Robert Louis Stevenson on the modern political era

The Robert Lewis Stevenson essay “Crabbed Age and Youth” has gotten more than a few references today among the commentariat. I think I know why.

The sentiments of a man while he is full of ardour and hope are to be received, it is supposed, with some qualification. But when the same person has ignominiously failed and begins to eat up his words, he should be listened to like an oracle.

How can you read that and not think of Rep. Anthony Wiener, he of the screaming match in the well of the House, and ten days of “I can’t say with certitude that it’s not me”?

Most of our pocket wisdom is conceived for the use of mediocre people, to discourage them from ambitious attempts, and generally console them in their mediocrity. And since mediocre people constitute the bulk of humanity, this is no doubt very properly so.

“Pocket wisdom”, an elegant phrase for talking points, dumbed down to the point of becoming a bumper sticker then repeated ad nauseam, deleting any nuance or meaning from the words and leaving them as mere slogan.  The section below makes the point more bluntly.

To have a catchword in your mouth is not the same thing as to hold an opinion; still less is it the same thing as to have made one for yourself. There are too many of these catchwords in the world for people to rap out upon you like an oath and by way of an argument. They have a currency as intellectual counters; and many respectable persons pay their way with nothing else. They seem to stand for vague bodies of theory in the background.

Robert Louis Stevenson knew their types

This essay was written in 1877.  But for the colorful and challenging language, it could have been written last week.  Which leads to one last point:  ‘Twas ever thus.  It is common to think of the modern age as facing more partisanship, bigger legislative challenges, greater financial crises than those faced before.  It may be bad now and the days may be dark and disheartening as we watch our current crop of politicians and elected officials flail away.  But we’ve been through it before and will go through it again.

P.S.  Anybody tells you that the internet and twitter are full of junk should be referred to this post and the originating twitter messages.  The RLS essay is one that I’ve never read and spent the day contemplating.  You can learn things on this gizmo, amid all the clutter.

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