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John Morley: 1863-1923.

By W. L. and Janet E. Courtney.

John Morley, 1915.

“LIGHT RATHER THAN HEAT!” It is his own phrase, summing up what to him seemed the great need of the age in which he grew up to manhood. But it might well serve as an epitaph for the statesman and thinker—austere, remote, seeking always to keep burning the clear flame of truth undimmed by any concession to prejudice or superstition. His was not a personality to kindle enthusiasm, but he never failed to command respect, and as the years went on, and one by one the great Victorians passed into silence, John Morley came to symbolize for his countrymen that tradition of honesty, uprightness and uncompromising devotion to the truth as he saw it, which is the very opposite to the temper of the politician. Men might disagree with Morley,—they often did, especially with his Irish policy,—but they never attributed his action to mean motives; they knew him at heart to be disinterested.

He was Lancashire born, a North Countryman through and through. His father, a surgeon, came from the West Riding of Yorkshire, and his mother was Northumbrian. He, himself, was born at Blackburn, then a newly risen Lancashire cotton town, lying in a valley between bleak moorland ridges, a hive of industry with little of beauty to soften life for its citizens. “The punctual clang of the factory bell in dark early mornings, with the clatter of the wooden clogs as their wearers hastened along the stone flags to the mill, the ceaseless search for improvements in steam power and machinery and extension of new markets, the steady industry, the iron regularity of days and hours, long remained in memory as the background of youth, with perhaps a silent passage into my own ways and mental habits from the circumambient atmosphere of some traits of my compatriots.”

Though his up-bringing was not definitely Nonconformist, all his surroundings were Puritan. The prevailing spirit of the Lancashire folk was, as he says, “stiffly Evangelical.” His own father had indeed turned from Wesleyanism to Anglicanism, why, his son never knew; but he retained an equal horror of Puseyites and German infidels, and he send the boy to a school kept by an Independent. Young Morley seems to have inherited bookishness. His father carried pocket editions of Virgil, Racine and Byron about with him on his daily rounds, and strained his resources later to send his son to schools he could with difficulty afford; University College School in London, and then Cheltenham College. There the boy distinguished himself, especially in Greek verse—not, perhaps, the direction one would have expected. Indeed one of his tutors said of an attempt at a prize poem that his “verse showed many of the elements of a sound prose style.” He won a scholarship, at the expense of a pious founder, to Lincoln College, Oxford, once the home of John Wesley, whose old rooms Morley now found himself occupying. The college at the moment had fallen on evil days; its Rector was a more or less illiterate clergyman, and its later famous Head, Mark Pattison, was sulking in his tents. But in Thomas Fowler, afterwards head of Corpus, Morley found a sympathetic tutor, who trained him in the Aristotelian philosophy congenial to his Lancastrian temperament. Conington on Virgil, A. P. Stanley (afterwards Dean) on ecclesiastical history, Mansel on the philosophy of intuitionalism, Goldwin Smith as an exponent of Liberalism, were amongst his teachers. He was a great hearer of sermons, having, as he confesses, “an irresistible weakness for the taking gift of unction” (how this must later have attracted him to Gladstone!) Newman’s golden voice had long sunk to silence in another communion. Bishop Wilberforce now occupied the University pulpit, but he excelled in that special quality, his only later rival in Morley’s opinion being Charles Spurgeon, the famous pastor of the South London Tabernacle, with his “glorious voice, unquestioning faith, full and ready knowledge of apt texts of the Bible, and deep and earnest desire to reach the hearts of congregations”. It is interesting in this connection to recall that Morley himself had been destined to take Orders. Life at Oxford, he says, so far “shook the foundations” of his early beliefs that this was out of the question; but he retained to the end many of the characteristics of a preacher and prophet.

AMONGST OTHER INFLUENCES OF the mid-Victorian period to which he belonged,—his Oxford life fell in the decade 1850-60,—he mentions George Eliot and Cotter Morison. George Eliot in 1857 “began the career of story-teller ‘in shadowy thoroughfares of thought’ that laid such hold upon the reading England of her time and made critics of high authority, both French and English, both Catholic and Rationalist, call her the most considerable literary personality since the death of Goethe.” No doubt this was an extravagant estimate. “Experience,” as Morley says, “brings discrimination;” but he adds his own conviction that Acton was right when he called her teaching “the highest within the resources to which Atheism is restricted”. Cotter Morison’s influence was more personal. The Service of Man, that work with the “pregnant and moving name”, was in Morley’s opinion “a miscarriage both of thought and composition… the rash attempt of failing days”, though “it could not impair the captivating comradeship of his prime”.

But Agnosticism, Rationalism, Atheism, or whatever name was attached to freedom of thought, was less the distinctive note of the period than Liberalism, using that word in its noblest and widest connotation. From the bankruptcy of creeds—“there is not a creed which is not shaken… not a received tradition which does not threaten to dissolve”, said Matthew Arnold of the time—young and ardent spirits turned to the hope of progress, to striving for the uplifting of man. Here is Morley’s own definition of the true Liberalism; it may well stand as an expression of his life-long faith:

Respect for the dignity and worth of the individual is its root. It stands for pursuit of social good against class interest or dynastic interest. It stands for the subjection to human judgment of all claims of external authority, whether in an organised Church, or in more loosely gathered societies of believers, or in books held sacred. In law-making it does not neglect the higher characteristics of human nature, it attends to them first. In executive administration, though judge, gaoler, and perhaps the hangman will be indispensable, still mercy is counted a wise supplement to terror. General Gordon spoke a noble word for Liberalist ideas when he upheld the sovereign duty of trying to creep under men’s skins—only another way of putting the Golden Rule. The whole creed is a good deal too comprehensive to be written out here, and it is far more than a formalized creed. Treitschke, the greatest of modern Absolutists, lays it down that everything new that the nineteenth century has erected is the work of Liberalism.

WHAT MORLEY FELT ABOUT the counter theory, Militarism,—“that point blank opposite of Liberalism in its fullest and profoundest sense, whatever the scale and whatever the disguise,”—he was often later to testify, about Egypt in the ‘eighties, at the time of the South African War, and most emphatically of all in 1914, when he withdrew from Mr. Asquith’s Government.

To a young man of his views with slender means, the choice of a profession presented difficulties. The Church was barred, and Agnosticism was scarcely a recommendation for a teacher. He could not well afford to go to the Bar, though in later life he regretted the loss of “its fine gymnastic in combined common sense, accurate expression and strong thought”. There was little left but journalism. He had not been able to afford the longer Honours course at Oxford and left with a Pass degree owing to the necessity of immediate earning. Obviously the Liberal press, such as it then was, was his appropriate destination, and he joined the staff of The Leader, edited by George Henry Lewes. This paper shortly expired, and so did a weekly called The Literary Gazette (later The Parthenon) which Morley edited for a short time. He next became a fairly regular, though anonymous, contributor to The Saturday Review, then at the height of its reputation, until in 1867 his old connection with Lewes brought him the reversion of the editorship of The Fortnightly Review.

This had been founded in May, 1865, by Anthony Trollope, Frederic Chapman and Lewes, with Lewes as its first editor. One of its fundamental principles, as appears from its original prospectus, was the signing of contributions. The Review was to be in no sense a party organ. Every writer was to be free “to express his own views and sentiments with all the force of sincerity”—provided he put his name to them. How revolutionary this proposal seemed to a public used to quarterlies directed by an editor of pronounced views and entirely regardless of any standpoint but his own, is clear from the criticism of an Edinburgh publisher, who said he had always thought highly of Lewes’s judgment “until he had taken up the senseless notion of a magazine with signed articles and open to both sides of every question”.

Like many new ventures The Fortnightly had early to be “reconstructed”. The first “Company Ltd.” who put up the money, chiefly the three founders, were soon at the end of their resources. The Review was then made over to its publishers. It had already ceased to be “fortnightly” in anything but name. Lewes gave up the editorship before the end of its second year, and in January, 1867, John Morley became its editor. He held the post for fifteen years, a period as memorable in the political history of England as any that could be named. And though so strong and determined a personality could hardly fail to stamp its impress upon any publication he edited, Morley was not the man to refuse a hearing to sincere advocates of views opposed to his own.

TO ONE PART OF the original prospectus he faithfully adhered. Anonymous journalism was never to his taste. A very early contribution by himself in his first year of editorship was devoted to this subject; it contains a most interesting estimate of the power of journalism and a protest against the prevailing practice of anonymity. Morley took his profession very seriously. “The immeasurably momentous task of forming national opinion,” he thought, should not me entrusted to a body of men whom secrecy made irresponsible. He admits that much journalism, though strictly speaking anonymous, can by the initiated by identified as the work of particular writers; but he justly urges that the great mass of newspaper readers have neither the knowledge nor the capacity to make the necessary allowance for the personal equation. “Let us never forget that the exertion of mental activity upon public transactions, still more upon questions involving some powers of abstract thought, is thoroughly exceptional.”

The leader writer, therefore, is only too often in the position of an oracle; it is of the utmost importance that he should be imbued with a sense of full responsibility, and there is no greater safeguard against frivolous and irresponsible writing than the necessity of signing it and possibly having to defend it in person. There never was a period, in his opinion, when it more behooved men to speak out. He complains of the “artificial and unnatural silence” of English society. “On every kind of subject men shrink from speaking the things which are clearest and most constant in their own minds…. But silence cannot be an eternal condition of things. Men will not always continue to revere hollow and eviscerated conventions…. If controversy is to become more sincere, more earnest, more direct, and if, therefore, there is to be more hard hitting, it is indispensable that those who take a part in it should give the strongest possible guarantee that they mean exactly what they profess to mean, neither more nor less, and that they are ready to stand by it.”

Frederic Harrison.

There was plenty of hard hitting, both within and without the pages of The Fortnightly Review, during John Morley’s editorship. Frederic Harrison’s powerful defence of the trade unions was denounced by outside critics as “incendiary”. The Fortnightly’s advocacy of free education and its defence of Forster’s modified undenominationalism in the public schools, were interpreted as a deliberate plot for suppressing the Bible in education. Because writers like Harrison, of Comtist opinions, were allowed to contribute, the Review was often called the organ of Comtism. When Morley was giving up the editorship, in 1882, he referred to this charge. He frankly admitted that the Review under him had “unquestionably gathered round it some of the associations of sect”. But he argued that the wider term Positivist better described it than Comtist, since only a few of its contributors were disciples of Comte, and he urged further that the great political programme, Free Labour, Free Land, Free Schools, Free Church, preached in its pages, was wider even than the Positive creed. If a label must e found—and “this passion for a label is, after all, an infirmity”—he would have preferred the great word Liberalism, the religion of himself and those like-minded who had left the orthodox creeds.

His own deepest convictions on this question of free thought and free speech found expression in the essay On Compromise, published in 1874. “No compromise about it but the name,” said contemporary critics; and indeed on its title page Morley quotes Archbishop Whately’s saying: “It makes all the difference in the world whether we put Truth in the first place or in the second place.” After analyzing at some length the English dislike of general principles, neglect of the Historic Method and persistent tendency to compromise, he gives two striking instances of the moral confusion introduced into politics by this exaltation of expediency above truth—England’s expressed sympathy with the Southern Slave States during the American Civil War, and her condonation of the unscrupulous methods whereby Louis Napoleon made himself Emperor of the French.

WRITING SO SOON AFTER the event, he cannot but be struck by the swift Nemesis which overtook the Imperial adventurer. “Not often in history has the great truth that ‘morality is the nature of things’ received corroboration so prompt and timely.” Yet this is no occasion for surprise:

We need not commit ourselves to the optimistic or sentimental hypothesis that wickedness always fares ill in the world…. The claims of morality to our allegiance, so far as its precepts are solidly established, rest on the same positive base as our faith in the truth of physical laws. Moral principles, when they are true, are at bottom only registered generalizations from experience. They record certain uniformities of antecedence and consequence in the region of human conduct. Want of faith in the persistency of these uniformities is only a little less fatuous in the moral order than a corresponding want of faith would instantly disclose itself to be in the purely physical order…. The system of the Second Empire was an immoral system. Unless all the lessons of human experience were futile and all the principles of morality were articles of pedantry, such a system must inevitably bring disaster…. Yet because the catastrophe lingered, opinion in England began to admit the possibility of evil being for this once good and to treat any reference to the moral and political principles which condemned the imperial system… as simply the pretext of a mutinous or utopian impatience.

The essay contains many pregnant sayings. The time in which he wrote seemed to him, as to Matthew Arnold, more than any previous time an age of “transition in the very foundations of belief and conduct. The old hopes have grown pale, old fears dim; strong sanctions are become weak, and once vivid faiths very numb. Religion, whatever destinies may be in store for it, is at least for the present hardly any longer an organic power… conscience has lost its strong and on-pressing energy, and the sense of personal responsibility lacks sharpness of edge…. The souls of men have become void. Into the void have entered in triumph the seven devils of secularity.” What is the remedy? Not, as the timourous urge, hiding the light and allowing error to persist for its usefulness’s sake. To the contention that “for the mass of men… use and wont, prejudices, superstitions—however erroneous in themselves—are the only safe guardians of the common virtues”, Morley replies that though the mass may walk in little light, “whatever impairs the brightness of such light as a man has is not useful but hurtful”. To hold error is to make the intelligence less and less ready to receive truth. Moreover, to associate virtue with error, as for instance to threaten little children with hell fire, is to risk the associated virtue directly they discover the baselessness of the threat.

No, none are more deeply interested in upholding a high ideal of conduct than “those who no longer place their highest faith in powers above and beyond men”. To these the “cherishing the integrity and worthiness of man himself” must be a supreme object. Matthew Arnold expressed the same truth in his fine sonnet, The Better Part:

Hath man no second life? Pitch this one high.
Sits there no Judge in Heaven our sin to see?
More strictly, then, the inward Judge obey!
Was Christ a man like us? Ah! let us try
If we then, too, can be such men as He!

By sinning against intellectual honesty, more than by anything else, man can make his own hell. “We do not find out until it is too late that the intellect… has its sensitiveness. It loses its colour and potency and finer fragrance in an atmosphere of mean purpose…. Those who deliberately and knowingly sell their intellectual birthright for a mess of pottage… have a hell of their own; words can add no bitterness to it.” Such self-deception is Plato’s “lie in the soul”, the Gospels’ “sin against the Holy Ghost”, “and it is not any more shocking to the most devout believer than it is to the people who doubt whether there be any Holy Ghost or not”.

IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO read many pages of Morley without seeing how deeply he and his generation had been imbued by their early training in the Scriptures. It is not only the language but the very thought of the Hebrew Bible. Is this as true now? Will it be true at all of the next generation? And if not, will not thought, as well as its manner of expression, have suffered a grievous loss?

But to turn from John Morley the preacher to John Morley the publicist, soon to become the great parliamentarian. For the last three years of his editorship of The Fortnightly, he also edited The Pall Mall Gazette and made of that daily evening paper a stalwart champion of Liberalism. W. T. Stead was associated with him, and took over the editorship in 1883 when Morley stood successfully for Parliament, being elected Liberal member for Newcastle-on-Tyne. Under Stead the paper continued its Liberalism and its championship of social reform with equal zeal and more daring but less balanced judgment. Morley meanwhile was associated in the House of Commons, as he had been previously in The Fortnightly, with Joseph Chamberlain, whose articles on the New Radicalism had terrified country parsonages in the middle ‘seventies. Their paths were later to diverge, Morley going with his leader, Gladstone, whole-heartedly in his Irish policy, whilst Chamberlain reverted to Unionism, even to Imperialism and Protectionism, views at the opposite poles to Morley’s most cherished convictions.

WE ARE HERE CONCERNED, however, rather with Morley the man of letters than with Morley the statesman, the Irish Secretary of Gladstone’s Government, or the Secretary for India under Mr. Asquith. He had very early sat at the feet of John Stuart Mill, and from him imbibed the spirit of the English Utilitarian philosophers. He owed also to that same influence his abiding interest in French thought, especially the thought of the philosophers immediately preceding the French Revolution. That Revolution, its intellectual origins and its results, could not but fascinate a man of Morley’s humanitarian sympathies, and no disciple of Comte could fail to find in it the roots of the Positive philosophy. Moreover Carlyle’s book on the subject, owing much as it did to Mill, though diverging under German influences into a glorification of German culture as against that of France, had attracted the attention of all England at the time. One of Morley’s earliest studies of French though, his life of Voltaire, published in 1872, tried to redress the balance. Carlyle had sought to discrown Voltaire and to put Goethe on the throne. He had treated Diderot and the Encyclopædists with contempt. He had spoken of the French Revolution as though it were little more than a tragic farce without any deep-lying causes or any lasting results.

Such a view was impossible to a disciple of Mill and a believer in the Historic Method. Morley sought to show that Voltaire was not, as Carlyle had said, the incarnation of scepticism. On the contrary, he was an unwearied seeker after knowledge, insisting that we must criticize, discuss, bring all things into question—not so as to leave them in uncertainty but rather to lead up to some positive conclusion. And so with the other French thinkers, Diderot, Condorcet, Rousseau. They were seekers after light, they tried, on and all, to bring all things to the test of reason, and to find in that reason which Robespierre and the revolutionary enthusiasts afterwards deified, a sure guide in human affairs. On the side of English philosophy, Morley based himself upon Mill, who in his turn was the descendant of Locke and Hume, and the inspirer of Herbert Spencer. Knowledge was a slow acquisition of facts learned in experience and leading up to generalizations, valid only in so far as they could be tested at every link in the chain. Ultimate verities cannot be so tested; our attitude to them, therefore, must be one not of denial but of nescience. Positivism, the third stage, according to Comte, in mental development, when men no longer ascribe events to the Deity as first cause, or to any metaphysical entities, but study phenomena as they present themselves, is the creed for rational men. Positivism tinged deeply with humanitarianism, working itself out in striving for social reform—that was Morley’s creed, and it expressed itself in his life no less than in his writings.

HENCE HIS DEEP INTEREST in character and his profoundly interesting studies of men of action such as Cobden, Cromwell, Walpole, Burke, and last of all Gladstone. But behind the biographer, the publicist, the statesman, remained always the preacher and prophet, the thinker, who, though as far as possible removed from a mystic, himself lived the inner life of thought, which gave him the key to the mystical and the spiritual. Writing of Thomas à Kempis, and discussing the Imitatio, he says:

Is not the sphere of these famous meditations the spiritual rather than the moral life, and their aim the attainment of holiness rather than moral excellence?… By holiness do we mean something different from virtue? It is not the same as duty: still less is it the same as religious belief. It is a name for an inner grace of nature, an instinct of the soul, by which, though knowing of earthly appetites and worldly passions, the spirit, purifying itself of these, and independent of all reason, argument, and the fierce struggles of the will, dwells in living, patient, and confident communion with the seen and the unseen Good. In this region, not in ethics, move the Imitatio.

And in this region must at times have moved, though he rarely expressed it, the spirit of John Morley.

W. L. Courtney was The Fortnightly Review‘s longest-serving editor. His wife, Janet Elizabeth (Hogarth) Courtney, often served as his reader, sub-editor, and assistant. She is the author of several books, including The Making of an Editor (1930), a biography of her husband. Her history of the Fortnightly, drawn from that book, is published here.

Originially published in The North American Review, November 1927, this text has been manually transcribed exclusively for this New Series, with very minor edits to track usage. In using this work, please also cite The Fortnightly Review [New Series] and For additional details, please see our copyright page.