- Paperback: 256 pages
- Publisher: Ivan R. Dee (April 12, 1999)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1566632218
- ISBN-13: 978-1566632218
- Product Dimensions: 5.9 x 0.7 x 8.4 inches
- Shipping Weight: 11.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 5 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,519,020 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Physics and Politics
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Finely imaginative...a remarkable book. (H.S. Jones H-Net: Humanities and Social Science Reviews Online)
Unflinching...a perfect antidote to the omni-present, thought-destroying political correctness that afflicts our culture. (Gregory J. Sullivan The Trenton Times)
We go to Bagehot for something that seems very difficult: the true character of political man. (Jacques Barzun)
About the Author
Banker, editor, political thinker, and literary critic, Walter Bagehot (1826–1877) edited the Economist for the last seventeen years of his life and enjoyed intimate friendships with the leading political figures of his day. He also wrote The English Constitution and Lombard Street. Roger Kimball is managing editor of The New Criterion and author of Tenured Radicals (also published by Ivan R. Dee).
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Bagehot argues that primitive man (sorry) lived by the tyranny of religiously-based "customary law," necessary to weld the group into a fighting unit able to defend itself militarily against aggressors. Civilization itself developed because it was a military advantage, and it was thus selected for in the constant warfare that characterized those times. "Conquest is the premium given by nature to those [whose] national customs have made most fit in war." The character type valued in those "fighting days" emphasized the masculine, military virtues -- at least in those groups that survived. The problem, he says, is for a society to move beyond those ways; getting out of the yoke of customary law is a very difficult step, but eventually necessary if the society is to progress. Some societies have accomplished that, but most did not. Progress is the exceptional thing, not the norm. Those societies that have managed to advance are characterized by action based on abstract discussion, rather than superstitious conformity and immediate emotion.
The idea of societal evolution was a very popular one in the years after Darwin's writings became widely known, with human progress seen as resulting from the competition between societies. The notion of "progress" eventually became problematic, as it was recognized that it needed a more value-free definition than simply change in the direction of Victorian society. Bagehot gives little credence to such doubts, however. For him, broad progress is plain to see, noting of the doubters that "we need not take account of the mistaken ideas of unfit men and beaten races." This is cultural self-confidence of a very high order, indeed.
There is a thread of truth running through these essays, although most of the details that Bagehot uses to support that thread are anthropologically dubious, at best. But the effects of competition among human groups, and the determinants of success in that competition, are issues of continuing relevance and great current interest; it is fascinating to see the views of one respected commentator of the mid-late 19th Century, especially when they are stated without any hint of the multicultural tact required today.
He states, "To sum up---LAW---rigid, definite, concise law---is the primary want of early mankind; that which they need above anything else, that which is requisite before they can gain anything else. But it is their greatest difficulty, as well as their first requisite..." (Pg. 11)
He says, "I want to bring home to others what every new observation of society brings more and more freshly to myself---that this unconscious imitation and encouragement of appreciated character, and this equally unconscious shrinking from and persecution of disliked character, is the main force which moulds and fashions men in society as we now see it." (Pg. 48)
He observes, "In a former essay, I attempted to show that slighter causes than is commonly thought may change a nation from the stationary to the progressive state of civilization, and from the stationary to the degrading. Commonly the effect of the agent... is considered as operating on every individual in the nation... [But] there is a second effect... a new model in character is created for the nation; those characters which resemble it are encouraged and multiplied; those contrasted with it are persecuted and made fewer. In a generation or two, the look of the nation, becomes quite different." (Pg. 101)
Bagehot's is a "classic" description of the tension between social institutions and innovations, and the historical evolution of social groups into nations.