Theory over practice

I will confess that I attach much more importance to men’s theoretical arguments than to their practical proposals.  If you will, I attach more importance to what is said than to what is done; what is said generally lasts much longer and has much more influence.  I can imagine no change worse for public life than that which some prigs advocate, that debate should be curtailed.  A man’s arguments show what he is really up to.  Until you have heard the defence of a proposal, you do not really know even the proposal.  Thus, for instance, if a man says to me, “Taste this temperance drink,” I have merely doubt slightly tinged with distaste.  But if he says, “Taste it, because your wife would make a charming widow,” then I decide.  Or, again, suppose a man offers a new gun to the British navy, and ends up his speech with the fine peroration, “And after all, since Frenchmen are our brothers, what matters it whether they win or no,” then again I decide.  I could decide to have the man shot with his own gun, if I could.  In short, I would be openly moved in my choice of an institution, not by its immediate proposals for practice, but very much by its incidental, even its accidental, allusion to ideals.  I judge many things by their parentheses.

The New Age, 4 January 1908.

Published in: on January 13, 2010 at 9:41 am  Comments (1)  

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  1. It would be interesting to try to come up with a list of today’s politicians to which this quote could be applied. Maybe one example could be that when Obama declares he wants to reduce the number of abortions, I’m merely skeptical, but when he says of his daughter, “If she makes a mistake, I don’t want her punished with a baby,” then I have no difficulty deciding whether or not I’m with him.

    Another example? It might be hard to know if a particular Surgeon General of the United States will do a good or a bad job, but if she mentions in a question-and-answer session that perhaps masturbation should be taught to school children, you know.

    I’m sure there are a zillion examples…


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