The Most Decency and Justice

“…when the various details and circumstances of a matter have so perplexed us that we are powerless to see and choose what is most advantageous, I find the surest thing to do, even if no other consideration invited us to it, is this: to cast ourselves into the course in which there is the most decency and justice, and since we are in doubt about the shortest path, to hold always to the straight path.” (Montaigne, tr. Frame)

“…we can always do more for mankind by following the good in a straight line than we can by making concessions to evil. The illusion that it is wise or necessary to suppress our instinctive love of truth comes from an imperfect understanding of what that instinctive love of truth represents, and of what damage happens both to ourselves and to others when we suppress it. The more closely we look at the facts, the more serious does this damage appear. And on the other hand, the more closely we look at the facts, the more trifling, inconsequent, and absurd do all those reasons appear which strive to make us accept, and thereby sanctify and preserve, some portion of the conceded evil in the world.” (John Jay Chapman, Practical Agitation)

Insane from Fear

“I have known many people to become insane from fear; and even in the most stable, it is certain that while the fit lasts it engenders terrible bewilderment. I leave aside the common herd, whom it causes to imagine now great-grandfathers issued from the tomb wrapped in their shrouds, now werewolves, goblins, and chimeras.” (Montaigne, tr. Frame)

“Verily I have seene divers become mad and senselesse for feare: yea and in him, who is most settled and best resolved, it is certaine that whilest his fit continueth, it begetteth many strange dazelings, and terrible amazements in him. I omit to speake of the vulgar sort, to whom it sometimes representeth strange apparitions, as their fathers and grandfathers ghosts, risen out of their graves, and in their winding sheets: and to others it sometimes sheweth Larves, Hobgoblins, Robbin-good-fellowes, and such other Bugbeares and Chimeræs.” (Montaigne, tr. Florio)

I Did Not Know Montaigne from Adam

“Where the development of talent is concerned we are still in the food-gathering stage. We do not know how to grow it. Up to now in this country when one of the masses starts to write, paint, etc., it is because he happens to bump into the right accident. In my case the right accident happened in the 1930s. I had the habit of reading from childhood, but very little schooling. I spent half of my adult life as a migratory worker and the other half as a longshoreman. The Hitler decade started me thinking, but there is an enormous distance between thinking and the act of writing. I had to acquire a taste for a good sentence — taste it the way a child tastes candy — before I stumbled into writing. Here is how it happened. Late in 1936 I was on my way to do some placer mining near Nevada City, and I had a hunch that I would get snowbound. I had to get me something to read, something that would last me for a long time. So I stopped over in San Francisco to get a thick book. I did not really care what the book was about — history, theology, mathematics, farming, anything, so long as it was thick, had small print and, no pictures. There was at that time a large secondhand bookstore on Market Street called Lieberman’s and I went there to buy my book. I soon found one. It had about a thousand pages of small print and no pictures. The price was one dollar. The title page said these were The Essays of Michel de Montaigne. I knew what essays were but I did not know Montaigne from Adam. I put the book in my knapsack and caught the ferry to Sausalito. Sure enough, I got snowbound. I read the book three times until I knew it almost by heart. When I got back to the San Joaquin Valley I could not open my mouth without quoting Montaigne, and the fellows liked it. It got so whenever there was an argument about anything — women, money, animals, food, death—they would ask: ‘What does Montaigne say?’ Out came the book and I would find the right passage. I am quite sure that even now there must be a number of migratory workers up and down the San Joaquin Valley still quoting Montaigne. I ought to add that the Montaigne edition I had was the John Florio translation. The spelling was modem, but the style seventeenth century — the style of the King James Bible and of Bacon’s Essays. The sentences have hooks in them which stick in the-mind; they make platitudes sound as if they were new. Montaigne was not above anyone’s head. Once in a workers’ barrack near Stockton, the man in the next bunk picked up my Montaigne and read it for an hour or so. When he returned it he said: ‘Anyone can write a book like this’.”(Eric Hoffer, The Temper of Our Time)

The House is Dark

“Let us add one more story close to this subject, which Seneca tells in one of his letters. ‘You know’, he says, writing to Lucilius, ‘that Harpaste, my wife’s fool, has stayed at my house as a hereditary charge, for my own taste sets me against these monsters; and if I have a mind to laugh at a fool, I do not have to look far for one, I laugh at myself. This fool has suddenly lost her sight. I am telling you something strange, but true. She does not realize that she is blind, and constantly urges her keeper to take her out, because she says my house is dark. What we laugh at in her, I pray you to believe happens to each one of us: no one knows that he is avaricious or covetous. The blind at least ask for a guide; we go astray of our own accord. I am not ambitious, we say, but in Rome you cannot live otherwise; I am not extravagant, but the city requires great expense; it is not my fault if I am choleric, if I have not yet set up any definite way of life — it is the fault of youth. Let us not look for our disease outside of ourselves; it is within us, it is planted in our entrails. And the very fact that we do not realize that we are sick makes our cure more difficult. If we do not soon begin to tend ourselves, when will we have provided for so many sores and so many maladies? Yet we have a very sweet medicine in philosophy. For of the others we feel the pleasure only after the cure; this one pleases and cures at the same time’.” (Montaigne, Essays, tr. Frame)

The Multitude of the Insane

“There is nothing on which men are commonly more intent than on making a way for their opinions. Where the ordinary means fail us, we add command, force, fire, and the sword. It is unfortunate to be in such a pass that the best touchstone of truth is the multitude of believers, in a crowd in which the fools so far surpass the wise in number. As if anything were so common as lack of sense! [Cicero.] A fine evidence of sanity is the multitude of the insane! [Saint Augustine.] It is a difficult thing to set one’s judgment against accepted opinions. The first conviction, taken from the subject itself, seizes the simple; from them it spreads to the able, under the authority of the number and antiquity of the testimonies. For my part, in a matter on which I would not believe one, I would not believe a hundred ones. And I do not judge opinions by their years.” (Montaigne, Essays, tr. Frame)

“There is nothing over which men usually strain harder than when giving free run to their opinions: should the regular means be lacking, we support them by commands, force, fire and sword. It is wretched to be reduced to the point where the best touchstone of truth has become the multitude of believers, at a time when the fools in the crowd are so much more numerous than the wise: quasi vero quidquam sit tam valde quam nil sapere vulgare [as though anything whatsoever were more common than lack of wisdom]. Sanitatis patrocinium est, insanientium turba. [A mob of lunatics now form the authority for sane truth.] It is hard to stiffen your judgement against widely held opinions. At first simple folk are convinced by the event itself: it sweeps over them. From them it spreads to the more intelligent folk by the authority of the number and the antiquity of the testimonies. Personally, what I would not believe when one person says it, I would not believe if a hundred times one said it. And I do not judge opinions by their age.” (Montaigne, Essays, tr. Screech)

“There is nothing to which men commonly are more inclined than to make way for their own opinions; where the ordinary means fail us, we add command, force, fire, and sword. ‘Tis a misfortune to be at such a pass, that the best test of truth is the multitude of believers in a crowd, where the number of fools so much exceeds the wise: Quasi vero quidquam sit tam valde, quam nil sapere, vulgare. [As if anything were so common as ignorance. Cicero, De Divin., ii.] Sanitatis patrocinium est, insanientium turba. [The multitude of fools is a protection to the wise. St. Augustine, De Civit. Dei, vi. 10.] ‘Tis hard to resolve a man’s judgment against the common opinions: the first persuasion, taken from the very subject itself, possesses the simple, and from them diffuses itself to the wise, under the authority of the number and antiquity of the witnesses. For my part, what I should not believe from one, I should not believe from a hundred and one: and I do not judge opinions by years.” (Montaigne, Essays, tr. Cotton)

Am I For the Atlantic Ocean?

“In the United States as in every other democratic country, the need to-day is for a searching of the heart to discover what democracy really wants and how it can insure the fulfillment of its choice. It may choose death for itself and others; it may choose life on certain terms or unconditionally. Life without conditions can be achieved very simply by giving up and waiting — sitting and perishing in due course. Life under certain conditions of civilization means a fighting faith training its critical guns on what is daily offered us in the guise of government, education, science, art, dogma, cures, and creeds.

“The necessity for this faith and this critical war in our own culture is the great lesson of the recent past. It is not so much a new discovery as the rediscovery of a forgotten truth. And with the rediscovery we have learned the reason of our forgetfulness: we had become weary and lazy; we wanted short cuts to happiness and peace; we hoped to find rules of thumb that would answer every purpose; we were willing to join a party, sign a pledge, even enlist in an army, provided it was guaranteed to bring about the end of our troubles, by which we really meant make the last claim on our intelligence. The ‘distrust of intelligence’, the ‘retreat from reason’, were names given in alarm to what was thought to be a movement and was after all only a desertion.

“But if, as every symptom warns us, civilized life is the strenuous goal of democracy, if a diversified and vigilant culture is at once the source and the product of successful democracy, then our duty is to go over the common assumptions about familiar things, scrape the rust off our habitual opinions and see if there is any bright metal beneath, or only an oxidized mass of crumbling prejudices.

“The first of these prejudices is to believe that our choice is a political one when it is, as a matter of fact, cultural. We think that we can deal with matters that involve our life and liberty by acting as partisans, whereas the very thing we want can only be achieved by acting as artisans. I mean by this, taking and rejecting in the light of purpose, regardless of groups, labels, and the mock scrimmage of politics. I shall develop the point in my next chapter, but a single example now will make my meaning clear. People who appreciate the importance of education in a democracy often ask me whether I am for or against John Dewey and Progressive Education. The form of the question is political; it is a bid for a party vote, to which I return the cultural answer: I work for individualized teaching, for the breakdown of artificial divisions between school subjects, but against amateur psychiatry in the classroom and against the failure to teach the three R’s. My interlocutor sometimes insists: ‘But are you for it as a whole, Yes or No? Don’t sit on the fence!’ As well ask, am I for the Atlantic Ocean? I swim in it with pleasure, but deplore tidal waves and fail to see a fence in the distinction.” (Jacques Barzun, Of Human Freedom)

Like the Saliva in Pavlov’s Dogs

“Holding radical opinions is by no means a guarantee that one belongs to the thinking part. It is just as easy to be blind on the Left as on the Right. The only difference to human history is that the point of resistance to reality comes sooner or later in chronological time. How to stick to principle or social aim while facing facts as they are is the peculiar problem for human intelligence in a democratic culture, and this reliance on brain power always implies that it is free, that the choice is real. Hence, the need of resisting absolutes — that is, party labels, rigid loyalties, simple rules of thumb, easy or cynical fatalism. Anybody can take sides when things are labeled ‘revolutionary’, ‘reactionary’, or ‘democratic’. But what is it we are asked to believe, to consent to, to support? What value is there in opinions that flow from us like the saliva in Pavlov’s dogs, at the ringing of a bell? And again, if our fate is mechanically ground out by the omnipotence of interests, then why indulge in so much talk and print? If talk and print play their part, then why handle them like a mace, incapable of flexible and pointed use?” (Jacques Barzun, Of Human Freedom)

Weakness, Too, Corrupts

“It has often been said that power corrupts. But it is perhaps equally important to realize that weakness, too, corrupts. Power corrupts the few, while weakness corrupts the many. Hatred, malice, rudeness, intolerance, and suspicion are the faults of weakness. The resentment of the weak does not spring from any injustice done to them but from the sense of inadequacy and impotence. We cannot win the weak by sharing our wealth with them. They feel our generosity as oppression. St. Vincent De Paul cautioned his disciples to deport themselves so that the poor ‘will forgive them the bread you give them’.” (Eric Hoffer, The Ordeal of Change)

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)

Stupendous Floods of Information

“Today the number of facts which are accessible are prodigious. Newspapers, radios, libraries pour over us every moment of our lives their stupendous floods of information so that perhaps the greatest educational problem of today is how to teach people to ignore the irrelevant, how to refuse to know things, before they are suffocated. For too many facts are as bad as none at all. Were I ever to write a volume for that famous How To series, it would be on How not to read more than 1500 words a day.” (W. H. Auden, Yale Daily News Banquet Address)