G.K. Chesterton was a very perceptive man.
In “The Bottomless Well,” one of the stories that makes up his book The Man Who Knew Too Much, the titular character explains to a companion, in the process of laying out the solution to a mystery:
“You’ve got to understand one of the tricks of the modern mind, a tendency that most people obey without noticing it. In the village or suburb outside there’s an inn with the sign of St. George and the Dragon. Now suppose I went about telling everybody that this was only a corruption of King George and the Dragoon. Scores of people would believe it, without any inquiry, from a vague feeling that it’s probable because it’s prosaic. It turns something romantic and legendary into something recent and ordinary. And that somehow makes it sound rational, though it is unsupported by reason. Of course some people would have the sense to remember having seen St. George in old Italian pictures and French romances, but a good many wouldn’t think about it at all. They would just swallow the skepticism because it was skepticism. Modern intelligence won’t accept anything on authority. But it will accept anything without authority.”
As long ago as Chesterton wrote it, it still holds true even today. How many things that we’re told that seem to go against conventional wisdom do we take for granted without even bothering to investigate them, solely because they seem to go against conventional wisdom?
This quotation was brought to my mind today by a case in point. Every so often on the Internet, you’ll see someone mention Shakespeare’s famous “kill all the lawyers” quote, often in regard to some particularly outlandish court decision or lawsuit. Inevitably, someone will pipe up, “Shakespeare didn’t mean that lawyers should be killed, those were bad guys and they wanted to kill the lawyers because they knew that lawyers would stand in the way of their proposed tyranny.” And people nod their heads and accept this, without looking any further into the matter. Why? Perhaps partly because Shakespeare used such arcane language, they can’t be bothered to go back and puzzle it out for themselves. But largely because, as Chesterton said, it “sound[s] rational, though it is unsupported by reason.” The very fact that it goes against the apparent meaning of the quotation actually makes it easier to believe.
But the interesting thing is, Simson Garfinkel did go back to the original context—and found that the meaning of “kill all the lawyers” is very different from what these responses claim.
Garfinkel writes, “A very rough and simplistic modern translation would be ‘When I’m the King, there’ll be two cars in every garage, and a chicken in every pot’ ‘AND NO LAWYERS.’ It’s a clearly lawyer-bashing joke.”
He supports this using examples from elsewhere in the play, and from places in Shakespeare’s other plays as well.
And here’s another example of Shakespearian dialogue not meaning what people think it does. Hamlet at one point famously tells Ophelia, “Get thee to a nunnery.” There’s a very widely-believed explanation going around that what Hamlet meant by “nunnery” was a “house of ill repute,” which is to say, a brothel. For example, “Take Our Word For It” explains:
When Shakespeare had Hamlet tell Ophelia, “Get thee to a nunnery,” he meant a “house of ill repute”, but the word had only recently been recorded with that meaning. Prior to then it had referred to a community of nuns since at least the 13th century, having come to English from the hypothetical Anglo-French *nonnerie, from French nonne “nun”.
Except…if you look at the context, it’s not quite true. Random House’s “word of the day” column says in part:
In Hamlet, the “nunnery” exchange happens just after the “To be or not to be” speech. In the space of thirty lines, Hamlet tells Ophelia five times to go to a nunnery, in slightly different forms. While it is a matter of interpretation, an honest reading strongly suggests that Hamlet is using the literal sense here. He speaks against having children (“Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners” [some critics feel that this should be punctuated as “Why, wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners,” with the “Why” an interjection, not an interrogative]), tells her to distrust men (“We are arrant knaves all; believe none of us”), tells her not to marry and disparages the institution of marriage (“I say we will have no moe [more] marriage”).
It makes perfect sense, under the circumstances, for Hamlet to be telling Ophelia to go to a convent and remove herself from the fleshly world. To assume that Hamlet is really referring to a brothel would go completely against the character of everything he is saying.
And the Shakespeare Online Hamlet FAQ declares:
Is “nunnery” a euphemism for a brothel in Hamlet?
It is true that “nunnery” had two very different meanings in Tudor England. Modern dictionaries only list one definition of the word, which is, of course, a convent. However, if you look up “nunnery” in a dictionary of archaic words and uses, you will see that “nunnery” did mean both a convent and a brothel in Shakespeare’s day. Its meaning as a “brothel” was colloquial, though, even in Tudor England. Despite the use of “nunnery” as “house of ill repute” in Shakespearean England, there can be no question that Hamlet is referring to the standard definition of the word – a house of meditation for women who have devoted themselves to God. Only by entering a nunnery can Ophelia ensure that she will not procreate and become a breeder of sinners. As is pointed out in the Oxford edition of the play, “The injunction makes it clear that nunnery is not being used here in the sense of “brothel”, as it is in “Christ’s Tears Over Jerusalem” [by Thomas Nashe], for example, where a nunnery is synonymous with a college of courtesans (Nashe, II. 151-2).” Hamlet is indeed disgusted by the behavior of his mother, and takes his hostility out on innocent Ophelia, but he does not call her a whore in this particular line.
And yet, people continue to accept and promulgate the “brothel” theory, without even looking back at the original play. Why? Because claiming that the word means exactly the opposite of what it appears to mean somehow seems more rational and logical than claiming it means exactly what it says. We’re predisposed to accept it because it goes against appearances.
Or, as Chesterton put it, “Modern intelligence won’t accept anything on authority. But it will accept anything without authority.”
Think about that the next time you hear something that seems to make sense because it goes against conventional wisdom.