Presidential Address before the Young Ireland Branch of the United Irish League, December, 1905.

The subject I have chosen for my paper is almost an insult to your intelligence. I could occupy the whole time at my disposal by merely reading you a list of writers who have devoted themselves to the establishment of a science of politics, and among them you would find, from Aristotle downwards, the masters and shapers of human thought. What then must you think of the audacity of an attempt, with the inadequate time and the infinitely inadequate resources at my command, to give some account not merely of political science but of the philosophical ideas on which it rests? I know, however, that I can count on your indulgence. And I would ask you to accept the title of this paper in a large and charitable way, and to forgive its pretentiousness.

It does seem to me that a political society like this is under the obligation of taking an occasional bath in the sea of fundamental ideas. Practical people regard such a proceeding, it must be admitted, with extreme distrust. If one desires an early and extensive unpopularity there is no surer way to it than to insist on analysing received principles. Our mothers, you will remember, used to have the strangest objection to our taking their watches to pieces. They rather doubted our competence to put the springs and wheels together again. Society experiences much the same state of mind with regard to the attempt to reduce it to terms of mere reason. Society is right, but it is only the nineteenth century that has made its attitude possible. It needed a long development of psychological and historical study to make us understand that reason is but one faculty of a many-facultied being; that the forces which used to be brusquely dismissed as mere sentiment, mere instinct, mere enthusiasm, are inseparable elements of human nature. We have come to realise, in a word, that life is incomparably vaster, more various, and more complex than any theory of it. I dwell on this because it has a special bearing on our subject. In approaching political science we must remember that it does not profess to reproduce the rich detail of life in society, but stands to it rather as a chart to an ocean or a mathematical formula to the path of a planet. Still, if reason has abandoned the tyranny which it once aimed at, its call can none the less be denied. We must render ourselves some rational account of the forces by which and among which we live. Among the greatest of these is the society, the political framework, in which we are born and in which our lives are cast. Call yourself a non-politician as loudly as you choose, you will never succeed in ignoring politics; therefore of necessity an attempt must be made to understand them. What is the object of politics, what we are justified in expecting it to do and what it cannot do, what part it should play in the life of the individual modern man, and what is the temper in which a wise man will approach it—these are questions neither remote nor abstract, but questions that come knocking at your door and mine, and that have to be answered. All I can hope to do to-night is to suggest, in a random and completely undogmatic fashion, points of view from which politics may be regarded, and principles by which the efficiency of institutions may be tested.

When we speak of politics as a science we must remember that the word is used with a difference. The characteristic note of a natural science is its ability to predict with mathematical accuracy. Such prophetic power cannot be attributed to politics. The stupendous complexity of the subject-matter, the endless chain of action and interaction make it impossible to gather all the data necessary for certainty. And then that unpredictable element called free-will is constantly interloping to upset the logic of your determinist drama. Still there are large principles which seem to approach the certainty of physical laws. One can find a ready illustration in what we very properly heard a great deal about at the Convention the other day, the need for unity. That without unity—of action, of course, for absolute unity of thought and feeling we neither can have, nor should demand—a political party must be ineffective is surely just as certain as any law of chemistry or physics? The principle it embodies is one implicit in the constitution of every state, namely, that the will of the majority of duly chosen representatives must, as regards action, prevail over the will of the minority. Deny that principle and you cannot pass a single legislative Act; you cannot levy a single tax. In the long history of English insolence there is hardly anything else so insolent as Mr. Balfour’s demand with regard to our University Question. He said, you will remember, that no Bill could be introduced to realise this reform unless there was absolute unanimity among all interested parties in Ireland. Had he applied that maxim consistently to English political life, to political life anywhere, the result would be that no government could continue for twelve hours. In proclaiming it Mr. Balfour was proclaiming himself an Anarchist. This principle, then, that the will of the majority, registered in the due forms and under the due safeguards of individual freedom, must prevail over the will of the minority affords a good example of the sort of established law we can hope for in political science.

I pass on to the fundamental question: What is the object of politics? Politics in its largest sense includes the whole control and management of public affairs by the government in power, together with the whole process of agitation by which the masses of people not in power seek to influence and alter the conduct of things. Now, if you look in the textbooks you will find that the object of government is order. But what is the object of order? That is a point which ought to be considered by the inflamed gentlemen from the West of Ireland who write letters signed ‘A Disgusted Loyalist’ to the Irish Times demanding the vindication of what they call ‘law and order.’ Law and order are not absolutes, but merely means to an end. To mistake them for ends in themselves is to regard the shell as the important element in the egg, the fence as the important element in the field. The cry of ‘Order for Order’s sake’ is as ruinously foolish as that of art for art’s sake, or money for money’s sake. It is for the sake of humanity that all these must exist. Behind order there is life, and it is only in so far as it tends to increase the sum and improve the quality of life that any system of government or scheme of positive law is ethically justifiable. If you analyse the rights commonly regarded as essential and inalienable—the right to property, to personal safety, to marriage—you will find is the common source of them all this right to life. And by life I mean not merely physical existence, but that rich human existence which can be had only in community, that sort of life which Edmund Burke had in mind when he described the State as ‘a partnership in all science, a partnership in all art, a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection.’

You will say, perhaps, that this test of government—Does it forward life?—is vague. Life, even in the biological sense, has not been defined. That is perfectly true. But we do not demand, as I have said, in politics the mapped-out mathematical certainty of natural science. The average man possesses a sufficiently clear notion for practical purposes of the conditions that make life desirable, beautiful, and worthy to be lived. A government is good or bad, the order it maintains is the discipline of liberty or that of oppression, in so far as it promotes or hinders the wide diffusion of these conditions. I think you will find this test of life a helpful one in your attempt to gather together in some binding idea the currents of effort that make up contemporary Ireland. Somebody has compared the role of a general idea to that of a magnet. If you bring a magnet into contact with a glass plate on which there is a confused mass of iron filings it immediately strains and sets them into regular and beautiful patterns. The filings represent the chaos of concrete facts that experience brings thronging in on us, and the magnetic idea that makes them intelligible, as it has created them, is that of life. It is the one justificatory word on the tongues of the emigrants as they stream down to the ships. They ‘want to see life.’ By no mere accident is it that the Gaelic League which started with language has gathered round it games, singing, dancing, and all the arts of friendly intercourse. These all stand for life, joyously realising itself under benign conditions. It has been said that all government exists to hang a fowl before the Sunday fire of every peasant. Dancing is less necessary than eating, and more beautiful. It represents the free energy of a life that has not merely withstood but has conquered the hostility of external circumstances, and you will understand the sense in which I say that all contemporary Irish movements exist in order to set a boy and a girl dancing at a Sunday ceilidh.

Analyse the agitation to break up the grass-ranches and to give the land to the people and to the plough and you will find that it rests on two assumptions—not very daring assumptions! The first is that the life of a human being is more precious and worthier to be forwarded by the State than that of a bullock. The second is that if an individual persists in so using the property which society allows him to control, as to base his personal comfort and prosperity on the misery and degradation of others, while a cleaner way of living is open to him, then society has both the right and the duty to break his selfish monopoly.[1] For he has declared war on society, and has violated the obligations of the social bond.

This test of life changes our attitude towards positive law in general. Take the common description of life that it is a ‘continuous adjustment of internal to external relations’ and apply it to human society, and, in its light, law loses its old iron absoluteness. It shows itself not as something fixed and immutable, but as an imperfect transcript of the moral conditions necessary to safeguard life, changing continually with these conditions. Ethical principles are, of course, invariable; but the formal enactments in which they are imperfectly embodied form a system, developing, as we hope, towards a fuller realisation. It is the thought-climate, called in a large way evolution, and so characteristic of the nineteenth century, that has given us this new point of view. We have applied it to some pretensions of the law courts and seen them wither up; we might also extend it to some of the commonplaces of popular thought. There is not, I suppose, a more insistent and widespread demand with regard to Irish questions than that they should be ‘finally’ settled. But once grasp the idea of a state as a living, developing organism, and this expectation of finality is seen to be a pure illusion. Popular thought is never altogether wrong, and of course there is an obvious sense in which, for example, a comprehensive measure of Home Rule might be regarded as a ‘final’ settlement of our political status. Still, even in this case, the notion is illusory and misleading. Life is growth; growth is change; and the one thing of which we are certain is that society must keep moving on. Freedom is a battle and a march. It has many bivouacs, but no barracks. You remember the counsel given by the serving-man in the heroic tale to Diarmuid and Grainne. ‘In the place where you catch your food you must not cook it, and in the place where you cook it you must not eat it, and in the place where you eat it you must not sleep:’ On society an analogous doom—if you call it a doom—has been pronounced.

I have dwelt on this illusion of finality because one sees it everywhere producing a dogmatic conservatism, a feeling of things done and done with, than which there is no greater obstacle to progress. You go to a statesman and say—‘This problem of the Congested Districts is terribly pressing. You must bring in legislation to deal with it.’ Then he looks up his statute-book and says—‘Congested Districts! Oh, that question is settled; we passed an Act in 1891.’ It is much the same as if you were to say to a starving man—‘Dinner! Oh, you had a dinner two months ago.’

The object of politics then is order, and the object of order is to increase the sum and improve the quality of human life. What, we may next ask, is the drift of current opinion as to the means that should be used and the psychological forces that must be put in harness in order to this end? In other words, what political ideas has the experience of the wonderful nineteenth century left most clearly defined? There can be but little dispute as to the answer. The two supreme facts, the two shaping forces of the nineteenth century were Nationality and Democracy—the latter come in direct lineage from the French Revolution, the former brought first to full self-consciousness by the reaction against the abstract cosmopolitanism of ‘89. Look to Irish history and you will see at once that these have been the shaping forces of the last century of her life. But look elsewhere and you will see the same; you will see that in this as in so many other things Ireland has been in the main stream of European history. The opinion of an Irish Nationalist may be suspect. I appeal therefore to the authority of Professor Bury, formerly of Trinity College, now Regius Professor of History at Cambridge. He is speaking of the impulse given to historical studies by the upsurging of national feeling, for, of course, a nation is before all things a spiritual principle whose source and charter is to be found in history.

‘The saying,’ he writes,

‘…that the name of hope is remembrance was vividly illustrated, on a vast scale, by the spirit of resurgent nationality which you know has governed, as one of the most puissant forces, the political course of the last century and is still unexhausted. When the peoples, inspired by the national idea, were stirred to mould their destinies anew, and looking back with longing to the more distant past based on it their claims for independence or for unity, history was one of the most effective weapons in their armouries; and consequently a powerful motive was supplied to historical investigation.’[2]

In Belgium, in Italy, in Hungary, in Germany, in Norway, in Poland, in Ireland, nationality has been the great formative and disruptive impulse of the nineteenth century. Whatever gloomy mood we may fall into in the struggle for autonomy we have certainly no justification for feeling lonely! There was a school of political philosophy—it still lifts here and there an antique voice—which, when it had called nationality a mere sentiment, thought that it had dismissed it from the arena of practical affairs. That habit of mind may have been excusable in the eighteenth century, but we understand things better now. We realise life in its concrete richness and man as a complex of remembrances, instincts, intuitions, and emotional needs. The historical studies of the last century, the Romantic Movement, and the vast development of psychology, both in formal studies and in art of every kind, especially the novel, have rehabilitated that vast area of consciousness which used to be dismissed as ‘sentiment.’ There was a time when man was conceived as an avaricious machine. If you found anything in your mind other than calculating selfishness you were outside the pale of humanity. But now nobody need be ashamed to admit that he detects himself in an occasional generous impulse. Louis Kossuth was saying the other day that ‘it is in active national sentiment not in political forms that we are to look for the secret of government.’ And there is not a Foreign Office in Europe but recognises that where there is an historic nationality, unexpressed so far in the form of a visible state, there is a contradiction of human nature which cannot last. You will not ask me to analyse the idea of Nationality. It has been discussed in this country for the last nine or ten years with an earnestness amounting often to fury, and nearly everything has been said. ‘The nation,’ says Anstole France, in a fine phrase, ‘is a communion of memories and of hopes.’ You may well find its source in that need for self-realisation which is also, in one view, the source of all individual morality. But that is a notion drawn from German metaphysics, and metaphysics, if we are to believe all we read in our weekly papers, is the unforgivable sin. But this I will say, that if you read any one of the treatises on politics, read at Oxford and Cambridge by the young gentlemen who afterwards come over to dragoon us, you will find that there is not in the most exacting of them a single test of nationality which Ireland does not satisfy. A distinctive language, a characteristic national temperament and outlook on life, a history, a sentiment of unity in the present, common memories, common interests, a geographical area large enough to constitute an independent state—is there a single one of these elements that we do not possess? If you go even further and examine the conditions demanded by these English writers to justify rebellion or disruption, adding to what has been said as to the satisfaction of national sentiment, this—I quote from Sidgwick—‘Some serious oppression or misgovernment, some unjust sacrifice or grossly incompetent management of their interests, or some persistent and harsh opposition to their legitimate desires,’ you will find on the principles of these English writers themselves that an Irish War of Independence would be to-day justifiable if it were possible.

Side by side with nationality stands democracy. It is impossible to define democracy; it is a principle still unrealised, an unfinished process. It has been described as ‘that form of social organisation which tends to develop to the maximum the conscience and the responsibility of the individual citizen.’ This description lays stress on the central characteristic of democracy, the belief in individuality and the endeavour to foster it. To the feudalistic governing mind the citizen, or rather I should say the ‘subject,’ was an item, a something little better than a chattel, committed to the care of those whom, as the old jurists said, Providence had placed over him. The placing had, as a matter of fact, been done by the luck of circumstances. If a man had the wisdom to be born well, he sat on the necks of the masses; if he were born badly, his own neck suffered for it. Such a tyranny as this, even if it were beneficent, could not live in the atmosphere of the modern world. We have discovered that nobody is wise enough or pure enough to bear the temptation of uncontrolled power, and we are endeavouring as far as possible to remove such occasions of sin. The democratic spirit may be said to be more or less expressible in two propositions. The first is that government should rest on the active consent of the governed. It is this right and necessity of human nature that has been behind the demand for representative institutions from the beginning of the nineteenth century to the end, from the Paris barricades of 1830 and the English Reform Bill of 1832 to the Russian Revolution and the Women Suffrage movement. The second thesis of democracy is, roughly, that any one self-supporting and law-abiding citizen is, on the average, as well qualified as another for the work of government. I should prefer to put it that no citizen, or section of citizens, is as likely to conduct the government for the general benefit as the whole body of citizens acting in concert. Wherever there is a privileged class there is corruption, and a cult of sectional to the disregard of wider interests.

Democracy will, of course, have its governing classes, but they will not be fortressed about with unbreachable privileges. If we now turn to Irish history it is easy to see that it is a passage from feudalism to democracy. Thus, when Mr. Michael Davitt came to write the story of the Land War, he inevitably called it The Fall of Feudalism in Ireland. Under the same title you might gather every stream of agitation, every Act that could be in any sense called beneficial, from the Abolition of Tithes and Catholic Emancipation to the Local Government Act. They are all parts of a process which is shifting the centre of power from privileged, arbitrary classes to responsible, representative classes. It is significant also that in that question most remote from current politics, higher education, Democracy has been taken for the pillar of light. Everywhere the demand is for a democratic University; and we mean by that not only that the fees must be low but that the civic fervour of the institution must be high, and that it must be a centre of creative democratic thought.

To speak of politics is necessarily to speak of education, at least of education in citizenship. A few words must suffice. Public opinion in this country has made up its mind that its schools shall be places in which love and reverence for the motherland shall be fostered. Democracy will teach in its schools, as well, love and reverence for the State. It is the fashion to disbelieve in the practical value of ideas and enthusiasms, but a democratised Ireland will understand human nature better. The chief channel of instruction will naturally be history, modern history. The complete neglect of this is the scandal of English education. History is not only the true scientific method of approach to social problems, it is the very substance of citizenship.

‘It is of vital importance,’ writes Professor Bury,

‘…for citizens to have a true knowledge of the past and to see it in a dry light in order that their influence on the present and future may be exerted in right directions…’

And he adds—

‘It seems inevitable that, as this truth is more fully and widely though slowly realised, the place which history occupies in national education will grow larger and larger.’

‘In France, in Germany, in America,’ writes the Regius Professor of History at Oxford, Mr. Firth,

‘…nineteenth century history, national and European, has a permanent place in historical studies. It is not considered unfit for teaching or unworthy of study; nor is it held that historical teachers or students are incapable of studying it without displays of party feeling.’[3]

So much for what I believe to be the two main ideas explanatory of contemporary Ireland as of Europe in general. One word seems to be necessary as to the limitations of politics. Politics is the science of order: it cannot take the place of the other human activities, but can only keep them in their places. Extravagant demands are sometimes made on politicians, especially in Ireland. Because they are described as ‘representative,’ people expect to find incarnate in them the whole national life from the making of shirts to the making of poetry. But politics, as such, is just as much a specialised activity as brick-laying. It is not co-extensive with life; there are vast areas of private life into which it would be tyranny for it to intrude. It does not claim, and you cannot ask it to make shirts or poetry. Its duty is to provide the conditions in which the greatest number of citizens can live happily, whether by making shirts or by making sonnets.

In what spirit should one approach the actual work of politics? I speak only for myself, but I think that one should take enthusiasm for the driving force and irony as a refuge against the inevitable disappointments. ‘What I need to realise,’ says Spencer, ‘is how infinitesimal is the importance of anything I can do, and how infinitely important it is that I should do it.’ Might not a politician choose a worse motto than that? Disillusionment is so commonly the fifth act of political agitation, mainly because of the illusive finality upon which I have touched. But a wise man soon grows disillusioned of disillusionment. The first lilac freshness of life will, indeed, never return. The graves are sealed, and no hand will open them to give us back dead comrades or dead dreams. As we look out on the burdened march of humanity, as we look in on the leashed but straining passions of our unpurified hearts, we can but bow our heads and accept the discipline of pessimism. Bricriu must have his hour as well as Cuchullin. But the cynical mood is one that can be resisted. Cynicism, however excusable in literature, is in life the last treachery, the irredeemable defeat. Politics, let us remember, is the province not of the second-best, as has been said, but of the second worst. We must be content, or try to be content, with little. But we must continue loyal to the instinct that makes us hope much; we must believe in all the Utopias.

If you engage in politics in Ireland, and if conditions remain as they are, certain other points must be remembered. You would do well to study the novitiate through which an idea passes before it becomes a law. It arises out of the misery, and contains in it the salvation of a countryside; the State welcomes it with a policeman’s baton. It recovers; the State puts it in jail, on a plank bed, and feeds it on skilly. It becomes articulate in Parliament; a statesman from the moral altitude of £5,000 a year denounces it as the devilish device of a hired demagogue. It grows old, almost obsolete, no longer adequate; the statesman steals it, embodies it in an Act, and goes down to British history as a daring reformer. From your own side also there will be something to be borne. If you cannot agree with a colleague as to tactics, even though they be but minor tactics, he may found a paper, or write a letter, or a lyric, denouncing you to posterity as a traitor, red-handed with your country’s blood. I see no help for it except to take these things as mere bye-play, decorative flourishes on the text of politics. After all there is the two-edged sword that will never fail you, with enthusiasm for one of its edges and irony for the other. However mired and weedy be the current of life there will be always joy and loyalty enough left to keep you unwavering in the faith that politics is not as it seems in clouded moments, a mere gabble and squabble of selfish interests, but that it is the State in action. And the State is the name by which we call the great human conspiracy against hunger and cold, against loneliness and ignorance; the State is the foster-mother and warden of the arts, of love, of comradeship, of all that redeems from despair that strange adventure which we call human life.


[1] Cf. Naudet, Premiers Principes de Sociologie Catholique. Bloud et Cie, Paris, 1904. P. 31.

[2] Bury. An Inaugural Lecture, 1903. P. 13.

[3] C. H. Firth. A Plea for the Historical Teaching of History. P. 17.