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Walter Bagehot – The importance of sitting still

March 8, 2015

“Civilised ages inherit the human nature which was victorious in barbarous ages, and that nature is, in many respects, not at all suited to civilised circumstances. A main and principal excellence in the early times of the human races is the impulse to action. The problems before men are then plain and simple. The man who works hardest, the man who kills the most deer, the man who catches the most fish–even later on, the man who tends the largest herds, or the man who tills the largest field–is the man who succeeds; the nation which is quickest to kill its enemies, or which kills most of its enemies, is the nation which succeeds. All the inducements of early society tend to foster immediate action; all its penalties fall on the man who pauses; the traditional wisdom of those times was never weary of inculcating that `delays are dangerous,` and that the sluggish man–the man `who roasteth not that which he took in hunting`–will not prosper on the earth, and indeed will very soon perish out of it. And in consequence an inability to stay quiet, an irritable desire to act directly, is one of the most conspicuous failings of mankind.

Pascal said that most of the evils of life arose from `man`s being unable to sit still in a room;` and though I do not go that length, it is certain that we should have been a far wiser race than we are if `we had been readier to sit quiet–we should have known much better the way in which it was best to act when we came to act. The rise of physical science, the first great body of practical truth provable to all men, exemplifies this in the plainest way. If it had not been for quiet people, who sat still and studied the sections of the cone, if other quiet people had not sat still and studied the theory of infinitesimals, or other quiet people had not sat still and worked out the doctrine of chances, the most `dreamy moonshine,` as the purely practical mind would consider, of all human pursuits; if `idle star-gazers` had not watched long and carefully the motions of the heavenly bodies–our modern astronomy would have been impossible, and without our astronomy `our ships, our colonies, our seamen,` all which makes modern life modern life could not have existed. Ages of sedentary, quiet, thinking people were required before that noisy existence began, and without those pale preliminary students it never could have been brought into being. And nine-tenths of modern science is in this respect the same: it is the produce of men whom their contemporaries thought dreamers–who were laughed at for caring for what did not concern them–who, as the proverb went, `walked into a well from looking at the stars`– who were believed to be useless, if any one could be such. And the conclusion is plain that if there had been more such people, if the world had not laughed at those there were, if rather it had encouraged them there would have been a great accumulation of proved science ages before there was. It was the irritable activity, the `wish to be doing something,` that prevented it. Most men inherited a nature too eager and too restless to be quiet and find out things; and even worse–with their idle clamour they `disturbed the brooding hen,` they would not let those be quiet who wished to be so, and out of whose calm thought much good might have come forth.”

(from ‘The Age of Discussion,’ in Physics and Politics [1872], available online)

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