Archive for November, 2015

James and Bagehot on Changing Opinions

November 22, 2015

“The observable process which Schiller and Dewey particularly singled out for generalization is the familiar one by which any individual settles into new opinions. The process here is always the same. The individual has a stock of old opinions already, but he meets a new experience that puts them to a strain. Somebody contradicts them; or in a reflective moment he discovers that they contradict each other; or he hears of facts with which they are incompatible; or desires arise in him which they cease to satisfy. The result is an inward trouble to which his mind till then had been a stranger, and from which he seeks to escape by modifying his previous mass of opinions. He saves as much of it as he can, for in this matter of belief we are all extreme conservatives. So he tries to change first this opinion, and then that (for they resist change very variously), until at last some new idea comes up which he can graft upon the ancient stock with a minimum of disturbance of the latter, some idea that mediates between the stock and the new experience and runs them into one another most felicitously and expediently. This new idea is then adopted as the true one. It preserves the older stock of truths with a minimum of modification, stretching them just enough to make them admit the novelty, but conceiving that in ways as familiar as the case leaves possible. An outrée explanation, violating all our preconceptions, would never pass for a true account of a novelty. We should scratch round industriously till we found something less eccentric. The most violent revolutions in an individual’s beliefs leave most of his old order standing.” (William James, 1907, Pragmatism)

“Daily imitation is far oftenest a conservative force, for the most frequent models are ancient. Of course, however, something new is necessary for every man and for every nation. We may wish, if we please, that tomorrow shall be like to-day, but it will not be like it. New forces will impinge upon us; new wind, new rain, and the light of another sun; and we must alter to meet them. But the persecuting habit and the imitative combine to ensure that the new thing shall be in the old fashion; it must be an alteration, but it shall contain as little of variety as possible. The imitative impulse tends to this, because men most easily imitate what their minds are best prepared for,—what is like the old, yet with the inevitable minimum of alteration; what throws them least out of the old path, and puzzles least their minds. The doctrine of development means this,—that in unavoidable changes men like the new doctrine which is most of a ‘preservative addition’ to their old doctrines. The imitative and the persecuting tendencies make all change in early nations a kind of selective conservatism, for the most part keeping what is old, but annexing some new but like practice—an additional turret in the old style.” (Walter Bagehot, 1872, Physics and Politics)


Speaking to a Table

November 22, 2015

From Winston Churchill’s My Early Years.

When the last sound of my mother’s departing wheels had died away, the Headmaster invited me to hand over any money I had in my possession. I produced my three half-crowns which were duly entered in a book, and I was told that from time to time there would be a ‘shop’ at the school with all sorts of things which one would like to have, and that I could choose what I liked up to the limit of the seven and sixpence. Then we quitted the Headmaster’s parlour and the comfortable private side of the house, and entered the more bleak apartments reserved for the instruction and accommodation of the pupils. I was taken into a Form Room and told to sit at a desk. All the other boys were out of doors, and I was alone with the Form Master. He produced a thin greeny-brown-covered book filled with words in different types of print.

“You have never done any Latin before, have you?” he said.

“No, sir.”

“This is a Latin grammar.” He opened it at a well-thumbed page. “You must learn this,” he said, pointing to a number of words in a frame of lines. “I will come back in half an hour and see what you know.”

Behold me then on a gloomy evening, with an aching heart, seated in front of the First Declension.


a table
O table
a table
of a table
to or for a table
by, with or from a table

What on earth did it mean? Where was the sense of it? It seemed absolute rigmarole to me. However, there was one thing I could always do: I could learn by heart. And I there upon proceeded, as far as my private sorrows would allow, to memorise the acrostic-looking task which had been set me.

In due course the Master returned.

“Have you learnt it?” he asked.

“I think I can say it, sir,” I replied; and I gabbled it off.

He seemed so satisfied with this that I was emboldened to ask a question.

“What does it mean, sir?”

“It means what it says. Mensa, a table. Mensa is a noun of the First Declension. There are five declensions. You have learnt the singular of the First Declension.”

“But,” I repeated, “what does it mean?”

“Mensa means a table,” he answered.

“Then why does mensa also mean O table,” I enquired, “and what does O table mean?”

“Mensa, O table, is the vocative case,” he replied.

“But why O table?” I persisted in genuine curiosity.

“O table, you would use that in addressing a table, in invoking a table.” And then seeing he was not carrying me with him, “You would use it in speaking to a table.”

“But I never do,” I blurted out in honest amazement.

“If you are impertinent, you will be punished, and punished, let me tell you, very severely,” was his conclusive rejoinder.

Such was my first introduction to the classics from which, I have been told, many of our cleverest men have derived so much solace and profit.

Pascal on Eloquence

November 17, 2015

Jacques Barzun Translation (2003):

16. Eloquence is the art of saying things in such a way ( 1) that those to whom we speak are able to hear them without pain and with pleasure; (2) that they feel their self-interest involved, so that self-love leads them the more willingly to think over what has been said. It consists, then, in a correspondence which we try to establish, on the one hand, between the head and the heart of those to whom we speak and, on the other, between the thoughts and the expressions that we use. This presupposes that we have studied the heart of man in order to know all its workings and that we find the right arrangement of the remarks that we wish to make suitable. We must put ourselves in the place of those who are to hear us, and try out on our own heart the appeal we make in what we say, so as to see whether the one is rightly made for the other, and whether we can feel confident that the hearer will be, as it were, forced to surrender. We ought to restrict ourselves, so far as possible, to the simple and natural, and not to magnify that which is small or diminish that which is great. It is not enough that a thing be beautiful; it must be suitable to the subject and there must be in it nothing excessive or lacking.

W. F. Trotter Translation (1958):

16. Eloquence is an art of saying things in such a way—(1) that those to whom we speak may listen to them without pain and with pleasure; (2) that they feel themselves interested, so that self-love leads them more willingly to reflection upon it. It consists, then, in a correspondence which we seek to establish between the head and the heart of those to whom we speak on the one hand, and, on the other, between the thoughts and the expressions which we employ. This assumes that we have studied well the heart of man so as to know all its powers, and then to find the just proportions of the discourse which we wish to adapt to them. We must put ourselves in the place of those who are to hear us, and make trial on our own heart of the turn which we give to our discourse in order to see whether one is made for the other, and whether we can assure ourselves that the hearer will be, as it were, forced to surrender. We ought to restrict ourselves, so far as possible, to the simple and natural, and not to magnify that which is little, or belittle that which is great. It is not enough that a thing be beautiful; it must be suitable to the subject, and there must be in it nothing of excess or defect.

In Matters of Religion

November 12, 2015

“When no authority exists in matters of religion, any more than in political matters, men soon become frightened in the face of unlimited independence. With everything in a perpetual state of agitation, they become anxious and fatigued. With the world of the intellect in universal flux, they want everything in the material realm, at least, to be firm and stable, and, unable to resume their former beliefs, they subject themselves to a master. For my part, I doubt that man can ever tolerate both complete religious independence and total political liberty, and I am inclined to think that if he has no faith, he must serve, and if he is free, he must believe.” Tocqueville, Democracy in America (Goldhammer Translation, p. 503)

Equality in Servitude

November 12, 2015

“There is in fact a manly and legitimate passion for equality that spurs all men to wish to be strong and esteemed. This passion tends to elevate the lesser to the rank of the greater. But one also finds in the human heart a depraved taste for equality, which impels the weak to want to bring the strong down to their level, and which reduces men to preferring equality in servitude to freedom. Not that peoples whose social state is democratic naturally despise liberty; on the contrary, they have an instinctive taste for it. But liberty is not the principal and constant object of their desire. What they love with a love that is eternal is equality. They lunge toward liberty with an abrupt impulse or sudden effort and, if they fail to achieve their goal, resign themselves to their defeat. But nothing could satisfy them without equality, and, rather than lose it, they would perish.” Tocqueville, Democracy in America (Goldhammer Translation, p. 60)

One of Those Phrases

November 12, 2015

“The national will is one of those phrases that intriguers in all times and despots in all ages have most abundantly abused. Some have seen the expression of that will in the purchased suffrage of a few hirelings of power; others in the votes of an interested or fearful minority. Indeed, some have even divined it fully articulated in the people’s silence and have believed that from the fact of obedience arises the right for them to command.” Tocqueville, Democracy in America (Goldhammer Translation, p. 62)

No Doubt

November 12, 2015

“For there is no doubt that the most radical division that is possible to make of humanity is that which splits it into two classes of creatures: those who make great demands on themselves, piling up difficulties and duties; and those who demand nothing special of themselves, but for whom to live is to be every moment what they already are, without imposing on themselves any effort towards perfection; mere buoys that float on the waves.” Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses