Why all Wise Men are Sad: The Roots of Reactionary Pessimism

“Generally speaking, everybody is reactionary on subjects he knows about” 

Robert Conquest quoted in Kingsley Amis, Memoirs (1991)

“Reflecting on what has been said, we see how quickly men’s eyes may be opened, if knowing that they deceive themselves in generalities, we can find a way to make them pass to particulars . . .”

Niccolo Machiavelli, Discourses on the First Decade of Titus Livy (1531)

My first epigraph is the first of Conquest’s three laws of conservatism, now perhaps better known in John Derbyshire’s paraphrase: “everyone is conservative about what he knows best.”  What this means is that it requires ignorance to believe that ameliorative social “progress” is easy, efficacious, or even possibility.  Making the world a better place appears simple only so long as one has very little idea how the world works.  The more one knows about some thing, the more one understands why it is done the way it is, why alternative ways of doing it are not done, and why optimistic reformers do not, “generally speaking,” have any idea what they are talking about.

Kingsley Amis became a friend of Robert Conquest in the early 1950s, when Amis was still one of the “angry young men” of British letters and Conquest was a young historian beginning to buck the leftist tide with honest histories of the horrors of Soviet Russia.  In addition to being an angry young man of letters (Lucky Jim was published in 1954), Amis paid his bills by teaching English at a redbrick university like the one he described in Lucky Jim.  Of his friendship with Conquest Amis writes,

“In those days I was some sort of a man of the Left, and this brought us into mild conflict.  Some time later he [Conquest] was to point out that, while very ‘progressive’ on the subject of colonialism and other matters I was ignorant of, I was a sound reactionary about education, of which I had some understanding and experience.”*

 On the connection between experience and reactionary pessimism, Paul Fussell has this to say about his friend Amis.

“Amis has taught at four universities, and his experience at each seems to have augmented his disillusion with that scene.”**

I realize that disillusion is not the only consequence of learning “how things work” and “why things are done the way they are,” and I am the first to insist that a reactionary is not simply a sour old grumbler who denounces everything as a swindle and a sham.  But everybody is, generally speaking, reactionary on subjects he knows about because he knows they can seldom be improved.  If they presently work well, “reform” and “improvement” will almost certainly make them worse; if they are swindles and shams, “reform” and “improvement” is very unlikely to make them better.

* * * * *

Four hundred years before Robert Conquest and Kingsley Amis were born, Machiavelli explained the connection between ignorance and reforming zeal.  This was in his Discourses on the First Decade of Livy (1531), where he said the connection was recorded in a Florentine proverb.

“Men have one mind in the market-place, another in the palace.” 

Those men in the market-place are not wily merchants, but rather loafers, idlers, bar-stool politicians, and cracker-barrel philosophers.  They are the ignorant and opinionated multitude of fools who believe that ameliorative social “progress” is not only possible, but also easy and efficacious.  All that is required, these ignoramuses believe, is to put good men in power, remove the obvious evils, and make some simple reforms.

It is all so easy, it is a wonder no one has not done it already.

Machiavelli goes on to say that, if one of these chattering idlers is raised from the market-place to the palace, and begins to understand how things work and why things are the way they are, he will almost immediately becomes a sadder and wiser man.  (Students of American history know that Thomas Jefferson underwent this miraculous transformation when he became President.) Here is Machiavelli.

“So soon as he obtained this advancement, and saw things nearer, [he] became aware whence the disorders I have spoken of really came, the dangers attending them, and the difficulty in dealing with them . . . . [And he therefore] suddenly altered his views and conduct.”

He altered his views and conduct to the sober views and conduct of a reactionary.  But to all his old comrades in the market-place—the loafers, the idlers, the bar-stool politicians, the cracker-barrel philosophers—his alteration looks like “selling out.”

“[They] believed that this arose not from his having obtained any better knowledge of things, but from his having been cajoled or corrupted by the great.”

Here is the whole passage from Machiavelli, which Conquest’s first law of conservatism distills and clarifies.

“A people therefore is apt to err in judging of things and their accidents in the abstract, but on becoming acquainted with particulars, speedily discovers its mistakes. In the year 1494, when her greatest citizens were banished from Florence, and no regular government any longer existed there, but a spirit of license prevailed, and matters went continually from bad to worse, many Florentines perceiving the decay of their city, and discerning no other cause for it, blamed the ambition of this or the other powerful citizen, who, they thought, was fomenting these disorders with a view to establish a government to his own liking, and to rob them of their liberties. Those who thought thus, would hang about the arcades and public squares, maligning many citizens, and giving it to be understood that if ever they found themselves in the Signory [chief magistrate], they would expose the designs of these citizens and have them punished. From time to time it happened that one or another of those who used this language rose to be of the chief magistracy, and so soon as he obtained this advancement, and saw things nearer, became aware whence the disorders I have spoken of really came, the dangers attending them, and the difficulty in dealing with them; and recognizing that they were the growth of the times, and not occasioned by particular men, suddenly altered his views and conduct; a nearer knowledge of facts freeing him from the false impressions he had been led into on a general view of affairs. But those who had heard him speak as a private citizen, when they saw him remain inactive after he was made a magistrate, believed that this arose not from his having obtained any better knowledge of things, but from his having been cajoled or corrupted by the great. And this happening with many men and often, it came to be a proverb among the people, that ‘men had one mind in the market-place, another in the palace.’

Reflecting on what has been said, we see how quickly men’s eyes may be opened, if knowing that they deceive themselves in generalities, we can find a way to make them pass to particulars . . .”***

*) Kingsley Amis, Memoirs (New York: Summit Books, 1991), p. 146.
**) Paul Fussell, The Anti-Egotist: Kingsley Amis, Man of Letters (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 53.
***) Niccolo Machiavelli, Discourses on the First Decade of Titus Livy, trans. Ninian Hill Thomas (London: Keegan Paul, Trench and Co., 1883), pp. 147-148.

2 thoughts on “Why all Wise Men are Sad: The Roots of Reactionary Pessimism

  1. To young people who have said, in my hearing, “I want to change the world,” I have replied, “Change thyself first, I dare you.” It is more difficult, expensive and painful; and more beneficial to oneself and indirectly to all than any external alteration one might seem to affect. The world is corrupt and man is corruption personified. If the wise are saddened, the wise have not yet learned to drop the dream entirely. Let it go!

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