Concerning Scylla and Charybdis

Some Thoughts Upon the Swing of the Pendulum

By A.K.H. Boyd.

I have eaten up all the grounds of my tea, said, many years since, in my hearing, in modest yet triumphant tones, a little girl of seven years old. I have but to close my eyes, and I see all that scene again, almost as plainly as ever. Six or seven children (I am one of them) are sitting round a tea-table; their father and mother are there too; and an old gentleman, who is (in his own judgment) one of the wisest of men. I see the dining-room, large and low-ceilinged; the cheerful glow of the autumnal fire; the little faces in the soft candle-light, for glaring gas was there unknown.  There had been much talk about the sinfulness of waste—of the waste of even very little things. The old gentleman, so wise (in his own judgment, and indeed in my judgment at that period), was instilling into the children’s minds some of those lessons which are often impressed upon children by people (I am now aware) of no great wisdom or cleverness. He had dwelt at considerable length upon the sinfulness of wasting anything; likewise on the sinfulness of children being saucy or particular as to what they should eat.  He enforced, with no small solemnity, the duty of children’s eating what was set before them without minding whether it was good or not, or at least without minding whether they liked it or not. The poor little girl listened to all that was said, and of course received it all as indubitably true. Waste and sauciness, she saw, were wrong, so she judged that the very opposite of waste and sauciness must be right. Accordingly, she thought she would turn to use something that was very small, but still something that ought not to be wasted.  Accordingly, she thought she would show the docility of her taste by eating up something that was very disagreeable.  Here was an opportunity at once of acting out the great principles to which she had been listening. And while a boy, evidently destined to be a metaphysician, and evidently possessed of the spirit of resistance to constituted authority whether in government or doctrine, boldly argued that it could not be wicked in him to hate onions, because God had made him so that he did hate onions, and (going still deeper into things) insisted that to eat a thing when you did not want it was wasting it much more truly than it would be wasting it to leave it; the little girl ate up all the grounds left in her teacup, and then announced the fact with considerable complacency.

Very, very natural. The little girl’s act was a slight straw showing how a great current sets. It was a fair exemplification of a tendency which is woven into the make of our being. Tell the average mortal that it is wrong to walk on the left side of the road, and in nine cases out of ten he will conclude that the proper thing must be to walk on the right side of the road; whereas in actual life, and in almost all opinions, moral, political, and religious, the proper thing is to walk neither on the left nor the right side, but somewhere about the middle. Say to the ship-master, You are to sail through a perilous strait; you will have the raging Scylla on one hand as you go. His natural reply will be, Well, I will keep as far away from it as possible; I will keep close by the other side.  But the rejoinder must be, No, you will be quite as ill off there; you will be in equal peril on the other side: there is Charybdis.  What you have to do is to keep at a safe distance from each. In avoiding the one, do not run into the other.

It seems to be a great law of the universe, that Wrong lies upon either side of the way, and that Right is the narrow path between.  There are the two ways of doing wrong—Too Much and Too Little.  Go to the extreme right hand, and you are wrong; go to the extreme left hand, and you are wrong too. That you may be right, you have to keep somewhere between these two extremes: but not necessarily in the exact middle. All this, of course, is part of the great fact that in this world Evil has the advantage of Good. It is easier to go wrong than right.

It is very natural to think that if one thing or course be wrong, its reverse must be right. If it be wrong to walk towards the east, surely it must be right to walk towards the west. If it be wrong to dress in black, it must be right to dress in white. It is somewhat hard to say, Dum vitant stulti vitia, in contraria currunt—to declare, as if that were a statement of the whole truth, that fools mistake reverse of wrong for right. Fools do so indeed, but not fools only. The average human being, with the most honest intentions, is prone to mistake reverse of wrong for right. We are fond, by our natural constitution, of broad distinctions—of classifications that put the whole interests and objects of this world to the right-hand and to the left. We long for Aye or No—for Heads or Tails. We are impatient of limitations, qualifications, restrictions. You remember how Mr. Micawber explained the philosophy of income and expenditure, and urged people never to run in debt.  Income, said he, a hundred pounds a year; expenditure ninety-nine pounds nineteen shillings: Happiness. Income, a hundred pounds a year; expenditure a hundred pounds and one shilling: Misery. You see the principle involved is, that if you are not happy, you must be miserable—that if you are not miserable, you must be happy.  If you are not any particular thing, then you are its opposite. If you are not For, then you are Against. If you are not black, many men will jump to the conclusion that you are white: the fact probably being that you are gray. If not a Whig, you must be a Tory: in truth, you are a Liberal-Conservative. We desiderate in all things the sharp decidedness of the verdict of a jury—Guilty or Not Guilty. We like to conclude that if a man be not very good, then he is very bad; if not very clever, then very stupid; if not very wise, then a fool: whereas in fact, the man probably is a curious mixture of good and evil, strength and weakness, wisdom and folly, knowledge and ignorance, cleverness and stupidity.

Let it be here remarked, that in speaking of it as an error to take reverse of wrong for right, I use the words in their ordinary sense, as generally understood. In common language the reverse of a thing is taken to mean the thing at the opposite end of the scale from it.  Thus, black is the reverse of white, bigotry of latitudinarianism, malevolence of benevolence, parsimony of extravagance, and the like.  Of course, in strictness, these things are not the reverse of one another. In strictness, the reverse of wrong always is right; for, to speak with severe precision, the reverse of steering upon Scylla is simply not steering upon Scylla; the reverse of being extravagant is not being parsimonious—it is simply not being extravagant; the reverse of walking eastward is not walking westward—it is simply not walking eastward. And that may include standing still, or walking to any point of the compass except the east. But I understand the reverse of a thing as meaning the opposite extreme from it. And you see, the Latin words quoted above are more precise than the English. It is severely true, that while fools think to shun error on one side, they run into the contrary error—i. e., the error that lies equi-distant, or nearly equi-distant, on the other side of the line of right.

One class of the errors into which men are prone to run under this natural impulse are those which have been termed Secondary Vulgar Errors. A vulgar error, you will understand, my reader, does not by any means signify an error into which only the vulgar are likely to fall. It does not by any means signify a mistaken belief which will be taken up only by inferior and uneducated minds. A vulgar error means an error either in conduct or belief into which man, by the make of his being, is likely to fall. Now, people a degree wiser and more thoughtful than the mass, discover that these vulgar errors are errors. They conclude that their opposites (i. e., the things at the other extremity of the scale) must be right; and by running into the opposite extreme they run just as far wrong upon the other side.  There is too great a reaction. The twig was bent to the right—they bend it to the left, forgetting that the right thing was that the twig should be straight. If convinced that waste and sauciness are wrong, they proceed to eat the grounds of their tea; if convinced that self-indulgence is wrong, they conclude that hair-shirts and midnight floggings are right; if convinced that the Church of Rome has too many ceremonies, they resolve that they will have no ceremonies at all; if convinced that it is unworthy to grovel in the presence of a duke, they conclude that it will be a fine thing to refuse the duke ordinary civility; if convinced that monarchs are not much wiser or better than other human beings, they run off into the belief that all kings have been little more than incarnate demons; if convinced that representative government often works very imperfectly, they raise a cry for imperialism; if convinced that monarchy has its abuses, they call out for republicanism; if convinced that Britain has many things which are not so good as they ought to be, they keep constantly extolling the perfection of the United States.

Now, inasmuch as a rise of even one step in the scale of thought elevates the man who has taken it above the vast host of men who have never taken even that one step, the number of people who (at least in matters of any moment) arrive at the Secondary Vulgar Error is much less than the number of the people who stop at the Primary Vulgar Error. Very great multitudes of human beings think it a very fine thing, the very finest of all human things, to be very rich. A much smaller number, either from the exercise of their own reflective powers, or from the indoctrination of romantic novels and overdrawn religious books, run to the opposite extreme: undervalue wealth, deny that it adds anything to human comfort and enjoyment, declare that it is an unmixed evil, profess to despise it. I dare say that many readers of the Idylls of the King will so misunderstand that exquisite song of ‘Fortune and her Wheel,’ as to see in it only the charming and sublime embodiment of a secondary vulgar error,--the error, to wit, that wealth and outward circumstances are of no consequence at all. To me that song appears rather to take the further step, and to reach the conclusion in which is embodied the deliberate wisdom of humankind upon this matter: the conclusion which shakes from itself on either hand either vulgar error: the idolization of wealth on the one side, the contempt of it on the other: and to convey the sobered judgment that while the advantages and refinements of fortune are so great that no thoughtful man can long despise it, the responsibilities and temptations of it are so great that no thoughtful man will much repine if he fail to reach it; and thus that we may genially acquiesce in that which it pleases God to send. Midway between two vulgar errors: steering a sure track between Scylla and Charybdis: the groveling multitude to the left, the romantic few to the right; stand the words of inspired wisdom. The pendulum had probably oscillated many times between the two errors, before it settled at the central truth; ‘Give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with food convenient for me: Lest I be full and deny Thee, and say, Who is the Lord? Or lest I be poor, and steal, and take the name of my God in vain.’

But although these errors of reaction are less common than the primary vulgar errors, they are better worth noticing: inasmuch as in many cases they are the errors of the well-intentioned. People fall into the primary vulgar errors without ever thinking of right or wrong: merely feeling an impulse to go there, or to think thus.  But worthy folk, for the most part, fall into the secondary vulgar errors, while honestly endeavoring to escape what they have discerned to be wrong. Not indeed that it is always in good faith that men run to the opposite extreme. Sometimes they do it in pet and perversity, being well aware that they are doing wrong. You hint to some young friend, to whom you are nearly enough related to be justified in doing so, that the dinner to which he has invited you, with several others, is unnecessarily fine, is somewhat extravagant, is beyond what he can afford. The young friend asks you back in a week or two, and sets before you a feast of salt herrings and potatoes. Now the fellow did not run into this extreme with the honest intention of doing right. He knew perfectly well that this was not what you meant. He did not go through this piece of folly in the sincere desire to avoid the other error of extravagance. Or, you are a country clergyman. You are annoyed, Sunday by Sunday, by a village lad who, from enthusiasm or ostentation, sings so loud in church as to disturb the whole congregation. You hint to him, as kindly as you can, that there is something very pleasing about the softer tones of his voice, and that you would like to hear them more frequently. But the lad sees through your civil way of putting the case. His vanity is touched. He sees you mean that you don’t like to hear him bellow: and next Sunday you will observe that he shuts up his hymn-book in dudgeon, and will not sing at all. Leave the blockhead to himself Do not set yourself to stroke down his self-conceit: he knows quite well he is doing wrong: there is neither sense nor honesty in what he does. You remark at dinner, while staying with a silly old gentleman, that the plum-pudding, though admirable, perhaps errs on the side of over-richness; next day he sets before you a mass of stiff paste with no plums at all, and says, with a look of sly stupidity, ‘Well, I hope you are satisfied now.’ Politeness prevents your replying, ‘No, you don’t.  You know that is not what I meant. You are a fool.’ You remember the boy in Pickwick, who on his father finding fault with him for something wrong he had done, offered to kill himself if that would be any satisfaction to his parent. In this case you have a more recondite instance of this peculiar folly. Here the primary course is tacitly assumed, without being stated. The primary impulse of the human being is to take care of himself; the opposite of that of course is to kill himself. And the boy, being chidden for doing something which might rank under the general head of taking care of himself, proposed (as that course appeared unsatisfactory) to take the opposite one. ‘You don’t take exercise enough,’ said a tutor to a wrong-headed boy who was under his care: ‘you ought to walk more.’ Next morning the perverse fellow entered the breakfast parlor in a fagged condition, and said, with the air of a martyr, ‘Well, I trust I have taken exercise enough to-day: I have walked twenty miles this morning.’ As for all such manifestations of the disposition to run into opposite extremes, let them be treated as manifestations of pettedness, perversity, and dishonesty. In some cases a high-spirited youth may be excused them; but, for the most part, they come with doggedness, wrong-headedness, and dense stupidity.  And any pretext that they are exhibited with an honest intention to do right, ought to be regarded as a transparently false pretext.

I have now before me a list (prepared by a much stronger hand than mine) of honest cases in which men, avoiding Scylla, run into Charybdis: in which men, thinking to bend the crooked twig straight, bend it backwards. But before mentioning these, it may be remarked, that there is often such a thing as a reaction from a natural tendency, even when that natural tendency is not towards what may be called a primary vulgar error. The law of reaction extends to all that human beings can ever feel the disposition to think or do.

There are, doubtless, minds of great fixity of opinion and motive: and there are certain things, in the case of almost all men, as regards which their belief and their active bias never vary through life: but with most human beings, with nations, with humankind, as regards very many and very important matters, as surely and as far as the pendulum has swung to the right, so surely and so far will it swing to the left. I do not say that an opinion in favor of monarchy is a primary vulgar error; or that an opinion in favor of republicanism is a secondary: both may be equally right: but assuredly each of these is a reaction from the other. America, for instance, is one great reaction from Europe. The principle on which these reactionary swings of the pendulum take place, is plain.  Whatever be your present position, you feel its evils and drawbacks keenly. Your feeling of the present evil is much more vivid than your imagination of the evil which is sure to be inherent in the opposite system, whatever that may be. You live in a country where the national Church is Presbyterian. You see, day by day, many inconveniences and disadvantages inherent in that form of church government. It is of the nature of evil to make its presence much more keenly felt than the presence of good. So while keenly alive to the drawbacks of presbytery, you are hardly conscious of its advantages. You swing over, let us suppose, to the other end: you swing over from Scotland into England, from presbytery to episcopacy.  For awhile you are quite delighted to find yourself free from the little evils of which you had been wont to complain. But by and bye the drawbacks of episcopacy begin to push themselves upon your notice. You have escaped one set of disadvantages: you find that you have got into the middle of another. Scylla no longer bellows in your hearing; but Charybdis whirls you round. You begin to feel that the country and the system yet remain to be sought, in which some form of evil, of inconvenience, of worry, shall not press you.  Am I wrong in fancying, dear friends more than one or two, that but for very shame the pendulum would swing back again to the point from which it started: and you, kindly Scots, would find yourselves more at home in kindly and homely Scotland, with her simple forms and faith? So far as my experience has gone, I think that in all matters not of vital moment, it is best that the pendulum should stay at the end of the swing where it first found itself: it will be in no more stable position at the other end: and it will somehow feel stranger-like there. And you, my friend, though in your visits to Anglican territory you heartily conform to the Anglican Church, and enjoy as much as mortal san her noble cathedrals and her stately worship; still I know that after all, you cannot shake off the spell in which the old remembrances of your boyhood have bound you. I know that your heart warms to the Burning Bush; and that it will, till death chills it.

A noteworthy fact in regard to the swing of the pendulum, is that the secondary tendency is sometimes found in the ruder state of society, and the less reflective man. Naturalness comes last. The pendulum started from naturalness: it swung over into artificiality: and with thoughtful people it has swung back to naturalness again.  Thus it is natural, when in danger, to be afraid. It is natural, when you are possessed by any strong feeling, to show it. You see all this in children: this is the point which the pendulum starts from. It swings over, and we find a reaction from this. The reaction is, to maintain and exhibit perfect coolness and indifference in danger; to pretend to be incapable of fear. This state of things we find in the Red Indian, a rude and uncivilized being. But it is plain that with people who are able to think, there must be a reaction from this. The pendulum cannot long stay in a position which flies so completely in the face of the law of gravitation. It is pure nonsense to talk about being incapable of fear. I remember reading somewhere about Queen Elizabeth, that ‘her soul was incapable of fear.’ That statement is false and absurd. You may regard fear as unmanly and unworthy: you may repress the manifestations of it; but the state of mind which (in beings not properly monstrous or defective) follows the perception of being in danger, is fear.  As surely as the perception of light is sight, so surely is the perception of danger fear. And for a man to say that his soul is incapable of fear, is just as absurd as to say that from a peculiarity of constitution, when dipped in water, he does not get wet. You, human being, whoever you may be, when you are placed in danger, and know you are placed in danger, and reflect on the fact, you feel afraid. Don’t vapor and say no; we know how the mental machine must work, unless it be diseased. Now, the thoughtful man admits all this: he admits that a bullet through his brain would be a very serious thing for himself, and like-wise for his wife and children: he admits that he shrinks from such a prospect; he will take pains to protect himself from the risk; but he says that if duty requires him to run the risk he will run it. This is the courage of the civilized man as opposed to the blind, bull-dog insensibility of the savage. This is courage—to know the existence of danger, but to face it nevertheless. Here, under the influence of longer thought, the pendulum has swung into common sense, though not quite back to the point from which it started. Of course, it still keeps swinging about in individual minds. The other day I read in a newspaper a speech by a youthful rifleman, in which he boasted that no matter to what danger exposed, his corps would never take shelter behind trees and rocks, but would stand boldly out to the aim of the enemy.  I was very glad to find this speech answered in a letter to the Times, written by a rifleman of great experience and proved bravery.

The experienced man pointed out that the inexperienced man was talking nonsense: that true courage appeared in manfully facing risks which were inevitable, but not in running into needless peril: and that the business of a soldier was to be as useful to his country and as destructive to the enemy as possible, and not to make needless exhibitions of personal foolhardiness. Thus swings the pendulum as to danger and fear. The point of departure, the primary impulse, is,

1.   An impulse to avoid danger at all hazards: i.e., to run away, and save yourself, however discreditably. 

The pendulum swings to the other extremity, and we have the secondary impulse—

2.   An impulse to disregard danger, and even to run into it, as if it were of no consequence at all; i. e., young rifleman foolhardiness, and Red Indian insensibility.

The pendulum comes so far back, and rests at the point of wisdom:

3.   A determination to avoid all danger, the running into which would do no good, and which may be avoided consistently with honor; but manfully to face danger, however great, that comes in the way of duty.

But after all this deviation from the track, I return to my list of Secondary Vulgar Errors, run into with good and honest intentions.  Here is the first—

Don’t you know, my reader, that it is natural to think very bitterly of the misconduct which affects yourself? If a man cheats your friend, or cheats your slight acquaintance, or cheats some one who is quite unknown to you, by selling him a lame horse, you disapprove his conduct, indeed, but not nearly so much as if he had cheated yourself. You learn that Miss Limejuice has been disseminating a grossly untrue account of some remarks which you made in her hearing: and your first impulse is to condemn her malicious falsehood, much more severely than if she had merely told a few lies about some one else. Yet it is quite evident that if we were to estimate the doings of men with perfect justice, we should fix solely on the moral element in their doings; and the accidental circumstance of the offence or injury to ourselves would be neither here nor there. The primary vulgar error, then, in this case is, undue and excessive disapprobation of misconduct from which we have suffered.  No one but a very stupid person would, if it were fairly put to him, maintain that this extreme disapprobation was right: but it cannot be denied that this is the direction to which all human beings are likely, at first, to feel an impulse to go. A man does you some injury: you are much angrier than if he had done the like injury to some one else. You are much angrier when your own servants are guilty of little neglects and follies, than when the servants of your next neighbor are guilty in a precisely similar degree. The Prime Minister (or Chancellor) fails to make you a Queen’s Counsel or a Judge: you are much more angry than if he had overlooked some other man, of precisely equal merit. And I do not mean merely that the injury done to yourself comes more home to you, but that positively you think it a worse thing. It seems as if there were more of moral evil in it. The boy who steals your plums seems worse than other boys stealing other plums. The servant who sells your oats and starves your horses, seems worse than other servants who do the like. It is not merely that you feel where the shoe pinches yourself, more than where it pinches another: that is all quite right. It is that you have a tendency to think it is a worse shoe than another which gives an exactly equal amount of pain. You are prone to dwell upon and brood over the misconduct which affected yourself.

Well, you begin to see that this is unworthy, that selfishness and mortified conceit are at the foundation of it. You determine that you will shake yourself free from this vulgar error. What more magnanimous, you think, than to do the opposite of the wrong thing?  Surely it will be generous, and even heroic, to wholly acquit the wrong-doer, and even to cherish him for a bosom friend. So the pendulum swings over to the opposite extreme, and you land in the secondary vulgar error. I do not mean to say that in practice many persons are likely to thus bend the twig backwards; but it is no small evil to think that it would be a right thing, and a fine thing, to do even that which you never intend to do. So you write an essay, or even a book, the gist of which is that it is a grand thing to select for a friend and guide the human being who has done you signal injustice and harm. Over that book, if it be a prettily written tale, many young ladies will weep: and though without the faintest intention of imitating your hero’s behavior, they will think that it would be a fine thing if they did so. And it is a great mischief to pervert the moral judgment and falsely to excite the moral feelings. You forget that wrong is wrong, though it be done against yourself, and that you have no right to acquit the wrong to yourself as though it were no wrong at all. That lies beyond your province. You may forgive the personal offence, but it does not rest with you to acquit the guilt. You have no right to confuse moral distinctions by practically saying that wrong is not wrong, because it is done against you. All wrong is against very many things and very grave things, besides being against you. It is not for you to speak in the name of God and the universe. You may not wish to say much about the injury done to yourself, but there it is; and as to the choosing for your friend the man who has greatly injured you, in most cases such a choice would be a very unwise one, because in most cases it would amount to this—that you should select a man for a certain post mainly because he has shown himself possessed of qualities which unfit him for that post.  That surely would be very foolish. If you had to appoint a postman, would you choose a man because he had no legs? And what is very foolish can never be very magnanimous.

The right course to follow lies between the two which have been set out. The man who has done wrong to you is still a wrong-doer.  The question you have to consider is, What ought your conduct to be towards a wrong-doer? Let there be no harbor given to any feeling of personal revenge. But remember that it is your duty to disapprove what is wrong, and that it is wisdom not too far to trust a man who has proved himself unworthy to be trusted. I have no feeling of selfish bitterness against the person who deceived me deliberately and grossly, yet I cannot but judge that deliberate and gross deceit is bad; and I cannot but judge that the person who deceived me once might, if tempted, deceive me again: so he shall not have the opportunity. I look at the horse which a friend offers me for a short ride. I discern upon the knees of the animal a certain slight but unmistakable roughness of the hair. That horse has been down; and if I mount that horse at all (which I shall not do except in a case of necessity), I shall ride him with a tight rein, and with a sharp look-out for rolling stones.

Another matter in regard to which Scylla and Charybdis are very discernible, is the fashion in which human beings think and speak of the good or bad qualities of their friends.

The primary tendency here is to blindness to the faults of a friend, and over-estimate of his virtues and qualifications. Most people are disposed extravagantly to over-value anything belonging to or connected with themselves. A farmer tells you that there never were such turnips as his turnips; a schoolboy thinks that the world cannot show boys so clever as those with whom he is competing for the first place in his class; a clever student at college tells you what magnificent fellows are certain of his compeers—how sure they are to become great men in life. Talk of Tennyson! You have not read Smith’s prize poem. Talk of Macaulay! Ah, if you could see Brown’s prize essay! A mother tells you (fathers are generally less infatuated) how her boy was beyond comparison the most distinguished and clever in his class—how he stood quite apart from, any of the others. Your eye happens to fall a day or two afterwards upon the prize-list advertised in the newspapers, and you discover that (curiously) the most distinguished and clever boy in that particular school is rewarded with the seventh prize.  I dare say you may have met with families in which there existed the most absurd and preposterous belief as to their superiority, social, intellectual, and moral, above other families which were as good or better. And it is to be admitted, that if you are happy enough to have a friend whose virtues and qualifications are really high, your primary tendency will probably be to fancy him a great deal cleverer, wiser, and better than, he really is, and to imagine that he possesses no faults at all. The over-estimate of his good qualities will be the result of your seeing them constantly, and having their excellence much pressed on your attention, while from not knowing so well other men who are quite as good, you are led to think that those good qualities are more rare and excellent than in fact they are. And you may possibly regard it as a duty to shut your eyes to the faults of those who are dear to you, and to persuade yourself, against your judgment, that they have no faults or none worth thinking of. One can imagine a child painfully struggling to be blind to a parent’s errors, and thinking it undutiful and wicked to admit the existence of that: which is too evident. And if you know well a really good and able man, you will very naturally think his goodness and his ability to be relatively much greater than they are. For goodness and ability are in truth very noble things: the more you look at them the more you will feel this: and it is natural to judge that what is so noble cannot be very common; whereas in fact there is much more good in this world than we are ready to believe. If you find an intelligent person who believes that some particular author is by far the best in the language, or that some particular composer’s music is by far the finest, or that some particular preacher is by far the most eloquent and useful, or that some particular river has by far the finest scenery, or that some particular sea-side place has by far the most bracing and exhilarating air, or that some particular magazine is ten thousand miles ahead of all competitors, the simple explanation in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred is this—that the honest individual who holds these overstrained opinions knows a great deal better than he knows any others, that author, that music, that preacher, that river, that sea-side place, that magazine. He knows how good they are: and not having much studied the merits of competing things, he does not know that these are very nearly as good.

But I do not think that there is any subject whatever in regard to which it is so capricious and arbitrary whether you shall run it into Scylla or into Charybdis. It depends entirely on how it strikes the mind, whether you shall go off a thousand miles to the right or a thousand miles to the left You know, if you fire a rifle-bullet at an iron-coated ship, the bullet, if it impinge upon the iron plate at A, may glance away to the west, while if it impinge upon the iron plate at B, only an inch distant from A, it may glance off towards the directly opposite point of the compass. A very little thing makes all the difference. You stand in the engine-room of a steamer; you admit the steam to the cylinders, and the paddles turn ahead; a touch of a lever, you admit the selfsame steam to the selfsame cylinders, and the paddles turn astern. It is so oftentimes in the moral world. The turning of a straw decides whether the engines shall work forward or backward.

Now, given a friend, to whom you are very warmly attached: it is a toss-up whether your affection for your friend shall make you:

1.   Quite blind to his faults; or,

2.   Acutely and painfully alive to his faults.


Sincere affection may impel either way. Your friend, for instance, makes a speech at a public dinner. He makes a tremendously bad speech. Now, your love for him may lead you either:

1.   To fancy that his speech is a remarkably good one; or,

2.   To feel acutely how bad his speech is, and to wish you could sink through the floor for very shame.


If you did not care for him at all, you would not mind a bit whether he made a fool of himself or not. But if you really care for him, and if the speech be really very bad, and if you are competent to judge whether speeches in general be bad or not, I do not see how you can escape falling either into Scylla or Charybdis. And accordingly, while there are families in which there exists a preposterous over-estimate of the talents and acquirements of their several members, there are other families in which the rifle-bullet has glanced off in the opposite direction, and in which there exists a depressing and unreasonable under-estimate of the talents and acquirements of their several members. I have known such a thing as a family in which certain boys during their early education had it ceaselessly drilled into them that they were the idlest, stupidest, and most ignorant boys in the world. The poor little fellows grew up under that gloomy belief: for conscience is a very artificial thing, and you may bring up very good boys in the belief that they are very bad. At length, happily, they went to a great public school; and like rockets they went up forthwith to the top of their classes, and never lost their places there. From school they went to the university, and there won honors more eminent than had ever been won before. It will not surprise people who know much of human nature, to be told that through this brilliant career of school and college work the home belief in their idleness and ignorance continued unchanged, and that hardly at its end was the toil-worn senior wrangler regarded as other than an idle and useless blockhead.  Now, the affection which prompts the under-estimate may be quite as real and deep as that which prompts the over-estimate, but its manifestation is certainly the less amiable and pleasing. I have known a successful author whose relatives never believed, till the reviews assured them of it, that his writings were anything but contemptible and discreditable trash.

I have been speaking of an honest though erroneous estimate of the qualities of one’s friends, rather than of any expression of that estimate. The primary tendency is to an over-estimate; the secondary tendency is to an under-estimate. A commonplace man thinks there never was mortal so wise and good as the friend he values; a man who is a thousandth part of a degree less common-place resolves that he will keep clear of that error, and accordingly he feels bound to exaggerate the failings of his friend and to extenuate his good qualities. He thinks that a friend’s judgment is very good and sound, and that he may well rely upon it; but for fear of showing it too much regard, he probably shows it too little. He thinks that in some dispute his friend is right; but for fear of being partial he decides that his friend is wrong. It is obvious that in any instance in which a man, seeking to avoid the primary error of over-estimating his friend, falls into the secondary of under-estimating him, he will (if any importance be attached to his judgment) damage his friend’s character; for most people will conclude that he is saying of his friend the best that can be said; and that if even he admits that there is so little to approve about his friend, there must be very little indeed to approve: whereas the truth may be, that he is saying the worst that can be said—that no man could with justice give a worse picture of the friend’s character.

Not very far removed from this pair of vulgar errors stand the following:

The primary vulgar error is, to set up as an infallible oracle one whom we regard as wise—to regard any question as settled finally if we know what is his opinion upon it. You remember the man in the Spectator who was always quoting the sayings of Mr. Nisby. There was a report in London that the Grand Vizier was dead. The good man was uncertain whether to believe the report or not. He went and talked with Mr. Nisby and returned with his mind reassured. Now, he enters in his diary that ‘the Grand Vizier was certainly dead.’ Considering the weakness of the reasoning powers of many people, there is something pleasing after all in this tendency to look round for somebody stronger upon whom they may lean. It is wise and natural in a scarlet-runner to climb up something, for it could not grow up by itself; and for practical purposes it is well that in each household there should be a little Pope, whose dicta on all topics shall be unquestionable. It saves what is to many people the painful effort of making up their mind what they are to do or to think. It enables them to think or act with much greater decision and confidence. Most men have always a lurking distrust of their own judgment, unless they find it confirmed by that of somebody else. There are very many decent commonplace people who, if they had been reading a book or article and had been thinking it very fine, would, if you were resolutely and loudly to declare in their hearing that it was wretched trash, begin to think that it was wretched trash too.

The primary vulgar error, then, is to regard as an oracle one whom we esteem as wise; and the secondary, the Charybdis opposite to this Scylla, is, to entertain an excessive dread of being too much led by one whom we esteem as wise. I mean an honest candid dread.  I do not mean a petted, wrong-headed, pragmatical determination to let him see that you can think for yourself. You see, my friend, I don’t suppose you to be a self-conceited fool. You remember how Presumption, in the Pilgrim’s Progress, on being offered some good advice, cut his kind adviser short by declaring that Every tub must stand on its own bottom. We have all known men, young and old, who, upon being advised to do something which they knew they ought to do, would, out of pure perversity and a wrong-headed independence, go and do just the opposite thing. The secondary error of which I am now thinking is that of the man who honestly dreads making too much of the judgment of any mortal: and who, acting from a good intention, probably goes wrong in the same direction as the wrong-headed conceited man. Now, don’t you know that to such an extent does this morbid fear of trusting too much to any mortal go in some men, that in their practical belief you would think that the fact of any man being very wise was a reason why his judgment should be set aside as unworthy of consideration; and more particularly, that the fact of any man being supposed to be a powerful reasoner, was quite enough to show that all he says is to go for nothing? You are quite aware how jauntily some people use this last consideration, to sweep away at once all the reasons given by an able and ingenious speaker or writer. And it cuts the ground effectually from under his feet. You state an opinion, somewhat opposed to that commonly received. An honest, stupid person meets it with a surprised stare.  You tell him (I am recording what I have myself witnessed) that you have been reading a work on the subject by a certain prelate: you state as well as you can the arguments which are set forth by the distinguished prelate. These arguments seem of great weight.  They deserve at least to be carefully considered. They seem to prove the novel opinion to be just: they assuredly call on candid minds to ponder the whole matter well before relapsing into the old current way of thinking. Do you expect that the honest, stupid person will judge thus? If so, you are mistaken. He is not shaken in the least by all these strong reasons.  The man who has set these reasons forth is known to be a master of logic: that is good ground why all his reasons should count for nothing. Oh, says the stupid, honest person, we all know that the Archbishop can prove anything! And so the whole thing is finally settled.

I have a considerable list of instances in which the reaction from an error on one side of the line of right, lands in error equally distant from the line of right on the other side: but it is needless to go on to illustrate these at length; the mere mention of them will suffice to suggest many thoughts to the intelligent reader. A primary vulgar error, to which very powerful minds have frequently shown a strong tendency, is bigoted intolerance: intolerance in politics, in religion, in ecclesiastical affairs, in morals, in anything. You may safely say that nothing but most unreasonable bigotry would lead a Tory to say that all Whigs are scoundrels, or a Whig to Bay that all Tories are bloated tyrants or crawling sycophants. I must confess that, in severe reason, it is impossible entirely to justify the Churchman who holds that all Dissenters are extremely bad; though (so does inveterate prepossession warp the intellect) I have also to admit that it appears to me that for a Dissenter to hold that there is little or no good in the Church is a great deal worse. There is something fine, however, about a heartily intolerant man: you like him, though you disapprove of him. Even if I were inclined to Whiggery, I should admire the downright dictum of Dr. Johnson, that the devil was the first Whig. Even if I were a Nonconformist, I should like Sydney Smith the better for the singular proof of his declining strength which he once adduced:

‘I do believe,’ he said, ‘that if you were to put a knife into my hand, I should not have vigor enough to stick it into a Dissenter!’ The secondary error in this respect is a latitudinarian liberality which regards truth and falsehood as matters of indifference.  Genuine liberality of sentiment is a good thing, and difficult as it is good: but much liberality, political and religious, arises really from the fact, that the liberal man does not care a rush about the matter in debate. It is very easy to be tolerant in a case in which you have no feeling whatever either way. The Churchman who does not mind a bit whether the Church stands or falls, has no difficulty in tolerating the enemies and assailants of the Church.  It is different with a man who holds the existence of a national Establishment as a vital matter. And I have generally remarked that when clergymen of the Church profess extreme catholicity of spirit, and declare that they do not regard it as a thing of the least consequence whether a man be Churchman or Dissenter, intelligent Nonconformists receive such protestations with much contempt, and (possibly with injustice) suspect their utterer of hypocrisy. If you really care much about any principle; and if you regard it as of essential importance; you cannot help feeling a strong impulse to intolerance of those who decidedly and actively differ from you.

Here are some further vulgar errors, primary and secondary:

Primary—Idleness, and excessive self-indulgence;

Secondary—Penances, and self-inflicted tortures.

Primary—Swallowing whole all that is said or done by one’s party;

Secondary—Dread of quite agreeing, or quite disagreeing on any point with any one; and trying to keep at exactly an equal distance from each.

Primary—Following the fashion with indiscriminate ardor;

Secondary—Finding a merit in singularity, as such.

Primary—Being quite captivated with thought which is striking and showy, but not sound;

Secondary—Concluding that whatever is sparkling must be unsound.

I hardly know which tendency of the following is the primary, and which the secondary; but I am sure that both exist. It may depend upon the district of country, and the age of the thinker, which of the two is the action and which the reaction:

1.   Thinking a clergyman a model of perfection, because he is a stout dashing fellow who plays at cricket and goes out fox-hunting; and, generally, who flies in the face of all conventionalism;

2.   Thinking a clergyman a model of perfection because he is of very grave and decorous deportment; never plays at cricket, and never goes out fox-hunting; and, generally, conforms carefully to all the little proprieties.

1.   Thinking a bishop a model prelate because he has no stiffness or ceremony about him, but talks frankly to everybody, and puts all who approach him at their ease;

2.   Thinking a bishop a model prelate because he never descends from his dignity; never forgets that he is a bishop, and keeps all who approach him in their proper places.

1.   Thinking the Anglican Church service the best, because it is so decorous, solemn, and dignified;

2.   Thinking the Scotch Church service the best, because it is so simple and so capable of adaptation to all circumstances which may arise.

1.   Thinking an artisan a sensible right-minded man, knowing his station, because he is always very respectful in his demeanor to the squire, and great folks generally;

2.   Thinking an artisan a fine, manly, independent fellow, because he is always much less respectful in his demeanor to the squire than he is to other people.

1.   Thinking it a fine thing to be a fast, reckless, swaggering, drinking, swearing reprobate: Being ashamed of the imputation of being a well-behaved and (above all) a pious and conscientious young man: Thinking it manly to do wrong, and washy to do right;

2.   Thinking it a despicable thing to be a fast, reckless, swaggering, drinking, swearing reprobate: Thinking it is manly to do right, and shameful to do wrong.

1.   That a young man should begin his letters to his father with HONORED SIR; and treat the old gentleman with extraordinary deference upon all occasions:

2.   That a young man should begin his remarks to his father on any subject with, I SAY, GOVERNOR; and treat the old gentleman upon all occasions with no deference at all.


But indeed, intelligent reader, the swing of the pendulum is the type of the greater amount of human opinion and human feeling. In individuals, in communities, in parishes, in little country towns, in great nations, from hour to hour, from week to week, from century to century, the pendulum swings to and fro. From Yes on the one side to No on the other side of almost all conceivable questions, the pendulum swings. Sometimes it swings over from Yes to No in a few hours or days; sometimes it takes centuries to pass from the one extremity to the other. In feeling, in taste, in judgment, in the grandest matters and the least, the pendulum swings. From Popery to Puritanism; from Puritanism back towards Popery; from Imperialism to Republicanism, and back towards Imperialism again; from Gothic architecture to Palladian, and from Palladian back to Gothic; from hooped petticoats to drapery of the scantiest, and from that backwards to the multitudinous crinoline; from crying up the science of arms to crying it down, and back; from the schoolboy telling you that his companion Brown is the jolliest fellow, to the schoolboy telling you that his companion Brown is a beast, and back again; from very high carriages to very low ones and back; from very short horsetails to very long ones and back again—the pendulum swings.  In matters of serious judgment it is comparatively easy to discern the rationale of this oscillation from side to side. It is that the evils of what is present are strongly felt, while the evils of what is absent are forgotten; and so, when the pendulum has swung over to A, the evils of A send it flying over to B, while when it reaches B the evils of B repel it again to A. In matters of feeling it is less easy to discover the how and why of the process: we can do no more than take refuge in the general belief that nature loves the swing of the pendulum. There are people who at one time have an excessive affection for some friend, and at another take a violent disgust at him: and who (though sometimes permanently remaining at the latter point) oscillate between these positive and negative poles. You, being a sensible man, would not feel very happy if some men were loudly crying you up: for you would be very sure that in a little while they would be loudly crying you down.  If you should ever happen to feel for one day an extraordinary lightness and exhilaration of spirits, you will know that you must pay for all this the price of corresponding depression—the hot fit must be counterbalanced by the cold. Let us thank God that there are beliefs and sentiments as to which the pendulum does not swing, though even in these I have known it do so. I have known the young girl who appeared thoroughly good and pious, who devoted herself to works of charity, and (with even an over-scrupulous spirit) eschewed vain company: and who by and bye learned to laugh at all serious things, and ran into the utmost extremes of giddiness and extravagant gaiety. And not merely should all of us be thankful if we feel that in regard to the gravest sentiments and beliefs our mind and heart remain year after year at the same fixed point:

I think we should be thankful if we find that as regards our favorite books and authors our taste remains unchanged; that the calm judgment of our middle age approves the preferences of ten years since, and that these gather strength as time gives them the witchery of old remembrances and associations. You enthusiastically admired Byron once, you estimate him very differently now. You once thought Festus finer than Paradise Loft, but you have swung away from that. But for a good many years you have held by Wordsworth, Shakespeare, and Tennyson, and this taste you are not likely to outgrow. It is very curious to look over a volume which we once thought magnificent, enthralling, incomparable, and to wonder how on earth we ever cared for that stilted rubbish. No doubt the pendulum swings quite as decidedly to your estimate of yourself as to your estimate of any one else. It would be nothing at all to have other people attacking and depreciating your writings, sermons, and the like, if you yourself had entire confidence in them. The mortifying thing is when your own taste and judgment say worse of your former productions than could be said by the most unfriendly critic; and the dreadful thought occurs, that if you yourself to-day think so badly of what you wrote ten years since, it is probable enough that on this day ten years hence (if you live to see it) you may think as badly of what you are writing to-day. Let us hope not. Let us trust that at length a standard of taste and judgment is reached from which we shall not ever materially swing away. Yet the pendulum will never be quite arrested as to your estimate of yourself. Now and then you will think yourself a block-head: by and bye you will think yourself very clever; and your judgment will oscillate between these opposite poles of belief. Sometimes you will think that your house is remarkably comfortable, sometimes that it is unendurably uncomfortable; sometimes you will think that your place in life is a very dignified and important one, sometimes that it is a very poor and insignificant one; sometimes you will think that some misfortune or disappointment which has befallen you is a very crushing one; sometimes you will think that it is better as it is. Ah, my brother, it is a poor, weak, wayward thing, the human heart!

You know, of course, how the pendulum of public opinion swings backwards and forwards. The truth lies somewhere about the middle of the arc it describes, in most cases. You know how the popularity of political men oscillates, from A, the point of greatest popularity, to B, the point of no popularity at all. Think of Lord Brougham.  Once the pendulum swung far to the right: he was the most popular man in Britain. Then, for many years, the pendulum swung far to the left, into the cold regions of unpopularity, loss of influence, and opposition benches. And now, in his last days, the pendulum has come over to the right again. So with lesser men. When the new clergyman comes to a country parish, how high his estimation!  Never was there preacher so impressive, pastor so diligent, man so frank and agreeable. By and bye his sermons are middling, his diligence middling; his manners rather stiff or rather too easy.  In a year or two the pendulum rests at its proper point: and from that time onward the parson gets, in most cases, very nearly the credit he deserves. The like oscillation of public opinion and feeling exists in the case of unfavorable as of favorable judgments. A man commits a great crime. His guilt is thought awful. There is a general outcry for his condign punishment. He is sentenced to be hanged. In a few days the tide begins to turn. His crime was not so great. He had met great provocation. His education had been neglected. He deserves pity rather than reprobation. Petitions are got up that he should be let off; and largely signed by the self-same folk who were loudest in the outcry against him. And instead of this fact, that those folk were the keenest against the criminal, being received (as it ought) as proof that their opinion is worth nothing at all, many will receive it as proof that their opinion is entitled to special consideration. The principle of the pendulum in the matter of criminals is well understood by the Old Bailey practitioners of New York and their worthy clients. When a New Yorker is sentenced to be hanged, he remains as a cool as cucumber; for the New York law is, that a year must pass between the sentence and the execution. And long before the year passes, the public sympathy has turned in the criminal’s favor. Endless petitions go up for his pardon. Of course he gets off. And indeed it is not improbable that he may receive a public testimonial. It cannot be denied that the natural transition in the popular feeling is from applauding a man to hanging him, and from hanging a man to applauding him.

Even so does the pendulum swing, and the world run away!


This is taken from Recreations of a Country Parson.




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