24 November 2015

The Indistinctness of Their Own Conceptions

Hugh Blair, Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres (Basil: J. L. Legrand, 1789), p. 212:
Authors sometimes plead the difficulty of their subject, as an excuse for the want of Perspicuity. But the excuse can rarely, if ever, be sustained. For whatever a man conceives clearly, that it is in his power, if he will be at the trouble, to put into distinct propositions, to express clearly to others: and upon no subject ought any man to write, where he cannot think clearly. His ideas, indeed, may, very excusably, be on some subjects incomplete or inadequate; but still, as far as they go, they ought to be clear; and, wherever this is the case, Perspicuity in expressing them is always attainable. The obscurity which reigns so much among many metaphysical writers is, for the most part, owing to the indistinctness of their own conceptions. They see the object but in a confused light; and, of course, can never exhibit it in a clear one to others.
A related post: Mumbo Jumbo

20 November 2015

We Are Men, Not Insects

John Ruskin, The Mystery of Life (New York: T.Y. Crowell & Co, 1907), pp. 38-39:
Because you have no heaven to look for, is that any reason that you should remain ignorant of this wonderful and infinite earth, which is firmly and instantly given you in possession? Although your days are numbered, and the following darkness sure, is it necessary that you should share the degradation of the brute, because you are condemned to its mortality; or live the life of the moth, and of the worm, because you are to companion them in the dust? Not so; we may have but a few thousands of days to spend, perhaps hundreds only — perhaps, tens; nay, the longest of our time and best, looked back on, will be but as a moment, as the twinkling of an eye; still, we are men, not insects; we are living spirits, not passing clouds. . . . Let us do the work of men while we bear the form of them; and, as we snatch our narrow portion of time out of Eternity, snatch also our narrow inheritance of passion out of Immortality — even though our lives be as a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away.

18 November 2015

Timid and Industrious Animals

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, tr. Henry Reeve, Vol. II (New York: The Colonial Press, 1899), pp. 332-333:
I seek to trace the novel features under which despotism may appear in the world. The first thing that strikes the observation is an innumerable multitude of men all equal and alike, incessantly endeavoring to procure the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives. Each of them, living apart, is as a stranger to the fate of all the rest — his children and his private friends constitute to him the whole of mankind; as for the rest of his fellow-citizens, he is close to them, but he sees them not — he touches them, but he feels them not; he exists but in himself and for himself alone; and if his kindred still remain to him, he may be said at any rate to have lost his country. Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications, and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent, if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks on the contrary to keep them in perpetual childhood: it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing. For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness: it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances — what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living? Thus it every day renders the exercise of the free agency of man less useful and less frequent; it circumscribes the will within a narrower range, and gradually robs a man of all the uses of himself. The principle of equality has prepared men for these things: it has predisposed men to endure them, and oftentimes to look on them as benefits.

After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp, and fashioned them at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided: men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting: such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to be nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.
The original, from Oeuvres complètes d'Alexis de Tocqueville, Vol. III (Paris: Michel Lévy Frères, 1864), pp. 518-521:
Je veux imaginer sous quels traits nouveaux le despotisme pourrait se produire dans le monde: je vois une foule innombrable d'hommes semblables et égaux qui tournent sans repos sur eux-mêmes pour se procurer de petits et vulgaires plaisirs, dont ils emplissent leur âme. Chacun d'eux, retiré à l'écart, est comme étranger à la destinée de tous les autres: ses enfants et ses amis particuliers forment pour lui toute l'espèce humaine; quant au demeurant de ses concitoyens, il est à côté d'eux, mais il ne les voit pas; il les touche et ne les sent point; il n'existe qu'en lui-même et pour lui seul, et s'il lui reste encore une famille, on peut dire du moins qu'il n'a plus de patrie.

Au-dessus de ceux-la s'élève un pouvoir immense et tutélaire, qui se charge seul d'assurer leur jouissance et de veiller sur leur sort. Il est absolu, détaillé, régulier, prévoyant et doux. Il ressemblerait à la puissance paternelle si, comme elle, il avait pour objet de préparer les hommes à l'âge viril; mais il ne cherche, au contraire, qu'à les fixer irrévocablement dans l'enfance; il aime que les citoyens se réjouissent, pourvu qu'ils ne songent qu'à se réjouir. Il travaille volontiers à leur bonheur; mais il veut en être l'unique agent et le seul arbitre; il pourvoit à leur sécurité, prévoit et assure leurs besoins, facilite leurs plaisirs, conduit leurs principales affaires, dirige leur industrie, règle leurs successions, divise leurs héritages; que ne peut-il leur ôter entièrement le trouble de penser et la peine de vivre?

C'est ainsi que tous les jours il rend moins utile et plus rare l'emploi du libre arbitre; qu'il renferme l'action de la volonté dans un plus petit espace, et dérobe peu a peu chaque citoyen jusqu'à l'usage de lui-même. L'égalité a préparé les hommes à toutes ces choses: elle les a disposés à les souffrir et souvent même à les regarder comme un bienfait.

Après avoir pris ainsi tour à tour dans ses puissantes mains chaque individu, et l'avoir pétri à sa guise, le souverain étend ses bras sur la société tout entière; il en couvre la surface d'un réseau de petites règles compliquées, minutieuses et uniformes, à travers lesquelles les esprits les plus originaux et les âmes les plus vigoureuses ne sauraient se faire jour pour dépasser la foule; il ne brise pas les volontés, mais il les amollit, les plie et les dirige; il force rarement d'agir, mais il s'oppose sans cesse à ce qu'on agisse; il ne détruit point, il empêche de naître; il ne tyrannise point, il gêne, il comprime, il énerve, il éteint, il hébète, et il réduit enfin chaque nation a n'être plus qu'un troupeau d'animaux timides et industrieux, dont le gouvernement est le berger.

4 November 2015

Enwrapped in a Shroud of Indifference

Henri Murger, The Bohemians of the Latin Quarter (Paris: Société des Beaux-Arts, 1905), p. xxxviii:
In artistic struggles it is almost the same as in war, the whole of the glory acquired falls to the leaders; the army shares as its reward the few lines in a despatch. As to the soldiers struck down in battle, they are buried where they fall, and one epitaph serves for twenty thousand dead.

So, too, the crowd, which always has its eyes fixed on the rising sun, never lowers its glance towards that underground world where the obscure workers are struggling; their existence finishes unknown and without sometimes even having had the consolation of smiling at an accomplished task, they depart from this life, enwrapped in a shroud of indifference.
Henri Murger, Scènes de la vie de Bohème (Paris: Larousse, 1900), p. 21:
Il en est dans les luttes de l'art à peu près comme à la guerre: toute la gloire conquise rejaillit sur le nom des chefs; l'armée se partage pour récompenses les quelques lignes d'un ordre du jour. Quant aux soldats frappés dans le combat, on les enterre là où ils sont tombés, et une seule épitaphe suffit pour vingt mille morts.

De même aussi la foule, qui a toujours les yeux fixés vers ce  qui s'élève, n'abaisse jamais son regard jusqu'au monde souterrain où luttent les obscurs travailleurs; leur existence s'achève inconnue, et, sans avoir même quelquefois la consolation de sourire à une œuvre terminée, ils s'en vont de la vie ensevelis dans un linceul d'indifférence.
Illustration from the 1850 edition

2 November 2015

I Will Never Be Hungry Again

Maria Massey Barringer, "Fricassee of Squirrels," a recipe from Dixie Cookery, included as part of Edward Mitchell's $5000 a Year on the Farm and How I Made it in Five Years' Time  (Philadelphia: John E. Potter, 1882), p. 26:
Put two young squirrels into a pot with two ounces of butter, one or two ounces of ham, some salt and pepper, and just water enough to cover them. Let them stew slowly until tender. Take them up, and pour half a teacup of cream and a beaten yoke of egg into the gravy, and when it has boiled five minutes, pour over the squirrels in the dish.  Some persons prefer a wine glass of red wine, and omit the cream and egg.