Fleming_01-1996
Perspective

The Illusions of Democracy

We live by our opinions. While other people's opinions are called illusions, if they pose no threat to our interests, and prejudices if they do, we call our own opinions "truth" or principles, if we are fools: "the most positive men are the most credulous," as Pope observed, probably having scientists in mind. If we are more cautious, we prefer to speak of theories and hypotheses. However, most theories are—so far as we arc concerned—mere opinions about which we know virtually nothing. We think that a roughly spherical earth orbits around the sun, but how many of us would know how to go about testing such a theory? I am told that sailors who navigate by the stars are still operating according to the Ptolemaic theory, which is more convenient, and for most of us the sun still appears to rise in the east and set in the west. The theory of humors lies buried just beneath the surface of everyday conversation about character, while the various schools of psychology have contributed little more than a few misunderstood cliches about complexes.

We laugh at the superstitions of peasants who believe that copulating in the field ensures fertility, but peasants are less subject, than civilized men, to illusions. The peasant, like the sailor and the hunter, is forever rubbing up against the brutality of nature, whose ways he has to observe, if he is to survive. His head may be filled with magical and religious...

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