The Eloquent Insight
of Sydney J. Harris

I knew Sydney J. Harris…only casually. He was a columnist for the Chicago Sun Times and I worked in the Prudential Building in downtown Chicago where we would see each other and talk occasionally over a period of many years. Had I any inkling as to the profoundness of his mind, I would have made a concerted effort to draw him into deeper conversations. I realized he was a modern day Emerson only after I read one of his books, Pieces of Eight, a compilation of essays.
           Sydney Harris’ syndicated column ran for 35 years called, Strictly Personal, appearing in 200 newspapers throughout North and South America five days a week, and generating as many as 300 letters a week. An insightful and eloquently philosophical writer, he wrote about the human condition and behavior, touching many lives, his column was cut out and carried in wallets and purses, posted on gas station walls, and taped to professors’ doors. He wrote his first book at age fifteen, reading five books a day for much of his life eventually slowing down to about ten a week. Sydney J. Harris died in 1996. I think about him occasionally, regretfully reminding myself of the opportunity I had missed to interact with him on a more meaningful level, and benefit from his incisive mind.
           This article is a selection of his thoughts within his essays from Pieces of Eight, which he divided into four categories. I think you will find them profound and enlightening, and, impressed by his humanity.
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Of the Social Animal
The unfailing sign of a poor executive is that he reprimands his subordinates in public and commends them in private, when he should be doing exactly the opposite in order to elicit their best efforts.
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“Elitism” is the slur directed at merit by mediocrity.
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There is no way of proving your point to someone whose income or position depends upon believing the contrary.
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illustration of loveThe three hardest tasks in the world are neither physical feats nor intellectual achievements, but moral acts: to return love for hate, to include the excluded, and to say, “I was wrong.”
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It is true that the first book of the Bible commands us to “be fruitful and multiply”—but that was depicting a time when the total human population of the Earth was two.
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Homosexuality, in almost all cases, is no more a matter of sexual preference than my left-handedness is a matter of manual preference.
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Of the Life of the Spirit
What you believe counts for less than how you feel and act toward your fellow man.
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Blaming and reforming never go together, because the blamer gets too much secret pleasure out of having things go wrong.
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Life is unfair in that a plane crash may kill innocent people or spare some worthless ones and maim the useful. Anything can happen to anybody at any time, regardless of merit or worth. But precisely because of this we have a special obligation to see that fairness works wherever we have the power to make it work.
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Sex is only a minor part of morality, but for most people today the two words are nearly equated…I do not think all sexual attitudes are as productive and humanizing as all others, but I do firmly believe that in judging morality, we should raise our eyes from the loins to the heart.
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A moralizer is someone for whom morality begins at the waist and goes downward; but in fact, most basic immorality exists above the neck, not the loins.
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The only “true church” is that which admits there is no way of knowing which denomination God belongs to.
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The strange thing about science is that if you have only a slight and superficial acquaintance with it, you are likely to lose your religious beliefs; but if you bother to delve somewhat more deeply, you are just as likely to renew and confirm your reverence for creation.
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Religions tend to be hostile and divisive among themselves, while the sciences are necessarily allies—indicating there may be more of a religious core of unity in scientific investigation of the truth than in the religious exhortation of piety.
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Of the Mind and Passions
child playing eith fatherWhat a youngster achieves may or may not be important, now or for the future; but what a youngster is, how he or she relates to family and friends and the world at large, is a permanent index of character and worth. And this is what we should be grateful for when we see it in our children—more than all the outward marks of “success” in the classroom or the stadium. And this is the way they want us to regard them, as people, not as producers, promoters, performers, or parental ornaments.
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Ambiguity has its own uses, and it is better to be vaguely right than precisely wrong.
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If some people seem to have more good luck than others, it is mostly because a lot of what we call bad luck is determined by the contour of the personality rather than a mere accident or chance.
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The fundamental kink in masculine nature is that no father of forty wants his daughter to do what he wanted other men’s daughters to do when he was twenty.
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Most disputations are fruitless at best because the contestants want to instruct, not to learn; to persuade, not to investigate; to feel justified, not corrected or reproached or convinced of error. And the more heated the controversy, the more both antagonists lose sight of reality, of reason, and of the common objective to discover where the good resides. What is worse, however, is that arguments tend to polarize; each side becomes more extreme; nothing of value is credited to the other side, not even decent motives, and the disputants turn into bitter enemies. All one has to do is read the history of religious disputation in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to see how people pledged to the same God and the same Savior persecuted and slew each other over points of theology no one today even comprehends.
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Of the Fine and Vulgar Arts
man reflectiogIt is the single-purposed man who reaches the goal most surely and swiftly—and then has the most time to find out that having a single purpose is not a satisfactory goal in life.
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A “consultant” is more often than not a person brought in to find out what has gone wrong, by the people who made it go wrong, in the comfortable expectation that he will not bite the hand that feeds him by placing the blame where it belongs.
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I’ll leave you now with one of Harris’ complete short essays:
What’s Wrong with Being Proud?
American glagWhat a lot of damage a little word can do, if you don’t understand what you are saying or what someone else is saying. Entire religious sects have been formed—and persecuted—because of disagreement about the meaning of a word.
          A reader in Tequesta, Florida, asks me if I can resolve his puzzlement about the word pride. Is it a good thing to have or a bad thing? Pride, after all, is one of the seven deadly sins—and the worst, according to most theologians, because it elevates the self to the place of God.
         On the other hand, my reader asks, “What is wrong with healthy pride—the pride of a craftsmen in his work well performed?” Or the pride of someone who refuses to accept public charity? Or the pride a citizen takes in his country, a father in his children, an athlete in his prowess?
          The trap here is that we are using the same word in two quite different senses, and we rarely bother to distinguish between them. Pride as a sin is an attitude toward oneself and others, while the other thing we call pride is a feeling about excellence. To take pride in one’s work is not the same as taking pride in one’s birth. The first is a form of self-respect; the second is a form of snobbery.
           Pride is considered the root of other sins because while all the others attach themselves to vices and work their end, pride alone attaches itself to virtue and destroys it. The drunkard and the thief do not pretend they are doing what they are doing for any good reason, but people can actually be proud of their humility. The most insidious of sins, pride creeps in everywhere, before we are aware of it.
            This is the difference between genuine patriotism and an arrogant nationalism. Patriotism is proud of a country’s virtues and eager to correct its deficiencies; it also acknowledges the legitimate patriotism of other countries, with their own specific virtues.
            The pride of nationalism, however, trumpets its country’s virtues and denies its deficiencies, while it is contemptuous toward the virtues of other countries. It wants to be, and proclaims itself to be, “the greatest,” but greatness is not required of a country; only goodness is. Indeed, the pride of nationalism, in my view, is the single most destructive force in the world today, a monstrous perversion of the virtue of patriotism.
             Obviously, we need two different words to describe and define the two aspects of pride. If you do not take pride in your work (if that work is worth doing), then you are less of a person than you should be. But if you are swaggering or smug and take personal credit for the gifts God gave you, as if they make you better than other men, you debase and corrupt the very excellence of your efforts and become more despicable than anything you despise.
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