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ON THE EMOTION OF CONVICTION. (1871.) - Walter Bagehot, The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 5 (Historical & Financial Essays; The English Constitution) 
The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, ed. Mrs. Russell Barrington. The Works in Nine Volumes. The Life in One Volume. (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1915). Vol. 5.
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ON THE EMOTION OF CONVICTION.
What we commonly term Belief includes, I apprehend, both an Intellectual and an Emotional element; the first we more properly call “assent,” and the second “conviction”. The laws of the Intellectual element in belief are “the laws of evidence,” and have been elaborately discussed; but those of the Emotional part have hardly been discussed at all—indeed, its existence has been scarcely perceived.
In the mind of a rigorously trained inquirer, the process of believing is, I apprehend, this: First comes the investigation, a set of facts are sifted and a set of arguments weighed; then the intellect perceives the result of those arguments, and, we say, assents to it. Then an emotion more or less strong sets in, which completes the whole. In calm and quiet minds, the intellectual part of this process is so much the strongest that they are hardly conscious of anything else; and as these quiet, careful people have written our treatises, we do not find it explained in them how important the emotional part is.
But take the case of the Caliph Omar, according to Gibbon’s description of him. He burnt the Alexandrine Library, saying: “All books which contain what is not in the Koran are dangerous; all those which contain what is in the Koran are useless”. Probably no one ever had an intenser belief in anything than Omar had in this. Yet it is impossible to imagine it preceded by an argument. His belief in Mahomet, in the Koran, and in the sufficiency of the Koran, came to him probably in spontaneous rushes of emotion; there may have been little vestiges of argument floating here and there, but they did not justify the strength of the emotion, still less did they create it, and they hardly even excused it.
There is so commonly some considerable argument for our modern beliefs, that it is difficult now-a-days to isolate the emotional element, and therefore, on the principle that in Metaphysics “egotism is the truest modesty,” I may give myself as an example of utterly irrational conviction. Some years ago I stood for a borough in the West of England, and after a keen contest was defeated by seven. Almost directly afterwards there was accidentally another election, and, as I would not stand, another candidate of my own side was elected, and I of course ceased to have any hold upon the place, or chance of being elected there. But for years I had the deepest conviction that I should be “Member for Bridgwater”; and no amount of reasoning would get it out of my head. The borough is now disfranchised; but even still, if I allow my mind to dwell on the contest,—if I think of the hours I was ahead in the morning, and the rush of votes at two o’clock by which I was defeated,—and even more, if I call up the image of the nomination day, with all the people’s hands outstretched, and all their excited faces looking the more different on account of their identity in posture, the old feeling almost comes back upon me, and for a moment I believe that I shall be Member for Bridgwater.
I should not mention such nonsense, except on an occasion when I may serve as an intellectual “specimen,”1 but I know I wish that I could feel the same hearty, vivid faith in many conclusions of which my understanding says it is satisfied, that I did in this absurdity. And if it should be replied that such folly could be no real belief, for it could not influence any man’s action, I am afraid I must say that it did influence my actions. For a long time the ineradicable fatalistic feeling, that I should some time have this constituency, of which I had no chance, hung about my mind, and diminished my interest in other constituencies, where my chances of election would have been rational at any rate.
This case probably exhibits the maximum of conviction with the minimum of argument, but there are many approximations to it. Persons of untrained minds cannot long live without some belief in any topic which comes much before them. It has been said that if you can only get a middle-class Englishman to think whether there are “snails in Sirius,” he will soon have an opinion on it. It will be difficult to make him think, but if he does think, he cannot rest in a negative, he will come to some decision. And on any ordinary topic, of course, it is so. A grocer has a full creed as to foreign policy, a young lady a complete theory of the sacraments, as to which neither has any doubt whatever. But in talking to such persons, I cannot but remember my Bridgwater experience, and ask whether causes like those which begat my folly may not be at the bottom of their “invincible knowledge”.
Most persons who observe their own thoughts must have been conscious of the exactly opposite state. There are cases where our intellect has gone through the arguments, and we give a clear assent to the conclusions. But our minds seem dry and unsatisfied. In that case we have the intellectual part of Belief, but want the emotional part.
That belief is not a purely intellectual matter is evident from dreams, where we are always believing, but scarcely ever arguing; and from certain forms of insanity, where fixed delusions seize upon the mind and generate a firmer belief than any sane person is capable of. These are, of course, “unorthodox” states of mind; but a good psychology must explain them, nevertheless, and perhaps it would have progressed faster if it had been more ready to compare them with the waking states of sane people.
Probably, when the subject is thoroughly examined, “conviction” will be proved to be one of the intensest of human emotions, and one most closely connected with the bodily state. In cases like the Caliph Omar’s, it governs all other desires, absorbs the whole nature, and rules the whole life. And in such cases it is accompanied or preceded by the sensation that Scott makes his seer describe as the prelude to a prophecy:—
A hot flash seems to burn across the brain. Men in these intense states of mind have altered all history, changed for better or worse the creed of myriads, and desolated or redeemed provinces and ages. Nor is this intensity a sign of truth, for it is precisely strongest in these points in which men differ most from each other. John Knox felt it in his anti-Catholicism; Ignatius Loyola in his anti-Protestantism; and both, I suppose, felt it as much as it is possible to feel it.
Once acutely felt, I believe it is indelible; at least, it does something to the mind which it is hard for anything else to undo. It has been often said that a man who has once really loved a woman, never can be without feeling towards that woman again. He may go on loving her, or he may change and hate her. In the same way, I think, experience proves that no one who has had real passionate conviction of a creed, the sort of emotion that burns hot upon the brain, can ever be indifferent to that creed again. He may continue to believe it, and to love it; or he may change to the opposite, vehemently argue against it, and persecute it. But he cannot forget it. Years afterwards, perhaps, when life changes, when external interests cease to excite, when the apathy to surroundings which belongs to the old, begins all at once, to the wonder of later friends, who cannot imagine what is come to him, the grey-headed man returns to the creed of his youth.
The explanation of these facts in metaphysical books is very imperfect. Indeed, I only know one school which professes to explain the emotional, as distinguished from the intellectual element in belief. Mr. Bain (after Mr. Mill)1 speaks very instructively of the “animal nature of belief,” but when he comes to trace its cause, his analysis seems, to me at least, utterly unsatisfactory. He says that, “the state of belief is identical with the activity or active disposition of the system at the moment with reference to the thing believed”. But in many cases there is firm belief where there is no possibility of action or tendency to it. A girl in a country parsonage will be sure “that Paris never can be taken,” or that “Bismarck is a wretch,” without being able to act on these ideas or wanting to act on them. Many beliefs, in Coleridge’s happy phrase, slumber in the “dormitory of the soul”;1 they are present to the consciousness, but they incite to no action. And perhaps Coleridge is an example of misformed mind in which not only may “Faith” not produce “works,” but in which it had a tendency to prevent works. Strong convictions gave him a kind of cramp in the will, and he could not act on them. And in very many persons much-indulged conviction exhausts the mind with the attached ideas; teases it, and so, when the time of action comes, makes it apt to turn to different, perhaps opposite ideas, and to act on them in preference.
As far as I can perceive, the power of an idea to cause conviction, independently of any intellectual process, depends on four properties.
1st. Clearness. The more unmistakable an idea is to a particular mind, the more is that mind predisposed to believe it. In common life we may constantly see this. If you once make a thing quite clear to a person, the chances are that you will almost have persuaded him of it. Half the world only understand what they believe, and always believe what they understand.
2nd. Intensity. This is the main cause why the ideas that flash on the minds of seers, as in Scott’s description, are believed; they come mostly when the nerves are exhausted by fasting, watching and longing; they have a peculiar brilliancy, and therefore they are believed. To this cause I trace too my fixed folly as to Bridgwater. The idea of being member for the town had been so intensely brought home to me by the excitement of a contest, that I could not eradicate it, and that as soon as I recalled any circumstances of the contest it always came back in all its vividness.
3rd. Constancy. As a rule, almost every one does accept the creed of the place in which he lives, and everyone without exception has a tendency to do so. There are, it is true, some minds which a mathematician might describe as minds of “contrary flexure,” whose particular bent it is to contradict what those around them say. And the reason is that in their minds the opposite aspect of every subject is always vividly presented. But even such minds usually accept the axioms of their district, the tenets which everybody always believes. They only object to the variable elements; to the inferences and deductions drawn by some, but not by all.
4th. On the Interestingness of the idea, by which I mean the power of the idea to gratify some wish or want of the mind. The most obvious is curiosity about something which is important to me. Rumours that gratify this excite a sort of half-conviction without the least evidence, and with a very little evidence a full, eager, not to say a bigoted one. If a person go into a mixed company, and say authoritatively “that the Cabinet is nearly divided on the Russian question, and that it was only decided by one vote to send Lord Granville’s despatch,” most of the company will attach some weight more or less to the story, without asking how the secret was known. And if the narrator casually add that he has just seen a subordinate member of the Government, most of the hearers will go away and repeat the anecdote with grave attention, though it does not in the least appear that the lesser functionary told the anecdote about the Cabinet, or that he knew what passed at it.
And the interest is greater when the news falls in with the bent of the hearer. A sanguine man will believe with scarcely any evidence that good luck is coming, and a dismal man that bad luck is coming. As far as I can make out, the professional “bulls” and “bears” of the City do believe a great deal of what they say, though, of course, there are exceptions, and though neither the most sanguine “bull” nor the most dismal “bear” can believe all he says.
Of course, I need not say that this “quality” peculiarly attaches to the greatest problems of human life. The firmest convictions of the most inconsistent answers to the everlasting questions “whence?” and “whither?” have been generated by this “interestingness” without evidence on which one would invest a penny.
In one case, these causes of irrational conviction seem contradictory. Clearness, as we have seen, is one of them; but obscurity, when obscure things are interesting, is a cause too. But there is no real difficulty here. Human nature at different times exhibits contrasted impulses. There is a passion for sensualism, that is, to eat and drink; and a passion for asceticism, that is, not to eat and drink; so it is quite likely that the clearness of an idea may sometimes cause a movement of conviction, and that the obscurity of another idea may at other times cause one too.
These laws, however, are complex—can they be reduced to any simpler law of human nature? I confess I think that they can, but at the same time I do not presume to speak with the same confidence about it that I have upon other points. Hitherto I have been dealing with the common facts of the adult human mind, as we may see it in others and feel it in ourselves. But I am now going to deal with the “prehistoric” period of the mind in early childhood, as to which there is necessarily much obscurity.
My theory is, that in the first instance a child believes everything. Some of its states of consciousness are perceptive or presentative,—that is, they tell it of some heat or cold, some resistance or non-resistance, then and there present. Other states of consciousness are representative,—that is, they say that certain sensations could be felt or certain facts perceived, in time past or in time to come, or at some place, no matter at what time, then and there out of the reach of perception and sensation. In mature life, too, we have these presentative and representative states in every sort of mixture, but we make a distinction between them. Without remark and without doubt, we believe the “evidence of our senses,” that is, the facts of present sensation and perception; but we do not believe at once and instantaneously the representative states as to what is non-present, whether in time or space. But I apprehend that this is an acquired distinction, and that in early childhood every state of consciousness is believed, whether it be presentative or representative.
Certainly at the beginning of the “historic” period we catch the mind at a period of extreme credulity. When memory begins, and when speech and signs suffice to make a child intelligible, belief is almost omnipresent, and doubt almost never to be found. Childlike credulity is a phrase of the highest antiquity, and of the greatest present aptness.
So striking, indeed, on certain points, is this impulse to believe, that philosophers have invented various theories to explain in detail some of its marked instances. Thus it has been said that children have an intuitive disposition to believe in “testimony”—that is, in the correctness of statements orally made to them. And that they do so is certain. Every child believes what the footman tells it, what its nurse tells it, and what its mother tells it, and probably every one’s memory will carry him back to the horrid mass of miscellaneous confusion which he acquired by believing all he heard. But though it is certain that a child believes all assertions made to it, it is not certain that the child so believes in consequence of a special intuitive predisposition restricted to such assertions. It may be that this indiscriminate belief in all sayings is but a relic of an omnivorous acquiescence in all states of consciousness, which is only just extinct when childhood is plain enough to be understood, or old enough to be remembered.
Again, it has been said much more plausibly that we want an intuitive tendency to account for our belief in memory. But I question whether it can be shown that a little child does believe in its memories more confidently than in its imaginations. A child of my acquaintance corrected its mother, who said that “they should never see” two of its dead brothers again, and maintained, “Oh yes, mamma, we shall; we shall see them in heaven, and they will be so glad to see us”. And then the child cried with disappointment because its mother, though a most religious lady, did not seem exactly to feel that seeing her children in that manner was as good as seeing them on earth. Now I doubt if that child did not believe this expectation quite as confidently as it believed any past fact, or as it could believe anything at all, and though the conclusion may be true, plainly the child believed, not from the efficacy of the external evidence, but from a strong rush of inward confidence. Why, then, should we want a special intuition to make children believe past facts when, in truth, they go farther and believe with no kind of difficulty future facts as well as past?
If on so abstruse a matter I might be allowed a graphic illustration, I should define doubt as “hesitation produced by collision”. A child possessed with the notion that all its fancies are true, finds that acting on one of them brings its head against the table. This gives it pain, and makes it hesitate as to the expediency of doing it again. Early childhood is an incessant education in scepticism, and early youth is so too. All boys are always knocking their heads against the physical world, and all young men are constantly knocking their heads against the social world. And both of them from the same cause—that they are subject to an eruption of emotion which engenders a strong belief, but which is as likely to cause a belief in falsehood as in truth. Gradually, under the tuition of a painful experience, we come to learn that our strongest convictions may be quite false, that many of our most cherished ones are and have been false; and this causes us to seek a “criterion” as to which beliefs are to be trusted and which are not; and so we are beaten back to the laws of evidence for our guide, though, as Bishop Butler said, in a similar case, we object to be bound by anything so “poor”.1
That it is really this contention with the world which destroys conviction and which causes doubt, is shown by examining the cases where the mind is secluded from the world. In “dreams,” where we are out of collision with fact, we accept everything as it comes, believe everything and doubt nothing. And in violent cases of mania, where the mind is shut up within itself, and cannot, from impotence, perceive what is without, it is as sure of the most chance fancy, as in health it would be of the best proved truths.
And upon this theory we perceive why the four tendencies to irrational conviction which I have set down, survive, and remain in our adult hesitating state as vestiges of our primitive all-believing state. They are all from various causes “adhesive” states—states which it is very difficult to get rid of, and which, in consequence, have retained their power of creating belief in the mind, when other states, which once possessed it too, have quite lost it. Clear ideas are certainly more difficult to get rid of than obscure ones. Indeed, some obscure ones we cannot recover, if we once lose them. Everybody, perhaps, has felt all manner of doubts and difficulties in mastering a mathematical problem. At the time, the difficulties seemed as real as the problem, but a day or two after a man has mastered it, he will be wholly unable to imagine or remember where the difficulties were. The demonstration will be perfectly clear to him, and he will be unable to comprehend how any one should fail to perceive it. For life he will recall the clear ideas, but the obscure ones he will never recall, though for some hours, perhaps, they were painful, confused, and oppressive obstructions. Intense ideas are, as every one will admit, recalled more easily than slight and weak ideas. Constantly impressed ideas are brought back by the world around us, and if they are so often, get so tied to our other ideas that we can hardly wrench them away. Interesting ideas stick in the mind by the associations which give them interest. All the minor laws of conviction resolve themselves into this great one: “That at first we believe all which occurs to us—that afterwards we have a tendency to believe that which we cannot help often occurring to us, and that this tendency is stronger or weaker in some sort of proportion to our inability to prevent the recurrence”. When the inability to prevent the recurrence of the idea is very great, so that the reason is powerless on the mind, the consequent “conviction” is an eager, irritable, and ungovernable passion.
If these principles are true, they suggest some lessons which are not now accepted. They prove:—
1. That we should be very careful how we let ourselves believe that which may turn out to be error. Milton says that “error is but opinion,” meaning true opinion, “in the making”. But when the conviction of any error is a strong passion, it leaves, like all other passions, a permanent mark on the mind. We can never be as if we had never felt it. “Once a heretic, always a heretic,” is thus far true, that a mind once given over to a passionate conviction is never as fit as it would otherwise have been to receive the truth on the same subject. Years after the passion may return upon him, and inevitably small recurrences of it will irritate his intelligence and disturb its calm. We cannot at once expel a familiar idea, and so long as the idea remains, its effect will remain too.
2. That we must always keep an account in our minds of the degree of evidence on which we hold our convictions, and be most careful that we do not permanently permit ourselves to feel a stronger conviction than the evidence justifies. If we do, since evidence is the only criterion of truth, we may easily get a taint of error that may be hard to clear away. This may seem obvious, yet, if I do not mistake, Father Newman’s Grammar of Assent is little else than a systematic treatise designed to deny and confute it.
3. That if we do, as in life we must sometimes, indulge a “provisional enthusiasm,” as it may be called, for an idea—for example, if an orator in the excitement of speaking does not keep his phrases to probability, and if in the hurry of emotion he quite believes all he says, his plain duty is on other occasions to watch himself carefully, and to be sure that he does not as a permanent creed believe what in a peculiar and temporary state he was led to say he felt and to feel.
Similarly, we are all in our various departments of life in the habit of assuming various probabilities as if they were certainties. In Lombard Street the dealers assume that “Messrs. Baring’s acceptance at three months’ date is sure to be paid,” and that “Peel’s Act will always be suspended in a panic”. And the familiarity of such ideas makes it nearly impossible for any one who spends his day in Lombard Street to doubt of them. But, nevertheless, a person who takes care of his mind will keep up the perception that they are not certainties.
Lastly, we should utilise this intense emotion of conviction as far as we can. Dry minds, which give an intellectual “assent” to conclusions which feel no strong glow of faith in them, often do not know what their opinions are. They have every day to go over the arguments again, or to refer to a note-book to know what they believe. But intense convictions make a memory for themselves, and if they can be kept to the truths of which there is good evidence, they give a readiness of intellect, a confidence in action, a consistency in character, which are not to be had without them. For a time, indeed, they give these benefits when the propositions believed are false, but then they spoil the mind for seeing the truth, and they are very dangerous, because the believer may discover his error, and a perplexity of intellect, a hesitation in action, and an inconsistency in character are the sure consequences of an entire collapse in pervading and passionate conviction.
[1 ] It should be stated that this essay was originally read as a paper before a society which discussed subjects of a metaphysical nature.
[1 ] “Lady of the Lake,” canto iv.
[1 ] Note 107 on chap. xi. of James Mill’s Analysis of the Human Mind. (Forrest Morgan.)
[1 ] Aphorism 1 of Aids to Reflection.
[1 ]Analogy, part ii., chap. viii., 4th paragraph.