The uses of torpor

June 6 2010

In a dolorous twentieth century any citizen of a Western community that was then still partitioned among a host of warring parochial states would have been content to see Arcadius and Honorius slumber harmlessly on their thrones without itching to see their sleep disturbed by the pernicious activities of wakeful neighbours; for in an age in which Gibbon’s Julian had turned out to be a Phocas, and his Semiramis a Sennacherib, political dynamism was at a discount. [Footnote: “Benevolent government is rarely associated with a ruler whose mind is over-alert and intelligence over-developed. Benevolence is most commonly found in rulers who are easy-going or who behave as if they were. The worst defect in the alert-minded ruler is that he lays burdens upon his subjects which are greater than they can bear; and he does this because his mental vision outranges theirs and because his insight penetrates to the ends of things at the beginnings – with disastrous consequences for them. The Prophet says: ‘Go the pace of the weakest among you’; and in this context the exponent of the Divine Law prescribes in the case of rulers that excess of intelligence should be avoided … because it produces oppression and bad government and makes demands upon the people which are contrary to their nature. … It is evident from this that intellectuality and intelligence is a fault in an administrator, because this is an excess of mental activity – just as dull-wittedness is an excess of mental torpidity. The two extremes are to be deprecated in every attribute of Human Nature. The ideal is the Golden Mean. … And for this reason a man who is over-intellectual has Satanic attributes attributed to him and is called ‘Satan’, ‘possessed by Satan’, and so on” (Ibn Khaldūn: Muqaddamāt, Book I, chap. xxiv).]

Walter Bagehot would have agreed. The English Constitution was published in 1867, the year of the Second Reform Act, and examines a usually unexamined thing, which seemed to exist in two dimensions or at two speeds, ancient and modern. It asks how an old and delicately-balanced wine will travel into the future.

Short extracts don’t do it justice. These are taken from the fifth edition, Kegan Paul, 1888, which contains the long Introduction (“The Poplars, Wimbledon, June 20, 1872”) to the second edition:

“It is true that a completely new House of Lords, mainly composed of men of ability, selected because they were able, might very likely attempt to make ability the predominant power in the State, and to rival, if not conquer, the House of Commons, where the standard of intelligence is not much above the common English average. But in the present English world such a House of Lords would soon lose all influence. People would say, ‘it was too clever by half,’ and in an Englishman’s mouth that means a very severe censure. The English people would think it grossly anomalous if their elected assembly of rich men were thwarted by a nominated assembly of talkers and writers. Sensible men of substantial means are what we wish to be ruled by, and a peerage of genius would not compare with it in power.”

“A great part of the ‘best’ English people keep their mind in a state of decorous dulness. They maintain their dignity; they get obeyed; they are good and charitable to their dependants. But they have no notion of play of mind: no conception that the charm of society depends upon it. They think cleverness an antic, and have a constant though needless horror of being thought to have any of it. So much does this stiff dignity give the tone, that the few Englishmen capable of social brilliancy mostly secrete it. They reserve it for persons whom they can trust, and whom they know to be capable of appreciating its nuances. But a good government is well worth a great deal of social dulness. The dignified torpor of English society is inevitable if we give precedence, not to the cleverest classes, but to the oldest classes, and we have seen how useful that is.”

“Men who study the structure of Parliament, not in abstract books, but in the concrete London world, wonder not that the landed interest is very powerful, but that it is not despotic. I believe it would be despotic if it were clever, or rather if its representatives were so, but it has a fixed device to make them stupid. The counties not only elect landowners, which is natural, and perhaps wise, but also elect only landowners of their own county, which is absurd. There is no free trade in the agricultural mind; each county prohibits the import of able men from other counties.”

“Accordingly the House of Commons, representing only mind coupled with property, is not equal in mind to a legislature chosen for mind only, and whether accompanied by wealth or not. But I do not for a moment wish to see a representation of pure mind; it would be contrary to the main thesis of this essay. I maintain that Parliament ought to embody the public opinion of the English nation; and, certainly, that opinion is much more fixed by its property than by its mind. The ‘too clever by half’ people who live in ‘Bohemia,’ ought to have no more influence in Parliament than they have in England, and they can scarcely have less.”


In a previous note in the same volume Toynbee gave his Muqaddamāt source as

French translation by de Slane, Baron McG. (Paris 1863-8, Imprimerie Impériale, 3 vols.) […].

I assume that he is referring to that edition here and that the translation from the French is his own.

A Study of History, Vol IX, OUP, 1954

A Study of History, Vol IX, OUP, 1954 (footnote)

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