The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 14, Issue 7 (October 2, 1939)
On Making a Choice
In this life we are forever being called upon to make a selection of some kind or other. Whether it be of a house, a hat, or a husband, a menu or a maid, or a pipe, matters little; the subject of the choice is only a matter of degree; it is the constant thrusting upon us of the necessity for making the choice that counts. And it counts for much. George Eliot tells us that the strongest principle of human growth lies in this necessity; and while that may seem a somewhat extravagant claim there can be no question as to its basic truth. The theme of choice-making, then, is one which is as full of interest as any that could be considered; and, fortunately, its interest is not lacking in humour. Consider for a moment that story told by Horace Smith (joint author with his brother James of the famous “Rejected Addresses”) of the Eastern jester whom his royal master in a moment of passion had ordered to be put to death. The jester asked humbly for one last boon: that he might be allowed to choose the manner of his extinction. The Sultan, already somewhat regretful of his hasty order, agreed. Whereupon the condemned man artfully announced that he chose to die of old age!
Choice can be exercised in many ways. It may be purely arbitrary, it may be made by careless chance or after careful consideration; by lot or by ballot; it may be secret or open; it may be done on “form” or by the random poking of a pin—in a word it may be governed by any rules, or none.
Just as the term “making a choice” includes an election, so does the term “election” include—or at any rate, connote—the candidate.
The very word “candidate” is compact of interest—of much more interest indeed, than the person it designates is apt to be. Its origin, too, is quaint. It comes from the Latin word “candidus” (white) and derives from the fact that all office-seekers in ancient Rome were wont to wear white togas—as evidence of the purity of their own lives and of the honesty of the claims and causes they supported! One cannot help wondering, in view of the caustic comments made by a number of Roman writers upon the politics of their times whether these wearers of the white emblems of a blameless life, were really so immaculate as their togas sought to convey. If one can rely upon the sarcastic references by Shakespeare's Antony to the “honourableness” of Brutus and his fellow conspirators, one can hardly regard the Senators of that day as “varry parfait knights.” They may, some of them, have been sans peur, but mighty few of them seem to have been sans reproche. Even the protesting Antony himself had some little adventures at Alexandria and Actium which reveal him as being, as our American cousins would say, “not quite the clean potato.”
We have in our highly civilised way, of course, quite rid ourselves of the old barbaric method of choosing as leaders those who have proved themselves best able to beat their fellow tribesmen with a club, or to commandeer the largest number of heads from some neighbouring tribe with whom they happened to be at war. When Saul was elected King of Israel he was—if we may rely upon the writer of the second book of Samuel—chosen by a ballot, taken firstly among the tribes, and, secondly, among the individual members of those tribes. And when he was elected he was found to be a head and shoulders taller than any man in Israel. So that he, at least, page 44 page 45 was a king who had to be looked up to. Incidentally, one cannot help thinking that Saul's election was—despite the ballots—largely “inspired” by the prophet Samuel. For that astute seer had already foretold his selection; and Samuel had a way of seeing to it that his prophecies ran true to form.
Of course it is almost impossible to write of choices and omit all reference t. Hobson, the crusty old Cambridge livery-stable-keeper who has been immortalised by Milton in a sonnet; but whose fame on that account is as nothing to that which he has acquired through his habit of informing his clients: “That's the next horse to go out. Take him—or none!” “Hobson's choice,” therefore, was not his own, but the one he imposed upon others, and it is a curious thing that this “take it or leave it” attitude of his should have acquired the permanence and familiarity of a proverb while the noble lines in which the blind Puritan poet commemorated him, are caviare to the general. There is an unpleasant illogicality about this which leaves the lover of good literature with rather a nasty taste in his mouth; and a moral in it, too, I suppose, could one observingly distil it out.
Although there is a certain relationship between election and selection, there is a mighty big difference between them, too; as many a man who has obtained the selection of his party has found to his cost upon polling day. But both have the common attribute of being practised in a singular variety of ways.
Selection should be governed by reason. As Emerson says: “God offers to every mind its choice between truth and repose”—a quotation whose last word is as finely true as it is surprising when first encountered. For in this world it is almost impossible to have both truth and repose. Truth may be synonymous with Beauty, as Keats implies; but it is certainly not synonymous with rest. The man who habitually declares himself for the truth as he sees it—for that is truth, that is the answer to “jesting Pilate's” riddle—is in for a busy and an uneasy time. Yes, selection should be governed by reason, but too often it is governed by bias or personal idiosyncracies. One of the most singular examples of this last-mentioned method is met with in the seventh chapter of the book of Judges, which relates how the small force was selected with which the Midianites were overthrown “by the sword of the Lord and of Gideon.” Gideon had raised an army of 25,000 men; but was divinely instructed to reduce that number, and brought it down accordingly to 3,000.
And the Lord said to Gideon, “The people are still too many; bring them down to the water and I will try them for thee there … and every man that lappeth of the water with his tongue as a dog lappeth, him shall thou set by himself; likewise every one that boweth him upon his knees to drink. And the number of those that lapped were three hundred men, but all the rest bowed down upon their knees to drink … And the Lord said to Gideon—By the three hundred men that lapped will I deliver the Midianites into thine hand, and let all the other people go every man to his own place.”
And the story goes on to tell how, by an ingenious stratagem, Gideon deceived the hosts of the Midianites as to the smallness of his own force and caused them to flee in confusion before his three hundred so-queerly-chosen warriors. That, I say, is one of the strangest examples of selection on record; but it is very closely matched in that respect page 46 page 47 by the method chosen by the Gileadites to distinguish between their own men and the Ephraimites in the internecine battle which you will find recorded in the twelfth chapter of that same book of Judges from which I have just quoted. A large number of the Ephraimites had escaped to the passage of the river Jordan and there they met an army of Gileadites who were not quite sure of their identity. So they selected foe from friend in the manner set out in the following verses:
And it was so that when those Ephraimites who had escaped said, “Let us go over,” that the men of Gilead said unto them; “Art thou an Ephraimite?” And if he said “Nay,” then said they unto him; “Say now ‘Shibboleth,’” and he said ‘Sibboleth,’ for he could not frame to pronounce it right. Then they took him and slew him at the passage of the Jordan.
Thus has the word “Shibboleth” come to mean to-day the watchword or password of a party, a thing which is, in itself, almost as curious as the story which brought it about. But, then, words are like that; behind so many of those we use in current speech without a thought as to their origin, lie histories that are compact of interest and tradition. In this connection the word “tariff” occurs to me. “Tariff” has a geographical origin, being merely a variant of Tarifa, a port on the Spanish side of the Straits of Gibraltar, where the Moorish authorities were wont to Some interesting particulars about smoking figured in a London correspondent's letter to a New Zealand paper the other day. The writer (claiming to know), declares that English women are the heaviest smokers, of their sex, the world over; that soldiers and outdoor workers are the heaviest male smokers in England; and that English parsons smoke more than any other class of professional men. As for tobacco (this has been noted before) there is less demand for the coarser brands than formerly, the general preference now being for better quality lines. The same tendency, it is interesting to note, is in evidence in New Zealand, and has been ever since “toasted” made its appearance. In fact, the five toasted brands, Cut Plug No. 10 (Bullshead), Navy Cut No. 3 (Bulldog), Cavendish, Riverhead Gold and Desert Gold, may be said to have educated the public taste, and created a demand for “the best.” Not only are these five blends of the highest grade, but being practically free from nicotine (eliminated by toasting) they cannot harm the smoker even though he smokes to excess!*
levy a tax upon every foreign vessel that attempted to pass. Hence—“a payment to Tarifa,” a “Tarifa,” a “tariff.” And if you ask me what this has to do with “Making a choice,” I answer “Nothing, except to provide a very good example of that ‘Hobson's choice’ of which I have already spoken.” For the victims of Tarifa had no option. Or at the best a poor one. They had either to pay up or lose their vessel and their liberty. There are hundreds of other words we commonly use whose history, like that of Jeames Yellowplush, is “wropt in mystery,” or is as bizarre as that of “tariff” itself. And as to this word “Shibboleth,” which the Gileadites found so useful, it strikes me that no better verbal test of the modern motorist's degree of inebriety could be devised. I submit it to the authorities with every confidence in its efficacy.
Of course the most difficult, the most worrying, the most important choices we are called upon to make are those which we know will affect—for good or ill, we know not which—the status or current of our lives. In such cases, impossible though it may be to have the wish granted, we do ask to see the distant scene. One step is not enough. And yet the step must be made, and in the dark. Well, che sara sara—what will be, will be—and the sooner the step is made and the new path won, the old one left behind, the better. Every day and in every way we have to make choice between some one thing and another, or some one person and another. All that we can hope for is that we may carry Dr. Coué's motto to its conclusion, and in every way make our choices better and better; that we may be privileged to do as Mary did of old and choose that good part which shall not be taken away from us.