Concerning Convictions

— I lately found myself questioning if it were worth while to have any convictions about anything, — a queer mood for one to fall into whose convictions are wont to be of the most positive, and who has even been accused of setting them forth with a certain dogmatism. But when everybody differs from everybody else, and each one’s opinions hold good for one’s self alone, of what particular use are they to the individual, after all ? Tastes we may have, which serve in the choice of what we shall eat to-day or the dress we shall buy to-morrow; principles most of us believe we have, for the conduct of our individual life ; but when it is a matter of social relations, intercourse with our fellow-beings, — how then ? My ideas are mine, and unless they are also yours the commonest result of contact is collision, the consequences of which are often most serious and deplorable with the better sort of people. Men and women whose opinions are adopted, things merely external to themselves, can easily modify or give them up when it is convenient. But even among the more broad-minded of those persons whose ideas are their very own, the possession of them seems to create so many obstacles to harmonious and satisfactory fellowship.

Who has not learned from observation, or from sad personal experience, that in the case of a misunderstanding or offense given between friends, good intentions on both sides may avail nothing to remove the cloud or mend the breach. Each one strives to act the true, generous part, according to his lights, but they are not agreed as to what constitutes magnanimity or even bare justice ; each fails, therefore, to comprehend the other, even to appreciate the good intention, perhaps, and the result is hopeless estrangement. It is the mind prepossessed with high belief, George Eliot says, that interprets others largely. True, and yet it may happen that that very preoccupation of a mind by lofty and generous ideas makes it difficult for it to conceive of lower and narrower ones as co-existent with genuine good-will and purpose.

Of human opinion as well as of human action we may well say, “Il n’est que de vivre ; on voit tout et le contraire de tout.” In a certain mood, as I say, this confusion of idea, this irreconcilable diversity of opinion, appears to be the salient fact of life. We come to think that, however much we may know about people or they about us, themselves we do not know, nor they us, as we really are. One reason is that we do not use our imagination enough, or we have n’t it to use. We take each other’s words too literally; and separately, instead of all together, as we ought if they are to be considered indicative of character. As old Montaigne has it, ”No qualitie doth embrace us purely and universally. If I chance to call one knave or fool, my purpose is not forever to enfeoffe him with that nick-name ; nor doe I think to say, Tongue, thou liest, if immediately after I call him an honest man. He that seeth me sometimes to cast a frowning look upon my wife, or sometime a loving countenance, and thinks that either of them is but fained, he is a fool.” We judge too coldly ; or else, when self-love intervenes, too hotly. We construct theories about our friends, and are unreasonably disgusted when they fall to pieces.

But I have wandered a little. I think it is Professor Hardy who says that it is the tendency of a wide experience of life to weaken conviction, of a deep one to strengthen it. Perhaps we should add that an experience both wide and deep is needed to produce conviction of the largest, highest, most enduring kind. In a true man his ideas, the tried and stable ones he lives by, are the index to his character.