The impotent grandfathers feebly scold;
Auden calls this unthinking, reflexive conservatism “impotent.” Law based upon pure senectitude, the flaccid holding of times past, and not on Reason. This is not the wisdom of the ancients applied and adopted to new circumstances. This is not a vision of Law based upon a virile or perenially-true philosophy, but a vision of Law that borders on the doddering babblings of a feeble senility, a view of Law that suffers from sclerosis. That, at least, is how Auden refers to its advocates.
One cannot help but think that Auden, in these short two verses, refers to the criticism of the Benthamite Sydney Smith (1771-1845),[i] as found in his Fallacies of Anti-Reformers, and adopts them as his own:
Our Wise Ancestors—The Wisdom of Our Ancestors—The Wisdom of Ages Venerable Antiquity—Wisdom of Old Times.—This mischievous and absurd fallacy springs from the grossest perversion of the meaning of words. Experience is certainly the mother of wisdom, and the old have, of course, a greater experience than the young; but the question is who are the old? and who are the young? Of individuals living at the same period, the oldest has, of course, the greatest experience; but among generations of men the reverse of this is true. Those who come first (our ancestors) are the young people, and have the least experience. We have added to their experience the experience of many centuries; and, therefore, as far as experience goes, are wiser, and more capable of forming an opinion than they were. The real feeling should be, not can we be so presumptuous as to put our opinions in opposition to those of our ancestors? but can such young, ignorant, inexperienced persons as our ancestors necessarily were, be expected to have understood a subject as well as those who have seen so much more, lived so much longer, and enjoyed the experience of so many centuries? All this cant, then, about our ancestors is merely an abuse of words, by transferring phrases true of contemporary men to succeeding ages. Whereas (as we have before observed) of living men the oldest has, caeteris paribus, the most experience; of generations, the oldest has caeteris paribus, the least experience. Our ancestors, up to the Conquest, were children in arms; chubby boys in the time of Edward I; striplings under Elizabeth; men in the reign of Queen Anne; and we only are the white-bearded, silver-headed ancients, who have treasured up, and are prepared to profit by, all the experience which human life can supply. We are not disputing with our ancestors the palm of talent, in which they may or may not be our superiors, but the palm of experience in which it is utterly impossible they can be our superiors. And yet, whenever the Chancellor comes forward to protect some abuse, or to oppose some plan which has the increase of human happiness for its object, his first appeal is always to the wisdom of our ancestors; and he himself, and many noble lords who vote with him, are, to this hour, persuaded that all alterations and amendments on their devices are an unblushing controversy between youthful temerity and mature experience!—and so, in truth they are—only that much—loved magistrate mistakes the young for the old, and the old for the young—and is guilty of that very sin against experience which he attributes to the lovers of innovation.
What was the wisdom of the single age which enacted the law, compared with the wisdom of the age which proposes to alter it? What are the eminent men of one and the other period? If you say that our ancestors were wiser than us, mention your date and year. If the splendor of names is equal, are the circumstances the same? If the circumstances are the same, we have a superiority of experience, of which the difference between the two periods is the measure. It is necessary to insist upon this; for upon sacks of wool, and on benches forensic, sit grave men, and agricolous persons in the Commons, crying out: “Ancestors, ancestors! hodie non! Saxons, Danes, save us! Fiddlefrig, help us! Howel, Ethelwolf, protect us!” Any cover for nonsense—any veil for trash—any pretext for repelling the innovations of conscience and of duty![ii]
[i] Sydney Smith, an English clergyman, eventually became prebendary of Bristol and Canon of St. Paul’s. He was considered to be one of the cleverest men of his age. In one of his many works, Smith reviewed Jeremy Bentham’s Book of Fallacies: From the Unfinished Papers of Jeremy Bentham. Notably, Auden was editor of, and wrote an introduction to, a book of selected writings of Sydney Smith, and so would have been intimately familiar with him. See W. H. Auden, ed. Selected Writings of Sydney Smith (London: Farrar, Staus & Cudahy, 1956).