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Philosophy and Literature 25.1 (2001) 46-58

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In Defense of Trimming

Eugene Goodheart


In The Education of Henry Adams, Adams disparages a class of English politicians as "trimmers." They are "the political economist, the anti-slavery and doctrinaire class, the followers of Tocqueville, and of John Stuart Mill. As a class, they were timid--and with good reason--and timidity, which is high wisdom in philosophy, sicklies the whole cast of thought in action." 1 Timidity in action, but high wisdom in philosophy. Adams's ambivalent characterization is, relatively speaking, kind to the trimmer, for in the prevailing view he has a reputation for cowardice, lack of integrity, unprincipled behavior. Dante did not know the word, but the "neutrals" (in Sinclair's translation) whom the poet consigns to limbo have been retroactively called trimmers. Virgil regards them as beneath contempt: "Let us not talk of them; but look thou and pass." Sinclair explains why: "These innumerable seekers of safety first, and last, who take no risk either of suffering in a good cause or of scandal in a bad one, are here manifestly, nakedly, that which they were in life, the waste and rubbish of the universe, of no account to the world, unfit for Heaven and barely admitted to Hell. They have no need to die, for they 'never were alive'. They follow still, as they have always done, a meaningless, shifting banner that never stands for anything because it never stands at all, a cause which is no cause but the changing magnet of the day. Their pains are paltry and their tears and blood mere food for worms." 2

The dictionary defines trimming as the "modif[ication] of one's attitude in order to stand well with opposite parties; also to accommodate oneself to the mood of the times," and gives 1685 as the date of provenance. By the late nineteenth century trimming becomes opportunism: [End Page 46] "to modify according to expediency." So it was something of a surprise to find a defense of trimming in Macaulay's famous History of England in his eulogy of one of Charles the Second's ministers, Viscount Halifax (Charles Savile). "Halifax," we learn, "was a trimmer on principle. He was also a trimmer by the constitution of his head and his heart." Macaulay sums up Halifax's defense in his essay "The Character of a Trimmer." "Everything good, he said, trims between extremes. The temperate zone trims between the climate in which men are roasted and the climate in which they are frozen. The English Church trims between the Anabaptist madness and the Papist lethargy. The English constitution trims between Turkish despotism and Polish anarchy. Virtue is nothing but a just temper between propensities any one of which, if indulged to excess, becomes vice." Behind trimming lies Aristotle's golden mean.

What of the character of the trimmer? Macaulay provides an admirable and admiring portrait of Halifax. "His understanding was keen, sceptical, inexhaustibly fertile in distinctions and objections; his taste refined, his sense of the ludicrous exquisite; his temper placid and forgiving, but fastidious, and by no means prone either to malevolence or to enthusiastic admiration." Charming and agreeable, but where is the integrity or courage, attributes that we associate with character?

He had nothing in common with those who fly from extreme to extreme, and regard the party which they have deserted with an animosity far exceeding that of consistent enemies. His place was on the debatable ground between the hostile divisions of the community. . . . The party to which he at any moment belonged was the party which, at that moment, he liked least, because it was the party of which at that moment he had the nearest view. He was therefore always severe upon his violent associates, and was always in friendly relations with his moderate opponents. Every faction in the day of its insolent and vindictive triumph incurred his censure; and every faction, when vanquished and persecuted, found in him a protector. To his lasting honor it must be mentioned that he attempted to save those victims whose fate...


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