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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The Virtues of Stupidity
By Walter Bagehot (1826–1877)
 
From ‘Letters on the French Coup d’État’

I FEAR you will laugh when I tell you what I conceive to be about the most essential mental quality for a free people whose liberty is to be progressive, permanent, and on a large scale: it is much stupidity. Not to begin by wounding any present susceptibilities, let me take the Roman character; for with one great exception,—I need not say to whom I allude,—they are the great political people of history. Now, is not a certain dullness their most visible characteristic? What is the history of their speculative mind? a blank; what their literature? a copy. They have left not a single discovery in any abstract science, not a single perfect or well-formed work of high imagination. The Greeks, the perfection of human and accomplished genius, bequeathed to mankind the ideal forms of self-idolizing art, the Romans imitated and admired; the Greeks explained the laws of nature, the Romans wondered and despised; the Greeks invented a system of numerals second only to that now in use, the Romans counted to the end of their days with the clumsy apparatus which we still call by their name; the Greeks made a capital and scientific calendar, the Romans began their month when the Pontifex Maximus happened to spy out the new moon. Throughout Latin literature, this is the perpetual puzzle:—Why are we free and they slaves, we prætors and they barbers? why do the stupid people always win and the clever people always lose? I need not say that in real sound stupidity the English are unrivaled: you’ll hear more wit and better wit in an Irish street row than would keep Westminster Hall in humor for five weeks.
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  In fact, what we opprobriously call “stupidity,” though not an enlivening quality in common society, is nature’s favorite resource for preserving steadiness of conduct and consistency of opinion; it enforces concentration: people who learn slowly, learn only what they must. The best security for people’s doing their duty is, that they should not know anything else to do; the best security for fixedness of opinion is, that people should be incapable of comprehending what is to be said on the other side. These valuable truths are no discoveries of mine: they are familiar enough to people whose business it is to know them. Hear what a douce and aged attorney says of your peculiarly promising barrister:—“Sharp? Oh, yes! he’s too sharp by half. He is not safe, not a minute, isn’t that young man.” I extend this, and advisedly maintain that nations, just as individuals, may be too clever to be practical and not dull enough to be free….  2
  And what I call a proper stupidity keeps a man from all the defects of this character: it chains the gifted possessor mainly to his old ideas, it takes him seven weeks to comprehend an atom of a new one; it keeps him from being led away by new theories, for there is nothing which bores him so much; it restrains him within his old pursuits, his well-known habits, his tried expedients, his verified conclusions, his traditional beliefs. He is not tempted to levity or impatience, for he does not see the joke and is thick-skinned to present evils. Inconsistency puts him out: “What I says is this here, as I was a-saying yesterday,” is his notion of historical eloquence and habitual discretion. He is very slow indeed to be excited,—his passions, his feelings, and his affections are dull and tardy strong things, falling in a certain known direction, fixed on certain known objects, and for the most part acting in a moderate degree and at a sluggish pace. You always know where to find his mind. Now, this is exactly what (in politics at least) you do not know about a Frenchman.  3
 
 
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