… is from page 924 of the 1999 Oxford World’s Classics edition of George Eliot’s magisterial Middlemarch; it’s the final line of the novel:
[F]or the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are now not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.
(My only complaint is that Eliot still overstates the importance of historic acts. What most people regard as “historic acts,” to the extent that these are significant, find their significance mostly in being, not beneficial, but destructive or even calamitous.)
This sentiment was on my mind when I wrote this remembrance of my mother in 2008.
It’s easy and emotionally thrilling to cheer and invest your hopes in famous people spouting their plans to remake or improve society with big, sweeping, engineering-like projects. Yet no social advance of any lasting consequence ever resulted from such arrogance. Society is civil and prosperous only insofar as each of countless individuals is led to adjust, in this modest way or that small way, according to his or her own lights, to whatever knowledge he or she, on the spot and at the moment, encounters.
The decentralized processes that generate social progress and economic growth are not obviously heroic. The processes are not dominated by Great Leaders and Master Plans. Also, these processes and their successes do not require of anyone any sacrifices to some higher pursuits or to “the nation” – sacrifices of the sort that are always demanded by Great Leaders or Councils with Master Plans promising to Transform Us into some state closer to utopia.