Do the Best Lack All Conviction?

Russell Blackford

In his 1920 poem “The Second Coming,” W.B. Yeats laments: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” The great Irish poet had in mind the turmoil across Europe in the early twentieth century, not least the 1917 Russian Revolution that deposed Czar Nicholas II and culminated in Lenin’s ascent to power. Whatever the merits of revolutionary Russia, and despite Yeats’s cranky theory of historical cycles (expressed in “The Second Coming” and elsewhere), the lines I’ve quoted are frequently recited or alluded to even now, almost a century later. They powerfully summarize the danger of ideological fanaticism.

So often, ideologues display an intensity of conviction, and an unscrupulousness in acting upon it, against which good, fair, perhaps liberal-minded people seem helpless. So, do “the best,” or at least the fair-minded, lack all conviction? Should they?

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