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[Frederick Denison Maurice]
Sketches of Contemporary Authors. Sir James Mackintosh.
The Athenaeum  Vol. 1  No. 16  (18 March 1828)  249-50.
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Literary and Critical Journal.

No. 16. LONDON, TUESDAY, MARCH 18, 1828. Price 7d.


No. X.—Sir James Mackintosh.

The reputation of this writer is very disproportionate to the extent of his definite and tangible performances. He stands, in general estimation, among the highest names of our day for speculative science, for politics, legislation, history, and rhetoric. Yet the works which have gained for him this high character are few and small—two or three pamphlets, a score of speeches, and as many anonymous papers in the Edinburgh Review. The merit of these, both for ability of thought and beauty of composition, is a sufficient warrant for the nature of the source from which they came; and we only lament that so bright a water should flow forth in such scanty streams. These writings have been sufficient to convince the world that Sir James Mackintosh is one of a small and neglected class, the lovers of wisdom. But men have done him more justice than they ordinarily render to his brethren; for he is thought of, almost on all hands, not as a dreamer of dreams, a wanderer through a limbo of vanity, but as rich in all recorded knowledge, and an honest and eloquent teacher. This fame has been obtained, not by the size of his writings, but the loftiness of the ground on which they are placed, that pure and philosophical elevation from which even the smallest object will project its shadow over an empire:* and, though vigour and perseverance are necessary to attain that height, how much larger does it make the circle of vision, than, when, standing among the paths of common men, our eyes are strained by gazing into the distance. It is not merely by the talent displayed in his works, brilliant and powerful as it is, nor by the quantity of his information, however various and profound, that he has obtained his present celebrity, but, in a great degree, by the tone of dignity and candour, which is so conspicuous a characteristic of his mind. He has less of the spirit of party than almost any partisan we remember.

His greatest talent is the power of acquiring knowledge from the thoughts of others. Of the politicians of our day, if not of all living Englishmen whatever, he is incomparably the most learned. His acquaintance with the history of the human mind, both in the study of its own laws, and in action, is greater than that of any contemporary writer of our country: and his intimacy with the revolutions and progress of modern Europe, both in politics and literature, is, indeed, perfectly marvellous. He is also the more to be trusted in his writings on these points, because he is not very exclusively wedded to any peculiar system or even science. Many of the chroniclers or commentators of particular tracts in the wide empire of knowledge, seem to consider that their own department is the only important one, or, even that their own view of it is incalculably and beyond dispute, the most deserving of attention; their works thus resemble some oriental maps, in which the Indian ocean is a creek of the Persian gulf, and Europe, Asia, and Africa, are paltry appendages to Arabia. Sir James Mackintosh is, in a great degree, free from this error: and we are inclined to think, that the most valuable service he has it in his power to render to the world, would be by publishing a history of philosophy from the tenth to the seventeenth century; not because he has thought the thoughts, or felt the feelings, of those ages, but because he would give us fair and candid abstracts of the books which he had studied, and would supply questions to be answered by the oracle, of which he is not himself a priest; so that men of a more catholic, and less latitudinarian spirit, might find in his pages the elements of a wisdom to which he can minister, though he cannot teach it. He knows whatever has been produced in other men by the strong and restless workings of the principles of their nature. But he seems himself to have felt but little of such prompting. The original sincerity and goodness of his mind, display themselves unconsciously in much of his writing; but they do not appear to have given him that earnest impulsion which would have made him an apostle of truth, and a reformer of mankind. He is in all things a follower of some previously recognised opinions, because he has neither the boldness which would carry him beyond the limits consecrated by habit, nor the feeling of a moral want unsatisfied, which would have urged him thus to take a wider range. But having an acute intellectual vision, and a wish to arrive at conviction, he has chosen the best of what was before him, within the region of precedent and authority. He has plucked the fairest produce of the domain of our ancestors from the trees that they planted, and which have been cultivated till now in their accustomed methods. But he has not leaped the boundaries, and gone forth to search for nobler plants and richer fruit, nor has he dared to touch even the tree of knowledge which flourishes within the garden. He has looked for truth among the speculations of a thousand minds, and he has found little but its outward forms. He has abstracted something here, and added something there; he has classed opinions, and brought them into comparison; and picked out this from one, and joined on that to another; now wavered to the right, now faltered to the left; and scarce rejecting or believing any thing strongly, has become learned with unprofitable learning, and filled his mind with elaborate and costly furniture, which chokes up its passages, and darkens its windows. He has slain a hundred systems, and united their lifeless limbs into a single figure. But the vital spirit is not his to give. It is not the living hand of Plato or Bacon, which points out to him the sanctuary; but the monuments and dead statues of philosophers block up the entrance to the Temple of Wisdom. His mind is made up of the shreds and parings of other thinkers. The body of his philosophic garment is half taken from the gown of Locke, and half from the cassock of Butler; the sleeves are torn from the robe of Leibnitz, and the cape is of the ermine of Shaftesbury; and wearing the cowl of Aquinas, and shod in the sandals of Aristotle, he comes out before the world with the trumpet of Cicero at his lips, the club of Hobbes in one hand, and the mace of Bacon in the other.

Having thus formed his opinions from books, without having nourished any predominant feeling or belief in his own mind,—his creed is far too munch a matter of subtleties and difficulties, and nicely balanced system. It is all arranged and polished, and prepared against objection, and carefully compacted together like a delicate Mosaic; but it is not a portion of the living substance of his mind. It is easy to perceive, to learn, to talk about a principle, and the man of the highest talent will do this best. But, to know it, it must be felt. And here the man of talent is often at fault, while some one without instruction, or even intellectual power, may not only apprehend the truth, as if by intuition, rather than by thought, but embrace and cherish it in his inmost heart, and make it the spring of his whole being. Sir James Mackintosh has, unfortunately, buried the seeds of this kind of wisdom under heaps of learned research and difficult casuistry. He has given no way to the free expansion of his nature; nor rendered himself up to be the minister and organs of good, which will needs speak boldly wherever there are lips willing to interpret it. This, perhaps, is not seen clearly by the world. But the want is felt; and the most disciplined metaphysician, be the strength and width of his comprehension what it may, will inevitably find, that men can reap no comfort nor hope in doubts and speculations, however ingenious, or however brilliant, unless they hear a diviner power breathing in the voices of their teachers. The understanding cans speak only to the understanding. The memory cams enrich only the memory. But there is that within us, of which both understanding and memory are instruments; and he who addresses it can alone be certain that his words will thrill through all the borders of the world, and utter consolation to all his kind.

He seems to us to he a man of doubting and qualifying mind, who would willingly find out the best if he had courage to despise the throng, to desert their paths, and boldly go in search of it. He heads the crowd in the road they are travelling; but he will not seek to lead them in a new direction. Nor is it only in any one particular department of thought that he seeks to support himself by the doctrines of his predecessors, and the prejudices of his contemporaries; in short, to move the future by the rotten lever of the past. It is a propensity which guides and governs him in all his labours. In politics, he is a professed whig; that is, a man who, provided no great and startling improvements are attempted, is perfectly willing that mankind, as they creep onward, should fling off, grain by grain, the load with which they now are burthened: though he holds it certain that we are doomed by nature to sweat and groan for ever under by far the larger portion of our present fardels. He will not venture to conclude that the whole of a political system is bad; but his reason and his good feelings tell him that the separate parts are all indefensible. He halts perpetually between two opinions; and while decidedly a friend to the people, he is not near so certainly an enemy to bad government. He is too wise and too virtuous not to know that reform must begin; but he is too cautious and timid to pronounce how far it shall be allowed to go. What he would do in politics, is all good; but he seems afraid to proceed to extremity, even in improvement. This propensity arises in part from his natural hesitations and weakness of temperament: but is strengthened, and in his view sanctioned, by the effects of his historical studies. For he seems to have been very much influenced by the feeling of exclusive respect for the past, which is so apt to creep unconsciously and gradually, like the rust of time upon a coin, over the minds of those who devote themselves chiefly to by-gone ages. They do not see how far the path is open before us, because their eyes are constantly turned backwards; and, from the same cause, they are liable, in moving onward, to stumble over the slightest impediment. Sir James Mackintosh has obviously escaped (thanks to his speculative and benevolent habit of feeling) from the worst degree of this tendency; and, in charging him with it at all, we are not sure that his attempt to reform the criminal law might not be held up to us as a sufficient and complete answer. But it certainly does seem, that it has acted upon him in a certain degree, in connection with the bent of his moral and metaphysical opinions, to prevent him from hoping, and therefore from attempting, any great amelioration of mankind. He is, moreover, from his habits of research and study, far too much of the professor, to be all that he ought to be of the statesman. With his eloquence, his knowledge of the laws, his station in general opinion, and his seat in Parliament, he might make himself an instrument of the widest good. But, alas! he retreats from the senate to the library, and, when he casually emerges into affairs, he, who might be the guiding star of his country, if he be not a mere partisan, appears as little better than a book-worm.

It is truly wonderful to consider, recognised by all as are the talents and acquirements of Sir James Mackintosh, how little effect he produces upon the public mind. Every body is willing to
* If we remember right, it is said, that, from one of the Swiss mountains, the traveller may see his own shadow thrown at sunrise to a distance of many leagues.
respect his judgment, and to learn from his knowledge; but the prophet will not speak. He holds a sceptre which he will not wield, and is gifted with a futile supremacy. He is one of the many able men who do nothing, because they cannot do all. He seems to spend his time in storing up information for the ‘moth and rust to corrupt.’ He has none of the eager earnestness of mind, which would make him impatient at seeing the great and mingling currents of human life flow past him, without himself plunging into the stream. He forgets that, if he had written ten times as much, it would probably be only a few degrees less precious than what he has accomplished: and the world would have been influenced nearly ten times more by his abilities and knowledge. He would, doubtless, then have been prevented from heaping into his memory so much of the deeds and sayings of other men; but he would have done more good, and said more truth, himself. He would not so thoroughly have known past history; but he would have been a nobler subject for future historians. Even his opinions on the constitution and laws of the human mind, he has never put forth boldly and formally; nor would it be easy to prove, from either his avowed or his anonymous productions, at what point he stands between
Kant and Hume. On one great subject, namely, the essential difference between right and wrong, he has more than once declared himself; and as this point is at present of great interest, and larger masses of belief seem daily ranging themselves on opposite sides, it is one with regard to which we will venture to say a very few words. It is the theory of Sir James Mackintosh that expediency is the foundation of morality, but a large and universal expediency, which embodies itself in rules that admit of no question or compromise. He thus stands among the advocates of ‘utility,’ but on the border nearest to their antagonists. His principle is obviously much less liable to fluctuation and uncertainty, than that of the reasoners who, like him, basing their system on expediency, perpetually recur to the first principle of the doctrine, and will never take for granted, however general may be the assent of mankind, that any rule of conduct is right, unless they can demonstrate its beneficial consequence. The whole question, however, is evidently one of fact, and it would be futile to say that a different notion from that of the ‘Utilitarians’ would be more useful than theirs, supposing that, as they pretend, their creed can be proved to be the true one. But on this ground we are content to place the matter; and we are just as certain, as of the existence of our senses, that there is, in the human mind, a simple and primary idea of the distinction between right and wrong, not produced by experience, but developing itself in proportion to the growth of the mind. We do not say that the contrary belief is false, because it produces the state of moral disease which, we think, we can observe in the greater number of its supporters; but we maintain, that it is at once the result and the evidence, in short, the symptom, of that unhealthy condition. It is one of the characteristics of that mental habit in which there is so much of narrowness both in thought and feeling, and which has so strong a tendency to repress all that there is within us of nobler and more hopeful power. It seems certain that the habitual recurrence to expediency, as the standard of our conduct, must have the tendency to make us less and less moral, and more and more selfish beings; until it has completely extinguished those sympathies which unite us to all our race, and which never were acted upon uniformly by any one who was accustomed to calculate their reaction upon himself.

That Sir James Mackintosh holds the theory of expediency in such a manner as to diminish his benevolence, we certainly do not believe. Like all the good men who have adopted this system, he probably feels a power which his intellect denies; and it is this which adds all the sanction and glory, which he and they are conscious of, to the relations that connect them with their species. But that his denial of any other basis of moral distinction than expediency has tended very much to cramp the general strain of his speculations, we are just as certain; and we think that the traces of this result, or rather of the character of mind which produced both evils, may be observed in his earliest production. The ‘Vindiciæ Gallicæ’ is a very clever book to have been written by a very young man. There is in it a completeness and vigour of reasoning, and a fulness and almost eloquence of style, which would do credit to any time of life, and justly brought distinction to the youth of Sir James Mackintosh. But there is perhaps in that very nearness to excellence an evidence that there could be no closer approach. A child of three feet high, and of the exact proportions of a man, is a miracle in boyhood; but he will never grow, and the man will be a dwarf. The mind, exhibited in the work in question, is not in the immaturity of greatness, but second-rate power in its highest development. There are in it none of the eager rushings to a truth, which is yet beyond our reach,—none of those unsuccessful graspings at wide principles, and abortive exertions to make manifest those ideas of which as yet we only feel the first stirrings,—none of those defeated attempts, the best warrant of future success, which we find in the earlier works of master intellects. It is not that he has an imperfect view of all extensive field, but that he seems circumscribed by a boundary, within which all is clear to him, but beyond which he does not attempt to look. There are no chasms, such as in thinking over a subject almost every young man must have felt that he did not know how to fill up, but which he knew, at the same time, required to be closed by some idea which he could not at the time command. There is nothing of this sort from beginning to end of the book; and therefore a philosopher might have predicted even then that the writer would never reform a science, or create a system. The department of thought in which, from the time he is understood to have given to it, and from its own exceeding imperfection, he would have been most likely to work out some great regeneration, is the philosophy of international law. Yet it stands very nearly where it did: and Sir James Mackintosh does not seem even to have attempted to introduce new principles, into a mass of rule and custom that is still, in a great degree, what it was made by the necessities or ignorance of our semi-barbarous forefathers. He seems to us, in short, to be distinguished chiefly by readiness in accumulating the thoughts of others, by subtlety in discerning differences, and by the greatest power of expression which can exist without any thing of poetical imagination.