Permanency in Human Affairs

The notes that I had saved up for recent commentaries have been sequestered by an uncooperative home computer. So until that difficulty can be resolved I will offer some thoughts from the essay “Permanence,” in Hilaire Belloc’s volume The Silence of the Sea (1941), in which he speaks of the “the principle of permanence [which] underlies all vicissitude.” I find his lofty meditation—redolent of Samuel Johnson—pertinent not only to my recent readings in Herodotus and Thucydides but also in its patient contemplation of politics at a time when there seems to be so little wisdom in that department. We cannot remain aloof from the political process. Nevertheless, principled decisions in human affairs are only possible when we consider the larger picture, including the essentially unchanging nature of society and the way in which the past, present and future are closely linked.

History has many high values. It has been called by wise men “the principal school of politics.” It shows clearly enough in its largest lines the limits to which the most generous enthusiasms must be confined, the term beyond which the most just of reforms may not venture, and the minimum at least of evil which human society must learn to endure. It adds a third dimension to experience; for as we garner a knowledge of reality from our daily contact with men and through observation along the course of life, we are still, as it were, only contemplating the surface. But when we call to our aid the record of centuries, depth is added to this mere surface: stuff: solidity. It becomes another and a greater thing.

History also gives you the knowledge of character. It gives you (if you read it with wisdom) an increasing appreciation of accident in human affairs. It is certainly a breeder of humility which, in its most general aspect, is no more than a seeing of ourselves (and of things) as they are. But still the principal value of history is the certain lesson it teaches that the underlying substance, even of society, certainly of the living world as a whole, is a symbol of permanence.

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