(From The Wrecker by Robert Louis Stevenson and Lloyd Osbourne, Chapter XVI, published 1892)

Passage 257

Indeed, I believe that was my only reason for entering upon a transaction which was now outside my interest, but which (as it chanced) repaid me fifty-fold in entertainment. Fowler and Sharpe were both preternaturally sharp; they did me the honour in the beginning to attribute to myself their proper vices; and before we were done had grown to regard me with an esteem akin to worship. This proud position I attained by no more recondite arts, than telling the mere truth and unaffectedly displaying my indifference to the result. I have doubtless stated the essentials of all good diplomacy, which may be rather regarded, therefore, as a grace of state, than the effect of management. For to tell the truth is not in itself diplomatic, and to have no care for the result a thing involuntary. When I mentioned, for instance, that I had but two hundred and forty pounds of drug, my smugglers exchanged meaning glances, as who should say, “Here is a foeman worthy of our steel!” But when I carelessly proposed thirty-five dollars a pound, as an amendment to their offered twenty, and wound up with the remark: “The whole thing is a matter of moonshine to me, gentlemen. Take it or want it, and fill your glasses”—I had the indescribable gratification to see Sharpe nudge Fowler warningly, and Fowler choke down the jovial acceptance that stood ready on his lips, and lamely substitute a “No—no more wine, please, Mr. Dodd!” Nor was this all: for when the affair was settled at thirty dollars a pound—a shrewd stroke of business for my creditors—and our friends had got on board their whaleboat and shoved off, it appeared they were imperfectly acquainted with the conveyance of sound upon still water, and I had the joy to overhear the following testimonial. . .

I have an issue with the word 'involuntary' in this context. I think I know all meanings of 'involuntary' but I'm not able to decide what meaning is meant by the author/speaker there - does it mean spontaneous, forced, unintentional etc.? What does 'involuntary' mean in this context?

  • 1
    Please make your title an actual question Nov 12, 2023 at 13:51
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    I think it's saying that to be a good diplomat or negotiator, you can't care too much about the result. But you can't make yourself not care - it's involuntary, rather than something that can be managed. "State of grace" likewise refers to this condition of being unburdened or here involuntarily unconcerned. (It's hard to see this as an on-topic question or answer though.)
    – Stuart F
    Nov 12, 2023 at 14:12
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    That he has no concern for the results of his telling the truth is not, for a him, a question of choice, not a willed decision. It's just the way he is. He can't help but be that way.
    – TimR
    Nov 12, 2023 at 14:15

1 Answer 1


Of the definitions listed at Merriam-Webster, the only possible meaning of "involuntary" in this context is:

1 : done contrary to or without choice

The other two definitions are:

2 : compulsory
3 : not subject to control of the will : reflex

It doesn't mean compulsory, and it's not referring to a nervous reflex action.

IMO, it's a matter of opinion what that sentence is intended to mean, because it literally says that being indifferent to the result is involuntary, but in the context he purposefully makes a show of his indifference, so I doubt he "decided" to feel indifferent, which is the opposite of "involuntary". This leads me to believe the correct parse might include the negation from the first clause ("not") in the elided portion of the second. As in:

For to tell the truth is not in itself diplomatic, and neither is to have no care for the result involuntary. (meaning indifference it is not involuntary)

  • Because he deliberately makes a show of his indifference does not mean that the indifference itself is deliberate. He just doesn't care what reaction his truth-telling might get, and that gives him the freedom to express his views without reservation.
    – TimR
    Nov 13, 2023 at 13:03
  • Your reading is a contradiction of his earlier dictum on good diplomacy; he says it is "a grace of state" -- that is, something you cannot choose or decide to have, you either have grace or you don't.
    – TimR
    Nov 13, 2023 at 13:23
  • @TimR My answer is above the line. The stuff below the line is tangential opinion marked with "IMO". If you think my actual answer is wrong, let me know
    – gotube
    Nov 15, 2023 at 3:22
  • My comments referred to your readiing. As far as the definitions cited are concerned, they're OK. I would define involuntary as "not done freely by choice as an act of the will". That would encompass actions one is compelled to take, actions made under duress, as well as reflex actions.
    – TimR
    Nov 15, 2023 at 12:29

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