David M. Brown's Blog

February 9, 2010

Trollope on judging a man’s character

Filed under: Philosophy,Psychology,Society and culture — davidmbrowndotcom @ 6:35 am
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In his introduction to his biography of Cicero, Anthony Trollope, defending Cicero against what he regards as hasty and deficient judgments of the Roman’s character, says a few words about the judging of character in general.

Trollope’s observations bring to mind biographers and others who so easily find “contradictions” in the fact that persons are not continuous carbon-copies of themselves as incarnated in one particular mood or one particular state of knowledge or judgment, or even as seen from one particular perspective of a particular third party who may, after all, in any particular moment possess less than perfect understanding of all relevant facts. The world is full of supposedly contradictory characters whose contradictions would melt away if we understood them a little better or if we could permit them to disagree with our own standards of judgment and even to find those standards partly or wholly unfathomable (by which I do not mean to imply that there is no right or wrong involved and that what we ought to believe and do is all a matter of irreducibly subjective opinion, but only that greater judiciousness in judging character is called for than is often evident). Here are a couple of those long nineteenth-century paragraphs:

In discussing the character of a man, there is no course of error so fertile as the drawing of a hard and fast line. We are attracted by salient points, and, seeing them clearly, we jump to conclusions, as though there were a light-house on every point by which the nature of the coast would certainly be shown to us. And so it will, if we accept the light only for so much of the shore as it illumines. But to say that a man is insincere because he has vacillated in this or the other difficulty, that he is a coward because he has feared certain dangers, that he is dishonest because he has swerved, that he is a liar because an untrue word has been traced to him, is to suppose that you know all the coast because one jutting headland has been defined to you. He who so expresses himself on a man’s character is either ignorant of human nature, or is in search of stones with which to pelt his enemy. "He has lied! He has lied!" How often in our own political contests do we hear the cry with a note of triumph! And if he have, how often has he told the truth? And if he have, how many are entitled by pure innocence in that matter to throw a stone at him? And if he have, do we not know how lies will come to the tongue of a man without thought of lying? In his stoutest efforts after the truth a man may so express himself that when afterward he is driven to compare his recent and his former words, he shall hardly be able to say even to himself that he has not lied. It is by the tenor of a man’s whole life that we must judge him, whether he be a liar or no.

To expect a man to be the same at sixty as he was at thirty, is to suppose that the sun at noon shall be graced with the colors which adorn its setting. And there are men whose intellects are set on so fine a pivot that a variation in the breeze of the moment, which coarser minds shall not feel, will carry them round with a rapidity which baffles the common eye. The man who saw his duty clearly on this side in the morning shall, before the evening come, recognize it on the other; and then again, and again, and yet again the vane shall go round. It may be that an instrument shall be too fine for our daily uses. We do not want a clock to strike the minutes, or a glass to tell the momentary changes in the atmosphere. It may be found that for the work of the world, the coarse work—and no work is so coarse, though none is so important, as that which falls commonly into the hands of statesmen—instruments strong in texture, and by reason of their rudeness not liable to sudden impressions, may be the best. That it is which we mean when we declare that a scrupulous man is impractical in politics. But the same man may, at various periods of his life, and on various days at the same period, be scrupulous and unscrupulous, impractical and practical, as the circumstances of the occasion may affect him. At one moment the rule of simple honesty will prevail with him. “Fiat justitia, ruat cœlum.” “Si fractus illabatur orbis Impavidum ferient ruinæ.” At another he will see the necessity of a compromise for the good of the many. He will tell himself that if the best cannot be done, he must content himself with the next best. He must shake hands with the imperfect, as the best way of lifting himself up from a bad way toward a better. In obedience to his very conscience he will temporize, and, finding no other way of achieving good, will do even evil that good may come of it. “Rem si possis recte; si non, quocunque modo rem.” In judging of such a character as this, a hard and fast line will certainly lead us astray.



  1. I would definitely agree that greater judiciousness is called for, but the second paragraph of the quoted passage implies that there can be no single set of principles to judge a man by across time. What about his integrity and honesty? If we learned what he believed in, could we not then be able to judge his integrity when he later chose to act against his beliefs in precisely those circumstances where those beliefs should have applied? And supposing that he changed his beliefs to conform to his new course action, could we not judge his honesty on the basis of which set of beliefs had the assent of truth?

    The long paragraph concludes that judging a man’s character using a “hard and fast line” is problematic, but this conclusion presumes that judging a man’s character by means of moral rules from a command-oriented ethic is the only way of judging. On the presumption of judgment by rules, the paragraph enumerates examples of how rules inevitably have exceptions and are inadequate in many cases. To all these objections, I agree. But the presumption is false. We can also judge on the basis of moral principles from a non-deontological ethic–an ethic not issued from some authority, social or supernatural. And in which case, principles are exceptionless across time but require that we apply them contextually and judiciously.

    Comment by Tom — February 17, 2010 @ 4:43 am | Reply

  2. I agree, Thom, that an explicitly contextualist approach to judging virtue would have best mediated the questions that Trollope is addressing here. Ethical principles can reasonably be treated as absolute, but only if understood as contextually absolute. Determining whether good ethical principles are in fact being violated requires attention to context, both personal and existential.

    But this is what Trollope is saying implicitly in the passage by contending that relevant considerations are being omitted in the criticisms of Cicero with which he takes issue, even though the fact that his understanding is too implicit leaves the passage open to misinterpretation. It would have been clearer and better here if Trollope had said something about the nature of principles and how they cannot be applied as if the applier must be oblivious to circumstances or consequences, or the hierarchical relationship of one moral principle to another. Trollope could have elaborated what is entailed by the proviso “as circumstances warrant,” or how it can be practical to be “impractical” (or impractical to be “practical”), and perhaps does to some extent in the main part of the biography. (Whether he’s correct in various particular asssessments of Cicero is of course a separate question.) But it’s not as if one reads his novels and find that Trollope gives a free pass to pragmatic villainy. And perhaps the best treatment of these questions came somewhat after his time.

    BTW, for a truly effective and memorable portrayal of a man of dogmatic “principle,” see Trollope’s He Knew He Was Right, about a man who hews to his misperception of his wife’s conduct come what may, thinking his self-destructive bullheadedness virtuous, to the dismay of all his friends and family. The same issue of reasonable versus unreasonable sticking to one’s guns plays out interestingly in the choices of other characters as well.

    Comment by davidmbrowndotcom — February 17, 2010 @ 5:33 am | Reply

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