Positive Philosophy on the Indian Question



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Positive Philosophy on the Indian Question [India, by Richard Congreve, British Rule in India, by Harriet Martineau] (The Saturday Review), V, 15, Jan. 2, 1858.
Positive Philosophy on the Indian Question*
Mr. Congreve has published a pamphlet on India very much like his Gibraltar. He comes forward to speak on the great question of the day as the representative of M. Comte’s opinions in this country. The time for proclaiming the doctrines of Positivism has arrived, and he “may not decline the perilous honour of the vanguard.” The aim of the Positivism, viewed as political philosophy, is “to subordinate politics to morals--in other words, to test political action and speculation by moral considerations.” If this is all, we cannot think that the honour of the vanguard will be found very perilous, or that Mr. Congreve has much cause to disclaim all wish to guard himself against the resentment of a bigoted world, and cry il faut payer de sa personne. A bigoted world is, in fact, much more tolerant, nay fond, of novel and even eccentric opinions than Mr. Congreve, who views English society rather critically than sympathetically, may imagine. But if Positivism limited itself to the enunciation of the principle that the laws of morality ought to be observed in politics, even the most “anarchical civilization” would be more likely to complain of the truism than of the innovation.

However, if the general principle is not very startling, the application, we must own, makes amends. After assuming that the re-conquest of India, not the suppression of a mutiny among the Sepoys, is the question now before us,--after laying it down that a contest in which the fortitude and heroism of our countrymen have been the admiration of the world, “has every repulsive feature, none of the palliations that ordinarily attend on war,” and applying to the exploits of Wilson and Havelock the line bella geri placuit nullos habitura triumphos--after rebuking our ferocious desire of retaliation, and insinuating (without that reference to facts which we venture to think the spirit of any philosophy requires) that Hindoo women and children have received at the hands of our countrymen treatment deserving the same punishment as the atrocities of the Sepoys--Mr. Congreve proceeds to state the policy which he thinks it the duty of England to adopt towards India. “This policy,” he says, “is simple in the extreme. It is that we withdraw from our occupation of India without any unnecessary delay, within the shortest period compatible with due arrangements for the security of European life and property, and with such measures as shall be deemed advisable in the interest of Indian independence and good government.” The relations of Western Europe and India are to be settled by a Commission, like that which has just given such general satisfaction in the settlement of the Danubian Principalities. It is to consist of one commissioner apiece from England, France, Portugal, and Denmark (the three last-mentioned States having, like ourselves, Indian settlements, the magnitude of which, compared with our empire, is not thought worth consideration)--one from Sardinia as the representative of what, in the formal ethnography of Positivism, which cannot chip the shell of the Roman Empire, is called the “fifth great nationality,” the Italian--of the Sultan of Turkey, who is assumed to be the natural head not only of Western Islamism, but of the Empire of Timur--and of an eminent Brahmin who, we presume, will be charged with the interests not only of his own, but of the lower castes, and perhaps also of the Sikhs and Parsees, not to mention Bheels and Santals. Nothing is said about Russia or about the Affghans--their unaggressive intentions must be supposed to be assumed. A distant view is opened of a future Protectorate of Western Europe, but it is not dwelt on now because it might awaken national susceptibilities among those who have quietly submitted to the “Protectorate” of the Mogul Emperors, the Mahrattas, and the Sultans of Mysore. What the “good government” of “independent” India is to be--how Mahomedans, Hindoos Sikhs, Santals, Bheels, with the various plundering interests of an old and very miscellaneous Alsatia of nations, are to be ruled and reconciled in the interval between our evacuation and the advent of the Western Protectorate--Mr. Congreve leaves it entirely to the Frenchmen and the Brahmin, and the rest of the commissioners, to determine. One cannot but fear that the Western Protectorate, on looking in some twenty years hence, may find nothing left to protect but the tip of Scindiah’s or Jung Bahadoor’s tail.

Mr. Congreve speaks, as we have said, as the representative of M. Comte’s opinions in this country; but we should have thought that position would have been more justly claimed by Miss Martineau. She has been the great promulgator of the Comtist philosophy among us, and she certainly would be no more inclined than Mr. Congreve to shrink from “the perilous honour of the vanguard.” Now she, too, has brought out a book on India. A very nice little book it is, though it deals rather too much in wonderment that men turned out as they did, and that events were what they were--as though it were always open to destiny to bolt, as it were, in the midst of history, and have no future at all. And what is Miss Martineau’s view of the matter? Just the reverse of Mr. Congreve’s. Mr. Congreve considers all our acquisitions in India, including even the conquest of the Punjab in strictly defensive war, as mere robberies, which morality requires us immediately to restore. He considers our rule as purely prejudicial to the country, and seems to regard that “ancient polytheistic organization,” both in its political and religious aspect, with respect, compared with the “anarchical civilization” which we are attempting to introduce. Nothing can be more sweeping or unmitigated than his condemnation of our Indian empire in every point of view--moral, religious, social, military, and commercial. Nothing, as we have seen, can be more peremptory than his injunction to abandon it without the least delay. Miss Martineau, without defending every act of Englishmen or of the English Government in India, or overrating the goodness of our moral title, treats our conquests, on the whole, as a natural series of events, glorious to us and beneficial to the natives. She justifies even the Burmese war, and (in the absence of any further evidence on the other side) the annexation of Oude. In regard to the Burmese war she strongly repels the imputation of “rapacity.” And the annexation of Oude, she says, was done “without bloodshed, without apparent resistance, and evidently to the prodigious relief of the people.” The recent condition of Oude under its native kings, she thinks, is “as fair a warning as we could have of what must become of India, in the most peaceful times, if our civilizing and dispassionate rule were withdrawn.” Of the Government of India, she says, “that it remains one of the finest specimens--all the difficulties considered--of human government that the world has seen.” “As to the beneficent operation of our rule on the fortunes of a hundred millions of natives, there can be no question. The doubt is, not of the blessing of our rule to the natives, but whether it might not have been greater to ourselves.” So here we have the two principal representatives of Positivism in England directly at issue, historically, morally, socially, and politically--and as Miss Martineau evidently thinks Christianity, arrived at through the medium of education, would be a good thing for the Hindoos, we may add religiously--respecting the first great practical question to which the principles of the school are applied. The discrepancy is not the less significant because Miss Martineau’s book is a historical sketch, not a pamphlet, and she for the most part rather quietly assumes than asserts that which her fellow-Positivist so vehemently denies. Is this the unity of irresistible conviction on all moral and social subjects which Positivism led us to expect, after the blindness of the theological and the “anarchy” of the metaphysical era? One might as well judge of political actions for oneself by the old rules of justice and expediency. How is it possible to believe, in face of such disagreements in his school as this, that M. Comte, whatever his merits as a thinker may have been in his saner hours, gave the world any key to the solution of questions of political and social morality, which it has not possessed since we were taught to do unto others as we would they should do unto us.

If we might presume to say which of the two views was most in accordance with Positivism, we should say decidedly that of Miss Martineau. The Indian empire seems to us to be just one of those great historical facts which it is the greatest merit of Positivism to teach the world to accept and make the best of. M. Comte himself, it appears, dissuaded the publication of India, when he sanctioned the publication of Gibraltar; and we can hardly think that the opinion of the philosopher on the subject would have been changed by what he would have seen to be a mutiny in the Bengal army, though Mr. Congreve, catching at the expression rebel districts, in an article in the Times chooses to represent it as a general rising of the people of India against a hated yoke, like the rising of Hungary against Austria, or of Poland against Russia. Whether it was wise in our fathers to acquire territory and political power in India instead of continuing merely to trade with it, and whether we are real gainers in power or wealth by what they did, is no doubt an intricate question. But they acted in the spirit of their time, which, according to all Positive doctrine, is an historical justification. The spirit of unscrupulous aggrandizement was still abroad in all nations, and breaking out in conquests of Silesia and partitions of Poland. If France was not conquering, it was only because she was weak. She tried to commit burglary on Prussia, but found a Frederic in the house. Not a century before, “isolated, unsympathizing, and selfish” England had saved Europe from the claws of Louis Quatorze, who, again, had barely escaped the claws of Spain--and so backwards to the primitive robber ages of the world. It was a mere struggle for the political carcase of Hindostan between us and the French, who had commenced under Dupleix the very career of territorial aggrandizement which we have run, and who, if they had been successful, would, in those days of monopoly, have excluded our commerce from India as well as our arms. Russia has continued those “operations” in Northern and Central Asia which in Gibraltar Mr. Congreve designated as “her proper work.” France has seized Algeria, about which Mr. Congreve says nothing--perhaps because its evacuation was not recommended by M. Comte. Once established, our dominion could not help growing, not only by virtue of its strength, against which one despot and horde after another hurled and broke themselves, but also as a power of order in the midst of that vast anarchy, or rather, multitude of ephemeral tyrannies--that “great and deplorable confusion” which Mr. Congreve, with all his respect for the “ancient polytheistic organization,” is compelled to own followed the break-up of the Mogul empire. To persist in talking of “the seizure of India” is to ignore the gradual character of our acquisitions, on which the decision of the moral question principally turns. We recommend Mr. Congreve to read the history of our conquests backwards, beginning with that of the Punjab; perhaps that process will somewhat modify his present notion, which is evidently that of a sudden, deliberate, unprovoked, and complete seizure of the territories of a single independent nation. Mr. Congreve knows we are not the first conquerors of India. Indian society, in fact, consists of a number of strata, as it were, of conquest, superposed one on another. The lower castes were probably, in their origin, a primitive race conquered by the higher castes; and there appear to be remains of still more aboriginal possessors of the soil. Why is the last deposit of this geological series alone to be removed in favour of the last deposit but one? Why is not India to be restored to the Bheels and the Santals? Besides, it must be remembered that we have acquired a title to India of another kind, by rescuing it during our possession from other, and far worse, conquerors. It is ours not only by conquest but by preservation. Had we not been there, the Sultans of Mysore, the Mahrattas, the Sikhs, would have been plundering and harrying the “ancient polytheistic organization” from Cape Comorin to Lahore. Mr. Congreve cannot condemn all conquest, for his type of political excellence is the Roman empire--a type to which our Indian empire is so near an approach that Mr. Newman has called upon us to reorganize it as a Roman province in the same peremptory style in which Mr. Congreve calls on us to abandon it altogether. Our abandonment would simply revive the title (which Mr. Congreve’s commission would have no right to supersede,) of a satrap, or a number of satraps, of the faineant Mogul; and a worse than the Goth would take the place of those who are at least as good as Romans.

Mr. Congreve gains some advantage by contrasting our highhanded conduct towards the barbarians of Hindostan with our exaction of the strict observance of international law from nations quite as barbarous, such as the Chinese. But this, at most, is an argumentum ad hominem, which cannot settle the practical question. The expressions used about “Providence” having given India into our hands, and our being therefore bound to keep it, are sometimes nauseous and profligate enough, and might almost as well be used by a thief to justify his keeping your spoons; but the rational moral to be drawn perhaps is, not that we should leave India a prey to the Mahomedans and Sikhs, but that people should leave off canting. Besides, many of those who talk in this way mean rather to acknowledge a religious duty towards our empire, than to allege supernatural title. The phrase “trusteeship” may, as Mr. Congreve says, be a new invention; but the idea is to be found in the language and conduct of every conscientious Englishman who has taken part in governing Hindostan, or legislating on the subject of India. It is not very philosophical, when you have a great practical question before you, to be dwelling too much on phrases. Can Mr. Congreve imagine that his rational opponents accept Lord Ellenborough’s phrase, “We have stalked as conquerors,” as a true expression of their feelings respecting our position in Hindostan? Everybody knows that Lord Ellenborough, with good abilities and great knowledge of India, is sadly given to talking fustian. He has very recently been talking some more fustian about “Normans and Saxons.” But this rodomontade would not practically influence his own conduct, much less that of the nation.



Mr. Congreve says we must not be judges in our own cause, but allow some disinterested arbitrator to decide whether we ought to retain India or not. Let him propose to his favourite France, and to Russia, to submit the case of their respective acquisitions to foreign arbitration, and we may safely undertake to be bound by the answer. But the enlightened opinion of Europe is an arbitrator, not impartial, but adverse to us; and the enlightened opinion of Europe is in favour of our keeping India. Is not the writer in the Deux Mondes, whom we quoted some time since, as fair a judge as Mr. Congreve? Mr. Congreve is not a fair judge. Rightly or wrongly, he hates English civilization; and any one can perceive that it is the fear of seeing English civilization introduced in to India, quite as much as any dislike of conquest on the part of the panegyrist of Cæsar and the Roman Empire, that moves him to denounce the retention of our conquests. He would hold different language if England were still the England of Cromwell--an epoch and a hero strangely chosen by one who is severe upon our national pride. He would hold different language, perhaps, even if for our civilization were substituted that which has just been illustrated by the Jeufosse trial, and which counts Fould and Morny among its rulers, and Eugène Sue among its teachers of social morality. He is quite out of sympathy--we venture, with sincere respect for his moral earnestness and for his talents, to say morbidly out of sympathy--with English society. We do not want a stronger proof of this than the solemn and elaborate appeal with which his pamphlet concludes, from the judgment of educated men to that of women and working men. “The best subject for my science,” said a quack mesmerist, “are persons with prominent eyes and a vacant expression of countenance.” The sympathies of the softer sex are relied on for appreciating in suttee “the true instinct, perverted in its mode of expression, which would make the marriage union triumph over death.” Perhaps infanticide might be commended to maternal feelings by some similar spiritualization. Some barbarians take their horses and dogs with them into the next world as well as their wives, and thus make the equine and missing union triumph over death. It would be uncomplimentary to say what the quality is in workingmen on which Mr. Congreve relies for confounding the case of Hungary and Italy with that of Hindostan. He says he has ceased to be revolutionary; but we cannot imagine anything more revolutionary than an appeal, of a pretty stimulating kind, to the lower classes to take the settlement of the most difficult of all political questions, out of the hands of the upper. The normal state of workingmen, according to M. Comte, should, if we remember rightly, be a heureuse insouciance about political philosophy. Mr. Congreve, of course, both in this appeal and what seems to us the equally revolutionary appeal to ladies to give their husbands curtain lectures about the Indian question, justifies himself by the superior moral instincts of those who are appealed to. But Mr. Buckle, another Positivist, will tell him that it is through the intellectual, not through the moral nature of man, that the great advances of humanity are made. We have always thought that the Positivists enormously exaggerated the social value of science and education; but in Mr. Congreve Positivism suddenly turns round and stares us in the face with an exaggeration of an exactly opposite kind. No Jesuit, seeking to cretinize humanity for pious purposes, could more openly solicit the feelings to rise against the intellect of man. Heaven forbid we should desire to enforce on Mr. Congreve, or any other man, the tyranny of patriotism, or to forbid the plain denunciation of national errors or crimes. Let us have perfectly open councils, by all means. But when a man is thoroughly dissatisfied with his country, he ought to put that fact very strongly before himself and those whom he addresses, in discussing the question whether the influence of his country abroad shall be extended or diminished. It is only against English aggrandizement that Congreve’s discourses are directed. He may say this is done in a spirit of self-sacrifice and self-reform, but in saying so he would be partly the victim of an illusion. “As an Englishman,” he says, “I cannot but take interest in the manifestations of English feeling.” That fervid orator, the late Archbishop of Canterbury, we believe, once said, in a speech at a public meeting, that “he had a great predilection for the church.” To the England of Milton and Cromwell, with its Civis Roneanus sum--the very heyday of our odious national pride--the author of Gibraltar is, as we have said before, strangely complementary; but one may praise the past to any extent without violating Mr. Tilney’s admonition to a young orator, never to praise any one except to the disparagement of some one else.

May we, without offence, ask Mr. Congreve to consider whether he does any good by writing these pamphlets? His practical ability is well known to all who were with him at Oxford, and his active usefulness there is gratefully remembered by many. His strong moral qualities, and desire to do good to his kind, are evident, even in what seem to us his wildest aberrations. His literary capacity has been proved by his recent edition of Aristotle’s Ethics. But we fear he is only wasting himself when he calls upon the nation to abandon its great moral stronghold in one pamphlet, and its Eastern empire in another. The last pamphlet is one of thirty-five pages, part of which space is occupied with what, to those who are unacquainted with a very novel school of philosophy, must seem an almost insane attack on the national religion; and both are written, however unintentionally, in a style calculated to irritate to the last degree those whom it should be the author’s object to win by gentle means to the reception of what he must know to be most startling doctrines and most unwelcome propositions. It is the same in all Mr. Congreve writes on social subjects. If he wants society to swallow a bitter pill, he begins by giving it a smart slap in the face. He has not yet written any considerable work on social philosophy, though we dare say he has it in him, with patience and calmness, to do so. The philosophy in the name of which he assumes to speak is not yet widely diffused, much less generally accepted, and can lend him no authority whatever. The world is ready to be instructed or amused by anyone; but it does not care to be advised, much less dictated to, by any but great names. A philosopher who expects that he shall get Gibraltar relinquished and India evacuated by a few stinging words in a half-crown pamphlet, might as well expect to move Stonehenge with tweezers, or effect a breach in the great Redan with a cannonade of batter-pudding. To proportion means to ends ought to be the rule of all philosophy, and especially of that which assumes to be the most practical philosophy of all.


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* India, By Richard Congreve. London: John Chapman. 1857. British Rule in India. A Historical Sketch. By Harriot Martineau, London: Smith, Elder, and Co. 1857.






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