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©1996-2017 T. P. Davis

American and French revolutions

[In reading Padover's Thomas Jefferson on Democracy, I have reached one important conclusion:] That the American Revolution although more than twenty years earlier than the French was not at all the source of the French; but that Jefferson, whose views were very radical and who disliked the British good sense of the American Constitution was a Jacobin with Arcadian notions of democracy in idyllic villages with thatched roofs and Cincinnatus returning from the corrupting influence of even one year of power to sweat virtue at the plough.

I don't think "ideologies" particularly worth studying, but it is instructive to contrast the pictures they paint of the ideal with the facts. Humanitarians have an intense hatred of mankind as it is. Jefferson says somewhere . . . that he would like to exterminate all non-democrats from every country, and fill them all with Americans after his own heart. This is the principle on which Stalin acts.

Letters 8:253 to 8:254 (To Cyril Coniston Clemens, Rome, May 20, 1950) [#596 1950]

Anarchists

But it is one thing to see the arbitrary and ultimately unstable character of a civilization (every civilization is essentially unstable) and another to set about destroying it by blind force. This latter system is hateful, because inspired only by hate; it has no ideal of a positive sort to inspire it, nor, if it had, could it attain that ideal merely by destroying what now exists. The want of intelligence is immense, that does not see that everything we have that makes (or might make) life worth living is an incident to the irrational, traditional civilization in which we have been reared. All things are like language, which we must use, beautify, but not worship; and your anarchists are mere blundering dumb beasts, that sputter and howl, because they find the rules of grammar absurd and inconvenient. So they are, for people who are too stupid or too ill-bred to use them: but that does not make these people martyrs, or heralds of progress.

Letters 2:16 to 2:17 (To John Francis Stanley Russell, Ávila, July 29, 1910) [#597 1910]

Art of government

The sincere dialectician, the genuine moralist, must stand upon human, Socratic ground. Though art be long, it must take a short life for its basis and an actual interest for its guide. The liberal dialectician has the gift of conversation; he does not pretend to legislate from the throne of Jehovah about the course of affairs, but asks the ingenuous heart to speak for itself, guiding and checking it only in its own interest. The result is to express a given nature and to cultivate it; so that whenever any one possessing such a nature is born into the world he may use this calculation, and more easily understand and justify his mind. Of course, if experience were no longer the same, and faculties had entirely varied, the former interpretation could no longer serve. Where nature shows a new principle of growth the mind must find a new method of expression, and move toward other goals. Ideals are not forces stealthily undermining the will; they are possible forms of being that would frankly express it. These forms are invulnerable, eternal, and free; and he who finds them divine and congenial and is able to embody them at least in part and for a season, has to that extent transfigured life, turning it from a fatal process into a liberal art.

Science at 208-209 (Dialectic) [#598 1906]

Art of government

Rational government is an art, requiring the widest knowledge and the most perfect disinterestedness. It should be steady and traditional, yet open to continual readjustments with the natural shifts of customs, passions, and aspirations in the world. Reason cannot define or codify human nature: that is the error of militant sects and factions. But it can exercise a modicum of control over local and temporal impulses and keep at least an ideal of spiritual liberty and social justice before the public eye.

Dominations at 382 (Representative Government III: Moral Representation in Society) [#599 1951]

Common law and liberty

Everywhere [in late 19th-century and early 20th-century America] co-operation is taken for granted, as something that no one would be so mean or so short-sighted as to refuse. . . . Every political body, every public meeting, every club, or college, or athletic team, is full of it. Out it comes whenever there is an accident in the street or a division in a church, or a great unexpected emergency like the late war. . . .

Such a way of proceeding seems . . . irresistible in a natural democracy. But if we consider human nature at large and the practice of most nations, we shall see that it is a very rare, wonderful, and unstable convention. . . . [Under American conditions of this time, the] most opposite systems of religion and education could look smiling upon one another's prosperity, because the country could afford these superficial luxuries, having a constitutional religion and education of its own, which everybody drank in unconsciously and which assured the moral cohesion of the people. . . . It was because life in America was naturally more co-operative and more plastic than in England that the spirit of English liberty, which demands co-operation and plasticity, could appear there more boldly and universally than it ever did at home.

English liberty is a method, not a goal. . . . In English civilisation the individual is neutralised; it does not matter so much even in high places if he is rather stupid or rather cheap; public spirit sustains him, and he becomes its instrument all the more readily, perhaps, for not being very distinguished or clear-headed himself. . . . Its very looseness gives the English method its lien on the future. . . . Anglo-Saxon imperialism is unintended . . . . It has a commercial and missionary quality, and is essentially an invitation to pull together . . . ; but whether it is accepted or rejected, it is an offer of co-operation, a project for a limited partnership, not a complete plan of life to be imposed on anybody.

It is a wise instinct, in dealing with foreigners or with material things (which are foreigners to the mind), to limit oneself in this way to establishing external relations, partial mutual adjustments, with a great residuum of independence and reserve. . . . So deep-seated is this prudent instinct in the English nature that it appears even at home; most of the concrete things which English genius has produced are expedients. . . . [A]part from the literature that simply utters the inner man, no one considering the English language, the English church, or English philosophy, or considering the common law and parliamentary government, would take them for perfect realisations of art or truth or an ideal polity. Institutions so jumbled and limping could never have been planned; . . . they are accepted and prized, where they are native, for keeping the door open to a great volume and variety of goods, at a moderate cost of danger and absurdity.

Character & Opinion at 196-202 (English Liberty in America) [#600 1920]

Crime and property

It is much in the same way that social rules relating to crime and to property pass under the aegis of governments and become formal laws. The submission to government is never complete, e.g. property in small articles . . . is not legally controlled within families; and the punishment of many crimes is tacitly left to the art of self-defence, with words, fists, or revolvers. Law sometimes is superseded by the spontaneous actions of judges and juries, pronouncing the legally guilty innocent, or visa versa: then, as in the cases of Dreyfus and Madame Caillaux, strong social instinct or party passion consciously resumes its authority, and disdains legality. It is by no means to be assumed that legality in such a case is the better form of justice. For as in language and religion, so in the matter of crime or property, government introduces an external and often antithetical element. Enactment has taken the place of living social instinct, and the ideals which that instinct projects, which are the sole criteria of justice, may be thwarted rather than helped by that codification. What makes genial illegalities—duels, elopements, honourable perjuries, etc.—dangerous to society is not that they abstract from law—all true morality does so, because it is deeper than law—but that they often express an antiquated or partisan or disruptive ethos; a form of morality doubtless more vital but perhaps more partial than that which the written law has consecrated.

Dominations at 81-82 (Transition from Custom to Government) [#601 1951]

Custom

The word 'moral' comes from the Latin mores, customs.

Dominations at 70 note 1 (Servitude to Custom) [#602 1951]

Custom

Such consciousness of preference, and such orders published to the world to conform to these preferences, are common in societies without government, and may even be made in soliloquy, as in prayers and curses; but the passage is easy from preferences expressed in imperious maxims to the systematic use of force and the establishment of law. All that need be added is a certain countenance from public opinion, and a precedent that the general judgment is to be enforced. Such a precedent is not far to seek; for impulsive men and mobs enforce their wills before they express them in words or even in thought. By the time a law is established, an organ for enforcing it already exists in the strong right arm of the legislator, probably not unpractised in anticipating his legislation by a vigorous use of the cudgel.

Indeed, custom in most communities is far more sacred and unbreakable than law, and some spontaneous authority, chieftain, prophet, or boss is more respected than the government. Political institutions do not serve to establish the ascendency of rules in society; they serve merely to register this ascendency or to apply it in detail, or determine it precisely in debatable instances. It is for this reason, doubtless, that politics seem to deal so preponderantly with questions of men and methods; large questions of policy and of human ideals are settled behind the politician's back by the growth of social institutions. The monarchy, the town meeting, the Church, the army, the family, property, justice, all arise and are virtually in operation before a law or an explicit agreement consecrates or defines them; and the history of politics is accordingly reduced almost entirely to the compromises and transitions between ruling interests when they conflict openly and threaten a civil war.

Dominations at 78-79 (Transition from Custom to Government) [#603 1951]

Custom

Custom is the greatest source of acquiescence, when the custom is congenial to the native temperament; by invoking custom, a government seems to make a concession to the popular mind, while in fact reinforcing compulsion—since custom is contagious and intolerant. Custom is the soul of law, law being useless unless customarily obeyed; and only custom with the temperament expressed in custom can reassure a government about the future, as every government needs to be reassured. . . .

. . . .

. . . . Acquiescence has ceased to be regarded as a minimum ulterior requirement for the exercise of government. Under the name of 'the consent of the governed,' it has been turned into the positive source of authority. . . .

. . . .

. . . . [A] customary acquiescence, and not a more explicit consent, is requisite for good government. Acquiescence expresses an adjustment already made, or in the making, to normal conditions, not in themselves favourable, yet impossible to disregard if action is to be successful, since it is precisely these imposed conditions, and the requisite adjustments to them, that good government embodies.

If . . . the government asked for more than acquiescence, and sought to base its measures on a previous assent obtained from the people, or even waited for the people to suggest the measures to be adopted, then government would be nothing but pensioned go-betweens and officious parasites, as politicians actually are. . . . Popular initiative, popular assent, and popular direction are not impossible in certain matters at certain moments; there is lynch law and mob-rule and acclamation of some hero, carried shoulder-high, to be Caesar; but as this last instance shows, such positive sovereignty of common Will can only be instantaneous; it dissolves upon being exercised; and either primitive anarchy returns, or some governing body survives, takes the reins in its hands, and requires popular acquiescence to do its work properly.

Dominations at 417-421 ("Government By the People" IV: Acquiescence) [#604 1951]

Democracy / elections

The American system cannot be imposed . . . because it conceives "democracy" to mean government by the majority, and respects elections fairly carried on. I think this trust in majorities is a dangerous and unjust method where there are profoundly rooted and numerous minorities (such as the Irish were under the British) . . . . And the respect for majorities instead of for wisdom is out of place in any matter of ultimate importance. It is reasonable only for settling matters of procedure in a way that causes as little friction as possible: but it is not right essentially because it condemns an ideal to defeat because a majority of one does not understand its excellence. It cuts off all possibility of a liberal civilization. And it is contrary to what American principles have been in the past, except in a few fanatics like Jefferson who had been caught by the wind of the French Revolution.

Letters 8:294 to 8:295 (To George Rauh, Rome, October 12, 1950) [#605 1950]

Economics, hygiene, maritime affairs

[M]y chief divergence from American views lies in that I am not a dogmatist in morals or politics and do not think that the same form of government can be good for everybody; except in those matters where everybody is subject to the same influence and has identical interests, as in the discipline of a ship in danger, or of a town when there is a contagious disease. But where the interests of people are moral and imaginative they ought to be free to govern themselves, as a poet should be free to write his own verses, however trashy they seem to the pundits of his native back yard. I think the universal authority ought to manage only economic, hygienic, and maritime affairs, in which the benefit of each is a benefit for all; but never the affairs of the heart in anybody.

Letters 8:294 (To George Rauh, Rome, October 12, 1950) [#606 1950]

Equality

An unprejudiced man will be ready and happy to live in any class of society; he will find there occasions enough for merriment, pleasure, and kindness. Only snobs are troubled by inequality, or by exclusion from something accidental, as all particular stations are. Why should I think it unjust that I am not an applauded singer (which it was in me to be) nor a field-marshal nor a puppet king?

Persons and Places at 13 (My Father) [#607 1944]

Evolution

All that is scientific or Darwinian in the theory of evolution is accordingly an application of mechanism, a proof that mechanism lies at the basis of life and morals. The Aristotelian notion of development, however, was too deeply rooted in tradition for it to disappear at a breath. Evolution as conceived by Hegel, for instance, or even Spencer, retained Aristotelian elements, though these were disguised and hidden under a cloud of new words. Both identify evolution with progress, with betterment; a notion which would naturally be prominent in any one with enlightened sympathies living in the nineteenth century, when a new social and intellectual order was forcing itself on a world that happened largely to welcome the change, but a notion that has nothing to do with natural science. The fittest to live need not be those with the most harmonious inner life nor the best possibilities. The fitness might be due to numbers, as in a political election, or to tough fibre, as in a tropical climate. Of course a form of being that circumstances make impossible or hopelessly laborious had better dive under and cease for the moment to be; but the circumstances that render it inopportune do not render it essential inferior. Circumstances have no power of that kind; and perhaps the worst incident in the popular acceptance of evolution has been a certain brutality thereby introduced into moral judgment, an abdication of human ideals, a mocking indifference to justice, under cover of respect for what is bound to be, and for the rough economy of the world. Disloyalty to the good in the guise of philosophy had appeared also among the ancients, when their political ethics had lost its authority, just as it appeared among us when the prestige of religion had declined. The Epicureans sometimes said that one should pursue pleasure because all the animals did so, and the Stoics that one should fill one's appointed place in nature, because such was the practice of the clouds and rivers.

Science at 108-109 (Hesitations in Method) [#608 1906]

Ideals / pragmatism / empiricism

I had never heard of Cardozo before (I live out of the world), but I knew Judge Holmes well, and I need not say that I sympathize with the desire to humanize the administration of justice. But neither of those jurists, nor even you in your comments, satisfy me on what seems to me the crucial point, skirted on p. 115. What is the highest good of society? This is a question of political ideals. . . . Now what 'ideology' guides Cardozo in determining the direction in which his conscience shall exercise a gentle pressure upon the law? I can find nothing more definite than 'The social mind' or 'cherished social ideals.' Something psychological, then, or prevalent sentiment or opinion? Or something biological or anthropological, the actual tendency which manners and morals show in their evolution? . . . . [P]ragmatism, like empiricism, is a most ambiguous thing. They may mean testing ideas by experiment, by an appeal to the object or physical fact, which in ethics would be human nature with it's physical potentialities of achievement and happiness. On the other hand, empiricism and pragmatism may mean accepting every idea as an ultimate fact and absolute standard for itself, and in practice deciding everything by vote, by sentiment, or by the actual prevalence of one idea over another. In this second direction lies softness, anarchy, and dissolution.

Letters 6:151 (To Beryl Harold Levy , Cortina d'Ampezzo, August 8, 1938) [#616 1938]

Inalienable rights

Americanism allows that laissez-faire in moral life which it denies in commerce and industry. Not, of course, that it officially tolerates burglars, murderers, forgers, or adulterers. Legal morality still adheres to the general code of Christendom: but all religions, and therefore all theoretical codes of morals, were to be equally tolerated. The question at once arises, how long, if all moral codes are tolerated, those who hold those views can be restrained from putting them in practice. And what authority can the dominant morality retain? Evidently none: yet it is wonderful how long it has taken the liberal world to discover that it has deliberately abandoned mankind to moral anarchy. It has been only in recent years that the Russian revolution, Madam Caillaux, D. H. Lawrence, André Gide have openly and conscientiously written down robbery, murder, adultery, and sodomy among the inalienable rights of man.

Cory's Idler at 206 (Americanism) [#617 1955]

Institutions

1848 was a year of revolutions and 1948 may repeat the performance; but I think it will probably fizzle out, as it did a hundred years ago. Institutions are harder to destroy than sentiments and manners, if not cabinets, are comparatively stable in France and in Italy, and tend to restore the modus vivendi.

Letters 7:394 (To Robert Shaw Sturgis , Rome, December 28, 1947) [#618 1947]

Institutions

Something may nevertheless arise in a society that corresponds in part to the integration of principles and virtues in an individual. As there are traditions and customs in primitive peoples, so in civilised peoples there are laws and institutions. . . .

. . . . That which enables a people to exercise the function of government is the prior existence and tacit acceptance of traditions, laws, and institutions which already govern them.

Dominations at 408 ("Government By the People" II: Psychology of Agreement) [#620 1951]

Judiciary as defender of rights

Here we come upon the [third] function [of seven discussed] that governments most readily exercise and make the basis of their permanent domination: the function of defence. . . .

The people, however, will soon have occasion to ask: Who shall defend us against our defenders? And it will probably find in its own customs, or in those of its masters, a tribunal to which it can appeal; because the office of judge is paternal and was sanctioned religiously long before there were political governments. The abuses of one agent of government may thus be controlled by appealing to another agent, morally independent and prior, although perhaps later absorbed and corrupted by the political authorities.

Unfortunately the greatest abuse of governments, by which they act most radically against the good of the people, is one which no judiciary can control even if its own authority be traditionally higher than that of the actual power.

Dominations at 423 ("Government For the People" I: First Aims Proper to Government) [#622 1951]

Jury as democratic

In trial by jury, where property, reputation, and life are at stake, the jurors are chosen by lot, and unanimity is required to secure a verdict. Here democracy appears unalloyed, and gives general satisfaction. It is true, however, among Anglo-Saxons, that the judge supplies an important element of authority, tradition, legality, and political wisdom in conducting the case and pronouncing a sentence. To the jury only those points are submitted in which common sense is the best judge: the credibility of witnesses, and the character and probable motives of the litigants.

Dominations at 413 ("Government By the People" III: Ethics of Compromise) [#623 1951]

Levellers

Of course the roots are not everything in nature: the flowers are just as natural: and for that reason levellers and anticlericals are not good naturalists.

Letters 7:235 (To David Page, Rome, March 28, 1946) [#626 1946]

Liberal

Not that he was in the least what we called liberal, that is, indifferent and vaguely contemptuous towards all definite doctrines and practices, and without any discipline of his own. On the contrary, he was absolutely loyal to his own tradition, and master of it; he was made finished, imposing in the precision of his affections.

Persons and Places at 177-178 (First Friends) [#627 1944]

Liberalism

There was a general conviction behind all these [liberal] maxims, that tradition corrupts experience. . . . [R]eform, revision, restatement are perpetually required . . . . Whatsoever was not the fresh handiwork of the soul and true to its present demand was bad for that soul. A man without traditions, if he could be materially well equipped, would be purer, more rational, more virtuous than if he had been an heir to anything. . . . Philosophy should be transcendental, history romantic and focussed in one's own country, politics democratic, and art individual and above convention. Variety in religious dogma would only prove the truth—that is, the inwardness—of inspiration.

Soliloquies at 182-183 (The Irony of Liberalism) [#628 1921]

Liberalism

[A]lthough you say I am an extreme conservative, that is true only in the sense that I utterly repudiate liberal claims and maxims, which make events turn on ideas, opinions, votes, majorities, and disembodied moral power. These things may be called powers in virtue of the material agencies and tendencies expressed in them—usually very ill-expressed: but in themselves they are powerless. This sort of conservatism is identical with my materialism, not merely compatible with it. I am not a conservative in the sense of being afraid of revolutions, like Hobbes, or thinking order, in the sense of peace, the highest good; and I am not at all attached to things as they are, or as they were in my youth. But I love order in the sense of organized, harmonious, consecrated living: and for this reason I sympathize with the Soviets and the Fascists and the Catholics, but not at all with the liberals.

Letters 5:116 (To Sydney Hook, Rome, June 8, 1934) [#629 1934]

Liberalism

Liberalism is still fanaticism watered down. It hates the natural passions and spontaneous organization of mankind; hates tradition, religion, and patriotism: not because it sees the element of illusion inseparable from these things, but because it has a superficial affection for a certain type of comfortable, safe, irresponsible existence, proper to the second generation of classes enriched by commerce: and this pleasant ideal, it expects to impose on all race and all ages for ever. That is an egregious silliness, which cannot be long-lived.

Letters 6:30 to 6:31 (To David Page, Rome, May 3, 1937) [#630 1937]

Social contract

[It is said that an] American cannot admit the possibility that democracy should disappear. Any suggestion to that effect causes "bitter resentment." This, I should say, is particularly true of those in whom . . . Puritan and Jewish sentiments are still prevalent. Politics rests on a "Covenant" with God, so that fidelity to a special revealed law and everlasting, prosperity and victory are inseparable. This is what in the book I am now writing, "Dominations and Powers" I call a militant as against a generative society; that is, one intentionally chosen and imposed, rather than one that has grown up by an unintended concourse of circumstances and interests. In this respect democracy is intolerant and totalitarian: that is, it claims exclusive rightness for its system regardless of natural growths and diverse ideals.

Letters 7:288 to 7:289 (To Robert Shaw Sturgis, Rome, October 21, 1946) [#632 1946]

Social contract

Now, when an animal is tamed he has been more or less kindly persuaded. We might say that his original vital initiative has been acknowledged, studied, and cleverly turned to the trainer's uses. In one sense his free will has been enlisted, according to the contract-theory of government.

Dominations at 74 (Slavery) [#633 1951]

Society

[M]an is rooted in society and his instincts are addressed to it ; for the first nine months, or even years, of his existence he is a parasite ; and scarcely are these parental bonds a little relaxed, when he instinctively forms other ties, that turn him into a husband and father, and keep him such all his days. If ever he finds happiness in solitude, it can only be by lavishing on objects of his imagination the attentions which his social functions require that he should lavish on something. Without exercising these faculties somehow his nature would be paralysed ; there would be no fuel to feed a spiritual flame.

Soliloquies at 120 (Society and Solitude) [#635 1921]

Theocracy

A theocracy—and government, according to any ideology is virtually a theocracy—does not cynically invent its fables in order to deceive the people. How should the fables seem plausible unless they expressed something congruous with the popular heart? How should the prophets and priests come to conceive those fables?

Egotism (New) at 186 (Postscript: The Nature of Egotism and of the Moral Conflicts That Disturb the World) [#636 1939]

Treaties and legislation

The great obstacle to political wisdom and justice is the difficulty we all experience in thinking in dynamic units and discerning the units which, in any problem before us, are really dynamic. We think instead in aesthetic or moral terms which correspond to no lines of cleavage or motion in nature; and so our eloquence and our prophecies, even our treaties and legislation, come strangely to naught; and we are consumed with astonishment and indignation at what we think the folly and wickedness of mankind, whose actions and sentiments are so strangely oblivious of the units we wished to preserve.

Letters 3:39 (To Horace Meyer Kallen, Rome, November 21, 1921) [#637 1921]

Tyrants corrupting the naturally good

[My mother's] notion seemed to be that church, state and society were victims of unnatural tyranny: remove the tyrants, and everything would become perfect of its own accord. That business and wealth might be tyrannical never occurred to her; she regarded them as fountains of pure benefit all round, as were science and enlightenment. She was therefore theoretically content with the nineteenth century, with America, and especially with Boston . . . . The fact that everyone was hectically "doing things", multiplying wealth, busy with science and organisation, and finding and creating endless pressing problems to solve, she ignored.

Persons and Places at 247 (Addendum: We Were Not Virtuous) [#638 1944]


Number of quotations (including supressed): 38


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