by Stanley Schwartz
Aristotle is supposed to have said that the mark of an educated mind is the ability to entertain an idea without accepting it. This was a favorite quote of mine for some time, before I began questioning it a bit. Is the mark of an educated mind the ability to tolerate any articulation of the opinions of others? Or is it rather that the educated mind is resolute in the face of another’s argumentation, recognizing the informed, well-reasoned, and trustworthy condition of their own ideas? At first glance, it appears obvious that the intention is the former. That meaning, as it is often expressed by charitable interlocutors, sounds natural: “I will listen to you because I have learned to tolerate the perspectives of others.” On the other hand, the latter seems offensive: “I will refuse to accept your argumentation, no matter its skill or validity, because I have learned to be confident in the superiority of my own knowledge.”
While I have come to believe that the meaning of the quotation lies in a synthesis of the two perspectives, the necessary examination reveals that resolution, which we have come to praise and evaluate every January, is not always helpful. While it is common to bemoan and regret our inability to hold fast to our New Year’s resolutions, we often fail to consider whether or not our failure is natural or beneficial. Should a father go on a strict diet if this leaves him too tired in the evening to help his children with their homework? Should a grandparent read more if they have children and grandchildren nearby who love to see and hear from them? I certainly do not mean to suggest that these questions have to be narrowly answered in one way or another, and that anyone who deviates is acting improperly. On the contrary, I think that the failure to stand by our resolutions reflects the natural compromises that engagement brings in a multi-faceted world of scarcity and trade-offs.
In 1785, Warren Hastings, the English Governor-General of Bengal and a leading official in the hierarchy of the East India Company, returned to England after a career on the subcontinent. Praised for his “high character for ability and resolution,”¹ Hastings was nevertheless impeached by the House of Commons and tried in the House of Lords for the actions he and his subordinates committed while in India. It is no coincidence that the politician who took the lead in the legal, political, and rhetorical battles against Hastings and the East India Company was Edmund Burke—the prophet of prudence. Of all the statesmen and thinkers of the day, Burke was the least likely to forgive a leader for causing harm on the grounds that their actions were the natural result of resolution towards a good end: imperial growth, company profits, etc. On the contrary, Burke spent a career proclaiming the importance of relying on accepted modes of action—manners, customs, and habits—in order to avoid violating the truths of morality in a world that forever tempts us to shape a utopian dream and push it through by force, no matter the outcome. Whether this took the form of an English official resolved to create profit no matter the cost in Indian lives and wellbeing, or a French legislator resolutely pursuing the fulfilment of the revolution through campaigns of conquest, Burke had no sympathy.
Today there is no need to peruse the pages of history to understand the dangers of resolution. Our own political moment in America reveals what happens when political leaders abandon compromise and consensus in the passionate determination to get their own way. No leaders have so embraced resolution at the moment better than Donald Trump and Nancy Pelosi. The resulting government shutdown was no doubt harmful to some, such as the TSA workers who have labored without pay (and whose families, no doubt, also suffered). Nevertheless, it is likely that if either side decided to abandon some portion of their position to achieve an agreement, partisans on that side would be unhappy about the lack of resolve and the weakness displayed by their political chieftains.
Resolutions may be something we have grown used to making without seriously considering, as I found with the quote from Aristotle. Yet resolutions that do not square with the fundamental frame of reality as we find it—i.e., the relationships and resources that confront us—will not be ambivalent, but damaging. Time spent considering the right thing to do might be much more helpful than conjuring up the willpower to do something that is unrealistic in significant ways. The triumph of wisdom and prudence over resolution would bring a valuable degree of achievement and success in our polity and in our personal lives in 2019.
Stanley Schwartz is a Fulbright postgraduate scholar studying Australian politics, history, and political ideology at Australian National University.
¹ Lord Macaulay, Warren Hastings, (London: Macmillan and Co., 1907), 8. Italics mine.