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Walter Bagehot on Ancient and English Civilization June 14, 2010

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of the Human Sciences.
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Walter Bagehot (3 February 1826 – 24 March 1877) in both Physics and Politics (1872) and in The English Constitution (1867) combined a historical and functional analysis of political institutions with an anthropological account of their primeval origins and the forces behind their growth.  These writings on political theory combine the sociological account of the utility of institutions found in Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America with the economic and material anthropology of Henry Maine’s Ancient Law.

Bagehot’s Physics and Politics was also an extension of the work of Henry Maine, which like that of John Lubbock, Lewis Henry Morgan, John Ferguson McLennan, and Edward B. Tylor, was part of the late nineteenth century effort to ground the most primeval age of man in scientific fact, using a variety of evidences from linguistics, archeology, contemporary traveler and missionary accounts, and biblical hermeneutics. Bagehot, like his Enlightenment predecessors  Edward Gibbon, David Hume, and William Robertson,  was most concerned to discern what factors accounted for the progress which appeared to separate refined Europe from the underdeveloped rest of the globe.  Such an inquiry was given new life by what appeared to social theorists to be a satisfying account of the mechanism behind social, political, and intellectual development, that of “natural selection.”  Bagehot grafted archeological, linguistic, and legal researches onto this biological causality.  For Bagehot, this biological narrative was superior to the merely conjectural account of the Enlightenment due to its ability to ground a working hypothesis in natural laws, whereby the development of human civilization mirrored that of the rest of nature. 

Henry Maine’s Ancient Law was, for its part, a critique of the historical theory of Montesquieu and of Jeremy Bentham, and of the “social  compact” tradition of John Locke and the Swiss jurist Jean-Jacques Burlamaqui.  Locke’s notion of a “social compact” and Thomas Hobbes’ account of the state of nature “resemble each other strictly in their non-historic, unverifiable condition of the race” (Ancient Law, 1906, p.124.)  Hobbes and Locke agreed that a “great chasm” separated man from the state of nature to that of society (1bid.)

Montesquieu was to be faulted for his assumption that “laws are the creatures of climate, local situation, accident, or imposture,” with Montesquieu in The Spirit of the Laws viewing the nature of man as entirely “plastic” (126.)   Montesquieu, however, “greatly underrates the stability of human nature,” paying “little or no regard to the inherited qualities of the race, those qualities which each generation receives from its predecessors, and transmits but slightly altered to the generation which follows it” (ibid.)  Bentham, on the other hand, suggested that “societies modify, and have always modified, their laws according to modifications of their views of general expediency” which while not “false” is “certainly unfruitful” (127.)

The mistake of all these political theorists  was analogous to one who “in investigating the laws of the material universe, should commence by contemplating the existing physical world as a whole, instead of beginning with the particles which are its simplest ingredients” (128.)   The simplest ingredients, according to Maine, were primitive societies, known through three kinds of evidence: anthropological accounts, ancient records, and “ancient law.”  The evidence gathered through the observation of primitive tribes was “the best we could have expected” since primitive cultures were nothing but “mankind in its infancy.”   (129.)

Maine, like Fustel de Coulanges, described the transition of archaic civilization from savagery to urbanity as an “ascending series of groups out of which the State was first constituted” of which the “elementary group” is the family, all connected “by common subjection to the highest male descendant.”  The aggregation of families forms the gens or “House,” which in turn forms the tribe, which in turn, forms the “commonwealth”  (136.)  All political theory, moreover, held that “kinship in blood is the sole possible ground of community in political functions”  (137) and that ancient law and society placed an individual under the iron yoke of obedience to the community.

In the English Constitution, Bagehot would envision a primitive society worked out in much greater detail in Physics and Politics.    All “rude nations” achieved the same kind of “polity,” or political configuration.  Every “rude” polity had a sacred office of kingship.  The king “was essentially a man apart.” The modern notion of law as a “rule imposed by human authority” altered at will by that authority, was unknown to primeval cultures.  Instead, laws were unalterable, divine, and from the ruler of the polity.  A “Divine limit” to the law was “impossible,” “as there was no other source of law.”  There was a “practical limit” to the degree of subjugation as the “pagan part of human nature” would regard every pronouncement with “inseparable obstinacy” (The English Constitution, 2nd edition, 1902, 272-3)

This ancient polity suffered from a fatal defect.  As authority was hereditary, it soon came to pass that a child or “idiot” ascended the throne.  When this occurred, the “listening assembly,” those brought together initially to advice the king, “begins not only to murmur, but to speak” (274.) Using George Grote’s   History of Greece, Bagehot contended that ancient civilization had developed into modern urbanity due to the “tentacula” of agricultural, commercial, and technological progress.  The development of English civilization had followed a pattern much like that of ancient Greece and Rome.

However, England, unlike Greece, began “as a kingdom of considerable size, inhabited by distinct races, none of them fit for prosaic criticism, and all subject to the superstition of royalty.”  Thus, unlike in Greece, where the kings were of short duration, in England, “royalty was much more than a superstition,” as it was necessary to control a country which was rife with divisions, “armed,” and “impatient” (275.)  The different social orders of England, particularly the peasantry and the nobility, have progressed at differing rates, with “the lower,” having varied “little” (276.)

The English Civil War and the execution of King Charles was the result of the long growth of the English middle class and the “animation” of that class “under the influence of Protestantism” (282.)  It was the development of these two factors which made the English polity less attached to royalty and more accustomed to criticism of government.  In this way, the English became less attached to their kings and became more like the ancient Greeks.  From this point forward, English government was defined by a twin tendency towards revolution and “the solid clay of the English apathetic nature” (283.)  Those who wished for revolution were always a minority in England, much like the French Jacobins.

Even the “minimum of revolution” with the abdication of James II and the beginnings of constitutional government, the “mass” comprehended only the “sovereign.”  With the advent of the rule of Parliament, the “appendages of a monarchy have been converted into an essence of a republic” and have, in this way, mirrored the development of the Greek cities away from hereditary monarchy.  Unlike the Greek city states, such was the obstinacy and heterogeneity of English society, that while the machinery of government was that of a republic, the government’s outward countenance was still that of a monarchy (286.)

Bagehot’s Physics and Politics was an extension of his earlier investigation of the primitive polity.   In Physics and Politics, Bagehot wished to extend the sciences of anthropology and jurisprudence into the furthest reaches of human history through the imposition of a general law of “natural selection” upon all of human history.   While admitting that the “special laws of inheritance are indeed as yet unknown,”  it was clear that there was “a probability” that the “descendants of cultivated parents will have,” by “nervous organization” a “greater aptitude for cultivation” than others.     This “transmitted nerve element” was the “continuous force which binds age to age” and which allows each age to improve over the last.  By giving a biological basis to history, Bagehot thought it possible to create a science of history (Physics and Politics, 1906, 12ff.)

The virtues of Maine’s theory of the absolute supremacy of the “eldest ascendant” (13) was that it forcefully against the degradation or degeneration of a once civilized race or people (15.)  The primitive man, Bagehot argued, possessing the simplest tools, had no modern notion of time or space, nor of the regular laws which the civilized English looked for in either politics or nature (19.) Consequently, Bagehot, like Maine, concluded that “rigid law” was what was originally needed for primitive human beings.   The principle of “natural selection,” for Bagehot, defined the governance of the primitive polity.    In early times the “quantity” of a government was of far greater importance than its “quality” (25.)  The task of the institutions of the primitive polity was to create a “cake of custom,” through which the actions of the citizens of a polity were to be directed towards a singular object.  This direction towards a singular object created the “hereditary drill” necessary for the initial advancement into civilization (27.)

Bagehot not only wished to address how society began but was as concerned with understanding how cultures advanced from a primitive to a refined state.   His narrative of the causes behind the progress of civilization belonged had its roots in the Scottish and English Enlightenments.  The content of this narrative very much reflected the scientific and literary commonplaces of the later nineteenth century, especially his concern with progress, degeneration, the applicability of Greek and Roman models for the growth of modern civilization, and the interconnection between natural and social laws.

His understanding of physics was not that of a separate, professional discipline with its own modes of analysis and experimentation.  By “physics,”  Bagehot meant a law-governed nature that was perceivable to the human mind through a knowledge of history and current affairs.    This genteel, literary, nearly subconscious,  notion of physics and of science more generally as the orderliness of nature also visible in history and society, persisted into the mid-twentieth century in the writings of sociologists, anthropologists, philosophers, and historians.

For Bagehot, the principle question posed by human history and the existence of both savage and civil beings was what factors enabled some civilizations to progress into refinement while the majority remained stationary.  “Savages,” Bagehot noted, “do not improve,” while only those nations in Europe seem to advance (42.)  In order to explain the different levels of progress in the world’s civilizations, Bagehot proposed three laws.  The two most important were that first, the strongest and the best tend to prevail over weaker nations., and second, within every particular nation the best traits tend to prevail over the lesser.   These laws illustrate the workings of the principle of “natural selection” in “physical science”  (43-44.)

Due to the continual combat of tribe against tribe and nation against nation, there has been persistent progress in the art of warfare.   The causes behind this growth and the gulf between the savage and the civilized was explicable since the “stronger nation has always been conquering the weaker” (49.)  Every nation’s advancement was tied to war.   Those nations who had the greatest technological advancements and the most characteristics suitable to war and conflict advanced over their neighbors.

Each nation, “tried constantly to be the stronger, and so made or copied the best weapons” which each successful nation subsequently imitated (ibid.) All of European history demonstrated the “superposition” of the greater military power over the lesser military power.  War, Bagehot concluded, fostered those “preliminary virtues”, such as valor and honor.  Since war has “ceased to be a moving force in the world,” men were now more “tender” to one another (78.)

The greatest distinction, then, between savage and civilized nations was that civilized nations at some point in their history began to progress rather than remain stationary.  Civilized nations were animated by the spirit of improvement (156.)  How then did savage nations become “unfixed?”  Extending Maine’s account of the development of nations from “status” or patriarchy to “contract” or the notion of individual rights, Bagehot believed that the most important transition of a nation was one from “status” to “choice.”  This entailed government by discussion rather than by force, where the problems of government became greater and greater degree those concerning abstract principles.  Most important was the ability of nations to break the ties of customary practices, the ability to transcend the weight of tradition and settled practices.  The fixity and uniformity which had previously enabled war-like civilizations to survive, the “hereditary drill,” was now an impediment to progress (158.)

“In early society,” Bagehot details, “originality in life was forbidden and repressed by the fixed rule of life.”  The source of progress, the desire of individuals to better their condition was “then not permitted to work” (160.)  A government which functioned by deliberation was the surest way to “break down the yoke of fixed custom” (161.)  A government by deliberation presupposes that there was no fixed or sacred authority that the community was absolutely bound to obey. Discussion too “gives premium to intelligence” (162-3.)  The decisions which confronted the primitive polity gave rise to a better quality of discussion and a toleration of a greater variety of ideas.  One of the most painful things in human experience was a “new idea.”

Novelty and discussion both allow for savage nations to attain civility.  The transition from contract to choice was, however, for the few, having their historical origins in the ancient polities of Greece and Rome and in the localities of the Mediterranean basin. The arts, sciences, and humane sentiments essential to the progress of civilization developed above all due to freedom of discussion.  “Athens, Rome, the Italian republics of the Middle Ages…have all had a special and peculiar quickening influence, which they owed to their freedom”  (166.)  The seminal events of history, the French Revolution, the Reformation, the Peloponnesian War, have all been the result of freedom of expression.  These events together demonstrated the advances of civilized races into a more refined culture.  All of these events were produced by discussions of principles and abstract reasoning.   It was this lack of abstract thinking which doomed the “North American Indian,” who talked only of “undertakings” to stasis.



1. Will Thomas - June 15, 2010

A further note on “Physics and Politics” which Chris and I were chatting about the other day. I was reading somewhere [I’ll update if I figure out where: see below] that the term “natural philosophy” was not typically used in France, where one was more apt to find the term “physique”. However, as near as I can tell, the connotation was very similar: a “physics” was a cause-and-effect argument — but not necessarily a deterministic one — intended to create an intelligible explanation of observed phenomena. Thus, in geology, for instance, one would speak of a “physics of the earth” to create a through-time explanation of geological formations or the depositing of fossils in their current place. Such geological explanations were never mathematical.

In Bagehot’s time, “physics” was becoming understood to be the rigorous mathematical analysis of certain kinds of phenomena that we now understand it to be. However, as Chris points out, older definitions clearly persisted, and references to “physics” in this, or even later, periods should not automatically be thought of as attempts to draw on the authority of a science of mathematical proof and precision measurement. It was clearly intended to mean the working out of principles underlying observed phenomena.

Thus, when we think of Quetelet’s quantitative “social physics” from roughly the same period, one might understand Quetelet’s statistics as a means of identifying phenomena requiring explanation rather than uncovering a means of analyzing human populations in a way analogous to a mechanical determinism. Thus, as Chris points out, Bagehot understood himself to be partaking in a very long philosophical tradition that was once again progressing (thanks to the logic of people like Darwin); not as exploiting novel methods.

Of course, as Chris shows, Bagehot’s explanatory framework trafficked in 19th-century commonplaces about progress, English civilization as the apex of polity, the natural course of Empire, and links between race and civilization.

We might also note that the methods of the Cambridge mathematical tripos — intended for most who took its examination as a liberal pedagogy rather than as a gateway to becoming a physicist — was commonly understood to be a model of proper reasoning rather than as a directly applicable methodology. Instilling proper reason had been a longstanding function of the pedagogy of geometry, arithmetic, logic, and grammar.

UPDATE: It’s from note 4 from Thierry Hoquet’s “History without Time: Buffon’s Natural History as a Nonmathematical Physique” in the latest Isis. Extensive discussion can also be found throughout Martin Rudwick’s Bursting the Limits of Time.

2. Thony C. - June 15, 2010

A further note on “Physics and Politics” which Chris and I were chatting about the other day. I was reading somewhere [I’ll update if I figure out where] that the term “natural philosophy” was not typically used in France, where one was more apt to find the term “physique”. However, as near as I can tell, the connotation was very similar: a “physics” was a cause-and-effect argument — but not necessarily a deterministic one — intended to create an intelligible explanation of observed phenomena. Thus, in geology, for instance, one would speak of a “physics of the earth” to create a through-time explanation of geological formations or the depositing of fossils in their current place. Such geological explanations were never mathematical.

Don’t forget that natural philosophy was originally synonymous with Aristotle’s physic and that appears to be how the French are using the word physique.

3. The Giant’s Shoulders #25: 2nd Anniversary Edition! « The Dispersal of Darwin - July 16, 2010

[…] 19th C., Ether Wave Propaganda: Walter Bagehot on Ancient and English Civilization […]

4. Adam Neira - July 13, 2011

Walter Bagehot is someone I discovered three years ago. I like the following saying from him..,

“The rights of a sovereign are to counsel, warn and admonish and a king of great sagacity would want no others ! “

5. simon - August 26, 2011

On Maine

I just found this post/site by accident – a good find! This particular long post warrants re-reading.

Here I just wanted to object to the following characterization of Maine:

… the work of Henry Maine, which like that of John Lubbock, Lewis Henry Morgan, John Ferguson McLennan, and Edward B. Tylor, was part of the late nineteenth century effort to ground the most primeval age of man in scientific fact …

Statements like this are indeed found in most of the histories of anthropology that I have encountered. But whilst it is true that the likes of McLennan and Morgan came to argue with Maine (and with Morgan also to echo the very title of Maine’s most famous work), it seems to me that this is a retrospective association.

In his basic orientation and approach, Maine’s starting point was not the ‘primeval age of man’ but the Aryan village community. For the tools of his research he did not look to fossils nor anthropological observation of living primitive people (as suggested in the post), but to the documents of legal history. As such, Maine belongs in the tradition of comparative legal history that begins with Savigny and Niebuhr in early C19th Berlin and which is continued in Maine’s own time and country by the likes of E. A. Freeman at Oxford.

It is indeed the case that at just the time that Maine began to publish the bottom, as it were, fell out of the historical time scale. That is to say, the discovery of human prehistory shifted the ground from comparative philology and related studies to a new more (natural) scientific anthropology (while, at the same time, it became accepted that the primitive village community was not a uniquely Aryan phenomena – hence allowing a universalisation of the argument, which is where Morgan, Marx and Engels came in).

Nevertheless, it seems to me that much of what is distinctive about Maine is lost when he is seen as one of the first of the modern (anthropologists) rather than as one of the last of the ancient (C19th comparative scholars).

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