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"A Mad World, My Masters"
by [?]


Footnote: {12} Fraser’s Magazine, No. CCCXXXVII. 1858.

The cholera, as was to be expected, has reappeared in England again; and England, as was to be expected, has taken no sufficient steps towards meeting it; so that if, as seems but too probable, the plague should spread next summer, we may count with tolerable certainty upon a loss of some ten thousand lives.

That ten thousand, or one thousand, innocent people should die, of whom most, if not all, might be saved alive, would seem at first sight a matter serious enough for the attention of “philanthropists.” Those who abhor the practice of hanging one man would, one fancies, abhor equally that of poisoning many; and would protest as earnestly against the painful capital punishment of diarrhoea as against the painless one of hempen rope. Those who demand mercy for the Sepoy, and immunity for the Coolie women of Delhi, unsexed by their own brutal and shameless cruelty, would, one fancies, demand mercy also for the British workman, and immunity for his wife and family. One is therefore somewhat startled at finding that the British nation reserves to itself, though it forbids to its armies, the right of putting to death unarmed and unoffending men, women, and children.

After further consideration, however, one finds that there are, as usual, two sides to the question. One is bound, indeed, to believe, even before proof, that there are two sides. It cannot be without good and sufficient reason that the British public remains all but indifferent to sanitary reform; that though the science of epidemics, as a science, has been before the world for more than twenty years, nobody believes in it enough to act upon it, save some few dozen of fanatics, some of whom have (it cannot be denied) a direct pecuniary interest in disturbing what they choose to term the poison-manufactories of free and independent Britons.

Yes; we should surely respect the expressed will and conviction of the most practical of nations, arrived at after the experience of three choleras, stretching over a whole generation. Public opinion has declared against the necessity of sanitary reform: and is not public opinion known to be, in these last days, the Ithuriel’s spear which is to unmask and destroy all the follies, superstitions, and cruelties of the universe? The immense majority of the British nation will neither cleanse themselves nor let others cleanse them: and are we not governed by majorities? Are not majorities, confessedly, always in the right, even when smallest, and a show of hands a surer test of truth than any amount of wisdom, learning, or virtue? How much more, then, when a whole free people is arrayed, in the calm magnificence of self- confident conservatism, against a few innovating and perhaps sceptical philosophasters? Then surely, if ever, vox populi is vox coeli.

And, in fact, when we come to examine the first and commonest objection against sanitary reformers, we find it perfectly correct. They are said to be theorists, dreamers of the study, who are ignorant of human nature; and who in their materialist optimism, have forgotten the existence of moral evil till they almost fancy at times that they can set the world right simply by righting its lowest material arrangements. The complaint is perfectly true. They have been ignorant of human nature; they have forgotten the existence of moral evil; and if any religious periodical should complain of their denying original sin, they can only answer that they did in past years fall into that folly, but that subsequent experience has utterly convinced them of the truth of the doctrine.

For, misled by this ignorance of human nature, they expected help, from time to time, from various classes of the community, from whom no help (as they ought to have known at first) is to be gotten. Some, as a fact, expected the assistance of the clergy, and especially of the preachers of those denominations who believe that every human being, by the mere fact of his birth into this world, is destined to endless torture after death, unless the preacher can find an opportunity to deliver him therefrom before he dies. They supposed that to such preachers the mortal lives of men would be inexpressibly precious; that any science which held out a prospect of retarding death in the case of “lost millions” would be hailed as a heavenly boon, and would be carried out with the fervour of men who felt that for the soul’s sake no exertion was too great in behalf of the body.