Hey, Gang! Let’s Be the Biggest Pygmies We Can Be!

Some are dinning in our ears that we Americans, and moderns generally, are intellectual dwarfs compared with the ancients, or even the Elizabethan men. But what is that to the purpose? A living dog is better than a dead lion. Shall a man go and hang himself because he belongs to the race of pygmies, and not be the biggest pygmy that he can? Let every one mind his own business, and endeavor to be what he was made.

Thoreau, Walden

Great lines. I like them so much I’m thinking of changing my blog name to The Biggest Pygmy.

These lines strike at a real contradiction in me: I’ve often backed liberal candidates and causes, as witness my still-provisional support for  Obama,  but temperamentally and emotionally I’ve always been pretty conservative. I’m the kind of person who does in fact  know  that I’m an “intellectual dwarf” compared with the best of the ancients, and who has for various reasons voted for people I knew to be intellectual dwarves at the time of my vote. But why?

 I know “conservative” is one of those words, like “liberal,” that’s been mashed and twisted almost beyond use, clouding as much as it illuminates,  but one strand of conservatism, and one of the best, comes from its sense that there have been great thinkers and doers in the world, many of them long dead, and that we should look back to what they did with reverence, stand in awe and realize that we are not their equal. As the great Google Himlater said, if we see farther than our ancestors, it is because we stand on the shoulders of giants.

 By extension, this line of thinking goes,  we should be very slow to throw away or radically modify the principles and traditions and institutions they built. No human institution was ever perfect, and all were tainted by slavery and war and the failure to bring every person an equal share of the world’s goods and this ism and that ism. But this strand of conservatism says, with some evidence, that  trouble and pain are part of the mortal lot,  inescapable this side of paradise, and  beyond the best bureaucrat’s fixing. 

 Too, we must always keep in mind the dread doctrine of ICAGWO–It Can Always Get Worse–and it will indeed get worse, these conservatives say,  if we forget our  heritage and think we can just wipe history’s slate clean and start anew. Our solutions may spawn worse problems than we had.

As a student of literature in college, I spent almost all my time developing a reverence for the great (and sometimes reactionary) voices of the past–Arnold, Tennyson, Wordsworth, Hardy, Yeats, etc.– many of whom inform what I like to call my thinking today.  So, during the years when I voted for the likes of Walter Mondale and Mike Dukakis and Bill Clinton,   my votes often contradicted my other beliefs and what I might call a temperamental conservatism.  I was casting my vote for people whose faith in human perfectibility and small-d-democratic progress exceeded my own.

Well, this has become a live example of what blogging is, I guess. I  started out to praise Thoreau’s belief that we should stop being cowed by the great stuffed ghosts of the past. If we’re pygmies, he says, let’s stop bowing and scraping before Aristotle and Shakespeare and Voltaire,  and be the best and biggest pygmies we can be. But that has led me into a surface-scratcher about my own politico-psycho-emo makeup, and now,  having broken all those eggs, I lack the time to cook the omelette. But more on this soon, I hope.

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