Opinion rides upon the neck of reason; and men are happy, wise, or learned, according as that empress shall set them down in the register of reputation. However, weigh not thyself in the scales of thy own opinion, but let the judgment of the judicious be the standard of thy merit.
Opinion is, when the assent of the understanding is so far gained by evidence of probability that it rather inclines to one persuasion than to another, yet not altogether without a mixture of uncertainty or doubting.
But the circumstances under which we ponder over any piece of information may make a vast difference in our estimate of the said piece of informationespecially if it come to us through that doubtful and convertible medium which we call historic lore. According as we are sick, in love, and have not dined, or as we are stout, heart-whole, and in that replenished mood which Shakespeare says inclines great men to grant favoursI mean full of a good dinner (barring indigestion)according, I say, as we are thus depressed or cheered, we are apt to look upon the dark or bright side of things, to go even beyond the gloomy decisions of the historian, or to take up the cudgel in defence of the very man whom he loads with obloquyin short, to doubt a Trajan, or to acquit a Nero.
That I am correct in these views is proved by the fact that both the best and the worst of historic personages have never wanted either a detractor or an apologist; and how account for such a phenomenon otherwise than by supposing, in each case, the judge to have been biased either ab extra or ad intra? And what bias is so great as that of a mans own mood and temper, especially if lashed up and exasperated by Circumstancethat unspiritual god?
Now, of these objects there is none which men in general seem to desire more than the good opinion of others. The hatred and contempt of the public are generally felt to be intolerable. It is probable that our regard for the sentiments of our fellow-creatures springs, by association, from a sense of their ability to hurt or to serve us. But, be this as it may, it is notorious that, when the habit of mind of which we speak has once been formed, men feel extremely solicitous about the opinions of those by whom it is most improbable, nay, absolutely impossible, that they should ever be in the slightest degree injured or benefited. The desire of posthumous fame and the dread of posthumous reproach and execration are feelings from the influence of which scarcely any man is perfectly free, and which in many men are powerful and constant motives of action.
Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay: Mills Essay on Government, March, 1829.
The opinions of that class of the people who are below the middle rank are formed, and their minds are directed, by that intelligent, that virtuous rank, who come the most immediately in contact with them, who are in the constant habit of intimate communication with them, to whom they fly for advice and assistance in all their numerous difficulties, upon whom they feel an immediate and daily dependence in health and in sickness, in infancy and in old age, to whom their children look up as models for their imitation, whose opinions they hear daily repeated, and account it their honour to adopt. There can be no doubt that the middle rank, which gives to science, to art, and to legislation itself their most distinguished ornaments, and is the chief source of all that has exalted and refined human nature, is that portion of the community, of which, if the basis of representation were ever so far extended, the opinion would ultimately decide. Of the people beneath them, a vast majority would be sure to be guided by their advice and example.
Pains from the moral source are the pains derived from the unfavourable sentiments of mankind . These pains are capable of rising to a height with which hardly any other pains incident to our nature can be compared. There is a certain degree of unfavourableness in the sentiments of his fellow-creatures, under which hardly any man, not below the standard of humanity, can endure to live.
To know how to direct the unfavourable sentiments of mankind, it is necessary to know in as complete, that is, in as comprehensive, a way as possible, what it is which gives them birth. Without entering into the metaphysics of the question, it is a sufficient practical answer, for the present purpose, to say that the unfavourable sentiments of man are excited by everything which hurts them.
Men (says an ancient Greek sentence) are tormented with the opinions they have of things, and not by the things themselves. It were a great victory obtaind for the relief of our miserable human condition could this proposition be established for certain, and true throughout. For if evils have no admission into us but by the judgment we ourselves make of them, it should seem that it is then in our power to despise them, or to turn them to good. If things surrender themselves to our mercy, why do we not convert and accommodate them to our advantage?
Michel de Montaigne: Essays, Cottons 3d ed., ch. xl.
A man who thinks he is guarding himself against prejudices by resisting the authority of others, leaves open every avenue to singularity, vanity, self-conceit, obstinacy, and many other vices, all tending to warp the judgment and prevent the natural operation of his faculties. We are not, indeed, satisfied with our own opinions, whatever we may pretend, till they are satisfied and confirmed by suffrage of the rest of mankind. We dispute and wrangle forever; we endeavour to get men to come to us when we do not go to them.