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I thought I understood something is "a matter of principle", but I can't figure out what "not as a matter of principle" in this context mean. Could anyone help explain it to me?

It's from a novel I enjoy reading: " Yes, I suppose there's something nasty about me at times. But not all the time--and not as a matter of principle. On my good days, I'm as sweet and friendly as any person I know."

  • I am not a vegetarian as a matter of principle, it is just that I don't like meat. – WS2 Aug 3 '15 at 16:14
  • I act altruistically at times. Not as a matter of principle - it's just that I've noticed altruists usually get back more than they give. – FumbleFingers Aug 3 '15 at 16:33
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If I abbreviate the quotation, it really says something like "I am sometimes nasty, but not as a matter of principle". This is hard to understand because it probably means "... but not habitually" or "... but not usually".

As it is written, it sounds as if the person could be nasty as a matter of principle; that is a very strange idea because principles usually guide us to good behaviour. I think this is the cause of your puzzlement.

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'as a matter of principle' is an idiom that means something that you follow as a rule. But not all the time--and **not as a matter of principle** - here it means 'not something usual', 'not a habit'.

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A "principle" is an underlying tenet or a foundational rule adopted to govern one's behavior. Acting consistently according to the rules instead of reacting to particular situations is generally considered admirable, hence the word "principled" meaning virtuous.

Your narrator says that he if he's ill-tempered at times, it's not because that's a rule of his life that he's chosen to follow.

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The underlying notion here is the idea of "acting on principle"—that is, acting in a certain way not because one sees an immediate advantage in doing so or because one is responding reflexively to a situation, but because one is committed to it as part of a larger or overarching code of conduct.

There is, of course, something odd about suggesting that one might treat nastiness as a cherished tenet in a moral or ethical code governing one's interactions with others. But that oddness appears to be the speaker's little joke here: he or she is denying that any incidental nastiness evident in his or her behavior flows from a deeper philosophical misanthropy in which treating others badly is a matter of principle.

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There are several possible interpretations that you can take from the definitions of matter, principle or maybe even 'of'. Unfortunately in this case, I would have to go over practically every given definition of those words from the 1828 edition of The American Dictionary of the English Language by Noah Webster in order to fully or maybe even adequately explain. That would be much too verbose for this format, even by my standards. I believe these entries are very much worth reading for understanding the matter in detail.

Regardless of that, I can abridge it into one of two general categories:

It can mean that the cause of his nastiness is not caused by nor the is subject of any specific trait; conformity to a general truth; intrinsic human nature or rule. This mostly reassures us of what he said earlier by suggesting his nastiness is an irregularity.

It can also mean that he is not intrinsically evil. The constituent matter of his personality does not originate from malice or at the very least, malice is not the fundamental constituent of his being. His nastiness is just an impurity of the soul.

Either way, it illustrates that there is nothing preventing him from being good

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