Why We Should Not Rely On First Impressions

It is often said that a man should rely on his first impressions of things when trying to form a final judgment.  There is some merit to instinct; but it seems to me that reasoned deliberation will always provide more accurate results than the shifting sands of sense-perception.  We cannot know all things, or even many things, at a glance.

Julian, one of the greatest of the late Roman emperors, was an accomplished writer in his own right.  In his Panegyric in Honor of Eusebia, a sincere expression of gratitude to the wife of his cousin Constantius, he writes the following lines:

For there are two jars, so to speak, of these two kinds of human affection, and Eusebia drew in equal measure from both…

Now what was Julian referring to when he spoke of these “two jars” of human affection?  The reference is to an aside in the Iliad (XXIV.525), where the poet says:

For on this have the gods spun the thread for wretched mortals, that they should live in pain; and themselves are sorrowless.

For two urns are set upon the floor of Zeus of gifts that he giveth, the one of ills, the other of blessings.

To whomsoever Zeus, that hurleth the thunderbolt, giveth a mingled lot, that man meeteth now with evil, now with good.

So we have these two urns set before us, if you will, by Fortune.  One is filled with evil things, and the other with good; and it will be our lot to sample from both of these urns, as Fate decrees for us.  So there is no point in wasting time over injuries and the bad luck that we have suffered; it is all part of the arrangement that has been set in place since the beginning of time.  The only way we can “shape” the outcome of events is to try to make use of our Reason, as Nature provides us, in such a way that we can overcome the deceptions and illusions of the senses.  The failure to cultivate our powers of reason condemns us to the slavery of the senses.  Julian makes this very point in another quote from the same panegyric mentioned above:

For beauty alone, if it lacks the support of birth and the other advantages I have mentioned, is not enough to induce even a licentious man, a mere citizen, to kindle the marriage torch, though both combined have brought about many a match, but when they occur without sweetness or charm of character they are seen to be far from desirable.

Beauty alone is not enough:  we cannot rely on the pleasurable sensations provided by our organs of sense in making important decisions like marriage.  The fact that many people make this very mistake only reinforces the importance of the point.  And if Reason is equally matched with the seductive call of the senses, we should always cast our vote in favor of Reason.  One deceives; the other counsels.  There was a custom at the Areopagus of ancient Athens that, during a trial by jury, if the votes were cast evenly for both the defendant and the plaintiff, the public would award the “vote” of the goddess Athena to the person who would have suffered the sanction, thereby acquitting him.  An acquittal was symbolically secured by the intercession of Athena herself, who cast the “deciding” vote.

This was the Athenians’ way of saying that when things were evenly matched, the deciding vote should always be cast in favor of a merciful acquittal.  In the same way, if our “first impressions” of something are exactly balanced by what our reason tells us, we should vote for reason.  I think some will not agree with me on this, but I have found this rule to be a sound one.

But good judgment does not come automatically.  It is not something that just settle on our head and shoulders like freshly-fallen snow.  It comes about through diligent practice and experience, in the same way that the muscles of the body grow with productive and frequent periods of exercise.  Good judgment also cannot be purchased at any price:  it comes about when good character works together with the guiding hand of Fortune.  Now no man can advance himself in years except through the passage of time.  But even if we cannot buy years or experience, we can still learn from the experience of others.  How can this be done?  By listening carefully to those who have walked the path before us, and by a diligent study of history, which reveals the realities of human nature.  The emperor Julian was entirely correct when he said:

For many of those records of the experience of men of old, written as they are with the greatest skill, furnish to those who, by reason of their youth, have missed seeing such a spectacle, a clear and brilliant picture of those ancient exploits, and by this means many a tiro [i.e., a novice] has acquired a more mature understanding and judgment than belongs to very many older men; and that advantage which people think old age alone can give to mankind, I mean experience (for experience it is that enables an old man to talk more wisely than the young), even this the study of history can give to the young if only they are diligent.


So the lessons are there in the books of history, but only diligent study will allow us to unlock them and make them our own.  And even here we cannot rely on first impressions:  the same event in history needs to be examined from different perspectives and different angles, because truth is not one-sided.  It may mean something different based on the perspective of the writer.  Not only must we use different tellers of the same story, but we must also revisit the same story at different times in our lives.  The same historical even may mean different things to us at different periods of our lives.  This is because we ourselves become very different as we grow older.

Appearances are deceiving; but this is because appearances necessarily involve the senses, and not reason.  And the senses do not have a truth-telling style; this is the exclusive provenance of rational thought supported by either experience or diligent study.  In the end, our goal is to increase our odds of receiving something from Zeus’s urn of  “good things” mentioned in the Iliad quote above, and avoiding something from the urn of evils.


Experience the timeless lessons of Sallust today: