Mr Leslie Stephen as Moralist

Mr Leslie Stephen as Moralist

Mr. Leslie Stephen is one of that privileged class of literary monitors from whom the British public is willing to hear anything whatever with respectful attention—provided only that the said monitors are themselves reassuringly free from any serious convictions. A most docile public it is, ready and indeed anxious to learn, so long as those who speak with authority have nothing particular to teach; for what can be more pleasurable than to be titillated with gravely-balanced words which never go to the extent of committing anybody to action? These conditions are admirably fulfilled by Mr. Leslie Stephen, who is at once kindly, genial, self-satisfied, didactic, and philosophically indifferent. If it is fair to judge him by the book now under review,1 he is an agnostic of agnostics, a man whose balance of thought is so perfect that he is finally swayed by no belief of any kind, conservative or revolutionary, but remains suspended in a state of judicial serenity and equipoise which cannot but command the unstinted praise of the critics.

It would be unfair, however, to suggest that this happy attitude is quite naturally and spontaneously arrived at, for it appears to be the resultant of two conflicting forces at work in Mr. Stephen’s mind. There is in him a strong conservative element, a large share of the timidity and hesitancy, in relation to social movements, that so often mark the character of the literary man. There is also in him something of a progressive element, the intellectual man’s contempt for the old theological dogmas and for the ineptitude and selfishness of the old order of society. To these two opposing tendencies we must ascribe the balance and stability of thought which characterize Mr. Stephen as moralist. For just as two foot-passengers, going in opposite directions, may sometimes be seen in hopeless impasse on the pavement, the very courtesy and agility with which they spring to right or left only resulting in repeated collision and paralysis; so the reactionary element and the progressive element in Mr. Leslie Stephen, meeting at every turn, and for ever courteously “moving” to each other, produce a final condition of philosophical stand still. He sincerely wishes to be modern—he thinks he is modern; yet the greater part of him, like his literary favourites, is eighteenth-century. He conscientiously brings to bear on modern problems, as he sees them through an eighteenth-century halo, his sedate, passionless intellect and reasoned disbelief in “enthusiasms”; he turns the problems this way and that, examines them carefully on each side, and eventually discovers each to be “an amazingly difficult question.” Like a bird in a cage, to whom no course is open but to clutch his perch, he looks wise, sits tight, and maintains a high reputation for masterly inactivity.

The truth is that Mr. Leslie Stephen, while frequently dwelling in these ethical addresses on the need of a new spirit for the solution of social problem, is himself so constitutionally incapable of feeling a new spirit that he cannot even recognize the fact that such a power has arisen. Nor, perhaps, is this greatly to be wondered at; for the evolution of a new spirit in social affairs is not by any means a matter for academical discovery and pronouncement; it affects those who instinctively apprehend and sympathize with it, but remains unperceived by those who dread it in their hearts and pursue it only by the intellect. What may be called social wisdom is quite different from academical wisdom; and you will find many an unlettered working-man, a child as compared with Mr. Leslie Stephen in learning and intellect, who (I will venture to say) is greatly Mr. Stephen’s superior in that more real wisdom which enables those who possess it to feel the true tendency of contemporary ethics, though they would be quite unable to write a disquisition on “Social Duties.” Mr. Stephen deprecates very earnestly what he calls the “appeal to sentiment,” that is to say, a habit which he has noticed in some of his opponents of not meeting argument by argument, but saying “This kind of thing is exploded; it is not up to date; it is as obsolete as the plesiosaurus; and therefore, without bothering ourselves about your reasoning, we shall simply neglect it.” Very reprehensible no doubt it is to neglect argument, as Mr. Stephen himself neglects sentiment, for both are equally necessary; but, after all, in a busy world, where Action has its due sphere as well as Logic, it is natural that those who are launching a new vessel should sometimes be a little impatient with Ancient Mariners who would detain them.

Mr. Stephen stands before us as the exponent of Ethics, and the function of the Ethical Societies, according to his interpretation, is to promote “rational discussion” and “a scientific spirit.” “It is a matter of pressing importance,” he says, “that all people who can think at all should use their own minds, and should do their best to widen and strengthen the influence of the ablest thinkers. The chaotic condition of the average mind is our reason for trying to strengthen the influence, always too feeble, of the genuine thinkers.” Every one will agree with this excellent dictum, but the question still remains, Who are the genuine thinkers? Does Mr. Stephen himself, as a spokesman of the ethical conscience, throw valuable light on the vexed questions of which he treats? Let us take, as a typical instance, his references to socialism, a movement to which he again and again alludes with nervous apprehension and misapprehension. One is forced to the conclusion that Mr. Stephen, for all his multifarious book-learning, knows next to nothing of socialism, and that if he could have had half-an-hour’s talk with (let us say) Mr. Bernard Shaw, or Mr. Sidney Webb, before he wrote these essays on “Social Rights and Duties,” he would have been saved from giving expression to a number of unfortunate sayings, of the easy-going, after-dinner, academic, head-of-college sort of style, which one notes here and there about his pages. He is apparently still a victim of the common delusion that “to share alike” is one of the methods of socialism. He fondly imagines that socialists believe that mere legislative changes, without a corresponding moral improvement, will bring about the millennium; whereas, in fact, the great truth that reform and self-reform must for ever proceed hand in hand, is better known to the average working socialist than to Mr. Leslie Stephen, whose book clearly shows that it is self-reform alone he believes in, if even in that. His remarks about the morality of competition, the incitement-to-industry argument, the improvident poor, etc., are of the same antiquated order— the attitude of a man who has no real knowledge of his adversaries’ case. Of the “rational discussion,” and the “scientific spirit,” there is small trace in Mr. Stephen’s writings when the subject is socialism; there is but a repeated appeal to class prejudices and ancient misunderstandings.

But here some of my readers will be exclaiming, What of Vegetarianism? What has Mr. Leslie Stephen to say about that? Something good, no doubt, as he is so strong an admirer of personal effort and self-improvement, and such qualities as can be practised by the self-respecting Individual without crying for the grandmotherly help of the State? Alas! reader, the references in this book on “Social Rights and Duties” to the social duty of not eating one’s fellow-creatures, are not very numerous—in fact they are limited to one remarkable passage in the chapter on “Ethics and the Struggle for Existence,” and here the passage is:—

“Many of the lower species became subordinate parts of the social organism—that is to say, of the new equilibrium which has been established. There is so far a reciprocal advantage. The sheep that is preserved with a view for mutton gets the advantage, though he is not kept with a view to his own advantage. Of all the arguments for Vegetarianism, none is so weak as the argument from humanity. The pig has a stronger interest than any one in the demand for bacon. If all the world were Jewish, there would be no pigs at all. He has to pay for his privileges by an early death; but he makes a good bargain of it. He, dies young, and though we can hardly infer the ‘love of the gods,’ we must admit that he gets a superior race of beings to attend to his comforts, moved by the strongest possible interest in his health and vigour, and induced by its own needs, perhaps, to make him a little too fat for comfort, but certainly also to see that he has a good sty, and plenty to eat every day of his life.”

Of the many fatuous things that have been said by the opponents of Vegetarianism, surely nothing can beat the words which I have italicized in the above passage. Here we have it distinctly asserted, by one who claims to be an authority on Ethics, that the humane revolt against the disgusting horrors of the cattle-ship and the slaughter-house—a revolt which has been more or less felt by all men and women of sensitive and sympathetic nature—is founded on absolute delusion, and is the weakest of all the arguments that vegetarians can bring forward! And why? Because, forsooth, the fact that man breeds these animals for dietetic purposes gives him a claim on their gratitude which more than compensates for the torture he after afterwards inflicts on them. A father might claim the moral right to kill and eat his children on precisely the same grounds. It is an argument will equally justify cannibalism, slavery, vivisection—what you will. It was used in Parliament in 1883 by Sir Herbert Maxwell, in his defence of the so-called “sport” of pigeon-shooting, when Mr. W. E. Forster sarcastically retorted that what we have to consider is not a blue-rock before existence, but a blue-rock in existence. It is based on the absurd fallacy of an imaginary ante-natal choice, in an imaginary ante-natal existence—a fallacy which has been exposed so often that I may excuse myself the trouble of exposing it again in this article, and merely ask Mr. Leslie Stephen and his colleagues of the Ethical Society whether they seriously maintain it. It might have been supposed to be a joke, of an ethical and pathetical kind; but we remember that Mr. D. G. Ritchie, another shining light of Ethics, also used the argument in his work on “Natural Rights.” There it stands, under Mr. Ri tchie’s name, in the “Library of Philosophy”; and here it stands in the “Library of Ethics,” under the name of Mr. Leslie Stephen. I ask in all earnestness, Is it Philosophy? Is it Ethics? Is it a specimen of the “rational discussion,” and the “scientific spirit,” by which Mr. Stephen hopes to remedy the “chaotic condition of the average mind?”

“I shall not insult you by exposing fallacies,” says Mr. Stephen, “and yet, so long as they survive, they have to be met by truisms.” They have; and with all respect for Mr Stephen’s personal geniality and acknowledged services to literature, the truisms with which I shall venture to conclude are these—that Learning is not by any means identical with Wisdom; that it is one thing to write accomplished monographs on Swift or Johnson, and another to lecture a progressive age on “Social Rights and Duties”, and that ethical systems which are devoid of sympathy and enthusiasm, and find no outlet in action, will prove as ineffectual at the present day as the Thirty-nine Articles, in which Mr. Stephen, as he tell us, was fruitlessly instructed in his youth. “They could not get any vital hold in an atmosphere of tolerable enlightenment.”

1 “Social Rights and Duties,” Addresses to Ethical Societies, by Leslie Stephen. (Two volumes, 9s. Swan Sonnenschein, 1896.)

Henry S. Salt

Vegetarian Review, June 1896