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On Compromise

Library of Alexandria
The design of the following essay is to consider, in a short and direct way, some of the limits that are set by sound reason to the practice of the various arts of accommodation, economy, management, conformity, or compromise. The right of thinking freely and acting independently, of using our minds without excessive awe of authority, and shaping our lives without unquestioning obedience to custom, is now a finally accepted principle in some sense or other with every school of thought that has the smallest chance of commanding the future. Under what circumstances does the exercise and vindication of the right, thus conceded in theory, become a positive duty in practice? If the majority are bound to tolerate dissent from the ruling opinions and beliefs, under what conditions and within what limitations is the dissentient imperatively bound to avail himself of this toleration? How far, and in what way, ought respect either for immediate practical convenience, or for current prejudices, to weigh against respect for truth? For how much is it well that the individual should allow the feelings and convictions of the many to count, when he comes to shape, to express, and to act upon his own feelings and convictions? Are we only to be permitted to defend general principles, on condition that we draw no practical inferences from them? Is every other idea to yield precedence and empire to existing circumstances, and is the immediate and universal workableness of a policy to be the main test of its intrinsic fitness? To attempt to answer all these questions fully would be nothing less than to attempt a compendium of life and duty in all their details, a Summa of cases of conscience, a guide to doubters at every point of the compass. The aim of the present writer is a comparatively modest one; namely, to seek one or two of the most general principles which ought to regulate the practice of compliance, and to suggest some of the bearings which they may have in their application to certain difficulties in modern matters of conduct. It is pretty plain that an inquiry of this kind needs to be fixed by reference to a given set of social circumstances tolerably well understood. There are some common rules as to the expediency of compromise and conformity, but their application is a matter of endless variety and the widest elasticity. The interesting and useful thing is to find the relation of these too vague rules to actual conditions; to transform them into practical guides and real interpreters of what is right and best in thought and conduct, in a special and definite kind of emergency. According to the current assumptions of the writer and the preacher, the one commanding law is that men should cling to truth and right, if the very heavens fall. In principle this is universally accepted. To the partisans of authority and tradition it is as much a commonplace as to the partisans of the most absolute and unflinching rationalism. Yet in practice all schools alike are forced to admit the necessity of a measure of accommodation in the very interests of truth itself. Fanatic is a name of such ill repute, exactly because one who deserves to be called by it injures good causes by refusing timely and harmless concession; by irritating prejudices that a wiser way of urging his own opinion might have turned aside; by making no allowances, respecting no motives, and recognising none of those qualifying principles, which are nothing less than necessary to make his own principle true and fitting in a given society. The interesting question in connection with compromise obviously turns upon the placing of the boundary that divides wise suspense in forming opinions, wise reserve in expressing them, and wise tardiness in trying to realise them, from unavowed disingenuousness and self-illusion, from voluntary dissimulation, and from indolence and pusillanimity. These are the three departments or provinces of compromise. Our subject is a question of boundaries.[1] And this question, being mainly one of time and circumstance, may be most satisfactorily discussed in relation to the time and the circumstances which we know best, or at least whose deficiencies and requirements are most pressingly visible to us. Though England counts her full share of fearless truth-seekers in most departments of inquiry, yet there is on the whole no weakening, but a rather marked confirmation, of what has become an inveterate national characteristic, and has long been recognised as such; a profound distrust, namely, of all general principles; a profound dislike both of much reference to them, and of any disposition to invest them with practical authority; and a silent but most pertinacious measurement of philosophic truths by political tests. 'It is not at all easy, humanly speaking,' says one who has tried the experiment, 'to wind an Englishman up to the level of dogma.' The difficulty has extended further than the dogma of theology. The supposed antagonism between expediency and principle has been pressed further and further away from the little piece of true meaning that it ever could be rightly allowed to have, until it has now come to signify the paramount wisdom of counting the narrow, immediate, and personal expediency for everything, and the whole, general, ultimate, and completed expediency for nothing. Principle is only another name for a proposition stating the terms of one of these larger expediencies. When principle is held in contempt, or banished to the far dreamland of the philosopher and the student, with an affectation of reverence that in a materialist generation is in truth the most overweening kind of contempt, this only means that men are thinking much of the interests of to-day, and little of the more ample interests of the many days to come. It means that the conditions of the time are unfriendly to the penetration and the breadth of vision which disclose to us the whole range of consequences that follow on certain kinds of action or opinion, and unfriendly to the intrepidity and disinterestedness which make us willing to sacrifice our own present ease or near convenience, in the hope of securing higher advantages for others or for ourselves in the future