Social Rights And Duties: Addresses to Ethical Societies (Complete) by Sir Leslie Stephen Summary
It is with great pleasure that I address you as president of this Society. Your main purpose, as I understand, is to promote the serious study of political and social problems in a spirit purged from the prejudice and narrowness of mere party conflict. You desire, that is, to promote a scientific investigation of some of the most important topics to which the human mind can devote itself. There is no purpose of which I approve more cordially: yet the very statement suggests a doubt. To speak of science and politics together is almost to suggest irony. And if politics be taken in the ordinary sense; if we think of the discussions by which the immediate fate of measures and of ministries is decided, I should be inclined to think that they belong to a sphere of thought to which scientific thought is hardly applicable, and in which I should be personally an unwarrantable intruder. My friends have sometimes accused me, indeed, of indifference to politics. I confess that I have never been able to follow the details of party warfare with the interest which they excite in some minds: and reasons, needless to indicate, have caused me to stray further and further away from intercourse with the society in which such details excite a predominant—I do not mean to insinuate an excessive—interest. I feel that if I were to suggest any arguments bearing directly upon home rule or disestablishment, I should at once come under that damnatory epithet "academical," which so neatly cuts the ground from under the feet of the political amateur. Moreover, I recognise a good deal of justice in the implied criticism. An active politician who wishes to impress his doctrines upon his countrymen, should have a kind of knowledge to which I can make no pretension. I share the ordinary feelings of awful reverence with which the human bookworm looks up to the man of business. He has faculties which in me are rudimentary, but which I can appreciate by their contrast to my own feebleness. The "knowledge of the world" ascribed to lawyers, to politicians, financiers, and such persons, like the "knowledge of the human heart" so often ascribed to dramatists and novelists, represents, I take it, a very real kind of knowledge; but it is rather an instinct than a set of definite principles; a power of somehow estimating the tendencies and motives of their fellow-creatures in a mass by rule of thumb, rather than by any distinctly assignable logical process; only to be gained by long experience and shrewd observation of men and cities. Such a faculty, as it reaches sound results without employing explicit definitions and syllogisms and inductive processes, sometimes inclines its possessors to look down too contemptuously upon the closet student.