J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, November 07, 2016

“As they were not reasoned up, they cannot be reasoned down”

In 1721, the Rev. Jonathan Swift published A Letter to a Young Clergyman, Lately Enter’d Into Holy Orders, by a Person of Quality. It included this sentence about men wasting their college education by thinking in new ways and thus making such education look bad for everyone else:
It is from such seminaries as these, that the world is provided with the several tribes and denominations of freethinkers, who, in my judgment, are not to be reformed by arguments offered to prove the truth of the christian religion, because reasoning will never make a man correct an ill opinion, which by reasoning he never acquired: for in the course of things, men always grow vicious before they become unbelievers; but if you would once convince the town or country profligate, by topics drawn from the view of their own quiet, reputation, health, and advantage, their infidelity would soon drop off: This I confess is no easy task, because it is almost in a literal sense, to fight with beasts.
Eventually the clause “Reasoning will never make a man correct an ill opinion, which by reasoning he never acquired” was pulled out of that sentence as wisdom on its own. Ironically, Swift wasn’t extolling reasoning so much as faith.

In the letter dated 21 Mar 1778 in The American Crisis, Thomas Paine offered a variation on that idea in a public letter to Gen. Sir William Howe:
To argue with a man who has renounced the use and authority of reason, and whose philosophy consists in holding humanity in contempt, is like administering medicine to the dead, or endeavoring to convert an atheist by scripture. Enjoy, sir, your insensibility of feeling and reflecting. It is the prerogative of animals. And no man will envy you these honors, in which a savage only can be your rival and a bear your master.
You always knew where you stood with Paine.

In the 12 Oct 1786 Independent Chronicle, young Fisher Ames (shown above) published an essay about the Shays’ Rebellion then roiling Massachusetts. He restated the same thought about the futility of reasoning with the unreasonable, this time calling that older wisdom.
It may be very proper to use arguments, to publish addresses, and fulminate proclamations, against high treason: but the man who expects to disperse a mob of a thousand men, by ten thousand arguments, has certainly never been in one. I have heard it remarked, that men are not to be reasoned out of an opinion that they have not reasoned themselves into. The case, though important, is simple. Government does not subsist by making proselytes to sound reason, or by compromise and arbitration with its members; but by the power of the community compelling the obedience of individuals.
Ten years later, on 28 Apr 1796, Ames was a member of the House of Representatives. He spoke in favor of the Jay Treaty, repeating the thought in new terms:
We hear it said, that this is a struggle for liberty, a manly resistance against the design to nullify this assembly, and to make it a cypher in the government: that the president and senate, the numerous meetings in the cities, and the influence of the general alarm of the country, are the agents and instruments of a scheme of coercion and terrour, to force the treaty down our throats, though we loath it, and in spite of the clearest convictions of duty and conscience.

It is necessary to pause here, and inquire, whether suggestions of this kind be not unfair in their very texture and fabrick, and pernicious in all their influences. They oppose an obstacle in the path of inquiry, not simply discouraging, but absolutely insurmountable. They will not yield to argument; for, as they were not reasoned up, they cannot be reasoned down. They are higher than a Chinese wall in truth’s way, and built of materials that are indestructible. While this remains, it is vain to say to this mountain, be thou cast into the sea.
Ames was known for his Federalist oratory, and that speech was reprinted many times in the nineteenth century. Several more American writers echoed Ames’s “reasoned up/reasoned down” phrase.

(This posting was aided by the inquiry at Quote Investigator.)


Joe Bauman said...

I admire the way Thomas Paine and Fisher Ames express themselves. This clear and forceful style of writing should be required reading in high schools.

J. L. Bell said...

With their short, direct sentences (some of them, at least), Paine and Ames stand out from a lot of eighteenth-century rhetoric.