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Tact an Acquisition

No one can have tact who has not taste. How can a man tell which is the best thing to do who has no intelligent preferences? Tact consists in graceful conciliation.

The distinction between method and tact is illustrated by the following practical remarks of Paley:—'For the purpose of addressing different understandings—for the purpose of sentiment—for the purpose of exciting admiration of our subject we diversify our views, we multiply examples. [This is tact.] But for the purpose of strict argument one clear instance is sufficient; and not only sufficient, but capable, perhaps, of generating a firmer assurance than what can arise from a divided attention.' [This is method.] When an opponent urges an objection, one way of replying to it is to prove that the assertion contained in the objection is not true. Another is to show that if even the assertion be true, it is no objection to the position taken. It sometimes happens that the argument advanced against an opponent is really an argument in his favor. Tact discovers and avails itself of these advantages. Method arranges the materials, tact applies the resources of reasoning.

An obituary notice of Sir William Follet said:—'We do not mean that at any period of his life he could be described as a scientific lawyer. His professional position was attributed neither to the superiority of his professional knowledge nor to any talent above his contemporaries. In Parliament he displayed no stores of political, literary and economical information, nor versatility, nor vigorous invective. It must be admitted that he was neither an orator, nor a man of genius, nor a man of learning, apart from the speciality of his profession. He had neither passion, nor imagination of the fancy or of the heart. In what, then, lay his barristerial superiority? His great skill consisted in presenting his case in the most harmonious and fair purposed aspect. If there was anything false or fraudulent, a hitch, or a blot in his cause, he kept it dexterously out of view, or hurried it trippingly over, but if the blot was on the other side, he had the eye of the lynx and the scent of the hound to detect and run down his game. He had the greatest skill in reading an affidavit, and could play the "artful dodger" in a style looking so like gentlemanly candor, that you could not find fault; but in reading an affidavit on the opposite side, he was cunning of fence.'

Such an example illustrates legal tact. Tact so employed may denote a clever lawyer, but a very indifferent man.

Thorn, the weaver poet, told a story in the best vein of Scotch shrewdness. He was one day recounting an anecdote of Inverarie, or old Aberdeen—the point of the story rested on a particular word spoken in a fitting place. When he came to it he hesitated, as though at a loss for the term. 'What is it you say under these circumstances?' he asked; 'not this—nor that,' he remarked, as he went over three or four terms by way of trial, as each was endeavoring to assist him. 'Ah,' he added, apparently benevolent towards the difficulty into which he had thrown his hearers, 'we say !for want of a better word.' This of course was the word wanted, the happiest phrase the language afforded. He gained several things thus. He enlivened a narrative by an exciting digression, which increased the force and point of the climax. He created a difficulty for his auditors, who, when suddenly asked, would be unable to find a term which seemed denied to his happy resource, or, finding it, would distrust it and not have the courage to present it to such a fastidious epithetist. Thom thus exalted himself by finding what appeared out of their power, and excited an indefinite wonder at his own skill in bringing a story to so felicitous an end by the employment of a make-shift phrase. What would he have done if he could have found the right one? was naturally thought. This was tact. It was a case analogous to that given by Dickens in one of his early papers, where the president of a Club, at an apparent loss for a word, asks, 'What is that you give a man who is deprived of a salary which he has received all his life for doing nothing; or, perhaps worse, for obstructing public improvement?' 'Compensation,' suggested the Vice.

To do by design what Thom did without it is necessary to choose some rare and happy word to use in some intended remarks, and keep in memory two or three other words which might be tolerable in that place. Hesitate on coming to the right term, inquire for it, and repeat the inferior words one by one and dismiss them; then name, as though it was just thought of, the fitting word. Spontaneity is the charm of the incident; but all is spoiled if calculation is perceived in it. As a device such experiments are useful to the student, as practice in aptitude, since the difficulty of finding the right word at a critical point constantly occurs, when hesitation is not artifice but inevitable. As an artifice it begets distrust.

There is tact in the use of phrases free from any objection. E. S. Dallas cites Sainte Beuve as throwing out his meaning in a happy phrase, which being insufficient, he tries another. That is not quite right. By one phrase which falls short, by another that goes too far, and others which are beside the mark, he indicates what he would be at.

It is the judicious application of means that constitutes tact. In journalism tact is indispensable. The history of Mr. Murray's daily paper, the Representative, published for six or eight months, is proof that unlimited command of capital, great literary ability in every branch of knowledge, and the highest patronage, are all insufficient to establish a paper without tact. Mr Murray's regal and legal, ermined and coroneted, lay and clerical, civil and military friends, lacked that essential gift, or the editor did.

There is tact in reply, as when a gentleman who had been out shooting over a friend's estate with ill-success, and was anxious to learn the gamekeeper's opinion, inquired ingratiatingly whether he had ever seen a worse shot. The gamekeeper, unwilling to make an admission which might be discomforting to his master's guest, answered, 'Oh, yes, I have met with many much worse, for you misses them so cleanly.' An Irishman being asked by two ladies 'which he thought the older?' saw, with the quickness of his race, that if he made a distinction he should get into trouble with one of them, replied brightly, 'To tell you the truth, you each look younger than the other.' With such an assurance both were satisfied. Douglas Jerrold excelled in extricating himself from a difficulty on the spur of the moment. Overtaking one whom he took to be a familiar friend, he slapped him on the back. The gentleman turned round, looking as black as a judge's hanging cap. Jerrold said, 'I beg your pardon, I thought I knew you—but I'm glad I don't.' Tact of this kind depends on brightness and self - possession, qualities capable of cultivation.

It never occurs to some people that gaiety of mind is a charm on the platform as well as in the household. They do not understand that cheerfulness is a duty towards others, and tells upon an audience as well as upon friends. The grave are always dull. They belong to the charnel-house side of life. Others have hedgehog manners, and prick all who approach them. Hedgehogs are good roasted, but nobody thinks of embracing one in its natural state. No one doubts that a moderate sense of tact would alter this.

The tact of consideration for others—in the respect of personal courtesies—goes a long way in politics, as in social life. The effect of the want of it Lord Lytton depicts in his 'New Timon' in describing Lord John Russell:—
How formed to lead, if not too proud to please,
His fame would fire you, but his manners freeze;
Like or dislike, he does not care a jot,
He wants your vote, but your affections not;
Yet human hearts need sun, as well as oats,
So cold a climate plays the deuce with votes;
And while his doctrines ripen day by day,
His frost-bit party pines itself away.

Public geniality had been good policy. Lord Lytton measured political duty by the standard of fashion, which regulates votes, not by principle, but by the courtesies of ministers. That Lord Russell had amenity of manners when duties of State left him leisure, is proved by his lighthearted and changeless friendship for men like Thomas Moore and Leigh Hunt, whose spirits were all sunshine.

Lately, when a distinguished peer explained a passage in a speech which was construed against him by adversaries, Mr. Courtney said a man might do three things. 'The first was to stick to the assertion. Any fool could do that: but all the same, very few fools did. Second, he might say openly that when he came to reflect he found that his words went further than his thoughts. That was the heroic method. The third way was not withdrawing the words but attenuating the meaning.' The best tact in a difficulty of misapprehension is frankness—substituting unmistakable words.

Everybody knows the difference between things said or done anyhow, and said or done with consideration.

Hearts in love use their own tongues;
Let every eye negotiate for itself,
And trust no agent.
Shakespeare understood tact in love.

Everyone has tact, more or less, when they are interested and reflection and good sense will make it an acquisition. It has been well said that no one learns to think by getting rules for thinking, but by getting materials for thought.

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George Jacob Holyoake

  • Born April 13, 1817 in Birmingham, UK and died on January 22nd, 1906.
  • Was a British secularist, co-operator (The English Leader), and newspaper editor (Reasoner).

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