The Experimental Life
THERE comes a time when the process of formal education ends. Childhood has come and gone ; youth is past; adult life is reached. The lower school has made its contribution, and the high school. Even the university has contributed the larger part of its own service, and must be content in the future with occasional and casual ministration. But life has not passed; the social purpose is not exhausted ; and just as surely, the educational process may not consistently end. It is only that the process has changed hands. It has ceased to be formal, ceased to be the work of any institution, however august, and has become the sole work of the individual himself. When the university drops the work of education, and each individual takes it up for himself, the work assumes a different character. It becomes, in a very practical sense, original work, an adventure in the unknown ; and since it has to do with life, we may well regard the experimental life as the final process in education, the process of men and women in action.
When one announces that the most magnificent thing about life is life, one is not toying with the words. One is simply announcing a very obvious and far-reaching truth. But it is a platitude which will bear repeating ; for rich and poor alike, the world over, are squandering nothing quite so remorselessly as just this most magnificent of all their possessions, their life. The poor are squandering it on food and shelter and clothing, and very wretched stuff at that; sometimes they are squandering it in forced or self-chosen idleness. The middle class are squandering it on a somewhat better grade of the same socalled necessaries, and in still larger measure on the hazard of wealth. The rich are squandering it on the bolder hazard of greater wealth and in the pursuit of impossible pleasure, — pleasure bought at the expense of another. But in the midst of this disorder, and enabling us, by the contrast, to recognize it as disorder, one does see here and there men and women spending life wisely and beautifully, living the experimental life ; and more thrifty still, one sees on all sides the children.
Now, whether we squander life on the trifling pursuits of the majority, or whether we spend it wisely and beautifully after the manner of the minority, will all depend upon the ideas which we bring to the adventure. The same stone may be fashioned into a temple of the spirit or into a fortress of cruelty : it depends upon the idea of the builder. The same metal may be fashioned into sword or ploughshare : it depends upon the idea of the artificer. The same grain may nourish as food, or deprave as drink : it depends upon the idea of the husbandman. So the same life may be squandered on that which is not worth while, or expended on that which is excellent: it depends upon the idea of the man. The altogether significant, compelling, momentous thing is the idea. This is at once the hope and the despair of all advance movements. It is the hope because it pierces all obstacles, and accomplishes the impossible : the triumphant idea becomes the triumphant fact. It is the despair because the transmutation of coward ideas into heroic ideas is the work of years, of generations. In the absence of the right idea, the force and material of the universe avail nothing.
It has been the custom — I fear, in order to be accurate, I must say it is the custom — to regard education as a process which ends for the masses with the lower schools, for the more fortunate with the high school, and for the gifted few with the university. To have it cover the whole of life for all of us is not regarded by any great number of people as more than a very idle dream. But to advocate this dream as a thoroughly serious and practical plan, a workable idea, is only to extend the scheme of rational education to its logical completion. The obstacle to be overcome is the anti-social idea which makes us believe in things rather than in men ; believe in individual fortunes and profit and privilege rather than in the social fortune and individual human wealth. This is the only sense in which it is possible for all of us to be wealthy, the wealth of individual organic power ; for the wealth of the market, houses and lands and goods and the apparatus of production and transportation, great as it is, is not sufficient to make us all wealthy in any individual way ; and even if it were, it would, in the equal distribution, quite lose its power. For, whatever may be our social creed, it is impossible to deny that the power of wealth depends upon its ability to command other people. On one side, the wealth of the market; and on the other side, human need or human greed, usually human need. It is poverty that gives power to the wealth of the market. It is only difference of level that makes the wealth available. Some one else must be in want. The stream that does not run downhill turns no mill. The magnificence of private wealth is a magnificence which is only made possible by the drudgery of millions, by their practical slavery.
When one criticises a tyranny, one must condemn both parties, — both the tyrant who tyrannizes and the masses who submit. When one criticises a plutocracy, one must be equally impartial; for a plutocracy is possible only where both rich and poor consent to the idea. In America, the unsuccessful man cannot plume himself upon being more righteous than the successful one, for both of us consented to the idea ; and we did this, partly because the operation had never with any very loud voice been called in question, and still more, perhaps, because the chances were so great and so alluring that they blinded us to the real significance of what we were doing. We had a virgin continent to explore, field and forest and mine to be had for the taking ; and we had — the move the pity — the captive black man of Africa and the disinherited white man of Europe to do the work and yield us the profit. And this work of double exploitation, the exploitation of a continent and of a people, has gone on so unfalteringly that now, instead of the democracy we meant to realize, we have a country with two classes in it, — those who have, and the multitude who have not. And we glory in our work, in this conquest of a continent and this piling up of great wealth ; but when the story of the century comes to be written by a later and more moral hand, it will picture a century of black and white slavery quite as genuine as the slavery of the mediæval centuries which we affect to discredit. And for this state of affairs no one class is to blame, neither the rich nor the poor. We started out somewhat even,—at least we natives. We gambled for the most part honestly. Some won, some lost, but the sin of winning was no greater than the sin of losing. The sin was in the gambling. We are all to blame, for we all consented to the idea, to this profit-taking at a human cost.
But now the case has another aspect, and is brought nearer home. The continent is possessed: the European recruits have become American citizens. The chance of fortune is so far diminished that even the chance of work is guarded : America, a country that meant to be a democracy, the refuge of all who were sore oppressed, has so far abandoned her mission that she accepts without shame a policy of exclusion. The time has come when we must either give up our passion for profit, or must exploit our fellow citizens. The dreadful results of our profit hunger are too manifest on all sides, and notably in our large cities, for us to be able any longer to plead ignorance. The older profit-tainted view of life is responsible for the custom of regarding education as a limited process, and speculation as really the main business of life. It is a genuine gambling spirit, and makes men willing to stake everything — health, beauty, accomplishment, goodness, life itself — on the chance of a possession which, compared to these things, is paltry in the extreme. It has made possible such expressions as “ the almighty dollar.” It has made possible many worse things.
So long as this view prevails, business will stand as the constant rival of education, and will limit the process as far as possible. Even boys in good circumstances, financially speaking, drop out of the lower schools and the high schools, go stragglingly to college ; for they have the very natural feeling that if profit is the main business of life, the sooner they get about it the better. And then this fact that wealth is wealth only because poverty is poverty makes wealth essentially the enemy of popular education ; for poverty and education never have gone hand in hand, and never can. The material part of life must be attended to first; and where this problem presses heavily, as it does upon the great majority of our people, we can have little hope of making education coextensive even with youth, — no hope whatever of making it coextensive with life. And so I must regard the present individualistic administration of our resources as distinctly anti-social, since it is defeating the process of education, and so defeating the social purpose. It is as an educator that I want to see such a social administration of these bountiful resources as will make education general and coextensive with life. In saying, then, that the majority are squandering their life, one does not condemn them ; for, under the present social régime, it is almost impossible for them to do otherwise. The way out for these people cannot be individual. It must be social. And yet we have a minority living the experimental life, and carrying on the process of education to the very end, and these people are doing it under the present régime. It is a possible ' plan ; and if it were possible for all one might be well content, but it seems to me possible for only two classes of people, both of them privileged classes, — the people of means and the people of superior endowment. One class has the power of wealth ; the other class robs wealth of its power. But before we look into the matter of how they do this, let us inquire what it is to live the experimental life, since we have only said in a broad way that it is to carry the process of education through the whole of life.
The pursuit of perfection is the pursuit of that which is excellent and beautiful ; and this is what we mean by organic wealth, the sound, beautiful, accomplished organism. One on whom this vision of the perfect life has laid firm hold cannot regard the quest as peculiar to any age or time or place or circumstance ; cannot, indeed, regard it as a quest that will ever be satisfied, save as a progressive realization. He must look upon it as the major end of the individual life, just as it is the major end of the social life. As such, it must determine the disposition of the days, — what occupations are possible and what are not, — must declare for or against all contemplated plans, and must be coextensive with every bodily and intellectual activity, every emotional impulse. The man who undertakes so comprehensive a quest as this must be as resolute as one of Arthur’s own knights, and more faithful. The practical carrying out of such a plan is a concrete operation, and one may not be impatient of details.
Perfection, — using the term always in a relative sense, — perfection is a social quality, and not open to hermits, It is gained by the developing of one’s own personal powers, and by the right ordering of one’s relations with others. So the man living the experimental life will be very jealous of his person, of his health, of his manhood, of his organic wholeness and accomplishment: the fine purposes of the spirit require a fine tool. And so no activity will be possible which may not be idealized and made to minister to the furtherance of the complete life. But such a man will be just as jealous of his relations with others, that they shall be fine and helpful and ideal. His magnificent personality is magnificent only in action, and gets itself realized only in the rendering of some honest social service.
To live the experimental life is, then, to make each year, each day, each hour, contribute to the increase of one’s own personal power and goodness, and to allow this incomparable purpose to be interfered with by no schemes of profit, no smaller and meaner ends. Such a life is experimental because it has but one fixed element in it, and that is its purpose, the quest of culture, the study and pursuit of perfection ; and this quest demands the boldest kind of experimenting. It demands a willingness to go here and there, to submit to this and that influence, to do one thing and another, to be ever open to the emerging requirements of the spirit. Literally, it means to take one’s life in one’s hand ; to cultivate a certain detachment; to fight shy of mechanical engagements and routine prisons, and all other avenues to the commonplace ; in a word, to be a soldier of good fortune.
It is very easy to be dull; at least, I find it so, and I rather infer that others do likewise. It is very easy to give your second - best, to be less excellent than you might have been. It is very easy to decline accomplishments which require hard work, to decline a health and beauty which ask the price of sturdy living, to decline human service which involves an overflowing measure of love and skill. It is very easy to call laziness patience ; to call meanness prudence ; to call cowardice caution; to call the commonplace the practical, and inertia conservatism. Now, this turn of ours for taking the line of least resistance is so deep-set that it is prodigiously hard to shake ourselves free of it. The average man finds the world serviceable to his hand. He can buy his clothes readymade, and his shirts and his shoes ; even his opinions can be got of the newsboy for a penny. He is patted on the back as modest and useful, and is praised for being content with that situation in life to which it has pleased God to call him. And when he dies, he has a little obituary notice in his favorite newspaper, telling how for twenty-five years he was the faithful servant of such and such a corporation, or for eighteen years never took a single holiday, or for thirty-three years was the untiring member of some giant profit-taking enterprise. And this record of omitted growth and wasted human opportunity is made the subject of journalistic eulogy. Brave indeed is the young person who can be brought up in an atmosphere so saturated with untruth as this, and not believe that the path of duty is to go and do likewise.
Now, I am not reciting these human calamities in any spirit of more-righteousthan-thou ; for I know that unless Heaven help me and I help myself, I shall repeat the same calamities in my own life, and I know that unless the same help come to others, they will do the same. But there do come to all of us occasional moments of insight, when we see that this drivel is not the divine message of the great universe ; that this message, on the contrary, is forever proclaiming openness and plasticity and generosity and fearlessness and totality. It is not proclaiming the modesty of high adventure unessayed. It is whispering always: Be thou perfect, perfect, even as I am perfect, as God is perfect. Find thy own true orbit, and, like the unconscious moon, thou shalt reflect the sunshine into a multitude of grief-stricken hearts.
To fulfill this high mission, and keep alive the universal charge in one’s own heart, is not to follow the line of least resistance ; is not to be dull, however great the temptation, not to be commonplace and commercial and salaried. It is to be the fullest measure of a man that the bit of flesh and bone you call your own allows you to be. And to do this is to keep one’s self free and unattached ; to experiment with life, and be ready to brave the unknown of a possible but as yet unrealized experience. The commonplace and commercial life has, at bottom, the fear of being unprovided for. The experimental life must “ fear nothing but fear.”
To substitute the pursuit of personal power and excellence for the pursuit of wealth and family and reputation is commonly estimated to be, on the whole, a rather selfish proceeding, but the charge will not bear investigation. No amount of personal industry will make a man wealthy. The days are not long enough, and human strength is not great enough. The only way to become wealthy is to appropriate a part of the wealth created by other people, —that is, to exploit labor ; or to appropriate the wealth created by nature, — that is, to exploit the national resource ; or, by speculation, to appropriate the wealth created by the growth and movement of population, — that is, to exjdoit society. These operations, surely, represent a very doubtful form of philanthropy. And if the operations be doubtful, no amount of good purpose in the subsequent spending redeems the operations and makes them admirable. Under these circumstances, the pursuit of wealth cannot be a possible plan of life for the man whose eyes are set upon the things of excellence and beauty. The upbuilding of a family must be regarded in much the same way. The ability to support children, even without exploiting labor or nature or society in their behalf, does not constitute the right to have children. Unless a man has first gained personal power and excellence himself, he cannot transmit these qualities to his offspring ; and he is ill performing the function of race preservation if he preserve that which is not admirable, — his own weakness and half power and lack of totality. The pursuit of family is praiseworthy only when one has first ordered one’s own life in the paths of excellence and beauty. And in this matter of a reputation, by whatever series of exploits it is won, it is marred in the very making if it be touched by a trace of self-consciousness. The military leader charging for the White House, the actor with his thought beyond the footlights, the writer with his eye on the public, the artist painting for the market, do not achieve the sort of reputation that a man in the sober moments of life would care to have or strive for. It is the sincere, unregardful working out of one’s own life purposes, the attainment of power and excellence for the sake of power and excellence, — it is this quiet, unobtrusive private process that has given the world its calendar of All Saints. The pressure of life is to make us all average men, to force us along the line of least resistance, to land us at last in the commonplace and the dull routine. It is a tendency to be stoutly resisted. It is a coward plan of life, an abdication of the best possibilities in us.
The alphabet is a remarkable set of characters. It contains, in reality, the whole dictionary. It is only that the letters have not yet been arranged. And the dictionary is a still more remarkable collection of symbols. It contains, as some Frenchman long since observed, every good thing that may be said. It is only that the words have not yet been grouped. And to-day is a remarkable moment of time. In it is every possibility of experience. It is only that the experience has been unlived. But to this larger experience and this larger life the universe daily invites us. It is a personal question as to whether we accept or not.
It is entirely possible to plan life so as to be able to accept. If one has some means, and is content with the simple life, then one has the time for the experimental life, and only the impulse is needed. If one has superior endowment, the impulse is assured, and the committee on ways and means — a committee which has permanent headquarters in every brain, however idealistic — has, on the whole, an easy problem ahead of it. This superiority need not be overwhelming ; need not amount to genius, not even to talent; need not, in fact, be greater than is possessed by the average man. Good health, average natural ability, the elements of a liberal education, — these represent, it seems to me, what may be called the material part of the equipment. The spiritual equipment is equally simple, but somewhat more rare. It is an unfaltering determination to do nothing that is not uplifting to the self, and also a genuine social service. In reality, these last two requirements are one. It is impossible to lift one’s self at the expense of others. It is equally impossible truly to serve others without at the same time most deeply serving one’s self. It is a false growth in the man which does not serve the community. It is a false service to the community which sacrifices the man. In spite of many seeming exceptions, this is literally true ; and one will see how true it is if one but remember that the universe is at bottom a moral universe, and that man is essentially a social being. The drama of human life is not a game of solitaire ; it is a drama made possible only by the human, social relations of the players. When one starts on the quest of perfection, one can make no progress whatever save through these relations and through this human interplay. So we sum up the spiritual requirement of the experimental life when we say that it is an unfaltering impulse toward the unfolding and perfecting of one’s own spirit, — the unfaltering, practical impulse which will not be denied, or turned aside, or quenched. And the realization of the experimental life is the giving free play to this impulse in every single issue of the daily life. We should fare but ill in this interminable quest if we had to be forever conscious of it; for that would make us far from simpleminded, and anything but companionable. But we are under no such necessity. The very striving may be made a habit; and in time this grows to be the habit of success.
But these are general terms : let us be specific. One must make a living, and if one is without means, without tools or lands or house, one has no choice: one must serve for hire. There is a choice, however, in the work itself : work that a man may do and still keep his manhood, work that is full of meaning and significance and beauty; and work that a man may not do and keep his manhood, work that is meaningless and unworthy and dishonest. I am told by those who are trying to lead the beautiful life, and are finding it hard, that it is the latter sort of work that most commonly offers. And meanwhile, the landlord and the provision dealer and the tailor are importunate ; there is sad need of money. It would be easy to suffer want if it touched only one’s self ; but when it bears heavily upon delicately reared women and little children, upon the family for which one is bound to provide, then the want is very bitter. The temptation to take any sort of work that yields the needed money is a sore temptation, and one may well pray not to be led into it. Even if one escape this shipwreck, and secure work that is morally clean, the deeper morality of whether it is work suitable to one’s own human needs, and how long one may properly continue to do this particular kind of work, — this deeper morality, I say, remains to be satisfied. If the work is dull and stupefying, if it fail to offer a chance for increased development and power, then, however great the wage, it is immoral work, and one is bound by the requirements of the experimental life to give it up, for it is not leading one to the point one had determined upon.
When new work offers, and one submits it to this human test, and asks whether it ministers to the needs of the worker, it is comparatively easy to estimate it properly ; but the task is far more subtle when a work already entered upon, a work that did at one time clearly serve the purpose of development, gradually ceases to render this service. The remembrance of the old enthusiasm remains. It is so easy to go on. It is so difficult to seek new work, and strike out on untried paths. And this is particularly the case if the salary, meanwhile, has been growing larger, and one’s expenditures have been keeping pace with it. One tells one’s self that one is very useful, and that no other man can do the work quite so well. One’s friends, perhaps one’s family and one’s employers, say the same thing. The pressure is all for keeping the man right there. The point of view has changed completely, and swung around from the human requirement to the thought of the work.
And what happens ? In the majority of cases the pressure prevails. The man stays and stays and stays ; holds on to his position as if it were the great thing in life ; becomes each year more and more of a machine, and less and less interesting as a man. He bears with fortitude the loss of his soul, and shows the white feather whenever his position is thought to be in danger. It is as if a child at school, who manifested some aptitude for long division, were kept forever at that, instead of passing on to new and helpful work in geometry or calculus, — kept forever doing sums in long division, until at last he was gathered to his fathers, a slowly finished quotient. This mechanicalizing of life, this making of it automatic and insensible, is a veritable tragedy, for it means quite surely the death of the spirit.
One need not go far afield for illustrations. How many men and women, in one’s own limited circle of acquaintance, have been turned into human failures by the bribe of a too large salary ! They have been unwilling to let go ; they have been prudential and cowardly ; in the end they have lost their life.
To lead the experimental life is to put the human gain first; to value the work, the position, only so long as the human reaction is helpful and desirable. It is to pass from post to post, if need be from place to place, from vocation to vocation, and to land as soon as possible in the best of all positions, the position of independence, where one is no longer employed or salaried, but is the master of one’s own time and energy and spirit. I am persuaded that it is only as true men and women, living the free and independent life of the unhired, of the people who have at least the good fortune of self-possession, that we can come into the largest good for ourselves, and can render the most genuine social service. Ours is not an age of independent thought. It is an age of stock opinion and concealed opinion, of ill-disguised subserviency. The majority of our people are hired ; the rest give hire. Between them stands this wall, a very real wall, keeping them from meeting like true men and women in all frankness and equality. The effect of taking hire, upon the majority of people, is simply disastrous, spiritually disastrous. Life is too altogether precious a thing to sell it to another at any price whatever. And I count it a national misfortune and a national weakness that, in the great democracy which we tried to set up and failed, there should be so few men who are masters of themselves, and worthy to uphold so great a political idea.
It is a first requisite, then, of the experimental life that, as soon as possible, one shall decline outright to be hired, however insinuating the wage, and declare once for all for the life of self-possession and self-mastery. It is not so difficult to do this as one may at first imagine. The real issue is in the idea. The men who want to be free can be free. Once a little ahead, and the man who has the good health, average natural ability, and elements of a liberal education essential to an experimentalist, can make an independent livelihood in many acceptable ways. If he have a turn for simple primitive methods, he can go directly to the soil: as farmer, fruit-raiser, flower-grower; as shepherd, woodman, miner, he can make a living, and still be a man. If his undertakings require more than individual power, he can, through coöperation, utilize this corporate power without paying the price of his own freedom. In England, to-day, Mr. Lloyd tells us, one seventh of all the people are directly interested in some coöperative enterprise.
If our experimentalist prefer handcraft, he has a world of possible activity opening before him. If he have a turn for the arts or for professional service, he can, as artist, architect, surveyor, engineer, make a manly, artistic living, selling the product of his skill, but never selling himself. In purely intellectual fields, he may be a teacher or a writer. In fact, the only activities denied to those who decline to be hired are the dull and uninteresting ones, which require, in effect, machines in place of men.
My point is that any one, man or woman, with the modest equipment already mentioned, and a little bit ahead, can always go to work on something that will constantly help on the individual development, and just as constantly be a social service of high value. It is in this way that persons of superior endowment rob wealth of its power. Silently and with superb disdain, they are the constant rivals of wealth, the successful rivals. For wealth is quite an inert and powerless thing by itself. It has power only as it is able to command the service of others. And just so soon as superior people decline to render this service for hire, just so soon will wealth lose its tremendous power, and the experimental life be increasingly open to all men.
I find myself going back always to that older and uneconomic view of life, that the best human service is too august a thing to be paid for in the lower coin of the market. It must be taken, this august human service, in the same way that we accept the bounty of nature, as a divine gift. The secret of the experimental life is this perfect freedom, this openness of mind, this unfaltering progress. It is the extension of the educational spirit into all the activities of life. In education, we do a thing only until we know how to do it. Then we pass on to some new task. When we have read Cæsar, we try Vergil ; when we have mastered geometry, we pass on to trigonometry ; when we have analyzed some simple chemical, we throw it away, and essay something more difficult; when we have done the easier work in wood, we make a box. And if we failed to do this, failed to pass constantly from the five-finger exercises to the sonatas, from the multiplication table to the calculus, we should be doing so stupid a thing that the schools would be absolutely doomed, and formal education would altogether disappear from off the face of the earth.
It is perhaps the one bright spot in our commercialism that its enterprises are often undertaken in the hope that their success will enable us to give our children all educational advantages. We want them to have a succession of masters ; to be taught this fact and that accomplishment ; to go away to college ; to travel, it may be, in Europe; to spend their winters in the city, and their summers in the country ; to taste life in all its fullness and variety. It may be that all this activity is not quite wise for people still so young, but it has at bottom a wise thought. Why should this process of development stop when they come to be men and women, and could still better respond to its advantages ? Why should this same wise thought not be imported into our own more mature plan of life ? The world is so irrepressible a teacher. Her lessons are so vastly interesting. Her beauty is so superb and penetrating. The mere panorama of the world life, the sweep of its processes, the untiring cycle of its activities, contain at first-hand in themselves all the elements of art and science.
To be an experimentalist is to yield one’s self unreservedly to this comprehensive world teaching, to go here and there, to do this and that, to see one thing and another, to accept the world as a giant possibility, and to use it to the full. It is to go to school all one’s life to a perfect schoolmistress, to the universe. To do otherwise seems to me an ungracious, irreligious act; to decline life, and in its stead to accept a clerkship.
In choosing this rotation of occupation, one need run no risk of coming to be the proverbial Jack-of-all-trades. The great people of the world have had this large versatility. You recall the tremendous sweep of Cæsar’s activities. You see Michael Angelo painting Madonnas and building bridges, frescoing ceilings and carving David and Moses. In Goethe you have the poet, philosopher, statesman, scientist, artist, man of letters. In Shakespeare you have an epitome of the world. We need not be afraid of versatility, and we need not be afraid of leisure. The best things of life have sprung out of the all-round view of things and out of the spare moments. And if we wish the best things of life, as surely we all must wish them, we must acquire this all-round view of life, and provide these necessary spare moments.
Emerson has pointed out to us that the end of life is human discipline; is not the getting of property, not even the getting of knowledge, but is the getting of character and accomplishment, a human acquisitiveness. It is an old message, but it is increasingly imperative.
It is first of all to be, and then to know, and only incidentally to have. This is the complete programme of the experimental life. As a plan of life it is simply the extension of education ; and the extension of education, the making of education a life process instead of a school process, is, in fact, nothing less than the practical carrying out of the quest of human perfection. It is an enterprise for deepening the reality of the world by increasing the things of excellence and beauty. It is the human end of becoming more complete, more beautiful, more accomplished, more social.
C. Hanford Henderson.