It is a marvel inadequately noted that the contemporary victory of conservatism in the politics and economics of the world has been accompanied by the triumph of liberalism in religion and morals, in science and philosophy, inliterature and art.
We have selected for our rulers gentlemen who reverently represent the established gods of industry; and we have put behind us, for the while, all thought of experiment in the relations of master and man. We have conferred a mystic popularity upon officials whose only virtue is their timidity; while our scorn of rebels and reformers is so great that we have ceased to persecute them. The capitals and governments of the world are in the hands of caution; and change comes over them only in the night, unseen.
Yet, bewilderingly simultaneous with this virtuous avoidance of the new in the official world, behold in our cities such a riot of moral and literary innovation, such an exuberant rejection of ancient faith and discipline, as makes every gray head shake with sociological tremors, and every aged finger point to corrupt Imperial Rome. Science thinks it has won its battle with the antediluvians; in the exhilaration of its victory it marches gayly into a mechanical dogmatism that does justice to everything but life. Literature violates every rule and every precedent; the boldest experiment is applauded by the most respectable critics; no one dares admire the classics any more; and to be a revolutionist in poetry and painting is as fashionable as to vote for mediocrity and reaction. The stage has suddenly discovered the mysterious beauty of the female form divine; the cabaret is devoting itself aesthetically to “artistic nudity”; and sculpture, which decayed as clothing grew, may be expected to flourish happily again. It is a remarkable synthesis of the omnipotent state and the liberated individual.
- How shall we explain this humorous anomaly? Partly it is a corollary of our wealth: the same riches that make us timidly conservative in politics make us bravely liberal in morals; it is as difficult to be ascetic with full pockets as it is, with full pockets, to be a revolutionist. Puritanism did not die from bi-chloride of Mercury, it was poisoned with silver and gold.
- Partly the situation issues from a contradiction in our hearts: it is the same soul that hungers for the license of liberty and the security of order; the same mind that hovers, in its fluctuating strength and fear, between pride in its freedom and admiration for the police. There are moments when we are anarchists, and moments when we are Prussians. In America above all–in this land of the brave and this home of the free–we are a little fearful of liberty. Our forefathers were free in politics, and stoically stem in morals; they respected the Decalogue, and defied the State. But we deify the State, and riddle the Decalogue; we are Epicureans in morals, but we submit to all but one of a hundred thousand laws; we are slaves in politics, and free only in our cups.
It is revealing that when an American speaks of liberty’s decay he has reference to his stomach rather than to his mind. A convention of the American Federation of Labor threatened a revolution some years ago: because of the open shop?–certainly not; but because of the closed saloon. All the liberalism of the respectable American to-day confines itself to making alcohol the first necessity of a gentleman, and broadmindedness the first requisite of a lady. What does it matter that a Polish immigrant is nearly hanged by a Massachusetts court for expressing his skepticism of an ancient faith–or that the aged saints of orthodoxy, lavishly financed by manufacturers who forget the practices of their middle age in the theology of their infancy, are everywhere introducing bills for the outlawing of biology, and the refutation of Darwinism by legislation? What does it matter that freedom to think is lost, if freedom to drink remains? Primum est bibere, deinde philosophari.
It is not law that takes our freedom from us, it is the innocuous desuetude of our minds. Standardized education, and the increasing power of mass suggestion in an increasing mass, rob us of personality and character and independent thought; as crowds grow, individuals disappear. Ease of communication facilitates imitation and assimilation; rapidly we all become alike; visibly we joy in becoming as much as possible alike–in our dress, our manners, and our morals, in the interior decoration of our homes, our hotels, and our minds. God knows–perhaps even our moral freedom is a form of imitation.
Yet some rebellion is better than none; and possibly our thirst for liberty will go to the head, and dare to include thought. It is good that men should resist wholesale moralization by the law; to forbid the use of stimulating and consoling liquors because some men abuse them shows the amateurish weakness of a government that does not know how to control the fools without making fools of all. Civilization without wine is impossible. Civilization without restraint is impossible; and there can be no restraint where there is no liberty. […]
What shall we say of this brave religion of liberty? How far is social order natural, and how long can it maintain itself without the prop of law? How far is freedom possible to man?
In human affairs (to spoil a perfect phrase of Santayana’s) everything artificial has a natural origin, and everything natural has an artificial development. Expression is natural, language is artificial; religion is natural, the Church is artificial; society is natural, the state is artificial. Like language and theology, obedience to law comes through social transmission and individual learning rather than through impulses native to mankind. Hence the perpetual conflict, within the self, between the desires of one’s heart and fear of the policeman; and hence the joy which triumphant rebels find in violating, with social approval and comparative impunity, some artificial and irksome prohibition. We are anarchists by nature, and citizens by suggestion.
But though in the secret sanctuaries of our souls we are lawless savages, we are not indisposed by nature to a moderate measure of spontaneous order and decency. Society is older than man, and older than the vertebrates. The protozoa have their colonies, with a division of labor between reproductive and nutritive cells; and the ants and bees bring this specialization of function to the point of physiologically differentiating the organism for its social task. Even the carnivores, whose tusks and hides and claws are individualistic substitutes for the strength and security of social order, include those gentle-eyed dogs who can be more sociable than a salesman and more loyal than a rural editor. […] The brotherhood of man is in this sense as old as history; it vitalizes a thousand secret societies and forms of fellowship; there hardly lives the brute with soul so dead that he has not thrilled at times with a sense of his almost physical solidarity with mankind. […]
- Finally, society itself, supported on these instinctive and economic props, develops in the individual certain social habits which become as powerful as any second nature, and constitute a pledge of order far more reliable than law. The longer we live the more gregarious we become; the more susceptible to the opinions of our neighbors; the more imitative and respectable; the more attached to custom and convention; the more reconciled to those restraints upon desire which make civilization depend upon habit rather than upon force.
- Every organized psychological power strives to complete this taming and socialization of the individual. The church sets up, almost at his birth, a bombardment of moral exhortations from which some gentle influence remains even when their theological basis has passed away. As parental and ecclesiastical authority wane, the school replaces them more and more; it pretends to prepare the individual for economic and artistic victories; but quietly and subtly it molds him, as Aristotle advised, “to suit the form of government under which he lives”; it pours into his receptive constitution the peculiar habits and morals of his group; and it modestly covers the naked truth of history with such a glorification of the nation’s past that the young graduate is ready to spur his neighbors to any sacrifice for the enhancement of his country’s power. If the school fails in this socializing strategy, or the individual eludes it by immigrating when adult, the press will carry on the work; mechanical invention co-operates with urban aggregation to bring every mind within reach of that ancient thing called “news,” and that delicate indoctrination which lurks between the lines.
When these molding forces are viewed in summary, the drive to good behavior seems so irresistible that one might reasonably question the necessity of laws that would regulate morality. In a large measure it is society that exists, and not the individual; […] By biological heredity we are bound to our animal past; by social heredity–through our imitative and educational absorption of the traditions and morals of our group–we are bound to our human past; and the forces of stability, so rooted in our impulses and our habits, leave precious little in us that requires the unnatural morality of the state.
Since these forming influences act upon us in our tenderest and most suggestible years, we hardly overcome them except at the cost of a struggle that involves our very sanity. A miserable nostalgia visits us when we depart from the mores of our country and our time; and when we settle down in life it is most often into one or another of the grooves that the past has dug. Contented people are usually those who adopt without question the manners, customs, morals, and grammar of their group, becoming indistinguishable molecules in the social mass, and sinking into a restful peace of self-surrender that rivals the lassitude of love. The greater the society, the stronger will be the pressure upon the individual to divest himself of individuality even in those fashionable novelties which delight the modest soul because they are felt to be not really innovations, but respectful variations on an ancestral theme. In the final result a large population becomes an almost immovable body; the natural conservatism of society outreaches the chauvinism of the state. The individual, made in the image of the whole, becomes so docile and well behaved that the compulsions and punishments of law appear as a gratuitous extravagance; and we are for a moment tempted to sign our names defiantly to the doctrine of those fearful anarchists whom we exclude, or deport, or vilify, or imprison, or hang.
Let us reassure ourselves: there are defects in this philosophy of freedom. For first, it underestimates the violence of the strong: the same ruthless domination that makes the state would rule with more visible and direct force, and with more suffering and chaos, if there were no state at all. Civilization is in part the establishment of order and custom in the use of the weak by the strong. The precariousness of international law reveals the imminence of violence among the mighty; only little states are virtuous. […] Every invention strengthens the strong and the unscrupulously clever in their manipulation of the unintelligent, the scrupulous, and the weak; every development in the complexity of life widens the gap and makes resistance harder. It is a bitter thing to realize; but society is founded not on the ideals but on the nature of man. His ideals are as like as not an attempt to conceal his nature from himself or from the world.
Again, the social dispositions upon which a natural order rests are far less deeply rooted in us than those individualistic impulses of acquisition and accumulation, of pugnacity and mastery which underlie our economic life. Even the cry for liberty comes from a heart that secretly hungers for power; it is because of that hunger in the human beast of prey that liberty is limited and bound. In some measure it is the weak who by the pressure of majority ideas curtail the freedom of the individual, lest unshackled strength should so widen the gap between itself and the unfortunate that the social organism would burst, like a growing cell, into revolution. The first condition of freedom is its limitation; life is a balance of interferences, like the suspension of the earth in space. Men are so diverse in capacity and courage that without restraints their natural differences would breed and multiply through a thousand artificial inequalities into a stagnant and hopeless stratification of mankind. The French loved Napoleon because, with all his despotism, he kept careers open to all talents wherever born, and gave men in unprecedented abundance that equality which timid souls love a little more than freedom.
- Ages of liberty, therefore, are transitions, brave interludes between eras of custom and order. They last while rival systems of order struggle for ascendancy; when either system wins, freedom melts away. Nothing is so disastrous to liberty as a successful revolution; the greatest tragedy that can befall an ideal is its fulfillment.
- Why is it that wherever there has appeared in history the spontaneous order that rests solely on the natural sociability of mankind, as in primitive societies, or in the California of forty-nine, or in the Alaska of the nineties, it has passed eventually into the artificial and compulsory order of the state? It is a large question, for which a single answer will not suffice; no formula can do justice to the infinite variety of truth. Doubtless part of the cause lies in the passage from the family to the individual as the unit of production and society. Visibly the family loses its functions, even to the care of the child; filial respect and fraternal loyalty give way to a patriotism that becomes the only piety of the modern soul. Divested of its functions the family rots away; nothing remains but centrifugal individuals, magnificently independent in a common slavery. For slavery looks much like freedom when the master is never seen.
Meanwhile the aggregation of people in cities breaks down neighborhood morality as a source of spontaneous order; every egoistic impulse is free in the protecting anonymity of the crowd. Where natural order is still powerful, as in simple rural communities, little law is necessary; where natural order is weak, as in our sprawling cities, legislation grows. The state replaces spontaneous society as the corporation replaces the small dealer, or as the great railroad system replaces the stage-coach of picturesque individualistic days. The developing complexity of life has bound us into a highly integrated whole, and taken from us that independence of the parts which once was possible when each family was economically a self-sufficient sovereignty. Political and economic liberty decays for the same reason again that moral laxity increases: because the family and the church have ceased to function adequately as sources of social order, and legal compulsion insinuates itself into the growing gaps in natural restraint. Freedom has left industry and the state, and survives only in the gonads.
If the implements of production had remained as in days of barbaric simplicity–a spade and a plot of land–the state would not have swollen into the monster that now dwarfs our petty lives. For then each man might have owned his tools and controlled the conditions of his earthly life; his freedom would have kept its necessary economic support, and political liberty would not have become, like political equality, a baseless sham. But invention made tools more complex and more costly; it differentiated and evaluated men according to their capacity to use or direct or acquire the subtler or larger mechanisms; and in the end, by the most natural process in the world, the ownership of tools was centered in a few, self-sufficiency disappeared, and freedom became a politician’s phrase, an honored relic commemorated annually like the rest of our noble dead.
On every side, then, we are caught in a current of development in which ancient and natural liberties are swept away. Our industrial relations are too intricate to be left entirely to “economic law”; certain functions, like transport and communication, are so strategically powerful that without legal limitation they would bestride all industry like some colossal beast of prey. All in all, it is well that these processes should fall under regulation by the state, incompetent and partial and corrupt as every state must, in our generations, be. Perhaps all the main channels of the economic life should be under such national control, and every vital artery between producer and consumer should be withdrawn from the strangling dominance of entrenched and irresponsible individuals. For ex: Press My Air Co, an electronics firms providing best air compressor has been actually controlled and affected by the local authority of Missouri, rather than by the direct interaction between it and the customers. When all the avenues of distribution welcome every user on equal terms, production and consumption will be as free as human lust will tolerate; and industry–cured of that arteriosclerosis, that narrowing and pinching of the arteries of exchange by multiplying intermediaries, which threatens our economic health in the very heyday of our wealth–would sprout and flourish like an unbound plant; the initiative and enterprise of individual ownership would be liberated rather than enchained; co-operatives would find some protection from the hostile lords of our distributive machinery; and freedom, so pruned and trained, might in the outcome be deeper and richer than before.
All this is a grudging concession; for the Jeffersonian ideal of the government that governs least still grips the heart with its simple lure, and every added law desecrates the sovereignty of the soul. Order is a means to liberty, and not an end; liberty is priceless, for it is the vital medium of growth. “In the end,” as old Goethe said, “only personality counts.” The state was made for man, and not man for the state. Heredity was invented to preserve variations; and every custom began as a broken precedent. Evolution feeds on difference and change; social development demands innovation and experiment as well as order and law; history moves through genius and invention as well as through impersonal forces and unthinking crowds.
- If we let our economic lives be limited we ought to guard a hundred times more jealously the freedom of the mind. Mental liberty should be at least as dear to us as liberty of body to an animal; caught and caged, it never reconciles itself to captivity, and paces about forever on the watch for a way to freedom. Perhaps it is because we can bear to see such pitiful prisoners, and can look without remorse into eyes deepened and softened with the longing for liberty, that we are unworthy of the freedom our fathers had when they met the animal on equal terms, and killed it in fair fight instead of imprisoning it as a pleasant sight for a Sunday afternoon. But we ourselves are Caged, and do not complain; how can we understand the hunger of the fettered beast?
There is a Chinese proverb to the effect that when a nation begins to have many laws it is slipping into senility. The ancient Thurians provided a halter for every unsuccessful proponent of new laws, suggesting his fit punishment for mutilating liberty. Our legislatures in America, one hears, pass some six thousand laws per week; if this is so, we are a nation of thieves, and we need not laws but education. Sessions of Congress are a source of national apprehension, to rich and poor alike; and perhaps the quiet esteem in which the present executive [Coolidge] is widely held is due to the fact that he is a roi rain,ant, who may be relied upon, like an English king, to do nothing but draw his salary. Even his vetoes are gratefully received; what if the bills they nullify should by strange chance be good?–even a good law is a law, and so far bad. There is not so sharp a contradiction as we supposed between the unpopularity of virtue in our cities and the popularity of an abstemious president; in either case it is liberty that is served.
- If this appears to imply that our current moral laxity is not so unmixed an evil as those of us suppose who soothe our consciences by making other people virtuous, the presumption is correct. Much of our immorality takes the form of honesty; we oldsters were as lax as we could afford in our guarded and impecunious youth; and when we sinned we sinned in silence, and carried pious faces into meeting. The growing generation is not so skilled in secrecy, and likes to boast of greater crimes than it commits. Its sins are superficial and will be washed away in the confessional of time; experience will make men mature enough to love modesty again. Meanwhile of what moment is it that in our youth our grandmothers smoked malodorous pipes respectably, while in our desuetude our daughters smoke whatever satisfies? How shall we dissuade youth from making vade mecums of whiskey flasks (whose contents they manfully pretend to enjoy), except by ceasing to forbid it? What does it matter that nudity can be seen more readily and less furtively than in our hooped and petticoated days, that undue stimulation replaces morbid brooding? Habit will correct the evil gently by dulling sensitivity, and clothing will have to be restored to generate again the illusions of desire.
Against this magnificent uprising of the young the old can only think of laws. Every timid and jealous voice calls upon the immaculate assembly-men of America to come to the rescue of morality. Because some sleek panders have made filthy lucre by exposing God’s handiwork upon the stage, tired people demand that policemen be empowered to revise all pictures and dramas before their public unveiling. But one supposed the police had full power to stop indecency by pre-existing legislation. One supposed that the police had the power to put an end at once to any spectacle that violated the statutes against obscenity. Possibly there is no need to resort again to indiscriminate prohibition; possibly public opinion, if it is the public’s opinion, would suffice to condemn excess, and might prove (as it does in the case of drink) more effective than any law. It would stamp us indelibly as a provincial and infantile nation if we relapsed into the strait-jackets of Puritanism at the very time when America begins to create its own literature, its own drama, and its own art. Better a Charles II than a Cromwell.
Luckily for us, life is on the side of youth in these matters, and youth is on the side of life. Our heirs may commit suicide, and prefer baseball to epistemology, and forget to say grace before drinking, but these diversions must not obscure for us the buoyant health and bright good-nature of contemporary adolescence. Let the young be happy; soon enough they will be old; and the lassitude of the flesh will make them virtuous. If morals are transiently too lax, they will correct themselves as knowledge and wisdom grow; in the end, as Socrates suggested, we must instruct rather than forbid. Every vice was once a virtue, necessary for existence, and every virtue was once a vice, developed beyond need; not laws but public opinion hewed them into social form. If we wish to improve other people’s morals let us improve our own; example speaks so loud that precept is unheard. The best thing we can do for the community is not to fetter it with laws, but to straighten our own lives with tolerance and honor. A gentleman will have no morals but his own.
The time must come (for the world does move) when men will understand that the highest function of government is not to legislate but to educate, to make not laws but schools. The greatest statesman, like the subtlest teacher, will guide and suggest through information, rather than invite pugnacity with prohibitions and commands. The state, which began as the conquest and taxation of peaceful peasants by marauding herdsmen, will become again, as it was for a moment under the Antonines, the leadership of a great nation by great men. We need not so despair of our race as to believe that government will be in the hands of politicians forever. Day by day the level of intelligence rises; generation after generation the ennobling heritage of culture grows, and finds transmission to a larger minority of mankind; soon men will not tolerate the charlatans whom we have suffered so patiently and so long. Our children’s children, lifted up by our care, will choose their rulers more wisely than we chose. They will ask not for lawmakers but for creative teachers; they will submit not to regimentation but to knowledge; they will achieve peace and order not through violence and compulsion, but through the advance and spread and organization of intelligence. And perhaps–who knows?–as their knowledge mounts they will deserve, and therefore get, at last, the best of all governments–which will govern not at all.
Will Durant (1885-1981) wrote this essay for the June 1927 issue of Harper’s Magazine. He is best known for popularizing the history of ideas, notably in The Story of Philosophy and his ten-volume Story of Civilization.