VALUE OF THE COMMONPLACE

by Charles Dudley Warner

The vitality of a fallacy is incalculable. Although the Drawer has been going many years, there are still remaining people who believe that "things which are equal to the same thing are equal to each other." This mathematical axiom, which is well enough in its place, has been extended into the field of morals and social life, confused the perception of human relations, and raised "hob," as the saying is, in political economy. We theorize and legislate as if people were things. Most of the schemes of social reorganization are based on this fallacy. It always breaks down in experience. A has two friends, B and C?to state it mathematically. A is equal to B, and A is equal to C. A has for B and also for C the most cordial admiration and affection, and B and C have reciprocally the same feeling for A. Such is the harmony that A cannot tell which he is more fond of, B or C. And B and C are sure that A is the best friend of each. This harmony, however, is not triangular. A makes the mistake of supposing that it is having a notion that things which are equal to the same thing are equal to each other and he brings B and C together. The result is disastrous. B and C cannot get on with each other. Regard for A restrains their animosity, and they hypocritically pretend to like each other, but both wonder what A finds so congenial in the other. The truth is that this personal equation, as we call it, in each cannot be made the subject of mathematical calculation. Human relations will not bend to it. And yet we keep blundering along as if they would. We are always sure, in our letter of introduction, that this friend will be congenial to the other, because we are fond of both. Sometimes this happens, but half the time we should be more successful in bringing people into accord if we gave a letter of introduction to a person we do not know, to be delivered to one we have never seen. On the face of it this is as absurd as it is for a politician to indorse the application of a person he does not know for an office the duties of which he is unacquainted with; but it is scarcely less absurd than the expectation that men and women can be treated like mathematical units and equivalents. Upon the theory that they can, rest the present grotesque schemes of Nationalism.

In saying all this the Drawer is well aware that it subjects itself to the charge of being commonplace, but it is precisely the commonplace that this essay seeks to defend. Great is the power of the commonplace. "My friends," says the preacher, in an impressive manner, "Alexander died; Napoleon died; you will all die!" This profound remark, so true, so thoughtful, creates a deep sensation. It is deepened by the statement that "man is a moral being." The profundity of such startling assertions cows the spirit; they appeal to the universal consciousness, and we bow to the genius that delivers them. "How true!" we exclaim, and go away with an enlarged sense of our own capacity for the comprehension of deep thought. Our conceit is flattered. Do we not like the books that raise us to the great level of the commonplace, whereon we move with a sense of power? Did not Mr. Tupper, that sweet, melodious shepherd of the undisputed, lead about vast flocks of sheep over the satisfying plain of mediocrity? Was there ever a greater exhibition of power, while it lasted? How long did "The Country Parson" feed an eager world with rhetorical statements of that which it already knew? The thinner this sort of thing is spread out, the more surface it covers, of course. What is so captivating and popular as a book of essays which gathers together and arranges a lot of facts out of histories and cyclopaedias, set forth in the form of conversations that any one could have taken part in? Is not this book pleasing because it is commonplace? And is this because we do not like to be insulted with originality, or because in our experience it is only the commonly accepted which is true? The statesman or the poet who launches out unmindful of these conditions will be likely to come to grief in her generation. Will not the wise novelist seek to encounter the least intellectual resistance?

Should one take a cynical view of mankind because he perceives this great power of the commonplace? Not at all. He should recognize and respect this power. He may even say that it is this power that makes the world go on as smoothly and contentedly as it does, on the whole. Woe to us, is the thought of Carlyle, when a thinker is let loose in this world! He becomes a cause of uneasiness, and a source of rage very often. But his power is limited. He filters through a few minds, until gradually his ideas become commonplace enough to be powerful. We draw our supply of water from reservoirs, not from torrents. Probably the man who first said that the line of rectitude corresponds with the line of enjoyment was disliked as well as disbelieved. But how impressive now is the idea that virtue and happiness are twins!

Perhaps it is true that the commonplace needs no defense, since everybody takes it in as naturally as milk, and thrives on it. Beloved and read and followed is the writer or the preacher of commonplace. But is not the sunshine common, and the bloom of May? Why struggle with these things in literature and in life? Why not settle down upon the formula that to be platitudinous is to be happy?