I saw a link to an interesting looking article entitled “Conversations With Prince Metternich” from our friend Nick B. Steves, clicked it and jumped right in.
IT was in the early part of the winter of 1834 that I made the acquaintance of Prince Mettemich at Vienna. He had heard of the interest that I took in Dr. Gall’s system; and soon after my arrival in the Austrian capital, a lady, a mutual friend, and a relation of his wife, communicated to me the Prince’s wish to see me at his palace. I was told to go there any evening about ten, and I lost no time in profiting by the opportunity. I was ushered into the saloon of the Princess, the beautiful Melanie, born Countess Zichy Ferraris, whom I found surrounded by a small and somewhat noisy circle of relations and friends….
“Brilliant!”, thought I after reading four or five paragraphs. “This blogger has beautifully captured mid-Nineteenth Century English. What talent.” Gall, of course, was Franz Joseph Gall, the phrenologist. We giggle now, but phrenology was The Consensus (it had about same fractional support as today’s Consensus), and when science is a Consensus, it is settled. At any rate, it wasn’t an implausible theory given the then state of medical knowledge; it was also much discussed and I was surprised the reader would know Metternich was familiar with it.
He again drew me aside, and returned to the subject of phrenology. The outcry against Gall’s discoveries,’ he said, ‘as leading to Materialism, was founded on ignorance. I saw the subject in a totally different light and had I not done so, I should have been one of Gall’s opponents. Nevertheless,’ he added, ‘Gall himself was a Materialist and this was the only point on which we could not agree.’
The Prince said that he found also in the phrenological principles a confirmation of the existence of God. He had told Gall that he should oppose him if his doctrines of the functions of the brain should lead to materialism and atheism, but that he had soon found out the contrary. I mentioned the opinions expressed in the Phrenological Journal, that the religious sentiments were the result of inborn fundamental faculties of the brain. ‘Yes,’ said the Prince, suddenly interrupting me, ‘they could not be there without a purpose. It is impossible to suppose the Almighty meant to deceive his creatures.’
It was at this point I became convinced this essay was a brilliant spoof of our modern days. Here was a witty observation about current theories of the brain and free will. Next was a trenchant observation of how the government harms its poorest, which it then assists.
I was told, too, that excessive gambling in the ‘Lotto’ had brought many into the ‘Narrenthurm’ [the lunatic asylum]. This Lotto, I may mention here, is a vile kind of lottery, which makes gambling easy and alluring to the poorest classes, and brings in considerable revenues to the State. In all the provincial capitals of the Austrian empire, as well as in Vienna, drawings periodically take place. Out of ninety numbers, five are drawn; speculators can stake even as small an amount as the value of a penny on such numbers as they fancy be the lucky ones, receiving in proportion as they stake on one number, or on two or on three, and in their order of, succession or not. The gain being great to those who hit upon three numbers in their order of succession, the amount that may be staked on this chance is limited, to prevent the State exchequer running too great a risk of having to disgorge. There are offices for staking on the numbers in every little town. In several I have had opportunities of observing the poorest classes carry articles of clothing, &c., to the pawnbroker’s on the evenings before a drawing, and then go with the money to the lotto office. The rage for gambling and the consequent misery resulting from this lotto system of the ‘paternal government’ of Austria may be easily imagined.
There were other reasons for madness:
[The prince] told me that it had been proved in Paris that gambling and politics were the principal causes of suicide. He added, that many minds became unhinged in consequence of frequently attending the debates—a characteristic idea of his Highness.
Then came the scathing barbs against modern philosophy.
He spoke much of the German philosophic systems, which he did not like. With his matter-of-fact understanding (Plattgeist) he could not, he said, admire such pure speculations and theories as the German philosophers indulged in. They were extraordinary creations of the imagination, glittering castles built upon sand. The reflective faculties were wrongly directed, and the inductive philosophy too much neglected, in Germany. When the German philosophy was examined by the light of physical science, it was found to consist principally of fine words, the sense of which no two minds would interpret exactly in the same way. He blamed, too, the synthetical system of mental philosophy, as opposed to the analytical.
A short thrust at scientism and then a more sustained one at atheism.
‘Lalande, the astronomer,’ he said, ‘exerted himself to the utmost, when I associated with him at Paris to convert me to atheism. I told him, firstly, that his principles were repugnant to my feelings; and secondly, that he ennuied me extremely. It did not silence him, so at last I said “You do not believe in God.” He affirmed it. “Well,” I replied, “I do believe in God, so we are both believers. The only difference is that I believe yes, and you believe no; so let us continue good friends, and drop this subject, for no one can prove what he believes.” The Prince told me this anecdote both in German and French, with an air of much self- satisfaction.
Another jab at scientistic materialism and the current idea that nothing separates man and beast except a few neurons. (I added paragraph breaks here.)
Subsequently he mentioned that he wished to have it fully established to what extent the faculties of animals were capable of development. On the one hand, he said, he did not think their treatment by man such as to elicit all their powers; but on the other, he could not agree with those philosophers who assert that animals have souls. Their instincts and propensities he found to be something quite different from the moral and intellectual faculties of man. I ventured to dissent from this view in its general and absolute bearing, stating that several of the intellectual differences between man and the superior animals were more quantitative than qualitative. I called his attention to many of the actions of monkeys and dogs which could not be explained by so-called ‘blind instinct.’
The Prince acknowledged that dogs would choose between motives, as when they will check their inclination to steal food from the recollection of punishment; but nevertheless I found it to be entirely repugnant to his religious feelings to suppose it possible that animals could have souls. He did not hold with the celebrated German physiologist, Burdach who has said that man in his pride never did a more foolish thing than when he built up a wall between himself and the rest of the animal creation. The Prince stated, however, that although he firmly believed the soul of man to be an immaterial essence or principle, yet he could not deny that all mental manifestations were dependent on material conditions.
A devastating critique against those who would ban capital punishment.
The execution of criminals became the subject of conversation. The Prince defended this extreme rigour of the law in cases of murder saying that it should not be view in the light of punishment but of prevention only. Therefore he thought judges should never enter into the question whether a convicted murderer were a monomaniac or not, but leave him to be executed as a warning to others. Besides, it would be dangerous for society if it were established that eccentric indulgence in unbridled passions should they lead to murder, might be excused on the score of unsound mind, Prince Schönburg mentioned a project in Saxon to abolish public executions, and to have them take place in jails before certain public functionaries.
This plan Prince Metternich decidedly disapproved of; it would be as well, he said, to do away with capital punishments altogether, for the object being to deter by the example of a painful and ignominious death, the public at large would soon cease to believe in executions if they took place within the precincts of jails, and before social persons only. A little incident amused me in the course of this conversation. Prince Schönburg expressed his doubts whether cases of monomania should be exempted from capital punishment or not, and whilst apparently anxious for the solution of this question, and without allowing time or its discussion, he started another question, viz., Whether executions at all were useful? Prince Metternich immediately, and in no very gentle manner, desired him not to confound two distinct questions, nor whilst requiring an answer to one, to expect at the same time an answer to the other. He alluded to the frequency of such illogical proceedings in conversation, and to the confusion which they cause in arguments…
A lurid media is pilloried.
In the course of our conversation this evening, the Prince expressed his disapproval of the publication of crimes and suicides, with all their details, in the public prints. He considered this custom, as it takes place in England, to be injurious to society. It often created a morbid taste for horrors, and led to the commission of crimes and suicide, owing to the instinctive imitative propensities of man. I was again struck with the remarkable composure and self-possession of the Prince, though he never seemed to be thinking of himself, as a diffident man generally does.
Democratic politics gutted.
The Prince now, for the first time, began to speak to me of the political state of things in England… ‘In reality, neither Tories nor Whigs exist any longer as bodies, although individuals may cherish the old party principles. Conservatives and Radicals are now the only two political parties in England.’…The Prince made some remark on the interpretation put on the word Reform, on the variety of meanings different people attached to it…’Mankind,’ he added, ‘is always anxious for change, always wanting to be doing something. Men attach too much importance to words. They seldom know what they really want, or they disguise selfish desires under some specious cloak, some popular cry.’… The Prince made some sagacious remarks on the necessity in politics and legislation of well calculating reactions. ‘As in physics,’ he said,’so in politics ; every action has its reaction ; and superficial politicians, in their desire for change, are unable to foresee how the measures they advocate, if carried out, would react upon society.’
On what he called the spirit of the age—the craving for change—the Prince entered at some length, and used the simile of the stream, which it would be dangerous to attempt to stem altogether, but which could not be left to take its own course. ‘The wise,’ he said, ‘would take care to direct it into such channels as would irrigate the fields, and be of benefit to the country.’…
‘The entire difference,’ said the Prince, ‘between enlightened politicians and the advocates of violent measures may be exemplified by the difference in the signification of the singular and the plural of the word Reform. A man who uses this term in the singular, exclaiming, “I am for Reform,” is a revolutionist and an advocate of every kind of Violent change which would suit his selfish ends or his vague conceited notions of things; but the term reforms means the salutary removal of certain impediments to the welfare of society which powerful minds, after a thorough investigation and consideration of circumstances, have found to be such: therefore every enlightened politician may pronounce himself an advocate of reforms.’ The same distinction of parties and motives he added, might be applied to the use of the word ‘liberty’ in its singular and plural meanings (Freiheit und Freheiten). Those who were always crying out for liberty, he said, wanted exemption from control, a general licence to gratify their individual desires and passions, and moreover power to tyrannize over others; but the plural sense, liberties, did not exclude that protection which good laws and wise social arrangements afforded to every virtuous citizen.
The dismal consequences of universal suffrage and education. (My paragraph breaks again.)
‘Man,’ he continued, ‘is said to be born for freedom, and thus we have the cry for universal suffrage and freedom of the press, institutions for which society is very far from being prepared. As well might it be proposed that because the horse is the animal most fitted for drawing vehicles I should take a wild steed from the plains, and without subjecting it to a long process of training harness it to a carriage in which I had placed my ‘beloved wife and children. Who but a fool would act in this way? And yet the folly would be equally great to give universal suffrage to a people incapable of making a proper use of it.’
I spoke to him of the power of education, and the mischief resulting from too much control, too much bureaucratic police rule, which must always prevent the development of those faculties and those social habits which alone could fit men for freedom. ‘It is quite impossible,’ replied the Prince, ‘for all classes of society to arrive at that degree of education and enlightenment necessary to enable a State or community to derive benefit from ultrademocratic institutions.
‘A large proportion of the inhabitants of any country must always work, and besides be debarred the mental capacity to appreciate virtue. What folly, then to allow a licentious press to appeal to and inflame their passions, promote discontent and anarchy.’ He again referred to the injurious effects on society from the reports of murders, robberies, brawls, and so on, in the English papers. Such reports, he asserted, increased the number of crimes, and tended to demoralize the people. ‘What people in the world,’ he added, ‘are such horrormongers as the English? It is disgusting to see how they crowd to any place where some dreadful crime has been committed; and men in general will always prefer such objects as appeal to their vulgar curiosity and animal passions, to such as require a purely intellectual and moral appreciation.’
Like I said above, and like I said in the comment to this article, “Before I checked the (obvious, well-placed) link at the top, I thought this was a subtle, superior, superlative spoof of modern culture.”
The well placed link was to Fraser’s magazine from 1860, which is digitized.
I of course cut a lot of context and content, my notes retaining perhaps a fourth of the original.