Monday, January 07, 2013

The Froude Society

One of the links over at hbd* chick is to a blog by one Foseti explaining How to really read in 2013.  Interesting enough in itself, but what caught my eye was suggestion #3, to join the Froude Society. This particular Victorian was unknown to me, Maine was but a name, and Carlyle I have read only when quoted by someone else.  So while it is not uncharted territory for me, I have never sailed it myself.  Limiting one's reading for a time to authors before the 1920's seemed intriguing.

At their suggestion, I am reading JA Froude's The Bow of Ulysses online. (Also available at Google Books.) Quite fascinating and certainly would be controversial in our age.  Froude is quite unrepentant in defending Empire and White Man's Burden.  He assures us and gives examples that there are races which should not be governing themselves.  It doesn't take long to discover, however, that he is not only talking about blacks, or Indians, Red or Asian, but about the Irish and Spanish as well.  And frankly, he finds even the French and Germans rather unreliable in that regard.  An excellent example of the sentiment satirised by "The Wogs Begin At Calais."

To James Anthony Froude, only those citizens of what we would now call the Anglosphere have had any success at self-governance, and even they get only a passing grade.  World events in the intervening 125 years haven't disproved that claim, have they?  He was explicitly elitist, but in a form which might surprise.  (I thought most of my readers would recognise Gladstone, Cicero, Burke, and Demosthenes, but I don't know them well myself, while Rodney and Warren Hastings were entirely new to me.  I linked them all as a convenience. The occasion is a debate between Tennyson and Gladstone.)
This only was clear to me in thinking over what Mr. Gladstone was reported to have said, and in thinking of his own achievements and career, that there are two classes of men who have played and still play a prominent part in the world--those who accomplish great things, and those who talk and make speeches about them. The doers of things are for the most part silent. Those who build up empires or discover secrets of science, those who paint great pictures or write great poems, are not often to be found spouting upon platforms. The silent men do the work. The talking men cry out at what is done because it is not done as they would have had it, and afterwards take possession of it as if it was their own property. Warren Hastings wins India for us; the eloquent Burke desires and passionately tries to hang him for it. At the supreme crisis in our history when America had revolted and Ireland was defiant, when the great powers of Europe had coalesced to crush us, and we were staggering under the disaster at York Town, Rodney struck a blow in the West Indies which sounded over the world and saved for Britain her ocean sceptre. Just in time, for the popular leaders had persuaded the House of Commons that Rodney ought to be recalled and peace made on any terms.

Even in politics the names of oratorical statesmen are rarely associated with the organic growth of enduring institutions. The most distinguished of them have been conspicuous only as instruments of destruction. Institutions are the slow growths of centuries. The orator cuts them down in a day. The tree falls, and the hand that wields the axe is admired and applauded. The speeches of Demosthenes and Cicero pass into literature, and are studied as models of language. But Demosthenes and Cicero did not understand the facts of their time; their language might be beautiful, and their sentiments noble, but with their fine words and sentiments they only misled their countrymen.

The periods where the orator is supreme are marked always by confusion and disintegration. Goethe could say of Luther that he had thrown back for centuries the spiritual cultivation of mankind, by calling the passions of the multitude to judge of matters which should have been left to the thinkers. We ourselves are just now in one of those uneasy periods, and we have decided that orators are the fittest people to rule over us. The constituencies choose their members according to the fluency of their tongues. Can he make a speech? is the one test of competency for a legislator, and the most persuasive of the whole we make prime minister. We admire the man for his gifts, and we accept what he says for the manner in which it is uttered. He may contradict to-day what he asserted yesterday. No matter. He can persuade others wherever he is persuaded himself. And such is the nature of him that he can convince himself of anything which it is his interest to believe. These are the persons who are now regarded as our wisest. It was not always so. It is not so now with nations who are in a sound state of health. The Americans, when they choose a President or a Secretary of State or any functionary from whom they require wise action, do not select these famous speech-makers. Such periods do not last, for the condition which they bring about becomes always intolerable.
Interesting that the Americans have now moved into a state occupied by the British as Empire was beginning to decay. We have had always had orators in our history, of course, but it is now required, as it was not even as recently as the 1970's.

1 comment:

Sam L. said...

I just read Ch.3 of Froude. Good stuff. And yes, the last paragraph sounds very familiar to current history.