The Great Word Utilizer
January 3, 2011
Now and then I find myself needing a dose of Macaulay -- Thomas Babington, that is.
I can't say that Macaulay was the wisest of political thinkers. He was mesmerized by the idea of progress and, therefore, much too give to talking about what was forward and what was backward. Speaking of Oxford, for example, he once wrote: "The glory of being further behind the age than any other portion of the British people, is one which that learned body acquired early, and has never lost." But here's the thing: you don't even have to believe in progress to see that as a judicious assessment of any great university.
Macaulay mastered a language which illuminates politics. It's a gift which almost none of our current pundits have. The grand thing about it is that it's not pertinent only to British politics from the Civil War to the early 19th century. Reading Macaulay you could think that he had been studying recent behavior in the government of the United States and particularly in the Senate. Of political parties he wrote:
There never was a perfect man. It would, therefore, be the height of absurdity to expect a perfect party or a perfect assembly. For large bodies are far more likely to err than individuals. The passions are inflamed by sympathy; the fear of punishment and the sense of shame are diminished by partition. Every day we see men do for their faction what they would die rather than do for themselves.
When I think about it, I see this would be a rather complimentary thing to say about the current Republicans. I hope it's true. But if I take into account what some of these guys might do acting as individuals, I can't be sure.
Certainly when Macaulay tells us that justice requires us "to invest with the realities of human flesh and blood beings whom we are too much inclined to consider as personified qualities as in an allegory," he's speaking of a form of justice we need badly to remember in America, where it has tended to disappear from our political discourse.
As I say, he was too optimistic about the prospect of things getting perpetually better and certain things being put permanently behind us. He noted that before the Glorious Revolution of 1688, a state trial was merely a murder preceded by a certain amount of gibberish. If he were around now to observe the war on terror he might gain a more realistic assessment of the staying power of gibberish as a prelude to unspeakable behavior. Still, that he knew gibberish functions often as standard procedure in government was to his credit.
I don't think I've ever seen a clearer explanation of the politicized religion we observe so often now raising its head in the U.S. House of Representatives: "Man, in short, is so inconsistent a creature that it is impossible to reason from his belief to his conduct, or from one part of his belief to another." And with respect to that explanation, I hope he was right when he consoled us with this thought: "But narrowness of intellect, and flexibility of principle, though they may be serviceable, can never be respectable."
I discovered this morning, thumbing through a ten-year-old notebook, which included a few jottings on Macaulay, a sentiment of my own, written in December of 2000, which, perhaps, was fertilized by reading Macaulay essays. But, then, perhaps not. It speaks to one of my growing concerns and I suspect I would have arrived at it whether or not I had the benefit of the great 19th century stylist.
When I contemplate the horrors of politics over the course of recorded history -- the lives wasted in jails, the bodies wracked with torture, the heads severed, the rivers of spilled blood -- it's hard not to gag at the thought of my fellow man. Can such evil ever be redeemed? Can it even be stopped? Can there be justification for a race that has done these things? These are questions not to be answered but always to be kept alive.
What Macaulay did do was to remind us with respect to the horrors listed above, that they are always -- always -- accompanied by hypocritical blather which rings hollow as time distances us from it. Since the arrow of time points forever in only one direction, we can't have his take on the bombastic rhetoric we hear everyday justifying behavior which will stink up our national history. But we can have a pretty good idea of the sort of comment he would have made, and I hope remembering him helps us remember our duty to send it out as loudly as we can.
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