Fox used to say of Burke: ‘Burke is a wise man; but he is wise too soon.’ The average man will not bear this. He is a cool, common person, with a considerate air, with figures in his mind, with his own business to attend to, with a set of ordinary opinions arising from and suited to ordinary life. He can’t bear novelty or originalities. He says: ‘Sir, I never heard such a thing before in my life;’ and he thinks this a reductio ad absurdum. You may see his taste by the reading of which he approves. Is there a more splendid monument of talent and industry than ‘The Times’? No wonder that the average man — that any one — believes in it. As Carlyle observes: ‘Let the highest intellect able to write epics try to write such a leader for the morning newspapers, it cannot do it; the highest intellect will fail.’ But did you ever see anything there you had never seen before? Out of the million articles that everybody has read, can any one person trace a single marked idea to a single article? Where are the deep theories, and the wise axioms, and the everlasting sentiments which the writers of the most influential publication in the world have been the first to communicate to an ignorant species? Such writers are far too shrewd. The two million, or whatever number of copies it may be, they publish, are not purchased because the buyers wish to know new truth. The purchaser desires an article which he can appreciate at sight; which he can lay down and say, ‘An excellent article, very excellent; exactly my own sentiments.’
(Walter Bagehot, Biographical Studies. London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1881, p. 3).
A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.
(Max Planck; quoted in Ian Leslie, “The Sugar Conspiracy,” The Guardian, April 7, 2016).
‘I will have no man in my boat,’ said Starbuck, ‘who is not afraid of a whale.’ By this, he seemed to mean, not only that the most reliable and useful courage was that which arises from the fair estimation of the encountered peril, but that an utterly fearless man is a far more dangerous comrade than a coward.
(Herman Melville, Moby Dick, Vol. 1. London: Constable and Company, 1922, p. 242).
In modern history, as we have seen, personality has played, on the whole, a rôle of minor importance as compared with the times of classical antiquity. In fact, there is practically only one personality in modern history who, in many respects, is a true rival of the great personalities of antiquity, and in whom character of the mightiest force has had ample play. We mean Napoleon. He has, more especially by H. Taine, been likened to the men of the Renaissance. It is more correct to place him beside the men of classical antiquity. His intellect was indeed a most finely and evenly balanced instrument of thought, memory, and imagination. Yet his intellect alone could not have raised him to the height of his unparalleled position. It was the indomitable power of his character that turned circumstances, chances, and ideas into a mighty army of conquest and organisation. We are still too near to this colossal figure to be able to judge of him adequately. It is, however, certain that there was in Napoleon, in addition to the genius of the intellect, a genius of character, if one may use this expression. His very faults, nay, blunders, are manifestly the faults and blunders of character. He, together with the other character-Titans of history, help us to see more clearly how character, when given sufficient elbow-room by the impersonal causes of history, may influence the trend of events to an incredible extent. The very progressiveness innate in human intellect is hostile to the individual intelligence; whereas character, less elastic, less progressive, ranges itself with all the conservative and staying forces of history. The error, then, of the casual student of history consists either in a total neglect of the influence of character on human events, or in an exaggerated estimation of the effect of character on all the periods of history. Character, too, has its history; and it is part of the most important tasks of the historian to allot to character its due place in the array of the causes that have produced the great drama of man.
(Emil Reich, “History and Character,” The Nineteenth Century and After, Vol. LXIII, 1908, p. 271).
An element of exaggeration clings to the popular judgment: great vices are made greater, great virtues greater also; interesting incidents are made more interesting, softer legends more soft.
(Walter Bagehot, Literary Studies, Vol. 2. London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1891, p. 171).
There was in the Terror an element more disgraceful to France than the carnival of murder in which the members of the Mountain, maddened, let us hope, by their long draughts of what we have called intellectual absinthe, permitted themselves to indulge, and that was the astounding cowardice of those who were not mad. If there is one thing certain about the Terror it is that it was approved by a small minority, that the troops loathed it, that the respectables feared it, that even the populace, who three times moved the guillotine, at heart condemned it as ruthless and unjust. The moment a minute group in the Convention, in fear for their own necks, defied it, it was over, and could not by the most desperate efforts be re-established. Not only were the silent majority of the Convention, who were constantly voting proscription lists, opposed to them, but physical force was wholly on that side, and once appealed to, drove the true Terrorists into hiding as mere human vermin. Not a shot was fired when the Jacobin Club was closed, and the “furies of the guillotine” whipped with canes. For months, in fact, France, which was all the while rushing to battle on the frontiers, lay paralysed with nervous terror, afraid of pasteboard giants, who on the first symptom of real resistance exploded with a smell, leaving behind them a recollection which has been more fatal to true liberty than all the Kings and all the reactionary leaders who have succeeded them.
(“On the Edge of the Abyss,” The Spectator, Vol. LXXXII, February 11, 1899, p. 190).
When we observe the lives of those whom an ample inheritance has let loose to their own direction, what do we discover that can excite our envy? Their time seems not to pass with much applause from others, or satisfaction to themselves: many squander their exuberance of fortune in luxury and debauchery, and have no other use of money than to inflame their passions, and riot in a wide range of licentiousness; others, less criminal indeed, but surely not much to be praised, lie down to sleep, and rise up to trifle, are employed every morning in finding expedients to rid themselves of the day, chase pleasure through all the places of publick resort, fly from London to Bath, and from Bath to London, without any other reason for changing place, but that they go in quest of company as idle and as vagrant as themselves, always endeavouring to raise some new desire, that they may have something to pursue, to rekindle some hope which they know will be disappointed, changing one amusement for another which a few months will make equally insipid, or sinking into languor and disease for want of something to actuate their bodies or exhilarate their minds.
(Samuel Johnson, Essays. London: Walter Scott, 1888, p. 248).