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Expository Essays | Mr. Sherwood's English class
In listening to such language we are tempted to ask, does anyone in reality escape the thraldom—if thraldom it be—of general principles? We may not recognize in our own minds the general principles which direct our conduct; we may be profoundly ignorant of their existence; but I think in every case, putting out of consideration actions which are instinctive, it may be shown that whether these general principles are, or are not known to us, nevertheless we are all acting under their guidance. One man may be quite conscious of the principles he is following; he has deliberately examined, tested, and chosen them as his guides; another man is equally under the authority of some other set of principles, though he has never consciously placed himself in that position, and does not even know the name or nature of what he obeys; in one case they may be narrower; in another case, wider; more consistently or more uncertainly applied; but in every case, however carelessly adopted or inconsistently followed, or however little recognized they may be, general principles of some kind or another will be found as the guides of conduct. This will become plainer when we remember that a general principle implies the classing together of certain facts—with or without an injunction added to it—and that daily life is only carried on from hour to hour by means of the knowledge which results from such classifications. We perceive that a certain thing acting under similar conditions produces a certain effect, and having repeatedly observed this same cause and this same effect accompanying each other, we enact for ourselves a command to do or to forbear, and we act so as to produce or avoid a foreseen effect. It will be plain to everyone who considers the matter, that there could be no advance in knowledge of any kind, unless facts were always being classified, and unless, with the enormous increase of facts so classified, the further work were to go on of arranging them in groups according to their relations amongst themselves. This is the work on which the race has been engaged ever since the dim early days when it first classified the effect of fire and water, by saying fire burns and water quenches. Advance of knowledge means that we are learning as regards some substance whatever it may be, metal, plant, animal, that the same cause is accompanied by the same effect—by placing this effect in connection with other effects, and gathering from the members of the group the law which is common to them all. It means not only learning new facts, but introducing order amongst facts already learned. All available knowledge consists of classification, since facts unarranged and unclassified are of no more present use to us, than bricks are until they are built into some kind of a building. What is true as regards material substances of the world is true as regards human nature. Now politics are essentially one part of the science of human nature, and it is the same human nature, neither more nor less, as that with which we come in contact every hour of our lives. This simple truth is often forgotten in presence of the machinery of Parliaments, public offices, parties, organizations, caucuses, and all the other instruments of political life, but we cannot go back in mind too often to the fundamental facts, first, that we are dealing with the simple human nature of every day, and, second, that human nature must be studied and understood—its facts must be classified—like causes connected with like effects, furnishing us with their own special generalizations—then these effects connected with other effects furnishing us with their own special generalizations—then these effects connected with other effects furnishing us with wider generalizations—if we are to act as successfully upon it as we do upon any of the materials that we use in our manufactures. It seems almost like urging the importance of study of the alphabet to urge that all successful political conduct must be founded upon the classification of those facts that affect human nature, of those conditions which as we learn from the common everyday experience of life, either aid or impede its development. Is proof required that in our views of human nature we recognize general principles? A speech that wins the applause of its hearers, a character skillfully drawn in a novel, a successful play bear witness to the self-evident proposition that men have classified certain facts regarding their own selves, and recognized what are called laws of human nature. Otherwise we could not by a sort of common agreement praise the skill and truth of the artist; the effect upon each of us would be purely personal, subjective and accidental. We should be without that common standard of reference which we now possess and of which our common judgments of praise and blame are the evidence. And yet the very words “general principles” cause a sort of horror to those who are ingaged in politics. There is a vague superstitious dread about the use of them; and men feel, when an appeal is made in their name, almost as if they were asked to give up the study of facts and to return to those verbal explanations of earlier days, which merely supplied a new clothing of words and left the matter itself standing where it did before.