Topic - Education IV. The Tamworth Reading Room

(Addressed to the Editor of the TIMES. By Catholicus.)

1. Secular Knowledge in contrast with Religion

{254} SIR,—Sir Robert Peel's position in the country, and his high character, render it impossible that his words and deeds should be other than public property. This alone would furnish an apology for my calling the attention of your readers to the startling language, which many of them doubtless have already observed, in the Address which this most excellent and distinguished man has lately delivered upon the establishment of a Library and Reading-room at Tamworth; but he has superseded the need of apology altogether, by proceeding to present it to the public in the form of a pamphlet. His speech, then, becomes important, both from the name and the express act of its author. At the same time, I must allow that he has not published it in the fulness in which it was spoken. Still it seems to me right and fair, or rather imperative, to animadvert upon it as it has appeared in your columns, since in that shape it will have the widest circulation. A public man must not claim to harangue the whole world in newspapers, and then to offer his second thoughts to such as choose to buy them at a bookseller's. {255}

I shall surprise no one who has carefully read Sir Robert's Address, and perhaps all who have not, by stating my conviction, that, did a person take it up without looking at the heading, he would to a certainty set it down as a production of the years 1827 and 1828,—the scene Gower Street, the speaker Mr. Brougham or Dr. Lushington, and the occasion, the laying the first stone, or the inauguration, of the then-called London University. I profess myself quite unable to draw any satisfactory line of difference between the Gower Street and the Tamworth Exhibition, except, of course, that Sir Robert's personal religious feeling breaks out in his Address across his assumed philosophy. I say assumed, I might say affected;—for I think too well of him to believe it genuine.

On the occasion in question, Sir Robert gave expression to a theory of morals and religion, which of course, in a popular speech, was not put out in a very dogmatic form, but which, when analyzed and fitted together, reads somewhat as follows:Human nature, he seems to say, if left to itself, becomes sensual and degraded. Uneducated men live in the indulgence of their passions; or, if they are merely taught to read, they dissipate and debase their minds by trifling or vicious publications. Education is the cultivation of the intellect and heart, and Useful Knowledge is the great instrument of education. It is the parent of virtue, the nurse of religion; it exalts man to his highest perfection, and is the sufficient scope of his most earnest exertions.

Physical and moral science rouses, transports, exalts, enlarges, tranquillizes, and satisfies the mind. Its attractiveness obtains a hold over us; the excitement attending it supersedes grosser excitements; it makes {256} us know our duty, and thereby enables us to do it; by taking the mind off itself, it destroys anxiety; and by providing objects of admiration, it soothes and subdues us.

And, in addition, it is a kind of neutral ground, on which men of every shade of politics and religion may meet together, disabuse each other of their prejudices, form intimacies, and secure cooperation.

This, it is almost needless to say, is the very theory, expressed temperately, on which Mr. Brougham once expatiated in the Glasgow and London Universities. Sir R. Peel, indeed, has spoken with somewhat of his characteristic moderation; but for his closeness in sentiment to the Brougham of other days, a few parallels from their respective Discourses will be a sufficient voucher.

For instance, Mr. Brougham, in his Discourses upon Science, and in his Pursuit of Knowledge under Difficulties [Note], wrote about the "pure delight" of physical knowledge, of its "pure gratification," of its "tendency to purify and elevate man's nature," of its "elevating and refining it," of its "giving a dignity and importance to the enjoyment of life." Sir Robert, pursuing the idea, shows us its importance even in death, observing, that physical knowledge supplied the thoughts from which "a great experimentalist professed in his last illness to derive some pleasure and some consolation, when most other sources of consolation and pleasure were closed to him."

Mr. Brougham talked much and eloquently of "the sweetness of knowledge," and "the charms of philosophy," of students "smitten with the love of knowledge," of {257} "wooing truth with the unwearied ardour of a lover," of "keen and overpowering emotion, of ecstasy," of "the absorbing passion of knowledge," of "the strength of the passion, and the exquisite pleasure of its gratification." And Sir Robert, in less glowing language, but even in a more tender strain than Mr. Brougham, exclaims, "If I can only persuade you to enter upon that delightful path, I am sanguine enough to believe that there will be opened to you gradual charms and temptations which will induce you to persevere."

Mr. Brougham naturally went on to enlarge upon "bold and successful adventures in the pursuit;"—such, perhaps, as in the story of Paris and Helen, or Hero and Leander; of daring ambition in its course to greatness,"[sic] of "enterprising spirits," and their "brilliant feats," of "adventurers of the world of intellect," and of "the illustrious vanquishers of fortune." And Sir Robert, not to be outdone, echoes back "aspirations for knowledge and distinction," "simple determination of overcoming difficulties," "premiums on skill and intelligence," "mental activity," "steamboats and railroads," "producer and consumer," "spirit of inquiry afloat;" and at length he breaks out into almost conventical eloquence, crying, "Every newspaper teems with notices of publications written upon popular principles, detailing all the recent discoveries of science, and their connexion with improvements in arts and manufactures. Let me earnestly entreat you not to neglect the opportunity which we are now willing to afford you! It will not be our fault if the ample page of knowledge, rich with the spoils of time, is not unrolled to you! We tell you," etc., etc.

Mr. Brougham pronounces that a man by "learning truths wholly new to him," and by "satisfying himself of the grounds on which known truths rest," "will enjoy {258} a proud consciousness of having, by his own exertions, become a wiser, and therefore a more exalted creature." Sir Robert runs abreast of this great sentiment. He tells us, in words which he adopts as his own, that a man "in becoming wiser will become better:" he will "rise at once in the scale of intellectual and moral existence, and by being accustomed to such contemplations, he will feel the moral dignity of his nature exalted."

Mr. Brougham, on his inauguration at Glasgow, spoke to the ingenuous youth assembled on the occasion, of "the benefactors of mankind, when they rest from their pious labours, looking down upon the blessings with which their toils and sufferings have clothed the scene of their former existence;" and in his Discourse upon Science declared it to be "no mean reward of our labour to become acquainted with the prodigious genius of those who have almost exalted the nature of man above his destined sphere;" and who "hold a station apart, rising over all the great teachers of mankind, and spoken of reverently, as if Newton and La Place were not the names of mortal men." Sir Robert cannot, of course, equal this sublime flight; but he succeeds in calling Newton and others "those mighty spirits which have made the greatest (though imperfect) advances towards the understanding of 'the Divine Nature and Power.'"

Mr. Brougham talked at Glasgow about putting to flight the "evil spirits of tyranny and persecution which haunted the long night now gone down the sky," and about men "no longer suffering themselves to be led blindfold in ignorance;" and in his Pursuit of Knowledge he speaks of Pascal having, "under the influence of certain religious views, during a period of {259} depression, conceived scientific pursuits "to be little better than abuse of his time and faculties." Sir Robert, fainter in tone, but true to the key, warns his hearers,—"Do not be deceived by the sneers that you hear against knowledge, which are uttered by men who want to depress you, and keep you depressed to the level of their own contented ignorance."

Mr. Brougham laid down at Glasgow the infidel principle, or, as he styles it, "the great truth," which "has gone forth to all the ends of the earth, that man shall no more render account to man for his belief, over which he has himself no control." And Dr. Lushington applied it in Gower Street to the College then and there rising, by asking, "Will any one argue for establishing a monopoly to be enjoyed by the few who are of one denomination of the Christian Church only?" And he went on to speak of the association and union of all without exclusion or restriction, of "friendships cementing the bond of charity, and softening the asperities which ignorance and separation have fostered." Long may it be before Sir Robert Peel professes the great principle itself! even though, as the following passages show, he is inconsistent enough to think highly of its application in the culture of the mind. He speaks, for instance, of "this preliminary and fundamental rule, that no works of controversial divinity shall enter into the library (applause),"—of "the institution being open to all persons of all descriptions, without reference to political opinions, or religious creed,"—and of "an edifice in which men of all political opinions and all religious feelings may unite in the furtherance of knowledge, without the asperities of party feeling." Now, that British society should consist of persons of different religions, is this a positive standing evil, to be endured at best as unavoidable, {260} or a topic of exultation? Of exultation, answers Sir Robert; the greater differences the better, the more the merrier. So we must interpret his tone.

It is reserved for few to witness the triumph of their own opinions; much less to witness it in the instance of their own direct and personal opponents. Whether the Lord Brougham of this day feels all that satisfaction and inward peace which he attributes to success of whatever kind in intellectual efforts, it is not for me to decide; but that he has achieved, to speak in his own style, a mighty victory, and is leading in chains behind his chariot-wheels, a great captive, is a fact beyond question.

Such is the reward in 1841 for unpopularity in 1827.

What, however, is a boast to Lord Brougham, is in the same proportion a slur upon the fair fame of Sir Robert Peel, at least in the judgment of those who have hitherto thought well of him. Were there no other reason against the doctrine propounded in the Address which has been the subject of these remarks, (but I hope to be allowed an opportunity of assigning others,) its parentage would be a grave primā facie difficulty in receiving it. It is, indeed, most melancholy to see so sober and experienced a man practising the antics of one of the wildest performers of this wild age; and taking off the tone, manner, and gestures of the versatile ex-Chancellor, with a versatility almost equal to his own.

Yet let him be assured that the task of rivalling such a man is hopeless, as well as unprofitable. No one can equal the great sophist. Lord Brougham is inimitable in his own line.

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[This latter work is wrongly ascribed to Lord Brougham in this passage. It is, however, of the Brougham school.]
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