February 28, 2009
Superficially Wise (But Actually Foolish) Sayings of Smart People (A Contest)By Frank Dudley Berry, Jr
A long time ambition of mine, which is being fulfilled in this writing, has been to conduct a competition to identify sayings, aphorisms if you will, that are often quoted, apparently expressions of great wisdom, that -- when they are in depth and critically, reveal themselves to be utter nonsense or worse. The object is to take a hard look at real conventional wisdom -- principles that most of us actually believe reflect wisdom, as opposed to attitudes and expressions to which we give lip service for the sake of getting along.
Some tough rules apply here -- because this is not an exercise in discovering objects to ridicule. The point is to identify the sayings at which we all nod sagely that don't hold up on second thought. So the rules have to be tough.
1. No quotes from identified idiots or villains, e.g., bring your tired old game from Adolph Hitler or Mikail Bakunin into the key, and it'll be slapped back in your face. Rejection city, baby. Quotes from respected sources only - the more respectable, the better.
2. Nothing topical. I know how tempting it would be to submit the latest inanity from Paul Krugman or Keith Olberman and blow it up. I feel the urge myself. But we are after bigger game here. The object of the exercise are sayings that are apparently expressions of timeless truth . . . that are not.
3. No predictions. For one thing, predictions that have been proven disastrously wrong have no value as hard intellectual currency these days. We all know there's no such thing as an unsinkable ship. For another, even the best and brightest go wrong in fortune telling. It's too easy.
4. No obviously stupid sayings. High quality counterfeit wisdom is the name of the game, stuff that can pass as coin of the realm unless it is bitten really, REALLY, hard.
The contest is open to anyone with a candidate quote. (Sorry, there are no prizes.) But obviously I have some candidate quotes of my own. I'll lead off with one of them to get the ball rolling in the right (I hope) direction. My first choice:
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
The selection is something of a surprise? I'd be surprised if it were not. This aphorism (or innumerable variants thereof) of Santayana's is endlessly re-quoted, always with approval. It seems to state a principle of elemental, axiomatic wisdom. But in my (actually rather humble, in this instance) opinion there is some really dubious stuff expressed here, relative to the notion of history as science and history itself.
As to the first, the premise that history repeats itself in any meaningful sense is extremely suspect. The more I learn about some historical event, the more I am struck by the accidental aspects of it, particularly the importance of personality. Discuss the macro-economic factors behind the American Revolution till the cows come home -- the importance of the indvidual Founding Fathers, particularly Washington, are critical to the shape of the contours of the event. As time moves on, the contours become everything. The restraint that Washington showed in not financing the military by expropriating Tory property -- a detail if ever there were one -- was a sine qua non, without which the Declaration of Independence would lose most -- perhaps all -- of its value.
How can the larger significance of the Civil War be separated from the personalities of Lincoln, Grant, and Robert E. Lee? What happens if a man with the courage and wisdom of Joshua Chamberlain is not at the end of the line at Lille Round Top at Gettysburg? In the same way, the Russian Revolution cannot possibly take the form it does absent the personality of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, a.k.a. Lenin?
If events of this magnitude devolve endlessly into details, and ever more profound detail, in what meaningful sense can patterns be deduced from them? I know that this insight causes Hegelian and Marxist scholars to weep buckets, but even so, I don't believe there is any pattern at all to historical movements. The study of history is of supreme value . . . but as the best and most useful study of human nature, nothing more. (That is more than sufficient reason.)
Which leads to the second point. Even if the past did have lessons for the present, how could they possibly be applied to the present? Let me wax lyrical for a moment and borrow a metaphor from Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine - the characters in their Pulitzer Prize winning show 'Sundays in the Park with George'. I do believe that our perception of contemporary events can fairly be described in terms of pointillist art. We are ourselves figures on the canvas of the present , both participating in and observing the events of our time. As such, we perceive huge arrays of data points, but too numerous, too unrelated, too sprawling and unwieldy, to be interpreted with any confident precision (unless we want to bring in our value judgments and decide that some are more important than others.) No one in his own time can distinguish for certain between a fad, a trend, or an irrelevant incident. It is only later, after a certain distance develops between the canvas and the observer, that these points form themselves into shapes, patterns, colors -- and even then, undercut by the effect of random detail, as noted above.
So even if solid lessons could be developed from history, deciding how and to what they apply is impossible -- a matter of sheer hit and miss intuition. So what wisdom is there, really, in Santayana's aphorism? Not much.
Thus it happens that -- as wisdom -- this famous quote turns out to be a non-starter. As far as the science of history, there is no area of human study in which God - and the Devil - dwell more completely in the details - so completely that it makes any pretense of 'science' an illusion. (I'd apologize for the tears to all those Marxists and Hegelians, but they deserve all the misery they get.)
History as science? History with practical lessons to the present dilemmas? Nonsense. In the sense in which Santayana uses the term 'history', not only does history not repeat itself. It doesn't even happen the first time.
So that's my first try. I have many others, but submissions of all kinds are welcome. E-mail me at email@example.com with your thoughts. Acknowledgments to all. Prizes - other than warm gratitude - to none.