Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER II.: THE WISDOM OF OUR ANCESTORS; OR CHINESE ARGUMENT—( ad verecundiam. ) - The Works of Jeremy Bentham, vol. 2
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CHAPTER II.: THE WISDOM OF OUR ANCESTORS; OR CHINESE ARGUMENT—( ad verecundiam. ) - Jeremy Bentham, The Works of Jeremy Bentham, vol. 2 
The Works of Jeremy Bentham, published under the Superintendence of his Executor, John Bowring (Edinburgh: William Tait, 1838-1843). 11 vols. Vol. 2.
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THE WISDOM OF OUR ANCESTORS; OR CHINESE ARGUMENT—(ad verecundiam.)
This argument consists in stating a supposed repugnancy between the proposed measure, and the opinions of men by whom the country of those who are discussing the measure was inhabited in former times; these opinions being collected either from the express words of some writer living at the period of time in question, or from laws or institutions that were then in existence.
“Our wise ancestors”—“The wisdom of our ancestors”—“The wisdom of ages”—“Venerable antiquity”—“Wisdom of old times:”—
Such are the leading terms and phrases of propositions, the object of which is to cause the alleged repugnance to be regarded as a sufficient reason for the rejection of the proposed measure.
This fallacy affords one of the most striking of the numerous instances in which, under the conciliatory influence of custom—that is, of prejudice—opinions the most repugnant to one another are capable of maintaining their ground in the same intellect.
This fallacy, prevalent as it is in matters of law, is directly repugnant to a principle or maxim universally admitted in almost every other department of human intelligence, and which is the foundation of all useful knowledge and of all rational conduct.
“Experience is the mother of wisdom,” is among the maxims handed down to the present and all future ages, by the wisdom, such as it has been, of past ages.
No! says this fallacy, the true mother of wisdom is not experience, but inexperience.
An absurdity so glaring carries in itself its own refutation; and all that we can do is, to trace the causes which have contributed to give to this fallacy such an ascendency in matters of legislation.
Among the several branches of the fallacies of authority, the cause of delusion is more impressive in this than in any other.
1. From inaccuracy of conception arises incorrectness of expression; from which expression, conception, being produced again, error, from having been a momentary cause, comes to be a permanent effect.
In the very denomination commonly employed to signify the portion of time to which the fallacy refers, is virtually involved a false and deceptious proposition, which, from its being employed by every mouth, is at length, without examination, received as true.
What in common language is called old time, ought (with reference to any period at which the fallacy in question is employed) to be called young or early time.
As between individual and individual living at the same time and in the same situation, he who is old possesses, as such, more experience than he who is young;—as between generation and generation, the reverse of this is true, if, as in ordinary language, a preceding generation be, with reference to a succeeding generation, called old, the old or preceding generation could not have had so much experience as the succeeding. With respect to such of the materials or sources of wisdom which have come under the cognizance of their own senses, the two are on a par;—with respect to such of those materials and sources of wisdom as are derived from the reports of others, the later of the two possesses an indisputable advantage.
In giving the name of old or elder to the earlier generation of the two, the misrepresentation is not less gross, nor the folly of it less incontestable, than if the name of old man or old woman were given to the infant in its cradle.
What, then, is the wisdom of the times called old? is it the wisdom of gray hairs? No: it is the wisdom of the cradle.*
The learned and honourable gentlemen of Thibet do homage to superior wisdom—superiority raised to the degree of divinity—in the person of an infant lying and squalling in his cradle.
The learned and honourable gentlemen of Westminster set down as impostors the Lamas of Thibet, and laugh at the folly of the deluded people on whom such imposture passes for sincerity and wisdom.
But the worship paid at Thibet to the infant body of the present day, is, if not the exact counterpart, the type at least of the homage paid at Westminster to the infant minds of those who have lived in earlier ages.
2. Another cause of delusion which promotes the employment of this fallacy, is the reigning prejudice in favour of the dead—a prejudice which in former times contributed more than anything else to the practice of idolatry: the dead were speedily elevated to the rank of divinities; the superstitious invoked them, and ascribed a miraculous efficacy to their relics.
This prejudice, when examined, will be seen to be no less indefensible than pernicious—no less pernicious than indefensible.
By propagating this mischievous notion, and acting accordingly, the man of selfishness and malice obtains the praise of humanity and social virtue. With this jargon in his mouth, he is permitted to sacrifice the real interests of the living to the imaginary interests of the dead. Thus imposture, in this shape, finds in the folly or improbity of mankind a neverfailing fund of encouragement and reward.
De mortuis nil nisi bonum;—With all its absurdity, the adage is but too frequently received as a leading principle of morals. Of two attacks, which is the more barbarous—on a man that does feel it, or on a man that does not? On the man that does feel it, says the principle of utility: on the man that does not, says the principle of caprice and prejudice—the principle of sentimentalism—the principle in which imagination is the sole mover—the principle in and by which feelings are disregarded as not worth notice.
The same man who bepraises you when dead, would have plagued you without mercy when living.
Thus as between Pitt and Fox. While both were living, the friends of each reckoned so many adversaries in the friends of the other. On the death of him who died first, his adversaries were converted into friends. At what price this friendship was paid for by the people, is no secret.† See the Statute Book, see the debates of the times, and see Defence of Economy against Burke and Rose.‡
The cause of this so extensively-prevalent and extensively-pernicious propensity lies not very deep.
A dead man has no rivals,—to nobody is he an object of envy: in whosesoever way he may have stood when living—when dead, he no longer stands in anybody’s way. If he was a man of genius, those who denied him any merit during his life—even his very enemies, changing their tone all at once, assume an air of justice and kindness, which costs them nothing, and enables them, under pretence of respect for the dead, to gratify their malignity towards the living.
Another class of persons habitually exalt the past for the express purpose of depressing and discouraging the present generation.
It is characteristic of the same sort of persons, as well as of the same system of politics, to idolize, under the name of wisdom of our ancestors, the wisdom of untaught inexperienced generations, and to undervalue and cover with every expression of contempt that the language of pride can furnish, the supposed ignorance and folly of the great body of the people.∥
So long as they keep to vague generalities—so long as the two objects of comparison are each of them taken in the lump—wise ancestors in one lump, ignorant and foolish mob of modern times in the other—the weakness of the fallacy may escape detection. Let them but assign for the period of superior wisdom any determinate period whatsoever, not only will the groundlessness of the notion be apparent (class being compared with class in that period and the present one,) but, unless the antecedent period be, comparatively speaking a very modern one, so wide will be the disparity, and to such an amount in favour of modern times, that, in comparison of the lowest class of the people in modern times (always supposing them proficients in the art of reading, and their proficiency employed in the reading of newspapers,) the very highest and best informed class of these wise ancestors will turn out to be grossly ignorant.
Take, for example, any year in the reign of Henry the Eighth, from 1509 to 1546. At that time the House of Lords would probably have been in possession of by far the larger proportion of what little instruction the age afforded: in the House of Lords, among the laity, it might even then be a question whether without exception their Lordships were all of them able so much as to read. But even supposing them all in the fullest possession of that useful art, political science being the science in question, what instruction on the subject could they meet with at that time of day?
On no one branch of legislation was any book extant, from which, with regard to the circumstances of the then present times, any useful instruction could be derived; distributive law, penal law, international law, political economy, so far from existing as sciences, had scarcely obtained a name: in all those departments, under the head of quid faciendum, a mere blank: the whole literature of the age consisted of a meagre chronicle or two, containing short memorandums of the usual occurrences of war and peace, battles, sieges, executions, revels, deaths, births, processions, ceremonies, and other external events; but with scarce a speech or an incident that could enter into the composition of any such work as a history of the human mind—with scarce an attempt at investigation into causes, characters, or the state of the people at large. Even when at last, little by little, a scrap or two of political instruction came to be obtainable, the proportion of error and mischievous doctrine mixed up with it was so great, that whether a blank unfilled might not have been less prejudicial than a blank thus filled, may reasonably be matter of doubt.
It we come down to the reign of James the First, we shall find that Solomon of his time, eminently eloquent as well as learned, not only among the crowned but among uncrowned heads, marking out for prohibition and punishment the practices of devils and witches, and without any the slightest objection on the part of the great characters of that day in their high situations, consigning men to death and torment for the misfortune of not being so well acquainted as he was with the composition of the Godhead.
Passing on to the days of Charles the Second, even after Bacon had laid the foundations of a sound philosophy, we shall find Lord Chief-Justice Hale (to the present hour chief god of the man of law’s idolatry) unable to tell (so he says himself) what theft was; but knowing at the same time too well what witchcraft was; hanging men with the most perfect complacency for both crimes, amidst the applauses of all who were wise and learned in that blessed age.
Under the name of Exorcism, the Catholic liturgy contains a form of procedure for driving out devils:—even with the help of this instrument, the operation cannot be performed with the desired success but by an operator qualified by holy orders for the working of this as so many other wonders.
In our days and in our country the same object is attained, and beyond comparison more effectually, by so cheap an instrument as a common newspaper: before this talisman, not only devils, but ghosts, vampires, witches, and all their kindred tribes, are driven out of the land, never to return again: the touch of holy water is not so intolerable to them as the bare smell of printers’ ink.
If it is absurd to rely on the wisdom of our ancestors, it is not less so to vaunt their probity: they were as much inferior to us in that point as in all others; and the further we look back, the more abuses we shall discover in every department of government. Nothing but the enormity of those abuses has produced that degree of comparative amendment on which at present we value ourselves so highly. Till the human race was rescued from that absolute slavery under which ninetenths of every nation groaned, not a single step could be made in the career of improvement; and, take what period we will in the lapse of preceding ages, there is not one which presents such a state of things as any rational man would wish to see entirely re-established.
Undoubtedly, the history of past ages is not wanting in some splendid instances of probity and self-devotion; but in the admiration which these excite, we commonly overrate their amount, and become the dupes of an illusion occasioned by the very nature of an extensive retrospect. Such a retrospect is often made by a single glance of the mind: in this glance, the splendid actions of several ages (as if for the very purpose of conveying a false estimate of their number and contiguity) present themselves, as it were, in a a lump, leaving the intervals between them altogether unnoticed. Thus groves of trees, which at a distance present the appearance of thick and impenetrable masses, turn out on nearer approach to consist of trunks widely separated from each other.
Would you, then, have us speak and act as if we had never had any ancestors? Would you because recorded experience, and along with it wisdom, increases from year to year, annually change the whole body of our laws? By no means: such a mode of reasoning and acting would be more absurd even than that which has just been exposed; and provisional adherence to existing establishments is grounded on considerations much more rational than a reliance on the wisdom of our ancestors. Though the opinions of our ancestors are as such of little value, their practice is not the less worth attending to; that is, in so far as their practice forms part of our own experience. However, it is not so much from what they did, as from what they underwent (good included, as well as evil,) that our instruction comes. Independently of consequences, what they did, is no more than evidence of what they thought; nor yet, in legislation, is it evidence of what they thought best for the whole community, but only of what the rulers thought would be best for themselves, in periods when every species of abuse prevailed, unmitigated by the existence of either public press or public opinion. From the facts of their times, much information may be derived—from the opinions, little or none. As to opinions, it is rather from those which were foolish, than from those which were well grounded, that any instruction can be derived. From foolish opinions comes foolish conduct; from the most foolish conduct, the severest disaster; and from the severest disaster, the most useful warning. It is from the folly, not from the wisdom of our ancestors, that we have so much to learn; and yet it is to their wisdom, and not to their folly, that the fallacy under consideration sends us for instruction.
It seems, then, that our ancestors, considering the disadvantages under which they laboured, could not have been capable of exercising so sound a judgment on their interests as we on ours: but as a knowledge of the facts on which a judgment is to be pronounced is an indispensable preliminary to the arriving at just conclusions, and as the relevant facts of the later period must all of them individually, and most of them specifically, have been unknown to the man of the earlier period, it is clear that any judgment derived from the authority of our ancestors, and applied to existing affairs, must be a judgment pronounced without evidence; and this is the judgment which the fallacy in question calls on us to abide by, to the exclusion of a judgment formed on the completest evidence that the nature of each case may admit.
Causes of the propensity to be influenced by this Fallacy.
Wisdom of ancestors being the most impressive of all arguments that can be employed in defence of established abuses and imperfections, persons interested in this or that particular abuse are most forward to employ it.
But their exertions would be of little avail, were it not for the propensity which they find on the part of their antagonists to attribute to this argument nearly the same weight as those by whom it is relied on.
This propensity may be traced to two intimately-connected causes:—1. Both parties having been trained up alike in the school of the English lawyers, headed by Blackstone; and 2. Their consequent inability, for want of practice, to draw from the principle of general utility the justificative reason of everything that is susceptible of justification.
In the hands of a defender of abuse, authority answers a double purpose, by affording an argument in favour of any particular abuse which may happen to call for protection, and by causing men to regard with a mingled emotion of hatred and terror the principle of general utility, in which alone the true standard and measure of right and wrong is to be found.
In no other department of the field of knowledge and wisdom (unless that which regards religion be an exception) do leading men of the present times recommend to us this receipt for thinking and acting wisely. By no gentleman, honourable or right honourable, are we sent at this time of day to the wisdom of our ancestors for the best mode of marshalling armies, navigating ships, attacking or defending towns; for the best modes of cultivating and improving land, and preparing and preserving its products for the purposes of food, clothing, artificial light and heat; for the promptest and most commodious means of conveyance of ourselves and goods from one portion of the earth’s surface to another; for the best modes of curing, alleviating, or preventing disorders in our own bodies, and those of the animals which we contrive to apply to our use.
Why this difference? Only because, in any other part of the field of knowledge, legislation excepted (and religion, in so far as it has been taken for the subject of legislation,) leading men are not affected with that sinister interest which is so unhappily combined with power in the persons of those leading men who conduct governments as they are generally at present established.
Sir H. Davy has never had anything to gain, either from the unnecessary length, the miscarriage, or the unnecessary part of the expenses attendant on chemical experiments; he therefore sends us either to his own experiments, or to those of the most enlightened and fortunate of his contemporaries, and not to the notions of Stahl, Van Helmont, or Paracelsus.
[* ]No one will deny that preceding ages have produced men eminently distinguished by benevolence and genius; it is to them that we owe in succession all the advances which have hitherto been made in the career of human improvement: but as their talents could only be developed in proportion to the state of knowledge at the period in which they lived, and could only have been called into action with a view to then-existing circumstances, it is absurd to rely on their authority, at a period and under a state of things altogether different.
[† ]For the payment of Mr. Pitt’s creditors was voted £40,000 of the public money:—to Mr. Fox’s widow, £1500 a-year.
[‡ ]Vol. V. p. 278, et seq.
[† ]A “Burdett mob,” for example.