Obrázky stránek
PDF
ePub

INFINITESIMAL LEGISLATION.

Τα μικρα ταυτα πολλα έστιν τφ ενιαυτη.

Or, “A pin a day's a groal a year.” “ Intanto i popoli soffrono, i filosofi declamano, e la legislazione corre a gran passi alla sua rovina."-FILANGIERI.

Or the many maxims, which collectively imbody la sagesse des nations (or, as we call it, the wisdom of our ancestors), there are few entitled to a more reverent respect, than the saw which inculcates a necessity for “ taking care of the pence and farthings.” Let no one, however, misapprehend us; we are not going to waste our own, or the public's time with a réchauffé of the worn-out inoralities of stinginess. We know full well that such advice is lost upon the young, who will not take it; as it is upon the old, who stand in no want of it. What also is more to the purpose, we have no interest whatever in the matter, and can get little or nothing by making the world wiser-i.e., more parsimonious—than it already is.

As far, indeed, as the patrons of the New Monthly Magazine are concerned, we will not affect to deny that we most fervently deprecate any approach towards impecuniosity among them. Το say nothing of gratitude for favours past and to come, which naturally expands itself into best wishes for the worldly prosperity of the cavalieri paganti of our enterprise, we are well aware of the reflex benefit we receive from their adequate attention to the main chance. But, then, we have no serious misgivings on that point; being satisfied that persons who dispose of their monthly mite so wisely as our subscribers do, will be equally discreet in the regulation of their other minor expenses; and if they do but get, on all occasions, as good a pennyworth for their penny as we have the honour to offer them, we fear not that they will be able to give a good account of their small change, and will very sufficiently carry out the wholesome maxim, we commend, to its saving-bank conclusion, of converting a copper parsimony into a golden having. The fool and his money may perhaps be soon parted; but we will not pay ourselves the bad compliment of supposing that the meanest intellect which has profited by our periodical instructions can come within such a category, or require on that score any restraint on ils pluto-bolic propensities.

In drawing attention to “ the saving caution, keep your pence nine years,” it is our present design to advert chiefly to the figurative application of the maxim; and to point out to our friends the propriety of carrying its spirit into a wider sphere, by giving as much and as close observation to trifles, in their general management of their own concerns, and the nation's, as they are accustomed to bestow upon the minima of their pecuniary interests. What is true of the pence cannot but be true of all other neglected trifles ; namely, that what they want in individual signification is more than compensated by their iterated impulse.

In material instances, few observers are inapprehensive of the great truth, that “every little makes a mickle ;” or, as Euclid wittily puts the proposition, that the whole is no more than the sum of its parts. No

decent man neglects a solution of continuity in his nether garment, because it is not “ as wide as a church-door;" nor fails to stop a hole in his roof because it is not as large as that which deluged the Thamestunnel. The Dutch know to their cost that a rat-hole in a dike may ruin a province; and the great ocean itself, on the other hand, is but a multitudinous congregation of individual drops.

In moral concerns the world is much less observant of this verity, and sleeps over those fractional importances called trifles, in a manner which, however pleasant, is manifestly highly improper. What subject, for instance, is matter of more general complaint than the brevity of life? yet no one thinks of the value of hours and minutes, except it be the dial-maker : and even he dwells on the consideration only when he is engraving his motto of “ pereunt et imputantur.” Who is there, that when he listens to the ticking of his pendule on the chimneypiece, feels that it is like the Aowing of so much blood from his veins ? Who refrains from wishing away the greater portion of his existence, in the conviction that all the intervals he would thus anticipate, are parts and parcels bringing him so much nearer to the great sum-total which balances his account with sublunary things. We quote Shakspeare on this point with infinite complacency ;-we acknowledge that “tomorrow, and to-morrow, creeps in its petty pace from day to day;" and are not altogether dissatisfied that its yesterdays have lighted certain fools the way to dusky death, of whose leavings we have inherited; but we are are not the more ready to apply the moral at home, and to husband our portion of the great Interminable, either for the purposes of improvement, or what is still more extraordinary, for those of plea

sure,

How few people, again, reflect upon the importance of trifles on our associations! The most inveterate habit of drinking must have had its origin in a first “ drop too much ;" and many a man would have escaped the gallows, if he had not begun with poaching a hare, or robbing an orchard. A triling error in calculation, the addition of a wrong unit, or “the setting down of nought in malice," may diverge, in the working, into a very capital error,--even to the drawing the moon from her sphere, and the consequent wreck of the vessel which puts its trust in her habits of regularity. Bankers, who in such matters are rigid moralists, pursue to its rectification an error of a single penny, in their day's balance, with as much ardour as if the lost sheep were a thousand pounds. But life itself is merely a calculation ; and what is wise in the banker, cannot choose but be prudent in whatever respects the balance sheet of our daily sayings and doings.

In a certain sense, then, the stoics were not so very absurd, when they laid it down that all lapses from virtue are equal, and that telling a white lie is as atrocious a dereliction of propriety, as parricide, or

In this---crotchet (if you will)—they could not have been directed by the consequences of the individual action (or, as we should say in our times, by its specific inutility): they could have thought only of the value of a good habit in trifles, and of the necessity of taking care of the pence, in order to avoid the dilapidation of pounds.

In logic, too, the unconsidered concession of a trifle may lead to a stringent consequence against the argument, under discussion ; and

the whole force and perversity of that very troublesome companion, Socrates, which got him into such a scrape with the Athenians, consisted in a practical knowledge and application of that truth. On this account we greatly admire the sagacity of the child, who, when put to repeat his first lesson in polite literature, strenuously refused to say A, in a strong conviction that if he yielded to this preliminary request, the consequence would be that he should next be compelled to say B. In these things, il n'y a que le premier pas qui coute ; the child who says A, is fairly in for the entire alphabet plus some considerable portion, more or less, of the chaos of nonsense, that passes with the learned for education : and the man who does not make his first stand upon trifles, will infallibly find himself overleaping obstacles of a much more serious character, and breaking his neck in the jump, after the most approved style of Leicestershire fox-hunting.

There is, we are very well aware, a rather numerous sect of philosophers, who profess, or at least, who practise, the enlarged or bold system of ethics. These persons, if they be narrowly watched, will be found to take any thing but a microscopic view of life, looking only to its great results, and, as long as they attain their end, being very regardless of the means by which it is secured. Such philosophers are truly said not to stick at trifles; their attention is never distracted by minor considerations, and they are very apt to say, with the man in the comedy,“ provided I touch the coal, let the world talk and be d-d.” Men of this cast are occasionally given to overlook the small difference between their own name and their neighbour's, especially when it is the logical sequence to a "please to pay.” They will see a rich or powerful friend in their wife's boudoir, and leave the fact, as they find it, divested of all inference. At cards, they play the whole game; and if they are discovered, will shoot the loser, to prove that they have not cheated; without once thinking of the recorder in this world, or of the recording angel in the next. They freely state every case in the way that best serves their own views, and if the facts should happen not to tally with their narrative, they consider the difference as too small to require notice. We cannot exactly say that persons so conducting their affairs, never succeed ;-instances to the contrary are too often at hand, to allow of the assertion : but one summer, reader, does not make a swallow; and for one man who has the ability to pursue the enlarged method to success, there are ninety-nine unjust persons who break down, either through a loss of head, or a deficiency of courage to carry out the principle to the requisite extent. We are old enough to have seen very many of these disregarders of trifles, ending their days in gaols and in penal colonies, or creeping about town in seedy coats and shocking bad hats, with every appearance of being on bad terms with their butcher and baker. We cannot, therefore, but consider the gentlemen of this cast as examples, rather than as exceptions to, the value of a minute philosophy.

It may perhaps, however, be objected that an habitual attention to trifles, is not always followed by the advantages we suppose; but that on the contrary, they who keck at gnats are the very devil for swallowing camels. The objection is almost too superficial to merit notice. For, in the first place, it must be obvious that a camel is rather a largish object for deglutition, and must require a perfectly free throttle. It would never do for persons engaged on such an undertaking to clog the passage with gnats, however small; so that the kecking at even a midge does seem to us, independently of any moral purpose, to be a very necessary precaution in undertaking the boa-like operation. To speak less enigmatically, the objection to the gnat is altogether an affair of pure hypocrisy,-a false pretence necessary to put people (i. e. the dupes) off their guard, and prevent them from locking up their camels from the meditated attack: the connexion therefore between gnats and camels is accidental, and by no means inherent. It may also be further remarked, that there are trifles and trifles ;—there are trifles less than midges, and trifles that outweigh whole elephants and castles; and the whole consequence depends on their proper or improper classification : this, thcugh, is a mystery.

All things, then, considered, we are “of our own opinion still;" and maintain with all our might and main, that life itself being of itself a trifle, the smallest considerations are great to little men; and that the moralist and the legislator cannot be governed by too narrow views in regulating the particulars of private and of social conduct. We cannot, therefore, refrain from congratulating ourselves, and that discriminating portion of the public with whom we are most intimately connected, upon the growing disposition of the age to trifte with the greatest questions, while it anxiously provides for every the minutest particular in the least important regulations concerning the whereabouts of society. De minimis non curat lex, can therefore no longer be regarded as a maxim of our jurisprudence; and this, indeed, we take to be one of the very best consequences of the multitude of counsellors, who club their individual nullities to form a “ collective wisdom.” For, as every one of them, must bring in his bill, in order to obtain consequence in the eyes of his constituents, all the leading objects of foreign and domestic polity, of material and of moral arrangement, must rapidly be exhausted, leaving the field of the minima only open for future exploitation. Now this is precisely the field in which the majority of intellects are best exercised. It is not every man who can wisely settle the great interests of church and state, strike a just balance of European or Asiatic power, or put the national currency upon a sound footing; but any man may legislate for the mismanagement of beer-shops, regulate the breadth of a waggonwheel, or provide for the perfect visibility of a hackney-coachman's number. Here then, the tractent fabrilia fabri principle comes into efficient play; and what escapes the microscopic eye of one legislator, is promptly seized upon by another.

The disposition to make mountains of molehills comes very opportunely at the present moment; for philosophy has been going for the last century in the very opposite direction; and by taking what it has called enlarged and comprehensive views of all sorts of questions, has frightened the timid and the dog-trotting out of their poor little wits, by the immensity of its conclusions. What lots of revolutions in all sorts of things have occurred through this unhappy propensity, Napoleon himself was nothing more than a generalizer in politics; and the overthrow of the French monarchy was merely an abstract principle pushed to its remotest consequences. So likewise, popery is simply an enlarged view of priestcraft, and the national debt a vast transcendental pawnbroking. If we look, too, into the regions of science, the same tendency is obvious: the speculations of the modern astronomers on light, space, and matter, or on the manufacture of worlds, and the metaphysical reveries of the Germans, may be regarded as a sort of intellectual chartism, very sublime and beautiful in theory, but very useless in practice, and a downright heartbreak to the candidates for university prizes. Well may the logicians say, that dolus latet in generalibus !

But to return to legislation : we have only to consider the monstrous abortions of governments which succeeded each other from the taking of the Bastille to the consulate of Buonaparte (all edified upon the most enlarged and abstract principles), and we must be satisfied of the danger of legislating on any other ground, than that of the narrowest specialities. The Chinese government, which is the oldest in existence, proceeds upon the system of an infant school, and thinks no point of conduct between man and man too minute for its pedantic interference. Do not let us be deceived in this particular by its influence on our own interests. We admit that the Emperor of China's sudden fit of paternal anxiety for the health of his subjects and his consequent crusade against the opium-venders, is “ domned unlucky" for the producers of that article; and it would be perhaps but an act of Christian charity, to batter the get-at-able towns of China about the ears of their inhabitants (who by-the-by, would give their ears to continue the trade), and force them to chew the drug " whether their mammy will or no," for the benefit of the European speculators in the article. But let us make the case our own. Suppose the Chinese government should fit out a fleet of junks, and sail into the Thames, to compel us to take Chinese tea instead of Assam ;-how should we like it? Now it is just possible that the court of directors, may very soon procure a legislative decree against Hyson and Congo, in the shape of what is facetiously called a protecting duty; and thus we may have a naval war with the yellow sea on our hands, and a crusade against cheap tea, the first fruits of our own precedent. Let us then be just in our corporate capacity, for once in our lives ; and admit the interference of the brother of the sun and moon, with his subjects' personal vices to be at least as meritorious as our own temperance societies, or anti-billsticking legislation ; and even prejudice itself must allow that if the end justifies the means, this cutting off the supplies is a more efficient method of stopping intoxication, than fining a rich gentleman about half the price of a bottle of the best Chateau Margot. Nay, we are not quite sure that his Chinese majesty is not wiser in his generation, than if he had, more Anglico, clapped a heavy excise on the article, by way of enforcing morality; and so making drunkenness an aristocratical privilege, or, at least, driving the poor to the use of some more deleterious article.

In favour of the minute system of legislation may be urged its intimate accordance with the prejudices of the public. Among the few good hits which have been made by the Filangieris, the Montesquieus, the Beccarias, and other dealers in transcendental jurisprudence, we may cite with approbation their maxim that laws to be effective, must already exist in the manners of the people ; and that the best laws are those which assort the most thoroughly with popular feelings and habits. But the habit of interfering with other people's minutest

« PředchozíPokračovat »