Monday, January 23

Angels, Brutes, and Hobgoblins

I just came across an old saying from Pascal (whose Pensees, by the way, must be one of the great neglected work of our age), which, had I remembered it, I would have used in my recent Che Guevara post. The saying is:

Man is neither angel nor brute, and the misfortune is that he who would act the angel acts the brute.

But this saying--not its substance, but my use of it--raises a pet peeve of mine. Few things spike my blood pressure higher or faster than the indiscriminate use of quotations--the argumentum ad verecundiam, as it was drilled into my soft grey matter as a schoolboy in England. What special insight into the human condition did Pascal possess to imbue this saying with authority deserving of deference? Well, nothing transcendent, though he was about as smart as they come in our humble species. But so was Einstein, and it is all I can do to keep my fists at my side when people quote his idiosyncratic pronouncements on pacifism as though they were sacred and unimpeachable writ.

The most abused quote, though, must be Emerson's ubiquitous "consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds," which is not, of course the whole quote, though it is often left dangling thus, incomplete and misleading. The full quote, "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds," is the consummate weasel quote, used as a "get out of jail free" card by debaters cornered by a logical, fair argument. No sympathy should redound to any debater who lets the quote pass unscathed; its intellectual emptiness must be seized upon and denounced. It stands, if anything, for the unremarkable proposition that "a foolish consistency" is a characteristic of "little minds." The phrase's rhetorical flaw is the word "foolish," which consigns the rest of the sense to the realm of platitude. Of course something foolish is, well, foolish (or "the hobgoblin of little minds," or any other creative rendering of small-mindedness or . . . uh, foolishness). Emerson's dictum is a finely wrought tautology.

Returning to Pascal, angels, and brutes, it would have been a fitting cap to my post, but it would have been pure ornament, devoid of persuasive import. I like it because it poetically illustrates the specific case I was discussing, but it is far from a universal truth. It would, for example, be a horribly inappropriate summary of the life of St. Francis of Assisi, who acted the angel as impressively as any man and was the furthest thing from a brute.

In case you stuck around this long and were wondering, I'm not going anywhere with this post; there will be no Joycean epiphany forthcoming. Just my thoughts, as usual, unalloyed and unremarkable. Thanks for humoring me.