present day, or from the cold grey ashes of movement semi-political in some uninspired age of the past, must that pillar of flame now ascend which is to marshal her on her pilgrimage through the wilderness, at once reviving her by its heat and guiding her by its effulgence.  The light borrowed from the one would but flicker idly before her, a wandering and delusive meteor; the other would furnish her with but an unlighted torch, unsuited to cast across her way a single beam of direction and guidance.  Her light must be derived from an antiquity more remote than that of the uninspired ages, and her heat from a source more permanent than that of present excitement, social or political: the one direct from the unerring record of those times when God walked the earth in the flesh; the other from that living spirit without whose influence energy the most untiring can be influential in but the production of evil, and earnestness the most intense may be profession, but cannot be revival.  Strength must be sought by her, not in the turmoil of evanescent agitation, nor in the worn-out modes of an age the fashion of which has perished, but in the perennial verities of the everlasting gospel.  While so far adapting herself to the times as to present an armed front to every form of error, she must preach to her people as if the prisoner of Patmos had but just completed the record of Revelation.

    There is one special error regarding this the most important portion of her proper work—the preaching of the word—to which it may be well to advert.  It has become much the fashion of the time—most unthinkingly, surely—to speak of preaching as not the paramount, but merely one of the subsidiary duties of a clergyman.  'He is not a man of much pulpit preparation,' it has become customary to remark of some minister, at least liked if not admired, 'but he is diligent in visiting and in looking after his schools; and preaching is in reality but a small part of a minister's duty.'  Or, in the event of a vacancy, the flock looking out for a pastor are apt enough to say, 'Our last minister was an accomplished pulpit man, but what we at present want is a man sedulous in visiting; for preaching is in reality but a small part of a minister's duty.'  Nay, ministers, especially ministers of but a few twelvemonths' standing, have themselves in some cases caught up the remark, as if it embodied a self-evident truth; and while they dare tell, not without self-complacency, that their discourses—things written at a short sitting, if written at all-cost them but little trouble, they add further, as if by way of apology, that they are, however, 'much occupied otherwise, and that preaching is in reality but a small part of a minister's duty.'  We have some times felt inclined to assure these latter personages in reply, that they might a little improve the matter just by making preaching no part of their duty at all.  But where, we ask, is it taught, either by God in His word or by the Church in her standards, that preaching is merely one of the minor duties of the minister, or indeed other than his first and greatest duty?  Not, certainly, in the New Testament, for there it has invariably the paramount place assigned to it; as certainly not in our standards, for in them the emphasis is 'especially' laid on the 'preaching of the word' as God's most 'effectual means' of converting sinners.  If it be a truth that preaching is but comparatively a minor part of a minister's duty, it is certainly neither a Scripture nor a Shorter Catechism truth; and, lest it should be not only not a truth at all, but even not an innocuous untruth, we think all who hold it would do well to inquire how they have come by it.

    We have our own suspicion regarding its origin.  It is natural for men to exaggerate the importance of whatever good they patronize, or whatever improvement or enterprise they advocate or recommend.  And perhaps some degree of exaggeration is indispensable.  In order to create the impulse necessary to overcome the vis inertiæ of society, and induce in the particular case the required amount of exertion, the stream of the moving power has—if we may so speak—to be elevated to the level of hopes raised high above the point of possible accomplishment.  To employ the language of the mechanist, the necessary fall would be otherwise awanting, and the machine would fail to move.  If, for instance, all men had estimated the advantages of free trade according to the sober computations of Chalmers, the country would have no Anti-Corn-Law League, and no repeal of the obnoxious statutes.  And yet who can now doubt that the calculations of Chalmers were in reality the true ones?  In like manner, if it had been truly seen that the 'baths for the working classes' could have merely extended to the humbler inhabitants of our cities those advantages of ablution which the working men of our sea-coasts already possess, but of which—when turned of forty—not one out of a hundred among them ever avails himself, we would scarce have witnessed bath meetings, with Dukes in the chair; nor would the baths themselves have been erected.  But the natural exaggerative feeling prevailed.  Baths for the working classes were destined somehow to renovate society, it was thought; and so, though Chartism be now as little content as ever, baths for the working classes our cities possess.  And, doubtless, exaggeration of a similar kind has tended to heighten the general estimate of the minor duties of the clergyman; and were there no invidious comparisons instituted between the lesser and the paramount duties,—between what is secondary in its nature magnified into primary importance, and what is primary in its nature diminished into a mere secondary, and standing as if the one had been viewed by the lesser, and the other through the greater lens of a telescope,—we would have no quarrel whatever with the absolute exaggeration in the case, regarded simply as a mere moving force.  But we must quarrel with it when we see it leading to practical error; and so, in direct opposition to the common remark, that preaching is but a small part of the minister's duty, we assert that it is not a small, but a very large, and by far the most important part of it; and that it is not our standards or the Scriptures that are in error on this special head, but the numerous class who, taking up the antagonist view, maintain as a self-evident proposition what has neither standing in the New Testament, nor yet guarantee in the experience of the Church.

    No apology whatever ought to be sustained for imperfect pulpit preparation; nay, practically at least, no apology whatever has or will be sustained for it.  It is no unusual thing to see a church preached empty; there have been cases of single clergymen, great in their way, who have emptied four in succession: for people neither ought nor will misspend their Sabbaths in dozing under sermons to which no effort of attention, however honestly made, enables them to listen; and what happens to single congregations may well happen to a whole ecclesiastical body, should its general style of preaching fall below the existing average.  And certainly we know nothing more likely to produce such a result than the false and dangerous opinion, that preaching is comparatively a small part of a minister's duty.  It is supereminently, dangerous for one to form a mean estimate of one's work, unless it be work of a nature very low and menial indeed.  'No one,' said Johnson, 'ever did anything well to which he did not give the whole bent of his mind.'  It is this low estimate—this want of a high standard in the mind—that leads some of our young men to boast of the facility with which they compose their sermons,—a boast alike derogatory to the literary taste and knowledge and to the Christian character of him who makes it.  Easy to compose a sermon!—easy to compose what, when written, cannot be read; and what, when preached, cannot be listened to.  We believe it; for in cases of this kind the ease is all on the part of the author.  We believe further, we would fain say to the boaster, that you and such as you could scuttle and sink the Free Church with amazingly little trouble to yourselves.  But is it easy, think you, to mature such thoughts as Butler matured?  And yet these were embodied in sermons.  Is it easy, think you, to convey in language exquisite as that of Robert Hall, sentiments as refined and imagery as classic as his?  And yet Hall's noblest compositions were sermons.  Is it easy, think you, to produce a philosophic poem, the most sublime and expansive of any age or country?  And yet such is the true character of the Astronomical Sermons of Chalmers.  Or is that spirituality which impresses and sinks into the heart of a people, independently at times of thought of large calibre or the polish of a fine literary taste, a thing easily incorporated into the tissue of a lengthened sermon?  Think you, did Maclaurin's well-known Sermon on the Cross cost him little trouble? or the not less noble sermon of Sir Matthew Hale, on Christ and Him crucified?  Look, we beseech you, to your New Testaments, and see if there be ought slovenly in the style, or loose and pointless in the thinking, of the model sermons given you there.  The discourse addressed by our Saviour from the mount to the people was a sermon; as was also the magnificent address of Paul to the Athenians, where he chose as his text the inscription on one of their altars, 'To the unknown God.'  There may be a practical and most mischievous heterodoxy embodied in the preacher's idea of sermons, as certainly as he may embody a heterodoxy theoretic and doctrinal in the sermons themselves.

    The ordinary course of establishing a Church in any country, as specially shown by New Testament history and that of the Reformation, is first and mainly through the preaching of the word.  An earnest, eloquent man—a Peter in Jerusalem—a Paul at Athens, on Mars Hill—a John Knox in Edinburgh or St. Andrews—a George Whitfield in some open field or market-place of Britain or America—or a Thomas Chalmers in some metropolitan pulpit, Scotch or English—addresses himself to the people.

    There is a strange power in the words, and they cannot but listen; and then the words begin to tell.  The heart is affected, the judgment convinced, the will influenced and directed: ancient beliefs are, as the case may be, modified, resuscitated, or destroyed; new or revived convictions take the place of previous convictions, inadequate or erroneous; and thus churches are planted, and the face of society changed.  We limit ourselves here to what—being strictly natural in the process—would operate, if skilfully applied, as directly on the side of error as of truth.  It is the first essential of a book, that it be interesting enough to be read; and of a preacher, whatever his creed, that he be sufficiently engaging to be attentively listened to; and without this preliminary merit, no other merit, however great, is of any avail whatever.  And when a Church possesses it in any great degree, it is sure to spread and increase.  Are there churches in the Establishment which, though thinned by the Disruption, have now all their seats let, and are crammed every Sabbath to the doors?  If so, be sure there is popular talent in the pulpit, and that the clergyman who officiates there does not find it a very easy matter to compose his sermons.  Nay, dear as the distinctive principles of the Free Church are to the people of Scotland, with superior pulpit talent in the Establishment on the one hand, and in the ranks of the disendowed body, on the other, a goodly supply of those youthful ministers who boast that they either never write their sermons, or write them at a short sitting, we would by no means guarantee to our Church a ten years' vigorous existence.  These may not be palatable truths, but we trust they are wholesome ones; and we know that the time peculiarly requires them.  It is, however, not mainly with the Establishment that the Free Church has to contend.

    We ask the reader whether he has not marked, within the last few years, the début of another and more formidable antagonist, with which all Christian Churches may be soon called on to grapple?

    Our newly-instituted athenæums and philosophical associations form one of the novel features of the time,—institutions in which at least the second-class men of the age—Emersons, and Morells, and Combes—with much that is interesting in science and fascinating in literature, blend sentiments and opinions at direct variance with the great doctrinal truths embodied in our standards.  The press, not less formidable now than ever, is an old antagonist; but, with all its appliances and powers, it lacked the charm of the living voice.  That peculiar charm, however, the new combatant possesses.  The pulpit, met by its own weapons and in its own field, will have to a certainty to measure its strength against it; and the standard of pulpit accomplishment and of theological education, instead of being lowered, must in consequence be greatly elevated.  The Church of this country, which in the earlier periods of her history, when Knox was her leader, and Buchanan the moderator of her General Assembly, stood far in advance of the age in popular eloquence, solid learning, and elegant accomplishment, and which, in the person of Chalmers in our own days, was vested in the more advanced views and the more profound policy of a full century hence, must not be suffered to lag behind the age now.  Her troops must not be permitted to fall into confusion, and to use as arms the rude, unsightly bludgeons of an untaught and undisciplined mob, when the enemy, glittering in harness, and furnished with weapons keen of temper and sharp of edge, is bearing down upon them in compact phalanx.

    We know what it is to have sat for many years under ministers who, possessed of great popular talent and high powers of original thought, gave much time and labour to pulpit preparation.  We know how great a privilege it is to have to look forward to the ministrations of the Sabbath,—not as wearinesses, which, simply as a matter of duty, were to be endured; but as exquisite feasts, spiritual and intellectual, which were to be greatly relished and enjoyed.  And when hearing it sometimes regretted, with reference to at least one remarkable man, that he did not visit his flock quite so often as was desirable—many of the complainants' sole idea of a ministerial visit, meanwhile, being simply that it was a long exordium of agreeable gossip, with a short tail-piece of prayer stuck to its hinder end—we have strongly felt how immensely better it was that the assembled congregation should enjoy each year fifty-two Sabbaths of their minister at his best, than that the tone of his pulpit services should be lowered, in order that each individual among them might enjoy a yearly half-hour of him apart.  And yet such, very nearly, was the true statement of the case.  We fully recognise the importance, in its own subordinate place, of ministerial visitation, especially when conducted—a circumstance, however, which sometimes lowers its popularity—as it ought to be.  But it must not be assigned that prominent place denied to it by our standards, and which the word of God utterly fails to sanction.

    It is, though an important, still a minor duty; and the Free Church must not be sacrificed to the ungrounded idea that it occupies a level as high, or even nearly as high, as 'the preaching of the word.'  To that peculiar scheme of visitation advocated by Chalmers as a first process in his work of excavation, we of course do not refer.  In those special cases to which he so vigorously directed himself, visitation was an inevitable preliminary, without which the appliances of the pulpit could not be brought to bear.  Philip had to open the Scriptures tête-à-tête to the Ethiopian eunuch, for the Ethiopian eunuch never came to church.

    But even were his scheme identical with that to which we particularly refer, we would say to the young preacher who sheltered under his authority, 'Well, prepare for the pulpit as Dr. Chalmers did, even when he had the West Port congregation for his audience, and we shall be quite content to let you visit as much as you may.'  The composition of a sermon was never easy work to him.  He devoted to it much time, and the full bent of his powerful mind; and even when letting himself down to the humblest of the people, the philosopher of largest capacity might profitably take his place among the hearers, and listen with an interest never for one moment suffered to flab.

May 3, 1848.


 
DUGALD STEWART.
――― ♦ ―――


IT is now more than forty years since it was remarked by Jeffrey, in his Review, that metaphysical science was decidedly on the decline in Scotland.  Dugald Stewart, though in a delicate state of health at the time, was in the full vigour of his faculties, and had still eighteen years of life before him; Thomas Brown had just been appointed his assistant and successor in the Moral Philosophy Chair of the University of Edinburgh; and the élite of the Scottish capital were flocking in crowds to his class-room, captivated by the eloquence and ingenuity of his singularly vigorous and original lectures.  Even fifteen years subsequent, Dr. Welsh could state, in the Life of his friend, that the reception of his work on the Philosophy of the Human Mind had been 'favourable to a degree of which, in metaphysical writings, there was no parallel.'  It has been recorded as a very remarkable circumstance, that the Essay of Locke—produced at a period when the mind of Europe first awoke to general activity in the metaphysical province—passed through seven editions in the comparatively brief space of fourteen years.  The Lectures of Dr. Brown passed through exactly seven editions in twelve years, and this at a time when, according to Jeffrey, that science of mind of which they treated was in a state of gradual decay.  The critic was, however, in the right.  The genius of Brown had imparted to his brilliant posthumous work an interest which could scarce be regarded as attaching to the subject of it; and in a few years after—from about the year 1835 till after the disruption of the Scottish Church—metaphysical science had sunk, not in Scotland only, but all over Britain, to its lowest ebb.  A few retired scholars continued to prosecute their researches in the province of mind; but scarce any interest attached to their writings, and not a bookseller could be found hardy enough to publish at his own risk a metaphysical work.  We are old enough to remember a time, contemporaneous with the latter days of Brown, when young students, in their course of preparation for the learnèd professions, especially for the Church, used to be ever recurring in conversation to the staple metaphysical questions,—occasionally, no doubt, much in the style of Jack Lizard in the Guardian, who comforted his mother, when the worthy lady was so unlucky as to scald her hand with the boiling tea-kettle, by assuring her there was no such thing as heat, but which at least served to show that this branch of liberal education fully occupied the mind of the individuals ostensibly engaged in mastering it; and we remember a subsequent time, when students—some of them very clever ones—seemed never to have thought on these questions at all, and remained silent in conversation when they chanced to be mooted by the men of an earlier generation.  During, however, the last ten years, mainly through the revival of a taste for metaphysical inquiry in France and Germany, which has reacted on this country, abstract questions on the nature and functions of mind are again acquiring their modicum of space and importance in Scotland.  Our country no longer takes the place it once did among the nations in this, department, and never again may; but it at least begins to remember it once was, and to serve itself heir to the works of the older masters of mind; and we regard it as an evidence of the reaction to which we refer, that a greatly more complete edition of the writings of Dugald Stewart than has yet appeared is at the present time in the course of issuing from the press of one of our most respected Scotch publishers—the inheritor of a name paramount in the annals of the trade—Mr. Thomas Constable.

    The writings of Dugald Stewart have been unfortunate in more than that state of exhaustion and syncope into which metaphysical science continued to sink during the lapse of more than half a generation after the death of their author, and the commencement of which had been remarked by Jeffrey more than half a generation before.  From some peculiar views—founded, we believe, on an overweening estimate of their pecuniary value—the son and heir of the philosopher tabooed their publication; and it is only now that, in consequence of his death, and of the juster views entertained on the subject by a sister, also recently deceased, that they are permitted to reappear.  The time, however, from that awakened interest in metaphysical speculation which we have remarked, seems highly favourable for such an undertaking; and we cannot doubt that the work will find what it deserves—a sure and steady, if not very rapid sale.  Stewart may be regarded as not merely one of the more distinguished members of the Scottish school of metaphysics, but as peculiarly its historian and exponent.  The mind of Reid was cast in a more original mould, but he wanted both the elegance and the eloquence of Stewart, nor were his powers of illustration equally great.  His language, too, was not only less refined and flowing, but also less scientifically correct, than that of his distinguished exponent and successor.  We would cite, for instance, the happy substitution by the latter of the terms 'laws of human thought and belief,' for the unfortunate phrases 'common sense' and 'instinct,' which raised so extensive a prejudice against the vigorous protest against scepticism made in other respects so effectively by Reid; and he passes oftener from the abstractions of his science into the regions of life and character in which all must feel interested, however slight their acquaintance with the subtleties of metaphysical speculation.  The extraordinary excellence of Professor Stewart's style has been recognised by the highest authorities.  Robertson was perhaps the best English writer of his day.  The courtly Walpole, on ascertaining that he spoke Scotch, told him he was heartily glad of it; for 'it would be too mortifying,' he added, 'for Englishmen to find that he not only wrote, but also spoke, their language better than themselves.'  And yet the Edinburgh Reviewers recognised Stewart as the writer of a more exquisite style than even Robertson.  And Sir James Mackintosh, no mean judge, characterizes him as the most perfect, in an artistic point of view, of the philosophical writers of Britain.  'Probably no writer ever exceeded him,' says Sir James, 'in that species of eloquence which springs from sensibility to literary merit and moral excellence; which neither obscures science by prodigal ornament, nor disturbs the serenity of patient attention; but, though it rather calms and soothes the feelings, yet exalts the genius, and insensibly inspires a reasonable enthusiasm for whatever is good and fair.'  Now, it is surely not unimportant that the writings of such a man, simply in their character as literary models, should be submitted to an age like the present, especially to its Scotchmen.  It is stated by Hume, in one of his letters to Robertson, that meeting in Paris with the lady who first gave to the French a translation of Charles V., he asked her what she thought of the style of the work, and that she instantly replied, with great naïveté, 'Oh, it is such a style as only a Scotchman could have written.'  Scotland did certainly stand high in the age of Hume and Mackenzie, of Robertson and of Adam Smith, for not only the vigour of its thinking, but also for the purity and excellence of its style.  We fear, however, it can no longer arrogate to itself praise on this special score.  There have been books produced among us during the last twenty years, which have failed in making their way into England, mainly in consequence of the slipshod style in which they were written.  A busy age, much agitated by controversy, is no doubt unfavourable to the production of compositions of classic beauty.  'The rounded period,' says an ingenious French writer, 'opens up the long folds of its floating robe in a time of stability, authority, and confidence.  But when literature has become a means of action, instead of continuing to be used for its own sake, we no longer amuse ourselves with the turning of periods.  The period is contemporary with the peruke—the period is the peruke of style.  The close of the eighteenth century shortened the one as much as the other.  The peruke reaching the middle of the loins could not be suitable to men in haste to accomplish a work of destruction.  When was J. J. Rousseau himself given to the turning of periods?  Assuredly it was not in his pamphlets!'  Now the style of Stewart was first formed, we need scarce remark, during that period of profound repose which preceded the French Revolution; and his after-life, spent in quiet and thoughtful retirement, with the classics of our own and other countries, ancient and modern, for his companions, and with composition as his sole employment—though the world around him was fiercely engaged with politics or with war—had nothing in it to deteriorate it.  He never heard the steam-press groaning, as the night wore late, for his unfinished lucubrations; nay, we question if he ever wrote a careless or hurried sentence.  His naturally faultless taste had full space to satisfy itself with whatever he deemed it necessary to perform ; and hence works of finished beauty, which, as pieces of art, the younger literati of Scotland would do well to study and imitate.  There may be differences of opinion regarding the standing of Stewart as a metaphysician, but there are no differences of opinion regarding his excellence as a writer.

    With regard to metaphysics themselves, we are disposed to acquiesce in the judgment of Jeffrey, without, however, acquiescing in much which he has founded upon it.  To observe as a mental philosopher, and to experiment as a natural one, are very different things; and never will mere observation in the one field lead to results so splendid or so practical as experiment on the properties of matter, to which man owes his extraordinary control over the elements.  To the knowledge acquired by his observations on the nature or operations of mind, he owes no new power over that which he surveys: in at least its direct consequences, his science is barren.  It would be difficult, however, to overestimate its indirect consequences.  It seems impossible that the metaphysical province should long exist blank and unoccupied in any highly civilised country, especially in a country of active and acquiring intellects, such as Scotland.  If the philosophy of Locke or of Reid fail to occupy the field, we find it occupied instead by that of Comte or of Combe.  Owens and Martineaus take the place of Browns and of Stewarts; and bad metaphysics, of the most dangerous tendency, are taught, in the lack of metaphysics wholesome and good.  All the more dangerous parties of the present day have their foundations of principle on a basis of bad metaphysics.  The same remark applies to well-nigh all the religious heresies; and the less metaphysical an age is, all the more superficial usually are the heresies which spring up in it.  We question whether Morrisonianism could have originated in what was emphatically the metaphysical age of Scotland, in the latter days of Reid, or the earlier days of Stewart.  What became in our times a heresy in the theological field, would have spent itself, as the mere crotchet of a few unripened intellects, in the metaphysical one.  It would have found vent in some debating club or speculative society, and the Churches would have rested in peace.  There are other in direct benefits derived from metaphysical study.  It forms the best possible gymnastics of mind.  All the great metaphysicians, if not merely acute, but also broad-minded men, have been great also in the practical departments of thought.  The author of the Essay on the Human Understanding was the author also of the Treatise on Government and the Letters an Toleration.  Hume, in those Essays on Trade and Politics, which are free from the stain of infidelity, was one of the most solid of thinkers; and he who produced the Theory of Moral Sentiments continues to give law at the present time, in his Wealth of Nations, to the commerce of the civilised world.  From a subtile but comparatively narrow class of intellects, though distinguished in the metaphysical province, mankind has received much less.  Berkeley was one of these, and may be regarded as their type and representative.  Save his metaphysics,—demonstrative of the non-existence of matter, or demonstrative rather that fire is not conscious of heat, nor ice of cold, nor yet our enlightened surface of colour,—he bequeathed little else to the world than his tar-water; and his tar-water, no longer recognised as a universal medicine, has had its day, and is forgotten.  Without professing to know aught of German metaphysicians—for in the times when we used to read Hume and Reid they were but little known in this country—we can by no means rate them so high as the men whose writings they are supplanting.  What, we have been accustomed to ask, are their trophies in the practical?  Have any of them given to the world even tar-water?  Where are their Lockes, Humes, and Adam Smiths?  The man who, according to Johnson, can walk vigorously towards the east, can walk vigorously toward the west also.  How is it that these German metaphysicians exhibit their vigour exclusively in walking one way?  Where are their works of a practical character, powerful enough to give law to the species?  Where their treatises like those of Locke on Toleration or on Government, or their essays like that of Hume or of Adam Smith on the Balance of Power or the Wealth of Nations?  Are they doing other, to use a very old illustration, than merely milking rams, leaving their admirers and followers to hold the pail?

    Dugald Stewart, though mayhap less an original in the domain of abstract thought than some of his predecessors, belongs emphatically to the practical school.  With him philosophy is simply common sense on that large scale which renders it one of the least common things in the world.  And never, perhaps, was there a more thoroughly honest seeker after truth.  Burns somewhat whimsically describes him, in a recently recovered letter given to the world by Robert Chambers, as 'that plain, honest, worthy man, the Professor.  I think,' adds the poet, 'his character, divided into ten parts, stands thus: Four parts Socrates, four parts Nathaniel, and two parts Shakespeare's Brutus.'  The estimate of Sir James Mackintosh is equally high; nor will it weigh less with many of our readers that the elder M'Crie used to give expression to a judgment quite as favourable.  'He was fascinated,' says the son and biographer of the latter, 'with the beau ideal of academical eloquence which adorned the Moral Chair in the person of Dugald Stewart.  Long after he had sat under this admired leader, he would describe with rapture his early emotions while looking on the handsomely erect and elastic figure of the Professor—in every attitude a model for the statuary—listening to expositions, whether of facts or principles, always clear as the transparent stream; and charmed by the tones of a voice which modulated into spoken music every expression of intelligence and feeling.  An esteemed friend of his happening to say to him some years ago, "I have been hearing Dr. Brown lecture with all the eloquence of Dugald Stewart."  "No, sir," he exclaimed with an air of almost Johnsonian decision, "you have not, and no man ever will."'  The first volume of the collected works of Stewart, now given to the world in a form at once worthy of their author and of the name of Constable, contains the far-famed Dissertations, and is edited by Sir William Hamilton.  It contains a considerable amount of original matter, now published from the author's manuscripts for the first time.  It would be idle to attempt criticising a work so well established; but the brief remark of one of the first of metaphysical critics—Sir James Mackintosh—on what he well terms 'the magnificent Dissertations,' maybe found not unacceptable.  'These Dissertations,' says Sir James, 'are perhaps most profusely ornamented of any of their author's compositions,—a peculiarity which must in part have arisen from a principle of taste, which regarded decoration as more suitable to the history of philosophy than to philosophy itself.  But the memorable instances of Cicero, of Milton, and still more those of Dryden and Burke, seem to show that there is some natural tendency in the fire of genius to burn more brightly, or to blaze more fiercely, in the evening than in the morning of human life.  Probably the materials which long experience supplies to the imagination, the boldness with which a more established reputation arms the mind, and the silence of the low but formidable rivals of the higher principles, may concur in providing this unexpected and little observed effect.'

August 26, 1854.


 
OUR TOWN COUNCILS.
――― ♦ ―――


IT is a grand, though doubtless natural, mistake to hold that the members of the Town Councils of our Scottish cities and burghs really represent in opinion and feeling their nominal constituencies the electors, through whose suffrages they have been placed in office.  In very many cases they do not represent them at all: they form an entirely dissimilar class,—a class as thoroughly different from the solid mass of the community, on which they float like froth and spume on the surface of the great deep, as that other class from which, because there are unhappily scarce any other men in the field, we have to select our legislators.  The subject is one of importance.  In the Sabbath controversy now carrying on, it has been invariably taken for granted by the anti-Sabbatarian press of the country, that our Town Councils do represent the general constituency; and there has been much founded on the assumption.  We shall by and by be finding the same assumption employed against us in the Popery endowment question; and it would be well, therefore, carefully to examine the grounds on which it rests, and to ascertain whether there may not exist some practical mode of testing its unsolidity.

    It is not difficult to see how that upper class to which our legislators of both Houses of Parliament mainly belong, should differ greatly from the larger and more solid portion of the middle classes in almost all questions of a religious character and bearing.  Bacon, in his Essay on Kings, has quaintly, but, we are afraid, all too justly remarked, that  'of all kind of men, God is the least beholding unto them [kings]; for He doth most for them, and they do ordinarily least for Him.'  But the character applies to more than kings.  It affects the whole upper layers of the great pyramid of society, from its gilded pinnacle down to the higher confines of its solid middle portion; and to these upper layers of the erection our legislators, hereditary and elective, with, of course, a very few exceptions in the Lower House, all belong.  They are drafted from the classes with which, if we perhaps except the lowest and most degraded of all, religious questions weigh least.  There is, of course, no class wholly divorced from good; and those exceptions to which Cowper could refer two generations ago obtain still:


'We boast some rich ones whom the gospel sways,
 And one who wears a coronet, and prays:
 Like gleanings of an olive tree, they show
 Here and there one upon the topmost bough.'


But in at least the mass, religion has not been influential among the governing classes in Britain since the days of the Commonwealth.  It has formed one of the great forces on which they have calculated—a formidable power among the people, that they have striven, according to the nature of the emergency, to quiet or awaken, bias or control,—now for the ends of party, when an antagonist faction had to be overborne and put down,—now for the general benefit of the country, when a foreign enemy had to be repelled or an intestine discord to be suppressed; but it has been peculiarly a force outside the governing classes—external, not internal, to them,—a power which it has been their special work to regulate and direct, not a power which has regulated and directed them.  The last British Government which—God, according to Bacon, having done much for it—laboured earnestly to do much for God, was that very remarkable one which centred in the person of the Lord Protector.

    Hence naturally much that is unsatisfactory to the comparatively religious middle classes of the country, in the conduct, with regard to religious questions, of the classes on whom devolves the work of legislation.  There is no real community of feeling and belief in these matters between the two.  To the extent to which religion is involved in the legislative enactments of the time, the middle class is in reality not represented, and the upper class does not represent.  It may not seem equally obvious, however, how there should be a lack of representation, not only among our members of Parliament, but also among our members of Council.  They at least surely belong, it may be said, to the middle classes, by whom and from among whom they are chosen for their office.  Certainly in some cases they do; in many others, however, they form a class scarce less peculiar than those upper classes out of which the legislators of the country come to be drawn, simply because there is no other class in the field out of which they can be selected.

    The Reform and Municipality Bills wrought a mighty change in the Town Councils of the kingdom.  The old close burgh system, with all its abuses, ceased for ever, save in its remains—monumental debts, and everlasting leases of town lands, granted on easy terms to officials and their friends; and droll recollections, like those embalmed by Galt in our literature, of solid municipal feasting, and not so solid municipal services, of exclusive cliqueships, misemployed patronages, modest self-elections,—in short, of a general practice of jobbing, more palpable than pleasant, and that tended rather to individual advantage than corporate honour.  The old men retired, and a set of new men were elevated by newly-created constituencies into their vacated places, to be disinterested on dilapidated means, and noisy on short commons.  The days of long and heavy feasts had come to a close, and the days of long and heavy speeches succeeded.  No two events which this world of ours ever saw, led to so vast an amount of bad speaking as the one Reform Bill that swept away the rotten burghs, and the other Reform Bill that opened the close ones.  By and by, however, it came to be seen that the old, privileged, self-elected class were succeeded in many instances by a class that, though elected by their neighbours, were yet not quite like their neighbours.  Their neighbours were men who, with their own personal business to attend to, had neither the time nor the ambition to be moving motions or speaking speeches in the eye of the public, and who could not take the trouble to secure elections by canvassing voters.  The men who had the time, and took the trouble, were generally a class ill-hafted in society, who had high notions of reforming everything save themselves, and of keeping right all kinds of businesses except their own.  The old state of things was, notwithstanding its many faults, a state under which our Scotch burghers rose into consideration by arts of comparative solidity.  A tradesman or shopkeeper looked well to his business, became an important man in the market-place and a good man in the bank,—increased in weight in the same proportion that his coffers did so, and grew influential and oracular on the strength of his pounds sterling per annum.  With altered times, however, there arose a new order of men,—


'The wits of Charles found easier ways to fame.'


It was no longer necessary to spend the greater part of a lifetime in acquiring money and character: a glib tongue, a few high professions of public principle, and a few weeks' canvassing, were found to serve the turn more than equally well.

    There commenced straightway a new dynasty of dignities and honours. Councillors got into print in the capacity of speechmakers, who, save for the revolution effected, would never have got into print in any other capacity than, mayhap, that of bankrupts in the Gazette.  Eloquent men walked to church in scarlet; greatly distinguished as provosts and bailies, who but for the happy change would have crept unseen all their lives long among the crowd.  Members of Parliament went arm-in-arm, when they visited their constituencies, with folk altogether unused to such consideration; and when a burgher's son sought to be promoted to the excise, or a seaman to the coast-guard service, it was through the new men that influence had to be exerted.  And of course the new men had to approve themselves worthy of their honours, by making large sacrifices for the public weal.  They had in many cases not much to do: the magistracy of the bygone school, whom they succeeded, had obligingly relieved posterity of the trouble of having a too preponderous amount of municipal property to manage and look after; but if they had not much to do, they had at least a great deal to say; and as they were ambitious of saying it, their own individual concerns were not unfrequently neglected, in order that their constituencies might be edified and informed.  In cases not a few, the natural consequences ensued.  We have in our eye one special burgh in the north, in which every name in the Town Council, from that of the provost down to that of the humblest councillor, had, in the course of some two or three years, appeared also in the Gazette; and the previous provost of the place had got desperately involved with the branch banks of the district, and had ultimately run the country, to avoid a prosecution for forgery.

    Let it not be held that we are including the entire tribe of modern town functionaries in one sweeping condemnatory description.  We ourselves, in our time (we refer to the fact with a high but surely natural pride), held office as a town councillor, under the modern regime, for the space of three whole years in a parliamentary burgh that contained no fewer than forty voters.  All may learn from history how it was that Bailie Weezle earned his municipal honours during the ancient state of things in the famous burgh of Gudetown.  'Bailie Weezle,' says Galt, 'was a man not overladen with worldly wisdom, and had been chosen into the Council principally on account of being easily managed.  Being an idle person living on his money, and of a soft and quiet nature, he was, for the reason aforesaid, taken by one consent among us, where he always voted on the provost's side; for in controverted questions every one is beholden to take a part, and the bailie thought it was his duty to side with the chief magistrate.'  Our own special qualifications for office were, we must be permitted in justice to ourselves to state, different from Bailie Weezle's by a shade.

    It was generally held, that if there was nothing to do we would do nothing, and if nothing to say we would say nothing; and so thoroughly did we fulfil every expectation that had been previously formed of us, that for three years together we said and did nothing in our official capacity with great éclat, and regularly absented ourselves from every meeting of Council except the first, to the entire satisfaction of our constituency.  It will not be held, therefore, in the face of so important a fact, that we include in our description all the town magistracies under the existing state of things, and most certainly not all modern town councillors.

    Nothing, however, can be more certain, we repeat, than that they differ from their constituencies as a class, and that they are chosen to represent them in municipal affairs, just as another and higher class is chosen to represent them in the Legislature—merely because there is no other class in the field.  The solid middle-class men of business have, as has been said, something else to employ them, and cannot spare their services.  They cannot accept of mere notoriety, with mayhap a modicum of patronate influence attached, as an adequate price for the time and labour which their own affairs demand.  It is a peculiar class in the municipal as in the literary field, that 'weigh solid pudding against empty praise,' and come to regard the empty praise as solid enough to outweigh the pudding.  Not but that it is a fine thing to be in a Town Council, and to see one's fortnightly speeches flourishing in the public prints.  Where else could some of our Edinburgh worthies bring themselves so prominently before the eyes of the country?

    Where else, for instance, could Councillor — impart such universal interest to the fact that he taught in a Sabbath school, and rode out of town every evening to attend to its duties by a Sunday train,—thus forming an invariable item, it would seem, in the average of the ninety-two Sabbath journeyers that travelled by the Edinburgh and Glasgow Railway, and failed to remunerate the proprietors?  Or where else could Councillor — refer with such prodigious effect to Dr. Chalmers's bloody-minded scheme of 'executing the heathen?'  Or where else could Councillor — succeed in eliciting so general a belief that he was one of the poor endangered heathens over which the threatened execution hung, through his famous oath 'By Jupiter?'

    By the way, is this latter gentleman acquainted with Smollett's story of the eccentric Mr. H., and chivalrously bent, on the same principle, in acknowledging a deity in distress?  'Mr. H., some years ago, being in the Campidoglio at Rome,' says Smollett, 'made up to the bust of Jupiter, and bowing very low, exclaimed, in the Italian language, "I hope, sir, if ever you get your head above water again, you will remember that I paid my respects to you in your adversity."  This sally,' continues the historian, 'was reported to the Cardinal Camerlengo, and by him laid before the Pope Benedict XIV., who could not help laughing at the extravagance of the address, and said to the Cardinal, "Those English heretics think they have a right to go to the devil in their own way."'

    Now, standing, as we do, either on the threshold of serious national controversies of a religious bearing, or already entered upon them, it would be well to mark and test the facts which it is our present object specially to point out.  It would be well to take measures for rendering it an as palpable as it is a solid truth, that the municipal tail of the country's representation no more really represents it in several very important respects than its parliamentary head.  It represents it most inadequately on the Sabbath question now; it will represent it quite as inadequately in the Popish endowment question by and by; and if in reality we do not wish to see the battle going against us on both issues, there must be effective means employed to demonstrate the fact.  In matters of a religious bearing, the ill-hafted notoriety-men of our Town Councils much more nearly resemble the upper indifferent classes, from which our legislators are drafted, than they do the solid bulk of the community.

    They are decidedly in the movement party, and form a portion, not of the ballast, but of the superfluous sail, of the State.  Nor should it be difficult to render the fact evident to all.  In one of our northern burghs—Dingwall—a majority of the Town Council lately memorialized the Directors of the Edinburgh and Glasgow Railway in exactly the same vein as the majority of our Edinburgh Town Council.  So extreme a step seemed rather extraordinary for Ross-shire; and a gentleman of the burgh, one of the voters, convinced that the officials were far indeed from representing their constituency, shrewdly set himself to demonstrate the real state of the case.  First he possessed himself of an accredited list of the voters; and then, with a memorial addressed to the Directors, strongly condemnatory of the conduct of the Council, he called upon every voter in the burgh who had not taken the opposite side in the character of a councillor, with the exception of two, whose views he had previously ascertained to be unfavourable.  And what, thinks our reader, was the result?  Seven councillors had voted on the anti-Sabbatarian side; and the provost, for himself and the Council, had afterwards signed the memorial.  And of the voters outside, four were found to make common cause with them.  Two more did not make common cause with them, but were not prepared to condemn them, and so did not sign.  There were thus fourteen in all who were either not opposed to the running of Sabbath trains, or who were at least not disposed openly to denounce the parties who had memorialized the Directors, in the name of the burgh, to the effect that Sabbath trains should be run.  Of the other electors, ten were non-resident, five more were out of town at the time, three had fallen out of possession since the roll had been made up, and one was dead.  And all the others, amounting to sixty-nine in number, at once signed the document condemnatory of the Council, and were happy to have an opportunity of doing so.  The available votes of the burgh were opposed to those of their pseudo-representatives in the proportion of nearly six to one.

    In the parliamentary burgh of Cromarty an almost similar experiment was made.  There, however, though the movement party had composed the majority of the Council only a few years since, they had been cast out of office, partly through a strong reaction which had taken place against them, partly in consequence of a quarrel among themselves.  And so the existing Town Council took the initiative in memorializing the Directors in favour of the recent resolution not to run Sunday trains.  Of all the voters of the burgh, only five stood aloof; all the others made common cause with the Town Council in attaching their names to their document.

    But it is a significant fact, that in the knot of five the ex-councillors of the movement party were included, and that had they been in the Council still, a majority would to a certainty have voted in the wake of the Edinburgh Town Council.  There is much instruction in facts such as these; and they may be turned to great practical account.

    Why should not the sentiments of every voter in Scotland be taken on this same Sabbath question now? or what is there to prevent us from taking the sentiments of every voter in Scotland on the Popish endowment question by and by?

    It is a tedious and expensive matter to get up petitions, to which all and sundry affix their names; but the franchise-holders of Scotland are comparatively a not very numerous class; and about the same amount of labour that gees to a monthly collection for the Sustentation Fund, would be quite sufficient to place before Government and the country the full expression of their feelings and opinions on the two leading questions of the day.  But enough for the present —'a word to the wise.'

January 20, 1847.



[Next Page]

 


[Home] [Up] [Autobiography] [First Impressions] [Scenes and Legends] [Tales and Sketches] [The Betsey] [Miscellanea] [Main Index] [Site Search]

Correspondence should be sent to Webmaster@Gerald-Massey.org.uk