The Magazine

Eminent Precursors

Distinguished groups in Bloomsbury before there was a Bloomsbury Group.

Dec 10, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 13 • By EDWARD SHORT
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Then, again, Ashton paints a vivid picture of Antonio Panizzi, an impecunious political exile from Modena who first gained a position teaching Italian at University College before rising to become the head librarian of the British Museum. Ashton relates the longstanding quarrel that Panizzi had with Thomas Carlyle, which began when the irascible historian asked the proud librarian to furnish him with “a quiet place to study .  .  . in your Establishment” while he was researching his life of Frederick the Great.  

Panizzi’s response was unyielding:

Our reading-rooms of course are not as quiet and as snug as a private study; ours is a public place; no public convenience can equal a private carriage: even in a first class carriage you must occasionally put up with squalling babies and be deprived of the pleasure of smoking your cigar when most inclined to enjoy it.

This, as Ashton relates, was the exchange that inspired Panizzi to propose what would become the Round Reading Room. “Though others had already suggested ways of making use of the redundant inner courtyard of the new Museum building,” she writes, “Panizzi’s idea was enthusiastically taken up by the architect Sydney Smirke, and in January 1854 the Treasury approved his detailed plans and allotted £86,000 for the Reading Room’s construction.”  

The presiding genius of the book, however, is Henry Brougham (1778-1868), the wily Scottish lawyer and politician who had a finger in nearly every reformist pie and helped to found not only University College but the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge and the Edinburgh Review. Ashton quotes from a profile of Brougham in the Tory Morning Post that perfectly captures the affectionate distrust with which his contemporaries viewed the orator: 

He carries not in his satchel the tomes of antiquated philosophy, nor the venerable volumes of Revelation; they are to him as dust thrown into the eyes of reason, and as cobwebs that entangle the poor insect in its flight after truth. He is the Solomon of science—the master of mechanical systems—the chemist of nature refining human virtues from the dregs of corruption. .  .  . He has founded his University—he has established his Institutes—he is heard in the Senate, and at meetings for mutual instruction. .  .  . The day is at hand when he shall stand forth the Great Captain of the Age, and at the head of his legions begin the march of intellect.  

Ashton treats this impresario of rationalist reform with the critical sympathy he deserves (he still lacks a proper biography)—though she omits to call her readers’ attention to John Henry Newman’s satirical series of letters to the Times, which he later published as The Tamworth Reading Room (1841). In these letters, the leader of the Oxford Movement took Brougham to task for setting up a library from which all theology would be excluded and for insisting on the moral benefits of knowledge.  

When Cicero was outwitted by Cæsar, he solaced himself with Plato; when he lost his daughter, he wrote a treatise on consolation. Such, too, was the philosophy of that Lydian city, mentioned by the historian, who in a famine played at dice to stay their stomachs. And such is the rule of life advocated by Lord Brougham. .  .  . 

It does not require many words, then, to determine, that taking human nature as it is actually found, and assuming that there is an art of life, to say that it consists, or in any essential manner is placed, in the cultivation of knowledge—that the mind is changed by a discovery, or saved by a diversion, or amused into immortality—that grief, anger, cowardice, self-conceit, pride, or passion, can be subdued by an examination of shells or grasses, or inhaling of gasses, or a chipping of rocks, or observing the barometer, or calculating the longitude, is the veriest of pretence which sophist or mountebank ever professed to a gaping auditory. If virtue be a mastery over the mind, if its end be action, if its perfection be inward order, harmony, and peace, we must seek it in graver and holier places than libraries and reading rooms.

That A. C. Grayling, former professor of philosophy at Birkbeck College, has recently established what he is calling the New College of the Humanities along Brougham’s exclusively secular lines demonstrates the extent to which age-old sophistry continues to beguile our own rationalists. One of the first to respond to Grayling’s call for teachers was the evangelical atheist Richard Dawkins.  

With such talent in tow, the march-of-intellect proceeds apace.

Edward Short is the author of Newman and His Contemporaries and the forthcoming Newman and His Family