Abbildungen der Seite
PDF
EPUB

1.]

THE FOUNDATION OF DUTY.

7

tally violated. But they were everywhere undoubtingly regarded as the divinely imposed laws of life; no more to be chosen by men or women, Savonarola reminds the fugitive Romola, than birthplace, or father, or mother can be chosen, although we may choose to forsake them. And these duties were conceived of as the source and the measure of human rights. It is indeed strictly true to say that the only right of man then recognised as inalienable and imprescriptible, was the right to do what he ought; and in the secure possession of this right, human liberty was held to reside. This old world view is well expressed by Milton. "The whole freedom of man, consists either in spiritual or civil liberty. As for spiritual, who can be at rest, who can enjoy anything in this world with contentment, who hath not liberty to serve God and to save his own soul? . . . . The other part of our freedom. consists in the civil rights and advancements of every person according to his merit;"* such civil rights, such advancements, being his due, as enabling him more fully and completely to use the talents. entrusted to him by the "Great Taskmaster."

It is this notion of divinely-appointed, all-pervading duty, as the paramount law of life, which especially distinguishes the Middle Ages, and which is the source of all that is highest in them, and in particular of their liberties. Absolute monarchy, the all-absorbing, unrestrained despotism of Roman

*Ready Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth,

Imperialism, had no place among their political conceptions. The monarch was everywhere bound by pacts, solemnly recognised and sworn to, as a condition of his unction and coronation, and was hemmed in, on all sides, by free institutions; by the Universal Church, " the Christian Republic," as it was called; by universities, corporations, brotherhoods, monastic orders; by franchises and privileges of all kinds, which, in a greater or less degree, existed all over Europe. The Renaissance, which considered in its merely political aspect, was a mere plagiarism of antiquity, rehabilitated the idea. of Pagan Cæsarism; and that idea, under one form or another, soon spread throughout the greater part of Europe. In France, especially, the doctrine of the omnipotence of the State, fostered by a servile clergy, attained proportions, little if at all inferior to those prevailing in the antique world; and the will of the Grand Monarque-" transcendent king of gluttonous flunkies," if ever ruler deserved that description-became in practice the standard of religious obligation. In the emphatic language of Sainte-Beuve: "Sous Louis XIV. le culte du monarque était devenu une démence universellement acceptée qui étonne encore par son excès." The sovereign was again "a present Deity," and the obligation of passive obedience to him was well nigh the only obligation really believed in. It was natural that the august idea of duty, thus prostituted, and made a mere instrument of political

1.] THE FOUNDATION OF POLITICAL RIGHTS. 9

slavery, should fall into discredit. It was not unnatural in an age when the great theistic conception brought into the world by Christianity had lost its hold over the intellect of France-the most profoundly irreligious age the world has ever seen, perhaps that the men who in 1789 composed the National Assembly should have sought another foundation whereon to rear the public order, to the construction of which they addressed themselves without the slightest misgiving as to their competency for the enterprise.

That foundation they obtained, as they thought, in the idea of certain political rights, sacred, imprescriptible, inalienable, attaching to man by virtue of his human nature. Ascertain these, said the Revolutionary legislators, and you may forthwith make the constitution and bring back the Golden Age. The world is out of joint: it is full of wrong and violence; and "the sole causes of public misfortunes and of the corruption of governments are ignorance, forgetfulness, or contempt of the rights of man." * Let us therefore solemnly expound these rights, "in order that the claims of the citizens, being founded, in future, on simple and incontestable principles, may always tend to the maintenance of the Constitution and the general

Preamble to The Declaration of the Rights of the Man and the Citizen.

happiness." * Accordingly they proceeded to set forth their Declaration of the abstract rights of humanity. This is the corner-stone, elect, precious, upon which they sought to rear the new political edifice, having first, as was necessary, made a clean sweep of existing institutions. I shall first consider their method, and then their application of it.

Their method has been happily described by Quinet as "social geometry, a kind of political mathematics," up to that time confined to the realms of speculation. They afford the first instance recorded in history of a number of men sitting down and saying, "Go to: let us reconstruct society on à priori principles "-a gigantic task indeed, for which their qualifications were of the slenderest. Perhaps we should be well warranted in saying that the only two men of conspicuous ability found among them were Mirabeau and Talleyrand. The great majority were disciples of Rousseau, with no knowledge of men, or of affairs, or of anything beyond the dreams and speculations of their master; and may be said, as Aristotle said of the Sophists, to have professed political philosophy without in the least knowing what it is or wherewithal it is concerned. A few gaudy phrases, a few specious formulas, a few abstract ideas, an illimitable selfconfidence, and an ebullient enthusiasm were their equipment for the work of recreating society. The statesman, trained in the practice of public affairs * Ibid.

נ.י

THE SOVEREIGNTY OF THE INDIVIDUAL. 11

and the traditions of government, had been wont to set himself to inquire, to calculate, to follow in advance the working of any measure which he thought of introducing, bearing in mind the habits, the passions, the interests of the different classes, who, whether in greater or less degree, would be affected by it. Quite other was the method of the legislators of 1789, and of the Jacobins, to whom the world owes the logical continuance of their work. To them their political axioms were all in all, applicable universally to the individua vaga of their theories. To make the constitution, meant for them the translation into institutions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Contrat Social,

The central conception of that treatise is what Mr. John Morley calls "the doctrine of the sovereignty of peoples," and what, in my judgment, may be more accurately designated, the doctrine of the sovereignty of the individual. "Of this doctrine," Mr. Morley tells us, " Rousseau assuredly was not the inventor. The great Aquinas had protested against the juristic doctrine that the law is the pleasure of the prince. The will of the prince, he says, to be a law must be directed by reason: law is appointed for the common good, and not for a special or private good; it follows from this that only the reason of the multitude, or of a prince representing the multitude, can make a law." * Upon which I am led to remark that if

* Rousseau, by John Morley, vol. ii., p. 144.

« ZurückWeiter »