At this site we talk a lot about what’s wrong with our society and how we might be able to reverse its decline. But how can we change an entire society when it is so hard to change our own behavior as individuals, and almost impossible to influence even the people closest to us to any obvious effect?
This was my thought after talking with a family member last night about other people in our family, and their peculiar and sometimes dysfunctional habits and ways. After thinking about that topic for some time, I stopped short as I realized that many of the eccentricities and limitations that we were discussing in other people are also present in myself, although in each individual the trait takes a different form. Nature and nurture naturally engender similarities between parent and child, sibling and sibling – even if the way these characteristics are realized can contrast quite dramatically between individuals.
Laurence Sterne’s satirical masterpiece Tristram Shandy (1759-1769?) draws a lot of its humor from the idea that even the most learned, sophisticated individuals are largely driven by irrational and contradictory impulses and habits which, by the time a person is middle-aged, are so firmly established that they are almost impossible to change. The novel’s eponymous narrator spends much of his time narrating the events of his life that took place between his conception and his christening, in order to demonstrate that he is the most unfortunate man who ever lived:
On the fifth day of November, 1718, which to the aera fixed on, was as near nine kalendar months as any husband could in reason have expected,–was I Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, brought forth into this scurvy and disastrous world of ours.–I wish I had been born in the Moon, or in any of the planets, (except Jupiter or Saturn, because I never could bear cold weather) for it could not well have fared worse with me in any of them (though I will not answer for Venus) than it has in this vile, dirty planet of ours,–which, o’ my conscience, with reverence be it spoken, I take to be made up of the shreds and clippings of the rest;–not but the planet is well enough, provided a man could be born in it to a great title or to a great estate; or could any how contrive to be called up to public charges, and employments of dignity or power;–but that is not my case;–and therefore every man will speak of the fair as his own market has gone in it;–for which cause I affirm it over again to be one of the vilest worlds that ever was made;–for I can truly say, that from the first hour I drew my breath in it, to this, that I can now scarce draw it at all, for an asthma I got in scating against the wind in Flanders;–I have been the continual sport of what the world calls Fortune; and though I will not wrong her by saying, She has ever made me feel the weight of any great or signal evil;–yet with all the good temper in the world I affirm it of her, that in every stage of my life, and at every turn and corner where she could get fairly at me, the ungracious duchess has pelted me with a set of as pitiful misadventures and cross accidents as ever small Hero sustained. (I.V.)
Sterne calls a man’s ruling, irrational obsession his “hobby horse,” and his book is populated by characters quite unable to see the absurdity of their own hobby horses.
Nay, if you come to that, Sir, have not the wisest of men in all ages, not excepting Solomon himself,–have they not had their Hobby-Horses;–their running horses,–their coins and their cockle-shells, their drums and their trumpets, their fiddles, their pallets,–their maggots and their butterflies?–and so long as a man rides his Hobby-Horse peaceably and quietly along the King’s highway, and neither compels you or me to get up behind him,–pray, Sir, what have either you or I to do with it?…. (I.VII)
–De gustibus non est disputandum;–that is, there is no disputing against Hobby-Horses; and for my part, I seldom do; nor could I with any sort of grace, had I been an enemy to them at the bottom; for happening, at certain intervals and changes of the moon, to be both fidler and painter, according as the fly stings:–Be it known to you, that I keep a couple of pads myself, upon which, in their turns, (nor do I care who knows it) I frequently ride out and take the air;–though sometimes, to my shame be it spoken, I take somewhat longer journies than what a wise man would think altogether right.–But the truth is,–I am not a wise man;–and besides am a mortal of so little consequence in the world, it is not much matter what I do: so I seldom fret or fume at all about it: Nor does it much disturb my rest, when I see such great Lords and tall Personages as hereafter follow;–such, for instance, as my Lord A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, K, L, M, N, O, P, Q, and so on, all of a row, mounted upon their several horses,– some with large stirrups, getting on in a more grave and sober pace;– others on the contrary, tucked up to their very chins, with whips across their mouths, scouring and scampering it away like so many little party- coloured devils astride a mortgage,–and as if some of them were resolved to break their necks.–So much the better–say I to myself;–for in case the worst should happen, the world will make a shift to do excellently well without them; and for the rest,–why–God speed them–e’en let them ride on without opposition from me; for were their lordships unhorsed this very night–’tis ten to one but that many of them would be worse mounted by one half before tomorrow morning.
Not one of these instances therefore can be said to break in upon my rest.- -But there is an instance, which I own puts me off my guard, and that is, when I see one born for great actions, and what is still more for his honour, whose nature ever inclines him to good ones;–when I behold such a one, my Lord, like yourself, whose principles and conduct are as generous and noble as his blood, and whom, for that reason, a corrupt world cannot spare one moment;–when I see such a one, my Lord, mounted, though it is but for a minute beyond the time which my love to my country has prescribed to him, and my zeal for his glory wishes,–then, my Lord, I cease to be a philosopher, and in the first transport of an honest impatience, I wish the Hobby-Horse, with all his fraternity, at the Devil. (I.VIII)
The narrator’s father, for instance, to save money, compels his wife to give birth to her son at their country estate rather than in London. In the countryside there is a reasonably competent midwife, but the father wants a male doctor to attend. His reasoning is that if the midwife makes a mess of her work, women all over the country will demand to be allowed to “lie in” in London, and this will lead to a population glut in the metropolis that could ruin the country.
He was very sensible that all political writers upon the subject had unanimously agreed and lamented, from the beginning of Queen Elizabeth’s reign down to his own time, that the current of men and money towards the metropolis, upon one frivolous errand or another,–set in so strong,–as to become dangerous to our civil rights,–though, by the bye,–a current was not the image he took most delight in,–a distemper was here his favourite metaphor, and he would run it down into a perfect allegory, by maintaining it was identically the same in the body national as in the body natural, where the blood and spirits were driven up into the head faster than they could find their ways down;–a stoppage of circulation must ensue, which was death in both cases.
There was little danger, he would say, of losing our liberties by French politicks or French invasions;–nor was he so much in pain of a consumption from the mass of corrupted matter and ulcerated humours in our constitution, which he hoped was not so bad as it was imagined;–but he verily feared, that in some violent push, we should go off, all at once, in a state-apoplexy;–and then he would say, The Lord have mercy upon us all.
My father was never able to give the history of this distemper,–without the remedy along with it.
‘Was I an absolute prince,’ he would say, pulling up his breeches with both his hands, as he rose from his arm-chair, ‘I would appoint able judges, at every avenue of my metropolis, who should take cognizance of every fool’s business who came there;–and if, upon a fair and candid hearing, it appeared not of weight sufficient to leave his own home, and come up, bag and baggage, with his wife and children, farmer’s sons, &c. &c. at his backside, they should be all sent back, from constable to constable, like vagrants as they were, to the place of their legal settlements. By this means I shall take care, that my metropolis totter’d not thro’ its own weight;–that the head be no longer too big for the body;–that the extremes, now wasted and pinn’d in, be restored to their due share of nourishment, and regain with it their natural strength and beauty:–I would effectually provide, That the meadows and corn fields of my dominions, should laugh and sing;–that good chear and hospitality flourish once more;–and that such weight and influence be put thereby into the hands of the Squirality of my kingdom, as should counterpoise what I perceive my Nobility are now taking from them. (I.XVIII)
The father, out of dedication to his passionately-held, hobby-horsical political belief, sets off a chain of events that are disastrous to his unborn son. He reminds me of certain intellectuals, who make a wreck of their private lives while theorizing about how to properly govern the world. I think it is a good thing to be able to step back from worrying about such matters and laugh once in awhile – at the world and at ourselves. I agree with Sterne that there’s almost nothing we can do to separate people from their hobby-horses. If we are to fix our society, it will have to happen by implementing higher-level changes in custom and belief, while allowing people, at the private level, to be the same exasperatingly irrational beings that they have always been.