Commentary Magazine


The Manichean Temptation

In her 1965 New York Review of Books essay on the 19th century British businessman, essayist, and journalist Walter Bagehot (which can be found in this collection), the eminent historian Gertrude Himmelfarb wrote this:

The current intellectual fashions put a premium on simplicity and activism. The subtleties, complications, and ambiguities that until recently have been the mark of serious thought are now taken to signify a failure of nerve, a compromise with evil, an evasion of judgment and “commitment.” It is as if the “once-born” (to use the terms invented by Francis Newman and immortalized by William James) were reasserting themselves over the “twice-born”: the once-born, simple and “healthy-minded,” having faith in a beneficent God and a perfectible universe; the twice-born in awe of His mystery, impressed by the recalcitrance of men and the anomalies of social action.

Bagehot, who became editor of The Economist, possessed what Himmelfarb called a “compelling vision that inevitably brought with it a complexity, subtlety, and depth that he found lacking in much of the discourse of the time.” As it was then, so it remains today.

Part of the explanation for this is that many of us who are active in politics eventually choose a side—whether it be the side of an individual, a political party, or a political philosophy. And once we do, we’re all on one side or all on another. As a result, we often lose our detachment and sense of distance. We go in search of facts to reinforce pre-existing views. Pastels are replaced by primary colors.

It’s important to point out here that the qualities Bagehot possessed are not antithetical to a principled worldview or advocacy. Seeing complexities in situations doesn’t mean that all politicians and all political ideologies are created equal. Nor is truth always equidistant between two end points. There’s far more to say for the philosophy of Adam Smith than for Karl Marx.

But what Himmelfarb found admirable in Bagehot, I think, was his refusal to hermetically seal himself off when it came to considering the merits of opposing views. “His sense of reality was multifaceted,” according to Himmelfarb, “shaped by the simple and the complex, the commonplace and the recondite.”

“He was that rare species of the twice-born who could give proper due to the rights and merits of the once-born,” she wrote.

Resisting the temptation to ascribe all virtue and intellectual merit to one’s own side while denying it to the other—as if on every issue all the arguments line up on one side and none on the other, freeing us of the need to carefully weigh competing goods—is among the more challenging things in politics. But most of us who comprise the political class struggle with this temptation more than we want to admit.

None of this is new and none of this is easy. Self-knowledge—including the ability to perceive when honest inquiry in the search for truth becomes subsidium to championing a person, a party, or a cause—rarely is. I wouldn’t deny for a moment that in politics, as in philosophy, arriving at the correct destination matters quite a lot. But so does integrity in the process. Corrupting the means to the ends can also corrupt the ends.

That’s worth bearing in mind in any age, but perhaps especially in ours, when the accelerated pace of commentary—from cable television to blogs to Twitter—makes serious thought that much harder and an appreciation for ambiguities and subtleties that much rarer.

In 21st century America—in the midst of an intense presidential election—we could all use a bit more of the sensibilities and disposition of a Walter Bagehot.