By Leonard E. Read
Let us not dream that reason can ever be popular. Passions, emotions, may be made popular, but reason remains ever the property of the few. -GOETHE
For striking evidence that reason is less popular than are passions and emotions, read a book by Andrew Dickson White, a professor of history at the University of Michigan and later co-founder and first President of Cornell University. One of his specialities was the French Revolutionary period and its monetary nonsense.
White, as President of Cornell, delivered a speech entitled, “Fiat Money Inflation in France,” before the Senate and the House of the U. S. Congress. The next day, April 13, 1876, he repeated it at the Union League Club, New York City. This scholar and diplomat continued to study and elaborate on that speech and in 1912 it appeared as a small book by that same title and “for private use only.” A new edition was issued by the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce in the early forties when I was General Manager, and numerous printings have been undertaken by FEE.1
What follows is a commentary on a single paragraph from White’s book which, if carefully reflected upon, has a lesson for the few who reason:
Singular, that the man who stood so fearlessly against this tide of unreason has left to the world simply a reputation as the most brilliant cook that ever existed!
The man referred to was Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826). This Frenchman lived in Bresse, a rich and fertile region in eastern France. He was, as any well-read gastronome will concede, the founder of modern cooking. Of his numerous talents, this art was his lifetime love. Not only was he the ingenious innovator of countless, delectable dishes but he spent his adult life putting his recipes into instructive, witty words and phrasings. His book, La Physiolologie de gout, was released in 1824, a year before he passed away.
Mrs. M. F. K. Fisher, a distinguished writer and cook herself, wrote a 469-page book, featuring the innovations of this Frenchman, her title being a translation of his: The Physiology of Taste.2 Not only have I read the book but I have dined in Bresse where I savored Poularde de Bresse en Creme-one of Brillat-Savarin’s recipes and what a chicken dish!
Brillat-Savarin was an innovative, inventive genius of the culinary art-a bright star in his field, comparable to Edison and Kettering in theirs. And, like these two inventors, he was a true devotee of the freedom way of life. Further, this star of my theme was also a lawyer, an economist, and a member of the National Assembly during the French Revolutionary period.
It was during this period that Mirabeau, a great orator and hero of the masses, urged yet another enormous issue of assignats-paper money “secured” by confiscated Catholic church properties, which comprised more than one-fourth of all the land in France. Of course, the assignats were irredeemable legal tender, as is our paper currency.
Brillat-Savarin, responding to Mirabeau’s proposal, “called attention to the depreciation of assignats already felt. He tried to make the Assembly see that natural laws work as inexorably in France as elsewhere; he predicted that if this new issue were made, there would come a depreciation of thirty per cent.” White then refers to Brillat-Savarin as “”the man who so fearlessly stood against this tide of unreason.”
Right now we in the U.S.A. are faced with a tide of unreason on the rampage. Natural law works as inexorably here as in France or elsewhere; our legal tender, like the assignats of yore, is suffering the same fate and for the same reason: passions, emotions, expediency. As did Mirabeau, many know better but yield to temptation-popular or political. Spineless!
Thank heaven, there are the few, in and out of office, who, as Brillat-Savarin, stand against our tide of unreason. Goethe was so right: ” … reason remains ever the property of the few.”
The question is, will our few exemplars stand as models for future generations? Will their righteousness grace not only this generation but also our progeny? The answer is assuredly affirmative, for every action-good or evil-casts its light or darkness into the days and months and years ahead, dwindling or intensifying as time goes on.
Brillat-Savarin’s righteousness-”the man who stood so fearlessly against this tide of unreason” -was no more sacrosanct than the righteousness of a few others in the National Assembly. Yet, the glorious stature of those others is all but forgotten-dwindled away-while his example is still aglow, a light in today’s darkness. Why his and not the others? Answer this question and the few righteous ones of our time will possess a guideline to brighten the lives of future generations.
I feel certain that Andrew Dickson White would no more have singled out-highlighted, dramatized-Brillat-Savarin than one or two others in the National Assembly had it not been for that Frenchman’s excellence as an innovator of cooking and his consequent reputation as a gastronomical genius. A reputation for excellence in anyone of countless fields carries with it a drawing power; it attracts listeners not only in one’s own time but into the future.
Observe the tendency of the masses to accept any opinion voiced by those who have the reputation of being the greatest in anyone endeavor, be it football, baseball or whatever. For instance, there are virtuosic orators such as Cicero, or William Jennings Bryan, or some other. Millions listened to them in their time and ever so many know of their messages today. And it makes not one whit of difference whether or not the ideological views be buncombe or wisdom. A reputation for excellence has an unbelievable thrust to it, regardless of wisdom or nonsense.
Finally, what does this mean for our few who stand ramrod straight for the private ownership, free market, limited government way of life? If their ideas are to bear fruit in the future and have more attraction than the famous who father babble and ignoble notions, they must gain a reputation for excellence. Let it be in oratory or writing or fearlessness or cooking or whatever most nearly approximates their uniqueness.
As Goethe wrote, “… reason can never be popular.” Nor can being right! May our few who achieve excellence side with Henry Clay: “”I would rather be right than be president.” President Lincoln gave us a good guideline to achieve excellence:
Let us have a faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us to the end, dare to do our duty, as we understand it.
1 Available in paperback from FEE.
2 Copyright by The George Macy Companies, Inc., 1949.