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What does "They express the revolt of a great mass of human common sense against it." in this passage mean?

There appears to me to be no escaping from the fact that all such institutions as a Senate, a House of Peers, or a Second Chamber, are founded on a denial or a doubt of the proposition that the voice of the people is the voice of God. They express the revolt of a great mass of human common sense against it. They are the fruit of the agnosticism of the political understanding. Their authors and advocates do not assert that the decisions of a popularly elected Chamber are always or generally wrong. These decisions are very often right. But it is impossible to be sure that they are right. And the more the difficulties of multitudinous government are probed, and the more carefully the influences acting upon it are examined, the stronger grows the doubt of the infallibility of popularly elected legislatures. What, then, is expected from a wellconstituted Second Chamber is not a rival infallibility, but an additional security.

https://oll-resources.s3.us-east-2.amazonaws.com/oll3/store/titles/904/Maine_0170_Bk.pdf

*The text is basically talking about how the second chamber is needed as an additional security, since the first chamber is not perfect and can make mistakes.

If it was simply "They express the revolt against it," then I could understand, since it would just be rephrasing the previous sentence (=the institutions are opposed to the belief that public opinion is supreme). But once "of a great mass of human common sense" is put back in place, it makes no sense to me.

The revolt of someone against something means someone is revolting against something, right? Applying this equation to the sentence in question would then result in "A great mass of human common sense is revolting against it," meaning the masses are opposed to the belief that public opinion is supreme. But obviously this makes no sense. After all, why would you reject something that benefits you? Could someone explain this to me? Thank you.

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  • If "of a great mass of human common sense" were removed (as you consider in the penultimate paragraph), what do you think "the revolt" would refer to? Dec 24, 2022 at 5:43
  • I think it would refer to the institution's revolt (against the belief that public opinion is supreme).
    – noolodig
    Dec 24, 2022 at 5:52
  • No, the author is not discussing whether public opinion (represented through the institutions) is "supreme"; he or she is discussing whether it is "the voice of God", i.e. "infallible". Those are different concepts. I don't see anything unusual in that paragraph except for some overly convoluted writing. Dec 24, 2022 at 6:04
  • Ah, I see. In that case, let me rewrite it as "public opinion is infallible." But whether it be supreme or infallible, the fact that the masses are revolting against what's in their interest wouldn't change, would it?
    – noolodig
    Dec 24, 2022 at 6:30
  • It's not the masses revolting against the idea that the institutions are infallible; it is "a great mass of human common sense" that is revolting against that idea. I interpret those things as being different. Dec 24, 2022 at 6:37

2 Answers 2

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Here we need to be careful about referents. Let's cut it down by giving names to certain bits of clauses, mathematically:

Let XYZ = such institutions as a Senate, a House of Peers, or a Second Chamber

Let ABC = a denial or a doubt of the proposition that the voice of the people is the voice of God

"There appears to be no escaping from the fact that all XYZ are founded on ABC. They express the revolt of a great mass of human common sense against it. They are the fruit of the agnosticism of..."

So: the institutions (XYZ) express the revolt of a lot of humans against ABC (a denial of a proposition).

I can't speak for the original authors but I believe you've found one of those cases (not too rare in politics, honestly, I've seen 'em before) where someone gets so caught up in rhetoric that they don't realise they are saying the opposite of what they mean. In my old logistics career, I remember a PowerPoint slide that said something like: "We can't afford to fail to miss new opportunities..."

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  • Ah, thinking of "it" as referring to a DENIAL of the proposition and not just the proposition actually makes more sense. Thank you.
    – noolodig
    Dec 24, 2022 at 7:02
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    So hit the "accepted answer" check box please. Then I get twice as much money from StackExchange (2 x $0 = $0)
    – equin0x80
    Dec 24, 2022 at 10:02
  • I don't see why you say that "it" is the denial and not the proposition. It's very clear what the author means, and I don't see any grammatical reason why "it" in the second sense should refer to the denial instead of the proposition.
    – stangdon
    Dec 24, 2022 at 13:55
  • Sorry, expressing a disagreement is not acceptable here. Please post a separate answer. (Am I doing the bureaucracy right yet?)
    – equin0x80
    Dec 24, 2022 at 14:46
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This is certainly a convoluted paragraph. In the sentence that you're asking about, "they" refers to the institutions and "it" represents the proposition that the voice of the people is the voice of God, i.e., that the voice of the people is infallible.1 Therefore, the institutions express the revolt of a great mass of human common sense against that proposition. In other words, folks with plenty of common sense decided that the voice of the people was not infallible—i.e., people could make errors—so they created the institutions.

In fact, when the difficulties "are probed", doubt in the infallibility of people and their "popularly elected legislatures" grows even stronger. Therefore, many institutions have a second chamber, not to have two chambers that are both infallible—that would be redundant, after all—but for "additional security". (If one chamber makes a mistake, then the other chamber can reduce the consequences of the mistake.)


1 This interpretation makes sense, because God is presumably infallible; the author even uses the word "infallibility" later to express this idea.

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  • Let me check my understanding of your answer: "the voice of the people" is referring to those in the institutions, and "a great mass of...." is also referring to those in the institutions (or perhaps the general public with common-sense?). Is this correct?
    – noolodig
    Dec 25, 2022 at 1:44
  • @noolodig "The voice of the people" refers to the institutions, because people vote for their representatives in those institutions. However, "a great mass of human common sense" simply refers to the belief that the people's voice (and therefore those institutions) is fallible. Dec 25, 2022 at 6:00
  • Ah, that makes sense. As for "a great mass of...," is it not implied exactly what kind of people hold such belief? To me, the phrase "a great mass" feels like it fits better with a large amount of people like the general public, rather than a limited small amount of people in the institutions, but am I wrong on this?
    – noolodig
    Dec 25, 2022 at 6:58
  • @noolodig It's certainly messy writing, or at least vague. Nevertheless, "a great mass" does not necessarily mean "a mass of people" or "the masses", which might be what you're thinking of. Dec 25, 2022 at 7:21
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    I understand. Thank you so much for taking time and helping me out on this.
    – noolodig
    Dec 25, 2022 at 7:30

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