At the close of an interesting address lately delivered at the reopening of the Liverpool University College and School of Medicine, Mr. Matthew Arnold said if there was one word which he should like to plant in the memories of his audience, and to leave sticking there after he had gone, it was the word lucidity. If he had to fix upon the three great wants at this moment of the three principal nations of Europe, he should say that the great want of the French was morality, that the great want of the Germans was civil courage, and that our own great want was lucidity. Our own want was, of course, what concerned us the most. People were apt to remark the defects which accompanied certain qualities, and to think that the qualities could not be desirable because of the defects which they saw accompanying them. There was no greater and salutary lesson for men to learn than that a quality may be accompanied, naturally perhaps, by grave dangers; that it may actually present itself accompanied by terrible defects, and yet that it might itself be indispensable. Let him illustrate what he meant by an example, the force of which they would all readily feel. Seriousness was a quality of our nation. Perhaps seriousness was always accompanied by certain dangers.
But, at any rate, many of our French neighbors would say that they found our seriousness accompanied by so many false ideas, so much prejudice, so much that was disagreeable, that it could not have the value which we attributed to it. And yet we knew that it was invaluable. Let them follow the same mode of reasoning as to the quality of lucidity. The French had a national turn for lucidity as we had a national turn for seriousness. Perhaps a national turn for lucidity carried with it always certain dangers. Be this as it might, it was certain that we saw in the French, along with their lucidity, a want of seriousness, a want of reverence, and other faults, which greatly displeased us. Many of us were inclined in consequence to undervalue their lucidity, or to deny that they had it. We were wrong: it existed as our seriousness existed; it was valuable as our seriousness was valuable. Both the one and the other were valuable, and in the end indispensable.
What was lucidity? It was negatively that the French have it, and he would therefore deal with its negative character merely. Negatively, lucidity was the perception of the want of truth and validness in notions long current, the perception that they are no longer possible, that their time is finished, and they can serve us no more. All through the last century a prodigious travail for lucidity was going forward in France. Its principal agent was a man whose name excited generally repulsion in England, Voltaire. Voltaire did a great deal of harm in France. But it was not by his lucidity that he did harm; he did it by his want of seriousness, his want of reverence, his want of sense for much that is deepest in human nature. But by his lucidity he did good.
All admired Luther. Conduct was three-fourths of life, and a man who worked for conduct, therefore, worked for more than a man who worked for intelligence. But having promised this, it might be said that the Luther of the eighteenth century and of the cultivated classes was Voltaire. As Luther had an antipathy to what was immoral, so Voltaire had an antipathy to what was absurd, and both of them made war upon the object of their antipathy with such masterly power, with so much conviction, so much energy, so much genius, that they carried their world with them--Luther his Protestant world, and Voltaire his French world--and the cultivated classes throughout the continent of Europe generally.
Voltaire had more than negative lucidity; he had the large and true conception that a number and equilibrium of activities were necessary for man. "Il faut douner à notre áme toutes les formes possibles" was a maxim which Voltaire really and truly applied in practice, "advancing," as Michelet finely said of him, in every direction with a marvelous vigor and with that conquering ambition which Vico called mens heroica. Nevertheless. Voltaire's signal characteristic was his lucidity, his negative lucidity.
There was a great and free intellectual movement in England in the eighteenth century--indeed, it was from England that it passed into France; but the English had not that strong natural bent for lucidity which the French had. Its bent was toward other things in preference. Our leading thinkers had not the genius and passion for lucidity which distinguished Voltaire. In their free inquiry they soon found themselves coming into collision with a number of established facts, beliefs, conventions. Thereupon all sorts of practical considerations began to sway them. The danger signal went up, they often stopped short, turned their eyes another way, or drew down a curtain between themselves and the light. "It seems highly probable," said Voltaire, "that nature has made thinking a portion of the brain, as vegetation is a function of trees; that we think by the brain just as we walk by the feet." So our reason, at least, would lead us to conclude, if the theologians did not assure us of the contrary; such, too, was the opinion of Locke, but he did not venture to announce it. The French Revolution came, England grew to abhor France, and was cut off from the Continent, did great things, gained much, but not in lucidity.
The Continent was reopened, the century advanced, time and experience brought their lessons, lovers of free and clear thought, such as the late John Stuart Mill, arose among us. But we could not say that they had by any means founded among us the reign of lucidity.
Let them consider that movement of which we were hearing so much just now: let them look at the Salvation Army and its operations. They would see numbers, funds, energy, devotedness, excitement, conversions, and a total absence of lucidity. A little lucidity would make the whole movement impossible. That movement took for granted as its basis what was no longer possible or receivable; its adherents proceeded in all they did on the assumption that that basis was perfectly solid, and neither saw that it was not solid, nor ever even thought of asking themselves whether it was solid or not.
Taking a very different movement, and one of far higher dignity and import, they had all had before their minds lately the long-devoted, laborious, influential, pure, pathetic life of Dr. Pusey, which had just ended. Many of them had also been reading in the lively volumes of that acute, but not always good-natured rattle, Mr. Mozley, an account of that great movement which took from Dr. Pusey its earlier name. Of its later stage of Ritualism they had had in this country a now celebrated experience. This movement was full of interest. It had produced men to be respected, men to be admired, men to be beloved, men of learning, goodness, genius, and charm. But could they resist the truth that lucidity would have been fatal to it? The movers of all those questions about apostolical succession, church patristic authority, primitive usage, postures, vestments--questions so passionately debated, and on which he would not seek to cast ridicule--did not they all begin by taking for granted something no longer possible or receivable, build on this basis as if it were indubitably solid, and fail to see that their basis not being solid, all they built upon it was fantastic?
He would not say that negative lucidity was in itself a satisfactory possession, but he said that it was inevitable and indispensable, and that it was the condition of all serious construction for the future. Without it at present a man or a nation was intellectually and spiritually all abroad. If they saw it accompanied in France by much that they shrank from, they should reflect that in England it would have influences joined with it which it had not in France--the natural seriousness of the people, their sense of reverence and respect, their love for the past. Come it must; and here where it had been so late in coming, it would probably be for the first time seen to come without danger.
Capitals were natural centers of mental movement, and it was natural for the classes with most leisure, most freedom, most means of cultivation, and most conversance with the wide world to have lucidity though often they had it not. To generate a spirit of lucidity in provincial towns, and among the middle classes bound to a life of much routine and plunged in business, was more difficult. Schools and universities, with serious and disinterested studies, and connecting those studies the one with the other and continuing them into years of manhood, were in this case the best agency they could use. It might be slow, but it was sure. Such an agency they were now going to employ. Might it fulfill all their expectations! Might their students, in the words quoted just now, advance in every direction with a marvelous vigor, and with that conquering ambition which Vico called mens heroica! And among the many good results of this, might one result be the acquisition in their midst of that indispensable spirit--the spirit of lucidity!