A good paragraph from the memoirs of John Buchan

A few weeks ago, a venue around the corner from our house hosted a book sale to benefit a local charity. Mrs Acilius and I donated about 200 books, 50 compact discs, and a dozen DVDs to it. We bought about 100 books, 2 compact discs, and no DVDs. Of the books, I managed to read three and donate them back before the sale ended, and of those I’ve finished since I’ve left three in the Little Free Library in our neighbor’s front yard. So on balance, we have reduced the weight of our possessions somewhat.

Among the books I left in the Little Free Library after reading it was The Last Empire, a collection of essays Gore Vidal published in the 1990s. Most of those appeared originally in The New York Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement, or The Nation. Since I subscribed to all three of those publications during that decade, many of the pieces were familiar to me. I smiled several times when I found sentences that I still think about from time to time, more than twenty years later. But there was little chance I would want to read any of them a third time, so I didn’t hesitate to give the book away when I reached the end.

At one point in that book, Vidal mentions The Pilgrim’s Way, a memoir by John Buchan, published under Buchan’s aristocratic alias “Lord Tweedsmuir.” As it so happened, I had bought a copy of that book at the same book sale. The back cover shows a photograph of Buchan, then Governor-General of Canada, in a car with Franklin Roosevelt, and that led me to hope that there might be something in it that would shed light on US-British relations in the late 1930s, a topic in which I take some interest. In his reference to the book, Vidal says that it does in fact do this. That one book from the sale would mention another, and that other being so obscure, seemed like such a coincidence that I felt I had to put a priority on reading the book. Now, in other pieces in the same collection Vidal had spoken highly of Mary McCarthy and Iris Murdoch, and I had picked up books by each of them at the same sale. Further, they were both more likely to produce books I would find interesting than was Buchan. So, I read those first (they were McCarthy’s The Groves of Academe and Murdoch’s Henry and Cato, neither of which I will be giving away any time soon.) I then turned to Buchan.

Mrs Acilius said that “Lord Tweedsmuir” seemed to be the stuffiest name a person could possibly have, which of course it is. The tagline on the dust jacket does nothing to dispel the impression the name would tend to create: “Lord Tweedsmuir- novelist, poet, historian, fisherman, explorer, member of Parliament, and Governor General of Canada; finest product of a great tradition, tells the story of his many-sided life reveals his intimate and reassuring philosophy.” It sounds like a book that would be so dull as to make you regret having learned to read. And indeed, most of it is pretty bad. Buchan keeps trailing off into eulogies of famous people he knew; some of those are moderately interesting, to a reader who is familiar with the person being eulogized, but the great majority of them describe individuals whose names mean little today, and these are virtually unreadable. In between the eulogies are all sorts of miscellaneous material- descriptions of rivers and streams in Scotland, generalizations about foreign affairs, alternating declarations that the law is the most intellectually stimulating of all professions and that practicing it bored him beyond endurance, an account of his preferred technique of shooting deer, dozens of glancing references to the American Civil War, and scores of Latin tags. He does not narrate the major events of his life at all- he tells us that he was married, that he and his wife are close companions and proud parents, and leaves it at that. He tells us that he was in indifferent health in the years 1912-1920, and that this limited his participation in the First World War; his chapter about that war is disjointed, and only perks up when he is detailing his maladies. But he was in uniform the whole time, and lets drop that he was on the front at the Somme for quite some time. All in all, it is a book that gives every appearance of not having been subjected to any form of editing. So I will be parting with it soon.

However, there is one paragraph I want to keep. It runs from the bottom of page 28 to the top of page 29 and describes his attitude towards philosophy as a subject:

My interests, as I have said, lay not in the search for a creed, but in the study of the patterns which different thinkers made out of the universe. I had a tidy mind, and liked to arrange things in compartments even when I did not take the arrangement too seriously. This meant that inevitably I missed much; quidquid recipitur, recipitur ad modum recipientis. My quest for truth, unlike Plato’s, wholly “lacked the warmth of desire.” It was a mental gymnastic, for I had neither the uneasiness nor the raptures of the true metaphysician. “Philosophy,” Sir Isaac Newton once wrote, “is such an impertinently litigious lady that a man had as good be engaged in lawsuits as to have to do with her.” I loved the intricacies of argumentation. A proof is that while I am not conscious of ever having argued about religion, or about politics except professionally, I was always very ready to dispute about philosophy. I should have been puzzled to set down my views as to the nature of thought and reality, for they were constantly changing. I never considered it necessary to harmonize my conclusions in a system. Had I been a professed philosopher, I should have been forced to crystallize my thought, but as it was, I could afford to keep it, so to speak, in solution. “L’ineptie consiste a vouloir conclure.” I was of the opinion of the Scottish metaphysician that it is more important that a philosophy should be reasoned than that it should be true.

This does not reflect my attitude, but I find it a charming statement, and want to be able to find it again.

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