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The Mental Pendulum
“The Gentler View,” Harper’s Weekly (January 6, 1912) : 30 (link at hathitrust)
same (University of Michigan) scan at google : link

      The dogmatism of philosophers either takes account of the strong pendulum instinct in each of us or else it does not. But then this is precisely the case with so many things. Extreme and arbitrary statements are perhaps intended as the pull to one side, with the calculation that the swing back will only be so far as the middle course. But in the majority of writers the pull is too violent a one, and it sends us to the opposite extreme, with the result that we agree rather less than we would have if we had not been yanked quite so hard. It requires the nicest judgement to draw the line in the exact place, so that all that is said may stand without danger of annihilating deduction. If the writer is stodgily conservative he seems to exhibit nothing but the faults of conservatism, and we become flightily radical. If he is hotly revolutionary we see not the truth of what he says, but the respectability of those things which he has discarded, and we stand up for them as staunchly as though nine-tenths of the world were not doing the same. A catholic view-point appeals to us, but as naturally broad-mindedness and entirely what we would have said ourselves. It gives an honored place to our own opinion, and, though it gives greater emphasis to another, we ignore this and feel but the more firmly established in our comfortable rut. A certain violence is necessary in order to gain attention, yet a too garish coloring and we all exclaim, “Oh, we are not so bad as that. It is only extreme cases that he berates; we have it a little, but not by any means enough to make reform necessary.”
      There have been a few men — William James was one of them — who have found the precise place at which to draw the line, and there they have, to our awestruck amazement, lined it. They begin their arguments by telling us with great kindliness what all our mental reservations are going to be on the point under discussion. They point out those secret prejudices we hug to ourselves which enable us to prove any one who does not agree with our carelessly collected preferences in the wrong. They refute our objections and sympathize with our personal and rather stubborn obliquities as things human, likely, and thought not altogether inspiring to their possessor, still perfectly to be expected and capable of cure. So that, before more than a mere outline has been given of what they intend to say, we have flung out all our old impedimenta and stand shyly bare for them to make what impression on us they will. As his argument progresses we react as prophesied, and so chagrined are we at his accurate knowledge of our processes that we turn a deaf ear to our own dullness and thus achieve the miracle of giving more attention to a truth with which we are still awkward, than to an old dogma which we have worn to comfortable shabbiness.

Projects of the Future

      How can people spoil the future when it is the only time they have in their power to make delightful? The past we know we have bungled and the present we are a shade appalled to tackle, but the future — no one can deny that amazing changes may take place in the future and make it consummate in its perfection. The present is very apt to be insoluble. Human problems may be shirked or exchanged for others, or persistently lied about, but they are seldom solved. Honest folk realize this about the present, but being nice as well as honest, they feel no need to be carping or cautious about the future. Things will be easier in the future, one will manage with more success. Those pleaseant and unexpected happenings which might come to pass just as readily as the tiresome things that do happen always have such an uncommonly likely air when placed in the future, which makes it so surprising that a certain type of person has such a ruthless way with them. He pretends to know more of the future than others. He claims a special prophetic vision which enables him to see that all one’s plans are going to turn out badly. He spoils the future before it comes, so that, even when it proves to be rather nice, one’s good spirits have been cooled, and one mistakes it for the everyday present. These are the people who think the past, the rather distant past, that is, when they were young, was the only virtuous time; the world has rapidly been going to pigs and whistles ever since. They are both unreasonable and depressing, for, if they feel the past to have been good, why can they not have the same opinion of the future? We, on the other hand, share nothing but their lack of logic, for we, fully aware that the past was a regrettable muddle, still see no reason why the future should not be all beautiful. We need the future. We could not do without the brightness of the future as they do, much less of our own free will ruin it. It throws a little of its shimmer on the present, and by its borrowed light we pull successfully through a lot of minutes we might otherwise come croppers in.
      Is it because these other people possess no such backward glints that they are such dreary inhabitants of the present? It makes one suspect their past. It could not have been very attractive. To be crassly frank, they had the making of that too, and though they made it desirable we feel sure it was not until it was well over, when it could not longer help them and its sole use was as an admonishment to others. We will exclude them from our future. It is absurd to call any one either optimist or pessimist until it is seen how he considers this matter of the future. Those who have a penchant for the future have it because they are so hopeful about themselves. And to feel that one will surely improve is to have performed successfully the most difficult feat ever asked of an optimist. The charm of incidents to come is based on the characteristics of that hazy, dear person one is going to be when things are a little different. One makes mistakes now and worries over them and lives with them and wears them out, but years hence one’s home, one’s person, one’s familiars will all be harmonious because that different self will never blunder. Why should one? The past and present are full of such things, and that should be enough. It would be a small spirited person that saw onself stupid always.

11 November 2022