Page images
PDF
EPUB

furnished its caricature of the persons and events that make up the Christian history and creed !

“Lastly. There is no injustice in punishing the blasphemer in respect of his offence being one of words merely, and involving no physical violence and no external interference with the property or actions of others. Is there not a whole class of offences which, time out of mind, so to say, have been punishable by our English law, that, nevertheless, comprise no breach of the peace, and no physical or overt interference with others? In what sense is blasphemy a mere matter of opinion-mere conduct affecting a man's self only—which is not equally true of such offences as the following ?- Publishing obscene prints ; using obscene language ; speaking in contempt of the sovereign ; gaming, perjury, and Sabbath-breaking, or some instances of it ?

“I am, indeed, aware that our laws against some even of these offences have incurred the censure of recent writers on liberty. But I am well content if the law against blasphemy stands no more in need of defence than these other laws that I have mentioned."

The report of the discussion after this paper ought not to be omitted. The Lord Chancellor said, he “agreed with a good deal, but not all,” of the lecture. " It was, and ought always to be, held as a grave offence to insult the Christian religion; but, in Mr. Lewis's view, not only Paine, but Gibbon and Hume, would have been liable to state prosecution! When he was AttorneyGeneral, he had to consider not only the character of the offence, but whether it was prudent to prevent it.” His Lordship, therefore, seems to have very successfully escaped the enunciation of any principle; unless, indeed, we may gather that respectable scoffers ought to be left alone, and that crown officers should be unco carefu', and not run risks of losing popularity.

Mr. J. G. Phillimore declared Mr. Lewis's arguments would justify the revocation of the edict of Nantes, and were those of ordinary intolerance; and then proceeded to discuss the doctrine of “parens patriæ," the case of Shelley and his children, Lord Eldon and the Court of Chancery.

Mr. Baron Bramwell complained that the lecturer had not

1

1 We believe the decision in the case of Shelley had been erroneously described by the lecturer, which was the cause of these remarks made thereon in explanation.

defined the most important terms he had employed, such as truth, orthodoxy, infidelity, blasphemy, &c., and is reported to have suggested as a wholesome system, the application of state intervention for the prosecution, all round, of every one who attacked improperly the religion of any one else; but there probably is some inaccuracy in this version of his remarks.

The Common Serjeant upon this assured Baron Bramwell that the Baron's views were identical with those of Mr. Lewis, if they only could see it! when, happily, the Attorney-General moved the adjournment of the debate.

The adjourned debate produced an able speech from Mr. Collier, Q.C., M.P., in which he very lucidly exposed the fallacies into which Mr. Lewis bad fallen, and showed the intrinsic character of his argument, and the necessary consequences which it involved. Mr. Phinn also put, as it seems to us, the question in a very philosophical point of view. We refer to these speeches because, as we are writing these sentences, we see that Mr. Lewis complains of having been misunderstood by these gentlemen, owing to their blind prejudices; and he expresses astonishment at the “phenomenon," that such men should exhibit such utter incapacity for accepting and appreciating opinions hostile to their own preconceptions. He points, in sorrow mingled with astonishment, at the well-known narrowing effect which idées fixés have on the minds of honest gentlemen. But it is by no means new to the world that prejudice and blindness, to which all may be subject, have the general effect of shutting out truth from men's apprehension. In this controversy, indeed, we think it very probably may be observed, but not in the persons Mr. Lewis suspects, so much as in one of whom he naturally has not the least suspicion ; nor have we any doubt but that he was much misunderstood by another gentleman, a lively Nisi Prius orator who joined in the debate, especially as he admitted that he had not heard Mr. Lewis's paper, nor read the account of it in print. This speaker proposed to treat the subject analytically, and to this end observed that it might be considered “in a philosophical, or political, or religious, or social point of view. Philosophy approved of a perfectly free and unlimited dis

cussion ; religion did not !” After this frank admission and felicitous antithesis, no attempt was made to reconcile the “ religious," "philosophical,” or political” points of view; the analytic treatment of the subject, and all investigation of principle, were forsaken ; and in the ramble over and round about the subject, we opine that the eloquent partisan proved himself by no means a very strong or logical supporter of Mr. Lewis's views; and we should not wonder if, on hearing the speech we are alluding to, Mr. Lewis really did stand "aghast at seeing ascribed to him views which he abhorred, and which he was not conscious of having enunciated.” And yet our readers may perhaps think that the somewhat ludicrous and blundering mode of leaving the question, as if solved by the dogma, “that philosophy approved of a perfectly free discussion, and religion did not,” was, after all, for a popular version of the difficulty, not an unfair one, though, of course, it was not one which Mr. Lewis would approve.

As probably representing, better or worse, the state of opinion of the profession and the public, this paper, and the debate in the Juridical Society, deserves some further consideration. And first, as to a few points on Mr. Lewis's lecture to which we have not hitherto adverted. There is one exception therein to the general absence of definition. Says Mr. Lewis—“The essence of the Christian's faith is, as we all know, God, a future state, a revelation, sin, redemption, and a final judgment.” This “essence ” of Mr. Lewis's creed, therefore, is to be respected in all controversy. But other Christians have their “

essences,” which they demand should be respected. At Jerusalem, during the holy festivals of the church, the Latin and Greek churchmen fight so vehemently about their essences, that Mohammedan policemen have to keep the peace; and we crave permission to doubt if controversialists in Great Britain and Ireland would agree to the Christian chart drawn out by Mr. Lewis. The law must be far more clear in its lines, and lay down far more distinctly what may or may not be attacked. In other words, we must have the authority of a recognized church, to distinguish what must not be blasphemed, before we attempt to deal with offences against religion.

Heresy must be defined before we can prosecute for blasphemy. But it seems that it is not pure heresy which, in this tolerant age, is desired to be punished—it is the improper, vulgar, and vehement profession of heresy. Argue, but don't sneer;

demonstrate, but don't denounce; reason, but don't ridicule. Mr. Lewis may, perhaps, be discussing original sin with some other eminent jurist. Mr. Lewis presses

his antagonist

hard (with that eloquence for which the equity bar is famous, and with which lawyers are immediately inspired when clothed in silk), and proves to him most satisfactorily that he must be damned.

The latter, however, makes one more feeble attempt at a pleasant retort, but—"You are laughing at me, sir,” cries Mr. Lewis ; “fetch Sir Richard Bethel and an inspector of the A division !” Again, anxionis to save the soul of a Popish serjeant-at-law, Mr. Lewis engages with him some Sunday afternoon, and easily proves bim an idolater; and demonstrates that his cherished belief in the sacraments, invocation of saints, and the infallibility of the church, most foolish and ludicrous. “You hurt my feelings by ridiculing my religious sentiments," urges the worthy serjeant. “Can't help it,” replies Mr. Lewis; "and, besides, it isn't as to the 'essence' of Christianity, so you can't take out a summons at Bow Street; besides, if you could, my moderate wit and decent irony would not be perceived by the court and jury, especially as I took care to put them in the form of a syllogism, which is 'fair' argument.”

In fact, Mr. Lewis and his friends want to have, at the same time, all the credit of being tolerant, and all the advantage of persecuting those who offend them. Like a bragging bully at school, these gentlemen are willing to fight (of course, however, only for the protection of the little boys); but their terms are, that they are not to be hit on their nose and adjacent features, which are very tender. So strong are they, that they will annihilate their adversaries totally, and make speeches too over their fallen fate; but they cannot fight in an "atmosphere ” where the noses of half the number of combatants (being themselves) are liable to be struck; any irreverent treatment of such organs is immediately to be followed by an appeal to the usher with the

black birch rod. That certain controversialists should desire to discuss with very dull people is very natural; but that they should -proclaim aloud that they are so strong that nothing can prevail against them, and in the same breath declare that they must solemnly bargain for their own particular atmosphere to breathe in-seriously insist upon having the sole selection of their own weapons, and upon tying behind his back the enemy's right arm, is a spectacle at which we could almost laugh, if we were not afraid of the legal consequences held out by solemn Queen's Counsel as imminent to the profane.

Let us, then, arranging our faces into the prescribed form, admire the philanthropy which has dictated to Mr. Lewis this happy idea of “putting down” very irreligious people who annoy him. It is, he tells us, in italics too, for the protection of the young, the ignorant, and the poor. Now, that the young should be always protected is very proper; that the ignorant should not be imposed upon is exceedingly right. But another class, different from the young and ignorant, are now to be the objects of the fostering protection of the state. This class is the poor. An equity Queen's Counsel, by good connection or luck, or peculiar aptitude for a certain class of work, makes £3000 a year; his junior in the garret is struggling on in hope or desperation, and nets perhaps three guineas a week. He is indeed a poor manhow poor is perhaps only known to himself, though guessed at by his laundress. But let him be of good courage; he is to be protected along with the children at school, and the utterly uninstructed. His poverty may save his soul. “The poor” is, however, a relative term, like the other two employed for the brilliant classification. We have no clue to Mr. Lewis's idea of absolute poverty, and it is of no use guessing on such a point. Ignorance, too, is a dangerous term. Many people, we can assure Mr. Lewis, are more ignorant than they think they are, and some much wiser than others suppose. With regard to the protection of youth, we shall speak presently,

We have already referred to the dangerous if not futile habit of denouncing an offence, and providing for its punishment,

« PreviousContinue »