Civilization part 2



They who are of opinion that Money will do every thing, may very well be suspected to do every thing for Money. – Halifax

The chief value of money lies in the fact that one lives in a world in which it is overestimated. – Mencken


There is no kind of idleness by which we are so easily seduced as that which dignifies itself by the appearance of business. – Johnson

…he is counted the greatest genius who can sell a good-for-nothing commodity for a great price. – William Blake

MERCHANT, n. One engaged in a commercial pursuit. A commercial pursuit is one in which the thing pursued is a dollar. – Ambrose Bierce, Devil’s Dictionary

PRICE, n. Value, plus a reasonable sum for the wear and tear of conscience in demanding it. – Ambrose Bierce, Devil’s Dictionary

But what of ideals and ethics? The first thing to note is the most glaringly obvious: business ethics is a contradiction in terms. – Louis Nowra

The superior man understands what is right;
the inferior understands what will sell. – Confucius

The big commercial concerns of to-day are quite exceptionally incompetent. They will be even more incompetent when they are omnipotent. Indeed, that is, and always has been, the whole point of a monopoly; the old and sound argument against a monopoly. It is only because it is incompetent that it has to be omnipotent. When one large shop occupies the whole of one side of a street (or sometimes both sides), it does so in order that men may be unable to get what they want; and may be forced to buy what they don’t want. That the rapidly approaching kingdom of the Capitalists will ruin art and letters, I have already said. I say here that in the only sense that can be called human, it will ruin trade, too. – Chesterton, A Utopia of Usurers, p23-4

I weigh my words when I say that in my judgment the limited liability corporation is the greatest single discovery of modern times, whether you judge it by its social, by its ethical, by its industrial, or, in the long run, after we understand it and know how to use it, by its political effects. Even steam and electricity are far less important than the limited liability corporation, and they would be reduced to comparative impotence without it. – Nicholas Murray Butler, Why Should We Change Our Form of Government?, p82


CORPORATION, n. An ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility. – Ambrose Bierce, Devil’s Dictionary

QUOTIENT, n. A number showing how many times a sum of money belonging to one person is contained in the pocket of another – usually about as many times as it can be got there. – Ambrose Bierce, Devil’s Dictionary

We are prone to judge success by the index of our salaries or the size of our automobiles rather than by the quality of our service and relationship to mankind. – Martin Luther King

Fundamental idea of a commercial culture. Today one can see coming into existence the culture of a society of which commerce is as much the soul as personal contest was with the ancient Greeks and as war, victory and justice were for the Romans. The man engages in commerce understands how to appraise everything without having made it, and to appraise it, according to the needs of the consumer, not according to his own needs; “who and how many will consume this?” is his question of questions. This type of appraisal he then applies instinctively and all the time: he applies it to everything, and thus also to the productions of the arts and sciences, of thinkers, scholars, artists, statesmen, peoples and parties, of the entire age: in regard to everything that is made he inquires after supply and demand in order to determine the value of a thing in his own eyes. This becomes the character of an entire culture, thought through in the minutest and subtlest detail and imprinted in every will and faculty: it is this of which you men of the coming century will be proud. – Nietzsche, Daybreak, 175.

Earth supplies enough for every man’s need but not for every man’s greed. – Gandhi

Everything we do is a message, a communication. Every action has a message in the way that every musical note has a sound… Every message has a tone, creating ripples that uplift or diminish life… Where any purpose is denied, look for dollar signs – a sense of…life as a cheap commodity. – Laurence Boldt, Zen and the Art of Making a Living, p164

Economics and politics are the governing powers of life today, and that’s why everything’s screwy. – Joseph Campbell

But what of ideals and ethics? The first thing to note is the most glaringly obvious : business ethics is a contradiction. – Louis Nowra

…one can be both free and economically secure while leading a totally meaningless and empty existence. – Lakoff/Johnson, Metaphors We Live By

One of Euclid’s students asked him what he would get through an understanding of geometry. Euclid called his slave and said “Give him a coin, since he must make a profit from what he learns.” – story from Stobaeus

There is a widespread belief in British political circles that academics and doctors ought to behave like business people; they ought to be motivated by monetary considerations, even if they are not. – Jenny Teichman, Social Ethics, p119

…business enterprises maximize competition between practitioners in the same field whereas the professions minimize it. Professional people, unlike business people, are supposed to cooperate with one another and they often work in teams (in clinics for example). – Jenny Teichman, Social Ethics, p119-20

The metamorphosis of libel law in the US is a microcosm of the development of [the US] – from early revolutionary commitment, a zeal to oppose and denounce royalty and tyranny, to abject surrender to business interests even when those concerns are inapposite to the interests of the nation… the courts, bowing to the industrialists who control the newspapers, television and radio networks and stations, have converted the First Amendment from a refuge for the truth speaker into a refuge for the liar. – Mark Lane, Plausible Denial


The eighteenth century, then, ended in revolution because it began in law. It was the age of reason, and therefore the age of revolt. It is needless to say how systematically it revived all the marks and motives of that ancient pagan society in which Christianity first arose. Its greatest art was oratory, its favourite affectation was severity. Its pet virtue was public spirit, its pet sin political assassination. It endured the pompous, but hated the fantastic; it had pure contempt for anything that could be called obscure. To a virile mind of that epoch, such as Dr Johnson or Fox, a poem or picture that did not at once explain itself was simply like a gun that did not go off or a clock that stopped suddenly: it was simply a failure, fit for indifference or for a fleeting satire. In spite of their solid convictions (for which they died) the men of that time always used the word “enthusiast” as a term of scorn. All that we can call mysticism they called madness. – Chesterton, William Blake, p112-3

About the time of the French Revolution, it was agreed that the world had hitherto been in its dotage or its infancy; and that Mr. Godwin, Condorcet, and others were to begin a new race of men – a new epoch in society. Everything up to that period was to be set aside as puerile or barbarous; or, if there were any traces of thought and manliness now and then discoverable, they were to be regarded with wonder as prodigies – as irregular and fitful starts in that long sleep of reason and night of philosophy. In this liberal spirit Mr. Godwin composed an Essay to prove that, till the publication of The Inquiry concerning Political Justice, no one knew how to write a word of common grammar, or a style that was not utterly uncouth, incongruous, and feeble.
+++++Addison, Swift, and Junius were included in this censure. The English language itself might be supposed to owe its stability and consistency, its roundness and polish, to the whirling motion of the French Revolution. Those who had gone before us were, like our grandfathers and grandmothers, decrepit, superannuated people, blind and dull; poor creatures, like flies in winter, without pith or marrow in them. The past was barren of interest – had neither thought nor object worthy to arrest our attention; and the future would be equally a senseless void, except as we projected ourselves and our theories into it. There is nothing I hate more than I do this exclusive, upstart spirit. …
+++++Neither do I see the good of it even in a personal and interested point of view. By despising all that has preceded us, we teach others to despise ourselves. Where there is no established scale nor rooted faith in excellence, all superiority – our own as well as that of others – soon comes to the ground. By applying the wrong end of the magnifying glass to all objects indiscriminately, the most respectable dwindle into insignificance, and the best are confounded with the worst. Learning, no longer supported by opinion, or genius by fame, is cast into the mire, and ‘trampled under the hoofs of a swinish multitude.’ I would rather endure the most blind and bigoted respect for great and illustrious names, than that pitiful, grovelling humour which has no pride in intellectual excellence, and no pleasure but in decrying those who have given proofs of it, and reducing them to its own level. If, with the diffusion of knowledge, we do not gain an enlargement and elevation of views, where is the benefit? If, by tearing asunder names from things, we do not leave even the name or shadow of excellence, it is better to let them remain as they were; for it is better to have something to admire than nothing – names, if not things – the shadow, if not the substance – the tinsel, if not the gold. – Hazlitt, On Reading New Books

We are not the converts of Rousseau; we are not the disciples of Voltaire; Helvetius has made no progress amongst us. Atheists are not our preachers; madmen are not our lawgivers. We know that we have made no discoveries, and we think that no discoveries are to be made, in morality; nor many in the great principles of government, nor in the ideas of liberty, which were understood long before we were born, altogether as well as they will be after the grave has heaped its mould upon our presumption, and the silent tomb shall have imposed its law on our pert loquacity. In England we have not yet been completely embowelled of our natural entrails; we still feel within us, and we cherish and cultivate, those inbred sentiments which are the faithful guardians, the active monitors of our duty, the true supporters of all liberal and manly morals. We have not been drawn and trussed, in order that we may be filled, like stuffed birds in a museum, with chaff and rags and paltry blurred shreds of paper about the rights of man. We preserve the whole of our feelings still native and entire, unsophisticated by pedantry and infidelity. We have real hearts of flesh and blood beating in our bosoms. We fear God; we look up with awe to kings; with affection to parliaments; with duty to magistrates; with reverence to priests; and with respect to nobility. Why? Because when such ideas are brought before our minds, It is natural to be so affected; because all other feelings are false and spurious, and tend to corrupt our minds, to vitiate our primary morals, to render us unfit for rational liberty; and by teaching us a servile, licentious, and abandoned insolence, to be our low sport for a few holidays, to make us perfectly fit for, and justly deserving of, slavery, through the whole course of our lives.
+++++You see, Sir, that in this enlightened age I am bold enough to confess, that we are generally men of untaught feelings; that instead of casting away all our old prejudices, we cherish them to a very considerable degree, and, to take more shame to ourselves, we cherish them because they are prejudices; and the longer they have lasted, and the more generally they have prevailed, the more we cherish them. We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations and of ages. Many of our men of speculation, instead of exploding general prejudices, employ their sagacity to discover the latent wisdom which prevails in them. If they find what they seek, and they seldom fail, they think it more wise to continue the prejudice, with the reason involved, than to cast away the coat of prejudice, and to leave nothing but the naked reason; because prejudice, with its reason, has a motive to give action to that reason, and an affection which will give it permanence. Prejudice is of ready application in the emergency; it previously engages the mind in a steady course of wisdom and virtue, and does not leave the man hesitating in the moment of decision, sceptical, puzzled, and unresolved. Prejudice renders a man’s virtue his habit; and not a series of unconnected acts. Through just prejudice, his duty becomes a part of his nature.
+++++Your literary men, and your politicians, and so do the whole clan of the enlightened among us, essentially differ in these points. They have no respect for the wisdom of others; but they pay it off by a very full measure of confidence in their own. With them it is a sufficient motive to destroy an old scheme of things, because it is an old one. As to the new, they are in no sort of fear with regard to the duration of a building run up in haste; because duration is no object to those who think little or nothing has been done before their time, and who place all their hopes in discovery. They conceive, very systematically, that all things which give perpetuity are mischievous, and therefore they are at inexpiable war with all establishments. They think that government may vary like modes of dress, and with as little ill effect: that there needs no principle of attachment, except a sense of present conveniency, to any constitution of the state. They always speak as if they were of opinion that there is a singular species of compact between them and their magistrates, which binds the magistrate, but which has nothing reciprocal in it, but that the majesty of the people has a right to dissolve it without any reason, but its will. Their attachment to their country itself is only so far as it agrees with some of their fleeting projects; it begins and ends with that scheme of polity which falls in with their momentary opinion.
+++++These doctrines, or rather sentiments, seem prevalent with your new statesmen. But they are wholly different from those on which we have always acted in this country.
+++++I hear it is sometimes given out in France, that what is doing among you is after the example of England. I beg leave to affirm, that scarcely anything done with you has originated from the practice or the prevalent opinions of this people, either in the act or in the spirit of the proceeding. Let me add, that we are as unwilling to learn these lessons from France, as we are sure that we never taught them to that nation. – Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, p83-5

Enlightenment in all classes of society really consists in correctly grasping what our essential needs are. – Lichtenberg


It is such men as these and their civilisation that we have at the present day to fear. We are surrounded on many sides by the same symptoms as those which awoke the unquenchable wrath of Savonarola – a hedonism that is more sick of happiness than an invalid is sick of pain, an art sense that seeks the assistance of crime since it has exhausted nature. In many modern works we find veiled and horrible hints of a truly Renaissance sense of the beauty of blood, the poetry of murder. The bankrupt and depraved imagination does not see that a living man is far more dramatic than a dead one. – Chesterton, Varied Types, Savonarola

The great deliverers of men have, for the most part, saved them from calamities which we all recognise as evil, from calamities which are the ancient enemies of humanity. The great law-givers saved us from anarchy: the great physicians saved us from pestilence: the great reformers saved us from starvation. But there is a huge and bottomless evil compared with which all these are fleabites, the most desolating curse that can fall upon men or nations, and it has no name except we call it satisfaction. Savonarola did not save men from anarchy, but from order; not from pestilence, but from paralysis; not from starvation, but from luxury. Men like Savonarola are the witnesses to the tremendous psychological fact at the back of all our brains, but for which no name has ever been found, that ease is the worst enemy of happiness, and civilisation potentially the end of man. – Chesterton, Varied Types, Savonarola


Development is not something to be decided by experts, simply because there are not experts on the desirable goals of human life.
…unlike economic growth and modernization, development is at root a moral category. …it is clear that the bureaucrats, businessmen, and intellectuals who are the ‘carriers’ of the growth mystique are not experts in morality…
+++++To call for participation is to render ‘cognitive respect’ to all those who cannot claim the status of experts. …every human being is in possession of a world of his own, &…nobody can interpret his world better (or more ‘expertly’) than he can himself. – Peter Berger, Pyramids of Sacrifice, p76


There were doubtless street rhetoricians in Ilium who upbraided Paris and Helen, as there are reasoning philosophers and politicians to-day who attribute the ascendancy or decay of nations to the ideas that prevail there, forgetting to ask why those particular ideas have been embraced by those peoples, when all ideas, in the universal market, are to be had gratis. The wise old Priam and his counsellors knew better. They did not disown Paris for his escapade, as they might so easily have done, nor did they return Helen to her wronged husband, useless as she was at Troy. They knew that the confused battles of earth must be fought over some nominal prize; men and animals will always be fighting for something, not because the thing is necessarily of any value to them, but because they wish to snatch it from one another. Helen had lent her name and image to colour an ancient feud, and make articulate the dull eternal contention between Asia and Europe. It was for existence that each party was fighting; but it added to their courage and self-esteem to say they were fighting for beauty, and that the victory of their side would be a victory for the gods. – Santayana, The Mansions of Helen, Soliloquies in England, p238-9

It is of little use trying to suppress terrorism if the production of deadly devices continues to be deemed a legitimate employment of man’s creative powers. – EF Schumacher, small is beautiful, p249

GUNPOWDER, n. An agency employed by civilized nations for the settlement of disputes which might become troublesome if left unadjusted. – Ambrose Bierce, Devil’s Dictionary

PROJECTILE, n. The final arbiter in international disputes. Formerly these disputes were settled by physical contact of the disputants, with such simple arguments as the rudimentary logic of the times could supply – the sword, the spear, and so forth. With the growth of prudence in military affairs the projectile came more and more into favor, and is now held in high esteem by the most courageous. Its capital defect is that it requires personal attendance at the point of propulsion. – Ambrose Bierce, Devil’s Dictionary

Society is babyish, and is dazzled and deceived by the weapon, without inquiring into the cause for which it is drawn; like boys by the drums and colors of the troops. – Emerson, The Scholar

The [U.S.] combats with Mexico and Spain were not wars: they were simply lynchings. – Mencken


In the last century it would have sounded strange to speak, as I am going to speak, of the military advantage of religion. Such an idea would have been opposed to ruling prejudices, and would hardly have escaped philosophical ridicule. But the notion is but a commonplace in our day, for a man of genius has made it his own. Mr. Carlyle’s books are deformed by phrases like “infinities” and “verities,” and altogether are full of faults, which attract the very young, and deter all that are older. In spite of his great genius, after a long life of writing, it is a question still whether even a single work of his can take a lasting place in high literature. There is a want of sanity in their manner which throws a suspicion on their substance (though it is often profound); and he brandishes one or two fallacies, of which he has himself a high notion, but which plain people will always detect and deride. But whatever may be the fate of his fame, Mr. Carlyle has taught the present generation many lessons, and one of these is that “God-fearing” armies are the best armies. Before his time people laughed at Cromwell’s saying, “Trust in God, and keep your powder dry”. But we now know that the trust was of as much use as the powder, if not of more. That high concentration of steady feeling makes men dare everything and do anything.
+++++This subject would run to an infinite extent if any one were competent to handle it. Those kinds of morals and that kind of religion which tend to make the firmest and most effectual character are sure to prevail, all else being the same; and creeds or systems that conduce to a soft limp mind tend to perish, except some hard extrinsic force keep them alive. Thus Epicureanism never prospered at Rome, but Stoicism did; the stiff, serious character of the great prevailing nation was attracted by what seemed a confirming creed, and deterred by what looked like a relaxing creed. The inspiriting doctrines fell upon the ardent character, and so confirmed its energy. Strong beliefs win strong men, and then make them stronger. Such is no doubt one cause why Monotheism tends to prevail over Polytheism; it produces a higher, steadier character, calmed and concentrated by a great single object; it is not confused by competing rites, or distracted by miscellaneous deities. – Bagehot, Physics and Politics, 1872


The organisation of American society is an interlocking system of semi-monopolies notoriously venal, an electorate notoriously unenlightened, misled by a mass media notoriously phoney. – Paul Goodman

If an American should wake up some morning and discover that his existence was unnecessary, he would think himself excessively ill-used, and would declare himself instantly against the government of the Universe. – Emerson, journals, VII 58

[The Declaration of Independence, a] piece of platitudinous poetry comparable to “The Psalm of Life” or Hamlet’s soliloquy, has seized such a powerful hold upon the imagination of the world’s largest civilized nation that it corrupts and conditions the whole of the national thinking. … So potent among us is a mere string of sonorous phrases, a piece of windy flapdoodle, a rhapsody almost empty of intelligible meaning, and probably composed under the influence of ethyl alcohol. And yet, as I say, it is more powerful than a million swords. It looms larger than the massive fact of Gettysburg. It is worth more than the whole Civil War. The man who loosed it upon posterity has left it a vaster heritage than the man who invented baseball. – Mencken, Smart Set, Critics of More or Less Badness, Nov 1914, p153-4/The Diary of H. L. Mencken

It was Americans who invented the curious doctrine that there is a body of doctrine in every department of thought that every good citizen is in duty bound to accept and cherish; it was Americans who invented the right-thinker. … In the face of this singular passion for conformity, this dread of novelty and originality, it is obvious that the man of vigorous mind and stout convictions is gradually shouldered out of public life. He may slide into office once or twice, but soon or late he is bound to be held up, examined and incontinently kicked out. This leaves the field to the intellectual jelly-fish and inner tubes. – Mencken, Bayard vs. Lionheart, Baltimore Evening Sun, 26/7/1920

No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people. – Mencken

[The Americans] have all a lively faith in the perfectibility of man, they judge that the diffusion of knowledge must necessarily be advantageous, and the consequences of ignorance fatal; they all consider society as a body in a state of improvement, humanity as a changing scene, in which nothing is, or ought to be, permanent; and they admit that what appears to them today to be good, may be superseded by something better tomorrow. – Tocqueville, Democracy in America, I ch.18

All the colonists, except the negroes, were voluntary exiles. The fortunate, the deeply rooted, and the lazy remained at home; the wilder instincts or dissatisfaction of others tempted them beyond the horizon. The American is accordingly the most adventurous, or the descendant of the most adventurous, of Europeans. It is in his blood to be socially a radical, though perhaps not intellectually. What has existed in the past, especially in the remote past, seems to him not only not authoritative, but irrelevant, inferior, and outworn. He finds it rather a sorry waste of time to think about the past at all. But his enthusiasm for the future is profound; he can conceive of no more decisive way of recommending an opinion or a practice than to say that it is what everybody is coming to adopt. This expectation of what he approves, or approval of what he expects, makes up his optimism. It is the necessary faith of the pioneer. – Santayana, Character and Opinion in the US, Ch.6

As self-trust may pass into self-sufficiency, so optimism, kindness, and goodwill may grow into a habit of doting on everything. To the good American many subjects are sacred : sex is sacred, women are sacred, children are sacred, business is sacred, America is sacred. Masonic lodges and college clubs are sacred. This feeling grows out of the good opinion he wishes to have of these things, and serves to maintain it. If he did not regard all these things as sacred he might come to doubt sometimes if they were wholly good. Of this kind, too, is the idealism of single ladies in reduced circumstances who can see the soul of beauty in ugly things, and are perfectly happy because their old dog has such pathetic eyes, their minister is so eloquent, their garden with its three sunflowers is so pleasant, their dead friends were so devoted, and their distant relations are so rich. – Santayana, Character and Opinion in the US

Consider now the great emptiness of America : not merely the primitive physical emptiness, surviving in some regions, and the continental spacing of the chief natural features, but also the moral emptiness of a settlement where men and even houses are easily moved about, and no one, almost, lives where he was born or believes what he has been taught. Not that the American has jettisoned these impedimenta in anger; they have simply slipped from him as he moves. Great empty spaces bring a sort of freedom to both soul and body. You may pitch your tent where you will; or if ever you decide to build anything, it can be in a style of your own devising. You have room, fresh materials, few models, and no critics. You trust your own experience, not only because you must, but because you find you may do so safely and prosperously; the forces that determine fortune are not yet too complicated for one man to explore. Your detachable condition makes you lavish with money and cheerfully experimental; you lose little if you lose all, since you remain completely yourself. At the same time your absolute initiative gives you practice in coping with novel situations, and in being original; it teaches you shrewd management. Your life and mind will become dry and direct, with few decorative flourishes. In your works everything will be stark and pragmatic; you will not understand why anybody should make those little sacrifices to instinct or custom which we call grace. The fine arts will seem to you academic luxuries, fit to amuse the ladies, like Greek and Sanskrit; for while you will perfectly appreciate generosity in men’s purposes, you will not admit that the execution of these purposes can be anything but business. Unfortunately the essence of the fine arts is that the execution should be generous too, and delightful in itself; therefore the fine arts will suffer, not so much in their express professional pursuit – for then they become practical tasks and a kind of business – as in that diffused charm which qualifies all human action when men are artists by nature. – Santayana, Character and Opinion in the US

The American talks about money, because that is the symbol and measure he has at hand for success, intelligence, and power; but as to money itself he makes, loses, spends, and gives it away with a very light heart. To my mind the most striking expression of his materialism is his singular preoccupation with quantity. If, for instance, you visit Niagara Falls, you may expect to hear how many cubic feet or metric tons of water are precipitated per second over the cataract; how many cities and towns (with the number of their inhabitants) derive light and motive power from it; and the annual value of the further industries that might very well be carried on by the same means, without visibly depleting the world’s greatest wonder or injuring the tourist trade. That is what I confidently expected to hear on arriving at the adjoining town of Buffalo; but I was deceived. The first thing I heard instead was that there are more miles of asphalt pavement in Buffalo than in any city in the world. Nor is this insistence on quantity confined to men of business. The President of Harvard College, seeing me once by chance soon after the beginning of a term, inquired how my classes were getting on; and when I replied that I thought they were getting on well, that my men seemed to be keen and intelligent, he stopped me as if I was about to waste his time. “I meant,” said he, “what is the number of students in your classes.”
+++++Here I think we may perceive that this love of quantity often has a silent partner, which is diffidence as to quality. The democratic conscience recoils before anything that savours of privilege; and lest it should concede an unmerited privilege to any pursuit or person, it reduces all things as far as possible to the common denominator of quantity. – Santayana, Character and Opinion in the US

If…I am compelled to be in an office (and up to business, too) from early morning to late afternoon, with long journeys in thundering and sweltering trains before and after and a flying shot at a quick lunch between, I am caught and held both in soul and body; and except for the freedom to work and to rise by that work – which may be very interesting in itself – I am not suffered to exist morally at all. My evenings will be drowsy, my Sundays tedious, and after a few days’ holiday I shall be wishing to get back to business. Here is as narrow a path left open to freedom as is left open in a monastic establishment, where bell and book keep your attention fixed at all hours upon the hard work of salvation – an infinite vista, certainly, if your soul was not made to look another way. Those, too, who may escape this crushing routine – the invalids, the ladies, the fops – are none the less prevented by it from doing anything else with success or with a good conscience; the bubbles also must swim with the stream. Even what is best in American life is compulsory – the idealism, the zeal, the beautiful happy unison of its great moments. You must wave, you must cheer, you must push with the irresistible crowd; otherwise you will feel like a traitor, a soulless outcast, a deserted ship high and dry on the shore. …This national faith and morality are vague in idea, but inexorable in spirit; they are the gospel of work and the belief in progress. By them, in a country where all men are free, every man finds that what most matters has been settled for him beforehand. – Santayana, Character and Opinion in the US

In what passes as the popular mind, words, like the ideas they represent, become formalized, fossilized, and emptied of intelligible significance. This is especially (though surely not exclusively) true in America, where all thinking tends to become cant and all language a sort of meaningless slang – a mere exchange of what the philologists call counter-words, i.e., worn out rubber stamps. Thus, the concept “aristocrat” tends to become – and has, in fact, already become – extremely narrowed, and with it the meaning of the word. What it connotes, intrinsically, is simply the “best” type of man – that is, the man whose aspirations are directed to the achievement of what is rare and difficult, and not to the achievement of what is easy and mean – the man, in brief, whose capacities differ positively from those of the average man, not only quantitatively but also qualitatively, and whose activity is spent in doing what the average man is unable to do or afraid to do. But in the United States aristocrat has become almost indistinguishable from loafer. – Mencken

What one beholds, sweeping the eye over the land, is a culture that, like the national literature, is in three layers – the plutocracy on top, a vast mass of undifferentiated human blanks at the bottom, and a forlorn intelligentsia gasping out a precarious life between. I need not set out at any length, I hope, the intellectual deficiencies of the plutocracy – its utter failure to show anything even remotely resembling the makings of an aristocracy. It is badly educated, it is stupid, it is full of low-caste superstitions and indignations, it is without decent traditions or informing vision; above all, it is extraordinarily lacking in the most elemental independence and courage. Out of this class comes the grotesque fashionable society of our big towns, already described. Imagine a horde of peasants incredibly enriched and with almost infinite power thrust into their hands, and you will have a fair picture of its habitual state of mind. It shows all the stigmata of inferiority – moral certainty, cruelty, suspicion of ideas, fear. Never did it function more revealingly than in the late pogrom against the so-called Reds, i.e., against humorless idealists who, like Andrew Jackson, took the platitudes of democracy quite seriously. The machinery brought to bear upon these feeble and scattered fanatics would have almost sufficed to repel an invasion by the united powers of Europe. They were hunted out of their sweat-shops and coffee-houses as if they were so many Carranzas or Ludendorffs, dragged to jail to the tooting of horns, arraigned before quaking judges on unintelligible charges, condemned to defend themselves, torn from their dependent families, herded into prison-ships, and then finally dumped in a snow waste, to be rescued and fed by the Bolsheviki. And what was the theory at the bottom of all these astounding proceedings? So far as it can be reduced to comprehensible terms it was much less a theory than a fear – a shivering, idiotic, discreditable fear of a mere banshee – an overpowering, paralyzing dread that some extra-eloquent Red, permitted to emit his balderdash unwhipped, might eventually convert a couple of courageous men, and that the courageous men, filled with indignation against the plutocracy, might take to the highroad, burn down a nail-factory or two, and slit the throat of some virtuous profiteer. In order to lay this fear, in order to ease the jangled nerves of the American successors to the Hapsburgs and Hohenzollerns, all the constitutional guarantees of the citizen were suspended, the statute-books were burdened with laws that surpass anything heard of in the Austria of Maria Theresa, the country was handed over to a frenzied mob of detectives, informers and agents provocateurs – and the Reds departed laughing loudly, and were hailed by the Bolsheviki as innocents escaped from an asylum for the criminally insane.
+++++Obviously, it is out of reason to look for any hospitality to ideas in a class so extravagantly fearful of even the most palpably absurd of them. Its philosophy is firmly grounded upon the thesis that the existing order must stand forever free from attack, and not only from attack, but also from mere academic criticism, and its very ethics are as firmly grounded upon the thesis that every attempt at any such criticism is a proof of moral turpitude. Within its own ranks, protected by what may be regarded as the privilege of the order, there is nothing to take the place of this criticism… – Mencken

It is only a verbal question whether the American civilization is young; it may become a very practical and urgent question whether it is dying. When once we have cast aside, as we inevitably have after a moment’s thought, the fanciful physical metaphor involved in the word “youth,” what serious evidence have we that America is a fresh force and not a stale one? It has a great many people, like China; it has a great deal of money, like defeated Carthage or dying Venice. It is full of bustle and excitability, like Athens after its ruin, and all the Greek cities in their decline. It is fond of new things; but the old are always fond of new things. Young men read chronicles, but old men read newspapers. It admires strength and good looks; it admires a big and barbaric beauty in its women, for instance; but so did Rome when the Goth was at the gates. All these are things quite compatible with fundamental tedium and decay. There are three main shapes or symbols in which a nation can show itself essentially glad and great – by the heroic in government, by the heroic in arms, and by the heroic in art. Beyond government, which is, as it were, the very shape and body of a nation, the most significant thing about any citizen is his artistic attitude towards a holiday and his moral attitude towards a fight – that is, his way of accepting life and his way of accepting death.
+++++Subjected to these eternal tests, America does not appear by any means as particularly fresh or untouched. She appears with all the weakness and weariness of modern England or of any other Western power. In her politics she has broken up exactly as England has broken up, into a bewildering opportunism and insincerity. In the matter of war and the national attitude towards war, her resemblance to England is even more manifest and melancholy. It may be said with rough accuracy that there are three stages in the life of a strong people. First, it is a small power, and fights small powers. Then it is a great power, and fights great powers. Then it is a great power, and fights small powers, but pretends that they are great powers, in order to rekindle the ashes of its ancient emotion and vanity. After that, the next step is to become a small power itself. England exhibited this symptom of decadence very badly in the war with the Transvaal; but America exhibited it worse in the war with Spain. There was exhibited more sharply and absurdly than anywhere else the ironic contrast between the very careless choice of a strong line and the very careful choice of a weak enemy. America added to all her other late Roman or Byzantine elements the element of the Caracallan triumph, the triumph over nobody.
+++++But when we come to the last test of nationality, the test of art and letters, the case is almost terrible. The English colonies have produced no great artists; and that fact may prove that they are still full of silent possibilities and reserve force. But America has produced great artists. And that fact most certainly proves that she is full of a fine futility and the end of all things. Whatever the American men of genius are, they are not young gods making a young world. Is the art of Whistler a brave, barbaric art, happy and headlong? Does Mr. Henry James infect us with the spirit of a schoolboy? No; the colonies have not spoken, and they are safe. Their silence may be the silence of the unborn. But out of America has come a sweet and startling cry, as unmistakable as the cry of a dying man. – Chesterton, Heretics, ch.18


History : an account mostly false, of events mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers, mostly knaves, and soldiers mostly fools. – Ambrose Bierce

MYTHOLOGY, n. The body of a primitive people’s beliefs concerning its origin, early history, heroes, deities and so forth, as distinguished from the true accounts which it invents later. – Ambrose Bierce, Devil’s Dictionary

PREHISTORIC, adj. Belonging to an early period and a museum. Antedating the art and practice of perpetuating falsehood. – Ambrose Bierce, Devil’s Dictionary

History is a fable which men agree to believe. – Napoleon

I am ashamed to see what a shallow village tale our so-called History is. How many times must we say Rome, and Paris, and Constantinople! What does Rome know of rat and lizard? – Emerson, History

Consider all that lies in that one word Past! What a pathetic, sacred, in every sense poetic, meaning is implied in it; a meaning growing ever the clearer the farther we recede in time – the more of that same Past we have to look through! History after all is the true poetry. And Reality, if rightly interpreted, is grander than Fiction. – Carlyle

Until history is interesting, it is not yet written. – Emerson, (XII 298)

The best history is but like the art of Rembrandt; it casts a vivid light on certain selected causes, on those which were best and greatest; it leaves all the rest in shadow and unseen. – Bagehot, Physics and Politics, 1872

To want to be oriented by history while standing in its midst would be like wanting to hold on to the waves during a shipwreck. – Karl Löwith, Die Hegelsche Linke, Enleitung

…tepid characterlessness…permeates the atmosphere of the school wherever any social topic comes up. Our own past history appears as a drama between the angels of light and the demons of darkness, between forces of freedom and enslavement, where victory has ever been on the side of the right. Our constitutions and institutions generally are the embodiment of the achieved and final victory of good. If children ever suspect that any evil still exists, outside of their own as yet not wholly virtuous characters, such evil has no institutional or social embodiment. … The whitewash of indiscriminate eulogistic language covers the things which make social life difficult, uncertain and interesting. – Dewey, Characters and Events Vol. 2, The Schools and Social Preparedness

There are hardly any certain facts in history; nevertheless facts have always some significance. The genius of the historian consists in making a true whole from incidents which are only half-true. – Renan, Vie de Jesus, Preface

..regrettable as to some it may seem, history cannot reproduce the past as it was (that is, it cannot be a science), is not warranted to originate it afresh (that is, it cannot be an art) and finds in the place of what it regarded as a witness a writer of fiction, and in the place of its fact a theory; for the raw material of the historian is not fact, but theory. – Oakeshott, History is a Fable

The shortest way of disposing of history altogether is to suppose that what is known in history is a fixed, finished and independent past. – Oakeshott, Experience and Its Modes, p108

…the past which an historian studies is not a dead past, but a past which in some sense is still living. – Collingwood, Autobiography

Every now and then there is discovered in modern England some fragment such as a Roman pavement. Such Roman antiquities rather diminish than increase the Roman reality. They make something seem distant which is still very near, and something seem dead that is still alive. …The important thing about France and England is not that they have Roman remains. They are Roman remains. In truth they are not so much remains as relics; for they are still working miracles. A row of poplars is a more Roman relic than a row of pillars. – Chesterton, A Short History of England, p9

We have seen that the eighteenth-century philosophers in general misrepresented mind by assimilating it to mind. In particular they talked about human nature as if it were merely one special kind of nature; when what they were really talking about was mind, or something radically different from nature. Kant attempted to avoid this error by his distinction, based on Leibniz, between phenomena and things in themselves. He thought that what makes nature nature, what gives it the peculiarities by which we recognize it as nature, is the fact of its being phenomenon, that is, that fact of its being looked at from outside, from the point of view of a spectator. If we could get inside the phenomena, and relive their inner life in our own minds, their natural characteristics would, he thought, disappear: we should now be apprehending them as things in themselves, and in doing so we should discover that their inner reality is mind. Everything is really and in itself mind; everything is phenomenally, or seen from a spectator’s point of view, nature. Thus human action, as we experience it in our own inner life, is mind, that is to say, free self-determining moral activity; but human action as seen from outside, as the historian sees it, is just as much nature as anything is, and for the same reason, namely, because it is being looked at, and thus converted into phenomenon.
+++++Granted this principle, Kant is certainly justified in calling the plan of history a plan of nature, for the parallelism between laws of nature in science and plans of nature in history is complete. But the principle itself is open to grave doubts because it distorts both science and history. (a) It distorts science because it implies that behind the phenomena of nature as studied by the scientist there is a reality, nature as it is in itself, which is nothing else than mind; and this is the foundation of that mystical view of nature, so prevalent in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, which instead of treating natural phenomena as things deserving of study for their own sake treat them as a kind of veil concealing a spiritual reality somehow akin to ourselves. (b) It distorts history because it implies that the historian is a mere spectator of the events he describes. This implication is explicitly avowed by Hume in his essay on The Study of History: “To see all the human race, from the beginning of time, pass, as it were, in review before us,…what spectacle can be imagined so magnificent, so various, so interesting?” This view of history Kant took for granted, and for him it could have only one meaning. If history is a spectacle, it is a phenomenon; if a phenomenon, it is nature, because nature, for Kant, is an epistemological term and means things seen as a spectacle. No doubt Kant was only adopting a commonplace of his age; nevertheless, he was wrong, because history is not a spectacle. The events of history do not “pass in review” before the historian. They have finished happening before he begins thinking about them. He has to re-create them inside his own mind, re-enacting for himself so much of the experience of the men who took part in them as he wishes to understand. It is because the eighteenth century did not know this, but falsely regarded history as a spectacle, that it reduced history to nature, subordinating historical processes to laws of geography and climatology, as in Montesquieu, or to laws of human biology, as in Herder. – Collingwood, The Idea of History, p96-7

We select certain events or persons because we believe them to have had a special degree of “influence” or “power” or “importance”. – Isaiah Berlin

The facts are really not at all like fish on the fishmonger’s slab. They are like fish swimming about in a vast and sometimes inaccessible ocean; and what the historian catches will depend, partly, on chance, but mainly on what part of the ocean he chooses to fish in and what tackle he chooses to use – these two factors being, of course, determined by the kind of fish he wants to catch. By and large, the historian will get the kinds of facts he wants. History means interpretation. – EH Carr

[The humanists’] image of human progress was to prove so persuasive that, to counter it, Luther had to preach a new darkness, that of faith – that of the dark night of faith. – John Carroll, The Wreck of Western Culture, p7

In “On the uses and disadvantages of history for life”, Nietzsche expresses alarm at what he sees as the gathering hubris of 19th C German historical consciousness, the belief that while Germany is a “latecomer of the ages”, this “latecomer to godhead” is now the “true meaning and goal of all previous events”. Germany will be the ultimate heir, the “completion of world-history”. Nietzsche associates this exceedingly “dangerous” view with the continuing influence of Hegel. – Curthoys and Docker, Is history fiction?, p75

My work is not a piece of writing designed to meet the taste of an immediate public, but was done to last for ever. – Thucydides, I 22

The next great influence into the spirit of the scholar is the mind of the Past – in whatever form, whether of literature, of art, of institutions, that mind is inscribed. – Emerson, The American Scholar

It is part of my creed that the Only Poetry is History, could we tell it right. – Carlyle, letter to Emerson

The history of ideas is the history of the grudges of solitary men. – E.M. Cioran, Syllogismes de l’amertume

The derivative was first used; it was then discovered; it was then explored and developed; and it was finally defined. – Judith Grabiner, The Changing Concept of Change, Mathematics, Sep 1983, p195-206


The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do. – Jack Kerouac

Heroic lives are inspired by heroic ambitions, and the young man who thinks that there is nothing important to be done is pretty sure to do nothing important. – Bertrand Russell, History as an Art, in Portraits from Memory

There is less intention in history than we ascribe to it. We impute deep-laid, far-sighted plans to Caesar and Napoleon; but the best of their power was in nature, not in them. Men of an extraordinary success, in their honest moments, have always sung, “Not unto us, not unto us.” …Their success lay in their parallelism to the course of thought, which found in them an unobstructed channel; and the wonders of which they were the visible conductors seemed to the eye their deed. Did the wires generate the galvanism? It is even true that there was less in them on which they could reflect, than in another; as the virtue of a pipe is to be smooth and hollow. That which externally seemed will and immovableness,was willingness and self-annihilation. Could Shakespeare give a theory of Shakespeare? – Emerson, Spiritual Laws

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