Chapter XVIII Opinions: Justice In Thought

Three 'Opinions.'––When we say, 'I think it will be fine to-morrow,' we express an opinion. When we say, 'Jones is first-rate; you should hear his lectures on the Anabasis,' again we express an opinion, though the 'l think' is left out. Even if we say, 'Let us walk to Purley Woods.' what we really mean is, 'I think it would be pleasant to walk to Purley Woods.' We cannot escape from thinking, however much we try; and the thought we have about person or thing is our opinion. People often say 'I think' when they mean 'I wish'; for really to have an opinion about such a matter as the weather, for example, means that one has noticed weather signs and is able to judge. Therefore, when we want an opinion about the weather that is worth having, we consult the gardener, or a farmer, or sailor, for the business of these men has made them observant of weather signs.

When we say, 'Jones is first-rate,' it may mean that we have enjoyed the lectures of that master and like him personally; if so, our opinion is worth having; or it may only mean that we have caught up a catchword of the class. Everybody speaks well of Mr. Jones, and we only join in the cry. This sort of opinion is quite worthless, and would shift round like a weather-cock if some ill-natured boy raised a contrary opinion about Jones, as, 'What queer ties he wears!' The boy who lives upon chance opinions does not look at the relative importance of those he gets hold of. Jones's ties and Jones's lectures are all one to him, and poor Mr. Jones rises or sinks in his scales with every chance remark he hears about him.

If Mary says, 'Let's go to Purley Woods,' her opinion is sincere enough. She remembers the primroses of former years, and inclination influences her thoughts. We get a real opinion, his very own, from the person who wants something; but it is not a safe opinion, because our wishes drown our judgment, and we rush headlong after the thing we want. This is the history of the youth who falls into bad ways. His opinions are subservient to his wishes, and he thinks only that which it pleases him to believe.

An Opinion worth having.––We may gather three rules, then, as to an opinion that is worth the having. We must have thought about the subject and know something about it, as a gardener does about the weather; it must be our own opinion, and not caught up as a parrot catches up its phrases; and lastly, it must be disinterested, that is, it must not be influenced by our inclination.

But, 'Why need we have opinions at all,' you are inclined to ask, 'if they mean such a lot of trouble?' Just because we are persons. Every person has many opinions, either his own, honestly thought out, or picked up from his pet newspaper, or from his favourite companion. The person who thinks out his opinions modestly and carefully is doing his duty as truly as if he helped to save a life. There is no more or less about duty; and it is a great part of our work in life to do our duty in our thoughts and form just opinions.

Opinions on Trial.––As you know, we have a mentor within us, about which I shall have to speak more fully later; but, once we get into the habit of bringing our thoughts before Conscience, we shall soon be able to distinguish as to the right or wrong of an opinion before we utter it.

'Fads.'––'But such a fuss about what one thinks is a fad, and people with fads are a nuisance'; you say, adding, 'I hate fellows that have notions; they never let you alone.' It is quite true, fads are tiresome; and for one of two reasons––either the person with the fad thinks too much about it, and does not trouble himself to form opinions upon a hundred other matters of equal importance; or, he has taken up his opinion without full, all-round knowledge of the subject. 'Fads' are tiresome, but some men seem called to be faddists, in so far as they are persons ruled by one idea, because it is laid upon them to bring about a reform.

Thus were Wilberforce and Clarkson occupied with the question of the slave-trade; Plimsoll, with that of unseaworthy vessels; Howard, with the question of prison discipline. Every great missionary, every great reformer, has his mind so largely occupied with one subject that there is little room for others. Such men as these are not faddists: they do not take extreme or one-sided views, though one subject occupies them to the exclusion of others.

But only a few of us are called to give ourselves up to some work of reformation; and therefore the rest of us must not allow ourselves to be occupied too much with one set of ideas. The faddist is the person who talks and thinks about one subject; but if, instead of merely talking and thinking, he devotes his life to one good end, he becomes one of the world's workers, a reformer.

Matters upon which we must form Opinions.––We must all get opinions about our own country, about other countries, about occupations, amusements, about the books we read, the persons we hear of, the persons we meet, the pictures we see, the characters we read of, whether in fiction or history; in fact, there is nothing which passes before our minds about which it is not our business to form just and reasonable opinions. That we may be able to do this, we spend a good many years, while we are young, in getting the knowledge which should enable us to think. When we are grown-up, also, it is still necessary to spend time in getting knowledge, but few can give the chief part of the day to this labour, as we all have the chance of doing while we are young. This chance is, however, wasted upon young people who read to learn up facts towards an examination. The lectures we hear, the books we read, are of no use to us, except as they make us think.

When Numa was offered the kingship of Rome, he had thought about the subject. He said that he had no special gifts of education or birth to fit him for rule: but the Romans, too, thought, and expressed their opinion. Would he not take the crown, they asked, to save his country from misrule? That question contained an opinion which Numa had not considered. There were, no doubt, those who might wish to govern Rome for selfish ends; the opinion of the Romans was a just one, he would be guided by it, so he became king. Here we get a very good example of how opinion should rule us in life. We must think about things, about everything, for ourselves; think out the responsibility of judge and general, king and minister, so that, should we be suddenly asked to take any of these positions, we shall know what to answer.

Of course, we should say, as did Numa in the first place, that we have not had the experience or education to fit us for such high office; and, of course again, we shall not be asked! But it is a great thing to have realised what other people have to do and to think about; to have gone with Colonel Younghusband to Thibet, to have defended Port Arthur with General Stoessel. Thus we get opinions which are worth holding about war, patriotism, the duties of a public servant, and many other matters. What is more, we endeavour to figure to ourselves the responsibilities and purposes of parents, masters, or whatever chief is placed above us; and, when we give an opinion about their actions, it is likely to be a just one.

As for the clergyman and his teaching, it is, as in other cases, only as we care about the things of religion and think much about them, that we have the right to give opinions.

Opinions about Books.––In the same way, we must be just in what we think about books. Trashy books are not worth the trouble of thinking about, and therefore they are not worth reading; but a book that is worth reading, whether it be a novel or a homily, contains the best thought of the writer, and we can only get at his meaning by serious thinking.

As a fact, the books which make us think, the poems which we ponder, the lives of men which we consider, are of more use to us than volumes of good counsel. We read what boys call 'good books,' thinking how good they are, and how good we are to read them! Then it all goes, because the writer has put what he had to say so plainly that we have not had to think for ourselves; and it seems to be a law in the things of life and mind that we do not get anything for our own unless we work for it. It is a case of lightly come, lightly go. That is why we are told of our Lord that "without a parable spake He not unto them." He told the people stories which they might allow to pass lightly through their minds as an interest of the moment, or which they might think upon, form opinions upon, and find in them a guide to the meaning of their lives.

Your opinions about books and other things will very likely be wrong, and you will yourself correct them by and by when you have read more, thought more, know more. Indeed, no wise person, however old, is sure of his opinions. He holds them fast, but he holds them modestly; and, should he be like Numa, convinced that the opinion of others is more sound than his own, why, he has no shame in what we call 'changing his mind.' "We are none of us infallible, not even the youngest!" was said by a wise and witty man, who knew that young people are apt to be cocksure––that is, to take up opinions at second hand and stick to them obstinately. The word opinion literally means 'a thinking'; what I think, with modesty and hesitation, and not what I am certain-sure about.

Our Duty with regard to Opinion.––We begin to see what is our duty about opinions. In the first place, we must have 'a thinking' about an immense number of things. So we must read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest; must listen and consider, being sure that one of the purposes we are in the world for is, to form right opinions about all matters that come in our way.

Next, we must avoid the short road to opinions; we must not pick them up ready made at any street-corner; and next, we must learn––and this is truly difficult, a matter that takes us all our lives––to recognise a fallacy, that is, an argument which appears sound but does not bear examination. For example, 'We are all born equal'; so we are, with equal right to the pure air, to the beauty of earth and sky, to the protection of the laws of our country, and much besides. But the sense in which men use the phrase is,––-that we are all born with an equal right to the property that is in the world. That is absurd, as the very word 'property' shows us: property means ownership, it is the own possession of the persons who hold it. We are ashamed even of a cuckoo that appropriates the own nest of another bird. But the question of fallacies is a big one, and all we need bear in mind now is, that popular cries, whether in the school or the country, very often rest upon fallacies or false judgments. So we must look all round the notions we take up.

Next, before forming an opinion about anyone in place and power, we must try to realise and understand that person's position and all that belongs to it. One more thing, when we have arrived at an opinion we must remember that it is only 'a thinking,' and must hold it with diffidence; but because it is our thinking, our very own property that has come to us through pondering, we must hold it firmly, unless, like Numa, we are convinced that another view is sounder than our own.

But, once again, we may not be sluggish in this matter of opinion. It is the chief part of justice to think just thoughts about the matters that come before us, and the best and wisest men are those who have brought their minds to bear upon the largest number of subjects, and have learned to think just thoughts about them all. It is a comfort to know that Justice, that lord of the heart, is always at hand to weigh the opinions we allow ourselves to take up.