But lately I have been reading essays by Macaulay, and came across some passages which brought me up short and made me wonder to what degree a seemingly realpolitik attitude might in truth be a betrayal of principles:
It is the character of such revolutions [by “a people brought up under an intolerant and arbitrary system”] that we always see the worst of them at first. Till men have been some time free, they know not how to use their freedom.
Macaulay likens Liberty to a princess in a tale of Ariosto’s; the story, in which the Princess appears as a serpent, is a variant of ourFrog Prince fairy tale.
At times [Liberty] takes the form of a hateful reptile. She grovels, she hisses, she stings. But woe to those who in disgust shall venture to crush her! And happy are those who, having dared to receive her in her degraded and frightful shape, shall at length be rewarded by her in the time of her beauty and her glory!
There is only one cure for the evils which newly acquired freedom produces; and that cure is freedom. When a prisoner first leaves his cell he cannot bear the light of day: he is unable to discriminate colors, or recognize faces. But the remedy is not to remand him into his dungeon, but to accustom him to the rays of the sun. The blaze of truth and liberty may at first dazzle and bewilder nations which have become half blind in the house of bondage. But let them gaze on, and they will soon be able to bear it. In a few years men learn to reason. The extreme violence of opinions subsides. Hostile theories correct each other. The scattered elements of truth cease to contend, and begin to coalesce. And at length a system of justice and order is educed out of the chaos.
Many politicians of our time are in the habit of laying down as a self-evident proposition, that no people ought to be free till they are fit to use their freedom. The maxim is worthy of the fool in the old story who resolved not to go into the water till he had learnt to swim. If men are to wait for liberty till they become wise and good in slavery, they may indeed wait for ever.
This impassioned passage appears in Macaulay’s essay on Milton, in a discussion about Milton’s acquiescence in the execution of Charles I. Perhaps Macaulay raises the level of his rhetoric because he otherwise would have trouble excusing, explaining, the condoning of regicide by a cultured, classically educated, poetical gentleman like Milton. In the back of his mind at this moment most probably was not the English Revolution, but the French Revolution, which was still relatively fresh in everyone's mind (like World War II is in ours).
(Comparing the course of the French Revolution with the course, so far, of the Egyptian Revolution, there are obvious broad parallels: an insurrection swells into the popular overthrow of an autocrat; when the dust clears one particular faction is in charge; the government faction infringes on the ideals and ambitions of the other revolutionaries, who combine forces and eject it; a caretaker government takes over, under the aegis of the army, until one officer consolidates enough power to become the new autocrat.)
Macauley was aiming his remarks at all the well-meaning and reasonable people who shook their heads in wise consternation over what had become of the French Revolution. As we shake our heads over the follies of the Egyptians, the Syrians, the Libyans, and the Russians, Ukrainians and Georgians, for that matter, perhaps Macaulay’s peroration on abstract Liberty can keep our hearts in the right place.