Monday, September 01, 2008

Goldsmith's Traveller

I was intrigued to read at Vanishing American's site an excerpt from a poem by Oliver Goldsmith.

The poem is The Traveller, written in 1764. It begins with a traveller observing that nations tend to hold to a single good, rather than keeping a range of goods in balance. The emphasis on one good alone inevitably produces negative outcomes:

Hence every state, to one loved blessing prone,
Conforms and models life to that alone.
Each to the favorite happiness attends,
And spurns the plan that aims at other ends;
'Till carried to excess in each domain,
This favorite good begets peculiar pain.

Goldsmith then describes the particular good sought by the Italians, the Swiss, the French and the Dutch, and the "peculiar pain" brought about by each.

The main interest of the poem, though, is Goldsmith's treatment of his own homeland. He believes that the British have adopted freedom as the key good, which has had some positive effects on national character:

With daring aims irregularly great,
Pride in their port, defiance in their eye,
I see the lords of human kind pass by;
Intent on high designs, a thoughtful band,
By forms unfashion'd, fresh from Nature's hand;
Fierce in their native hardiness of soul,
True to imagin'd right, above control,--
While e'en the peasant boasts these rights to scan,
And learns to venerate himself as man.

However, even in Goldsmith's day, a danger was looming:

But foster'd e'en by Freedom, ills annoy:
That independence Britons prize too high,
Keeps man from man, and breaks the social tie;
The self-dependent lordlings stand alone,
All claims that bind and sweeten life unknown;
Here, by the bonds of nature feebly held,
Minds combat minds, repelling and repell'd;

Goldsmith sounds like a traditionalist here, observing that it is wrong to take "freedom" as the sole organising principle of society, and that when individual autonomy is all ("The self-dependent lordlings stand alone") natural social ties are likely to suffer.

If natural social ties fall away, then you get a society based on money and the rule of law:

Nor this the worst. As Nature's ties decay,
As duty, love, and honor fail to sway,
Fictitious bonds, the bonds of wealth and law,
Still gather strength, and force unwilling awe.

Goldsmith worries that older virtues such as patriotism, military prowess, and a love of learning and culture will give way to a levelled, materialistic society:

Till time may come, when, stripped of all her charms,
The land of scholars, and the nurse of arms,
Where noble stems transmit the patriot flame,
Where kings have toil'd, and poets wrote for fame,
One sink of level avarice shall lie,
And scholars, soldiers, kings, unhonor'd die.

Over time, radical individualism hasn't even kept its positive side. Who would describe modern Britons (or any other Westerners) as "fierce in their native hardiness of soul"?

It seems that a society has to get the balance right: individualism can't be so excessive that natural social ties are undone - or else any benefits of this individualism are lost.

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