Mackenzie’s Unaccountable c18th Ideas

It’s indisputable that we, in the 20th 21st century have a completely different mindset to people in the 19th century: hence we write our books in an entirely different manner and find we can now in no way identify with the content of books prior to this radical shift in human understanding.

A few passages of Henry Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling I find to be highly demonstative of this. Read this one for instance, for a depiction of human society so utterly at odds to our current notion of things:

The immense riches acquired by individuals have erected a standard of ambition, destructive of private morals, and of public virtue. The weaknesses of vice are left us; but the most allowable of our failings we are taught of despise. Love, the passion most natural to the sensibility of youth, has lost the plaintive dignity he once possessed, for the unmeaning simper of a dangling coxcomb … The Frivolous and the Interested … are the characteristical features of the age; they are visible even in the essays of our philosophers … To this their style is suited; and the manly tone of reason is exchanged for the perpetual efforts at sneer and ridicule. This I hold to be an alarming crisis in the corruption of the state; when not only is virtue declined, and vice prevailing, but when the praises of virtue are forgotten, and the infamy of vice unfelt.

What mad kind of society is he describing! – But this is nothing compared to his crazy, “liberal” views on colonialism:

I have a proper regard for the prosperity of my country: every native of it appropriates to himself some share of the power, or the fame, which, as a nation, it acquires; but I cannot throw off the man so much, as to rejoice at our conquests in India. You tell me of immense territories subject to the English: I cannot think of their possessions, without being led to enquire, by what right they possess them. They came there as traders, bartering the commodities they brought for others which their purchasers could spare; and however great their profits were, they were then equitable. But what title have the subjects of another kingdom to establish an empire in India? to give laws to a country where the inhabitants received them on the terms of friendly commerce? You say they are happier under our regulations than the tyranny of their own petty princes. I must doubt it, from the conduct of those by whom these regulations have been made. They have drained the treasuries of Nabobs, who must fill them by oppressing the industry of their subjects … etc.etc

What kind of lunatic anti-imperialist, pluralist, relativistic multi-culturalism is this, where people don’t invade other countries and exploit their resources? – I don’t know, I just can’t get my head around some of these ideas. – Though perhaps, since the “editor” has called this particular chapter: “The Man of Feeling talks of what he does not understand”, there were some people in the 18th century closer to our way of thought after all.


4 thoughts on “Mackenzie’s Unaccountable c18th Ideas

  1. ENGLAND! the time is come when thou should’st wean
    Thy heart from its emasculating food;
    The truth should now be better understood;
    Old things have been unsettled; we have seen
    Fair seed-time, better harvest might have been
    But for thy trespasses; and, at this day,
    If for Greece, Egypt, India, Africa,
    Aught good were destined, thou would’st step between… etc.

    No – I’m not sure where Willie Wordsworth got this from either…

  2. Ah well, we all know Wordsworth was a counter-enlightenment modernist at heart!

    I’m not expert on the subject, but the more history I read, the more evidence I find that not all the English were quite as “on message” with the colonial mission as is perhaps portrayed; just as it sometimes seems to me that, even before the c20th, some people perhaps thought it wasn’t after all ok to kill non-europeans if there was some advantage to be had from it.

  3. That’s true. One wonders why they even bothered writing books, conducting scientific research or promoting world peace.

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