The Pit and the Pendulum

“The pendulum of the mind alternates between sense and nonsense, not between right and wrong.” – Carl Jung

Hmmm, maybe it’s worth stretching just a bit to try and deal with both there, Carl. 

We often use the pendulum as a metaphor for any process that swings from one extreme to another, politics being among the most common.  Of course, there are a number of problems with this metaphor, the most obvious being that the regularity of the pendulum’s swing require a fixed (and frictionless) axis or “point of reference”.  Jung’s problem, you might say, reflects his disbelief in such absolutes.

Even in physics, we discover that the axis isn’t always what (or where) we thought it was, as Foucault demonstrated in 1851.  Still, we tend to muddle on out of habit, expecting that “extremism” on the left or right of the political spectrum will inevitably lead to a corresponding response on the other end.  But, is it true?

One of my favorite conservative quotes has always been Barry Goldwater’s famous: “…extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice!”  And, while I do agree with that statement in principle, perhaps we shouldn’t ignore the problem of the pendulum.  It tends to swing, even if in some unexpected direction. 

At it’s heart, “conservatism” is intended merely to preserve good and stable institutions, notably those that reflect absolute truths.  And in this regard, it may be said that all conservatives are really trying to do is stop the pendulum from swinging at all. 

Edmund Burke, considered by many to be conservatism’s philosophical “father”, was particularly concerned with the excesses that come from mob rule, as he witnessed the French Revolution.  In this regard, he noted, “In a democracy, the majority of the citizens is capable of exercising the most cruel oppressions upon the minority.”  Our founding fathers agreed, instituting a “republican” form of government that, at it’s heart, was intended to be difficult to change and, thus, easy to “conserve“.

You might say that Burke was concerned with those “fixed” points of reference and, also, with Newton’s Laws of Motion.  He’d agree, I believe, that the pendulum should, generally, stay “at rest”.  That said, Burke understood the flawed nature of humankind and it’s tendency to maintain even bad institutions.  To wit:  “A State without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation. “

Within this context, we often find ourselves challenged by the “evolving” definitions of the fixed axis and, thus, of “extremism” itself.   I would contend that extremism should not be defined merely as the polar opposites in the political spectrum, but as any force that, ultimately, wishes to “fundamentally change” the institutions that have served us so well over the past two centuries. 

To the extent that our “Lady Liberty” today finds herself facing Poe’s dilemma, then, I’ll close with his warning: “Impia tortorum longas hic turba furores, Sanguinis innocui non satiata aluit.” (Here the wicked mob, unappeased, long cherished a hatred of innocent blood)

Harry Tuttle




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