The Charlotte News



Fallacies In Wisdom

Those Callow Oldsters

By W. J. Cash

Site ed. note: Politicians, bureaucrats, on all sides of the spectrum, anti-intellectuals, take heed, says Cash, of Jeremy Bentham's "Fallacies", (perhaps more apropos reading in any time than a bloated book of "Virtues"). Says Bentham, we know more than our ancestors who suffered from want of our experience in the light of the mistakes of their generations; and it is no sin to inquire anew and to think rationally toward new solutions.

SOMEWHERE along in the last years before that testy old philosopher, Jeremy Bentham, departed this life and left his integument to the medical school of the University of London, where to this day it still sits in solemn state at the head of the table on occasion of board meetings, there appeared in the stalls of the London booksellers a work entitled "The Book of Fallacies: from Unfinished Papers of Jeremy Bentham, by a Friend." And shortly thereafter the Rev. Sydney Smith, the same who is credited with that query anent the improbability of anybody reading an American book, sat himself down and reviewed the Bentham opus for the "Edinburg"--mainly by the simple process of reducing the ponderous Bentham sentences to readable English and quoting them.

I think that that review, which has survived and got into all the anthologies under the title of "Fallacies of Anti-Reformers," might very well be made required reading for a great many dignitaries now performing on the American stage. Surely the following passage, for instance, is made to order for what ails the Hon. Herbert Hoover and the Hon. Jim Reed and the distinguished Mr. Frank Kent and the scarcely less distinguished Mr. David Lawrence and the whole roster of the American Liberty League--the whole swarming horde of "Defenders of the Constitution" who have lately sprung up among us, after three years watching, and in many cases actually participating in, the destruction of the Bill of Rights without ever raising a single cheep of protest:

Our Young Ancestors

"Our Young Ancestors --The Wisdom Of Our Ancestors--The Wisdom of the Ages--Venerable Antiquity--Wisdom Of Old Times.--This mischievous and absurd fallacy springs from the grossest perversion of the meaning of words. Experience is certainly the mother of wisdom, and the old have, of course, a greater experience than the young; but the question is who are the old? and who are the young? Of individuals living at the same period, the oldest has, of course, the greatest experience, but among generations of men the reverse of this is true. Those to come first (our ancestors) are the young people and have the least experience. Those who come later are the old people and have the experience of many centuries; and therefore, as far as experience goes, are wiser and more capable of forming an opinion than they were... All this cant, then, about our ancestors is merely an abuse of words... And yet when the chancellor comes forward to protect some abuse, or to oppose some plan which has the increase of human happiness for its object, his first appeal was always to the wisdom of our ancestors...

"We cannot of course be supposed to maintain that our ancestors wanted wisdom, or that they were necessarily mistaken in their institutions... But we do confidently maintain that when we find it expedient to change anything our ancestors have enacted, we are the experienced persons, and not they... It is necessary to insist upon this; for upon sacks of wool, and on benches forensic, sit grave man, and agricolus persons in the commons crying out: 'Ancestors, ancestors! hodie non! Saxons, Danes, save us! Fiddlefrig, help us! Howel, Ethelwolf, protect us!' Any cover for nonsense--any veil for trash--any pretext for repelling the innovations of conscience and of duty!"

And so is this passage also marvellously fitted to the same gentry, and any number of others in these days when it is being solemnly urged in behalf of a candidate for the presidency the United States that, if anything, he is a little below the mentality of the average pussyhead, that he has never been known to have an idea, and that he is quite incapable of having a plan:

The Sin Of Thinking

"Anti-Rational Fallacies.--When reason is in opposition to a man's interests his study will naturally be to render the faculty itself, and whatever issues from it, an object of hatred and contempt. The sarcasm employed on the occasion are directed not merely against reason but against thought, as if there were something in the faculty of thought which rendered the exercise of it incompatible with useful and successful practice. Sometimes a plan which would not suit the... person's interests, is without more ado pronounced a speculative one; and by this observation, all need of rational and deliberate discussion is considered to be superseded. The first effort... is to fix the epithet speculative upon any scheme which... may cherish the spirit of reform. The expression is hailed with the greatest delight... and to the word 'speculative,' by way of reinforcement, are added: theoretical, visionary, chimerical, romantic, Utopian.

"Such is the perfection at which this art is at length arrived, that the very circumstance of a plan's being susceptible of the appellation of a plan, has been gravely stated as a circumstance sufficient to warrant its rejection..."

And how strikingly applicable is this one, not only to swarms of men in private life, to swarms of men who have been howling about government regulation of securities and government inquiry into power rates, but also to a mighty army on the other side, including specifically the reigning President of the United States and the celebrated Mr. Harry Hopkins, captain-general of the dubious WPA.

The Facted Omniscients

"Self-Trumpeter's Fallacy.--There are certain men who, in discharge of their functions, arrogate to themselves a degree of probity, which is to exclude all imputation and all inquiry. Their assertions are to be deemed equivalent to proof, their virtues are guaranties for the fateful discharge of their duties, and the most implicit confidence is to be imposed in them on all occasions. If you expose any abuse, propose any reform, call for securities, inquiry, or measures to promote publicity, they set out a cry of surprise, amounting... to indigestion... With all this, they dexterously mix up intimations that the most exalted patriotism, honor, and perhaps religion, are the only sources of their actions."

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