Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
The Age of Chivalry is Gone
By Sir James Mackintosh (17651832)
IN the eye of Mr. Burke, however, these crimes and excesses assume an aspect far more important than can be communicated to them by their own insulated guilt. They form, in his opinion, the crisis of a revolutiona far more important one than any mere change of governmentin which the sentiments and opinions that have formed the manners of the European nations are to perish. The age of chivalry is gone, and the glory of Europe extinguished for ever. He follows this exclamation by an eloquent eulogium on chivalry, and by gloomy predictions of the future state of Europe, when the nation that has been so long accustomed to give her the tone in arts and manners is thus debased and corrupted. A caviller might remark that ages, much more near the meridian fervour of chivalry than ours, have witnessed a treatment of queens as little gallant and generous as that of the Parisian mob. He might remind Mr. Burke, that, in the age and country of Sir Philip Sydney, a Queen of France, whom no blindness to accomplishment, no malignity of detraction, can reduce to the level of Marie Antoinette, was, by a nation of men of honour and cavaliers, permitted to languish in captivity and expire on a scaffold; and he might add, that the manners of a country are more surely indicated by the systematic cruelty of a sovereign than by the licentious fury of a mob. He might remark, that the mild system of modern manners which survived the massacres with which fanaticism had for a century desolated, and almost barbarized Europe, might, perhaps, resist the shock of one days excesses committed by a delirious populace. He might thus perhaps oppose specious and popular topics, to the declamations of Mr. Burke.
But the subject itself is, to an enlarged thinker, fertile in reflections of a different nature. That system of manners which arose among the Gothic nations of Europe, and of which chivalry was more properly the effusion than the source, is without doubt one of the most peculiar and interesting appearances in human affairs. The moral causes which formed its character have not, perhaps, been hitherto investigated with the happiest success; but, to confine ourselves to the subject before us, chivalry was certainly one of the most prominent of its features and most remarkable of its effects. Candour must confess, that this singular institution was not admirable only as the corrector of the ferocious ages in which it flourished; but that in contributing to polish and soften manners it paved the way for the diffusion of knowledge and the extension of commerce, which afterwards, in some measure, supplanted it. Society is inevitably progressive. Commerce has overthrown the feudal and chivalrous system under whose shade it first grew; while learning has subverted the superstition whose opulent endowments had first fostered it. Peculiar circumstances connected with the manners of chivalry favoured this admission of commerce and this growth of knowledge; while the sentiments peculiar to it, already enfeebled in the progress from ferocity and turbulence, were almost obliterated by tranquillity and refinement. Commerce and diffused knowledge have, in fact, so completely assumed, the ascendent in polished nations, that it will be difficult to discover any relics of Gothic manners, but in a fantastic exterior, which has survived the generous illusions through which these manners once seemed splendid and seductive. Their direct influence has long ceased in Europe; but their indirect influence, through the medium of those causes which would not perhaps have existed but for the mildness which chivalry created in the midst of a barbarous age, still operates with increasing vigour. The manners of the middle age were, in the most singular sense, compulsory: enterprising benevolence was produced by general fierceness, gallant courtesy by ferocious rudeness; and artificial gentleness resisted the torrent of natural barbarism. But a less incongruous system has succeeded, in which commerce, which unites mens interests, and knowledge, which excludes those prejudices that tend to embroil them, present a broader basis for the stability of civilized and beneficent manners.
Mr. Burke, indeed, forebodes the most fatal consequences to literature from events, which he supposes to have given a mortal blow to the spirit of chivalry. I have ever been protected from such apprehensions by my belief in a very simple truth,that diffused knowledge immortalizes itself. A literature which is confined to a few, may be destroyed by the massacre of scholars and the conflagration of libraries: but the diffused knowledge of the present day could only be annihilated by the extirpation of the civilized part of mankind.
Far from being hostile to letters, the French Revolution has contributed to serve their cause in a manner hitherto unexampled. The political and literary progress of nations has hitherto been simultaneous; the period of their eminence in arts has also been the era of their historical fame; and no example occurs in which their great political splendour has been subsequent to the Augustan age of a people. But in France, which is destined to refute every abject and arrogant doctrine that would limit the human powers, the ardour of a youthful literature has been infused into a nation tending to decline; and new arts are called forth when all seemed to have passed their zenith. She enjoyed one Augustan age, fostered by the favour of despotism: she seems about to witness another created by the energy of freedom.
In the opinion of Mr. Burke, however, she is advancing by rapid strides to ignorance and barbarism. Already, he informs us, there appears a poverty of conception, a coarseness and vulgarity in all the proceedings of the Assembly, and of all their instructors. Their liberty is not liberal. Their science is presumptuous ignorance. Their humanity is savage and brutal. To animadvert on this modest and courteous picture belongs not to the present subject: and impressions cannot be disputed, more especially when their grounds are not assigned. All that is left to us to do, is to declare opposite impressions with a confidence authorized by his example. The proceedings of the National Assembly appear to me to contain models of more splendid eloquence, and examples of more profound political research, than have been exhibited by any public body in modern times. I cannot therefore augur from these proceedings the downfall of philosophy, or the extinction of eloquence.
Thus various are the aspects which the French Revolution, not only in its influence on literature, but in its general tenour and spirit, presents to minds occupied by various opinions. To the eye of Mr. Burke it exhibits nothing but a scene of horror: in his mind it inspires no emotion but abhorrence of its leaders, commiseration for their victims, and alarms at the influence of an event which menaces the subversion of the policy, the arts, and the manners of the civilized world.
Minds who view it through another medium are filled by it with every sentiment of admiration and triumph,of admiration due to splendid exertions of virtue, and of triumph inspired by widening prospects of happiness.
Nor ought it to be denied by the candour of philosophy, that events so great are never so unmixed as not to present a double aspect to the acuteness and exaggeration of contending parties. The same ardour of passion which produces patriotic and legislative heroism becomes the source of ferocious retaliation, of visionary novelties, and of precipitate change. The attempt were hopeless to increase the fertility, without favouring the rank luxuriance of the soil. He that on such occasions expects unmixed good, ought to recollect, that the economy of nature has invariably determined the equal influence of high passions in giving birth to virtues and to crimes. The soil of Attica was observed to produce at once the most delicious fruits and the most virulent poisons. It was thus with the human mind; and to the frequency of convulsions in the ancient commonwealths they owe those examples of sanguinary tumult and virtuous heroism, which distinguish their history from the monotonous tranquillity of modern states. The passions of a nation cannot be kindled to the degree which renders it capable of great achievements, without involving the commission of violence and crime. The reforming ardour of a senate cannot be inflamed sufficiently to combat and overcome abuses, without hazarding the evils which arise from legislative temerity. Such are the immutable laws, which are more properly to be regarded as libels on our nature than as charges against the French Revolution. The impartial voice of history ought, doubtless, to record the blemishes as well as the glories of that great event: and to contrast the delineation of it which might have been given by the specious and temperate Toryism of Mr. Hume, with that which we have received from the repulsive and fanatical invectives of Mr. Burke might still be amusing and instructive. Both these gentlemen would be averse to the Revolution; but it would not be difficult to distinguish between the undisguised fury of an eloquent advocate, and the well-dissembled partiality of a philosophic judge. The passion of the latter would only feel the excesses which have dishonoured the Revolution; but the philosophy of the former would instruct him, that our sentiments, raised by such events so much above their ordinary level, become the source of guilt and heroism unknown before,of sublime virtues and splendid crimes.