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Discomfort Bred by Comfort

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I am reading now, for the first time, George Eliot’s [2] Middlemarch. It’s a splendid novel, set in a small English town circa 1830. (The novel was written in 1871-72.) Eliot’s works are chock-full of deep insights, all elegantly and smartly worded. Here’s a favorite of mine from Middlemarch [3]. When I read it, I thought of those who today protest against globalization and commerce:

We may handle even extreme opinions with impunity while our furniture, our dinner-giving, and preference for armorial bearings in our own case, link us indissolubly with the established order.

The same point was made a generation earlier by the incomparable Thomas Babington Macaulay [4]. He wrote, in his History of England [5], about the nineteenth-century Englishman’s deep affection for the beauty of the Scottish Highlands. Macaulay informed his English contemporaries that their affection for the Highlands was new; it emerged only after commerce and civilization tamed the Highlands and made them accessible to civilized people.

Indeed, law and police, trade and industry, have done far more than people of romantic dispositions will readily admit, to develop in our minds a sense of the wilder beauties of nature. A traveller must be freed from all apprehension of being murdered or starved before he can be charmed by the bold outlines and rich tints of the hills. He is not likely to be thrown into ecstasies by the abruptness of a precipice from which he is in imminent danger of falling two thousand feet perpendicular; by the boiling waves of a torrent which suddenly whirls away his baggage and forces him to run for his life; by the gloomy grandeur of a pass where he finds a corpse which marauders have just stripped and mangled; or by the screams of those eagles whose next meal may probably be on his own eyes. . . .

It was not till roads had been cut out of the rocks, till bridges had been flung over the courses of the rivulets, till inns had succeeded to dens of robbers . . . that strangers could be enchanted by the blue dimples of lakes and by the rainbows which overhung the waterfalls, and could derive a solemn pleasure even from the clouds and tempests which lowered on the mountain tops.

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