Sir James Fitzjames Stephen


Sir James Fitzjames Stephen, born in 1829 and died in 1894, was a lawyer, professor and judge.  He is perhaps most famous for his work History of the Criminal Law, published in 1883. In his writings, which also include Liberty, Equality, Fraternity (1873) and A Digest of Criminal Law (Crimes and Punishments) (1877), Stephen attacked classic liberalism as is represented in the writings of John Stuart Mill. Indeed, Stephen was of the view that the “theories advanced … in most of his [Mill’s] later works are unsound.”  Liberty, Equality, Fraternity was written in response to that democratic creed, Give me liberty, equality and fraternity.  To this he wrote, “There are a vast number of matters in respect of which men ought not to be free; they are fundamentally unequal, and they are not brothers at all …”

Whatever may be the place of Sir James Stephen among the historical writers of the earlier Victorian period, he is well remembered among English biographical essayists. Although he had little free time to call his own, his scanty leisure time bore great fruit. Examples of this are his works collected in Essays in Ecclesiastical Biography, together with his Lectures on the History of France, the solitary published memorial of his efforts as William Smyth’s successor in the modern history chair at Cambridge.  Both display high literary qualities, with characteristic features of their own.

The “sociological” view of history was an abomination to him. His early connection with the evangelical school of religious thought, and, more especially, with that “Clapham sect,” lent force to his religious convictions and warmth to his moral sympathies. He could not see more than one side to the conflict between the rise of Christianity and the decay of the Roman Empire, and he perceived the retributive hand of Providence in the troubles of the church of Rome following on the persecution of the Albigenses.

But, as time went on, his wide reading, combined with the teachings of experience, broadened his sympathies, more especially as he did not transfer his official dogmatism into his best literary work. “The historian,” he says, “aims at one kind of praise, the lecturer in history at another.” In many of his essays, as well as in those of his lectures which dealt with “the Power of the Pen in France,” he succeeded in blending with a vivid characterization of real men something of the imaginative power that projects itself into great lives of the past.

It is worthwhile to note Stephen’s philosophy on life: “We stand on a mountain pass in the midst of whirling snow and blinding mist, through which we get glimpses now and then of paths which may be deceptive. If we stand still, we shall be frozen to death. If we take the wrong road, we shall be dashed to pieces. We do not certainly know whether there is any right one. What must we do? ‘Be strong and of a good courage.’ Act for the best, hope for the best, and take what comes. Above all, let us dream no dreams, and tell no lies, but go our way, wherever it may lead, with our eyes open and our heads erect.”

“Be strong and of a good courage. Act for the best, hope for the best, and take what comes.”  — Sir James Stephen

 -LawZ Bureau

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