The New Morality
by Paul Elmer More
The book no doubt has gone its own way to the "limbo large and broad," where the heroes of ancient fiction wander with
Embrios and idiots, eremites and friars;but it made a lasting impression on one reader at least as the first popular presentation to come under his notice of a theory which now confronts him wherever he turns his eyes. There has, in fact, been an astonishing divulgation in the past decade of what is called, with magnificent audacity, the New Morality.
Perhaps the most honoured teacher of this code is the mistress of Hull House, who by her devoted life and her services to the people of Chicago in various times of need has won the right to speak with a certain authority for the striving generation of the day. And in one of her books, the Newer Ideals of Peace, Miss Addams tells of an actual occurrence and infers a moral which points in the same direction as the novel of Christopher. A family of five children is left motherless. The father, a drunkard, disappears, and the household is left to the care of a feeble old grandmother. Thereupon work is found for the oldest boy, "a fine, manly little fellow" of twelve, who feels keenly "his obligation to care for the family." But after a time he becomes "listless and indifferent," and at sixteen turns to professional tramping. It was through such bitter lessons as these," observes Miss Addams, "we learned that good intentions and the charitable impulse do not always work for righteousness." As the story is told there is a plain implication that to find work for a boy under such circumstances is "cruel and disastrous" (her own comment), and that society, and not his own nature, was responsible for his relapse. One would suppose that scarcely an honest workman, or prosperous merchant, or successful professional man had ever taken up the burden of a family in youth or childhood. Doubtless hardships and waste often come from the exigencies of life, but there is not a single word in Miss Addams' account to indicate that she has felt the need of developing in the future citizen a sensitiveness to the peculiar duties that will confront him, or has reflected on the evil that might have been done the boy if he had been relieved of his natural obligations and supported by society. "Our democracy," as she says with approval, "is making inroads upon the family, the oldest of human institutions."
This is not an isolated case in Miss Addams' works, nor does it in any wise misrepresent her. In another book, The Spirit of Youth and the City Streets, the thesis is maintained and reiterated, that crime is for the most part merely the result of repressing a wholesome "love for excitement" and "desire for adventure." In the year 1909 "there were arrested and brought into court [in Chicago] fifteen thousand young people under the age of twenty, who had failed to keep even the common law of the land. Most of these young people had broken the law in their blundering efforts to find adventure." The inference to be drawn here and throughout the book is that one need only relieve the youth of the land from the necessity of "assuming responsibility prematurely," affording them meanwhile abundant amusement, and the instincts of lawlessness and the pursuit of criminal pleasure will vanish, or almost vanish, of themselves--as if there were no Harry Thaws and the sons of the rich were all virtuous.
But it must not be supposed that Hull House occupies a place of lonely isolation as the fountain of these ideas. From every self-authorized centre of civic virtue in which a type-writer is at work, the stream proceeds. The very presses groan, as we used to say when those machines were still in the mythological stage, at their labour of supplying the world with the new intellectual pabulum. At this moment there lies before the writer of this essay a pile of books, all recently published, which are devoted more or less specifically to the subject, and from all of which, if he had courage to go through them, he might cull abundant examples and quotations. He was, indeed, about to enter this "hollow cave, amid the thickest woods," when, an unvaliant knight, he heard the warning of the lady Una:
Yea but (quoth she) the perill of this placeWe have in fact to deal with the consummation of a long and deep-seated revolution, and there is no better way to understand the true character of the movement than by turning aside a moment to glance at its historical sources. This attempt to find some basis of conduct to take the place of the older conception of personal integrity, as we see it exemplified in the works of Miss Jane Addams and a host of other modern writers, is in fact only one aspect of the slow drift from medieval religion to humanitarianism. For a thousand years and well into the second thousand the ethical feeling of Christian Europe may be said to have taken its colour from the saying, "What shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?"--which in extreme eases was interpreted as if it read, If he reform the whole world; and on the other, kindred saying, "Sell all that thou hast and distribute unto the poor, and thou shall have treasure in heaven, and come, follow me"--in which the command of charity was held to be not so much for the benefit of the poor as for the liberation of the giver's own soul from the powers of this world. Such was the law, and its binding force was confirmed by the conception of a final day of wrath when the souls of men should stand before a merciless tribunal and be judged to everlasting joy or everlasting torment. The vivid reality of the fear that haunted men, at least in their moments of reflection, may be understood from the horrors of such a picture as Michael Angelo's Last Judgment, or from the meditations of one of the most genial of English cavaliers. In his little treatise on Man in Darkness --appropriate title--Henry Vaughan puts the frank question to himself:
And what madness then is it, for the enjoying of one minute's pleasure for the satisfaction of our sensual corrupt appetite, to lie forever in a bed of burning brass, in the lake of eternal and unquenchable fire? "Suppose," saith the same writer [Drexelius], "that this whole globe of earth were nothing else but a huge mass or mountain of sand, and that a little wren came but once in every thousand years to fetch away but one grain of that huge heap; what an innumerable number of years would be spent before that world of sand could be so fetched away! And yet, alas! when the damned have lain in that fiery lake so many years as all those would amount to, they are no nearer coming out than the first hour they entered in."No doubt practice and precept were at variance then, as to a certain extent they are at all times, and there were many texts in the Bible which might be taken to mitigate the harsher commands; but such in its purest, highest form was the law, and in the more sensitive minds this conception of the soul naked before a judging God must have created a tremendous anxiety. Morality was obedience and integrity; it scorned the world for an ideal of inner righteousness; it created a sense of individual responsibility for every word and deed; and, say what we will there is something magnificent in this contempt for the reckoning of other men beside that eternal fame which
. . . lives and speaks aloft by those pure eyes,But there was also in this law something repellent and even monstrous. Who has not shuddered with amazement at the inscription which Dante set over the portal of Hell: E 'L PRIMO AMORE? Was it Love that prepared those winding coils of torture to enclose for endless time the vast majority of mankind? Was it even justice to make the everlasting doom of a soul depend on its grasp of truth in these few years spent in a world of shadows and illusions? There is something repulsively irrational in the notion of an unchanging eternity suspended on the action in a moment of time--ex hoc momento pendet aeternitas. It should seem to be unthinkable, if it had not actually been thought. As a matter of fact the rigour and crudity of this doctrine had been mitigated in the Middle Ages by the interposition between man and God of the very human institution of the Church, with its substitution of temporal penances and pardons and an interposed Purgatory in place of the terrible paradox of irrevocable judgment. It remained for the Reformation, and particularly for the Calvinistic Puritans, to tear away those veils of compromise and bring man face to face with the awful abstraction he had created. The result was for a while a great hardening and strengthening of character, salutary indeed after what may be called the almost hypocritical compromise of Catholicism; but in the end human nature could not endure the rigidity of its own logic, and in revolting turned not to another compromise but to questioning the very hypothesis of its faith.
The inevitable reaction from the intolerable logic of the Protestants was Deism, in which God was stript altogether of his judicial and moral attributes and reduced to a kind of immanent, all-benevolent force in nature. "But now comes a modern Sage," says Warburton of Bolingbroke, "... who tells us 'that they made the Basis of Religion far too wide; that men have no further concern with GOD than TO BELIEVE THAT HE IS, which his physical attributes make fully manifest; but, that he is a rewarder of them who diligently seek him, Religion doth not require us to believe, since this depends on God's MORAL ATTRIBUTES, Of which we have no conception.'" But the deistic position was manifestly untenable, for it left no place for the undeniable existence of evil in this world and life. From the unaccountable distribution of wrong and suffering the divine had argued the certainty of adjustment in a future state; the deist had flown in the face of facts by retaining the belief in a benevolent Providence while taking from it the power of supernatural retribution; the atheist was more logical, he denied the existence of Providence altogether and turned the universe over to chance or blind law. Such was the progress of thought from Baxter to Bolingbroke and from Bolingbroke to Hume.
The positive consequences of this evolution are written large in the literature of the eighteenth century. With the idea of an avenging deity and a supernatural test there disappeared also the sense of deep personal responsibility; the very notion of a radical and fundamental difference between good and evil was lost. The evil that is apparent in character comes to be regarded merely as the result of the restraining and thwarting institutions of society as these exist--why, no one can explain. Envy and jealousy and greed and the sheer lust of power, all those traits which were summed up in the single Greek word pleonexia, the desire to have more, are not inherent in the human heart, but are artificially introduced by property and a false civilization. Change these institutions or release the individual entirely from restrictions, and his nature will recoil spontaneously to its natural state of virtue. He needs only follow the impulse of his instinctive emotions to be sound and good. And as a man feels of himself, so he feels of others. There is no real distinction between the good and the evil, but all are naturally good and the superficial variations we see are caused by the greater or less freedom of development. Hence we should condemn no man even as we do not condemn ourselves. There is no place for sharp judgment, and the laws which impose penalties and restrictions and set up false discriminations between the innocent and the criminal are subject to suspicion and should be made as flexible as possible. In place of judgment we are to regard all mankind with sympathy; a sort of emotional solidarity becomes the one great virtue, in which are included, or rather sunk, all the law and the prophets.
It was the great work of the eighteenth century, beginning in England and developing in France, to formulate this change and indoctrinate with it the mind of the unthinking masses. Here is not the place to follow the development in detail, and those who care to see its outcome may be referred to the keen and unjustly neglected chapters on the philosophes in La Harpe's Lycee. To those, indeed, who are acquainted with the philosophical writings that preceded and introduced the French Revolution, the epithet "new" as it is attached to our present-day morality may seem a bit presumptuous; for it would be difficult to find a single fundamental idea in current literature on this subject which could not be closely paralleled by a quotation from Rousseau, or Diderot, or Helvetius, or one of their compeers. Thus, in our exaltation of sympathy above judgment and of the unrestrained emotions generally as the final rule of character, we are but following Diderot's philosophy of the heart: "Les passions amorties degradent les hommes extraordinaires", and when we read in Ellen Key and a host of other feminist liberators the apotheosis of love as higher than any divine or human obligations, we are but meeting again with Toussaint's religion a little disguised: "On aime de meme Dieu et sa maitresse. Our revolt from constitutional law as a power imposed by the slower reflection of men upon their own immediate desires and opinions is essentially the same as the restlessness consecrated by the French economistes in the phrase, "le despotisme legal." And, to return whence we began, the economics of Hull House flow only too easily from Helvetius' definition of virtue as "le desir du bien public," and from his more specific statement: "The integrity which is related to an individual or to a small society is not the true integrity; integrity considered in relation to the public is the only kind that really deserves and generally obtains the name."
Miss Addams herself has been disturbed by these reminiscences. Thus she quotes from one of the older humanitarians a characteristic saying: "The love of those whom a man does not know is quite as elemental a sentiment as the love of those whom a man does know," and repudiates it as vague and unpractical beside the New Morality. She ought to know, and may be right, yet it is not easy to see wherein her own ethics are any less vague when she deplores the act of a boy who goes to work for his starving grandmother because in doing so he is unfitting himself for future service to society. And as for effectiveness, it might seem that the French Revolution was a practical result fairly equivalent in magnitude to what has been achieved by our college settlements. But Miss Addams is by no means peculiar in this assumption of originality. Nothing is more notable in the humanitarian literature of the day than the feeling that our own age is severed from the past and opens an entirely new epoch in history. "The race has now crossed the great divide of human history!" exclaims an hysterical doctor of divinity in a book just published. "The tendency of the long past has been toward diversity, that of the longer future will be toward oneness. The change in this stream of tendency is not a temporary deviation from its age-long course--a new bend in the river. It is an actual reversal of the current, which beyond a peradventure will prove permanent." To this ecstatic watcher the sudden reversal took place at no remote date, but yesterday; and by a thousand other watchers the same miracle is vociferously heralded. Beyond a peradventure! Not a little of this flattering assumption is due to the blind and passionate hope of the human heart clamouring against the voice of experience. So many prophets before now have cried out, looking at the ever-flowing current of time, and having faith in some Thessalian magic:
Cessavere vices rerum.So often the world has been disappointed; but at last we have seen--beyond a peradventure. If the vicissitudes of fate have not ceased, yet at least we have learned to look with complacency on the very law of mutation from which the eyes of men had hitherto turned away in bewildered horror, at last the stream has turned back upon its sources, and change itself is carrying us no longer towards diversity, but towards the consummation of a divine oneness.
But it would equally be an error to insist too dogmatically on the continuity of the present-day movement with that of the eighteenth century; for one generation is never quite as another. We must not forget that for a hundred years or thereabout there was a partial reaction against the doctrines of the philosophes, during which time the terrors of the Revolution lay like a warning nightmare in the imagination of the more thoughtful men. A hundred years is a long period for the memory to bridge, particularly in a time when the historical sense has been weakened. Superficially, too, the application of the theory is in some respects different from what it was; the law of social sympathy has been developed into different conceptions of socialism, and we have devised fresh schemes for giving efficacy to the immediate will of the people. Even deeper is the change that has come over the attitude of religious organizations towards the movement. In the age of the Revolution the Church, both Catholic and Protestant, was still strongly entrenched in the old beliefs and offered a violent resistance to the substitutions of humanitarianism for responsibility to the priest and to God. Now this last barrier has been almost swept away. Indeed, not the least remarkable feature of this literature is the number of clergymen who are contributing to it, with their constant appeal to the New Morality as the test of faith. Open one of these books before us--let us take The Christian Reconstruction of Modern Life, for the promise of its title--and you will be pretty likely to come upon such a passage as this: "Faith's fellowship with Jesus is one with the realization of our fellowship in humanity"; or, on another page: "If the fundamental of the true philosophy cannot be found by common men, what advantage in any man's finding it? If life's secret, direction, and power... is not attainable by the lowliest, then a man of this age, living in the social passion of our time, is forced to be indifferent to that which would be the monopoly of a few gifted souls." If such a social passion means anything, it means the reconstruction of life to the level of the gutter. It is the modern sham righteousness which would have called from Jesus the same utter scorn as that which he poured upon the Pharisaical cant of his own day. Yet it is not in religious books alone that you will meet with this sort of irreligion. For one sermon you will hear on the obligation of the individual soul to its maker and judge, and on the need of personal regeneration and the beauty of holiness, you will hear a score on the relation of a man to his fellows and on the virtue of social sympathy. In effect, the first and great commandment, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul and with all thy mind," has been almost forgotten for the second, "Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself." Worship in the temple is no longer a call to contrition and repentance, but an organized flattery of our human nature, and the theological seminary is fast becoming a special school for investigating poverty and spreading agnosticism. In this sense, or degree, that humanitarianism is no longer opposed by organized religion, but has itself usurped the place of the Church, the New Morality may really justify its name.
What are the results of this glorification of humanity? What does the New Morality mean in life and conduct? Well, of such matters it is wise to speak cautiously. The actual morals of an age are an extremely complicated and elusive network of facts, and it is only too easy to generalize from incomplete observation. On the other hand we must guard against allowing ourselves to be deceived by the fallacy everywhere heard, that, because the preacher has always, even from the remotest record of Egypt, bewailed his own times as degenerate, therefore no age has fallen off in morality from its predecessor. Such an argument is a complete non-sequitur; there have been periods of degeneration, and there may yet be. As for our own age, only a fool would dogmatize; we can only balance and surmise. And in the first place a certain good must almost certainly be placed to the credit of humanitarianism. It has softened us and made us quicker to respond to the sufferings of others; the direct and frightful cruelty that runs through the annals of history like a crimson line has been largely eliminated from civilization, and with it a good deal of the brutality of human nature. We sometimes hear the present age compared with the later Roman Republic and the Empire, and in some respects speciously, but the callousness of the greater Romans to human misery and their hardness are almost unthinkable today. Consider a sentence or two from Appian: "The head and hand of Cicero were suspended for a long time from the rostra in the forum where formerly he had been accustomed to make public speeches, and more people came together to behold this spectacle than had previously come to listen to him. It is said that even at his meals Antony placed the head of Cicero before his table, until he became satiated with the horrid sight." Such an episode scarcely stands out from the hideous story of the Civil Wars; to the modern reader it brings a feeling almost of physical sickness. So much we seem to have gained, and the change in this respect even from our own seventeenth century shows that the credit is due in no small part to the general trend of humanitarianism.
But in other directions the progress is not so clear. Statistics are always treacherous witnesses, but so far as we can believe them and interpret them we can draw no comfort from the prevalence of crime and prostitution and divorce and insanity and suicide. At least, whatever may be the cause of this inner canker of society, our social passion seems to be powerless to cure it. Some might even argue that the preaching of any doctrine which minimizes personal responsibility is likely to increase the evil. Certainly a teacher who, like Miss Jane Addams, virtually attributes the lawless and criminal acts of our city hoodlums to a wholesome desire of adventure which the laws unrighteously repress, would appear to be encouraging the destructive and sensual proclivities which are too common in human nature, young and old. Nor are the way of honesty made dear by a well-known humanitarian judge of Denver, who refused to punish a boy for stealing a Sunday-School teacher's pocketbook, for the two good reasons, as his honour explained in a public address, "that the boy was not responsible, and, secondly, that there were bigger thieves in the pews upstairs." So, too, a respectable woman of New York who asks whether it may not be a greater wrong for a girl to submit to the slavery of low wages than to sell herself in the street, is manifestly not helping the tempted to resist. She is even doing what she can with her words to confuse the very bounds of moral and physical evil.
There is, in act, a terrible confusion hidden in the New Morality, an ulcerous evil that is ever working inward. Sympathy, creating the desire for even-handed justice, is in itself an excellent motive of conduct, and the stronger it grows, the better the world shall be. But sympathy, spoken with the word "social" prefixed, as it commonly is on the platforms of the day, begins to take on a dangerous connotation. And "social sympathy" erected into a theory which leaves out of account the responsibility of the individual and seeks to throw the blame of evil on the laws and on society, though it may effect desirable reforms here and there in institutions, is bound to leave the individual weakened in his powers of resistance against the temptations which can never be eliminated from human life. The whole effect of calling sympathy justice and putting it in the place of judgment is to relax the fibre of character and nourish the passions at the expense of reason and the will. And undoubtedly the conviction is every day gaining ground among cool observers of our life that the manners and morals of the people are beginning to suffer from this relaxation in many insidious ways apart from acts which come into the cognizance of the courts. The sensuality of the prevailing music and dancing, the plays that stir the country as organs of moral regeneration, the exaggeration of sex in the clothing seen in the street, are but symptoms more or less ominous to our mind as we do or do not connect them with the regnant theory of ethics. And in the end this form of social sympathy may itself quite conceivably bring back the brutality and cruelty from which it seems to have delivered us. The Roman who gloated over the head of his and the people's enemy lived two thousand years ago, and we think such bloodthirstiness is no longer possible in public life. Yet not much more than a century ago the preaching of social sympathy could send a Lebon and his kind over France with an insatiable lust for killing, complicated with Sadism, while in Paris the leader of the government of the most civilized country of Europe was justifying such a regime on the pious principle that, "when the sovereign people exercises its power, we can only bow before it; in all it does all is virtue and truth, and no excess, error, or crime is possible." The animal is not dead within us, but only asleep. If you think he has been really conquered, read what he has been doing in Congo and to the Putumayo Indians, or among the redeemers of the Balkan States. Or if you wish to get a glimpse of what he may yet do under the spur of social sympathy, consider the callous indifference shown by the labour unions to the revelation, if it deserves the name, of the system of dynamiting and murder employed in the service of "class-consciousness." These things are to be taken into account, not as bugbears, for society at large is no doubt sound at heart and will arouse itself at last against its false teachers, but as symptoms to warn and prepare.
To some few the only way out of what seems a state of moral blindness is through a return to an acknowledgment of the responsibility of the individual soul to its maker and inflexible judge. They may be right. Who can tell what reversal of belief may lie before us or what religious revolution may be preparing in the heart of infidelity? But for the present, at least, that supernatural control has lost its general efficacy and even from the pulpit has only a slight and intermittent appeal. Nor does such a loss appear without its compensations when we consider the harshness of medieval theology or the obliquities of superstition that seem to be inherent in the purest of religions. Meanwhile, the troubled individual, whatever his scepticism may be, need not be withheld from confirming his moral faith by turning from the perverted doctrine of the "Enlightenment" and from its recrudescence in modern humanitarianism to a larger and higher philosophy. For there is a faith which existed long before the materialism of eighteenth century and before the crude earlier anthropomorphism, and which persisted unchanged, though often half-concealed, through those ages and still persists as a kind of shamefast inheritance of truth. It is not necessary to go to ancient books to recover that faith. Let a man cease for a moment to look so strenuously upon what is right for his neighbours. Let him shut out the voices of the world and disregard the stream of informing books which pour upon him from the modern press, as the "floud of poyson" was spewed upon Spenser's Knight from "Errours den":
Her fruitful cursed spawne of serpents small.Let him retire into himself, and in the silence of such recollection examine his own motives and the sources of his self-approval and discontent. He will discover there in that dialogue with himself, if his abstraction is complete and sincere, that his nature is not simple and single, but dual, and the consequences to him in his judgment of life and in his conduct will be of incalculable importance. He will learn, with a conviction which no science or philosophy falsely so-called can shake, that beside the passions and wandering desires and blind impulses and the cravings for pleasure and the prod of sensations there is something within him and a part of him, rather in some way his truer self, which controls and checks and knows and pronounces judgment, unmoved amid all motion, unchanged amid continual change, of everlasting validity above the shifting valuations of the moment. He may not be able to express this insight in terms that will satisfy his own reason or will convince others, but if his insight is true he will not waver in loyalty to it, though he may sin against it times without number in spoken word and impulsive deed. Rather, his loyalty will be confirmed by experience. For he will discover that there is a happiness of the soul which is not the same as the pleasure of fulfilled desires, whether these be for good or for ill, a happiness which is not dependent upon the results of this or that choice among our desires, but upon the very act itself of choice and self-control, and which grows with the habit of staying the throng of besetting and conflicting impulses always until the judicial fiat has been pronounced. It is thus that happiness is the final test of morality, bringing with it a sense of responsibility to the supernatural command within the soul of the man himself, as binding as the laws of religion and based on no disputable revelation or outer authority. Such a morality is neither old nor new, and stands above the varying customs of society. It is not determined essentially by the relation of a man to his fellows or by their approval, but by the consciousness of rightness in the man's own breast,--in a word, by character. Its works are temperance, truth, honesty, trustworthiness, fortitude, magnanimity, elevation; and its crown is joy.
Then, under the guidance of this intuition, a man may turn his eyes upon the world with no fear of being swayed by the ephemeral winds of doctrine. Despite the clamour of the hour he will know that the obligation to society is not the primal law and is not the source of personal integrity, but is secondary to personal integrity. He will believe that social justice is in itself desirable, but he will hold that it is far more important to preach first the responsibility of each man to himself for his own character. He will admit that equality of opportunity is an ideal to be aimed at, but he will think this a small thing in comparison with the universality of duty. In his attitude towards mankind he will not deny the claims of sympathy, but he will listen first to the voice of judgment:
Away with charity that soothes a lie,He will be sensitive to the vast injustices of life and its widespread sorrows, but he will not be seduced by that compassion into the hypocrisy of saying that "the love of those whom a man does not know is quite as elemental as sentiment as the love of those whom a man does know." Nor, in repudiating such a falsehood, will he, like the mistress of Hull Hall, lose his power of discrimination under the stress of "those vast and dominant suggestions of a new peace and holiness," that is "to issue forth from broken human nature itself, out of the pathetic striving of ordinary men." Rather, he will, at any cost, strive to dear away the clouds of cant, and so open his mind to the dictates of the everlasting morality.
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