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Friday, April 25, 2014

The Age of the Giants
The Speaker, August 24, 1901

Makers of the Nineteenth Century. By Richard A. Armstrong. B.A. London: Fisher Unwin

Mr. Armstrong, in his picturesque and high-minded work, has perhaps fallen into a form of language indicative of a too facile and conventional hero-worship in speaking of "the makers of the nineteenth century." I am not aware that there were any makers of the nineteenth century; I was always under the impression that it had only one maker, who had for some time practised the manufacture of centuries. It is entirely right and reasonable to pay honour to the great men of a period, men such as Carlyle and Gladstone and Matthew Arnold, but it leaves the door open for a false philosophy to call them makers of the century. If Mr. Armstrong called them men who were made by the century he would speak the truth and give them sufficiently high honour.

Mr. Armstrong does not make any very systematic attempt to estimate what was the purpose and character that bound the century together. Yet without such a general definition a century has no meaning; it is merely an arbitrary division of time, like a minute or a quarter of an hour. To speak of its spirit or its tendency is like speaking of the spirit which gives fire and mystery to a fortnight, or of the tendency which the whole cosmos exhibited from a quarter-past five on Tuesday to twenty-seven minutes past twelve on Wednesday. If there was any significance or intention in the nineteenth century I think that Mr. Armstrong should have attempted to summarise it before stringing together a set of diverse and antagonistic men upon so slender a thread as one hundred revolutions of the earth round the sun. I do not pretend for a moment that I can remedy Mr. Armstrong's omission. I do not conceive that either my personal experience or my theoretic acumen are equal to his. But I think it may be roughly stated that the general task and tendency of the nineteenth century has been the liberation of the human soul. Almost every great man mentioned by Mr. Armstrong, including Charles Bradlaugh, has fought for the freedom of the soul to seek eternity. Some philosophers have procured the release of the human soul from captivity by the expedient of denying its existence. After all, that is the way that many prisoners have escaped. Just as some captive king might escape out of a castle by pretending to be a cowherd, so the human soul has broken loose in the nineteenth century by employing the amusing and very transparent pretext that it is only a little carbon and protoplasm. But whether the soul's new and perilous omnipotence appear to us a good or disastrous thing, we shall be equally fatuous if we suppose that the liberty which the soul has gained in the nineteenth century is merely a liberty to read scientific text-books and join the Secular Society, to blaspheme God and be indescribably respectable. If it is free at all it must be equally free to preach crusades and erect churches, to join in the hunt after the lost secret.

Again, the very able and sympathetic studies of great men, to which Mr. Armstrong devotes himself, suffer a great deal from his principle of labelling each man with a particular spiritual trade. Thus Carlyle is called the Preacher, George Eliot the Novelist, Matthew Arnold the Critic. This process cannot do otherwise than narrow the freshness and variety of the intellectual search. The precise duty which any man has to perform in this universe is a very elusive and mysterious thing. A man seldom discovers actually what he was intended to do until his dying day, and then he is filled with a resigned and even radiant consciousness that he has done something else. At any rate, his spiritual shop cannot have a name over it like a butcher's or baker's. Every man that comes into the world invents a new profession. Thus we might often quarrel at the very start with Mr. Armstrong about the titles given to his separate articles. It might at least be maintained that Matthew Arnold was as much a preacher as Carlyle, that John Henry Newman was as much a philosopher as James Martineau, that Mr. Gladstone was as much a patriot as Mazzini. More especially it is difficult to understand why Mr. Armstrong should have selected George Eliot as the typical novelist, when she was probably the least natural and typical novelist that ever wrote great novels. In reality she wrote great novels because she was a compound of every other character in Mr. Armstrong's book except the novelist; critic, preacher, iconoclast, man of science. Indeed, Mr. Armstrong probably selects her to the subordination of Thackeray and Dickens because he himself does not really respect or understand the novel. In the opening paragraphs of the article on George Eliot he defends the novel as a moral institution, apparently under the impression that it requires defence. "There are, indeed," he says, "novels of incident and movement like the romances, for instance, of Wilkie Collins or Stanley Weyman, which are quite free from all taint of corruption, which are excellent as a rest and distraction from the cares and fatigues of life, so long as they are indulged in with strict moderation, and not allowed to absorb time and energy sacred to duty, which nevertheless have little or no direct action on the characters of men." Anyone reading all this about rest and indulgence and moderation might think that Mr. Armstrong was talking about arsenic or opium. Why should this one form of art, the novel, be selected for this insolent protection and this offensive mercy? People are not warned against extravagant indulgence in the contemplation of statues; no one is adjured to temper with moderation his lust for Gothic cathedrals; no one is assured that in reading Paradise Lost or The Divine Comedy he is giving himself a moment's harmless and hygienic idleness. If anyone thinks that a good novel, whether it is a good psychological story of George Eliot's or a good romantic story like one of Wilkie Collins's, is an idle and easy matter not to be compared with poetry or architecture, I can only say that he may have read a great many romances but he has certainly not tried to write one. It is surely a truly extraordinary thing that in comparison with a novel a book about the habits of beetles should be called a serious book. To the deeper insight all living creatures are as serious as duty and death. Nevertheless, we could understand the superficial impression that our fellow creatures are serious, and that beetles are a little comic. But surely it reads like a dogma from topsy-turveydom that, in the matter of books, beetles are serious and men are preposterously comic.

This ethical aridness is the only quality which in any way detracts from the honourable eloquence and just criticism of Mr. Armstrong's work. It leads him to put George Eliot above Thackeray, who had a head twice as big as hers, and a heart ten times bigger. It leads him to prefer Matthew Arnold's poetry to his prose, although his prose was a real inspiration, the discovery of a new spirit and a new style, the triumphant turning of a hundred literary heresies into merits, the turning of tautology itself into a great rhetorical effect. But it never leads him astray when there is any great and wholesome moral crisis involved. It does not prevent him from seeing that men of the mental stature of those with whom he is concerned have commonly better reasons for their errors than most of us have for the truths by which we live and die. He does not forget, in speaking of a man like Newman, that the most truly liberal spirit can see a meaning in the war against Liberalism. He does not forget that a man like Charles Bradlaugh should be regarded with the illimitable reverence with which we regard a strange religious enthusiast in some old-world story, a manly and heroic spirit in the bondage of an intellectual limitation and a forgotten creed.

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