Friday, 30 March 2007

The Trousers of Decorum

“Every man has also his moral backside which he does not show without need and which he keeps covered as long as possible with the trousers of decorum.”
[“Jeder Mensch hat auch seine moralische backside, die er nicht ohne Not zeigt, und die er so lange als möglich mit den Hosen des guten Anstandes zudeckt.”]
G.C. Lichtenberg, Sudelbücher, (Frankfurt am Main und Leipzig: Insel Verlag, 1984), B.74 from Sudelbuch B (1768-1771), p.42.

Wednesday, 21 March 2007

A Former Guest

While Voltaire was an exile in England, he observed that the peasants were “not afraid of increasing their stock of cattle, nor of tiling their houses from any apprehension that their taxes [would] be raised the year following.” [1] Doubtless there are present-day descendants of those peasants who have never heard of Voltaire, though, if they still live in the land of their forefathers, they should have no difficulty in determining from his description that he hasn’t visited the place in quite a while.
[1] François-Marie Arouet (Voltaire), Letters on the English, Letter IX — On the Government, The Harvard Classics, Vol.34, Part 2, (New York: P.F. Collier & Son Co., 1909–14), §13, reproduced online at

Thursday, 8 March 2007

In Keeping with the Times

“Nothing avails: one must go forward—step by step further into decadence” [1]. Nietzsche was never one to understate his case; but if one has not yet succumbed to the doctrine of the proverbial ostrich, one might still see that customs, old institutions, anything that smacks, in a word, of tradition: all such must now be cast aside in keeping with the times, that is to say, in keeping with a political passion and a public temper that cannot tolerate anything that might hold it back; for there has crept into the mind of modern man a quite pathetic submission to the practicalities of political power.
The dangers we have to fear may roughly be summed up in the single word — disintegration. It is the end to which we are being driven, alike by the defective working of our political machinery, and by the public temper of the time. [2]
The odd thing about modern “progressive” man — what sets him apart from his forebears — is that when some old custom or institution, tamed and made humane by time and bitter trial, is said to be not in keeping with the present times, then it is not the present times to which he directs his critical eye, so as to see what therein makes it intolerant of that thing, but rather his eye fixes narrowly on that thing itself, as though it were the wild and dangerous upstart, the foreign interloper — and this in an age that quite ludicrously prides itself on its tolerance! It is an age, however, in which the greater part of tolerance is given over to that which destroys.
Nowadays it is enough that any idea or proposal be meant in the conservative’s sense for it to come to nothing; only that which disintegrates and levels has any real power now. [3]
The present merits of an old custom or institution, its historic service to ideals such as harmony, authority, liberty, or justice — always imperfectly realised — cannot bear scrutiny in a mind that has been seduced by the promise of perfection, still less in one that has been flattered into believing that this perfection is a birthright soon to be realised in the practical application of political power.
Devices laboriously set up to keep popular passions within bounds are now derided as little better than superstitions. [4]
The hubris with which modern “progressive” man proceeds will likely lead to all the adverse consequences which experience relates, unless, that is, there will be something new or hitherto unseen in the unfettered but harnessed expression of popular passions, something that leads to more than just a practical, brutish, and uncultured system for the accrual of power and wealth. One would have to be quite the hopeful fool to believe it likely — and quite in keeping with the times.
[1] F.W. Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, in The Portable Nietzsche, (New York: The Viking Press, 1954), §43, p. 547; original emphasis.
[2] Lord Salisbury, “Disintegration”, in Quarterly Review, October 1883, quoted by Andrew Roberts, Salisbury: Victorian Titan (London: Phoenix, 2000), pp. 274-5.
[3] [“Es genügt heutigentags, daß irgendein Gedanke, ein Vorschlag im Sinne der Konservativen gemeint sei, so ist es praktisch nichts damit; nur das Auflösende und Nivellierende hat jetzt wirkliche Kraft.”] Jacob Burckhardt, Brief an Friedrich von Preen, 17. November 1876, Briefe (Leipzig: Dieterich, 1929), p. 421.
[4] Richard M. Weaver, “Review of Betrand de Jouvenal, On Power: Its Nature and the History of its Growth”, The Commonweal, Vol. 50:19, 9th August 1949; reprinted in In Defense of Tradition: Collected Shorter Writings of Richard M. Weaver, 1929-1963, ed. by T.J. Smith III (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000), p.514.
NB: This post also appears at James Higham’s weblog Nourishing Obscurity.

Fewtril #177

There are some who — if it were not for exaggeration — would find it difficult to believe anything they were told.

Fewtril #176

There is so little trust amongst people nowadays that in despair we might exaggerate how little there is, which may have the consequence of fulfilling the degree of distrust stated in the former exaggeration.

Thursday, 1 March 2007

Decency and Democracy

One often hears the call for a purer democracy, as if more of the disease would abate the symptoms; and of those symptoms one is meant not to be ashamed, but rather to be boastful, as though they were the bravely-taken pains of progress.
[I]t’s still dispiriting that the face we show the world, via America, is so often the one of aristocracy and deference, with barely a nod to the diverse, churning society we actually live in. [1]
Perhaps some still have the decency to be embarrassed by the reality of the “diverse, churning society” in which we live.
The reactionaries of the 19th century . . . feared the accrued wisdom of the ages would be lost if the vulgar mob were allowed a vote, believing that Britain was best governed by a class of experts. Theirs is not some dispute about procedure or constitutional mechanics. It is an argument against democracy itself. [2]
Looking in vain for a trace of the wisdom of the ages in the present government is forsooth a damned good argument against democracy. It is not true, however, that our democracy is the rule of the mob; such is direct democracy. Ours is a representative democracy, that is to say, the rule of the representatives of that mob.
[1] Jonathan Freedland, “We lecture the world on democracy, but still don't elect our upper house”, The Guardian, 28th February 2007.
[2] Ibid.

A Flutter

“I do not believe in democracy,” wrote H.L. Mencken, “but I am perfectly willing to admit that it provides the only really amusing form of government ever endured by mankind.” [1] For the sake of amusement, and for possible financial gain, I am thinking of having a flutter on the race for the Labour leadership. It is not quite as enthralling as throwing money away on thoroughbred beasts made to jump over hurdles, though it bears some comparison.

[1] H.L. Mencken, Preface to A Mencken Chrestomathy, (New York: Vintage Books, 1983), p. viii.