Saturday, October 16, 2010


We are apt to assume that every human action is the result of an intellectual process, by which a man first thinks of some end which he desires, and then calculates the means by which that end can be attained. An investor, for instance, desires good security combined with five per cent interest. He spends an hour in studying with an open mind the price-list of stocks, and finally infers that the purchase of Brewery Debentures will enable him most completely to realize his desire. Given the original desire for good security, his act in purchasing the Debentures appears to be the inevitable result of his inference. The desire for good security itself may further appear to be merely an intellectual inference as to the means of satisfying some more general desire, shared by all mankind, for 'happiness,' our own 'interest,' or the like. The satisfaction of this general desire can then be treated as the supreme 'end' of life, from which all our acts and impulses, great and small, are derived by the same intellectual process as that by which the conclusion is derived from the premises of an argument.
A simple-minded supporter whose affection has been so worked up will probably try to give an intellectual explanation of it. He will say that the man, of whom he may know really nothing except that he was photographed in a Panama hat with a fox-terrier, is 'the kind of man we want,' and that therefore he has decided to support him; just as a child will say that he loves his mother because she is the best mother in the world, or a man in love will give an elaborate explanation of his perfectly normal feelings, which he describes as an intellectual inference from alleged abnormal excellences in his beloved. The candidate naturally intellectualizes in the same way.
The tactics of an election consist largely of contrivances by which this immediate emotion of personal affection may be set up. The candidate is advised to 'show himself continually, to give away prizes, to 'say a few words' at the end of other people's speeches—all under circumstances which offer little or no opportunity for the formation of a reasoned opinion of his merits, but many opportunities for the rise of a purely instinctive affection among those present. His portrait is periodically distributed, and is more effective if it is a good, that is to say, a distinctive, than if it is a flattering likeness. Best of all is a photograph which brings his ordinary existence sharply forward by representing him in his garden smoking a pipe or reading a newspaper.
A monarch is a life-long candidate, and there exists a singularly elaborate traditional art of producing personal affection for him. It is more important that he should be seen than that he should speak or act. His portrait appears on every coin and stamp, and apart from any question of personal beauty, produces most effect when it is a good likeness. Any one, for instance, who can clearly recall his own emotions during the later years of Queen Victoria's reign, will remember a measurable increase of his affection for her, when, in 1897, a thoroughly life-like portrait took the place on the coins of the conventional head of 1837-1887, and the awkward compromise of the first Jubilee year. In the case of monarchy one can also watch the intellectualization of the whole process by the newspapers, the official biographers, the courtiers, and possibly the monarch himself. The daily bulletin of details as to his walks and drives is, in reality, the more likely to create a vivid impression of his personality, and therefore to produce this particular kind of emotion, the more ordinary the events described are in themselves. But since an emotion arising out of ordinary events is difficult to explain on a purely intellectual basis, these events are written about as revealing a life of extraordinary regularity and industry. When the affection is formed it is even sometimes described as an inevitable reasoned conclusion arising from reflection upon a reign during which there have been an unusual number of good harvests or great inventions.
Sometimes the impulse of affection is excited to a point at which its non-rational character becomes obvious. George the Third was beloved by the English people because they realized intensely that, like themselves, he had been born in England, and because the published facts of his daily life came home to them. Fanny Burney describes, therefore, how when, during an attack of madness, he was to be taken in a coach to Kew, the doctors who were to accompany him were seriously afraid that the inhabitants of any village who saw that the King was under restraint would attack them. The kindred emotion of personal and dynastic loyalty (whose origin is possibly to be found in the fact that the loosely organized companies of our pre human ancestors could not defend themselves from their carnivorous enemies until the general instinct of affection was specialized into a vehement impulse to follow and protect their leader), has again and again produced destructive and utterly useless civil wars.
Fear often accompanies and, in politics, is confused with affection. A man, whose life's dream it has been to get sight and speech of his King, is accidentally brought face to face with him. He is 'rooted to the spot,' becomes pale, and is unable to speak, because a movement might have betrayed his ancestors to a lion or a bear, or earlier still, to a hungry cuttlefish. It would be an interesting experiment if some professor of experimental psychology would arrange his class in the laboratory with sphygmographs on their wrists ready to record those pulse movements which accompany the sensation of 'thrill'.
Throughout a contest a candidate is made aware, at every point, of the enormously greater solidity for most men of the work-a-day world which they see for themselves, as compared with the world of inference and secondary ideas which they see through the newspapers. A candidate has constantly to repeat the same arguments, and to stimulate in himself the same emotions, and that mere repetition produces a distressing sense of unreality. 'Artificial' things, however pleasant at first—a tune on the piano, the pattern of a garment, the greeting of an acquaintance—are likely to become unbearable if often exactly repeated. A newspaper is an artificial thing in this sense, and one of the arts of the newspaper-writer consists in presenting his views with that kind of repetition which, like the phrases of a fugue, constantly approaches, but never oversteps the limit of monotony. A candidate is also an artificial thing. If he lives and works in his constituency, the daily vision of an otherwise admirable business man seated in a first-class carriage on the 8.47 A.M. train in the same attitude and reading the same newspaper may produce a slight and unrecognized feeling of discomfort among his constituents, although it would cause no such feeling in the wife whose relation to him is 'natural.' For the same reason when his election comes on, although he may declare himself to be the 'old member standing on the old platform,' he should be careful to avoid monotony by slightly varying his portrait, the form of his address, and the details of his declaration of political faith.
The whole ritual of social and political organization among savages, therefore, illustrates the process of creating artificial and easily recognizable political likenesses. If the chief is to be recognized as a chief he must, like the ghost of Patroclus, 'be exceedingly like unto himself.' He must live in the same house, wear the same clothes, and do the same things year by year; and his successor must imitate him. If a marriage or an act of sale is to be recognized as a contract, it must be carried out in the customary place and with the customary gestures. The scarlet paint and wolf skin headdress of a warrior, or the dragon-mask of a medicine man, appeal, like the smile of a modern candidate, directly to our instinctive nature. But even in very early societies the recognition of artificial political entities must generally have owed its power of stimulating impulse to associations acquired during life. A child who had been beaten by the herald's rod, or had seen his father bow down before the king, or a sacred stone, learned to fear the rod, or the king, or the stone by association.
At this point it is already difficult not to intellectualize the whole process. Our own 'common-sense' and the systematized common-sense of the eighteenth-century philosophers would alike explain the fear of tribal man for a royal staff by saying that he was reminded thereby of the original social contract between ruler and ruled, or of the pleasure and pain which experience had shown to be derived from royal leadership and royal punishments, and that he therefore decided by a process of reasoning on seeing the staff to fear the king.
If we turn to politics for instances of the same fact, we again discover how much harder it is there than in religion, or morals, or education, to resist the habit of giving intellectual explanations of emotional experiences. For most men the central political entity is their country. When a man dies for his country, what does he die for? The reader in his chair thinks of the size and climate, the history and population, of some region in the atlas, and explains the action of the patriot by his relation to all these things. But what seems to happen in the crisis of battle is not the logical building up or analyzing of the idea of one's country, but that automatic selection by the mind of something of sense accompanied by an equally automatic emotion of affection which has already been described.
It is important for a politician to realize that men do not always act on inferences as to means and ends. Men often act in politics under the immediate stimulus of affection and instinct, and that affection and interest may be directed towards political entities which are very different from those facts in the world around us which we can discover by deliberate observation and analysis. Consider another assumption, which is to inquire how far it is true that men, when they do form inferences as to the result of their political actions, always form them by a process of reasoning. It is by no means easy to trace these sharp distinctions between various mental states, which seem so obvious when they are set out in little books on psychology. The mind of man is like a harp, all of whose strings throb together; so that emotion, impulse, inference, and the special kind of inference called reasoning, are often simultaneous and intermingled aspects of a single mental experience. This is especially true in moments of action and excitement; but when we are sitting in passive contemplation we would often find it hard to say whether our successive states of consciousness are best described as emotions or inferences. And when our thought clearly belongs to the type of inference it is often hard to say whether its steps are controlled by so definite a purpose of discovering truth that we are entitled to call it reasoning.
The political opinions of most men are the result, not of reasoning tested by experience, but of unconscious or half-conscious inference fixed by habit. It is indeed mainly in the formation of tracks of thought that habit shows its power in politics. One may see a respectable voter, whose political opinions have been smoothed and polished by the mental habits of thirty years, fumbling over the act of marking and folding his ballot paper like a child with its first copybook. The voter as he reads his newspaper may adopt by suggestion, and make habitual by repetition, not only political opinions but whole trains of political argument; and he does not necessarily feel the need of comparing them with other trains of argument already in his mind.
In politics, indeed, the preaching of reason as opposed to feeling is peculiarly ineffective, because the feelings of mankind not only provide a motive for political thought but also fix the scale of values which must be used in political judgment. In music the noble and the base composer are not divided by the fact that the one appeals to the intellect and the other to the feelings of his hearers. Both must make their appeal to feeling, and both must therefore realize intensely the feelings of their audience, and stimulate intensely their own feelings. The conditions under which they succeed or fail are fixed, for both, by facts in our emotional nature which they cannot change.
(Adapted from The Project Gutenberg EBook of Human Nature In Politics, by Graham Wallas)

No comments: