The Secularization of the European Mind in the Nineteenth Century
In an English novel of 1856, entitled Perversion, the villain sank morally, downward and downward, until he reached the abyss of writing leaders for The Times. Two years before that even the historian Michelet congratulated himself on having grown up under the Empire, when happily (as he said) the press did not exist.
Those who study leading Victorian newspapers in Britain are almost surprised that men asked the question whether the newspaper secularized by being a newspaper. British newspapers of that day lend little support, prima facie, to the theory. The press achieved freedom, true, because it was unstoppable; second, because it was needed by all parties. Men continued to argue, occasionally, that control was necessary to true freedom; that most people had neither information nor ability to form sound judgment upon great questions; that stability was precarious, and therefore an uncontrolled right to criticize was dangerous; that those who talked about freedom of the press hoodwinked themselves to the real freedom, which was the freedom of powerful men or corporations. To the contrary, it could not be denied that the press was 'the open eye of the people's mind,' that without it democracy was not possible, that it was the way of a people to self-knowledge, and the one liberal instrument which enabled society to advance by free discussion.
The press, as Marx said, reflects society. But society is now a mass of tensions, contradictions, opinions. Therefore the press becomes the means by which tensions frame themselves. Hence it articulates oppositions which until that moment were partly inarticulate and therefore partly concealed.
To articulate opinion is not to create it. Nor is it to leave it as it was. Men understand their opinions better when they articulate them. They not only frame their opinion into words, they form the opinion by framing it. Hence the press became the organ which for the first time turned a mass of citizens into political animals. As such it was an indispensable tool of democratic constitutions.
In framing opinion, it impassioned it. The growing mass of the people which read newspapers could follow politics only in outline. They did not want the details of political information from their journal, and if they got them they passed on hurriedly. They did not desire news about Parliament or foreign policy. They looked instead for symbols of the political struggle, for broad schemes, for attitudes, which were articulated less by news than by slogans. The citizen who newly became political wanted to take sides. He wished his opinion confirmed, supported, and made emotional. The new reader liked the chance of being indignant for his cause. Moral indignation became the simplest expression of an articulated viewpoint towards politics or society.
They took sides in the name of ideas. But the ideas necessarily remained misty. Only if they were general could they command a broad enough area of support among the people. When the country was radically and socially divided, as in France, the ideas were platforms of indignation and therefore negative. In France the scapegoat came to play an important part in some forms of public opinion. The classical example is antisemitism. A section of the French press, between 1870 and 1914, fastened upon the Jews, a symbol of passion which men felt inarticulately, and which the antisemitic press focussed for them and thereby infuriated. Anticlericalism in France was first, a feeling in republican bellies; secondly a way of holding together political parties which agreed on little else; and thirdly, a way by which the republican press could form, transmit, articulate and impassion, the feeling in the belly. This was possible because, like antisemitism, anticlericalism was anti.
Realities not only needed turning into symbols. They could be understood better by a wide public if these symbols were made pugnacious. To interest crowds you must provide a fight. Only so could spectators be excited, take sides, become emotional, feel suspense, charge their moral convictions; only so could they be lured to go on reading; and only so would they cease to be passive, march with a leader, identify with a cause. No man is interested if he does not care. This was why the new national newspapers from 1860 onwards, though indispensable to the working of popular sovereignty, could never carry the load of popular sovereignty which optimists laid upon them. To carry all that load would have meant a capacity to interest all of us in a mass of tedious detail; and in the moment of such an attempt indifferent readers ceased to read and the instrument of popular education failed. The weight of the press was not argument but assertion; not the making of opinion but its strengthening. It confirmed viewpoints, brought like-minded men into association, and so made their opinion more potent in action. Since rival opinions were expressed more loudly and felt more forcibly, the result sometimes gave the impression of confusion. It is possible, therefore, that the coming of the press weakened (more than the coming of modern science) the established moral agreements upon which the consensus of European society rested; and with these moral agreements was integrated religion. It is possible that the coming of the press pushed ordinary readers towards a feeling
of the relativity of all opinion and especially the relativity of moral standards. This is speculation, not to be derived (as yet) from historical evidence. But it looks possible. And according to one leading theory, the demolition of an established consensus in moral authority was fundamental to the secularizing process.
The strength of the press was against, not for; criticism, not construction. It was adapted to show the ills of society, less adapted to showing remedies. Its searchlight fastened upon the inadequacies of the Church and helped the ecclesiastical reforms of the nineteenth century by exposing old abuses. It strengthened Whigs everywhere, even when it was Tory, because its genius lay in change, and not in preservation.