Friday, December 17, 2010

You can always beat an honest man

In Walking the Tightrope of Reason, the philosopher Robert Fogelin relates that someone once drew a useful distinction between two kinds of skeptics: both accept the limitations of rationality and knowledge, the difference being that "East Coast skeptics" find this deeply troubling while "West Coast skeptics" find it liberating.

No one has ever accused me of being laid-back, but to my surprise I find myself definitely in the West Coast camp — or, at least, I find balm for my outrage and irritation at the world's ongoing idiocies and mendacities in the knowledge that it not only was ever thus, but is probably inescapably thus.

Although skeptics are not the same as cynics, there is certainly a similarity between the skeptic of the West Coast variety and the true cynic, of the Ambrose Bierce and H. L. Mencken ilk, in that both generally are very happy people: they have none of the gloom of the moralist, they find the follies of their fellow man not a source of disappointment and despair but rather utterly predictable and thus merely a source of amused confirmation ("all part of life's rich pageantry," as Inspector Jacques Clouseau once remarked).

It is always comforting by the same token to find that exactly the things that so fill us with indignation in contemporary human affairs have been wryly remarked upon by much earlier generations and chalked up to inevitable laws of human nature. The other day I ran across this excellent explanation in Anthony Trollope's Barchester Towers for the maddening tendency of those in the wrong, who know they are in the wrong, not only to become aggressive and insistent but to prevail. (For some reason this made me think of Republicans and health care reform.) As Trollope explains, it's an unequal contest from the get-go:

“Wise people, when they are in the wrong, always put themselves right by finding fault with the people against whom they have sinned. . . . A man in the right relies easily on his rectitude, and therefore goes about unarmed. His very strength is his weakness. A man in the wrong knows that he must look to his weapons; his very weakness is his strength. The one is never prepared for combat, the other is always ready. Therefore it is that in this world the man that is in the wrong almost invariably conquers the man that is in the right, and invariably despises him.”