Frederick Scott Oliver and the politics of mistakes


I first came across Frederick Scott Oliver,in a passage that still resonates from a 1955 lecture of T.S. Eliot:

But it should also be obvious to everyone from his personal experience, that there is no formula for infallible prediction; that everything we do will have some unforeseen consequences; that often our best justified ventures end in disaster, and that sometimes our most irrational blunders have the most happy results; that every reform leads to new abuses which could not have been predicted but which do not necessarily justify us in saying that the reform should not have been carried out; that we must constantly adapt ourselves to the new and unexpected; and that we move always, if not in the dark, in a twilight, with imperfect vision, constantly mistaking one object for another, imagining distant obstacles where none exist, and unaware of some fatal menace close at hand.

Does this all mean futility or what we called at that time, the quietism of despair? Not so, Eliot immediately adds: “This is Frederick Scott Oliver’s Endless Adventure.


Even though his language is dated and some opinions rebarbative, Oliver’s The Endless Adventure, published as three volumes in the 1930s, is so contemporary as to make one weep. The book is out of print, so here’s a sampler of quotes::

  • “Without bringing all the Christian virtues into this discussion, it is enough to say that a positive and strict veracity is impossible for the politician. For truthfulness even forbids you to allow the person you are dealing with to deceive himself.”
  • “…like water can’t be kept out of most things, so too morals can’t be kept out of human affairs. But it is an external factor not inward gyroscope.”
  • “For surprising accidents and sudden changes are the rule of politics. It is not often that the circumstances of the world will let a statesman have his head. The situation into which he comes so confident of victory may be transformed in a single revolution of the globe. Thereupon all the schemes that he has framed so carefully for the service of his country will vanish hurriedly like ghosts at cock-crow. He will be forced at once to devise a new plan fit for the occasion, and he will be lucky if he produces one that does not involve a sacrifice of this consistency.”
  • “The wisest government must make mistakes; nay, sometimes when it has acted with most wisdom it affords the easiest target for plausible misconstruction.”
  • “The student of politics will not make a beginning till he has realized that in this art there are antinomies everywhere, and that it is no shame to a politician, or to the man who writes about him, if the opinions he utters are often in conflict one with another. The politician or the writer who succeeds in proving his life-long consistency is less an object of admiration than of derision.”
  • “Phenomena of this sort, phenomena in a continual flux, will not submit themselves to the methods of a land surveyor.”
  • “Politicians, like soldiers, are often obliged to guess at the motives, intentions, and movements of the enemy. As they often guess wrongly, their own tactics are apt to appear purposeless and foolish, or altogether evil and malevolent, to a later generation which looks wonderingly, after ‘the fog of war’ has lifted, at the hooks and bends of an ancient controversy. . . .If actors themselves saw less clearly than we do, it is partly because there are now far fewer things to be seen. Much has long ago fallen through the sieves of memory and written records, while the historian, of set purpose, has eliminated much of what remained.”


Oliver defends politics specifically against university specialists (another contemporary resonance), and his comments about economics and economists ring true to this reader. Oliver does not defend all politicians: “It was in plain truth only a quack cure-all at which a cabinet of ignorant shirkers had snatched in its perplexity,” he writes.

Fortunately, Oliver takes us further than that. He also talks about political imponderables and chance, as well as inexperience and difficulty, as if they were the churn in that watercourse—the thalweg—at the lowest part of the valley along which we cross and whose waters we ford.

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