Thursday, May 23, 2019

Concerning Perceptions of Hopeless and Irremediable Decline

Given how common they are, it takes little effort (and even that little effort will have deserved a better use) to find people who insist that some community or another of which they are a part is approaching its demise and is beyond all hope of reclamation.  The people to whom I am referring are not those who are convinced of the decline only once they have good reason to be -- sometimes, of course, the decline is real, and a person is not necessarily irrational for concluding that to be the case (even when it is not).  Rather, the people of whom I am writing are those who reach that conclusion so readily, and who so prematurely determine that it is impossible either to prevent this downfall or to recover from it, that they appear to have found in hopelessness their own strange equivalent to pleasure.

(I am confident, however, that this incomprehensible taste for voluntary despondency is not an inherent trait possessed by certain people but to which other people are not susceptible.  Otherwise, it would be difficult to explain how it is that this taste becomes fashionable, from time to time, at which time larger numbers of people than usual begin to gather and to socialize by exchanging with each other their reasons for believing that everyone around them is doomed.)

On this subject is the following, written by a publisher who encountered such a person while living in Philadelphia:

“There are in every country morose beings, who are always prognosticating ruin.   There was one of this stamp at Philadelphia.  He was a man of fortune, declined in years, had an air of wisdom, and a very grave manner of speaking.  His name was Samuel Mickle.  I knew him not; but he stopped one day at my door, and asked me if I was the young man who had lately opened a new printing-house.   Upon my answering in the affirmative, he said that he was very sorry for me, as it was an expensive undertaking, and the money that had been laid out upon it would be lost, Philadelphia being a place falling into decay; its inhabitants, having all, or nearly all of them, been obliged to call together their creditors.  That he knew, from undoubted fact, the circumstances which might lead us to suppose the contrary, such as new buildings, and the advanced price of rent, to be deceitful appearances, which in reality contributed to hasten the general ruin; and he gave me so long a detail of misfortunes, actually existing, or which were soon to take place, that he left me almost in a state of despair.  Had I known this man before I entered into trade, I should doubtless never have ventured.  He continued, however, to live in this place of decay, and to declaim in the same style, refusing for many years to buy a house because all was going to wreck, and in the end I had the satisfaction to see him pay five times as much for one as it would have cost him had he purchased it when he first began his lamentations.”

- Dr. Benjamin Franklin, writing of a prediction that had been made to him as a young man in the 1720s, by an acquaintance in Philadelphia

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