Popular Science Monthly/Volume 47/September 1895/Editor's Table
THE result of the recent elections in Great Britain has given no little discouragement to the hopes of those who were looking to see a great increase in the socialistic element in the British House of Commons. It is clear that up to this date the British public is more interested in the definite and limited questions of so-called "practical politics" than in the vague and general schemes put forward for the improvement of the world on the lines of socialism. What the British public feels in regard to this matter is felt, we believe, by the great mass of every advanced community in the present day. When socialistic writers or orators descant on the evils of the existing condition of things, striking as they frequently do a true and generous note, the sympathy of many goes out to them; but it is a different thing when society is asked to commit its legislation to the hands of these eloquent declaimers. Even those who acknowledge that such men feel right, entertain very often grave doubts as to whether they see right—whether their views are practical, whether they have truly forecasted the results of the changes they would introduce, and whether their benevolent efforts, if power were intrusted to them, might not prove the ruin rather than the salvation of the state.
It would be a great mistake to suppose that all who can not see their way to support socialistic schemes, and who can not even share to the full socialistic sentiments, are either insensible to the evils, such as they are, of our social state, or unwilling to do all in their power to have those evils remedied. There is abroad in the world to-day a very general desire to see things made right and fair for the average of mankind and for all men, to have the general conditions of life improved, to have an abatement, on the one hand, of the senseless luxury of the wealthy class, and, on the other hand, a dignifying of the lot of the ordinary citizen. Things are to-day perceptibly moving in the direction of giving better conditions to the average man; but they might move more quickly if the average man would only stand more firmly on his rights, and prosecute them in a more intelligent manner. Whenever the state grants a public franchise, then is the time to make the best bargain possible for the citizens at large. But on what does the possibility of protecting the rights of the citizen in such matters depend? Manifestly, on there being in our legislative bodies men who will not traffic with rich corporations in the citizens 1 rights. Then on what does the presence of such men in the legislature depend? Now we come to it: the citizen has the composition of the legislature in his own hands, and it depends on him whether the making of the laws shall be intrusted to honorable or to dishonorable, to trustworthy or untrustworthy, men. One of two things: either representative institutions are a mockery and a fraud, or the mass of the citizens have it now in their power to protect their own interests so far as the whole public life of the state is concerned. How they have betrayed their own rights and privileges into the hands of tricksters, gulled by some party cry or swayed by yet baser motives, is the story of nineteenth-century politics.
In spite, however, of such self-betrayal, things have improved even for the self-betrayed—not, of course, as they might have done, but still they have improved. If we compare the beauty of our modern cities and the multiplied conveniencies and decencies of modern life with the condition of things existing fifty years ago, we shall see that the average citizen lives in a world that is a much pleasanter and more desirable abode than that in which his grandfather's years were passed. At very small expense he can do a hundred things and share a hundred pleasures and advantages that either were totally inaccessible to his grandfather, or were only to be obtained at almost prohibitive cost. Whether the man of to-day is on that account happier than was his ancestor is another question; all we maintain is that he has at least the means of enjoyment and self-improvement placed within his reach in much more liberal measure. It is needless to say that all such changes for the better have been due, in the first place, to the great advance that has been made during the present century in scientific knowledge, and, in the second, to a certain enlargement of view and increased liberality of sentiment that have been the accompaniments of that advance. To say that the benefits of scientific discovery and invention have been monopolized by the rich would be to fly in the face of the most obvious facts. To the rich have doubtless been opened up new channels for extravagant expenditure; but the most substantial benefits of increased knowledge have been reaped by those of average means and by the poor.
The true road to that improved condition of human society which socialists are so desirous of bringing about lies, we have always held, through a heightened and strengthened individualism. One great advantage of approaching the problem from this side is that individualism does not imply a call for any form of state action. It means an awakened sense of individual worth, a consciousness of individual rights, the exercise of individual self control, the elevation of individual aims and ambitions. The socialist wants to make men other than they now are by legislation. The individualist says that men might be other than they now are without legislation; at the same time he makes no objection to any legislation which springs from an actual necessity of the body politic, and which, without taking a needlessly wide sweep, holds out a remedy for a specific evil. He objects on principle to legislation which, for example, undertakes to repress drunkenness by forcing all men to be total abstainers. The sweep here is too wide, the law undertaking, not only to repress a specific evil, but to interfere on a vast scale with the liberties of persons who have in no way merited such interference. The cardinal doctrine of individualism is that each man is primarily responsible for making the best conditions of life he can for himself, and that he is the better for being held to this responsibility. Some writers declaim on the injustice of demanding a degree of virtue in the poor which is never practiced by the rich. It is not a case of demand, however; it is a case of counsel. If there are practices injurious to health, if there are useless modes of expenditure and degrading forms of amusement, he surely is neither an enemy nor an unsympathizing critic of the laboring classes who would urge them to avoid these things, and, by doing so, to stand forth in a nobler than any merely political liberty—in the liberty of men masters of themselves and already the partakers of a far higher life than that of the self-pampering sons and daughters of luxury. The more we reflect upon it, the more we are impressed with the amount of good which might be done in the world, independently of any and all legislation, simply by the substitution of higher aims for the lower ones which now rule so largely all classes of society. How many pass their lives in a miserable attempt to imitate the bad taste and generally foolish proceedings of the class next above them in point of means! If to-day Shoddy is king, it is simply because men and women are silly enough to make him so; not because there is anything in our laws to authorize or constitute his royalty. We can dethrone him whenever we like, without passing even the smallest municipal by-law, by simply resolving to throw off the yoke of false pretense, and live our lives in a simple, honest, and reasonable manner, studying what is excellent and not what is fashionable, the things that make for in ward peace and outward dignity, rather than those which make for outward show and inward unrest.
It is truly the folly of mankind that is chiefly responsible for the evils which have called socialist agitation into existence; and it is doubtless a deep-lying instinct that such is the case which causes society as a whole to look coldly upon proposed socialistic remedies. It is desirable that discussion of this subject should be as free as possible, and our belief is that the more the subject is discussed the more clearly it will appear that a higher individualism is the key to the solution of our social problems. What the world wants is an extension of those liberties which a man can create for himself, rather than of the privileges and protections which are created by statute. The highest service, therefore, which any one can render to society is to awaken men in general to those possibilities of life which simple individual initiative and determination can realize; for thus, more than in any other way, would the unjust power of capital be broken, and the way be opened for the healthiest and happiest development of the social organism.
One of the leading writers of fiction of the present day has, in a quite recent work, attempted to set forth the miserable results of the pretentious modes of life and, above all, the pretentious systems of education which, according to his view, are characteristic of the time. The scene of his story is laid in England in the year of the Queen's Jubilee (1887), and the local color, as the expression is, is strongly English; nevertheless, there is much in the descriptions given and the lessons drawn which is capable of application far beyond the limits of the society the novelist had in view. He introduces us to a young woman who is overstraining all the resources of a very indifferent constitution in a desperate struggle to prepare for the matriculation examination of the London University, but whose mind is meantime in even a more feeble condition than her body, her judgment in practical matters wholly unexercised, her temper and disposition a compound of vanity, jealousy, and spite. We read of another who, having passed through an expensive course at schools reputed to be of a very superior grade, had emerged with an equipment of undigested knowledge which simply developed in her a morbid self-consciousness and a futile ambition to shine in some higher sphere than that in which her lot was cast. So far did the spirit of rebellion against circumstances carry this young woman that she abandoned herself to a young Oxford graduate of good birth who charmed and dazzled her by the superiority of his culture and bearing. We get a glimpse of another family in which a young wife and mother, also brought up in a pretentious fashion, neglects every duty of her position and leads her husband such a life that, taking his child with him, he turns his back upon her, leaving her, with such an allowance as he can afford, to her own devices. It may be said, and has been said, that this author draws with too dark a pencil; but this need not prevent us from discerning the truth to which he calls attention. We learn from his pages, not that a "little knowledge is a dangerous thing," but that superficial knowledge, all unconscious of its superficiality, is a dangerous thing. We learn that a mind clogged with undigested information may lose the power of spontaneous judgment and become the sport of accidental influences. We learn that education may be so bestowed as to minister to vanity rather than to self-respect, to a spirit of reckless and selfish ambition rather than to a sense of responsibility, to habits of weak self-indulgence rather than to any strengthening of the moral powers. The question may then be asked, How are these dangers to be avoided? We answer, by making the building up of character the constant aim of educational work, and the guiding principle in the selection of courses of study. The forcing of uncongenial studies upon unwilling minds is a process that can not be too strongly deprecated, inasmuch as it inevitably tends to the creation of an unnatural atmosphere for the individual, to the confusing of his intellectual perceptions and the destruction of that sense for reality which it is above all things important to preserve. We are strongly of opinion that very serious dangers of the nature already indicated will attend our systems of education until the secret has been found of making all education contribute not less to the right development of character than to the sharpening of the intellectual faculties. That the thing can be done we have not the shadow of a doubt; and to say that it can be done is to say that it must be done.
The author to whom we have referred seems to be of the opinion that an unwise education shows its worst results upon the female sex. In this we think he is right. Contact with the world of which most men have early experience tends to correct the errors, repair the omissions, and cancel the superfluities of their scholastic training; whereas women whose minds have been injured by their school training do not, to anything like an equal extent, enjoy the means of throwing off the faults they have imbibed. It is, therefore, of special importance that young women should not be made the victims of false systems of education. Their intellectual food should be of the purest and most nutritious, so that the effects of their education may be seen, not in a blaze of evanescent accomplishments, but in a steady glow of rational thought and generous emotion. We have not yet learned to make the best of life, and many are the evils we suffer in consequence; but if once it can sink into the consciousness of the community that education for both sexes should be regarded not as a preparation for a career of mere self-seeking, but as an introduction to all the possibilities of higher mental and moral life, a most important step in the progress of the race will have been won.