Walter Bagehot

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One of the greatest pains to human nature is the pain of a new idea.

Walter Bagehot (February 3 1826March 24 1877) was a British businessman, essayist and journalist who wrote about literature, government and economics.


The English Constitution (1867)[edit]

  • A political country is like an American forest; you have only to cut down the old trees, and immediately new trees come up to replace them.
  • But the mass of the old electors did not analyse very much: they liked to have one of their "betters" to represent them; if he was rich they respected him much; and if he was a lord, they liked him the better. The issue put before these electors was, which of two rich people will you choose? And each of those rich people was put forward by great parties whose notions were the notions of the rich—whose plans were their plans. The electors only selected one or two wealthy men to carry out the schemes of one or two wealthy associations.
  • In excited states of the public mind they have scarcely a discretion at all; the tendency of the public perturbation determines what shall and what shall not be dealt with. But, upon the other hand, in quiet times statesmen have great power; when there is no fire lighted, they can settle what fire shall be lit. And as the new suffrage is happily to be tried in a quiet time, the responsibility of our statesmen is great because their power is great too.
  • A cabinet is a combining committee,—a hyphen which joins, a buckle which fastens, the legislative part of the state to the executive part of the state. In its origin it belongs to the one, in its functions it belongs to the other.
  • Under a cabinet constitution at a sudden emergency this people can choose a ruler for the occasion. It is quite possible and even likely that he would not be ruler before the occasion. The great qualities, the imperious will, the rapid energy, the eager nature fit for a great crisis are not required—are impediments—in common times. A Lord Liverpool is better in everyday politics than a Chatham—a Louis Philippe far better than a Napoleon. By the structure of the world we want, at the sudden occurrence of a grave tempest, to change the helmsman—to replace the pilot of the calm by the pilot of the storm.
  • Whatever expenditure is sanctioned—even when it is sanctioned against the ministry's wish—the ministry must find the money. Accordingly, they have the strongest motive to oppose extra outlay.... The ministry is (so to speak) the breadwinner of the political family, and has to meet the cost of philanthropy and glory; just as the head of a family has to pay for the charities of his wife and the toilette of his daughters.
  • The caucus is a sort of representative meeting which sits voting and voting till they have cut out all the known men against whom much is to be said, and agreed on some unknown man against whom there is nothing known, and therefore nothing to be alleged.
  • The greatest enjoyment possible to man was that which this philosophy promises its votaries—the pleasure of being always right, and always reasoning—without ever being bound to look at anything.

Physics and Politics (1869)[edit]

  • The great difficulty which history records is not that of the first step, but that of the second step. What is most evident is not the difficulty of getting a fixed law, but getting out of a fixed law; not of cementing (as upon a former occasion I phrased it) a cake of custom, but of breaking the cake of custom; not of making the first preservative habit, but of breaking through it, and reaching something better.
    • Ch. 2, The Use of Conflict
  • "Maternity," it has been said, "is a matter of fact, paternity is a matter of opinion."
  • One of the greatest pains to human nature is the pain of a new idea.
    • Ch. 5, The Age of Discussion
  • All the inducements of early society tend to foster immediate action; all its penalties fall on the man who pauses; the traditional wisdom of those times was never weary of inculcating that "delays are dangerous," and that the sluggish man — the man "who roasteth not that which he took in hunting" — will not prosper on the earth, and indeed will very soon perish out of it. And in consequence an inability to stay quiet, an irritable desire to act directly, is one of the most conspicuous failings of mankind.
    • Ch. 5
  • I wish the art of benefiting men had kept pace with the art of destroying them; for though war has become slow, philanthropy has remained hasty. The most melancholy of human reflections, perhaps, is that, on the whole, it is a question whether the, benevolence of mankind does most good or harm. Great good, no doubt, philanthropy does, but then it also does great evil. It augments so much vice, it multiplies so much suffering, it brings to life such great populations to suffer and to be vicious, that it is open to argument whether it be or be not an evil to the world, and this is entirely because excellent people fancy that they can do much by rapid action — that they will most benefit the world when they most relieve their own feelings; that as soon as an evil is seen "something" ought to be done to stay and prevent it.
    • Ch. 5

Lombard Street: A Description of the Money Market (1873)[edit]

Lombard Street, 1873
  • Most men of business think "Anyhow this system will probably last my time. It has gone on a long time, and is likely to go on still."
    • Ch. I, Introductory
  • Credit means that a certain confidence is given, and a certain trust reposed. Is that trust justified? and is that confidence wise? These are the cardinal questions. To put it more simply credit is a set of promises to pay; will those promises be kept?
    • Ch. II, A General View of Lombard Street
  • The less money lying idle the greater is the dividend.
    • Ch. II, A General View of Lombard Street
  • The name ‘London Banker’ had especially a charmed value. He was supposed to represent, and often did represent, a certain union of pecuniary sagacity and educated refinement which was scarcely to be found in any other part of society.

Literary Studies (1879)[edit]

  • To a great experience one thing is essential — an experiencing nature.
  • The purse strings tie us to our kind.
  • The reason why so few good books are written is, that so few people that can write know anything. In general an author has always lived in a room, has read books, has cultivated science, is acquainted with the style and sentiments of the best authors, but he is out of the way of employing his own eyes and ears. He has nothing to hear and nothing to see. His life is a vacuum.
    • Shakespeare
  • A highly developed moral nature joined to an undeveloped intellectual nature, an undeveloped artistic nature, and a very limited religious nature, is of necessity repulsive. It represents a bit of human nature — a good bit, of course, but a bit only — in disproportionate, unnatural and revolting prominence.

Biographical Studies (1907)[edit]

  • A constitutional statesman is in general a man of common opinions and uncommon abilities.
  • You may talk of the tyranny of Nero and Tiberius; but the real tyranny is the tyranny of your next-door neighbor... Public opinion is a permeating influence, and it exacts obedience to itself; it requires us to think other men's thoughts, to speak other men's words, to follow other men's habits.
    • Sir Robert Peel
  • [Of Guizot] A Puritan born in France by mistake.


  • I started out by believing God for a newer car than the one I was driving. I started out believing God for a nicer apartment than I had. Then I moved up.
    • Jim Bakker, quoted in Redeeming America: Piety and Politics in the New Christian Right by Michael Lienesch (UNC Press, 1993), p. 45

External links[edit]

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