A few years ago, a colleague paid me an enormous, humbling compliment. He’d been watching the Paul Giamatti series based on David McCullough’s biography of our second President, and he told me that I reminded him of John Adams. I know what he meant: he meant that I stubbornly stuck with principles, a stubbornness he interpreted as courage. Our workplace had undergone years of political turmoil, and over that period I gave several public speeches for my side of the issues – and then typically found myself on the losing side of votes, usually 4 to some quite larger number. I read and reread Aristotle’s Rhetoric and Plato’s Gorgias when preparing these speeches, and I believed they helped. But if I had known about it, perhaps a reading of Anthony Trollope’s Phineas Finn would have helped even more.
A couple of weeks ago, I boiled down the theme of Zane Grey’s The Call of the Canyon to the word “Progress.” I’ll do the same today and serry the many themes and subplots of Phineas Finn under the heading of “Compromise.” Compromise is necessary, and the characters – even (or especially) the ones with stubborn principles – have to learn to live with it. Lady Laura tells Phineas that, now that they have each had their separate romances, they have to deal with reality. And reality brings compromise. People who marry have to compromise their ideal views of their mates and of married life. Politicians have to compromise their determination to see their favorite causes come to fruition. Women have to compromise their sense of independence in a male-dominated society. Those who don’t compromise willingly only find themselves suffering when the changes are forced upon them from without.
I can see Trollope walking a fine line throughout the novel, sometimes displaying compromise as the healthy companion of patience, sometimes as a regrettable but necessary evil, sometimes as a betrayal of good form or even of ethical absolutes. The pageant of compromising situations and compromisers is long and multicolored. I dare not begin to cite examples of particular characters who come to terms with compromise for fear that the post end up divided into volumes like a nineteenth-century novel. But one of the most frequent themes is the reality that Members of Parliament, if they wish to enjoy the benefits of belonging to a party, must not vote according to conscience. Or rather, they must trust to the conscience of the party leaders to know where and for how long to compromise on certain points. Asking for everything at once is the sure way to get nothing, and even a severely abridged package of proposals needs a unified voting block in order to succeed. Principles are not abandoned according to this view, only held back for a season.
The difference between me and John Adams (apart from all the other, huge, obvious differences) is that Adams eventually got his way. McCullough – and Giamatti, for that matter – portray John Adams as very reluctant to compromise in the way Trollope tentatively condones, and yet the United States achieved independence. I still wonder sometimes if I should have been even more vocally adamant or if instead I should have sought smaller victories. But the point is moot now: nothing changed except that I left. Still, maybe Phineas Finn offers me a final ray of hope: very near the end of the novel, one of Phineas’s friends tells him that standing up for an unpopular position marks the first necessary step in getting the position accepted. The first flurry of attention to a cause gives some people at least the notion that it isn’t impossible. If a second generation sees the idea move from possible to probable, the third may well uplift it to the Thing Without Which We Cannot Do.