Archive for October 9, 2012

Two Excerpts from Walter Bagehot’s “Physics and Politics”

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in Books, skmurphy

From the opening paragraph of the first chapter “The Preliminary Age” of Walter Bagehot‘s “Physics and Politics

One peculiarity of this age is the sudden acquisition of much physical knowledge. There is scarcely a department of science or art which is the same, or at all the same, as it was fifty years ago. A new world of inventions—of railways and of telegraphs—has grown up around us which we cannot help seeing; a new world of ideas is in the air and affects us, though we do not see it.

Writing in 1872 Bagehot sees a rapid transformation of the arts and sciences by new transport and communications technologies. I think too often we think of the Internet, or the integrated circuit as the kickoff for accelerating progress. But writing 140 years ago Bagehot witnessed the changes that the telegraph (e.g. first telegram had sent by transatlantic cable in 1858)  and the steam engine had wrought.

From the last paragraph of the second chapter “The Use of Conflict”

The military habit makes man think far too much of definite action, and far too little of brooding meditation. Life is not a set campaign, but an irregular work, and the main forces in it are not overt resolutions, but latent and half-involuntary promptings. The mistake of military ethics is to exaggerate the conception of discipline, and so to present the moral force of the will in a barer form than it ever ought to take. Military morals can direct the axe to cut down the tree, but it knows nothing of the quiet force by which the forest grows.

As entrepreneurs we value self-discipline (if only in the ability to chart our own course), fast decision making, and bold action. But, as Bagehot argues, there is also value in thoughtful reflection, quiet exploration and experimentation, and slower but more deliberate decision making.

It’s an interesting book that traces the need for a robust military to enable any society–especially an early or primitive society–to survive against the depredations of neighboring societies. But Bagehot is clear on the need for cooperation and collaboration for any one individual to survive much less thrive. An excerpt from the final chapter “Verifiable Progress Politically Considered”

The progress of MAN requires the co—operation of MEN for its development. That which any one man or any one family could invent for themselves is obviously exceedingly limited. And even if this were not true, isolated progress could never be traced. The rudest sort of cooperative society, the lowest tribe and the feeblest government, is so much stronger than isolated man, that isolated man (if he ever existed in any shape which could be called man), might very easily have ceased to exist. The first principle of the subject is that man can only progress in ‘co-operative groups;’ I might say tribes and nations, but I use the less common word because few people would at once see that tribes and nations ARE co-operative groups, and that it is their being so which makes their value; that unless you can make a strong co-operative bond, your society will be conquered and killed out by some other society which has such a bond; and the second principle is that the members of such a group should be similar enough to one another to co-operate easily and readily together.

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