Essay / Misc.

Noting Wilberforce

I was reading a book once in which the author, having made a great theological point, went on to say “we would do well to note this and remember it.” Now this was a famously feisty Swiss author, given to using exclamation points and double dashes throughout his prose. So “note this and remember it” seemed a bit too polite and reserved, perhaps a bit too British to be the kind of thing he would say. So I hauled out the German original to check up on the work of the translators. What I found is that the most literal translation of what the author wrote would be:


What’s the difference between “note and remember” and the type of, erm, facial proximity with dwell time advocated here in the muscular teutonic phrasing? “Noting and remembering” sounds like something angels and reasonable people do, but “getting something in front of your face and keeping it in front of your face” is more along the lines of human nature as we all live in it every day. William Wilberforce (1759-1833) says something truly wise about this in his Practical View.

“The state of man is such, that his feelings are not the obedient servants of his reason, prompt at once to follow his dictates, as to their direction, and their measure.” That is, even when we know intellectually what’s good and bad, our emotions don’t attach to the right things.

Excellence is the just object of love; good in expectancy, of hope; evil to be apprehended, of fear; our fellow creatures’ misfortunes, and sufferings, constitute the just objects of pity. Each of these passions, it might be thought, would be excited, in proportion to what our reason should inform us were the magnitude and consequent claims of its corresponding object.

“But,” Wilberforce goes on, “this is by no means the case.” Thousands of people may be slaughtered somewhere, and we read about it with less interest than a shocking accident just down the street. We get so wrapped up emotionally in the goings-on in a novel, that we ignore current events or even people in our homes. Our heart thumps faster over a TV drama that we know is totally imaginary, than over a news story about our own city. Our emotional states seem to have no sense of proportion about which things are more important or real.

“Whatever be the cause of this disproportion… this fact is undeniable. There appears naturally, to be a certain strangeness between the passion and its object, which familiarity and the power of habit must gradually overcome.”

And then the kicker: “You must contrive to bring them into close contact; they must be jointed and glued together by the particulars of little incidents.” Wilberforce refers to this as the “doctrine of contact,” and goes on to say how you should cultivate close contact with the invisible important things:

The circumstances by which the affections of the mind towards any particular object are generated and strengthened, may be easily collected. The chief of these appear to be, whatever tends to give a distinct and lively impression of the object, by setting before us its minute parts, and by often drawing towards it the thoughts and affections, so as to invest it by degrees with a confirmed ascendancy: whatever tends to excite and to keep in exercise a lively interest in its behalf: in other words, full knowledge, distinct and frequent mental entertaiment, and pathetic contemplations.

There is much to commend Wilberforce’s analysis of the springs of human action, and the large part he gave to emotions in it. Our problem is not usually a lack of information or understanding, but mis-placed emotions, which are prone to drifting from the most deserving objects to the nearest or shiniest objects. But note this and remember it: Wilberforce’s solution is not that your imperious Intellect should bark orders at your heart to get it to snap back into line. Instead, he sketches a plan wherein you take hold of those passions and their proper objects, and fix them up on a blind date. Passion, meet object. Why don’t you go out for dinner and get to know each other? The mind can make a judgement about the proper object, estimate the proportion due it, and then woo the passions into falling for the object. All it takes is contact: examining minute parts, returning to it again and again, keeping up a lively interest in its behalf, and so on. Passions fall for that kind of thing every single time; they’re strong but dumb. The will is as the most apparent good is, and you have some say over which things are most apparent to your mental life.

Wilberforce and his circle used this doctrine of contact in the coordinated public relations blitz that undermined slavery, distributing pins with images of kneeling black slaves surrounded by the words, “Am I not a man and a brother?” Try ignoring that when the Clapham sect is getting it in front of your face and holding it in front of your face. But it was a trick he learned from his devotional life, as he struggled to set his affections on things above, keep God uppermost in his thoughts, and cherish the nearness of the Lord Jesus, whom, having not seen, he loved. It explains why most Christian preaching takes the form of reminding more than instructing. We need to be shown what we already know we should love.

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