‘YES,’ said Mr. Luke still more solemnly, ‘if we only follow this out—this idea of the exclusion from our society of all vulgar and extraneous elements, we shall find we have done a great deal more than we may at first think. We shall have at once a free, and liberal, and untainted social and intellectual atmosphere, in which our thoughts, and feelings, and refinements, and ways of living, may develop themselves to the utmost, unimpeded. Lady Ambrose has certainly begun with hitting the right nail on the head.’
Could Lady Ambrose have been told, when she left London the afternoon before, that in another twenty-four hours she would be taking the lead in the construction of a Utopia, or ideal state of society, suggested by the writings of a Greek philosopher, she would have been utterly at a loss to know what the prophecy meant; and had she known what it meant, she would certainly not have believed it. Indeed, as it was, she could hardly imagine that Mr. Luke was serious, and that he was not laughing at her; so she said quickly and in a tone of self-defence,
‘Of course I know that there must be something more than the mere exclusion of vulgar people, Mr. Luke. We must have religion, and all that, and—’
‘Ah!’ exclaimed Mr. Luke, interrupting her with a grand wave of the hand; ‘my dear Lady Ambrose, let us leave all that till by-and-by. Let us be content to begin with simpler matters first.’
‘Let us begin with the flowers of life,’ said Leslie, ‘and when we have chosen these, let us trace them back to their roots.’
‘I quite think,’ said Miss Merton, ‘that in a really good society—one that was perfectly good even in the superficial sense of the word—we should find, if we only had eyes enough, religion lurking somewhere, and everything else we want.’
‘And so that’s your view, my dear, is it?’ said Lady Ambrose. ‘Oh, then, I suppose since you, a Roman Catholic, think so, I may also.’
‘Surely, too,’ said Miss Merton, ‘we must all know that nothing can be so bad, either for the pushers or the pushed, as the struggle of people to get into what they think is good society, not in the least because they care to be there, but merely because they care to be known to be there.’
Lady Ambrose, who perhaps felt unconsciously some small pricks of conscience here, again looked doubtful, and said, ‘Still, if we really want to make a perfect state, this does not seem a very serious thing to begin with.’
‘Listen,’ exclaimed Laurence; ‘let me read you something I have here—something of my uncle’s, which I have just thought of. It is a short adaptation of Aristotle’s Ethics.’
Lady Ambrose started. Hearing two words, the one as long as Aristotle, and the other as unfamiliar as Ethics, she began to think that she had made the conversation serious with a vengeance. Indeed, the whole party, as well as herself, showed some signs of surprise.
‘It is very short,’ said Laurence, ‘and I will only read a page or two. It is called “A system of Ethics, adapted from Aristotle, for the use of the English Nation.” It was suggested to him—’ (and this bewildered Lady Ambrose still more, though at the same time it gave her some gleam of hope), ‘by a very rich vulgar family, who bought a place near here, and who much annoyed and amazed him by the great court they paid to him. This is the first chapter; it treats of “The Summum Bonum, or The Moral End of Action.” Listen—
‘Ethics being the art and science of human action, as directed towards the chief good of life—that highest and final end, to which, if we think a little, we shall see all other ends are subordinate; it is evident that our first task must be, as our master Aristotle well says, to form a clear conception of what this end, the chief good, is.
‘Now on this point Aristotle would seem to err. For he, following the common opinion of men, affirms the chief good to be happiness, holding the only question to be, in what does true happiness lie? And if he had been philosophising for savages, he would indeed have been in the right. But because savages and men in a state of nature have all one end of action, which is happiness, it by no means follows that the same is true of civilised nations, and that these may not have ends that are far higher. It is indeed evident tliat they have. And not this only, but that of such ends there is a very great variety. To describe and number these with anything like absolute accuracy is neither required nor admitted by the nature of the subject. But we shall be sufficiently near the truth if we say that there is a separate and characteristic chief good for each civilised nation—(quot gentes tot summa bona)—and that it is by this in each case that the national character is determined. A glance at the continent of Europe will at once illustrate this, and suggest examples to us of these national chief goods. We shall see the Germans, for instance, following what is called Thought to its inmost recesses, the French what is called Life. We shall find accordingly that the chief good of the former nation, which is perhaps the highest of all, is the knowledge of the unknowable; whilst that of the latter, which is next to it in dignity, is the practice of the unmentionable. And so on with all the other nations; each will be found to have its separate chief good; and none of these to have the least connection with happiness. For us, however, who are English, and writing for English readers, it will be enough to concern ourselves simply with the chief good of the English.
‘We shall discover this, in the same way as we did that of the French and Germans, in an examination of our own special national characteristic. First, however, we must be clear what this characteristic is; and here it will be well to take our neighbours’ opinions of us as well as our own. If we inquire then in what light we present ourselves to the other European nations, we shall find that just as the Germans are known mainly as a profound nation, and the French as a prurient nation, so are we, in like manner, now known as a vulgar nation. And as this view of us exactly tallies with our own, it appears evident that the special national characteristic of the English is vulgarity, and that the chief good of the English is the final end that is aimed at by the English vulgar classes.
‘This we affirm to be social distinction, to their admiration and pursuit of which is due that cardinal moral quality which they call worldliness in themselves, and snobbishness in their friends and enemies. And if any object that to a great part of the nation social distinction in its true sense is a thing unknown, and that to another part it is a thing that comes without being struggled for, and so in neither case can be the end of moral action, we shall answer them that to object this, is much the same as to argue that a peach-tree does not bear peaches because none are to be seen growing out of the roots; or that there is no meaning in the Athanasian Creed because none is attached to it by the only people who use it; or that there is no meaning in the dogma of the Pope's infallibility because its only possible meaning is repudiated by all those who defend it. For nothing will be found unless we seek it in its right place. And for the ethics of a nation we must look only in that part of the nation which is their proper sphere; and that part is, as we have already shown, the vulgar part. And should any still imagine that if we thus limit the scope of our observation, we shall not be able to treat the subject exhaustively, we shall remind him that the vulgar classes, though not yet co-extensive with the nation, are still rapidly becoming so, vulgarity ascending and descending with equal certainty; since on the one hand it ruins all society into which it contrives to enter; whilst it thrives itself, on the other hand, on all society that contrives to enter into it. To it therefore our whole study may be confined. Nor lastly (for it is well to anticipate every possible objection), is there any need that even thus we should study those classes that naturally possess social distinction, that we may so learn in what its real essence consists; since, if we do but observe facts, we shall see that ignorance of the whole inner nature of good society is the chief characteristic of those who with most single-heartedness direct their lives towards getting into it. It will be enough then, without any further explanation, to lay it down that social distinction is the chief good, and the end of all moral action; nor can the Aristotelians say that this is in reality a mediate end, and sought for only because it leads to happiness; since so far are men from seeking social distinction for the sake of happiness, that they are perpetually renouncing happiness for the sake of social distinction.’
‘Capital, Mr. Laurence!’ exclaimed Lady Ambrose, breaking into a low silvery laugh, as soon as Laurence had ended. ‘And how true that is about those people who really ruin the society into which they contrive to push themselves!’
Lord Allen, who caught Miss Merton’s eye at this moment, gave a very faint smile.
‘So you see,’ said Laurence, ‘that you were quite right, Lady Ambrose, by instinctively beginning with exclusion.’
‘Still,’ said Allen, ‘I’m afraid that all this is rather selfish. These people who want to to be so smart, are, I dare say, not much the worse because of it. Indeed, myself, I rather like a good snob now and then.’
‘Well,’ said Laurence, ‘let me read a few more paragraphs, and you will see. ‘Such being the end,’ he goes on, ‘of all moral action, virtue or morality is that state of mind which desires this end; and virtuous or moral acts are those which help us on towards it, provided only that they are done with purpose. For acts done not with purpose, but by chance, are not to be held moral. Now the nature of purpose is well explained by Aristotle, when he says that its object is all such voluntary action as is the result of deliberation. And what then is the object of deliberation? Let us consider that: for men, it is evident, do not deliberate about all matters alike; since in addition to their continually not deliberating in cases when they ought, there are many matters about which deliberation is out of the question. Thus no one deliberates about what is in its nature immutable, as how to alter vulgarity of a people’s member of Parliament; nor about necessary things, as how to alleviate the misery of the starving poor; nor about things of chance, as how to prevent the dissemination of cholera; nor, again, about remote things which do not concern us, as, to use a former instance, how to alleviate the misery of the starving poor; nor does anyone deliberate about impossible things, as how to check the poisonous adulteration of food; nor about things that are past and lost, as how to do anything for the glory of England; nor, lastly, do we deliberate about things we do not care about, as how to get that lost glory back again. Deliberation, then, only takes place about such matters as our own agency can effect, and which we wish it should effect. Virtue, therefore, being thus based on deliberation, is manifestly not one of those things that come to us by nature whether we will or no; but it is acquired by habit. The genus of moral virtue is a habit. But what special sort of habit? and how does it differ from all other habits? Let us consider this.
‘We must remember, first, that it is the office of every virtue to perfect that of which it is the virtue. Thus it is the virtue of a modern London house to be as badly built as possible and not be seen to be so; it is the virtue of an insured ship not to appear unseaworthy before she does so to the crew as she is foundering; and it is the virtue of butcher’s meat, groceries and so forth, not to appear unfit for human consumption. In the same way moral virtue, or the virtue of a man, is that which makes him appear to be one thing to the world, whilst in reality he is another. Such being the case, it is plain that in trying to be virtuous, we may, as in most other things, do too much, or too little; and what is right will be a mean lying between these two extremes. Now of means there are two kinds, the absolute and the relative, either of which we can find in anything that is continuous; the former, as when we take the bisecting point in a straight line, which is for all men one and the same; the latter, as when we take the mean point or thing with reference to ourselves, in which case it will differ with our different requirements. Thus, if three be too small a number, and seventy-five too great, simply as an arithmetical problem, we take thirty-nine to be the mean, which exceeds three by as much as it is exceeded by seventy-five; but with reference to ourselves we cannot so decide. For thirty-nine articles of religion may be too few for the present Archbishop of Westminster, and three may be too many for the Dean. Or again between 100l. and 20l., the mean with regard to the matter itself would be 60l., but with regard to ourselves, not so. For 60l. would be too little to offer to a cook, and too much to offer to a curate. So in like manner that equality which constitutes moral virtue is not the absolute, but the relative mean. Moral virtue, then, we shall define to be a certain state, or habit of purpose, conforming in action to the relative mean, and adjusted to that mean as the worldly or snobbish man would adjust it. At this point we shall pause a moment to make a very slight change in the accepted terminology of the subject. We have hitherto spoken of the virtue of the vulgar classes as being a mean. We consider, however, that our language will be less ambiguous, if we take another form of the same word, and agree to call it a meanness. Moral virtue, then, is a meanness lying between two vices, its extremes; the one vice being that of excess, the other that of defect. Thus it is possible for a habit of mind to be so unrestrained and vehement, that the acts it produces at once betray their motives and obtrude them on the observer; it is possible for it, also, on the other hand, to be so weak and nerveless as never to produce any acts at all. For instance, the habit of thought in a clergyman may be so strong and unrestrained as to lead him to speak his whole conclusions out, and so get deprived of his living; or on the other hand it may be so weak and undeveloped, that he comes to no conclusions at all, and so dies in a curacy; the meanness between these two extremes being what is called vagueness, or the absence of any defined opinions, which is a great merit, and leads, in the Established Church, to high preferment. So also with habits of action, the general name given to the true meanness is worldliness, whereof the excess is snobbishness, and the defect independence: worldliness being in its essence the former of these, and in its aspect the latter. Whence it follows that we may yet further generally define the moral meanness, as that which is inwardly one extreme, and which is outwardly the other.’
‘Now,’ said Laurence, ‘though I don’t suppose the writer of this really cared two straws whether the majority of people were mean and vulgar or no, there is a great deal of truth in what he says: and I think in our ideally good society one of the first things we want is that it shall be unmixed and genuine; I mean, all its members must be of it, as well as in it. They must give it its prestige. We must have none that merely get their prestige from it.’
‘Well,’ said Allen, ‘no doubt this exclusion is better, if it could be only managed.’
‘Don’t let us think yet,’ said Laurence, ‘about how to manage it. Let us see what we want first, and see what it costs afterwards.’
‘I certainly believe,’ said Miss Merton, ‘that what I consider the extremely bad manners of a great many very fine ladies would all go, if a stop were put to this jostling and scrambling that goes on about them, as Mr. Laurence proposes.’
‘See,’ said Laurence, ‘here is one good fruit of exclusion at once—the redemption of our manners; and a most important fruit too, I think; for I hope we all start with the understanding that our society, ideally good as it is, is above none of those outward graces and refinements of behaviour and ways of living that give us such pleasure now, when we find them.’
‘And manner too, Mr. Laurence,’ broke in Lady Ambrose, ‘as well as manners—Think what a charm there is in a really charming manner.’
‘There is indeed,’ exclaimed Mr. Stockton. ‘The dear Duchess of ——— for instance—why, there’s a fascination even in the way in which she says good morning.’
‘Ah yes,’ said Lady Ambrose. ‘Now, there’s what I call a really perfect manner for you.’
‘Very well,’ said Laurence, ‘and whatever is a really perfect manner, in our ideal society we must all have it.’
‘I must confess,’ said Allen, ‘that I get very sick sometimes of our conventional society manners; and I often long to have a good genuine savage to talk to.’
‘That,’ said Laurence, ‘is because of all the social shams that we have just agreed to get rid of. And to call the manner of society conventional, conveys no greater blame than if you were to call language conventional. For manner is but a second language, of which the best society speaks the purest dialect—the Attic, in fact. And as with language, so with manner, the more uniformity there is in it in some ways, the nicer shades of individuality shall we be able to express by it in others.’
‘Well,’ said Allen, shortly, ‘perhaps it is so. You are very likely right.’
‘And in manner,’ said Laurence, ‘I include tone too—that special and indescribable way of looking at things, and speaking of things, which characterises good society, and distinguishes it from the rest of the world so completely, and yet by marks so subtle that they would utterly escape the notice of those who don’t know their meaning—that little extra stroke of polishing that brings to light such countless new delicate veins in the marble of life—the little extra stroke of the brush that puts a new refinement, and self-possession, into the face. As Browning says of a very different subject—
Oh, the little more, and how much it is,And this is something quite independent of any special ability or special quality on the part of the individual people themselves; though of course the more gifted and cultivated they are, the greater will its charm be.’
And the little less, and what worlds away.
‘Yes,’ said Miss Merton thoughtfully, and half to herself, ‘I think all that is quite true.’
‘Of course,’ said Laurence, ‘I know that tone alone can only make society good in a very narrow sense of the word. I merely mean that no amount of other qualities can make it really good, without tone.’
‘I don’t in the least object,’ said Allen, ‘to the marble being polished; but what I want first to be sure of is, that it is worth polishing.’
‘Quite so,’ said Laurence. ‘What we must now consider is, what are all those special qualities and accomplishments, which will make a really perfect society the best among the best—such things as wit, knowledge, experience, humour, and so on—the veins, in fact, in the marble, that can be brought out by the polish.’
‘Ah, yes, my dear Laurence,’ began Mr. Luke, ‘this is the great thing that we shall have to decide about; and it is this very thing that I am always telling the world is—’
But he was interrupted by the advent of Mr. Herbert, who, with the exception of Mr. Storks and Dr. Jenkinson, was the only member of the party not already there. Mr. Herbert’s whole aspect surprised everyone. At luncheon, as all remembered, he had been melancholy and desponding; but his face now wore a bright smile, and there was something that was almost gaiety in his elastic step. No one, however, ventured to ask him the reason of this pleasing change; but as he held an open newspaper in his hand, which he had apparently just received, it occurred to most that he must have seen in it ‘something to his advantage.’
‘Well,’ he exclaimed to Laurence, in a manner quite in keeping with his look, ‘and tell me now how are you getting on with your new Republic? You ought to make a very beautiful thing out of it—all of you together, with so many charming ladies.’
‘Do you think so?’ said Laurence, in great surprise at this cheerful view of things.
‘Yes,’ answered Mr. Herbert, slowly and with decision. ‘Ladies I always think, so long as they are good and honest, have beautiful imaginations. And now, let me ask you how you have set to work.’
Laurence explained to him that they had begun, on Leslie’s suggestion, with considering what society, or the life of the highest classes, would be at its best; and that they were going to see afterwards what was implied in this.
‘Indeed!’ said Mr, Herbert meditatively. ‘Now, that is a really beautiful way of going about the business. And how far, let me ask you, have you got with your picture of these highest classes? I trust at all events that you have made a good beginning.’
‘A beginning,’ said Laurence, ‘is all that we have made. We have agreed that our society is to have the utmost polish, ease, and grace of manner, and the completest savoir-vivre. It is, in fact, to be a sort of exemplar of human life at its highest conceivable completeness.’
‘Excuse me,’ said Mr. Herbert, ‘but the ways of polite life, and the manners of fine ladies and gentlemen, are beautiful only as the expression of a beautiful spirit! They are altogether hateful as the ornament or the covering of a vile one.’
‘Yes, Herbert, yes,’ exclaimed Mr. Luke, with a long sigh. ‘And I was just going to say this, when you joined us—that to make society really good—even really brilliant and entertaining—one thing is wanted, and that is true and genuine culture. Then let us have the polish by all means; but let it be a diamond we polish, and not a pebble. Our society must be one that does not merely dance, and hunt, and shoot. It must think, and reason, and read. It must be familiar—the whole of it must be familiar—with the great thoughts of the world, the great facts of the world, and the great books of the world. You want all this, if you would be perfectly brilliant in your salons, as well as really profound in your studies.’
This was assented to by nearly all. Lady Ambrose however looked a little uncomfortable, and not quite satisfied about something.
‘Don’t you think,’ she said at last, ‘that if everyone is to have so much culture, society will tend to become—well—just a little—’
‘Well, Lady Ambrose?’ said Laurence.
‘Well, just a little bit blue. It will be all too bookish, if you understand what I mean. Don’t you know when anyone comes to see you in London, and will talk of nothing but books, one always fancies it is because he isn’t—it’s very uncharitable to say so, but still it’s true—because he isn’t very much in society and doesn’t know many people to talk about?’
‘I always think it such a blessing,’ said Lord Allen, ‘to find anyone who will talk about books, and will not be perpetually boring one with vulgar gossip and scandal.’
‘Oh, so do I,’ said Lady Ambrose eagerly, ‘but that was not what I meant exactly. Mr. Laurence knows what I mean; I’m sure he does. No one can delight in a book more than I; but still—’ she said, pausing to think how much of what she considered culture was to be found in those London drawing-rooms where she felt her own life completest, ‘still—somehow—’ she said with a faint smile, ‘it is possible to be too literary, isn’t it, as well as too anything else?’
‘Perfectly true, Lady Ambrose,’ said Mr. Luke—Lady Ambrose was delighted—‘people continually are too literary—to my cost I know it; and that is because the world at large—what is called the reading world even more than the non-reading world—are hopelessly at sea as to what books are, and what they really do for us. In other words, if you will forgive my harping as I do upon a single expression, they lack culture.’
‘Why, I thought culture was books and literariness, and all that,’ Lady Ambrose murmured half aloud, with a look of bewilderment. Mr. Herbert however suddenly came to her rescue.
‘Now, all this,’ he said, ‘is most interesting; but I feel myself, something as I imagine Lady Ambrose does, that I should like to know a little more clearly what culture is, and what you mean by it, when you call it the essence of good society.’
‘Yes,’ said Lady Ambrose, ‘this is just what I like. Come, Mr. Luke, suppose you were to tell us.’
‘Suppose,’ said Mr. Luke with an august wave of his hand, ‘instead of that we ask Mr. Laurence to tell us. No one can do so better than he. I, Lady Ambrose, have perhaps grown something too much of a specialist to be able to put these things in a sufficiently popular way.’
‘Ah,’ said Mr. Herbert,’ this is really nice. I shall like to listen to this. But you must allow me to be merely a listener, and not ask me for instruction. I assure you I am here altogether to be instructed.’
Laurence, with some diffidence, assented to what was asked of him; and there was a general rustling on all sides of the party settling themselves down more luxuriously on the grass. Every influence of the summer afternoon conspired to make all take kindly to the topic—the living airy whisper of the leaves overhead, the wandering scents of the flowers that the breeze just made perceptible, the musical splash of the fountain in its quiet restlessness, the luxury of the mossy turf as soft as sleep or rose-leaves, and a far faint murmur of church-bells that now and then invaded the ear gently, like a vague appealing dream. Mr. Saunders even was caressed by his flattered senses into peacefulness; the high and dry light of the intellect ceased to scintillate in his eyes; the spirit of progress condescended to take a temporary doze.