Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - About London, by J. Ewing Ritchie, 1860 - Chapter 11 - Town Morals - The Same Subject Continued

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I AM not in the best of humours. The wind and weather of the last few months have been bad enough to vex the temper and destroy the patience of a saint. I wish the papers would write a little more about reforms at home, and not trouble themselves about the Emperor of the French. I wish country gentlemen, when airing their vocabularies at agricultural dinners, would not talk so much of our friends across the water being desirous to avenge the disgrace of Waterloo, as if there were any disgrace to France, after having been a match, single-handed, for all Europe for a generation, in being compelled to succumb at last. I wish we could be content with trading with China, without sending ambassadors to Pekin, and endeavouring by fair means or foul to make that ancient city, as regards red-tapeism and diplomatic quarrels, as great a nuisance as Constantinople is now. I wish Mr. George Augustus Sala, with that wonderful talent of his for imitating Dickens and Thackeray, would quite forget there was such [-122-] gentlemen in the world, and write independently of them. And I wish the little essayists, who copy Mr. George Augustus Sala, and are so very smart and facetious by his aid, would either swim without corks, or not swim at all. Thank heaven, none of them are permanent, and most of them speedily sink down into limbo. Where are the gaudily-covered miscellanies, and other light productions of this class? if not dead, why on every second-hand book-stall in London, in vain seeking a sale at half-price, and dear at the money. But the spirit of which they are the symptom, of which they rare the outward and visible sign, lives. Directly you take up one of these books, you know what is coming. But after all, why quarrel with these butterflies, who, at any rate, have a good conceit of themselves, if they have but a poor opinion of others? Fontaine tells of a motherly crab, who exclaimed against the obliquity of her daughter's gait, and asked whether she could not walk straight. The young crab pleaded, very reasonably, the similarity of her parent's manner of stepping, and asked whether she could be expected to walk differently from the rest of the family?
    This fable throws me back on general principles; our writers - our preachers - our statesmen, are fearful, and tremble at the appearance of originality. The age overrules us all, society is strong, and the individual is consequently weak. We have no patrons now, but, instead, we have a mob. Attend a public meeting, - the speaker who is the most applauded, is the man most [-123-] given to exaggeration. Listen to a popular preacher, - is he not invariably the most commonplace, and in his sermons least suggestive, of men? When a new periodical is projected, what care is taken that it shall contain nothing to offend, as if a man or writer were worth a rap that did not come into collision with some prejudices, and trample on some corns. In describing some ceremony where beer had been distributed, a teetotal reporter, writing for a teetotal public, omitted all mention of the beer. This is ridiculous, but such things are done every day in all classes. Society exercises a censorship over the press of the most distinctive character. The song says,
        "Have faith in one another."
I say, have faith in yourself. This faith in oneself would go far to put society in a better position than it is. A common complaint in everybody's mouth is the want of variety in individual character - the dreary monotony we find everywhere pervading society. Men and women, lads and maidens, boys and girls, if we may call the little dolls dressed up in crinoline and flounces, and the young gentlemen in patent-leather boots, such, are all alike. Civilization is a leveller of the most destructive kind. Man is timid, imitative, and lazy. Hence, it is to the past we must turn, whenever we would recall to our minds how sublime and great man, in his might and majesty, may become. Hence it is we can reckon upon but few who dare to stand alone in devotedness to truth and human right. Most men are [-124-] enslaved by the opinions of the little clique in which they move; they can never imagine that beyond their little circle there can exist anything that is lovely or of good report. We are the men, and wisdom will die with us, is the burden of their song. We judge not according to abstract principles, but conventional ideas. Ask a young lady, of average intelligence, respecting some busy hive of industry, and intelligence, and life. "Oh!" she exclaims, "there is no society in such a place." Ask an evangelical churchman as to a certain locality, and he will reply, "Oh it is very dark, dark, indeed;" as if there was a spot on this blessed earth where God's sun did not shine. The dancing Bayaderes, who visited London some fifteen years back, were shocked at what they conceived the immodest attire of our English dames, who, in their turn, were thankful that they did not dress as the Bayaderes. All uneducated people, or rather all unreflective people, are apt to reason in this way; orthodoxy is my doxy, heterodoxy, yours. But we English, especially, are liable to this fallacy, on account of our insular position, and the reserve and phlegm of our national character. Abroad people travel more, come more into collision with each other, socially are more equal. We can only recognize goodness and greatness in certain forms. People must be well-dressed, must be of respectable family, must go to church, and then they may carry on any rascality. Sir John Dean Paul, Redpath, and others, were types of this class. Hence it is society stagnates - such is a description of a [-125-] general law, illustrated in all history, especially our own. Society invariably sets itself against all great improvements in their birth. Society gives the cold shoulder to whatever has lifted up the human race - to whatever has illustrated and adorned humanity-to whatever has made the world wiser and better. Our fathers stoned the prophets, and we continue the amiable custom. Our judgment is not our own, but that of other people. We think what will other people think? our first question is not, Is a course of action right or wrong? but; What will Mr. Grundy say? Here is the great blunder of blunders. John the Baptist lived in a desert. "If I had read as much as other men," said Hobbes, "I should have been as ignorant as they." "When I began to write against indulgences, says Luther, "I was for three years entirely alone; not a single soul holding out the hand of fellowship and cooperation to me." Of Milton, Wordsworth writes, "his soul was like a star, and dwelt apart."
    The great original thinker of the last generation, John Foster, actually fled the face of man. What a life of persecution and misrepresentation had Arnold of Rugby to endure, and no wonder, when we quote against the conclusions of common sense the imaginary opinions of an imaginary scarecrow we term society. This deference to the opinion of others is an unmitigated evil. In no case is it a legitimate rule of action. The chances are that society is on the wrong side, as men of independent thought and action are in the minority, [-126-] and even if society be right; it is not from a desire to win her smile or secure her favour that a man should act. It is not the judgment of others that a man must seek, but his own; it is by that he must act - by that he must stand or fall - by that he must live - and by that he must die. All real life is internal, all honest action is born of honest thought; out of the heart are the issues of life. The want of exercising one's own understanding has been admirably described by Locke. It is that, he says, which weakens and extinguishes this noble faculty in us. "Trace it, and see whether it be not so; the day labourer in a country village has comcomly but a small pittance of knowledge, because his ideas and notions have been confined to the narrow bounds of a poor conversation and employment; the low mechanic of a country town does somewhat outdo him - porters and cobblers of great cities surpass him. A country gentleman, leaving Latin and Learning in the University, who returns thence to his mansion-house, and associates with his neighbours of the same strain, who relish nothing but hunting and a bottle; with these alone he spends his time, with these alone he converses, and can away with no company whose discourses go beyond what claret and dissoluteness inspire. Such a patriot, formed in this happy day of improvement, cannot fail, we see, to give notable decisions upon the bench at quarter sessions, and eminent proofs of his skill in politics, when the strength of his purse, and party, have advanced him to a more [-127-] auspicious, situation. * * * To carry this a little further: here is one muffled up in the zeal and infallibility of his own sect, and will not touch a book, or enter into debate, with a person that will question any of those things which, to him, are sacred." People wonder now-a-days why we have so many societies- the cause is the same. Men cannot trust themselves; to do that requires exercise of the understanding. A man must take his opinions from society; he can do no battle with the devil unless he have an association formed to aid him. At Oxford the example of an individual, Dr. Livingstone, created a generous enthusiasm. A society was formed under distinguished patronage, subscription lists were opened, a public meeting was held, and the most renowned men of the day - the Bishop of Oxford and Mr. Gladstone - lent to the meeting not merely the attraction of their presence, but the charm of their oratorical powers. The result is a very small collection, and a talk of sending out six missionaries to christianize Africa. When societies are formed there is no end to the absurdities they are guilty of. Just think of the men of science at Aberdeen, all rushing over hill and dale to Balmoral, where they were permitted, not to converse with majesty (that were too great an act of condescension), but to have lunch in an apartment of the royal residence. Then, again, what murmurs were there at Bradford, because, at the close of the meeting, the younger members of the Social Reform Congress were not permitted to dance the polka. If old [-128-] Columbus were alive now a new world would never have been discovered. We should have had a limited liability company established for the purpose. A board of lawyers, and merchants, and M.P.'s, as directors, would have been formed. Some good-natured newspaper editors would have inserted some ingenious puffs, - the shares would have gone up in the market, - the directors would have sold out at a very fair rate of profit. Columbus would have made, one or two unsuccessful voyages - the shares would have gone down - the company would have been wound up - and no western continent, with its vast resources, would ever have been heard of. I like the old plan best; I like to see a man. If I go into the House of Commons I hear of men, somewhat too much talk of men is there; on one side of the house Pitt is quoted, on another Fox, or Peel, or Canning. If Pitt, and Fox, and Canning, and Peel had done so depend upon it we should never have heard their names. It is a poor sign when our statesmen get into this habit; it is a mutual confession of inability to act according to the wants and necessities of the age. They quote great men to hide their littleness. They imagine that by using the words of great statesmen they may become such, or, at any rate, get the public to note them for such themselves. They use the names of Pitt and Fox as corks, by means of which they may keep afloat. Well, I must fain do the same; while I rail against custom, I must e'en follow her.
    "He seems to me," said old Montaigne, "to have [-129-] had a right and true apprehension of the power of custom, who first invented the story of a country-woman who, having accustomed herself to play with and carry a young calf in her arms, and daily continuing to do so as it grew up obtained this by custom, that when grown to a great ox she was still able to bear it. For, in truth, custom is a violent and treacherous schoolmistress. She by little and little, slyly and unperceived, slips in the foot of her authority, but having by this gentle mid humble beginning, with the benefit of time, fixed and established it, she then unmasks a furious and tyrannical countenance, against which we have no more the courage or the power so much as to lift up our eyes. We see it at every turn forcing and violating the rules of nature. Usus efficacissimus rerum omnium magister. Custom is the greatest master of all things."
    And now I finish with a fable. A knight surprised a giant of enormous size and wickedness sleeping, his head lying under the shade of a big oak. The knight prayed to heaven to aid his strength, and lifting his battle-axe dashed it with all his might on the giant's forehead. The giant opened his eyes, and drowsily passing his hand over his eyes, murmured, "The falling leaves trouble my rest," and straight he slumbered again. The knight summoned his energies for another stroke, again whirled his axe in the air, and furiously dashed it to the utter destruction of the giant's scull. The latter merely stirred, and said, "The dropping acorns disturb my sleep." The knight flung down his [-130-] axe and fled in despair from an enemy who held his fiercest blows and his vaunted and well-tried might but as falling leaves and dropping acorns. Reader, so do I. My hardest blows shall seem but as leaves and acorns to the giant with whom I am at war, and would fain destroy.

source: J. Ewing Ritchie, Aboutf London, 1860