A Breath Sufficed to Topple
March 31, 2006
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I’m preparing a lecture for the History and Theory of Planning course on “foundational” figures in the early planning movement, and ran across this passage, which Ebenezer Howard quotes from The Times, 27 November, 1891:
Change is consummated in many cases after much argument and agitation, and men do not observe that almost everything has been silently effected by causes to which few people paid any heed. In one generation an institution is unassailable, in the next bold men may assail it, and in the third bold men defend it. At one time the most conclusive arguments are advanced against it in vain, if indeed they are allowed utterance at all. At another time the most childish sophistry is enough to secure its condemnation. In the first place, the institution, though probably indefensible by pure reason, was congruous with the conscious habits and modes of thought of the community. In the second, these had changed from influences which the acutest analysis would probably fail to explain, and a breath sufficed to topple over the sapped structure.
Ebenezer Howard, Garden Cities of To-Morrow, ed. F.J. Osborn, intro. L. Mumford, 1974, p. 41
I’ve always liked this quotation. Aside from the generational emphasis, with which I don’t particularly agree, it’s actually not a bad synopsis of how I think about historical change – and the complex and usually unremarked interaction between historical change and the ease with which we feel that we have proven or disproven particular ideas.