Modern History Sourcebook: Sydney Smith

Modern History Sourcebook:
Sydney Smith (1771-1845):
Fallacies Of Anti-Reformers, 1824

Introductory Note

Sydney Smith (1771-1845) was an English clergyman noted as the wittiest man of his time. He was educated at Winchester and Oxford, and in 1798 went to Edinburgh as tutor to the son of an English gentleman. While there he proposed the founding of the “Edinburgh Review,” and with Jeffrey, Brougham, and Francis Horner shared in its actual establishment. He superintended the first three numbers, and continued to write for it for twenty-five years. On leaving Edinburgh he lectured in London, held livings in Yorkshire and Somersetshire, was made prebendary of Bristol and Canon of St. Paul’s.

The review of Bentham’s “Book of Fallacies” exhibits at once the method of the Edinburgh Reviewers, Smith’s vigorous, pointed, and witty style, and the general trend of his political opinions. He was a stanch Whig, and in such issues as that of Catholic Emancipation he fought for liberal opinions at the cost of injury to his personal prospects. As a clergyman he was kindly and philanthropic, a good preacher, and a hater of mysticism. No political writing of his time was more telling than his on the side of toleration and reform; and his wit, while spontaneous and exuberant, was employed in the service of good sense and with careful consideration for the feelings of others. If he lacks the terrific power of Swift, he lacks also his bitterness and savagery; his honesty and sincerity were no less, and his personality was as winning as it was amusing.

Fallacies Of Anti-Reformers

Part I – Introductory Remarks And Critique

There are a vast number of absurd and mischievous fallacies, which pass readily in the world for sense and virtue, while in truth they tend only to fortify error and encourage crime. Mr. Bentham has enumerated the most conspicuous of these in the book before us.

Whether it be necessary there should be a middleman between the cultivator and the possessor, learned economists have doubted; but neither gods, men, nor booksellers can doubt the necessity of a middleman between Mr. Bentham and the public. Mr. Bentham is long; Mr. Bentham is occassionally involved and obscure; Mr. Bentham invents new and alarming expressions; Mr. Bentham loves division and subdivision – and he loves method itself, more than its consequences. Those only, therefore, who know his originality, his knowledge, his vigor, and his boldness, will recur to the works themselves. The great mass of readers will not purchase improvement at so dear a rate; but will choose rather to become acquainted with Mr. Bentham through the medium of reviews – after that eminent philosopher has been washed, trimmed, shaved, and forced into clean linen. One great use of a review, indeed, is to make men wise in ten pages, who have no appetite for a hundred pages; to condense nourishment, to work with pulp and essence, and to guard the stomach from idle burden and unmeaning bulk. For half a page, sometimes for a whole page, Mr. Bentham writes with a power which few can equal; and by selecting and omitting, an admirable style may be formed from the text. Using this liberty, we shall endeavor to give an account of Mr. Bentham’s doctrines, for the most part in his own words. Wherever an expression is particularly happy, let it be considered to be Mr. Bentham’s – the dullness we take to ourselves.

Our Wise Ancestors – The Wisdom of Our Ancestors – The Wisdom of 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 who come first (our ancestors) are the young people, and have the least experience. We have added to their experience the experience of many centuries; and, therefore, as far as experience goes, are wiser, and more capable of forming an opinion than they were. The real feeling should be, not can we be so presumptuous as to put our opinions in opposition to those of our ancestors? but can such young, ignorant, inexperienced persons as our ancestors necessarily were, be expected to have understood a subject as well as those who have seen so much more, lived so much longer, and enjoyed the experience of so many centuries? All this cant, then, about our ancestors is merely an abuse of words, by transferring phrases true of contemporary men to succeeding ages. Whereas (as we have before observed) of living men the oldest has, caeteris paribus,2 the most experience; of generations, the oldest has caeteris paribus, the least experience. Our ancestors, up to the Conquest, were children in arms; chubby boys in the time of Edward I; striplings under Elizabeth; men in the reign of Queen Anne; and we only are the white-bearded, silver-headed ancients, who have treasured up, and are prepared to profit by, all the experience which human life can supply. We are not disputing with our ancestors the palm of talent, in which they may or may not be our superiors, but the palm of experience in which it is utterly impossible they can be our superiors. And yet, whenever 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 is always to the wisdom of our ancestors; and he himself, and many noble lords who vote with him, are, to this hour, persuaded that all alterations and amendments on their devices are an unblushing controversy between youthful temerity and mature experience! and so, in truth they are – only that much – loved magistrate mistakes the young for the old, and the old for the young – and is guilty of that very sin against experience which he attributes to the lovers of innovation.

[Footnote 2: “Other things being equal.”]

We cannot of course be supposed to maintain that our ancestors wanted wisdom, or that they were necessarily mistaken in their institutions, because their means of information were more limited than ours. But we do confidently maintain that when we find it expedient to change anything which our ancestors have enacted, we are the experienced persons, and not they. The quantity of talent is always varying in any great nation. To say that we are more or less able than our ancestors is an assertion that requires to be explained. All the able men of all ages, who have ever lived in England, probably possessed, if taken altogether, more intellect than all the able men England can now boast of. But if authority must be resorted to rather than reason, the question is, What was the wisdom of the single age which enacted the law, compared with the wisdom of the age which proposes to alter it? What are the eminent men of one and the other period? If you say that our ancestors were wiser than us, mention your date and year. If the splendor of names is equal, are the circumstances the same? If the circumstances are the same, we have a superiority of experience, of which the difference between the two periods is the measure. It is necessary to insist upon this; for upon sacks of wool, and on benches forensic, sit grave men, and agricolous persons in the Commons, crying out: “Ancestors, ancestors! hodie non!3 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!

[Footnote 3: “Not to-day!”]


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