Commonplace: The Tory Slide

My wife and I have been reading Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Demons to one another; it is, as the dust jacket says, “a dark comedy of ideas run amok.” One interesting dialogue involves Pyotr Stepanovich Verkhovensky, the anarchist provocateur, and Count von Lembke, the governor, whose wife has taken a fancy to Pyotr Stepanovich and his crew of nihilists. Here we learn that Lembke’s conservatism and Verkhovensky’s nihilism is only a matter of degree:

Von Lembke recalled a conversation he had recently had with Pyotr Stepanovitch. With the innocent object of displaying his Liberal tendencies he had shown him his own private collection of every possible kind of manifesto, Russian and foreign, which he had carefully collected since the year 1859, not simply from a love of collecting but from a laudable interest in them. Pyotr Stepanovitch, seeing his object, expressed the opinion that there was more sense in one line of some manifestoes than in a whole government department, “not even excluding yours, maybe.”

Lembke winced.

“But this is premature among us, premature,” he pronounced almost imploringly, pointing to the manifestoes.

“No, it’s not premature; you see you’re afraid, so it’s not premature.”

“But here, for instance, is an incitement to destroy churches.”

“And why not? You’re a sensible man, and of course you don’t believe in it yourself, but you know perfectly well that you need religion to brutalise the people. Truth is honester than falsehood….”

“I agree, I agree, I quite agree with you, but it is premature, premature in this country…” said Von Lembke, frowning.

“And how can you be an official of the government after that, when you agree to demolishing churches, and marching on Petersburg armed with staves, and make it all simply a question of date?”

Lembke was greatly put out at being so crudely caught.

“It’s not so, not so at all,” he cried, carried away and more and more mortified in his amour-propre. “You’re young, and know nothing of our aims, and that’s why you’re mistaken. You see, my dear Pyotr Stepanovitch, you call us officials of the government, don’t you? Independent officials, don’t you? But let me ask you, how are we acting? Ours is the responsibility, but in the long run we serve the cause of progress just as you do. We only hold together what you are unsettling, and what, but for us, would go to pieces in all directions. We are not your enemies, not a bit of it. We say to you, go forward, progress, you may even unsettle things, that is, things that are antiquated and in need of reform. But we will keep you, when need be, within necessary limits, and so save you from yourselves, for without us you would set Russia tottering, robbing her of all external decency, while our task is to preserve external decency. Understand that we are mutually essential to one another. In England the Whigs and Tories are in the same way mutually essential to one another. Well, you’re Whigs and we’re Tories. That’s how I look at it.”

Lembke loses the argument by admitting to Verkhovensky that he does think religion is superfluous and that agitation can be, within certain bounds, a help to progress. His only true belief is that Russia ought to be great, and that the agitations of the anarchists will discredit her. He would welcome increased governing power and a republican revolution in which he might consolidate all the traditional governing bodies under his own rule. He worries that by going too far the anarchists will forfeit the opportunity to effect change. He and Verkhovensky disagree over methods, not aims. I call this capitulation of Lembke’s the Tory Slide.


In his review of Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy, the philosopher Henry Sidgwick (1838-1900) criticized Arnold’s uncurious dismissal of religious movements:

“Culture diffuses ‘sweetness and light;’ I do not undervalue these blessings: but religion gives fire and strength, and the world wants fire and strength even more than sweetness and light. Mr. Arnold feels this when he says that culture must ‘borrow a devout energy’ from religion; but devout energy, as Dr Newman somewhere says, is not to be borrowed. At the same time, I trust that the ideal of culture and the ideal of religion will continually approach one another: that culture will keep developing its sympathy, that religion will teach that unnecessary self-sacrifice is folly, and that whatever tends to make life harsh and gloomy cometh of evil. . . .

I wish it to be distinctly understood that it is as judged by his own rules and principles that I venture to condemn Mr. Arnold’s treatment of our actual religions. . . . Even of the ideal culture he considers curiosity . . . to be the most essential, though not the noblest, element. Well, then, I complain that in regard to some of the most important elements of social life he has so little curiosity; and therefore so thin and superficial an appreciation of them. I do not mean that every cultivated man ought to have formed for himself a theory of religion. ‘Non omnia possumus omnes,’ and a man must, to some extent, select the subjects that suit his special faculties. But every man of deep culture ought to have a conception of the importance and intricacy of the religious problem, a sense of the kind and amount of study that is required for it, a tact to discriminate worthy and unworthy treatment of it, an instinct which, if he has to touch on it, will guide him round the lacunae of apprehension that the limits of his nature and leisure have rendered inevitable. Now this cultivated tact, sense, instinct . . . he seems to me altogether to want on this topic. He seems to me (if so humble a simile may be pardoned) to judge of religious organisations as a dog judges of human beings, chiefly by the scent. One admires in either case the exquisite development of the organ, but feels that the use of it for this particular object implies a curious, an almost ludicrous, limitation of sympathy. When these popular religions are brought before Mr. Arnold, he is content to detect their strong odours of Philistinism and vulgarity; he will not stoop down and look into them; he is not sufficiently interested in their dynamical importance; he does not care to penetrate the secret of their fire and strength, and learn the sources and effects of these ; much less does he consider how sweetness and light may be added without any loss of fire and strength.

This limitation of view in Mr. Arnold seems to me the more extraordinary, when I compare it with the fervent language he uses with respect to what is called, par excellence, the Oxford movement. He even half associates himself with the movement — or rather he half associates the movement with himself.

It was directed, he rightly says, against ‘Liberalism as Dr. Newman saw it.’ What was this ? ‘It was,’ he explains, ‘the great middle class Liberalism, which had for the cardinal points of its belief the Reform Bill of 1832 and local self-government in politics; in the social sphere free trade, unrestricted competition, and the making of large industrial fortunes; in the religious sphere the dissidence of Dissent and the Protestantism of the Protestant religion.’ Liberalism to Dr Newman may have meant something of all this ; but what (as I infer from the Apologia) it more especially meant to him was a much more intelligent force than all these, which Mr. Arnold omits: and pour cause; for it was precisely that view of the functions of religion and its place in the social organism in which Mr. Arnold seems at least complacently to acquiesce. Liberalism, Dr. Newman thought . . . wished to extend just the languid patronage to religion that Mr. Arnold does. What priesthoods were good for in the eyes of Liberalism were the functions, as I have said, of spiritual police; and that is all Mr. Arnold thinks they are good for at present; and even in the future (unless I misunderstand him), if we want more, he would have us come to culture. But Dr. Newman knew that even the existing religions, far as they fell below his ideal, were good for much more than this; this view of them seemed to him not only shallow and untrue, but perilous, deadly, soul-destroying; and inasmuch as it commended itself to intellectual men, and was an intelligent force, he fought against it, not, I think, with much sweetness or light, but with a blind, eager, glowing asperity which, tempered always by humility and candour, was and is very impressive. Dr. Newman fought for a point of view which it required culture to appreciate, and therefore he fought in some sense with culture; but he did not fight for culture, and to conceive him combating side by side with Mr. Matthew Arnold is almost comical.

I think, then, that without saying more about religion, Mr. Arnold might have said truer things about it; and I think also that without saying less about culture — we have a strong need of all he can say to recommend it — he might have shown that he was alive to one or two of its besetting faults. And some notice of these might have strengthened his case; for he might have shown that the faults of culture really arise from lack of culture ; and that more culture, deeper and truer culture, removes them. I have ventured to hint this in speaking of Mr. Arnold’s tone about religion. What I dislike in it seems to me, when examined, to be exactly what he calls Philistinism . . . Enthusiasm is often a turbid issue of smoke and sparks. Culture might refine this to a steady glow. It is melancholy when, instead, it takes to pouring cold water on it. The worst result is not the natural hissing and sputtering that ensues, though that cannot be pleasing to culture or to anything else, but the waste of power that is the inevitable consequence.

The above speaks for itself and is fun to read. To dismiss religion in large part except as it may happen to be culturally interesting, without attempting to plumb the religiousity of man’s nature; to view religion as a thing to be delicately ignored by persons of culture; is to commit Count von Lembke’s Tory Slide. Lembke and Arnold align themselves with what they themselves see as the losing side of history, not because it is the good side, but merely because it is the side that has had more time to develop itself.

For those actually in search of permanence and meaning, the Tory Slide is not a satisfying approach to the everlasting conflict between tradition and liberalism. We must believe that there is actually something good existing to which true culture and true religion direct; which is beyond mere terrestrial tranquility; in short, we must believe in God.


Matthew Arnold’s works and the review by Sidgwick are in the public domain; the excerpt of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Demons as translated by Catherine Winkworth is also in the public domain. However, we recommend this translation if you wish to read the book.

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THOMAS HOLGRAVE is a conservative but not necessarily a hipster. He is the publisher of The Hipster Conservative. He has never read a comic book he liked. He is an occasional theologian who has been known to become quite exercised over questions of Puritan doctrine and practice. Not much else is known about him.

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