History is strewn with the wrecks of nations which have gained a little progressiveness at the cost of a great deal of hard manliness, and have thus prepared themselves for destruction as soon as the movements of the world gave a chance for it.
—Walter Bagehot

I suspect that my title, “The Age of Discussion,” may be a little enigmatic. What, after all, does discussion have to do with “the pillars of liberty”? It’s pretty clear how the other subjects contemplated in this special sectionfigure into an inquiry about the building blocks of a free society. A free press; the rule of law (but not, nota bene, the rule of lawyers); limited government; an emphasis on local initiative over central control; a healthy patriotism; a vigorous military (Vegetius: si vis pacem, para bellum). Unless you are a socialistically inclined utopian, you are unlikely to need much convincing that such things qualify as “pillars of liberty.”1

But where does discussion figure into this constellation of excellences? I hasten to add that by “discussion” I do not mean idle chit-chat but robust, untrammeled inquiry about what Aristotle called “the good life for man.” What sort of regime is most likely to nurture the human attributes we value? How should we lead our lives? Where do our fundamental allegiances lie? Serious talk—and serious thought—about such matters is integral to the metabolism of a free society. It provides the space where choice can blossom. Which is why strategies to quash discussion are inimical to freedom. Given the astonishing recrudescence of multifarious efforts to disrupt the free flow of discussion—from the astringencies of political correctness to the minatory dicta of Islamists—it is worth stepping back to ponder the career of this subtle but enlivening pillar of liberty.

One of the most thoughtful expositors of the political virtues of discussion was the nineteenth-century English essayist Walter Bagehot. I am thinking in particular of his neglected masterpiece of 1872, Physics and Politics—or, to give it its full title, Physics and Politics: Thoughts on the Application of the Principles of “Natural Selection” and “Inheritance” to Political Society.

A word about that mouthful of a title. By “physics” Bagehot meant not “physics” in our contemporary sense, but something closer to what the Germans mean by Wissenschaft: science, inquiry in its broadest sense. (Classicist that he was, he doubtless also had in mind the Greek word phusis, “nature.”) By “politics,” Bagehot meant not only partisan politics in the modern sense but also, more broadly, the arrangements men make in order to live together with a modicum of peace. Liberty, Bagehot points out, is not a static endowment. What we mean by it changes or evolves over time. The notion that human beings—and, by analogy, that advanced human societies—developed out of more primitive forms had been in the air for decades by the time Bagehot wrote Physics and Politics. Evolution—often called “descent with modification” or simply “development” in the early nineteenth century—was part of the mental furniture of the age long before Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859.

The point to bear in mind is that, despite his talk about “natural selection” and “inheritance,” Bagehot was writing not as a biologist but rather as a sort of rhetorical tuning fork, vibrating to ideas that were “in the air.” He was, as he observes early on in the book, merely “searching out and following up an analogy.” It was clear that one generation of organisms both resembled but also differed from the parent stock: It seemed clear that the same was true of human societies as well. Bagehot’s subject was not “natural selection” in any technical sense but rather “the political prerequisites of progress, and especially of early progress,” where by “progress” Bagehot meant both advancement in knowledge and technical know-how and advancements in the institution of liberty.

Accordingly, a lot of Physics and Politics is concerned with beginnings: with the slow, hard first chapters of civilization. It is difficult for us, the beneficiaries of many centuries of political ingenuity, to imagine with what difficulty a polity of any sort was forged and maintained. In early times, Bagehot wrote,

the quantity of government is much more important than its quality. What you want is a comprehensive rule binding men together. . . . What this rule is does not matter so much. A good rule is better than a bad one, but any rule is better than none. . . . How to get the obedience of men is the hard problem; what you do with that obedience is less critical.

This first step—inaugurating law, custom, and habit—is the hardest, but history proper begins with the next step: “What is most evident,” Bagehot observes, “is not the difficulty of getting fixed law, but getting out of a fixed law; not of cementing . . . a cake of custom, but of breaking the cake of custom; not of making the first preservative habit, but of breaking through it, and reaching something better.”

In his second chapter, “The Use of Conflict,” Bagehot sums up “the strict dilemma of early society”:

Either men had no law at all, and lived in confused tribes, hardly hanging together, or they had to obtain a fixed law by processes of incredible difficulty. Those who surmounted that difficulty soon destroyed all those that lay in their way who did not. And then they themselves were caught in their own yoke. The customary discipline, which could only be imposed on any early men by terrible sanctions, continued with those sanctions, and killed out of the whole society the propensities to variation which are the principle of progress.

Bagehot traces the vicissitudes of this dialectic between stasis and innovation through various stages from “The Preliminary Age”—that is, the rude time of prehistory when “the strongest killed out the weakest as they could”—to modern times and “The Age of Discussion.”

Along the way, he has many politically incorrect things to say about the civilizing—or at least order-inducing—effects of violence and the hard road any population faces in forging a national identity. The perennial problem—and the admonitory theme of Physics and Politics—is that man, the strongest and smartest of the animals, “was obliged to be his own domesticator; he had to tame himself.” Consequently, Bagehot says in an observation that ought to make us pause and think, “history is strewn with the wrecks of nations which have gained a little progressiveness at the cost of a great deal of hard manliness, and have thus prepared themselves for destruction as soon as the movements of the world gave a chance for it.” This was an insight that Kipling expanded upon in his great poem “The Gods of the Copybook Headings.”

                        . . . They promised perpetual peace.
They swore, if we gave them our weapons,
                  that the wars of the tribes would cease.
But when we disarmed They sold us and
                                     delivered us bound to our foe,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings
                          said: “Stick to the Devil you know.”

Bagehot is a mild and companionable writer. But as his observation about the perils of progressivism suggests, there is a great deal in Physics and Politics to shock readers inclined to a pacific view of human development or a politically correct understanding of life. “Let us consider,” he writes in a famous passage,

in what sense a village of English colonists is superior to a tribe of Australian natives who roam about them. Indisputably in one, and that a main sense, they are superior. They can beat the Australians in war when they like; they can take from them anything they like, and kill any of them they choose. As a rule, in all the outlying and uncontested districts of the world, the aboriginal native lies at the mercy of the intruding European. Nor is this all. Indisputably in the English village there are more means of happiness, a greater accumulation of the instruments of enjoyment, than in the Australian tribe. The English have all manner of books, utensils, and machines which the others do not use, value, or understand. And in addition . . . there is a general strength which is capable of being used in conquering a thousand difficulties, and is an abiding source of happiness.

In fact, the importance of military prowess in binding a population into a society is a leitmotif in Physics and Politics. Bagehot notes that the progress of military art is the “most conspicuous, I was about to say the most showy,” fact in human history. “All through the earliest times,” he writes,

martial merit is a token of real merit: the nation that wins is the nation that ought to win. The simple virtues of such ages mostly make a man a soldier if they make him anything. No doubt the brute force of number may be too potent even then (as so often it is afterwards): civilization may be thrown back by the conquest of many very rude men over a few less rude men. But the first elements of civilization are great military advantages, and, roughly, it is a rule of the first times that you can infer merit from conquest, and that progress is promoted by the competitive examination of constant war.

Bagehot was undeceived about the exigencies that face a nation at war. “So long as war is the main business of nations, temporary despotism—despotism during the campaign—is indispensable.”

The point is, Bagehot argues, that “war both needs and generates certain virtues; not the highest, but what may be called the preliminary virtues, as valor, veracity, the spirit of obedience, the habit of discipline.” That is to say, war, and the martial virtues it requires, makes certain valuable things possible, including civilization itself: “Civilization begins,” Bagehot writes, “because the beginning of civilization is a military advantage”—an unflattering thought that many will find shocking.

Even more shocking is the similar argument that Bagehot makes regarding slavery:

Slavery, too, has a bad name in the later world, and very justly. We connect it with gangs in chains, with laws which keep men ignorant, with laws that hinder families. But the evils which we have endured from slavery in recent ages must not blind us to, or make us forget, the great services that slavery rendered in early ages. . . . Refinement is only possible when leisure is possible; and slavery first makes it possible.

Perhaps the only thing more difficult than accepting this contention is coming up with convincing arguments against it.

Above all, Bagehot was writing against “the old idea which still here creeps out in conversation, and sometimes in writing” that

politics are simply a subdivision of immutable ethics; that there are certain rights of men in all places and all times, which are the sole and sufficient foundation of all government, and that accordingly a single stereotype government is to make the tour of the world—and you have no more right to deprive a Dyak of his vote in a “possible” Polynesian Parliament, than you have to steal his mat.

The difficult insight that Bagehot is everywhere at pains to communicate is that not all things are possible at all times and all places. If political liberty is a precious possession, it is forged in a long, painful development of civilization, much of which is distinctly, and necessarily, illiberal. Hence the advantage of binocular vision, which allowed the young Bagehot, even as he was extolling Louis Napoleon’s coup in 1851, to risk his life helping the republicans build barricades to resist him. This was not an expression of irony or inconstancy on Bagehot’s part; it was an expression of political realism. As he put it elsewhere, Louis Napoleon’s Second Empire was “an admirable government for present and coarse purposes, but a detestable government for future and refined purposes.” One must live in the present; one can help prepare for the future.

All such “hard” observations constitute the strophe of Bagehot’s argument. The antistrophe, the opposite movement—the movement toward which Physics and Politics as a whole tends—is that “the whole history of civilization is strewn with creeds and institutions which were invaluable at first, and deadly afterwards.” Slavery is one such institution. And ultimately, he suggests, the widespread dissemination of the martial sensibility may be as well.

Bagehot had some equally piquant observations about the moral limitations of the unbridled philanthropic impulse. “The most melancholy of human reflections,” he writes,

is that, on the whole, it is a question whether the benevolence of mankind does most good or harm. Great good, no doubt, philanthropy does, but then it also does great evil. It augments so much vice, it multiplies so much suffering, it brings to life such great populations to suffer and to be vicious, that it is open to argument whether it be or be not an evil to the world, and this is entirely because excellent people fancy they can do much by rapid action—that they will most benefit the world when they most relieve their own feelings.

There are two things to note about this passage. One is Bagehot’s observation about those “excellent people” who believe, mistakenly, that they benefit the world most when they flatter their own feelings of virtue. How much pain and misery this spirit of do-goodism has spread throughout the world! And the second, an important theme throughout Bagehot’s writings, concerns the advantages of what he calls elsewhere “slow government.” It was the American socialist Norman Thomas, I think, who cheerfully described socialism as “democracy in a hurry.” Socialism’s velocity, Thomas thought, was a major part of what recommended it. Bagehot disagreed. “The essence of civilization,” he wrote in an essay on Matthew Arnold, “is dullness.”

In an ultimate analysis, it is only an elaborate invention . . . for abolishing the fierce passions, the unchastened enjoyments, the awakening dangers, the desperate conflicts, . . . the excitements of a barbarous age, and to substitute for them indoor pleasures, placid feelings, and rational amusements. That a grown man should be found to write reviews is in itself a striking fact. Suppose you asked Achilles to do such a thing, do you imagine he would consent?

Bagehot’s point was that, in an advanced civilization, deliberateness, circumspection, and adherence to process are virtues that save us from the myopia of impulsiveness.

He is not, I hasten to add, advocating quietism or inaction. If the English had mastered the art of slow, deliberate government, that mastery did not hinder their energetic pursuit of their own interests. The achievement was moderation, yes, but it was what Bagehot called animated moderation, moderation chastened by deliberateness but underwritten by energy. “When we have a definite end in view,” Bagehot writes, “we can act well enough. The campaigns of our soldiers are as energetic as any campaigns ever were; the speculations of our merchants have greater promptitude, greater audacity, greater vigor than any such speculations ever had before.” But all that action takes place in a framework of circumspection.

Bagehot’s insight is something that Daniel Hannan echoed in his recent book The New Road to Serfdom. In 2008, when the economic crisis that still hampers the world was just beginning, Rahm Emanuel, who was then Barack Obama’s chief of staff, gleefully said, “You never want to let a serious crisis go to waste.” What he meant was that a crisis makes people anxious and therefore vulnerable, and that it is easier in periods of crisis to exploit that vulnerability and push through initiatives to enlarge government and usurp freedom. Which is why, Hannan cautions, that in periods of crisis one should, if one is prudent, exercise double diligence about acting hastily. “Most disastrous policies,” Hannan observed, “have been introduced at times of emergency.” How often have you heard a politician or government bureaucrat tell you that “Doing nothing is not an option”? In fact, as Hannan rightly observes, “Doing nothing is always an option, and often it is the best option.” This was something that Calvin Coolidge, one of my favorite presidents, acknowledged when he said to a busybody aide: “Don’t just do something; stand there!”

Bagehot would have liked Coolidge. Born into a banking family, Bagehot is said to have stolen down from his apartments above the bank when he was anxious, to run his hands through piles of gold sovereigns. He found the contact soothing, and he would, I think, have approved of Coolidge’s habits of fiscal restraint as well as his wary view of hyperactive government.

Bagehot’s contention is that, for us, progress in civilization is measured by increasing deliberateness. Parliamentary government is valuable not only because it facilitates action but also, and increasingly, because it retards it. “If you want to stop instant and immediate action,” Bagehot advises, “always make it a condition that the action shall not begin till a considerable number of persons have talked over it, and have agreed on it. If those persons be people of different temperaments, different ideas, and different educations, you have an almost infallible security that nothing, or almost nothing, will be done with excessive rapidity.”

The habit of discussion is the handmaiden of this process. In this sense, the spirit of free discussion is not only a condition of scientific inquiry, it is also an adjunct to the virtue of tolerance and guarantor of intellectual freedom. Bertrand Russell once made the sad observation that “people can only agree about what they’re not really interested in.” (What I think that really meant is that Bertrand Russell couldn’t really agree about anything that interested him.) Some favored nations—preeminently, perhaps, some nations that are part of what James Bennett calls the Anglosphere—have had a more beneficent experience of discussion. A look at our history shows that Bagehot was right: If we ask what has nurtured liberty where it has prospered and what has denied it where it has failed to prosper, a large part of the answer is talk—not idle chatter but rather a situation in which government was “to a great and a growing extent a government by discussion, and where the subjects of that discussion were in some degree abstract, or, as we should say, matters of principle. . . . A free state—a state with liberty—means a state . . . in which the sovereign power is divided between many persons, and in which there is a discussion among those persons.”

There are two sides to Bagehot’s argument in Physics and Politics. One side is celebratory. The story of civilization’s rise is a success story, all the more bracing because the road was hard. At first, progress was slow. There were many failures along the way. At last, though, liberty, undergirt by the “slow government” of discussion, won out in lucky polities like the U.K., the United States, and Australia.

That is not the end of the story, however, for, as Bagehot notes, if government by discussion is “a principal organ for improving mankind,” it is also “a plant of singular delicacy.” The question of how best to nurture this delicate plant is Bagehot’s final problem. Part of the answer is in facing up to the unpalatable realities about power that make civilization possible. The other part lies in embracing that “animated moderation,” that “union of life with measure, of spirit with reasonableness,” which assures that discussion will continue without descending into violence or anarchy. It seems like a small thing. But then achieved order always does—until it is lost.

As we look around at the many assaults on free discussion today, the prospects for the continuation of our regime of liberty seems up for grabs in a more fundamental way than at any time since the Second World War. This past fall, the United Nations pondered an international law against blasphemy—against blasphemy—to defend Islam against its detractors. As I write, the United States is meeting in London with the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to discuss whether speaking about religion can violate international law. Yes, that’s right. As Nathaniel Sugarman writes in the American Thinker, “The meeting represents round three of the ‘Istanbul Process,’ an effort Secretary of State Hillary Clinton launched in July 2011. . . . The initiative’s goal is to implement non-binding U.N. Human Rights Council Resolution 16/18, which itself calls for the criminalization of various forms of speech concerning religion. The OIC, an association of fifty-six Islamic member states and the Palestinian Authority, represents the largest voting bloc in the United Nations.”

Meanwhile, Egypt has convicted eight Americans in absentia for blasphemy; if apprehended, they could face the death penalty. Also in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood recently endeavored to ram through a draft of a new constitution in a single overnight sitting. (How’s that for “slow government”?) As The Economist reports, the constitution “enshrines sharia (Islamic law) in more rigorous terms than previously.” It also imposes, The Economist continues,

a specific body, al-Azhar, a 1,000-year-old Islamic university, as the sole authority to interpret sharia, without defining how this would be balanced against existing legal authorities. With its weak protections for individual rights, the press, trade unions and the independence of the judiciary, along with provisions for a strong executive, the constitution would grant any winning party powers akin to those of the fallen Mubarak regime.

Plus ça change.

If you think that such assaults on freedom are confined to the picturesque backwaters of the world, think again. It was only a few months ago that the fellow who promoted a jejune internet video guying Mohammed was visited by brown-shirted sheriffs (literally brown-shirted) in California at midnight and bundled down to a police station to be interviewed by federal agents. He has subsequently been sentenced to a year in prison, ostensibly for violating the terms of his probation but really because he circulated a video that Muslims and the President of the United States didn’t like.

I think Bagehot was right: free discussion is an integral ingredient, a veritable pillar of liberty. But that freedom is under serious threat today by religious fanatics, overweening government bureaucrats, and a complacent populace. David Hume once observed: “It is seldom that liberty of any kind is lost all at once.” It seems to be that we have alarm bells going off all around us. The oddity is that so few people seem to hear them.


1 The Pillars of Liberty,” a symposium organized jointly by The New Criterion and London’s Social Affairs Unit, took place on September 28, 2012, in Winchester, England. Participants were Jeremy Black, Josiah Bunting III, Michael Gleba, Daniel Johnson, Roger Kimball, Dee-pak Lal, Andrew C. McCarthy, Kenneth Minogue, Michael Mosbacher, John O’Sullivan, David Pryce-Jones, Andrew Roberts, Kevin Williamson, Keith Windschuttle, and David Yezzi. Discussion revolved around earlier versions of the essays printed in this special section.

A Message from the Editors

Your donation sustains our efforts to inspire joyous rediscoveries.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 31 Number 5, on page 10
Copyright © 2023 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com

Popular Right Now