Thursday, September 21, 2006

A History of New York by Washington Irving

For my part I have not so bad an opinion of mankind as many of my brother philosophers. I do not think poor human nature so sorry a piece of workmanship as they would make it out to be; and as far as I have observed, I am fully satisfied that man, if left to himself, would about as readily go right as wrong. It is only this eternally sounding in his ears that it is his duty to go right that makes him go the very reverse. The noble independence of his nature revolts at this intolerable tyranny of law and the perpetual interference of officious morality which is ever besetting his path with finger posts and directions to “keep to the right, as the law directs”; and like a spirited urchin, he turned directly contrary, and gallops through mud and mire, over hedges and ditches, merely to show that he is a lad of spirit and out of his leading strings.

That, needless to say, is from A History of New York by Washington Irving. Sometimes a difficult read, but rich with prose and worth a few interesting quotes.

Hesoid divides mankind into three classes—those who think for themselves, those who let others think for them, and those who will neither do one nor the other. The second class, however, comprises the great mass of society, and hence is the origin of party, by which is meant a large body of people, some few of whom think and all the rest talk. The former, who are the leaders, marshal out and discipline the latter, teaching them what they must approve—what they must hoot at—what they must say—whom they must support—but, above all, whom they must hate—for no man can be a right good partisan unless he be a determined and thoroughgoing hater.

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But when the sovereign people are thus properly broken to the harness, yoked, curbed and reined, it is delectable to see with what docility and harmony they jog onward through mud and mire, at the will of their drivers, dragging the dirt carts of faction at their heels. How many a patriotic member of congress have I seen who would never have known how to make up his mind on any question, and might have run a great risk of voting right by mere accident, had he not had others to think for him and a file leader to vote after.

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A cunning politician is often found sculking under the clerical robe, with an outside all religion and an inside all political rancor. Things spiritual and things temporal are strangely jumbled together, like poisons and antidotes on an apothecary’s shelf, and instead of a devout sermon, the simple church-going folk have often a political pamphlet thrust down their throats, labeled with a pious text from Scripture.

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