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Page:Littell's Living Age - Volume 130.djvu/300

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THOUGHTS OF AN OUTSIDER:

judging wrongly, but in judging at all; but that offence is so universal that it does not deserve to be condemned severely. So long as we take advantage of the liberty common to all men of forming opinions without knowledge of the facts, we must not be angry if other people use the same privilege, and fall into similar blunders.

The argument, it may be replied, would justify a mischievous scepticism. Are we to admit that no judgment can be formed about national character? Are we to assume that all nations, or all civilized nations, are equally good? And are we therefore to love our neighbors as well as ourselves, and to regard patriotism as a vice instead of a virtue? None of these terrible conclusions really follow; but some things follow which we do not admit so willingly as we ought, because we find it hard to resign pretensions to supernatural sagacity. Judgments can be formed about national character, and certain conclusions established which are of the highest value in political and historical reasoning. We can assign with great confidence certain distinctions between the great varieties of the human race. We can define with some accuracy the peculiar qualities of temperament which separate the Teuton from the Celt, and the Englishman from the American. But what few people can do with any show of reason, and probably no one can do with any approach to certainty, is to effect a sound analysis of national character, to decide upon the intensity as well as the general tendency of the various constituent impulses, and then to determine the resultant value of the amazingly complex forces which result when these elements are brought together to form the whole which we call a nation. A few acute critics or political reasoners can say pretty accurately in what directions French modes of thought and action diverge from English, and can infer which is best on a given occasion. Even such men will be the first to confess their utter inability to say which type is on the whole the best. But as the overwhelming majority of the race are utterly incapable of taking the first steps in this difficult processĀ ; as their hasty conclusions are not even based indirectly upon rational judgment, but reflect a number of utterly irrational prejudices, it may perhaps be said that modesty in expressing their opinions is distinctly desirable. Nor, again, need we assume that all nations, and still less the institutions of all nations, are equally good. To learn in what respects and why one is better than another is precisely the great problem of the philosophical observer. We should be foolish indeed not to take warning by the breakdown of some constitutions or be encouraged by the success of others. A national calamity should be a warning to others besides the persons directly affected. The objectionable practice in this case is the common tendency of jumping at the conclusions which flatter our preconceived prejudices. The action which takes place is so complex that every party has some excuse for attributing all the evils which arise to its own pet object of detestation. If you had all believed in my creed, we exclaim, this would not have happened and the retort is easy neither would it have happened if we had all disbelieved. Both remarks may be right. When two parties are struggling, many evils happen which would not occur if either had converted its antagonist; but that does not show which conversion is desirable. Nothing is easier than to devise taunts to vex your opponents from any historical incident that ever happened. You have only to read it by the light of your own theories. The true reason is that the extreme intricacy of all such problems makes all inferences precarious. Whether the ultramontanes or the unbelievers, the absolutists or the democrats, are most to blame is a question which may be ultimately decided by experience, but can only be confused by these hasty snatches at an immediate conclusion. The great mass may be content with observing frequent illustrations of the great truth that moral enormities bring round their punishment in time. The old maxims that honesty is the best policy, and oppression an evil both to tyrant and slave, are worth hearing afresh because incessantly forgotten. When, not content with those simple truths, we try to pronounce specific verdicts upon the conduct of people of whose motives, designs, characters, and difficulties we know next to nothing, we are apt to make disgraceful blunders and indirectly to flatter our own faults. The chief use of these national prejudices is to blind ourselves to the reflection that, if we had been in the same position, we should probably have done the same thing. The epithet "French" or " American" is easily made to account for everything, and flatters us into the generally erroneous assumption that we are not as those publicans.

Is not this to preach a futile cosmopolitanism? We are proud of our English descent, and we won't admit that our pride can be wrong, for it is that pride which