“Almost certain of being wrong”

We cannot be certain of being right about the future; but we can be almost certain of being wrong about the future, if we are wrong about the past.

What I Saw In America (1921).

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Published in: on July 25, 2018 at 2:24 pm  Leave a Comment  

“Optimists are more practical reformers”

In order that men should resist injustice, something more is necessary than that they should think injustice unpleasant. They must think injustice absurd; above all, they must think it startling. They must retain the violence of a virgin astonishment. That is the explanation of the singular fact which must have struck many people in the relations of philosophy and reform. It is the fact (I mean) that optimists are more practical reformers than pessimists. Superficially, one would imagine that the railer would be the reformer; that the man who thought that everything was wrong would be the man to put everything right. In historical practice the thing is quite the other way; curiously enough, it is the man who likes things as they are who really makes them better.

The optimist Dickens has achieved more reforms than the pessimist Gissing. A man like Rousseau has far too rosy a theory of human nature; but he produces a revolution. A man like David Hume thinks that almost all things are depressing; but he is a Conservative, and wishes to keep them as they are. A man like Godwin believes existence to be kindly; but he is a rebel. A man like Carlyle believes existence to be cruel; but he is a Tory. Everywhere the man who alters things begins by liking things.

And the real explanation of this success of the optimistic reformer, of this failure of the pessimistic reformer, is, after all, an explanation of sufficient simplicity. It is because the optimist can look at wrong not only with indignation, but with a startled indignation. When the pessimist looks at any infamy, it is to him, after all, only a repetition of the infamy of existence. The Court of Chancery is indefensible—like mankind. The Inquisition is abominable—like the universe. But the optimist sees injustice as something discordant and unexpected, and it stings him into action. The pessimist can be enraged at wrong; but only the optimist can be surprised at it.

— All Things Considered (1908).

Published in: on July 19, 2018 at 12:36 pm  Leave a Comment  

“A small thing seems so much larger”

It is one of the paradoxes of man that a small thing seems so much larger than a large thing. We notice a sky-sign when we do not notice the sky; we realize a landmark when we scarcely realise the land; and we look up with awe at the whirling stars above us, without once becoming conscious of the whirling star on which we stand. A small thing is an object; and a large thing is merely a background. The truth has, of course, very deep roots, lying close to what religion has always said of the dependence and the ingratitude of man. It may not be tactful for the philosopher, meeting a man with a pebble in his shoe, to remind him that he is very lucky to have any legs. It man be incautious for the mystic, when the housewife complains of a cobweb on the ceiling, to tell her that the ceiling might fall on her any minute. But the philosopher and the mystic are quite right, for all that; and the truth of what they say is often disinterred in the earthquake of wartime, when limbs are really carried away by cannonballs or roofs come rushing down under the shock of shells. In this, war is very like an earthquake, for an earthquake is a thing in which the largest thing we know begins to move, and to remind us for the first time of how long it as been lying still.

— Illustrated London News, 16 December 1916.

Published in: on July 4, 2018 at 2:09 pm  Leave a Comment