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On Paradox And Common-Place
by [?]

I have been sometimes accused of a fondness for paradoxes, but I cannot in my own mind plead guilty to the charge. I do not indeed swear by an opinion because it is old; but neither do I fall in love with every extravagance at first sight because it is new. I conceive that a thing may have been repeated a thousand times without being a bit more reasonable than it was the first time: and I also conceive that an argument or an observation may be very just, though it may so happen that it was never stated before: but I do not take it for granted that every prejudice is ill-founded; nor that every paradox is self-evident, merely because it contradicts the vulgar opinion. Sheridan once said of some speech in his acute, sarcastic way, that ‘it contained a great deal both of what was new and what was true: but that unfortunately what was new was not true, and what was true was not new.’ This appears to me to express the whole sense of the question. I do not see much use in dwelling on a common-place, however fashionable or well established: nor am I very ambitious of starting the most specious novelty, unless I imagine I have reason on my side. Originality implies independence of opinion; but differs as widely from mere singularity as from the tritest truism. It consists in seeing and thinking for one’s-self: whereas singularity is only the affectation of saying something to contradict other people, without having any real opinion of one’s own upon the matter. Mr. Burke was an original, though an extravagant writer: Mr. Windham was a regular manufacturer of paradoxes.

The greatest number of minds seem utterly incapable of fixing on any conclusion, except from the pressure of custom and authority: opposed to these there is another class less numerous but pretty formidable, who in all their opinions are equally under the influence of novelty and restless vanity. The prejudices of the one are counterbalanced by the paradoxes of the other; and folly, ‘putting in one scale a weight of ignorance, in that of pride,’ might be said to ‘smile delighted with the eternal poise.’ A sincere and manly spirit of inquiry is neither blinded by example nor dazzled by sudden flashes of light. Nature is always the same, the storehouse of lasting truth, and teeming with inexhaustible variety; and he who looks at her with steady and well-practised eyes will find enough to employ all his sagacity, whether it has or has not been seen by others before him. Strange as it may seem, to learn what an object is, the true philosopher looks at the object itself, instead of turning to others to know what they think or say or have heard of it, or instead of consulting the dictates of his vanity, petulance, and ingenuity to see what can be said against their opinion, and to prove himself wiser than all the rest of the world. For want of this the real powers and resources of the mind are lost and dissipated in a conflict of opinions and passions, of obstinacy against levity, of bigotry against self-conceit, of notorious abuses against rash innovations, of dull, plodding, old-fashioned stupidity against new-fangled folly, of worldly interest against headstrong egotism, of the incorrigible prejudices of the old and the unmanageable humours of the young; while truth lies in the middle, and is overlooked by both parties. Or as Luther complained long ago, ‘human reason is like a drunken man on horseback: set it up on one side, and it tumbles over on the other.’–With one sort, example, authority, fashion, ease, interest, rule all: with the other, singularity, the love of distinction, mere whim, the throwing off all restraint and showing an heroic disregard of consequences, an impatient and unsettled turn of mind, the want of sudden and strong excitement, of some new play-thing for the imagination, are equally ‘lords of the ascendant,’ and are at every step getting the start of reason, truth, nature, common sense, and feeling. With one party, whatever is, is right: with their antagonists, whatever is, is wrong. These swallow every antiquated absurdity: those catch at every new, unfledged project–and are alike enchanted with the velocipedes or the French Revolution. One set, wrapped up in impenetrable forms and technical traditions, are deaf to everything that has not been dinned in their ears, and in those of their forefathers, from time immemorial: their hearing is thick with the same old saws, the same unmeaning form of words, everlastingly repeated: the others pique themselves on a jargon of their own, a Babylonish dialect, crude, unconcocted, harsh, discordant, to which it is impossible for any one else to attach either meaning or respect. These last turn away at the mention of all usages, creeds, institutions of more than a day’s standing as a mass of bigotry, superstition, and barbarous ignorance, whose leaden touch would petrify and benumb their quick, mercurial, ‘apprehensive, forgetive’ faculties. The opinion of to-day supersedes that of yesterday: that of to-morrow supersedes, by anticipation, that of to-day. The wisdom of the ancients, the doctrines of the learned, the laws of nations, the common sentiments of morality, are to them like a bundle of old almanacs. As the modern politician always asks for this day’s paper, the modern sciolist always inquires after the latest paradox. With him instinct is a dotard, nature a changeling, and common sense a discarded by-word. As with the man of the world, what everybody says must be true, the citizen of the world has quite a different notion of the matter. With the one, the majority; ‘the powers that be’ have always been in the right in all ages and places, though they have been cutting one another’s throats and turning the world upside down with their quarrels and disputes from the beginning of time: with the other, what any two people have ever agreed in is an error on the face of it. The credulous bigot shudders at the idea of altering anything in ‘time-hallowed’ institutions; and under this cant phrase can bring himself to tolerate any knavery or any folly, the Inquisition, Holy Oil, the Right Divine, etc.;–the more refined sceptic will laugh in your face at the idea of retaining anything which has the damning stamp of custom upon it, and is for abating all former precedents, ‘all trivial, fond records,’ the whole frame and fabric of society as a nuisance in the lump. Is not this a pair of wiseacres well matched? The one stickles through thick and thin for his own religion and government: the other scouts all religions and all governments with a smile of ineffable disdain. The one will not move for any consideration out of the broad and beaten path: the other is continually turning off at right angles, and losing himself in the labyrinths of his own ignorance and presumption. The one will not go along with any party: the other always joins the strongest side. The one will not conform to any common practice: the other will subscribe to any thriving system. The one is the slave of habit: the other is the sport of caprice. The first is like a man obstinately bed-rid: the last is troubled with St. Vitus’s dance. He cannot stand still, he cannot rest upon any conclusion. ‘He never is–but always to be right.’