Commonplace books are probably less than common these days although maintaining them online should make them easier to compile and access particularly when for some of the items stuck in them scanning is easier than scissors and paste.
They have always had a basically personal role – reminding the owner of some wisdom, odd fact, memory or a source to be plundered to illustrate other writing or to provide a veneer of intellectual breadth.
But when some of the collected bits leap from the commonplace book to elsewhere there is always a nagging paradox – have they leapt into new form as an argument from authority, appeal because of appositeness to some subject or other or possibly a combination of both?
In the past few months the blog was prompted to jot down a few quotes it came across which seemed particularly apposite to the times. Not in the form of anything as organised as as a commonplace book, nor as systematic as an online repository, but rather on any scraps of paper which were available at the time of reading. The surprising thing was that, when looking back on whether they were apposite or not, the striking thing was how unlikely some of the sources were.
A few examples indicate how some sources are easy to guess and others are just plain surprising. Readers can have a guess at who said what with the correct answers at the bottom of the page.
First, is pretty easy – sapare aude – dare to know or more colloquially dare to think or think for yourself.
Second, a collection from one individual:
“Nobody is searching for truth, everybody is putting forward a ‘case’ with complete disregard for fairness and accuracy, and the most plainly obvious facts can be ignored by those who don’t want to see them….To admit that an opponent might be both honest and intelligent is felt to be intolerable”
“The general uncertainty as to what is really happening makes it easier to cling to lunatic beliefs.”
“….no-one should be persecuted for expressing his opinions, however anti-social, & no political organisation suppressed unless it can be shown that there is a substantial threat to the stability of the state”
“If men continue to believe in facts as can be tested and to reverence the spirit of truth in seeking greater knowledge, the can never be fully enslaved”
Third, a few from another individual:
“In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world, the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that anything was possible and that nothing was true…..Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyway.”
Totalitarianism “in the long run probably demands a disbelief in the very existence of objective truth”
“The chief qualification of a mass leader has become unending infallibility; he can never admit an error…Mass leaders in power have one concern which overrules all utilitarian considerations: to make their predictions come true”.
Fourth, another easy one although it comes with a clue – the person being described was close to Roy Cohn just as a later figure, about whom the same could be said, was.
“He knew that big lies produced big headlines. He also knew that most newspapers would print almost any charge (he) made in public.”
Fifth, a much underrated figure:
“The man who lives in the world as though the world he is living in is the world he seeks to create is a fool”
Sixth, another easy one:
“With malice towards none and charity for all”
Seventh, perhaps surprising given his background although as he spent time in both the US and Australia perhaps not so surprising:
“The Trouble with capitalism is capitalists. They’re just too damn greedy.”
Eighth, another surprising one:
“America’s present need is not heroics but healing; not nostrums but normalcy.”
America needs equal pay for equal work, an eight hour day, the end of child labour, prevention of lynching, maternal and infant protection, appointment of women to state and federal boards, a minimum wage, national health care program and the creation of a department of social justice.
Ninth, from a source of life long wisdom:
“The poverty of material goods is easily cured, for the poverty of the soul there is no cure.”
Tenth, someone beloved of conservatives who only know of one of his comments:
Much morality is “an apparatus for converting prevailing opinions on matters of morality into reasons for themselves.”
“…improvement consists in bringing our opinions into nearer agreement with the facts; and we shall not be likely to do this while we look at facts only coloured by those opinions. But since we cannot divest ourselves of preconceived ideas there is no known means of eliminating their influence but by frequently using the different coloured glasses of other people; and those other of nations, as the most different are the best.’
Lastly, the speaker’s first and last time he was willing to give his opinion on Trump.
“What gets to me is how everyone in the world has to talk about this dipshit. I have never seen more volcanic, pathetic self-pity in a man. Trump revels in his own grotesque. I know something about men. Real men don’t wallow in self-pity.”
…and the answers:
1. Horace via Immanuel Kant
2. In succession: Orwell As I Please Tribune December 8 1944; Orwell Notes on Nationalism; Orwell letter to George Woodcock January 4 1948; Orwell The Prevention of Literature; George Orwell Life July 4 1949.
3. Hannah Arendt The Origins of Totalitarianism; and Arendt .
4. James Reston on Senator McCarthy Deadline: A Memoir 1991.
5. Clement Attlee
6. Abraham Lincoln
7. Herbert Hoover
8. Warren G. Harding 1920s US President
10. Consecutively: John Stuart Mill 1853; John Stuart Mill inaugural lecture at St Andrews University
11. James Ellroy – self-described white knight of the far-right.