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EXPERIENCE





Experience constitutes almost the only effective process by which
a truth may be solidly established in the mind of the masses, and
illusions grown too dangerous be destroyed. To this end,
however, it is necessary that the experience should take place on
a very large scale, and be very frequently repeated. The
experiences undergone by one generation are useless, as a rule,
for the generation that follows, which is the reason why
historical facts, cited with a view to demonstration, serve no
purpose. Their only utility is to prove to what an extent
experiences need to be repeated from age to age to exert any
influence, or to be successful in merely shaking an erroneous
opinion when it is solidly implanted in the mind of the masses.

Our century and that which preceded it will doubtless be alluded
to by historians as an era of curious experiments, which in no
other age have been tried in such number.

The most gigantic of these experiments was the French Revolution.
To find out that a society is not to be refashioned from top to
bottom in accordance with the dictates of pure reason, it was
necessary that several millions of men should be massacred and
that Europe should be profoundly disturbed for a period of twenty
years. To prove to us experimentally that dictators cost the
nations who acclaim them dear, two ruinous experiences have been
required in fifty years, and in spite of their clearness they do
not seem to have been sufficiently convincing. The first,
nevertheless, cost three millions of men and an invasion, the
second involved a loss of territory, and carried in its wake the
necessity for permanent armies. A third was almost attempted not
long since, and will assuredly be attempted one day. To bring an
entire nation to admit that the huge German army was not, as was
currently alleged thirty years ago, a sort of harmless national
guard,[15] the terrible war which cost us so dear had to take
place. To bring about the recognition that Protection ruins the
nations who adopt it, at least twenty years of disastrous
experience will be needful. These examples might be indefinitely
multiplied.



rough-and-ready associations of dissimilar things, the mechanism
of which I have previously explained. The French national guard
of that period, being composed of peaceable shopkeepers, utterly
lacking in discipline and quite incapable of being taken
seriously, whatever bore a similar name, evoked the same
conception and was considered in consequence as harmless. The
error of the crowd was shared at the time by its leaders, as
happens so often in connection with opinions dealing with
generalisations. In a speech made in the Chamber on the 31st of
December, 1867, and quoted in a book by M. E. Ollivier that has
appeared recently, a statesman who often followed the opinion of
the crowd but was never in advance of it--I allude to M.
Thiers--declared that Prussia only possessed a national guard
analogous to that of France, and in consequence without
importance, in addition to a regular army about equal to the
French regular army; assertions about as accurate as the
predictions of the same statesman as to the insignificant future
reserved for railways.





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