The Secret of Prosperity in Common Life

“You may talk of the tyranny of Nero and Tiberius; but the real tyranny is the tyranny of your next-door neighbour. What law is so cruel as the law of doing what he does? What yoke is so galling as the necessity of being like him? What espionage of despotism comes to your door so effectually as the eye of the man who lives at your door? Public opinion is a permeating influence, and it exacts obedience to itself; it requires us to think other men’s thoughts, to speak other men’s words, to follow other men’s habits. Of course, if we do not, no formal ban issues, no corporeal pain, no coarse penalty of a barbarous society is inflicted on the offender; but we are called ‘eccentric’; there is a gentle murmur of ‘most unfortunate ideas’, ‘singular young man’, ‘well-intentioned, I dare say; but unsafe, sir, quite unsafe’. The prudent, of course, conform. The place of nearly everybody depends on the opinion of every one else. There is nothing like Swift’s precept to attain the repute of a sensible man, ‘Be of the opinion of the person with whom, at the time, you are conversing’. This world is given to those whom this world can trust. Our very conversation is infected. Where are now the bold humour, the explicit statement, the grasping dogmatism of former days? They have departed, and you read in the orthodox works dreary regrets that the art of conversation has passed away. It would be as reasonable to expect the art of walking to pass away. People talk well enough when they know to whom they are speaking. We might even say that the art of conversation was improved by an application to new circumstances. ‘Secrete your intellect, use common words, say what you are expected to say’, and you shall be at peace. The secret of prosperity in common life is to be commonplace on principle.” (Walter Bagehot, The Character of Sir Robert Peel, 1856)