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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Walter Bagehot (1826–1877)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Forrest Morgan (b. 1852)
 
WALTER BAGEHOT was born February 3d, 1826, at Langport, Somersetshire, England; and died there March 24th, 1877. He sprang on both sides from, and was reared in, a nest of wealthy bankers and ardent Liberals, steeped in political history and with London country houses where leaders of thought and politics resorted; and his mother’s brother-in-law was Dr. Prichard the ethnologist. This heredity, progressive by disposition and conservative by trade, and this entourage, produced naturally enough a mind at once rapid of insight and cautious of judgment, devoted almost equally to business action and intellectual speculation, and on its speculative side turned toward the fields of political history and sociology.  1
  But there were equally important elements not traceable. His freshness of mental vision, the strikingly novel points of view from which he looked at every subject, was marvelous even in a century so fertile of varied independences: he complained that “the most galling of yokes is the tyranny of your next-door neighbor,” the obligation of thinking as he thinks. He had a keen, almost reckless wit and delicious buoyant humor, whose utterances never pall by repetition; few authors so abound in tenaciously quotable phrases and passages of humorous intellectuality. What is rarely found in connection with much humor, he had a sensitive dreaminess of nature, strongly poetic in feeling, whence resulted a large appreciation of the subtler classes of poetry; of which he was an acute and sympathizing critic. As part of this temperament, he had a strong bent toward mysticism,—in one essay he says flatly that “mysticism is true,”—which gave him a rare insight into the religious nature and some obscure problems of religious history; though he was too cool, scientific, and humorous to be a great theologian.  2
  Above all, he had that instinct of selective art, in felicity of words and salience of ideas, which elevates writing into literature; which long after a thought has merged its being and use in those of wider scope, keeps it in separate remembrance and retains for its creator his due of credit through the artistic charm of the shape he gave it.  3
  The result of a mixture of traits popularly thought incompatible, and usually so in reality,—a great relish for the driest business facts and a creative literary gift,—was absolutely unique. Bagehot explains the general sterility of literature as a guide to life by the fact that “so few people who can write know anything;” and began a reform in his own person, by applying all his highest faculties—the best not only of his thought but of his imagination and his literary skill—to the theme of his daily work, banking and business affairs and political economy. There have been many men of letters who were excellent business men and hard bargainers, sometimes indeed merchants or bankers, but they have held their literature as far as possible off the plane of their bread-winning; they have not used it to explain and decorate the latter and made that the motive of art. Bagehot loved business not alone as the born trader loves it, for its profit and its gratification of innate likings,—“business is really pleasanter than pleasure, though it does not look so,” he says in substance,—but as an artist loves a picturesque situation or a journalist a murder; it pleased his literary sense as material for analysis and composition. He had in a high degree that union of the practical and the musing faculties which in its (as yet) highest degree made Shakespeare; but even Shakespeare did not write dramas on how to make theatres pay, or sonnets on real-estate speculation.  4
  Bagehot’s career was determined, as usual, partly by character and partly by circumstances. He graduated at London University in 1848, and studied for and was called to the bar; but his father owned an interest in a rich old provincial bank and a good shipping-business, and instead of the law he joined in their conduct. He had just before, however, passed a few months in France, including the time of Louis Napoleon’s coup d’état in December, 1851; and from Paris he wrote to the London Inquirer (a Unitarian weekly) a remarkable series of letters on that event and its immediate sequents, defending the usurpation vigorously and outlining his political creed, from whose main lines he swerved but little in after life. Waiving the question whether the defense was valid,—and like all first-rate minds, Bagehot is even more instructive when he is wrong than when he is right, because the wrong is sure to be almost right and the truth on its side neglected,—the letters are full of fresh, acute, and even profound ideas, sharp exposition of those primary objects of government which demagogues and buncombe legislators ignore, racy wit, sarcasm, and description (in one passage he rises for a moment into really blood-stirring rhetoric), and proofs of his capacity thus early for reducing the confused cross-currents of daily life to the operation of great embracing laws. No other writing of a youth of twenty-five on such subjects—or almost none—is worth remembering at all for its matter; while this is perennially wholesome and educative, as well as capital reading.  5
  From this on he devoted most of his spare time to literature: that he found so much spare time, and produced so much of a high grade while winning respect as a business manager, proves the excellent quality of his business brain. He was one of the editors of the National Review, a very able and readable English quarterly, from its foundation in 1854 to its death in 1863, and wrote for it twenty literary, biographical, and theological papers, which are among his best titles to enduring remembrance, and are full of his choicest flavors, his wealth of thought, fun, poetic sensitiveness, and deep religious feeling of the needs of human nature. Previous to this, he had written some good articles for the Prospective Review, and he wrote some afterwards for the Fortnightly Review (including the series afterwards gathered into ‘Physics and Politics’), and other periodicals.  6
  But his chief industry and most peculiar work was determined by his marriage in 1858 to the daughter of James Wilson, an ex-merchant who had founded the Economist as a journal of trade, banking, and investment, and made it prosperous and rather influential. Mr. Wilson was engaging in politics, where he rose to high office and would probably have ended in the Cabinet; but being sent to India to regulate its finances, died there in 1860. Bagehot thereupon took control of the paper, and was the paper until his death in 1877; and the position he gave it was as unique as his own. On banking, finance, taxation, and political economy in general his utterances had such weight that Chancellors of the Exchequer consulted him as to the revenues, and the London business world eagerly studied the paper for guidance. But he went far beyond this, and made it an unexampled force in politics and governmental science, personal to himself. For the first time a great political thinker applied his mind week by week to discussing the problems presented by passing politics, and expounding the drift and meaning of current events in his nation and the others which bore closest on it, as France and America. That he gained such a hearing was due not alone to his immense ability, and to a style carefully modeled on the conversation of business men with each other, but to his cool moderation and evident aloofness from party as party. He dissected each like a man of science: party was to him a tool and not a religion. He gibed at the Tories; but the Tories forgave him because he was half a Tory at heart,—he utterly distrusted popular instincts and was afraid of popular ignorance. He was rarely warm for the actual measures of the Liberals; but the Liberals knew that he intensely despised the pig-headed obstructiveness of the typical Tory, and had no kinship with the blind worshipers of the status quo. To natives and foreigners alike for many years the paper was single and invaluable: in it one could find set forth acutely and dispassionately the broad facts and the real purport of all great legislative proposals, free from the rant and mendacity, the fury and distortion, the prejudice and counter-prejudice of the party press.  7
  An outgrowth of his treble position as banker, economic writer, and general littérateur, was his charming book ‘Lombard Street.’ Most writers know nothing about business, he sets forth, most business men cannot write, therefore most writing about business is either unreadable or untrue: he put all his literary gifts at its service, and produced a book as instructive as a trade manual and more delightful than most novels. Its luminous, easy, half-playful “business talk” is irresistibly captivating. It is a description and analysis of the London money market and its component parts,—the Bank of England, the joint-stock banks, the private banks, and the bill-brokers. It will live, however, as literature and as a picture, not as a banker’s guide; as the vividest outline of business London, of the “great commerce” and the fabric of credit which is the basis of modern civilization and of which London is the center, that the world has ever known.  8
  Previous to this, the most widely known of his works—‘The English Constitution,’ much used as a textbook—had made a new epoch in political analysis, and placed him among the foremost thinkers and writers of his time. Not only did it revolutionize the accepted mode of viewing that governmental structure, but as a treatise on government in general its novel types of classification are now admitted commonplaces. Besides its main themes, the book is a great store of thought and suggestion on government, society, and human nature,—for as in all his works, he pours on his nominal subject a flood of illumination and analogy from the unlikeliest sources; and a piece of eminently pleasurable reading from end to end. Its basic novelty lay in what seems the most natural of inquiries, but which in fact was left for Bagehot’s original mind even to think of,—the actual working of the governmental system in practice, as distinguished from legal theory. The result of this novel analysis was startling: old powers and checks went to the rubbish heap, and a wholly new set of machinery and even new springs of force and life were substituted. He argued that the actual use of the English monarchy is not to do the work of government, but through its roots in the past to gain popular loyalty and support for the real government, which the masses would not obey if they realized its genuine nature; that “it raises the army though it does not win the battle.” He showed that the function of the House of Peers is not as a coordinate power with the Commons (which is the real government), but as a revising body and an index of the strength of popular feeling. Constitutional governments he divides into Cabinet, where the people can change the government at any time, and therefore follow its acts and debates eagerly and instructedly; and Presidential, where they can only change it at fixed terms, and are therefore apathetic and ill-informed and care little for speeches which can effect nothing.  9
  Just before ‘Lombard Street’ came his scientific masterpiece, ‘Physics and Politics’; a work which does for human society what the ‘Origin of Species’ does for organic life, expounding its method of progress from very low if not the lowest forms to higher ones. Indeed, one of its main lines is only a special application of Darwin’s “natural selection” to societies, noting the survival of the strongest (which implies in the long run the best developed in all virtues that make for social cohesion) through conflict; but the book is so much more than that, in spite of its heavy debt to all scientific and institutional research, that it remains a first-rate feat of original constructive thought. It is the more striking from its almost ludicrous brevity compared with the novelty, variety, and pregnancy of its ideas. It is scarcely more than a pamphlet; one can read it through in an evening: yet there is hardly any book which is a master-key to so many historical locks, so useful a standard for referring scattered sociological facts to, so clarifying to the mind in the study of early history. The work is strewn with fertile and suggestive observations from many branches of knowledge. Its leading idea of the needs and difficulties of early societies is given in one of the citations.  10
  The unfinished ‘Economic Studies’ are partially a re-survey of the same ground on a more limited scale, and contain in addition a mass of the nicest and shrewdest observations on modern trade and society, full of truth and suggestiveness. All the other books printed under his name are collections either from the Economist or from outside publications.  11
  As a thinker, Bagehot’s leading positions may be roughly summarized thus: in history, that reasoning from the present to the past is generally wrong and frequently nonsense; in politics, that abstract systems are foolish, that a government which does not benefit its subjects has no rights against one that will, that the masses had much better let the upper ranks do the governing than meddle with it themselves, that all classes are too eager to act without thinking and ought not to attempt so much; in society, that democracy is an evil because it leaves no specially trained upper class to furnish models for refinement. But there is vastly more besides this, and his value lies much more in the mental clarification afforded by his details than in the new principles of action afforded by his generalizations. He leaves men saner, soberer, juster, with a clearer sense of perspective, of real issues, that more than makes up for a slight diminution of zeal.  12
  As pure literature, the most individual trait in his writings sprang from his scorn of mere word-mongering divorced from actual life. “A man ought to have the right of being a Philistine if he chooses,” he tells us: “there is a sickly incompleteness in men too fine for the world and too nice to work their way through it.” A great man of letters, no one has ever mocked his craft so persistently. A great thinker, he never tired of humorously magnifying the active and belittling the intellectual temperament. Of course it was only half-serious: he admits the force and utility of colossal visionaries like Shelley, constructive scholars like Gibbon, ascetic artists like Milton, even light dreamers like Hartley Coleridge; indeed, intellectually he appreciates all intellectual force, and scorns feeble thought which has the effrontery to show itself, and those who are “cross with the agony of a new idea.” But his heart goes out to the unscholarly Cavalier with his dash and his loyalty, to the county member who “hardly reads two books per existence,” and even to the rustic who sticks to his old ideas and whom “it takes seven weeks to comprehend an atom of a new one.” A petty surface consistency must not be exacted from the miscellaneous utterances of a humorist: all sorts of complementary half-truths are part of his service. His own quite just conception of humor, as meaning merely full vision and balanced judgment, is his best defense: “when a man has attained the deep conception that there is such a thing as nonsense,” he says, “you may be sure of him for ever after.” At bottom he is thoroughly consistent: holding that the masses should work in contented deference to their intellectual guides, but those guides should qualify themselves by practical experience of life, that poetry is not an amusement for lazy sybarites but the most elevating of spiritual influences, that religions cut the roots of their power by trying to avoid supernaturalism and cultivate intelligibility, and that the animal basis of human life is a screen expressly devised to shut off direct knowledge of God and make character possible.  13
  To make his acquaintance first is to enter upon a store of high and fine enjoyment, and of strong and vivifying thought, which one must be either very rich of attainment or very feeble of grasp to find unprofitable or pleasureless.  14
 
 
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