Page images
[ocr errors]

Is it proposed to leave it as it is? The majority are decidedly opposed to such a course. And so every possible scheme might be rejected in turn, and always with the sanction of the majority. What makes Mr. Playfair's criticism the more absurd is that he himself does actually commit the sin which he imputes to Lord Salisbury. The one point on which Mr. Playfair says that we may find practical unanimity is that there should be university training after the competition; and yet much of his article is devoted to

. attacking this plan, by showing, first that it would not work (p. 121), and secondly, that if it did work it would be unfair to the Scotch universities.

This brings us at last to the local grievance which lies apparently at the root of much of Mr. Playfair's feeling against the new regulations. He fears that by placing the limit of age at nineteen, candidates for the competitive examination will be discouraged from going to the Scotch universities, to the serious detriment of the latter. But a glance at the figures would seem to show that the injury done to them, supposing (which need not be anticipated) that the worst happened, and that they lost all intending competitors, would be so trifling as to be hardly worth considering, if even the smallest benefit is to be derived by the selected candidates from the new system. It appears that the average number of candidates who were at any Scotch university before competition has been not more than eighteen, during the last three years of which we have official information: and of these on an average only about four were successful. Surely to say that four great universities can be seriously affected by losing (supposing they do lose) eighteen students, of whom only about four are good enough to get Indian appointments, is somewhat extravagant. But this is not all. Not only does Mr. Playfair see among the collateral consequences of the scheme a serious injury to the Scotch universities, but the whole thing appears to him to be a dark plot contrived between Lord Salisbury and the University of Oxford, aided and abetted by Sir Henry Maine. On the one hand Lord Salisbury, in defiance of opinion in India, is to lower the maximum age of competition, which Mr. Playfair says is “deeming Oxford wise and India foolish” (p. 117); while on the other hand that university is to provide professorships and readerships in order to give the requisite instruction to the selected candidates, a proceeding which I understand Mr. Playfair to describe as • bidding high for £12,000 a year of public money” (p. 122). So that because a Secretary of State in council and an ancient university see their way to inducing something under forty additional young men to spend incomes of £150 a year at college, therefore India is to be neglected and Scotland left out in the cold !

It is needless to say that this idea is a pure chimera, and that if Oxford has been unduly favoured by the new regulation, it has not


[ocr errors]

been in order to distribute a few thousands a year more among Oxford tradesmen or a few hundreds a year more among Oxford tutors. But has it been unduly favoured? Are these new regulations a violation of the principle of Lord Macaulay's Commission that “all places of liberal education should be fairly dealt by”? Mr. Playfair thinks that they are, but he scarcely makes out his case. In the first place if dealing fairly by all places of liberal education means so arranging the age of competition as to make it equally convenient to all of them, such fair dealing must be unattainable. No ingenuity can fix a date which shall alike suit all the schools and all the universities of the United Kingdom. But, secondly, this “fair dealing was, I apprehend, only intended as a means to an end : the end, namely, of obtaining the widest field from which candidates might be selected. But there is no reason to suppose that this area of selection will be in any way limited by the new system. Scotchmen will not be discouraged from competing, even if they have to come to the examination, as most Englishmen now come, not from college but from school; indeed, since the new course of education may be shorter, and therefore cheaper than the old, it is possible that it may act in favour of the poorer country. And thirdly, “fair dealing” does not mean dealing with different things as if they were similar, it does not require us to ignore real distinctions, but only to exclude arbitrary ones. Now the distinction that may be made by the new system between Oxford and Cambridge on the one hand and some other universities on the other is not arbitrary, but a necessary consequence of the aim of the Indian Government in framing that system. It is thought desirable, not by the Secretary of State alone, but by a large majority of Indian officials, that a certain training should be given to the probationers. Oxford can give it. London University cannot. To treat Oxford and London alike in the matter would be acting not so much fairly as foolishly. In making these remarks I am influenced by no blind admiration for Cambridge ; still less for Oxford. In some important respects they seem to me to fall far more short of the Ideal University than do their poorer sisters north of the Tweed. But it so happens that the one thing the Indian Government desire for their future civilians is the one thing that Oxford and Cambridge can give in the highest perfection. In the advancement of learning, in the work of adding new provinces to the domain of knowledge, many universities are before them, very few I am afraid behind them. But for giving a training, moral and social, to young men on the threshold of life, for supplying those clements of education which the Indian civilian in his solitary and responsible career will most require but can least easily obtain, they stand unrivalled in the world.




HOLBACH'S SISTEM OF NATURE. No survey of the intellectual preparation of the French Revolution would be complete, which should leave out three remarkable books that seemed to speak the last word of the thought of the eighteenth century. That word spoken, it only remained to translate the word into social action. With an account of these three works, I propose to quit a field of study that has perhaps taxed the patience of the readers of this Review for a longer period than it is satisfactory to look back upon.

The System of Nature was published in 1770, eight years before the death of Voltaire and of Rousseau, and it gathered up all the scattered explosives of the criticism of the century into one thundering engine of revolt and destruction. It professed to be the posthumous work of Mirabaud, who had been secretary to the Academy. This was one of the common literary frauds of the time. Its real author was Holbach. It is too systematic and coherently compacted to be the design of more than one man, and it is too systematic also for that one man to have been Diderot, as has been so often assumed. At the same time there are good reasons for believing that not only much of its thought, but some of the pages, were the direct work of Diderot. The latest editor of the heedless philosopher has certainly done right in placing among his miscellanea the declamatory apostrophe which sums up the teachings of this remorseless book. The rumour imputing the authorship to Diderot was so common, and Diderot himself was so disquieted by it, that he actually hastened away from Paris to his native Langres and to the Baths of Bourbonne, in order to be ready to cross the frontier at the first hint of a warrant being out against him.' Diderot has recorded his admiration of his friend's work. “I am disgusted,” he said, “ with the modern fashion of mixing up incredulity and superstition. What I like is a philosophy that is clear, definite, and frank, such as you have in the System of Nature. The author is not an atheist in one page and a deist in another. His philosophy is all of one piece.” ?

No book has ever produced a more widespread shock. Everybody insisted on reading it, and almost everybody was terrified. It suddenly revealed to men, like the blaze of lightning to one faring through

" 2

[blocks in formation]

darkness, the formidable shapes, the unfamiliar sky, the sinister landscape, into which the wanderings of the last fifty years had brought them unsuspecting. They had had half a century of such sharp intellectual delight as had not been known throughout any great society in Europe since the death of Michel Angelo, and had perhaps north of the Alps never been known at all. And now it seemed to many of them, as they turned over the pages of Holbach's book, as if they stood face to face with the devil of the mediæval legend, come to claim their souls. Satire of Job and David, banter about Joshua's massacres and Solomon's concubines, invective against blind pastors of blinder flocks, zeal to place Newton on the throne of Descartes and Locke upon the pedestal of Malebranche, wishes that the last Jansenist might be strangled in the bowels of the last Jesuit-all this had given zest and savour to life. In the midst of their high feast, Holbach pointed to the finger of their own divinity, Reason, writing on the wall the appalling judgments that there is no God; that the universe is only matter in spontaneous movement; and, most grievous word of all, that what men call their souls die with the death of the body, as music dies when the strings are broken.

Galiani, the witty Neapolitan, who had so many good friends in the philosophic circle, anticipated the well-known phrase of a writer of our own day. “The author of the System of Nature,he said, “is the Abbé Terrai of metaphysics : he makes deductions, suspensions of payment, and causes the very Bankruptcy of knowledge, of pleasure, and of the human mind. But you will tell me that after all there were too many rotten securities; that the account was too heavily overdrawn; that there was too much worthless paper on the market. That is true too, and that is why the crisis has come.' Goethe, then a student at Strasburg, has told us what horror and alarm the System of Nature brought into the circle there. “But we could not conceive,” he says, “how such a book could be dangerous. It came to us so gray, so Cimmerian, so corpse-like, that we could hardly endure its presence; we shuddered before it as if it had been a spectre. It struck us as the very quintessence of musty age, savourless, repugnant." 2

If this was the light in which the book appeared to the young man who was soon to be the centre of German literature, the brilliant veteran who had for two generations been the centre of the literature of France was both shocked by the audacity of the new treatise, and alarmed at the peril in which it involved the whole Encyclopædic brotherhood with the Patriarch at their head. Voltaire had no sooner read the System of Nature than he at once snatched up his

(1) Corresp. de Galiani, i. 142.
(2) Wahrheit und Lichtung,

Bk. xi.

[ocr errors]


ever ready pen and plunged into refutation. At the same time he took care that the right persons should hear what he had done. He wrote to his old patron and friend Richelieu, that it would be a great kindness if he would let the King know that the abused Voltaire had written an answer to the book that all the world was talking about. I think, he says, that it is always a good thing to uphold the doctrine of the existence of a God who punishes and rewards : society has need of such an opinion. There is a curious disinterestedness in the notion of Lewis the Fifteenth and Richelieu, two of the wickedest men of their time, being anxious for the demonstration of a Dieu vengeur. Voltaire at least had a very keen sense of the meaning of a court that rewarded and punished. The author of the System of Nature, he wrote to Grimm, ought to have felt that he was undoing his friends, and making them hateful in the eyes of the king and the court. This came true in the case of the great philosopher-king himself. Frederick of Prussia was offended by a book which spared political superstitions as little as theological dogma, and treated kings as boldly as it treated priests. Though keenly occupied in watching the war then waging between Russia and Turkey, and already revolving the partition of Poland, he found time to compose a defence of theism. 'Tis a good sign, Voltaire said to him, when a king and & plain man think alike : their interests are often so hostile, that when their ideas do agree, they must certainly be right.3

The philosophic meaning of Holbach's propositions was never really seized by Voltaire. He is, as has been justly said, the representative of ordinary common-sense, which with its declamations and its appeals to the feelings is wholly without weight or significance as against a philosophic way of considering things, however humble the philosophy may be. He hardly took more pains to understand Holbach, than Johnson took to understand Berkeley. In truth it was a characteristic of Voltaire always to take the social, rather than the philosophic view, of the great issues of the theistic controversy. One day when present at a discussion as to the existence of a deity, in which the negative was being defended with much vivacity, he astonished the company by ordering the servants to leave the room, and then proceeding to lock the door. “Gentlemen,” he explained, “I do not wish my valet to cut my throat tomorrow morning.” It was not the truth of the theistic belief in itself that Voltaire prized, but its supposed utility as an assistant to the police. D'Alembert,

(1) See the article Dieu in the Dict. Philosophique.
(2) Voltaire's Corr., Nov. 1, 1770.
(3) July 27, 1770.

(4) Lange's Gesch. d. Materialismus, i. 369; where the author shows how entirely Voltaire failed to touch Holbach's position as to the meaning of Order in the universe. VOL. XXII. N.S.


« EelmineJätka »