|CONINGSBY, by Benjamin Disraeli (1844)
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'You will observe one curious trait,' said Sidonia to Coningsby, 'in the
history of this country: the depository of power is always unpopular; all
combine against it; it always falls. Power was deposited in the great
Barons; the Church, using the King for its instrument, crushed the great
Barons. Power was deposited in the Church; the King, bribing the
Parliament, plundered the Church. Power was deposited in the King; the
Parliament, using the People, beheaded the King, expelled the King,
changed the King, and, finally, for a King substituted an administrative
officer. For one hundred and fifty years Power has been deposited in the
Parliament, and for the last sixty or seventy years it has been becoming
more and more unpopular. In 1830 it was endeavoured by a reconstruction to
regain the popular affection; but, in truth, as the Parliament then only
made itself more powerful, it has only become more odious. As we see that
the Barons, the Church, the King, have in turn devoured each other, and
that the Parliament, the last devourer, remains, it is impossible to
resist the impression that this body also is doomed to be destroyed; and
he is a sagacious statesman who may detect in what form and in what
quarter the great consumer will arise.'
'You take, then, a dark view of our position?'
'Troubled, not dark. I do not ascribe to political institutions that paramount influence which it is the feeling of this age to attribute to them. The Senate that confronted Brennus in the Forum was the same body that registered in an after-age the ribald decrees of a Nero. Trial by jury, for example, is looked upon by all as the Palladium of our liberties; yet a jury, at a very recent period of our own history, the reign of Charles II., was a tribunal as iniquitous as the Inquisition.' And a graver expression stole over the countenance of Sidonia as he remembered what that Inquisition had operated on his own race and his own destiny. 'There are families in this country,' he continued, 'of both the great historical parties, that in the persecution of their houses, the murder and proscription of some of their most illustrious members, found judges as unjust and relentless in an open jury of their countrymen as we did in the conclaves of Madrid and Seville.'
'Where, then, would you look for hope?'
'In what is more powerful than laws and institutions, and without which the best laws and the most skilful institutions may be a dead letter, or the very means of tyranny in the national character. It is not in the increased feebleness of its institutions that I see the peril of England; it is in the decline of its character as a community.'
'And yet you could scarcely describe this as an age of corruption?'
'Not of political corruption. But it is an age of social disorganisation, far more dangerous in its consequences, because far more extensive. You may have a corrupt government and a pure community; you may have a corrupt community and a pure administration. Which would you elect?'
Neither,' said Coningsby; 'I wish to see a people full of faith, and a government full of duty.'
'Rely upon it,' said Sidonia, 'that England should think more of the community and less of the government.'
'But tell me, what do you understand by the term national character?'
'A character is an assemblage of qualities; the character of England should be an assemblage of great qualities.'
'But we cannot deny that the English have great virtues.'
'The civilisation of a thousand years must produce great virtues; but we are speaking of the decline of public virtue, not its existence.'
'In what, then, do you trace that decline?'
'In the fact that the various classes of this country are arrayed against each other.'
'But to what do you attribute those reciprocal hostilities?'
'Not entirely, not even principally, to those economical causes of which we hear so much. I look upon all such as secondary causes, which, in a certain degree, must always exist, which obtrude themselves in troubled times, and which at all times it is the business of wise statesmen to watch, to regulate, to ameliorate, to modify.'
'I am speaking to elicit truth, not to maintain opinions,' said Coningsby; 'for I have none,' he added, mournfully.
'I think,' said Sidonia, 'that there is no error so vulgar as to believe that revolutions are occasioned by economical causes. They come in, doubtless, very often to precipitate a catastrophe; very rarely do they occasion one. I know no period, for example, when physical comfort was more diffused in England than in 1640. England had a moderate population, a very improved agriculture, a rich commerce; yet she was on the eve of the greatest and most violent changes that she has as yet experienced.'
'That was a religious movement.'
'Admit it; the cause, then, was not physical. The imagination of England rose against the government. It proves, then, that when that faculty is astir in a nation, it will sacrifice even physical comfort to follow its impulses.'
'Do you think, then, there is a wild desire for extensive political change in the country?'
'Hardly that: England is perplexed at the present moment, not inventive. That will be the next phasis in her moral state, and to that I wish to draw your thoughts. For myself, while I ascribe little influence to physical causes for the production of this perplexity, I am still less of opinion that it can be removed by any new disposition of political power. It would only aggravate the evil. That would be recurring to the old error of supposing you can necessarily find national content in political institutions. A political institution is a machine; the motive power is the national character. With that it rests whether the machine will benefit society, or destroy it. Society in this country is perplexed, almost paralysed; in time it will move, and it will devise. How are the elements of the nation to be again blended together? In what spirit is that reorganisation to take place?'
'To know that would be to know everything.'
'At least let us free ourselves from the double ignorance of the Platonists. Let us not be ignorant that we are ignorant.'
'I have emancipated myself from that darkness for a long time, 'said Coningsby. 'Long has my mind been musing over these thoughts, but to me all is still obscurity.'
'In this country,' said Sidonia, 'since the peace, there has been an attempt to advocate a reconstruction of society on a purely rational basis. The principle of Utility has been powerfully developed. I speak not with lightness of the labours of the disciples of that school. I bow to intellect in every form: and we should be grateful to any school of philosophers, even if we disagree with them; doubly grateful in this country, where for so long a period our statesmen were in so pitiable an arrear of public intelligence. There has been an attempt to reconstruct society on a basis of material motives and calculations. It has failed. It must ultimately have failed under any circumstances; its failure in an ancient and densely-peopled kingdom was inevitable. How limited is human reason, the profoundest inquirers are most conscious. We are not indebted to the Reason of man for any of the great achievements which are the landmarks of human action and human progress. It was not Reason that besieged Troy; it was not Reason that sent forth the Saracen from the Desert to conquer the world; that inspired the Crusades; that instituted the Monastic orders; it was not Reason that produced the Jesuits; above all, it was not Reason that created the French Revolution. Man is only truly great when he acts from the passions; never irresistible but when he appeals to the imagination. Even Mormon counts more votaries than Bentham.'
'And you think, then, that as Imagination once subdued the State, Imagination may now save it?'
'Man is made to adore and to obey: but if you will not command him, if you give him nothing to worship, he will fashion his own divinities, and find a chieftain in his own passions.'
'But where can we find faith in a nation of sectaries? Who can feel loyalty to a sovereign of Downing Street?'
'I speak of the eternal principles of human nature, you answer me with the passing accidents of the hour. Sects rise and sects disappear. Where are the Fifth-Monarchy men? England is governed by Downing Street; once it was governed by Alfred and Elizabeth.'