reviving common sense

The decline of common sense. And why we might wish to revive it.

…Prideful people, understandably, dislike serving on juries, for common sense is a fierce humbler of pride and egotism. It tells the person with a theory that they have left out a salient fact. It reminds the person with the eccentric viewpoint to shift their watching post a little and take a second look. The great virtue of common sense is amplitude. Common sense does not take in everything, but it never omits much of importance. When it thinks of wealth it remembers poverty, and when it thinks of play it will not forget toil.

George Orwell once said we live in a “yogi driven age,” an age susceptible to frauds and charlatans who through the power of mass media, can acquire enormous influence. The nightmare of Walter Benjamins “mechanical reproduction.” Image:

Common sense remembers, too, that human pleasures are not so plentiful when anyone tries to snatch one away. Take, for example, the common sense view of vegetarianism. The vegetarian dwells on slaughterhouse horrors and willingly forgoes the pleasures of food, society, and shared festivities. Common sense holds fast to those pleasures and will not, in this vale of tears, put a cattle market at the center of life. It even suspects that an uncommon empathy for fatted calves masks a want of common affection for people. Common sense holds, in other words, that all discussions of diet are shallow unless we consider the effects of diet on fellow feeling, which is to say, on something more important than food.

Honore Daumier painting. 1855. Don Quixote and Sancho: “pointing the way to unfathomable depths.” Image:

To say that common sense has lost its grip is to say that prideful people and one-sided views hold undue sway in our councils. The prideful take up, for example, the “problem of the unfir parent.” As usual with the prideful, they grasp the wrong end of the telescope, for the real question, the profound question, the common-sense question, is why so many parents are fit, loving and responsible. Why is it that, despite all the temptations of flesh and spirit, despite the ineradicable fact of human selfishness, more parents cherish, protect, and nurture their children and devote the best years of their lives to them?

It is the common sense question because it starts with the rule and not with the exception. This is the real meaning of the adage about the exception “proving” the rule. Starting with the rule is the first rule of common sense and defines its indispensable function: to remember the comprehensive facts in the case, the facts that most faithfully summarize our shared experience of life, what Dr. Samuel Johnson called our “general nature.”

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