5. Secular Knowledge not a Principle of Social Unity

{283} SIR ROBERT PEEL proposes to establish a Library which "shall be open to all persons of all descriptions, without reference to political opinions or to religious creed." He invites those who are concerned in manufactories, or who have many workmen, "without distinction of party, political opinions, or religious profession." He promises that "in the selection of subjects for public lectures everything calculated to excite religious or political animosity shall be excluded." Nor is any "discussion on matters connected with religion, politics, or local party differences" to be permitted in the reading-room. And he congratulates himself that he has [sic]"laid the foundation of an edifice in which men of all political opinions and of all religious feelings may unite in furtherance of Knowledge, without the asperities of "party feeling." In these statements religious difference are made synonymous with "party feeling;" and, whereas the tree is "known by its fruit," their characteristic symptoms are felicitously described as "asperities," and "animosities." And, in order to teach us more precisely what these differences are worth, they are compared to differences between Whig and Tory—nay, even to "local party differences;" such, I suppose, as about a municipal election, or a hole-and-corner meeting, or a parish job, or a bill in Parliament for a railway.

But, to give him the advantage of the more honourable {284} parallel of the two, are religious principles to be put upon a level even with political? Is it as bad to be a republican as an unbeliever? Is it as magnanimous to humour a scoffer as to spare an opponent in the House? Is a difference about the Reform Bill all one with a difference about the Creed? Is it as polluting to hear arguments for Lord Melbourne as to hear a scoff against the Apostles? To a statesman, indeed, like Sir Robert, to abandon one's party is a far greater sacrifice than to unparliamentary men; and it would be uncandid to doubt that he is rather magnifying politics than degrading Religion in throwing them together; but still, when he advocates concessions in theology and politics, he must be plainly told to make presents of things that belong to him, nor seek to be generous with other people's substance. There are entails in more matters than parks and old places. He made his politics for himself, but Another made theology.

Christianity is faith, faith implies a doctrine; a doctrine propositions; propositions yes or no, yes or no differences. Differences, then, are the natural attendants on Christianity, and you cannot have Christianity, and not have differences. When, then, Sir Robert Peel calls such differences points of "party feeling," what is this but to insult Christianity? Yet so cautious, so correct a man, cannot have made such a sacrifice for nothing; nor does he long leave us in doubt what is his inducement. He tells us that his great aim is the peace and good order of the community, and the easy working of the national machine. With this in view, any price is cheap, everything is marketable; all impediments are a nuisance. He does not undo for undoing's sake; he gains more than an equivalent. It is a mistake, too, to say that he considers all differences of opinion as equal in importance; {285} no, they are only equally in the way. He only compares them together where they are comparable,—in their common inconvenience to a minister of State. They may be as little homogeneous as chalk is to cheese, or Macedon to Monmouth, but they agree in interfering with social harmony; and, since that harmony is the first of goods and the end of life, what is left us but to discard all that disunites us, and to cultivate all that may amalgamate?

Could Sir Robert have set a more remarkable example of self-sacrifice than in thus becoming the disciple of his political foe, accepting from Lord Brougham his new principle of combination, rejecting Faith for the fulcrum of Society, and proceeding to rest it upon Knowledge?

"I cannot help thinking," he exclaims at Tamworth, "that by bringing together in an institution of this kind intelligent men of all classes and conditions of life, by uniting together, in the committee of this institution, the gentleman of ancient family and great landed possessions with the skilful mechanic and artificer of good character, I cannot help believing that we are harmonizing the gradations of society, and binding men together by a new bond, which will have more than ordinary strength on account of the object which unites us." The old bond, he seems to say, was Religion; Lord Brougham's is Knowledge. Faith, once the soul of social union, is now but the spirit of division. Not a single doctrine but is "controversial divinity;" not an abstraction can be imagined (could abstractions constrain), not a comprehension projected (could comprehensions connect), but will leave out one or other portion or element of the social fabric. We must abandon Religion, if we aspire to be statesmen. Once, indeed, it was a living power, kindling hearts, leavening them with one idea, moulding them on {286} one model, developing them into one polity. Ere now it has been the life of morality: it has given birth to heroes; it has wielded empire. But another age has come in, and Faith is effete; let us submit to what we cannot change; let us not hang over our dead, but bury it out of sight. Seek we out some young and vigorous principle, rich in sap, and fierce in life, to give form to elements which are fast resolving into their inorganic chaos; and where shall we find such a principle but in Knowledge?

Accordingly, though Sir Robert somewhat chivalrously battles for the appointment upon the Book Committee of what he calls two "public ministers of religion, holding prominent and responsible offices, endowed by the State," and that ex officio, yet he is untrue to his new principle only in appearance: for he couples his concession with explanations, restrictions, and safeguards quite sufficient to prevent old Faith becoming insurgent against young Knowledge. First he takes his Vicar and Curate as "conversant with literary subjects and with literary works," and then as having duties "immediately connected with the moral condition and improvement" of the place. Further he admits "it is perfectly right to be jealous of all power held by such a tenure:" and he insists on the "fundamental" condition that these sacred functionaries shall permit no doctrinal works to be introduced or lectures to be delivered. Lastly, he reserves in the general body the power of withdrawing this indulgence "if the existing checks be not sufficient, and the power be abused,"—abused, that is, by the vicar and curate; also he desires to secure Knowledge from being perverted to "evil or immoral purposes"—such perversion of course, if attempted, being the natural {287} antithesis, or pendant, to the vicar's contraband introduction of the doctrines of Faith.

Lord Brougham will make all this clearer to us. A work of high interest and varied information, to which I have already referred, is attributed to him, and at least is of his school, in which the ingenious author, whoever he is, shows how Knowledge can do for Society what has hitherto been supposed the prerogative of Faith. As to Faith and its preachers, he had already complimented them at Glasgow, as "the evil spirits of tyranny and persecution," and had bid them good morning as the scared and dazzled creatures of the "long night now gone down the sky."

"The great truth," he proclaimed in language borrowed from the records of faith (for after parsons no men quote Scripture more familiarly than Liberals and Whigs), has finally gone forth to all the ends of the earth, that man shall no more render account to man for his belief, over which he has himself no control. Henceforth nothing shall prevail on us to praise or to blame any one for that which he can no more change than he can the hue of his skin or the height of his stature." And then he or his scholar proceeds to his new Vitę Sanctorum, or, as he calls it, "Illustrations of the Pursuit of Knowledge;" and, whereas the badge of Christian saintliness is conflict, he writes of the "Pursuit of Knowledge under difficulties;" and, whereas this Knowledge is to stand in the place of Religion, he assumes a hortatory tone, a species of eloquence in which decidedly he has no rival but Sir Robert. "Knowledge," he says, "is happiness, as well as power and virtue;" and he demands "the dedication of our faculties" to it. "The struggle," he gravely observes, which its disciple "has to wage may be a {288} protracted, but it ought not to be a cheerless one: for, if he do not relax his exertions, every movement he makes is necessarily a step forward, if not towards that distinction which intellectual attainments sometimes confer, at least to that inward satisfaction and enjoyment which is always their reward. No one stands in the way of another, or can deprive him of any part of his chance, we should rather say of his certainty, of success; on the contrary, they are all fellow-workers, and may materially help each other forward." And he enumerates in various places the virtues which adorn the children of Knowledge—ardour united to humility, childlike alacrity, teachableness, truthfulness, patience, concentration of attention, husbandry of time, self-denial, self-command, and heroism.

Faith, viewed in its history through past ages, presents us with the fulfilment of one great idea in particular—that, namely, of an aristocracy of exalted spirits, drawn together out of all countries, ranks, and ages, raised above the condition of humanity, specimens of the capabilities of our race, incentives to rivalry and patterns for imitation. This Christian idea Lord Brougham has borrowed for his new Pantheon, which is equally various in all attributes and appendages of mind, with this one characteristic in all its specimens,—the pursuit of Knowledge. Some of his worthies are low born, others of high degree; some are in Europe, others in the Antipodes; some in the dark ages, others in the ages of light; some exercise a voluntary, others an involuntary toil; some give up riches, and others gain them; some are fixtures, and others adventure much; some are profligate, and others ascetic; and some are believers, and others are infidels.

Alfred, severely good and Christian, takes his place in {289} this new hagiology beside the gay and graceful Lorenzo de Medicis; for did not the one "import civilization into England," and was not the other "the wealthy and munificent patron of all the liberal arts"? Edward VI. and Haroun al Raschid, Dr. Johnson and Dr. Franklin, Newton and Protagoras, Pascal and Julian the Apostate, Joseph Milner and Lord Byron, Cromwell and Ovid, Bayle and Boyle, Adrian pope and Adrian emperor, Lady Jane Grey and Madame Roland,—human beings who agreed in nothing but in their humanity and in their love of Knowledge, are all admitted by this writer to one beatification, in proof of the Catholic character of his substitute for Faith.

The persecuting Marcus is a "good and enlightened emperor," and a "delightful" spectacle, when "mixing in the religious processions and ceremonies" of Athens, "re-building and re-endowing the schools," whence St. Paul was driven in derision. The royal Alphery, on the contrary, "preferred his humble parsonage" to the throne of the Czars. West was "nurtured among the quiet and gentle affections of a Quaker family." Kirke White's "feelings became ardently devotional, and he determined to give up his life to the preaching of Christianity." Roger Bacon was "a brother of the Franciscan Order, at that time the great support and ornament of both Universities." Belzoni seized "the opportunity" of Bonaparte's arrival in Italy to "throw off his monastic habit," "its idleness and obscurity," and to engage himself as a performer at Astley's. Duval, "a very able antiquarian of the last century," began his studies as a peasant boy, and finished them in a Jesuits' College. Mr. Davy, "having written a system of divinity," effected the printing of it in thirteen years "with a press of his own construction," and the assistance of his female servant, {290} working off page by page for twenty-six volumes 8vo, of nearly 500 pages each. Raleigh, in spite of "immoderate ambition," was "one of the very chief glories of an age crowded with towering spirits."

Nothing comes amiss to this author; saints and sinners, the precious and the vile, are torn from their proper homes and recklessly thrown together under the category of Knowledge. 'Tis a pity he did not extend his view, as Christianity has done, to beings out of sight of man. Milton could have helped him to some angelic personages, as patrons and guardians of his intellectual temple, who of old time, before faith had birth,

                      "Apart sat on a hill retired
In thoughts more elevate, and reasoned high
Of providence, foreknowledge, will, and fate,
Passion and apathy, and glory, and shame,—
Vain wisdom all, and false philosophy."

And, indeed, he does make some guesses that way, speaking most catholically of being "admitted to a fellowship with those loftier minds" who "by universal consent held a station apart," and are "spoken of reverently," as if their names were not those "of mortal men;" and he speaks of these "benefactors of mankind, when they rest from their pious labours, looking down" upon the blessings with which their "toils and sufferings have clothed the scene of their former existence."

Such is the oratory which has fascinated Sir Robert; yet we must recollect that in the year 1832, even the venerable Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge herself, catching its sound, and hearing something about sublimity, and universality, and brotherhood, and effort, and felicity, was beguiled into an admission of this singularly irreligious work into the list of publications {291} which she had delegated to a Committee to select in usum laicorum.

That a Venerable Society should be caught by the vision of a Church Catholic is not wonderful; but what could possess philosophers and statesmen to dazzle her with it, but man's need of some such support, and the divine excellence and sovereign virtue of that which Faith once created?

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