Lord Salisbury to Lord Lytton

Posted by Tory Historian Monday, April 11, 2011 ,

This comes from Andrew Roberts's magisterial biography of Lord Salisbury. In 1877 Salisbury, then Secretary of State for India became embroiled in the usual row between Viceroy and Secretary of State and as it was all too often the case, it was about Russian expansion in Central Asia and how Britain should respond. Lord Lytton, the Viceroy, was in favour of some action; Salisbury was considerably more cautious and less certain that Russia, despite the speed of her expansion, which he underestimated, was a real threat to India.

I think you listen too much to the soldiers. No lesson seems to be so deeply inculcated by the experience of life as that you should never trust experts. If you believe the doctors, nothing is wholesome: if you believe the theologians, nothing is innocent: if you believe the soldiers, nothing is safe. They all require to have their strong wine diluted by a very large admixture of insipid common sense.
Tory Historian has thought that common sense can be overestimated as it is frequently an excuse for lack of imagination and understanding but, in this case, one cannot help agreeing with the noble lord's robust debunking of narrow-minded experise.


  1. S.M. MacLean Says:
  2. I concur in part with Tory Historian’s scepticism with respect to common sense. Yet if it is understood in the context of ‘experience’, then it is easy to see how common sense can be contrasted to conservatism’s great bugbear, an over-reliance on ‘experience-less’ theorising. This may be one way of contextualising Salisbury’s aforementioned dictum that ‘No lesson seems to be so deeply inculcated by the experience of life as that you should never trust experts.’

    (Tory Historian may be referring to the modern catastrophe of the ‘know-nothing’ influence in politics: where feelings and instincts—a.k.a. ‘common sense’—take precedence over a ‘scientific’ analytical approach to political problems. Why have a great bulk of conservatives (especially here in North America) forsaken prudence in politics, where, as formulated by Aristotle and Aquinas, an issue was discussed and debated by those ‘in the know’, a plan of resolution thence decided upon, and then this distillation of collected wisdom put into action? Too much emphasis is now placed on doing something—and to be seen doing something—regardless of foresight and past experience.)

    On a side note, would some publishing house take kindly upon the independent researcher and re-issue Roberts’s Salisbury!

  3. S.M. MacLean Says:
  4. I am happy to correct myself! — having discovered to-day that Faber has begun to republish gems of historical research that have become well-nigh impossible to locate.

    Of these, Faber Finds makes available Roberts’s Salisbury: Victorian Titan. What is more, Faber has undertaken to make available Robert Blake’s corpus of conservative writings, such as his incomparable Disraeli and The Conservative Party from Peel to Major.

    Kudos to Faber!

  5. That is very good news, indeed. These books need to be read. Though it would be good to have a post-Blake biography of Disraeli.

    As for the first comment, basically we are in agreement. Common sense as an accumulation of experience may well be trusted. Unfortunately, all too often commons sense is seen as something sacred,not to be tarnished by anything resembling knowledge or understanding. How often have we heard the phrase: "you probably know about it more than I do but ...."?

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