Revolutions are sudden to the unthinking only. Political Disturbances happen not without their warning Harbingers. Strange Rumblings and confused Noises still precede these earthquakes and hurricains of the moral World. In the eventful years previous a Revolution, the Philosopher as he passes up and down the walks of Life, examines with an anxious eye the motives and manners, that characterise those who seem destined to be Actors in it. To delineate with a free hand the different Classes of our present Oppositionists to ‘Things as they are,’ — may be a delicate, but it is a necessary Task — in order that we may enlighten, or at least beware of, the misguided men who have enlisted themselves under the banners of Freedom.*
As a collector of Mark Twain books and paraphernalia, I recently came across a load of pictures, some of which I’d never seen before. Here is one of them and the perfect quote to go along with it!
It takes me a long time to lose my temper, but once lost I could not find it with a dog. — Mark Twain
In 1791, in a letter to a Member of the National Assembly, the British philosopher and statesman Edmund Burke wrote:
Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites, — in proportion as their love to justice is above their rapacity, — in proportion as their soundness and sobriety of understanding is above their vanity and presumption, — in proportion as they are more disposed to listen to the counsels of the wise and good, in preference to the flattery of knaves. Society cannot exist, unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.
The above quote calls to mind another quote by the Roman historian Tacitus, relating to the character of his late father-in-law Agricola, “He took from philosophy its greatest gift: a sense of proportion.”
So Burke is saying that to the degree in which men (mankind) rein in their appetites, love justice, level headedness, and wisdom, will be the degree that men are capable, or qualified for (psychologically and socially) civilization, and without need for a greater degree of external (law and government) restraint or supervision. An observation that seems well supported by history, psychology, and common sense. Arguably, Burke is anticipating Sigmund Freud, and his idea that Civilization and its Discontents (degrees of restraint) actually make civilized society possible. In other words, civilization may have its discontents but God knows we wouldn’t want to live without them!
Of course Burke believed that the “controlling power” in each individual should mostly come from culture, custom, religion, and tradition. For the most part, I think Burke was right, but with a caveat—that surely Thomas Paine and the American Founders, revolutionaries themselves, I remind you, would sympathize with—that while all of these things are important, they can sometimes be the very things that are complicit in forging our fetters. Thomas Jefferson was thinking, I believe, along these lines when he wrote: “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” The tyrannies we suffer under aren’t always from the acts of other men, but are more often from pernicious ideas and beliefs that have slowly captured and infected our hearts and minds. And so we must be mindful that the conceptions that seemingly bind us together, may actually be the ideas, the mental chains, that are truly enslaving us.
I can imagine Burke, with a little chuckle in his voice, listening to all this and replying, in that Englishman’s voice slightly tinged with an Irish brogue, “Well, sir, I did say it was all about proportion.”
In one of Orwell’s essays he writes, “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” I read this essay years ago and this quote still hits me during times I’m struggling to pay attention to the course of a discussion or observe some interaction or event. By the way, we say “pay attention” for a reason, because there is effort involved, it “costs” us something to be present and focused in the now. My lovely wife reminds me that I tend to run deficits in my attention budget. So I have work to do myself.
Anyway, Orwell recognized that most people may look, but they struggle to see what lies right in front of them. I know I certainly do. Of course we all know a good portion of our fellow travelers who simply don’t want to see—because they might not like what they see! It might weaken their web of belief to see things differently, which would disturb their world, overturn their settled opinions. And so we beat on, boats against the current, having those utterly pointless arguments with some friends and relatives for whom critical reflection and a change of mind is simply not an option. Better off to talk about the weather instead.
It has taken me many years to realize that not everyone, heck most people actually, aren’t interested in a search for truth, beauty, or goodness. Heck, some aren’t even mildly interested in a sensible position—especially in politics and football—for that matter. I got it. Many of us just want to feel comfortable and that type of higher level, deeper, thinking, can be “a bit much” as my wife says. But I’ll note here that the “in front of your nose” type thinking/awareness is more about attentiveness to subtleties and nuances in the moment. Experience is multilayered, and its influence on our thinking and actions is often unconscious. Orwell might remind us that’s why propaganda, well orchestrated, can be so effective. This is why history is crowded with groups of people that, at times, have believed monstrous lies. If you’ve been alive long enough you’ve probably come to the same conclusion I have that people aren’t primarily rational, they’re emotional. And that’s what moves them. The trick, of course, is to get people, early on during their educations, emotionally invested in the importance, goodness, and benefit of seeking truth…faith, hope, & love. As William James put it, truth can be realized by its “cash-value in experiential terms.” Simply put: The truth pays.
So try to remember Orwell’s words as you go about your day and keep reminding yourself to pay attention to what’s happening right in front of you. You might be surprised at what you see and learn.
And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected. And this I must fight against: any religion, or government which limits or destroys the individual. This is what I am and what I am about. — John Steinbeck