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Platonism in Politics

Political Thought in England from Herbert Spencer to To-day, by Ernest Barker. (Home University Library.) New York: Henry Holt and Co. 50 cents net.

When peace has at last been signed, and the world becomes in some sort a reasonable place, Englishmen will be compelled to turn to the reconstruction of their political life. What is the mental attitude in which they will approach that task? Whence will be drawn its deepest inspiration? To these questions Mr. Barker's book is in some sort an answer.

It is a valuable book. To an Oxford man it reads with much of that genial incisiveness most characteristic of Mr. Barker's mind. Certain things are to him—and to Oxford men in general—necessary assumptions. There is, for example, a clear division between theory and practice. "Theory studies the pure instance," Mr. Barker writes, "if practice has to reckon with variations." And so we have a political philosophy built up from the consideration of these pure instances. You visualize the Russian, the Englishman, the German; each is one and indivisible. You do not think of them as of innumerable grades and classes—the English docker at Wapping, the retired colonel in the Army and Navy Club, the jaded professor in the backwoods of a Welsh university—you synthesize them, somewhat mysteriously, into a new and single being. So, too, with ideas and institutions. Only practice has to reckon with variations. 

I think that in essence Mr. Barker is fairly representative of the general Oxford outlook. He believes that the sciences deal, not in terms of value, but in terms of description. They supply only the subject-matter of his philosophy. This he can sort neatly, and with remarkable ingenuity, into its "types," the assumption being—we are back again at Plato—that each type reflects at bottom some essential "idea."

It is important to realize the meaning of this philosophical out look. Oxford has made tacit claim, not without justice, to be the nursing-ground of English statesmanship. Her statesmen—Canning, Peel, Gladstone—her administrators, her proconsuls, have all been in a special sense "Oxford men." Theirs has been a training in which the acceptance of Platonism, filtered during the last generation through the fine sieve of T. H. Green and Edward Caird, has played chief part. They have gone out into the world instinctively assuming that they would find men reduced to types just as tables are ultimately reduced to the idea of table,- variations, of course, they would find, but these would be accidental, and not of the essence of things. Lord Curzon's rule in India, where, clearly, for him India meant a single, simple Hindu, to be regimented according to an "idea" of how to treat subject-peoples—of which the germ was present in Aristotle—was the expression of this standpoint. Mr. Asquith's mind works in a not dissimilar way. His extraordinarily injudicious treatment of the militant suffragists, for instance, can best be explained by the assumption that he had formed for himself a type-suffragist to whom, as his standard of the "pure" instance, the Ding an sich, he referred all variations. I need not dwell upon the results of that error of judgment. One thinks, too, of Mr. Gladstone treating poor Queen Victoria as a public meeting, simply because to him "man" could be intoxicated by the exuberance of Mr. Gladstone's own verbosity. Or, lastly, this same outlook is seen in the vague personalization of Germany as a single German, of England as that large-toothed monster of the Munich Simplicissimus, which stands so much in the way of international understanding.

All this, of course, is only implied in Mr. Barker's philosophy; but it has consequences it is well to understand. Oxford is going to play a large part in the making of a new England. Can she do so at all adequately unless she realizes that however valuable this "qualitative" outlook may be, the fundamental outlook to-day must be—I am using Mr. Graham Wallas' admirable terms—"quantitative" in texture? We do not legislate for a typical "England" and a typical "Englishman." We legislate for England that varies from Belgravia to Bow, and for Englishmen who vary, even at Oxford, from Mr. F. H. Bradley to D r. Schiller. We legislate, in fact, for a community in which we have to take account not only of the state—which, as Mr. Barker has well said, is liable today to serious discredit—but also of churches, trade-unions, employers' associations, corps of National and Ulster Volunteers, each of which stands on its own feet, each of which demonstrates that society to be pluralist and not monist in its nature. In fact, as William James saw, the fundamental problem is just this of the One and the Many. For us there is not Man but men, not the State, but a federation of competing associations. For Mr. Barker this Manyness is Oneness in the end.

It is a brilliant defence of his position, this book, the more brilliant because Mr. Barker is, politically, a radical, and deeply compromised to sympathy with all that makes for social advance. So, of course, is modern Oxford—no longer the home of lost causes, but of causes that are yet to be won. But surely, however greatly we may welcome the fact of this sympathy, it is the attitude of mind in which we translate it into terms of political activity that really matters. Now it seems clear that if we are going to legislate, we have got to become inductive-minded. We have got to conceive of men not as pathetic deviations from some "economic man," or "political man," or "psychological man," or any other example hujus omnis generis. We have got to carry in our minds a picture of men that corresponds to something like the curves with which Professor Karl Pearson is making us increasingly, if reluctantly, familiar. We shall remember, too, that each unit in those curves is a human being, and if we emphasize his identity with his fellow-men, we shall also emphasize his uniqueness. We shall recognize the reality of that separateness. If at bottom theory is unconcerned with it because it deals only with the "pure" instance, we shall desert a theory so poor and naked, and invent a new theory more consonant with the appearances that in the life we know have hardened into realities. I think, in fact, that in political theory we shall be compelled, if we are to do useful work, to be radical empiricists.

Oxford, if she is to bear her natural part in this renascence, must admit the growth of knowledge. Things like experimental psychology and biometry must be allowed their chance to contribute to our understanding. We must admit our types as true only to the extent of their utility. Our classifications must be elastic, quick, and mobile, that is to say human. We may reverence Plato and Hegel. That is no reason for excluding James and Ebbinghaus.

That brings me back to Mr. Barker. His is a delightfully written and ably argued discussion of the modern trend in political thought. Some of it, as, for example, the chapter on T. H. Green, and the discussion of Maitland's view of legal personality, is very good writing and better analysis. If the intimate dissection of Herbert Spencer is the flogging of a very dead horse, that is Herbert Spencer's fault and not Mr. Barker's. It is too—one writes the word gladly—a very human book, that not only because it records the opinion of men, but also because it is the reflexion of a finely arresting personality. If, in fundamentals, one finds oneself differing from Mr. Barker, one finds oneself also regretting it and, even more, doubting very seriously—perhaps re-testing is the better word—one's own conclusions. And an old pupil may be pardoned for exclaiming that he would dearly like to be back in Oxford to talk it all over with Mr. Barker.

This article originally ran in the July 3, 1915, issue of the magazine.