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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Benefits of Free Discussion in Modern Times
By Walter Bagehot (1826–1877)
 
From ‘Physics and Politics’

IN this manner polities of discussion broke up the old bonds of custom which were now strangling mankind, though they had once aided and helped it; but this is only one of the many gifts which those polities have conferred, are conferring, and will confer on mankind. I am not going to write a eulogium on liberty, but I wish to set down three points which have not been sufficiently noticed.  1
  Civilized ages inherit the human nature which was victorious in barbarous ages, and that nature is in many respects not at all suited to civilized circumstances. A main and principal excellence in the early times of the human races is the impulse to action. The problems before men are then plain and simple: the man who works hardest, the man who kills the most deer, the man who catches the most fish—even later on, the man who tends the largest herds or the man who tills the largest field—is the man who succeeds; the nation which is quickest to kill its enemies or which kills most of its enemies is the nation which succeeds. All the inducements of early society tend to foster immediate action, all its penalties fall on the man who pauses; the traditional wisdom of those times was never weary of inculcating that “delays are dangerous,” and that the sluggish man—the man “who roasteth not that which he took in hunting”—will not prosper on the earth, and indeed will very soon perish out of it: and in consequence an inability to stay quiet, an irritable desire to act directly, is one of the most conspicuous failings of mankind.  2
  Pascal said that most of the evils of life arose from “man’s being unable to sit still in a room”; and though I do not go that length, it is certain that we should have been a far wiser race than we are if we had been readier to sit quiet,—we should have known much better the way in which it was best to act when we came to act. The rise of physical science, the first great body of practical truth provable to all men, exemplifies this in the plainest way: if it had not been for quiet people who sat still and studied the sections of the cone, if other quiet people had not sat still and studied the theory of infinitesimals, or other quiet people had not sat still and worked out the doctrine of chances (the most “dreamy moonshine,” as the purely practical mind would consider, of all human pursuits), if “idle star-gazers” had not watched long and carefully the motions of the heavenly bodies,—our modern astronomy would have been impossible, and without our astronomy “our ships, our colonies, our seamen,” all which makes modern life modern life, could not have existed. Ages of sedentary, quiet, thinking people were required before that noisy existence began, and without those pale preliminary students it never could have been brought into being. And nine-tenths of modern science is in this respect the same: it is the produce of men whom their contemporaries thought dreamers, who were laughed at for caring for what did not concern them, who as the proverb went “walked into a well from looking at the stars,” who were believed to be useless if any one could be such. And the conclusion is plain that if there had been more such people, if the world had not laughed at those there were, if rather it had encouraged them, there would have been a great accumulation of proved science ages before there was. It was the irritable activity, the “wish to be doing something,” that prevented it,—most men inherited a nature too eager and too restless to be quiet and find out things: and even worse, with their idle clamor they “disturbed the brooding hen”; they would not let those be quiet who wished to be so, and out of whose calm thought much good might have come forth.  3
  If we consider how much science has done and how much it is doing for mankind, and if the over-activity of men is proved to be the cause why science came so late into the world and is so small and scanty still, that will convince most people that our over-activity is a very great evil; but this is only part and perhaps not the greatest part, of the harm that over-activity does. As I have said, it is inherited from times when life was simple, objects were plain, and quick action generally led to desirable ends: if A kills B before B kills A, then A survives, and the human race is a race of A’s. But the issues of life are plain no longer: to act rightly in modern society requires a great deal of previous study, a great deal of assimilated information, a great deal of sharpened imagination; and these prerequisites of sound action require much time, and I was going to say much “lying in the sun,” a long period of “mere passiveness.”  4
 
  [Argument to show that the same vice of impatience damages war, philanthropy, commerce, and even speculation.]  5
 
  But it will be said, What has government by discussion to do with these things? will it prevent them, or even mitigate them? It can and does do both, in the very plainest way. If you want to stop instant and immediate action, always make it a condition that the action shall not begin till a considerable number of persons have talked over it and have agreed on it. If those persons be people of different temperaments, different ideas, and different educations, you have an almost infallible security that nothing or almost nothing will be done with excessive rapidity. Each kind of persons will have their spokesman; each spokesman will have his characteristic objection and each his characteristic counter-proposition: and so in the end nothing will probably be done, or at least only the minimum which is plainly urgent. In many cases this delay may be dangerous, in many cases quick action will be preferable; a campaign, as Macaulay well says, cannot be directed by a “debating society,” and many other kinds of action also require a single and absolute general: but for the purpose now in hand—that of preventing hasty action and insuring elaborate consideration—there is no device like a polity of discussion.  6
  The enemies of this object—the people who want to act quickly—see this very distinctly: they are forever explaining that the present is “an age of committees,” that the committees do nothing, that all evaporates in talk. Their great enemy is parliamentary government: they call it, after Mr. Carlyle, the “national palaver”; they add up the hours that are consumed in it and the speeches which are made in it, and they sigh for a time when England might again be ruled, as it once was, by a Cromwell,—that is, when an eager absolute man might do exactly what other eager men wished, and do it immediately. All these invectives are perpetual and many-sided; they come from philosophers each of whom wants some new scheme tried, from philanthropists who want some evil abated, from revolutionists who want some old institution destroyed, from new-eraists who want their new era started forthwith: and they all are distinct admissions that a polity of discussion is the greatest hindrance to the inherited mistake of human nature,—to the desire to act promptly, which in a simple age is so excellent, but which in a later and complex time leads to so much evil.  7
  The same accusation against our age sometimes takes a more general form: it is alleged that our energies are diminishing, that ordinary and average men have not the quick determination nowadays which they used to have when the world was younger, that not only do not committees and parliaments act with rapid decisiveness, but that no one now so acts; and I hope that in fact this is true, for according to me it proves that the hereditary barbaric impulse is decaying and dying out. So far from thinking the quality attributed to us a defect, I wish that those who complain of it were far more right than I much fear they are. Still, certainly, eager and violent action is somewhat diminished, though only by a small fraction of what it ought to be; and I believe that this is in great part due, in England at least, to our government by discussion, which has fostered a general intellectual tone, a diffused disposition to weigh evidence, a conviction that much may be said on every side of everything which the elder and more fanatic ages of the world wanted. This is the real reason why our energies seem so much less than those of our fathers. When we have a definite end in view, which we know we want and which we think we know how to obtain, we can act well enough: the campaigns of our soldiers are as energetic as any campaigns ever were; the speculations of our merchants have greater promptitude, greater audacity, greater vigor than any such speculations ever had before. In old times a few ideas got possession of men and communities, but this is happily now possible no longer: we see how incomplete these old ideas were; how almost by chance one seized on one nation and another on another; how often one set of men have persecuted another set for opinions on subjects of which neither, we now perceive, knew anything. It might be well if a greater number of effectual demonstrations existed among mankind: but while no such demonstrations exist, and while the evidence which completely convinces one man seems to another trifling and insufficient, let us recognize the plain position of inevitable doubt; let us not be bigots with a doubt and persecutors without a creed. We are beginning to see this, and we are railed at for so beginning: but it is a great benefit, and it is to the incessant prevalence of detective discussion that our doubts are due; and much of that discussion is due to the long existence of a government requiring constant debates, written and oral.  8
 
 
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