Macaulay and the Whig Tradition
Macaulay often expressed his disapproval of philosophy and his fear that it might mislead legislators; and he attributed his own distaste for philosophy to the nation as a whole:
In English legislation the practical element has always predominated, and not seldom unduly predominated, over the speculative. To think nothing of symmetry and much of convenience; never to remove an anomaly merely because it is an anomaly; never to innovate except when some grievance is felt; never to innovate except so far as to get rid of the grievance; never to lay down any proposition of wider extent than the particular case for which it is necessary to provide; these are the rules which have, from the age of John to the age of Victoria, generally guided the deliberations of our two hundred and fifty Parliaments.He acknowledged that the national distaste for the abstract was a fault, but suggested it was 'a fault on the right side,' and he pointed to the 'scores of abortive constitutions,' produced in the world since the end of the eighteenth century, 'which have lived just long enough to make a miserable noise, and have then gone off in convulsions. They were the work 'of lawgivers in whom the speculative element has prevailed to the exclusion of the practical.'
Macaulay's belief that philosophy held out dangers for politics and his interpretation of philosophy as abstract and rigid were in part derived from the prevailing image of the role philosophers had played in bringing about the French Revolution. While this view may have been novel in Burke's time, by mid-century it had become conventional. In this image philosophers were speculative and Utopian. They thought in universal categories, were indifferent to the past, and lacked the practical experience that might have made them sensitive to the value of tradition. Such philosophers had no part in the English Revolution, as Macaulay interpreted it. In 1688 historical continuity was not disturbed. The practical statesmen who played the major role in that Revolution were without the aspirations or the illusions that an sustained by abstract, Utopian philosophy. Instead, they were guided by precedent and prescription. Halifax, William, Danby, Maynard, and Somers were distinguished by their realism and the immediacy of their concerns. They justified their proposals and their conduct by appeals to law and custom. They firmly rejected persecution and tyranny, yet did so without reference to the state of nature, the law of nature, or the social contract. It was perhaps because Macaulay understood the Revolution to be the work of such men that he hardly mentioned Locke as one of its architects in the History. This has subjected Macaulay to indignant criticism. Yet it is consistent with his interpretation that he should play down the role of a philosopher who was famous for a treatise that was as yet unpublished when the Revolution occurred and who was isolated from events by extreme secretiveness and exile. Locke's theories concerning government are historically important; but, as Firth, who criticized Macaulay's neglect of Locke. acknowledged, they are mainly important for the history of the eighteenth century, when they 'became the political bible' for the educated classes.
Macaulay often disparaged political philosophy outright. If it was not pernicious, as, for example, in the case of James Mill's encouragement of doctrinaire oversimplifications, it was Utopian and unrealistic, as with Plato, or irrelevant, as, for example, with Montesquieu or the state-of-nature theorists. There were exceptions, however. He esteemed Machiavelli. He must have recognized in Machiavelli some of the themes that he found so congenial in the writings of Halifax, whose thinking reflected Machiavellian teachings. He emphasized Machiavelli's practical experience, which served to correct his general speculations, giving them 'that vivid and practical character which so widely distinguishes them from the vague theories of most political philosophers.' He esteemed Bacon for the same reason, not because he was a philosopher, but because he promoted science, which was not only more modern than philosophy in its aims but also more likely to achieve useful results. He also admired Adam Smith and Bentham for implementing the Baconian dream of practical philosophy.
However hard he might try, Macaulay could not completely avoid questions conventionally considered by political philosophers. He occasionally pondered the ends of government but was content with vague and conventional statements that governments should keep peace and arbitrate disputes so as to provide security for persons and property. In the tradition of Bacon and the Utilitarians, he acknowledged that 'societies and laws exist only for the purpose of increasing the sum of private happiness.' Rather than establish priorities, he converted ends into means. In view of Macaulay's status in the history of liberalism and the importance of constitutionalism in his outlook, we might have expected him to hold liberty as a supreme end, yet he consistently and emphatically held that it was merely a means of promoting the security of persons and property. He seemed to avoid questions that held no promise of yielding satisfactory answers. This was part of Bacon's appeal. Whereas Plato asked important questions for which there were no answers. Bacon narrowed the scope of inquiry but enlarged the expectations of useful results.
Macaulay, who was an omnivorous reader, read philosophic writers; but it was for their literary value or their ingenuity and, in the end, one suspects, to persuade himself once more that they had nothing to offer. He was not interested in their deeper moral reflections. His sister Margaret, who died when Macaulay was thirty-four, made a record of the way he would discuss metaphysical questions:
Not that on many mysterious questions he would endeavour to bring me to any settled creed, but that he would show me the question in all its bearings, and far from—as many do, whose minds cannot rest in uncertainty—proposing for doubts which can never be removed explanations which will not bear a strict examination, he would go to the very bottom of the subject, talk it round and round on every side, and finding at last an impenetrable mystery—'thus far shalt thou go and no further'—he would show me it was not on the question alone we might then be considering that this uncertainty remained, when followed out to the end; but on all questions of morals, on all speculations upon this strange theatre upon which we have appeared, just to play a part and then vanish.This was not an acceptance of mystery so much as a belief in its unimportance. It was an attitude he never gave up. 'How little I have troubled myself about metaphysics since I was a lad at college,' he confessed in middle life, 'and how profoundly sceptical I am about all the great metaphysical questions.' Still later he records in his journal that he was reading
more of the articles on Metaphysics in the Encycl. Brit. What trash! What a waste of the powers of the human mind—I declare that I would rather have written John Gilpin than all the volumes of Fichte, Kant, Schelling and Hegel together.