Sunday Afternoon Lectures for 1872.
There are great common or social ideals which arise in the world, are diffused, gain supremacy, and remain, it may be, for many centuries, ruling men at the very roots of their souls. The coming of such into existence and power is perhaps the most important kind of event that ever occurs on the earth. Compared with this, the rise of a kingdom like Prussia, or of a republic like the United States, is, to speak moderately, an event of secondary importance. Such an advent there was in the rise of Christianity; and all that Christianity has done in the world, all its effect upon minds and morals illustrates the power of a common ideal to make, unmake and transform. If you would understand the past, study its ideals; history is unintelligible without them. If you would know your own age, study the "spirit of the age," its ideal, that is. And especially if there are tokens that we live at the opening of a new epoch, when ancient ideals are dying, and another sovereign, not of the same blood, is coming to the throne, an inquiry into the nature of the change thus going on must be of surpassing interest.page break
We do indeed live at one of those turning points in history. From the fourth to the fifteenth century one ideal, represented by Catholic Christianity, but enclosing within it from the eighth century another, embodied in the feudal system, reigned with undisputed sway in the occidental world. Copernicus, Columbus and Luther,—the first giving to the human mind a new heavens, the second a new earth, the third a new moral poise,—put an end to that period, already disturbed by the crusades, the Black Death, and the flight of Greek learning from Constantinople to the West; and two centuries later,—for profound alterations of the human mind are manifested but slowly,—the guiding imagination of the mediaeval world was gone and irrecoverable. No sooner had it disappeared than the institutions it had given rise to, and which to a large extent remained,—as always happens in such cases,—lost on the one hand the genius that had made them wholesome, and on the other the explanation that had made them seem reasonable; at (nice they appeared anomalous, grotesque, monstrous, the product of imposture and violence.
Partly, therefore, through the reaction against these institutions, there arose, to replace the old, a new ideal, that of Liberty. Liberty—what a word to conjure with has that been for a hundred years! And yet during the space of some twelve centuries—centuries that wrought out for us all the elements of our civilization,—it was scarcely, or but faintly, pronounced; even a class of reformers like the Puritans, honest, brave and high-souled as any the world has known, cared not a button for liberty in the more modern sense. Time was that the words "obedience" and "service" made music in men's ears. Then it was the ideal of religion to have no will of one's own; then the proudest nobleman professed, and made it matter of pride, to "serve his fief," that is, his system of relations with all above and all beneath page 3 him; then courtesy crowned itself with the title of servant, and the modern gentleman, following the verbal forms of a departed ideal, may still subscribe himself the "obedient servant' of another. Strange!—the title that raw Irish "help" may now refuse as degrading, was once worn as a plume by the very men who made pride a grace, if not a virtue. The "fag" system of Eton, Harrow, Rugby, &c., is a relic curious to American eyes, of that old world in which service, whether the word or the thing, was not esteemed degrading, but the door to honor. How foreign is all this to what we boast, and without boast may reasonably esteem, as the "spirit of the age!" For good or evil—for good and evil—another ideal has arisen; it has dominated civilization for a century, and is only now beginning to be displaced by a second, of which also, in its turn, I shall have occasion to speak.
The ideal of liberty has its bright side and its eminent use in modern civilization; but unhappily it was formulated in a spurious way,—chiefly in the last century and by Jean Jacques Rousseau; and in this vicious shape has come down to our age. The doctrine that thus got into vogue was substantially as follows: That each individual has by gift of Nature an unqualified property in himself; that he is born to be absolutely his own master, and to dispose of himself at his own sovereign pleasure; that his individual will is therefore his proper guide and supreme law; that this natural liberty, so called, has but one limitation—it should be so adjusted by each to the like liberty in others that he may enjoy his own without encroaching on theirs; that government is a purely defensive expedient, designed to secure to each his perfect possession and disposal of himself, and that it borrows the right to accomplish even this limited task only from the voluntary consent of the individual parties to it.
This doctrine, it may be observed, would be quite page 4 as suitable to rats as human beings. Your rat is quite as much attached as a human creature can be to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—would be nothing less than absolute owner of himself, would make his private inclination his supreme law, and dispose of himself at his own sovereign pleasure; and rat government, could these assiduous rodents arrive at such, would undoubtedly be designed to sustain each in the liberty so dear to him. That order of doctrine, however,—spawned in Europe, not America, and made public in Europe at a time when Massachusetts was as loyal as London to the British crown,—was to be imported into this country, and to have a notable career. To please and propitiate Virginia, Thomas Jefferson was chosen to write the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson, who as late as November 29th, 1775,—five and a half months after the battle of Bunker's Hill,—wrote thus in a private letter, "Believe me, dear sir, there is not in the British empire a man that more cordially loves the union with Great Britain than I do"—a "love" that included allegiance to the British crown,—had in the months intervening between that November and the June following blazed out as a political philosopher of the newest school. Seizing the opportunity to air his neophyte-faith under auspices so uncommon, he proceeded, after the fashion of his teachers, to select certain ordinary descriptions of self-interest, common to nits and men, to endow these with "inalienable" rights, and to announce that civil society exists to no end but to assure the said rights of self-interest. This screed of doctrine became a resource, and was much endeared to many good men, during the struggle against slavery; it is now a sacred scripture, much more sacred to numbers than the scriptures commonly so-called. One might compare at, in its actual relation to the spirit of the nation, to a dry bone under ground, around which the rootlets of a vine have wound and woven themselves in a page 5 myriad-fold complexity of filaments; the vine could well live and flourish and bear fruit without it, but cannot be disrupted from it without injury. Every community has its dry bones so embraced; and, whatever the rude agitator may think, the real thinker knows that it is a serious business to meddle with them. But when in the hollow of the bone poison is hid, and the rootlets have penetrated to it, and the leaves begin to wither and the fruit to rot by effect of it, then the time for root-pruning has come, and the knife should be taken in hand. The feeding roots of this nation have now, it is manifest, struck through to the poison in Jefferson's doctrine. This doctrine is to-day furnishing the logic of "free love," and, if the premises be admitted, an unanswerable logic. It is propagating to-day a putrid ferment to destroy not only the most sacred of social institutions, but the very grounds of social duty.
Under these circumstances, everything admonishes us to return and resume the sober, constructive spirit of Washington, Adams, Jay, Hamilton, Ames, Osgood. During the gallant, but alas, ineffectual struggle of the Federalists against Jacobin politics, Rev. Dr. David Osgood of Medford, Mass., delivered a number of political discourses, so replete with sound judgment and just sentiment, and marked by so high an order of grave eloquence, that the author was honored with a share in that secret, cowardly vituperation which Jefferson poured out so prodigally upon the best men of his time. That certificate of character should entitle him to remembrance. Over this, Jefferson's style of political speculation triumphed in what he himself vaunted as "our second great revolution, not inferior to the first, that of 1800,"—a revolution of which himself was the hero and himself the eulogist. The hour has arrived when we should reverse the triumph, and, instead of finding a foundation in isolating self-interests and rights of self-interest, should find it where eternal page 6 wisdom laid it, in connecting and commanding obligation,—the hour when rat-liberty, or such as consists in pursuing in one's own fashion whatever one esteems happiness, should be recognized as proper only to beasts, and only to the wild among beasts, while it is at once the privilege and the imperative vocation of human beings to put this unequivocally away, that, through the duty of all, and the discipline of all and productive restraints submitted to by all, men may create for themselves a chartered and fruitful freedom, to liberate and empower them in head, heart and hand.
It is undoubtedly a function of civil society to protect individual rights, that is to say, the rights of individual self-love. Had Jefferson said just this, and with the due qualifications, he would, so far, have done well. But in the first place, he ran to an absurd excess by announcing these rights as "inalienable." Inalienable! If the right to life is so, this nation did a murder with every rebel shot on the field in our great civil contest. The right to liberty,—if that is inalienable, the State commits a crime with every thief sent to jail. Not only are all such rights qualified, conditional, alienable, but it is the express office of the commonwealth to affirm personal responsibility by treating them accordingly, extending over them the sovereignty of moral law. Inalienable! The statement is preposterous, and only as practically set at naught by the common sense of the community, can it fail to be mischievous.
Again, it is not the sole function of the State to protect individual self-interest and rights of self-interest; and in restricting it to this, Jefferson betrayed the one exceeding, fatal vice of his political philosophy. Above all that, civil society has a productive function; it is to embody and exact the duty of all men to concur in Doing unitedly whatsoever is necessary to an honorable, fruitful, progressive social life,—as, to take familiar examples, in establishing page 7 courts of justice, making roads, providing for education, &c. Farther, and more comprehensively, it is to make a field and climate for the virtues of civilization, such as constitute its life-blood, as industry, honesty, chastity and the like. In fine, its grand function is, in duly protecting the rights of self-interest, to hold them in perpetual correlation with the social principles and social' duty which are sovereignly imposed upon humanity by its civilizing genius.
Take this point of view, and you have an answer to the disintegrating doctrines now getting abroad; assume Jefferson's point of view, making private rights inalienable and exclusive, and you have no answer but a fetch. Does some one, male or female, come forward to cry from the housetops, "Hear, O heaven, and give ear, O earth! my pursuit of happiness is interfered with by the State!" My distressed friend, I would say, if you are not willing to pursue happiness in subordination to social duty, that is, to the great, necessary laws of air human welfare, then are you one of the very persons to whom civil society should supply a will wiser than their own.
But instead of proceeding with mere criticism I will try to sketch very rapidly and briefly what approves itself to my judgment as a sound doctrine,—finding in the end what there is of wholesome and useful in the modern ideal of liberty.
1. Man has, as I often say, a pregnant genius, by the law and promise of which he is bound. That is his distinction. Nature has endowed him with the functions of her own maternity; to bring forth civilization, with all the wealth, material and spiritual, that belongs to it, he is brought forth by the universe. That function gives a supreme law to his being; all his duties, rights, hopes, with his entire privilege and price as a human soul, are rooted in it and inseparable from it. To subserve that civilizing genius, to distinguish and enforce the obligations implied in page 8 it, and so to make the necessary basis of civilization, government is instituted and civil society exists.
2. The matrix of civilization is social. What we are to each other makes us to be what we are in ourselves. The individual nature, taken strictly as such, is utterly sterile, an inhuman nature,—is what a seed buried in the soil would be, were the sun blotted out of the heavens. Isolate from earliest years a creature born from the loins of humanity, and of the fruition of humanity there will in him be nothing; he can become by his physical growth only a beast, wanting even articulate speech. Thoughts, morals, manners, arts, industries, language, everything that distinguishes human beings, comes of the relation between human beings. Could anything be more irrational than to put all this out of sight in stilting the grounds of civil society—to set out with absolute individualism, absolute individual liberty,—to limit social duty to the one point of properly letting each other alone, that each may pursue happiness, rat-fashion, according to his own inclination—and to regard civil society as instituted only in order that the right to be let alone may be respected and sustained? And yet that is the doctrine which, having long dominated in politics, is now coming to be applied to the most intimate and vitalizing of social relations—and it is even accepted by some as the type of true "radicalism."
3. Man being born and bound—bound by everything human in him—to make for himself such a kind of life as he has not by mere gift of Nature, it is important to notice that his first act, at the outset of his human career, is to put his natural liberty away, and to accept in place of it a system of productive restraints and imperative duties, and with these measured liberties, always submitted to law, while determined in their measure by considerations of genera1 utility. Natural liberty! Why, the institution of property alone takes the very ground from beneath its feet, leaving it not a spot to alight on. Inaliena page 9 ble natural liberty! And yet every human being born in this community comes into the world to be deprived in toto of his liberty of self-disposal for the space of twenty-one years, two thirds the average life of a generation. One half of all human beings die, and never, by any legal allowance, touch that liberty with so much as the tip of the finger. The first lesson set to each, and the one at which each is kept so long, is the lesson of obedience; and if many were kept at it longer, it would be much better for them. Every child, again, in being taught honesty, veracity and the like, is instructed to put that liberty away, and substitute for it fixed obligations. You must do this, and you must not do that, we say; and until he has got that must by heart, and learned to make it steadfastly predominant over his natural liberty, he is fit for no liberty whatever. And so it is that all civilization and all culture mean the sovereignty of obligation over inclination, and the submission, rather than the supremacy, of the casual, private will. If, therefore, you wish to get a principle the most vicious possible, take that "natural liberty" for a principle; and if you would turn the world upside down, emptying all civilization into the abysses of beastly nature, reason from that, and apply it with uncompromising logic, as a principle.
The limit of liberty is this: Every man has a right to do what is right, and no other. We have been told of late that a class of our "sisters," inhabiting-certain "filthy localities," have a right to pursue happiness in their own way,—"as good a right" as others to live chastely and decently. The sufficient answer would be that, if it is right for any woman to profane her womanhood, then she has a right to do so; but neither woman nor man nor any other creature can have a right to do harm and wrong, any doctrine of liberty to the contrary notwithstanding. True, that strange judgment was reasoned cogently enough from the original and indefeasible liberty, of which page 10 there has been so much and so unwise talk; and one anight say to the indignant democratists,—You have prostituted the franchise, and the sentiment is more respectable than the logic which forbids you to do the like by your homes. If every barbarian in New York, because his "natural liberty" must be compromised with, has a right to vote, even though his vote will tend only to sepulchre the city in infamy, then I see not but the said "sisters" have a right to do their kind of mischief,—which is perhaps little worse for themselves, while it does not necessarily involve others, and threaten the hopes of the nation, at all in the same, nor even in a comparable degree. I, however, recognize a liberty to do right, not wrong, and to do good, not mischief; and recognize no right to liberty as taking precedence of our common right and duty to make a healthy society, a well-ordered life, a productive and honorable civilization; and any liberty not held in submission to the laws of welfare, and made serviceable toward welfare, is one that has only a vicious imagination and spurious ideal for its support.
4. One has a right, I have said, to do what is right, and to get it done for himself and others. We are bound, everyone of us, to put away our irresponsible liberty as beasts, and to put obligation in the place of it; and every life is inchoate save as this is done. How shall it best be effected? Shall the wisest, assembled in Congress, say, determine for every man, and in all particulars, what he ought to do? Yes, if human life will best profit by that. I have no right to desire anything but the best law for my life, and no liberty to reject such law, no matter how or by whom it is got at. But here some considerations of great importance come in, and here we reach the wholesome side of the modern ideal. Social regulation, it has been discovered, may be overdone, while too much of it makes barrenness rather than fertility. In the first place, there is an important class of ac- page 11 tions not properly under the control of the will. No man can rightfully choose what he will think; and in the degree that he attempts to do so, his mental action becomes vicious and destructive. Thought is not thought unless it is a law to itself. The practical recognition in modern times of this truth, though partial as yet, has been of incalculable profit to civilization, and is rightly regarded as at once a token and means of progress. Again, the corporate community is fallible, it also like the individual; and when all the ignorance and barbarism of the land is held to have the same title with knowledge and civilizing mind to political function, the amount of fallibility exhibited by it is likely to be liberal; a certain frugality of civil regulation is therefore discreet. Farther, general and peremptory rules can never be flexile and adaptive enough to anticipate all the fine elections of character; an excess of them would therefore tend to suppress character, converting men into animate machines. Once more, spontaneity is precious. Spiritual, like physical, productivity is inseparable from it; room must be made for this, ample room. Hence social regulation, effected by government and law, is sane only as it is wisely sparing,—making thorough work indeed so far as it goes, but carefully not going too far. The modern mind is much impressed with the need of that wise abstinence; and so far its ideal is good.
On the other hand, suppose one should deny the jurisdiction of the corporate community altogether, and make that of the individual exclusive; suppose he should lay it down for an absolute and universal principle that each is privileged to determine for himself, and in all particulars, what is right. That were wild. Men have a life, a welfare, a productive function in common; they exist as moral and intelligent human beings, they have articulate speech even, only through the effect of their relations, their interdependence, their social complexity; and the last page 12 violence is done to the truth of Nature by him who would regard each of them as rounded completely in his separate self, and endowed with an invincible independence. There is no such independence; interdependence is a first law of human life; and it is only by the recognition of this, and the regulation of it, and an ordered integration of society, that the productive function of humanity is otherwise than abortive. We must—Nature has said that we must,—have fixed common understandings, fixed for all, and obligatory upon all, in order that the soul of any man may have its proper fruition. There can be, therefore, no right of a jurisdiction exclusively individual—no principle in Nature to that effect.
No exclusive jurisdiction, then, of the social body, and none of the individual. Either of them practically asserted as exclusive would make human nature barren and prohibit civilization. What then? The jurisdiction must be composite, partly social, partly individual. With respect to our broadest and strictly necessary relations of interdependence, it should be conceded to the corporate community; while with respect to all others, where the interdependence is less strict, and to which invariable rules could not well apply, it should be assigned to the individual. In general, the best modern sentiment inclines to say,—Leave as much to the discretion of the individual as may be without compromising social integrity and health. Spontaneity is so valuable, so essential, to the finest essays of genius and the ruddiest energies of enterprise and invention, that to make ample room for it is the part of wisdom. We hold, therefore, that it is well to simplify the functions of civil society, and by getting just enough done thoroughly, surely, seasonably, to make it safe that the conceded jurisdiction of the individual should be liberally extended. But just in proportion as social powers are yielded to mindlessness and barbarism, this liberality becomes unsafe; there must be more governing page 13 in quantity to make up for the defect of quality; the functions of government are at once over-done and insufficient; and a fluctuating, confused, desultory mass-despotism sprawls over the whole field of human action, covering all, and usefully occupying no part of it. Are there no signs of a tendency to just this in our community? Such a plethora of laws, and never enough effect of law! The statute-books bursting with fulness, and private usurpations grown to enormity! Interferences with what should be the allowed liberty of individual action, such as no European people would endure, and the right effects of civil order too imperfectly attained!' Our democracy is like a full bowl in unsteady hands, always slopping over upon floors and garments, and giving us in that way a great deal too much of its contents, while for this very reason it never brings enough to the lips. Our reformers, some of them, wish to vote everything, and run to the ballot-box as a little boy to the imagined omnipotence of his papa, to ask for all things, possible and impossible; and meantime, with continued excess, we have continual deficiency.
Time now to rectify our ideal. To do so, one truth, one grand truth, should be recognized; all men are justly bound by the end for which all men exist, to wit, an honorable, productive, progressive life. That fact goes before liberty; it is true princeps. Our "wagon is hitched to a star." Jefferson, Paine and Company undertook to cut the traces, and make the wagon "free."
Bound by that end, all men are bound to the means, adjustments, principles and applications of principles necessary to its realization. Of the things thus necessary, the two first and broadest are strictly correlative; first, social law, social integration,—as necessary to the end for which man is created as individual existence even, and to be reasoned from, as ordered by, its own principles; secondly, the spontaneity, the initiative, of the individual. Neither of page 14 these without the other; neither to be borrowed from the other. As the effect of their just correlationr honorably maintained, there will come an upward liberation, which consists in man's higher use at once of himself and of what the world offers him for use—in the flowering and fructification of his life. That liberation, that flowering and fruiting of his life, that higher use of himself and his conditions, is freedom, real freedom. For this the State exists, and for this the conceded jurisdiction or "liberty," of the individual exists; both for their uses, both for the same use, and both by the same right—the right, duty, imperative vocation, of man to bring out of his life the just fruit of it.
Now, all this has been pushed aside. We have been beguiled into setting up individual "natural" liberty, as an exclusive, absolute principle—against the primary law of social inter-dependence, against the commanding obligation of that high end for which man is created. So isolated, this liberty becomes beast-liberty, rat-liberty. Everything, however, it is thought, must hinge upon that. And be-cause it is no true human principle, the doors are tumbling off their sham hinges, the tempest sweeping in, and we a nation of Mrs. Partingtons trying with busy broom to sweep the tempest out: quite in vain; it pom's through the halls, through the rooms, to the marriage chamber, to the marriage bed; and if we are not to be swamped, it is necessary that we come to a better understanding, beginning with Duty,—social duty, to be socially defined and enforced, for the broad necessary relations of inter-dependence, and individual duty—duty still—for so much as may wisely be entrusted to that: thus, through duty done and discipline established, we shall arrive at all the richest effect of social integration, while enabling ourselves to secure also the richest effect of spontaneity, by making it not only safe but profitable to allow the discretion of the individual large room and function. page 15 Cherish liberty, then; 'tis a treasure; but do not make it a first principle, for then it is no treasure. Duty for the first principle, and liberty only and always under the sovereignty of Obligation.
But we have another ideal, which also has its good aspects, but which long since began to become spurious by excess, while in the doctrines of the International Association, it is just now arising in a shape of the last extravagance to claim supremacy in the modern world. It is the ideal of Equality, which in its excess becomes that of uniformity, or universal sameness—the same function, the same fortune, the same of everything, as nearly as may be, for all. It is plain that the term equality has made a vast impression upon the modern imagination, has become one of the magic words, words to conjure with; we roll it as a sweet morsel under the tongue, and it is like wine to exhilarate; the sound of it is music in the ear; it seems to assure the goodness of all that comes under its patronage, while everything looks black and cruel which is dissociated from it. Forty years ago De Toequeville, in his remarkable chapter entitled, "Why Democratic Nations manifest a more ardent and enduring love of Equality than of Liberty," wrote as follows: "Everybody has remarked that in our time, and especially in France, the passion for equality is every day gaining ground." He speaks of this passion as "ardent, insatiable, incessant, invincible," and ventures the statement, certainly important, if true, that the communities possessed by it will sooner choose "equality in slavery" than liberty without it,—will purchase equality, if need be, at the price of "poverty, servitude, barbarism." These surprising words, emanating, be it remembered, from no lover of monarchy, though from one who carried France in the eyes some what too much to detect the finer shades of sentiment in other lands, were penned while Red Republicanism was yet in the egg. The brood has been well hatched since that day. If the statement page 16 were true then, it is thrice true now. I do not doubt that this penetrating observer saw justly what was before his eyes in his own land; and as little doubt that Renan, in that wondrously prophetic essay wherein before the late war he predicted the down-fall of France, as the necessary result of internal decay, was right in attributing that decay chiefly to the inflamed egotism which will sooner embrace barbarism than frankly acknowledge a superior.
Now this sentiment, though vicious and destructive, implicates a measure of what is true and good. As our admirable Fisher Ames said at the beginning of the century, "Most of the democratic articles of faith are blended with truth, and seem true." (He added: "And they so comfortably soothe the pride and envy of the heart that it swells with resentment when they are contested, and suffers some spasms of apprehension even when they are examined.") There is a sense in which equality of rights ought to be affirmed and maintained. The benefits produced by a system of social order may be, and ought to be, open to all impartially. The right to personal protection, the right to hold property, the right of inheritance, should be maintained for all in the same sense; access to the courts of justice, the use of public schools, public roads, public conveyances, and the like, should be assured to all with the same restrictions and the same freedom. There is a certain public inheritance, a wealth produced by the system of social order, to which of right every citizen is heir on the same terms with every other. Observe, this is no right of every unclean or incapable individual to be reckoned personally the equal of the wisest and best; nor is it an equal right of function in the state or elsewhere, irrespective of capacity and fitness; for all right of function must be conditional strictly—conditioned upon the ability and disposition to make the function serviceable, that is, to make it real function rather than obstruction; it is simply a common privilege of ac- page 17 cess, on the same equitable terms, to the benefits produced by political function, that is, by a system of civil order.
That is the sane, republican doctrine of citizen-rights,—the same for all citizens who do not forfeit them by misbehavior. There has been occasion to assert it with emphasis in. Europe, against a system which, upon no equitable ground, made over the best fruits of civil order to a preferred, hereditary class; and there has been occasion to assert it with no less emphasis in our country, where a provincial prejudice would exclude Frederick Douglass from public tables, forbidding him to take food beside men, not one of whom but were honored to be reckoned his peer. This republican doctrine of citizen-rights is as dear to me as to another. Call them equal rights, if you will,—provided always that an enthusiastic, passionate, purblind imagination of equality as universally necessary, and even as a universal fact in nature, does not creep in under that word equal, to run away with your wits. Numbers, as every one may see, have in fact been deported thus from the domains of common sense, and cast away upon the quicksand-conceit that in the political institution character and capacity should go for nothing, since, forsooth, "all men have equal rights." Said Fisher Ames—to quote him again:—" If the philosophers among the democrats will restrict the word equality as carefully as they ought, it will not import that all men have an equal right to all things, but that to whatever they have a right, it is as much to be protected and provided for as the right of any persons in society." This, however, was only good sense, while what the "democratic philosophers" craved, and the only thing to content them, was a blown imagination.
The "passion for equality" first over-stepped the bounds of sound sense, and manifested its character as a passion, unreasoning and irrational, by asserting the personal equivalence, the equal personal value, of page 18 all men. It no longer said simply that citizen rights, properly discriminated, are the same for all citizens who do not alienate them by misconduct, but quite struck beyond this and said broadly, with Thomas Jefferson, "All men are equal." This violent and absurd imagination was at first applied only in politics, and in our country has never gone very much farther. Indeed, and as it might seem, strangely, it was felt to be true only in politics. All men are equal, we were told; but even in the minds of those who said so with greatest gusto, this meant only that all are equally entitled to the elective franchise. For as a man will on Sunday, and in the Wednesday evening prayer meeting, believe fervidly in the dogmas of total depravity and eternal damnation, while for the rest of the week he will perhaps cherish as his dearest friend one of the very persons whom his Sunday-belief proclaims a child of the Devil, doomed to everlasting burnings, so it is with all formalists; they have all their box-truths, true inside the box and not at all so outside. Never was this sectional and cooped belief better illustrated than by the democratists who proclaimed all men equal. The box that defined the space of their "great truth" was the ballot-box.
Rousseau formulated this dogma, as he did that of natural liberty. According to him, we have seen, each man's will is his supreme, only law. Each, accordingly, being absolutely independent, is the equal of every other, just as all perfect circles are equal in the sense of being equally circles. As, therefore, from the absoluteness of the individual will, he argued that no man can owe, or be required to acknowledge, any social obligation but such as he chooses to make for himself, so from the personal equivalence of all, he argued that each is entitled to an equal function in the State with every other. This conceit became that of his nation, and with this it is that the modern career of France began.page 19
And here it was that opened the contrast and chasm between French democracy and our ancestral republicanism. The latter, as represented, for example, by its illustrious martyr, Algernon Sidney, had the infirmity to choose plain, sterling good sense as against inflated imagination, quite false to be sure, but then so big and so enticing to heads of a certain quality! Sidney says: "That equality which is just among equals is just only among equals; but such as are base, ignorant, vicious, slothful or cowardly are not equal in natural or acquired virtues to the generous, wise, valiant and industrious, nor equally useful to the societies in which they live: they cannot therefore have an equal part in the government of them; they cannot equally provide for the common good; and 'tis not a personal but a public benefit that is sought." Our ancestral republicanism had an honorable purpose to make citizenship, under the conditions of good behavior, a ticket of admission to the benefits of a sound social system: Rousseau, and France with him, flew away from this good ground to perch upon a crazy conceit instead; and Jefferson, spreading his new-found French wings to the airs of a great occasion, flew to the same roost.
Limited, for the most part, in our country to the field of politics, though always growing and encroaching, as such moral fungi will, this conceit, this imagined equilibrium of egotism, had in France at the outset the aid of a passionate reaction from old manners and institutions, has had a longer period there than here, and has not been resisted by a characteristic sobriety of mind in the nation. There it has for some while prescribed the customary attitude of men toward each other; and the result is a moral atrophy, a dry-rot of the higher sentiments, a debility of character, an impoverishment of natures through their mutual relations, a death of discipline at the root, a destruction of authority, a shrinking and shrivelling of capacity, an incapability of any better page 20 alliance than such as may be found in the lumped egotism of classes, and in tine, a deterioration of the national spirit more rapid than was ever seen in history before,—all of which may serve for a warning, and cannot fail, one would say, to warn none but those who are blind and deaf and dead to instruction. France has beautiful capabilities,—the brightest, most vivacious genius, the most charming manners, in the world; and I could do anything sooner than exult over her misfortunes; but to be bewitched with spurious ideals was her first misfortune, upon which the others have followed; and one must take his instruction where it is offered.
"By no weak pity might the gods be moved;" and man, though moved by pity, should at least not suffer it to blind his eyes.
All those effects might have been anticipated. A nation is not in a good way if it does not invite and nourish superiorities by grateful recognition, and by offering them a proper field and function: but a nation jealous habitually of them, habitually intent on making a bad climate for them, purchases the mediocrity it desires. A nation filled to the lips with an impassioned, intolerant conceit of equality does just this; and is punished by obtaining what it imagines, actual equality, to wit, an equality in universal littleness. France has gone a long way in this direction. During the war she had no general, and after it no statesman. She has passed through her great struggle without showing one trace of great character—unless a certain elevation and amplitude of mind in the writer, Renan, furnish a solitary exception. Admirable litterateurs she has; but even in literature her best is burnished silver, not gold. Meantime, the levelling passion, having always for its ideal an equilibrium of egotism, destroys all that gives depth, fertility, richness to the social spirit,—reciprocal reverences, reciprocal, glad recognition of special superiorities, honorable, fructifying exchanges of de- page 21 ference and obedience, and the like. The "three reverences" of Goethe are precisely and pre eminently what this spirit can not endure; and therefore it cannot endure that which above all ennobles character and gives dignity to human life. The nation, accordingly, has continual agitation without silent, long-breathed, fruitful activity—that "distressing small motion," of which De Tocqueville speaks; and its life is likely to be polarized, as that of France has been so largely, between the narrowest, disintegrating egotism and the painted quackeries of sentimental politics. A peculiar aversion to discipline becomes a national trait, because discipline implies obedience; and if the individual must obey, he will by preference obey some one whom he does not at the same time feel painfully compelled to respect,—some little man, easily seen to be a pigmy perched high, easily felt to be an "equal," or else one who, if possessed of ability, atones for it, and reduces himself to the required level, by defect of character. The representative of public authority must maintain himself either by purchased adhesion and military force, like Napoleon III, or by pouring out floods of flattery upon caitiffs, with Trochu, whose fulsome eulogies of troops that got under fire only to scamper away were exacted by the "passion for equality." It is to be observed that the one general who had the manliness to rebuke insubordinate and cowardly regiments, compelling them for a moment to feel their beloved equality pretty thin stuff, was murdered the moment the communists got him into their hands. And the communists had to reassert their sense of equality by shutting up their own leaders in jail once a fortnight or so,—Assi for example.
It is the last result of this spirit that genuine, sterling self-respect becomes an all but impossible virtue, being displaced by that self-conceit which lives only in comparisons. Self-respect, a sentiment without which men were of no more worth than frogs in a page 22 pool, is wholly simple and positive, like the growth of herbage or the shining of stars: it does not feed upon comparisons, is incapable of envy or mean jealousy, and is nourished rather than depleted by its association with deference and reverence. Nothing is more foreign or more fatal to it than the spirit which says, "I am as good as another, and will never acknowledge a superior;" it dies before that base self-assertion can go from the heart to the lips.
I remember the powerful and significant impression made upon me years ago by Toschi's engraving from the St. John and St. Augustine of Correggio. The apostle, a little elevated above the other, is instructing him; his face radiant with intelligence and benignity. Augustine stands with his head slightly bowed, listening with ear and soul. His serious, noble countenance expresses profound reverence, purest thoughtfulncss and incorruptible self-respect, not opposed and contending, but united to make by their union the indivisible majesty of character and manliness. He receives every word as the coined gold of heaven's truth, yet does so with a mental poise and self-possession no less than perfect; and his vast docility lends itself with untold enhancement to all that which makes his spirit masterly. No upstart conceit there to squeak, "I am as good as you!" One imagines how that noble aspect of the man would be cheapened and degraded by the slightest access of this self-assertion, jealous and pert. And partly, it may be, because this is quite wanting, there is no arrogance of superiority in the face of the apostle,—no line there to say, "Stand apart, I am better than you." The conceit and blurt of equality, the arrogance and exclusiveness of caste,—of neither is there a vestige.
It occurred to me while looking on that picture why it is that the modern artist must leave men aside, and turn to landscape, in order to produce what may finely affect the beholder. A noble form of human relation can no longer be imagined with artistic page 23 clearness and simplicity. The typical modern must be "independent" to be manly, indocile to be sincere, and jealous of superior qualities to preserve the equalizer's substitute for self-respect. The passion for equality, after debilitating all productive social principles, has swarmed like a plague of moths upon the human mind itself, to prey upon its blossoms. Well for Correggio that he was not born in modern France! He would probably have found in himself a genius to paint only horses, boar-hunts, or spectral impossibilities, like those in which Gustave Doré revels with the pencil and Victor Hugo with the pen.
But every ideal, genuine or spurious, must of necessity go on developing itself, to bring forth all of good or of evil there is in it. Thus that of Catholicism is compelled, even in its decrepitude, to produce new dogmas, new pretensions, more and more alien to sincere modern intelligence. So in the present instance: the ideal of equality, long since become spurious, advances upon itself, rejects its own past, developes new designs, and becomes more exacting and intolerant as it becomes more extreme. It has of late generated the demand for an artificial, constrained equalization of conditions, to be established and maintained at the expense, and to the utter displacement of all liberty whatsoever; and a powerful, widespread organization, vaunted publicly in the present Congress, as comprising "the leading minds of all civilized lands," has arisen, and is secretly, inexorably at work, to effect that purpose. Time fails me, however, to discuss this branch of the subject. In one or two remarks your patience will perhaps indulge me.
This equality has no room, and knows that it has no room, and means to have no room in fact, for liberty, whether the natural liberty of Rousseau, on Which I set no value, or the chartered and fruitful freedom of individual action in civilized communication, which every man ought to value greatly. Now page 24 it is well known that Jefferson in his famous preamble put equality before liberty; probably, however, it is not generally known that his first draught of that paragraph revealed his point of view more explicitly. In that first draught he expressly represented the right, not only to liberty, but to life itself as borrowed from, and contingent upon, his great first truth, equality. He wrote thus: "We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men are created equal and independent; that from this equal creation they derive certain inherent and inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." The right to life "derived" from natural equality! He drew his pen through that: but there must have been a strange speculative bias in the man who could indite such a statement at all. It was a bias, however, in what was coming to be "the spirit of the age;" and this spirit, continuing and producing itself, has already become in some quarters a Turk that endures no brother near the throne.
"Equality is a fact in Nature: you confess it such; we are about to make it a fact of civilization. Think no longer to put us off with mere ballot-box equality; page 25 that little game is played out; we have been at school for a century, and are not to-day the green heads you gulled so easily once. You baited your hook with liberty, and caught your gudgeon; we know the smell of the bait now, and are not the gudgeons you take us for. You got up for us a little, special, formal equality at the polls, as an expedient to cheat us out of the real thing; you did cheat us, to our shame be it said, but see if you can do it again! All men are equal of right; we have sworn that they shall be so in fact. They can be so in fact only if conditions are equal; and conditions will be made equal only when personal liberty and private property are done away,—only when the collectivity, centred in an efficient head, shall own everything, dispose of everything, prescribe everything, take the weanling from the cradle, put the defunct into his grave, and between cradle and grave appoint him his place, function, provender and all the rest. Understand then, once for all, that we do not care for your democracy, would not give a pin to choose between one and another of your systems of government; all of them throw a tub to the whale, and all do it with the same interested design; and we—we no longer swim in those waters."
This in substance is said, and this is but the logic of equality carried to its conclusion. In this spirit it was that a leading communist of Paris, hearing talk of liberty, said with cool scorn, "Liberty, what have we to do with that? It is equality we are going to have, equality, not liberty." In a similar spirit L'Internationale, an organ of the International, said in February last,—I quote from an article in a recent number of the Edinburg Review:—
"Raspail and Rochefort, however sincere they may be, do not know the first word of the revolution to which they are marching. They have not even a, socialist programme. They would be socialists, but cannot, because, like all middle-class democrats, they page 26 start from a point of view absolutely false—that of individual liberty."
It is not, I repeat, Rousseau's liberty merely that is repugned, but the liberty of the good citizen to choose his own occupation, own and bequeath property, and the like. The former is indeed discarded; and so far well; it is a sign of recovery; but the latter is discarded with it, and so one extravagance exchanged for another. Only an iron system, wherein each man shall be fastened down as with a spike driven through him, can secure real equality; and real equality these men are sworn to have.
Well, the democratism have been proclaiming equality, exalting equality, furnishing tools to Tammany, or to a swarm of adventurers, out of their faith in equality, seeing in the light of their great truth equality, how indispensable to the commonwealth are the wisdom of fools and the virtue of scoundrels; and now if they shall have to drink of the beer they have brewed, I, who like the beverage as little as they, and have earned it less, shall observe the consequent wry faces, not without a certain grim satisfaction. Besides, I feel myself in a degree indebted to those crazed heads. They are bringing to the test this loose talk of the modern world, and not an hour too soon. Enough of painted half-truths, held up to glitter and entice, but in application deftly slipped aside into some special sphere, where it is supposed that we may safely indulge that sort of sincere make-belief, of which human beings, conservative or radical, are more capable than could be wished: enough of these, and thanks even to the insanity that forces upon them the test of an unsparing application. Moreover, these new Mahometans of the International have this merit, exceptional in our times, that they are not fiddling at formal politics. They mean effects, these men do; and I, who also mean effects, and have a disesteem not less than theirs for political formalism, with the minds that run only and always in the page 27 grooves of political formalism, am half ready, if not more than half, to welcome anything which promises to break the domination of this,—this, that has blinded eyes and tied hands far too long. Liberty and equality, supposed to consist in the privilege of incompetence to be the puppet of knaves at the polls; subjection to "despotism," supposed to consist in living under good and wholesome laws without going to town-meeting;—if so be that only the satans can sweep these entangling and choking cobwebs away, I submit to the hard necessities of history, and say, "Let the satans come!"
Nevertheless I show you a better way. There is a good liberty, without which life is infertile, sterile, hardly worth having; it is that which you democratists are taking away, while you tie us down to a dependence upon barbarous impulses and chaotic natures. There is a generous social equality, which pours out benefit upon a land as the sun pours light—such an equity as led the Puritans of Massachusetts (no democrats they), there in their wilderness, enduring the utmost privation of pioneer life, to endow the politics of the world with the richest gift these have received in the space of some centuries—with the recognized duty, namely, of the republic to educate the whole people: it is this that you are making less, while you press your mechanical or supposititious equality into its place. Daily through affection for a false liberty we are robbed of the true; daily a false conceit of equality, hugest he ever yet flung in the face of Nature, stints the munificence of republican equity; and meantime each of these spurious ideals is generating its own peculiar craze, the one running to "free love' and chaos, the other to such a system as would make all men but equal cogs on a wheel; and if we are not to wait, as I will hope and trust we are not, until craze shall crush craze, and sanity arise from their ruin, we have just this to do; to put Duty before liberty and Quality before equality. Through duty and page 28 discipline make Freedom, to which the conceded liberties of the State and those of the individual shall alike conduce: be that freedom your ideal. On the other hand, say not—All men are equal—in other words, that whatsoever makes worthiness in men is to be thrown out of account: say rather—Worth is the fountain of equity, and that fountain it shall be our purpose, for the behoof of the whole people, to unseal.