Table Talk : Essays on Men and Manners, by William Hazlitt

Essay xv.

On Paradox and Common-place

I have been sometimes accused of a fondness for paradoxes, but I cannot in my own mind plead guilty to the charge. I do not indeed swear by an opinion because it is old; but neither do I fall in love with every extravagance at first sight because it is new. I conceive that a thing may have been repeated a thousand times without being a bit more reasonable than it was the first time: and I also conceive that an argument or an observation may be very just, though it may so happen that it was never stated before: but I do not take it for granted that every prejudice is ill-founded; nor that every paradox is self-evident, merely because it contradicts the vulgar opinion. Sheridan once said of some speech in his acute, sarcastic way, that ‘it contained a great deal both of what was new and what was true: but that unfortunately what was new was not true, and what was true was not new.’ This appears to me to express the whole sense of the question. I do not see much use in dwelling on a common-place, however fashionable or well established: nor am I very ambitious of starting the most specious novelty, unless I imagine I have reason on my side. Originality implies independence of opinion; but differs as widely from mere singularity as from the tritest truism. It consists in seeing and thinking for one’sself: whereas singularity is only the affectation of saying something to contradict other people, without having any real opinion of one’s own upon the matter. Mr. Burke was an original, though an extravagant writer: Mr. Windham was a regular manufacturer of paradoxes.

The greatest number of minds seem utterly incapable of fixing on any conclusion, except from the pressure of custom and authority: opposed to these there is another class less numerous but pretty formidable, who in all their opinions are equally under the influence of novelty and restless vanity. The prejudices of the one are counterbalanced by the paradoxes of the other; and folly, ‘putting in one scale a weight of ignorance, in that of pride,’ might be said to ‘smile delighted with the eternal poise.’ A sincere and manly spirit of inquiry is neither blinded by example nor dazzled by sudden flashes of light. Nature is always the same, the storehouse of lasting truth, and teeming with inexhaustible variety; and he who looks at her with steady and well-practised eyes will find enough to employ all his sagacity, whether it has or has not been seen by others before him. Strange as it may seem, to learn what an object is, the true philosopher looks at the object itself, instead of turning to others to know what they think or say or have heard of it, or instead of consulting the dictates of his vanity, petulance, and ingenuity to see what can be said against their opinion, and to prove himself wiser than all the rest of the world. For want of this the real powers and resources of the mind are lost and dissipated in a conflict of opinions and passions, of obstinacy against levity, of bigotry against self-conceit, of notorious abuses against rash innovations, of dull, plodding, old-fashioned stupidity against new-fangled folly, of worldly interest against headstrong egotism, of the incorrigible prejudices of the old and the unmanageable humours of the young; while truth lies in the middle, and is overlooked by both parties. Or as Luther complained long ago, ‘human reason is like a drunken man on horseback: set it up on one side, and it tumbles over on the other.’— With one sort, example, authority, fashion, ease, interest, rule all: with the other, singularity, the love of distinction, mere whim, the throwing off all restraint and showing an heroic disregard of consequences, an impatient and unsettled turn of mind, the want of sudden and strong excitement, of some new play-thing for the imagination, are equally ‘lords of the ascendant,’ and are at every step getting the start of reason, truth, nature, common sense, and feeling. With one party, whatever is, is right: with their antagonists, whatever is, is wrong. These swallow every antiquated absurdity: those catch at every new, unfledged project — and are alike enchanted with the velocipedes or the French Revolution. One set, wrapped up in impenetrable forms and technical traditions, are deaf to everything that has not been dinned in their ears, and in those of their forefathers, from time immemorial: their hearing is thick with the same old saws, the same unmeaning form of words, everlastingly repeated: the others pique themselves on a jargon of their own, a Babylonish dialect, crude, unconcocted, harsh, discordant, to which it is impossible for any one else to attach either meaning or respect. These last turn away at the mention of all usages, creeds, institutions of more than a day’s standing as a mass of bigotry, superstition, and barbarous ignorance, whose leaden touch would petrify and benumb their quick, mercurial, ‘apprehensive, forgetive’ faculties. The opinion of today supersedes that of yesterday: that of tomorrow supersedes, by anticipation, that of today. The wisdom of the ancients, the doctrines of the learned, the laws of nations, the common sentiments of morality, are to them like a bundle of old almanacs. As the modern politician always asks for this day’s paper, the modern sciolist always inquires after the latest paradox. With him instinct is a dotard, nature a changeling, and common sense a discarded by-word. As with the man of the world, what everybody says must be true, the citizen of the world has quite a different notion of the matter. With the one, the majority; ‘the powers that be’ have always been in the right in all ages and places, though they have been cutting one another’s throats and turning the world upside down with their quarrels and disputes from the beginning of time: with the other, what any two people have ever agreed in is an error on the face of it. The credulous bigot shudders at the idea of altering anything in ‘time-hallowed’ institutions; and under this cant phrase can bring himself to tolerate any knavery or any folly, the Inquisition, Holy Oil, the Right Divine, etc.; — the more refined sceptic will laugh in your face at the idea of retaining anything which has the damning stamp of custom upon it, and is for abating all former precedents, ‘all trivial, fond records,’ the whole frame and fabric of society as a nuisance in the lump. Is not this a pair of wiseacres well matched? The one stickles through thick and thin for his own religion and government: the other scouts all religions and all governments with a smile of ineffable disdain. The one will not move for any consideration out of the broad and beaten path: the other is continually turning off at right angles, and losing himself in the labyrinths of his own ignorance and presumption. The one will not go along with any party: the other always joins the strongest side. The one will not conform to any common practice: the other will subscribe to any thriving system. The one is the slave of habit: the other is the sport of caprice. The first is like a man obstinately bed-rid: the last is troubled with St. Vitus’s dance. He cannot stand still, he cannot rest upon any conclusion. ‘He never is — but always to be right.’

The author of the Prometheus Unbound (to take an individual instance of the last character) has a fire in his eye, a fever in his blood, a maggot in his brain, a hectic flutter in his speech, which mark out the philosophic fanatic. He is sanguine-complexioned and shrill-voiced. As is often observable in the case of religious enthusiasts, there is a slenderness of constitutional stamina, which renders the flesh no match for the spirit. His bending, flexible form appears to take no strong hold of things, does not grapple with the world about him, but slides from it like a river  —

And in its liquid texture mortal wound

Receives no more than can the fluid air.

The shock of accident, the weight of authority make no impression on his opinions, which retire like a feather, or rise from the encounter unhurt through their own buoyancy. He is clogged by no dull system of realities, no earth-bound feelings, no rooted prejudices, by nothing that belongs to the mighty trunk and hard husk of nature and habit, but is drawn up by irresistible levity to the regions of mere speculation and fancy, to the sphere of air and fire, where his delighted spirit floats in ‘seas of pearl and clouds of amber.’ There is no caput mortuum of worn-out, threadbare experience to serve as ballast to his mind; it is all volatile intellectual salt of tartar, that refuses to combine its evanescent, inflammable essence with anything solid or anything lasting. Bubbles are to him the only realities:— touch them, and they vanish. Curiosity is the only proper category of his mind, and though a man in knowledge, he is a child in feeling. Hence he puts everything into a metaphysical crucible to judge of it himself and exhibit it to others as a subject of interesting experiment, without first making it over to the ordeal of his common sense or trying it on his heart. This faculty of speculating at random on all questions may in its overgrown and uninformed state do much mischief without intending it, like an overgrown child with the power of a man. Mr. Shelley has been accused of vanity — I think he is chargeable with extreme levity; but this levity is so great that I do not believe he is sensible of its consequences. He strives to overturn all established creeds and systems; but this is in him an effect of constitution. He runs before the most extravagant opinions; but this is because he is held back by none of the merely mechanical checks of sympathy and habit. He tampers with all sorts of obnoxious subjects; but it is less because he is gratified with the rankness of the taint than captivated with the intellectual phosphoric light they emit. It would seem that he wished not so much to convince or inform as to shock the public by the tenor of his productions; but I suspect he is more intent upon startling himself with his electrical experiments in morals and philosophy; and though they may scorch other people, they are to him harmless amusements, the coruscations of an Aurora Borealis, that ‘play round the head, but do not reach the heart.’ Still I could wish that he would put a stop to the incessant, alarming whirl of his voltaic battery. With his zeal, his talent, and his fancy, he would do more good and less harm if he were to give, up his wilder theories, and if he took less pleasure in feeling his heart flutter in unison with the panic-struck apprehensions of his readers. Persons of this class, instead of consolidating useful and acknowledged truths, and thus advancing the cause of science and virtue, are never easy but in raising doubtful and disagreeable questions, which bring the former into disgrace and discredit. They are not contented to lead the minds of men to an eminence overlooking the prospect of social amelioration, unless, by forcing them up slippery paths and to the utmost verge of possibility, they can dash them down the precipice the instant they reach the promised Pisgah. They think it nothing to hang up a beacon to guide or warn, if they do not at the same time frighten the community like a comet. They do not mind making their principles odious, provided they can make themselves notorious. To win over the public opinion by fair means is to them an insipid, common-place mode of popularity: they would either force it by harsh methods, or seduce it by intoxicating potions. Egotism, petulance, licentiousness, levity of principle (whatever be the source) is a bad thing in any one, and most of all in a philosophical reformer. Their humanity, their wisdom, is always ‘at the horizon.’ Anything new, anything remote, anything questionable, comes to them in a shape that is sure of a cordial welcome — a welcome cordial in proportion as the object is new, as it is apparently impracticable, as it is a doubt whether it is at all desirable. Just after the final failure, the completion of the last act of the French Revolution, when the legitimate wits were crying out, ‘The farce is over, now let us go to supper,’ these provoking reasoners got up a lively hypothesis about introducing the domestic government of the Nayrs into this country as a feasible set-off against the success of the Borough-mongers. The practical is with them always the antipodes of the ideal; and like other visionaries of a different stamp, they date the Millennium or New Order of Things from the Restoration of the Bourbons. ‘Fine words butter no parsnips,’ says the proverb. ‘While you are talking of marrying, I am thinking of hanging,’ says Captain Macheath. Of all people the most tormenting are those who bid you hope in the midst of despair, who, by never caring about anything but their own sanguine, hair-brained Utopian schemes, have at no time any particular cause for embarrassment and despondency because they have never the least chance of success, and who by including whatever does not hit their idle fancy, kings, priests, religion, government, public abuses or private morals, in the same sweeping clause of ban and anathema, do all they can to combine all parties in a common cause against them, and to prevent every one else from advancing one step farther in the career of practical improvement than they do in that of imaginary and unattainable perfection.

Besides, all this untoward heat and precocity often argues rottenness and a falling-off. I myself remember several instances of this sort of unrestrained license of opinion and violent effervescence of sentiment in the first period of the French Revolution. Extremes meet: and the most furious anarchists have since become the most barefaced apostates. Among the foremost of these I might mention the present poet-laureate and some of his friends. The prose-writers on that side of the question — Mr. Godwin, Mr. Bentham, etc. — have not turned round in this extraordinary manner: they seem to have felt their ground (however mistaken in some points), and have in general adhered to their first principles. But ‘poets (as it has been said) have such seething brains, that they are disposed to meddle with everything, and mar all. They make bad philosophers and worse politicians.47 They live, for the most part, in an ideal world of their own; and it would perhaps be as well if they were confined to it. Their flights and fancies are delightful to themselves and to everybody else: but they make strange work with matter of fact; and if they were allowed to act in public affairs, would soon turn the world the wrong side out. They indulge only their own flattering dreams or superstitious prejudices, and make idols or bugbears of whatever they please, caring as little for history or particular facts as for general reasoning. They are dangerous leaders and treacherous followers. Their inordinate vanity runs them into all sorts of extravagances; and their habitual effeminacy gets them out of them at any price. Always pampering their own appetite for excitement, and wishing to astonish others, their whole aim is to produce a dramatic effect, one way or other — to shock or delight the observers; and they are apparently as indifferent to the consequences of what they write as if the world were merely a stage for them to play their fantastic tricks on, and to make their admirers weep. Not less romantic in their servility than their independence, and equally importunate candidates for fame or infamy, they require only to be distinguished, and are not scrupulous as to the means of distinction. Jacobins or Anti–Jacobins — outrageous advocates for anarchy and licentiousness, or flaming apostles of political persecution — always violent and vulgar in their opinions, they oscillate, with a giddy and sickening motion, from one absurdity to another, and expiate the follies of youth by the heartless vices of advancing age. None so ready as they to carry every paradox to its most revolting and ridiculous excess — none so sure to caricature, in their own persons, every feature of the prevailing philosophy! In their days of blissful innovation, indeed, the philosophers crept at their heels like hounds, while they darted on their distant quarry like hawks; stooping always to the lowest game; eagerly snuffing up the most tainted and rankest scents; feeding their vanity with a notion of the strength of their digestion of poisons, and most ostentatiously avowing whatever would most effectually startle the prejudices of others.48 Preposterously seeking for the stimulus of novelty in abstract truth, and the eclat of theatrical exhibition in pure reason, it is no wonder that these persons at last became disgusted with their own pursuits, and that, in consequence of the violence of the change, the most inveterate prejudices and uncharitable sentiments have rushed in to fill up the void produced by the previous annihilation of common sense, wisdom, and humanity!’

I have so far been a little hard on poets and reformers. Lest I should be thought to have taken a particular spite to them, I will try to make them the amende honorable by turning to a passage in the writings of one who neither is nor ever pretended to be a poet or a reformer, but the antithesis of both, an accomplished man of the world, a courtier, and a wit, and who has endeavoured to move the previous question on all schemes of fanciful improvement, and all plans of practical reform, by the following declaration. It is in itself a finished common-place; and may serve as a test whether that sort of smooth, verbal reasoning which passes current because it excites no one idea in the mind, is much freer from inherent absurdity than the wildest paradox.

‘My lot,’ says Mr. Canning in the conclusion of his Liverpool speech, ‘is cast under the British Monarchy. Under that I have lived; under that I have seen my country flourish;49 under that I have seen it enjoy as great a share of prosperity, of happiness, and of glory as I believe any modification of human society to be capable of bestowing; and I am not prepared to sacrifice or to hazard the fruit of centuries of experience, of centuries of struggles, and of more than one century of liberty, as perfect as ever blessed any country upon the earth, for visionary schemes of ideal perfectibility, for doubtful experiments even of possible improvement.’50

Such is Mr. Canning’s common-place; and in giving the following answer to it, I do not think I can be accused of falling into that extravagant and unmitigated strain of paradoxical reasoning with which I have already found so much fault.

The passage, then, which the gentleman here throws down as an effectual bar to all change, to all innovation, to all improvement, contains at every step a refutation of his favourite creed. He is not ‘prepared to sacrifice or to hazard the fruit of centuries of experience, of centuries of struggles, and of one century of liberty, for visionary schemes of ideal perfectibility.’ So here are centuries of experience and centuries of struggles to arrive at one century of liberty; and yet, according to Mr. Canning’s general advice, we are never to make any experiments or to engage in any struggles either with a view to future improvement, or to recover benefits which we have lost. Man (they repeat in our cars, line upon line, precept upon precept) is always to turn his back upon the future, and his face to the past. He is to believe that nothing is possible or desirable but what he finds already established to his hands in time-worn institutions or inveterate abuses. His unde to be made into a political automaton, a go-cart of superstition and prejudice, never stirring hand or foot but as he is pulled by the wires and strings of the state-conjurers, the legitimate managers and proprietors of the show. His powers of will, of thought, and action are to be paralysed in him, and he is to be told and to believe that whatever is, must be. Perhaps Mr. Canning will say that men were to make experiments and to resolve upon struggles formerly, but that now they are to surrender their understandings and their rights into his keeping. But at what period of the world was the system of political wisdom stereotyped, like Mr. Cobbett’s Gold against Paper, so as to admit of no farther alterations or improvements, or correction of errors of the press? When did the experience of mankind become stationary or retrograde, so that we must act from the obsolete inferences of past periods, not from the living impulse of existing circumstances, and the consolidated force of the knowledge and reflection of ages up to the present instant, naturally projecting us forward into the future, and not driving us back upon the past? Did Mr. Canning never hear, did he never think, of Lord Bacon’s axiom, ‘That those times are the ancient times in which we live, and not those which, counting backwards from ourselves, ordine retrogrado, we call ancient’? The latest periods must necessarily have the advantage of the sum-total of the experience that has gone before them, and of the sum-total of human reason exerted upon that experience, or upon the solid foundation of nature and history, moving on in its majestic course, not fluttering in the empty air of fanciful speculation, nor leaving a gap of centuries between us and the long-mouldered grounds on which we are to think and act. Mr. Canning cannot plead with Mr. Burke that no discoveries, no improvements have been made in political science and institutions; for he says we have arrived through centuries of experience and of struggles at one century of liberty. Is the world, then, at a stand? Mr. Canning knows well enough that it is in ceaseless progress and everlasting change, but he would have it to be the change from liberty to slavery, the progress of corruption, not of regeneration and reform. Why, no longer ago than the present year, the two epochs of November and January last presented (he tells us in this very speech) as great a contrast in the state of the country as any two periods of its history the most opposite or most remote. Well then, are our experience and our struggles at an end? No, he says, ‘the crisis is at hand for every man to take part for or against the institutions of the British Monarchy.’ His part is taken: ‘but of this be sure, to do aught good will never be his task!’ He will guard carefully against all possible improvements, and maintain all possible abuses sacred, impassive, immortal. He will not give up the fruit of centuries of experience, of struggles, and of one century at least of liberty, since the Revolution of 1688, for any doubtful experiments whatever. We are arrived at the end of our experience, our struggles, and our liberty — and are to anchor through time and eternity in the harbour of passive obedience and non-resistance. We (the people of England) will tell Mr. Canning frankly what we think of his magnanimous and ulterior resolution. It is our own; and it has been the resolution of mankind in all ages of the world. No people, no age, ever threw away the fruits of past wisdom, or the enjoyment of present blessings, for visionary schemes of ideal perfection. It is the knowledge of the past, the actual infliction of the present, that has produced all changes, all innovations, and all improvements — not (as is pretended) the chimerical anticipation of possible advantages, but the intolerable pressure of long-established, notorious, aggravated, and growing abuses. It was the experience of the enormous and disgusting abuses and corruptions of the Papal power that produced the Reformation. It was the experience of the vexations and oppressions of the feudal system that produced its abolition after centuries of sufferings and of struggles. It was the experience of the caprice and tyranny of the Monarch that extorted Magna Charta at Runnymede. It was the experience of the arbitrary and insolent abuse of the prerogative in the reigns of the Tudors and the first Stuarts that produced the resistance to it in the reign of Charles I. and the Grand Rebellion. It was the experience of the incorrigible attachment of the same Stuarts to Popery and Slavery, with their many acts of cruelty, treachery, and bigotry, that produced the Revolution, and set the House of Brunswick on the Throne. It was the conviction of the incurable nature of the abuse, increasing with time and patience, and overcoming the obstinate attachment to old habits and prejudices — an attachment not to be rooted out by fancy or theory, but only by repeated, lasting, and incontrovertible proofs — that has abated every nuisance that ever was abated, and introduced every innovation and every example of revolution and reform. It was the experience of the abuses, licentiousness, and innumerable oppressions of the old Government in France that produced the French Revolution. It was the experience of the determination of the British Ministry to harass, insult, and plunder them, that produced the Revolution of the United States. Away then with this miserable cant against fanciful theories, and appeal to acknowledged experience! Men never act against their prejudices but from the spur of their feelings, the necessity of their situations — their theories are adapted to their practical convictions and their varying circumstances. Nature has ordered it so, and Mr. Canning, by showing off his rhetorical paces, by his ‘ambling and lisping and nicknaming God’s creatures,’ cannot invert that order, efface the history of the past, or arrest the progress of the future. — Public opinion is the result of public events and public feelings; and government must be moulded by that opinion, or maintain itself in opposition to it by the sword. Mr. Canning indeed will not consent that the social machine should in any case receive a different direction from what it has had, ‘lest it should be hurried over the precipice and dashed to pieces.’ These warnings of national ruin and terrific accounts of political precipices put one in mind of Edgar’s exaggerations to Gloster; they make one’s hair stand on end in the perusal but the poor old man, like poor old England, could fall no lower than he was. Mr. Montgomery, the ingenious and amiable poet, after he had been shut up in solitary confinement for a year and a half for printing the Duke of Richmond’s Letter on Reform, when he first walked out into the narrow path of the adjoining field, was seized with an apprehension that he should fall over it, as if he had trod on the brink of an abrupt declivity. The author of the loyal Speech at the Liverpool Dinner has been so long kept in the solitary confinement of his prejudices, and the dark cells of his interest and vanity, that he is afraid of being dashed to pieces if he makes a single false step, to the right or the left, from his dangerous and crooked policy. As to himself, his ears are no doubt closed to any advice that might here be offered him; and as to his country, he seems bent on its destruction. If, however, an example of the futility of all his projects and all his reasonings on a broader scale, ‘to warn and scare, be wanting,’ let him look at Spain, and take leisure to recover from his incredulity and his surprise. Spain, as Ferdinand, as the Monarchy, has fallen from its pernicious height, never to rise again: Spain, as Spain, as the Spanish people, has risen from the tomb of liberty, never (it is to be hoped) to sink again under the yoke of the bigot and the oppressor!

47 As for politics, I think poets are tories by nature, supposing them to be by nature poets. The love of an individual person or family, that has worn a crown for many successions, is an inclination greatly adapted to the fanciful tribe. On the other hand, mathematicians, abstract reasoners of no manner of attachment to persons, at least to the visible part of them, but prodigiously devoted to the ideas of virtue, liberty, and so forth, are generally whigs. It happens agreeably enough to this maxim, that the whigs are friends to that wise, plodding, unpoetical people, the Dutch.’—Shenstone’s Letters, p. 105.

48 To give the modern reader un petit apercu of the tone of literary conversation about five or six and twenty years ago, I remember being present in a large party composed of men, women, and children, in which two persons of remarkable candour and ingenuity were labouring (as hard as if they had been paid for it) to prove that all prayer was a mode of dictating to the Almighty, and an arrogant assumption of superiority. A gentleman present said, with great simplicity and naivete, that there was one prayer which did not strike him as coming exactly under this description, and being asked what that was made answer, ‘The Samaritan’s —“Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner!”’ This appeal by no means settled the sceptical dogmatism of the two disputants, and soon after the proposer of the objection went away; on which one of them observed with great marks of satisfaction and triumph —‘I am afraid we have shocked that gentleman’s prejudices.’ This did not appear to me at that time quite the thing and this happened in the year 1794. — Twice has the iron entered my soul. Twice have the dastard, vaunting, venal Crew gone over it: once as they went forth, conquering and to conquer, with reason by their side, glittering like a falchion, trampling on prejudices and marching fearlessly on in the work of regeneration; once again when they returned with retrograde steps, like Cacus’s oxen dragged backward by the heels, to the den of Legitimacy, ‘rout on rout, confusion worse confounded,’ with places and pensions and the Quarterly Review dangling from their pockets, and shouting, ‘Deliverance for mankind,’ for ‘the worst, the second fall of man.’ Yet I have endured all this marching and countermarching of poets, philosophers, and politicians over my head as well as I could, like ‘the camomile that thrives, the more ’tis trod upon.’ By Heavens, I think, I’ll endure it no longer!

49 Troja fuit.

50 Mr. Canning’s Speech at the Liverpool Dinner, given in celebration of his Re-election, March 18, 1820. Fourth edition, revised and corrected.

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