If Man Does Not Learn From Experience
By: Theodore Dalrymple
FrontPageMagazine.com | Sunday, May 17, 2009
I might be wrong, of course, but I suspect that one could walk down a crowded street for quite a long time before one came across anybody who had heard of Walter Bagehot. This is sufficient to establish that brilliance, energy, enterprise and erudition are not enough by themselves to secure a lasting fame, a depressing thought for those few people who wish to do so.
Bagehot was a ship-owner, a banker, an economist, a political theorist, a journalist who founded and edited the still eminent (though now supremely dull) journal, The Economist, and, perhaps most surprising of all, a brilliant literary critic who can sometimes make you – or perhaps I should say me – laugh out loud.
For example, in describing the great historian, essayist and occasional poet, Thomas Babbington Macaulay, he says of the style and temper of his writing that "it is characteristic that he should always be thinking of posterity." A little later he adds:
"Macaulay looks on a question as posterity will look on it; he regards existing men as painful prerequisites of great-grandchildren."
This, of course, is a way of approaching public questions not entirely unknown today; but Bagehot is extremely fair-minded, for he recognises, and pays generous tribute to, Macaulay’s strengths as a writer, his very great strengths, which he admires and
praises even as he criticises.
It is one of the lessons that Bagehot teaches in his literary essays, by implication rather than pointing it up (which is much the best way of teaching), that a writer necessarily has the weaknesses of his strengths: so that, where writing is concerned, you cannot have it all. And, since literature is both the reflection and the criticism of life, it is not possible to have everything in life either. This is a not insignificant lesson, though one that is seldom learnt, marked and inwardly digested.
What is the point of reading the essays of a Victorian writer, now known only to specialists in his period, about the writings of others? Is this not, as Bacon says, "to bring forth cobwebs of learning admirable for the fineness and thread and work, but of no substance or profit?"
Well, first there is the pleasure, which is an end in itself. Bagehot is capable of lovely ironic apercus. Here is one:
"The labours of the searching and introspective intellect, however needful, absorbing, and in some degree delicious to the seeker himself, are not in general very delightful to those who are not seeking."
And even if I were not myself the author of occasional literary essays, and therefore always looking to models for the purposes of self-improvement, I think I should have enjoyed the opening paragraph of his essay on Edward Gibbon:
"Awit said of Gibbon’s autobiography that he did not know the difference between himself and the Roman Empire. He has narrated his ‘progressions from London to Buriton, and from Buriton to London,’ in the same monotonous majestic periods that recall the fall of states and empires. The consequence is that a fascinating book gives but a vague idea of its subject. It may not be without its use to attempt a description of him in plainer though less splendid English."
Alas, the life of man is but threescore year and ten, or even fourscore year and ten; so can there be any justification in a world of ceaseless activity for spending several hours of so short a span, several precious and never-to-be recovered hours, on the idle perusal of dusty and forgotten essays, however charming they might be?
Actually, I think there can. There is, for example, a wonderfully instructive account of Gibbon’s grandfather, also called Edward. He was a capital man of business, who was able to understand the price and quality of all articles made within the kingdom. The preference, however, of Edward Gibbon the grandfather was for the article ‘shares’; his genius had a natural tendency towards a commerce in the metaphysical and non-existent; and he was fortunate in the age on which his lot was thrown. It afforded many opportunities for gratifying that taste.
Does this, I wonder, begin to remind you of something? Bagehot continues:
"Much has been written on panics and manias – much more than with the most outstretched intellect we are able to follow or conceive; but one thing is certain, that at particular times a great many stupid people have a great deal of stupid money."
The problem is inherent in the nature of accumulation:
"Saving people have often only the faculty of saving; they accumulate ably, and contemplate their accumulations with approbation; but what to do with them they do not know."
About twenty lines later, we read:
"At intervals, from causes which are not to the present purpose, the money of these people – the blind capital (as we call it) of the country – is particularly large and craving; it seeks for someone to devour it, and there is ‘plethora’ – it find someone, and there ‘speculation’ – it is devoured, and there is ‘panic.’ The age of Mr Gibbon was one of these."
Who, on reading the following, could not have the image of that fine gentleman, Mr Madoff, before his mind’s eye?
"Fine ladies, men of fashion – the London world – ever anxious to make as much of its money as it can, and then wholly unwise (it is not now very wise) in discovering how the most was to be made of it – ‘went in’ and speculated largely. As usual, all was favourable so long as the shares were rising; the price was at one time very high, and the agitation very general. After a time, the shares ‘hesitated,’ declined, and fell; and there was an outcry against everybody concerned in the matter."
But Mr Gibbon, one of the prime movers in the scam, was not ruined, for:
"There is some ground for believing that the acute energy and practised pecuniary power which had been successful in obtaining so large a fortune, were likewise applied with science to the inferior task of retaining some of it."
Successfully so, in fact; for he died with as large a fortune as he had ever had, and Bagehot does not believe (as the grandson believed, for the sake of family honour) that he made a second fortune.
In his essay on Macaulay, Bagehot quotes with approval – because the passage is so beautifully written and (what is not the same thing) so accurate and succinct – another account of the same panic:
"An impatience to be rich, a contempt for those slow but sure gains which are the proper reward of industry, patience and thrift, spread through society. It was much easier and much more lucrative to put forth a lying prospectus announcing a new stock, to persuade ignorant people that the dividends could not fall short of twenty per cent., and to part with five thousand pounds of this imaginary wealth for ten
thousand solid guineas, than to load a ship with a well-chosen cargo for Virginia or the Levant. Every day some new bubble was puffed into existence, rose buoyant, shone bright, burst, and was forgotten."
But if Man does not learn from experience, you might ask, what is the point of reading about that experience? It is as certain as that the sun will rise again tomorrow that there will be a new bubble in the near future (my current favourite is alternative energy companies). So why bother to find analogies with the past? By a certain age, one does not so much wish to learn as to be consoled. The fact that experience is precisely that from which Man does not learn gives one a feeling almost akin to that of immortality; things are neither as good as one once hoped for, nor as bad as one once feared, which induces a consoling state of calm; and certainly, to read of the repetition of Man’s mistakes reduces one’s regret that one will not live to see the future golden age, because there will be no such
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