The Golden Rule

THE

ATLANTIC MONTHLY

OCTOBER, 1905

BY WILLIAM ALLEN WHITE

THE interpretation of history seems to be the theme for all the world’s great prophets and philosophers, and for so many poets that, speaking broadly one may call literature man’s endeavor to understand his past. When a man has looked seriously into the jumble of tales and legends and myths which make up the meagre tradition of the race’s pilgrimage on this earth, instinctively he puts his data into some order, he makes his material fit into a story, into a form his mind can grasp. From that story comes his idea of God, and his philosophy of life. If he looks into the ashes of the past and sees the débris of battles, the dust of kings, and the ruins of kingdoms, his god is a god of war. If he sees civilizations come and go, sees tribes rising, and falling to decay, sees cities and nations materializing like spectres, and fading like ghosts whose very being is in doubt, sees peoples groping after an idea, and forming strange groups that dissolve into anarchy and form anew in varying shapes, — each social species different from the others, yet akin to all, — if he who looks at the driftwood of the ages sees the path of some current, however faint its first movement, however tortuous its course, pressing forward from the remote horizon of immeasurable antiquity with purpose and direction to some infinitely predestined goal, that man’s god is the God of the prophet who said: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” But no seer can see all the truth. No school of thought, however sane its judgments, may be free from some fallacy in its conclusions. Any philosophy of life, as it rises from history, must still be a human theory, veined with inevitable human error. If it were not so, prophecy would be an exact science. And yet men must keep working with the puzzle, each man fitting the blocks together as he sees the joining places, always. aware that he may only approximate the ideal which he seeks to build. So therefore the words which shall follow herewith are set down in the full knowledge that in the main they may be wrong, but in the hope that, in some part, they contain enough truth to make them worth the reading.

This article is written to support the thesis: The Christian spirit is in its essence an entirely attainable ideal of kindness and of justice, and only as men live the Christian spirit consistently, in their simple first-hand relations with one another, will the public morals of the nation improve, and will the political and economic problems which reflect the condition of public morals be nearer a solution. To establish this thesis it seems necessary, though for the moment distracting, to consider briefly a view of human history.

It is agreed that when men came out of the woods and began living together in the pastures, they lived in groups, — each group gathered about some strong man. His will was law, because his strength protected those who came to him for shelter, against the men and beasts of the forest. Whatever seemed good to the chief, to make his band a strong fighting unit — he made that a law, and enforced it by casting out the disobedient. As the ages passed, the group grew from a family to a clan, and from a clan to a tribe. But the strong man always ruled, and in so much as he was wise in knowing what would make his tribe successful in battle, against man and nature about him, so much was his tribe stronger than other tribes; but when whim or caprice governed him, when lust for personal power came into his judgments, his fighting judgment became impaired and he lost his leadership, and perhaps his tribe lost its freedom. But the ruler was everything, the tribe counted for nothing. His fighting sense and his will crystallized men into cities. The rules of conduct he laid down became the laws of his city. There may have been — indeed there must have been — simple arboreal rules of life, regulating the hero’s followers in their primitive relations, — rules for family life, that the hero found when he took charge of his most primitive state. But wherever the individual in the group — whether a son, a clansman, a tribesman, or a citizen — had any relation toward the hero who represented the state, the hero said what that relation was and how it should be maintained. His will became the public morals of that people. As strong man succeeded strong man, each leaving his prestige behind him, and each accepting the rules of his predecessors, these accepted rules became, in time, tribal customs, and were adopted by ruler after ruler, until they became law. The city with the wisest laws became the most permanent city, and these laws, pressing upon generation after generation, became the public moral sense of the people of that nation. As a race broadened into a nation, its laws became the moral sense of the nation. When conscience rose in the consciousness of men, those laws which men recognized as just and honorable they came to feel vaguely as their rights. But the human will must have been growing for ages, before men dared to call the hero a tyrant and resist him. Then only a few men dared to rise against the tyrant. But as strong men multiplied, the hero shared his power,— took in partners, — and the will of the partnership became the law. The great mass of the people had no rights; they had only wrongs. The justice of the world was administered by the hero, who grew to be the king, and his partners, who became the captains. Right, under such a government, was not the emanation of the public Conscience, but the judgment of the partnership. Only in their dealings with one another did the mass of the people develop an idea of justice, and even that idea must have been a sort of petrified expediency. Civic justice came from the few to the many. The pyramid stood on its apex, and finally toppled over in the fall of the Roman Empire. No military organization, no system of politics, no scheme of government, could defy the laws of spiritual gravity and maintain human beings in a social unit with the source of civic justice confined to the few; and with an ignorant servile population, it was impossible to develop a sense of righteousness, a common sense of national justice. A people who have no will power to resent their wrongs are not a people who will ever define their rights, equitably. Slaves may have wrongs, but only a race that has fought itself free may have any rights.

The anarchy of the Dark Ages followed the breaking up of the old world. The authority of military organization disappeared, and the people forgot even the simplest forms of right between themselves in their lowest relations, thus proving that the hero government was still necessary. But slowly, an imperfect crystal of human government began to form. The lord of the feudal system dispensed justice. The laws were of his making. The pyramid was still resting on its apex, but the apex was broader than in ancient times, in that the feudal lord was bound to provide for the vassal, when the vassal took up arms. Achilles had no worry about his commissary department; Richard Coeur de Tion had. A new spirit, — the spirit of mutual obligation, — not strong, but rudimentary, was growing in Christendom. The primal relations of human beings toward one another grew perceptibly kinder. The king and the lord had taken in a third partner, — the priest. These governed and made the law. They quarreled. Each needed soldiers. The people who furnished the soldiers for the quarrels were granted more and more privileges. The apex of the pyramid broadened, but the pyramid still stood base side up. Laws came from the lords to the people. There was talk of Christianity in the world. Yet it meant little but the opportunity for soldiers to die in a new kind of cause. Man recited its catechisms; he heard its sermons and observed its rites, and as the centuries passed, something of the meaning of Christianity came to him. The obligation of the feudal lord became heavier. Not only must he feed his vassals in time of war, and “insure domestic tranquillity,” but he must insure a simple property right among them. After all, it was his own justice that he gave them. It was his own laws that he administered. The will of the people did not exist. They still had wrongs, but few rights.

And thus a thousand years went by, while the king and the lord and the priest made wars and built cities and temples; and the people knew that it was wrong that they should suffer, yet they had no strength to change the order. They were as dumb beasts in the long furrows of the centuries, who felt the goad, and groaned under their burdens, but moved on. The Christian spirit was seed in stony ground. The moral sense of the people, as witnessed by their customs and forms in dealing with one another, had grown a little, and their moral purpose seems to have grown somewhat more. They were becoming troublesome about their wrongs, and were even beginning to believe that they had rights. In certain lands the lords and priests and kings waxed rich, and great merchants appeared, but the masses enjoyed only small prosperity. The laws of the men at the point of the pyramid were grossly unjust to the poor. Since the beginning of time it does not seem to have been difficult for certain men to grow rich; for nations to become powerful in crass wealth. But from the fall of the old world, until the beginning of the rise of the people in the Reformation, there seems to have been no more fairness in the way wealth was distributed than there was in the time of the heroes and tyrants.

No matter how wise were the lawgivers in the Dark Ages, no matter how pious, no matter how noble their aspirations, the laws they gave did not establish justice, or even an approximate of justice, as we know it to-day, lame and imperfect as it is. The good men of those days regarded morality as a relation between God and man. They mistook the religious life for the righteous life. That the period saw honest rulers fired with a Christian zeal to do right, no one who reads history may deny. But some way in his scheme of things God seems to have decreed that no man by any laws, nor any government through any power, can make men live equitably in their national life who do not have in themselves as individuals the moral enthusiasm to impress their standards of ideal living upon the smaller matters of their daily lives, in their simple relations with their fellows. The benevolent despot can impress his benevolence only upon a benevolent people.

When the feudal pyramid began to crumble with the Reformation and with the movements that followed it, the spirit of obligation began to broaden. Not merely did the nobles begin to feel their obligations to the lower classes, but the people began to feel some moral obligation to their government. The neighborly relations began to grow and to prepare men for broader relations. As the centuries went by, cruelty began to disappear from human life. That which remains has been refined, and hidden from sight. A cruel leader, even in war, is no longer popular. Lying, though successful, and done in a good cause by a man in a high place, is no longer the fine art that it was a hundred years ago. Talleyrand, or Richelieu, could not stand to-day against Roosevelt, any more than he could have stood before them in their times. The simple virtues are becoming more and more requisite for a public man, not merely in America, but in Europe; and for a private citizen who would hold the respect and esteem of his neighbors, no better law of life can be found than the Golden Rule. The pyramid has been growing from its base, for five hundred years, slowly, as the light of learning has been dawning upon the people. And the leaven that has leavened the whole lump is the moral enthusiasm planted in the world by the Christian religion. The Greeks had their philosophy, and it was beautiful — but it had no germ of life in it. Something like the Golden Rule was uttered by other prophets before Christ; yet its fire did not burn into the practical lives of men. But the passionate earnestness of the Gospel has redeemed the world in a way far different from that in which the pious fancied it was to be redeemed. Duty to others is the force that has organized this civilization of ours. It is the force that provides popular education, carries on public charities, demands sanitary homes for those who cannot demand them for themselves, removes temptation to debauchery from the masses, taxes the rich to support the poor, and enacts into a hundred laws that neighborly courtesy that is the soul of life to-day. The base of the pyramid is solid and broad as Christendom. The Golden Rule is the keystone of the arch of the edifice of law called government under which American life passes to its daily work. But the people do not obey these laws. They do not live up to the civic ideals that they write down in statutes. So far as mere theoretical government goes, men have at their hands, in this country at least, all the power they need. What they need further is wisdom in administration; to know how to use their power. And this further need requires further spiritual growth of the people. For until there is developed among the masses a kindness and an honesty in dealing with one another, in the minutiae of daily life, broader than the standard of humanity and integrity of American life to-day, the questions affecting the public life, and the national life, will be no nearer solution than they are. We must distribute our national wealth by a system founded upon principles of righteousness showing forth fairness, kindness, and even mercy — rather than by the law of the jungle.

Our most serious problems are the world-old problems of the distribution of wealth. Economists contend that the production of wealth follows natural laws, and that the distribution of wealth is entirely a human device. Being of human design, it has the weaknesses of humanity,— cunning avarice in the hearts of moneymakers, and covetousness in the hearts of those who would be money-makers. With these vices as the mainsprings of the systems of distribution of wealth in the Old World, and in the New, they have been inevitably bad. All systems of distribution will be bad until their mainsprings are virtues and not vices.

The wealth of the American people — like that of every other people that has inhabited this globe—is the result of the racial or national character, working on the environment. This national character, working on the environment, has produced American laws, without which the wealth of t the nation would not have grown. It may be shown by decomposing any large fortune that the people were to a great extent partners in its accumulation. Wealth is the natural accretion of all the people. Some men are natural organs for its secretion. They have the acquisitive faculty. But these men grow rich only with this nation and with this soil, and with this national environment about them. That many rich men as they accumulate wealth do real service to their fellow men, and in some measure earn, in a purely economic sense, much of the riches they acquire, is also true. That this service entitles these men to all the comforts and luxuries which our civilization can give them is undeniable, and a part of that luxury should be the satisfaction of seeing those who are near to them similarly situated, even to the third and the fourth generation, if they so desire. The kind of service the American millionaires have given to this nation has been of great value, and should not be underestimated. There have been swindlers, of course, who have obtained much by sheer cheating, but in the main the owners of our great fortunes have given something for them: this man a great commercial invention — even though devised in iniquity — for the mining, refining, and distribution of oil; another man has devised a vast industrial saving in the manufacture and sale of steel; still another has pushed a railroad across the desert and over the mountains to the Pacific, connecting the commerce of the East with that of the West by a new route; a fourth millionaire has organized American shipping interests, and has breathed new life into that branch of industry. It has required a high order of human development in sagacity, courage, and persistence, — even though it often has been done with a low order of moral development,— but the good traits of character that have wrought these enormous commercial and industrial marvels have overbalanced the bad traits, and even the bad traits have taken the color of their environment so entirely that while they were active they have received the applause of a keenly appreciative people. As a nation we have not always revolted at an exhibition of shrewdness merely because it was dishonest. Our millionaires have used the morals of the grocery store on large scales, with exceptional qualities of acumen, industry, and daring. And until the morals of the masses are improved we should not rail at the morals of the men whose success is not due to difference in morals, but to a difference in virtues.

However, granting all that we have granted to the rich man in this country,— the worth of his achievements, and the average grade of his morals, — we cannot escape from the fact that the people are his partners, and this partnership gives them some rights in his fortune which they have not taken. These rights of the people in the common wealth of the country form the problems that are now on the horizon of American politics. And it is to the untangling of the threads of justice and injustice in the relations of the man who has with the man who has not that Americans must bring, not more political power, to break threads ruthlessly, but rather must they bring a spiritual development that will enable them carefully to straighten the tangle.

After taking as the price of his service to his countrymen every luxury that our civilization affords, for himself and for his household, the American millionaire has taken more. He has taken the power to oppress the people by establishing unnatural commercial and industrial conditions. By compelling the people to pay dividends upon watered stock in unfairly organized corporations, the rich man has unjustly increased the price of land transportation. This is laying a robber’s tribute upon the masses, as surely as any baronial tax was ever put upon vassals. The tribute falls upon every article of necessity or of comfort or of luxury that the people use. More than that, the aggrandizement of capital in cheating corporations has made it possible for an usurous direct tax to be levied immorally, even though legally, upon the water that the city dwellers use, upon the light and fuel and power that all the people use. Interest on bogus debts is paid by consumers of the commonest necessaries of life, and this unfairly accumulated wealth is used to devise further methods and to legalize them, in order to put the yoke of accumulating capital upon the people. Rich men are but men ; they love power as all men love it, and they use it as men. Their money gives them power; it opens a new sport to them, when the mere getting of money palls. This diversion is the control of government. Thus far in playing that game the rich man has not materially harmed the country. He has played for pleasure rather than for profit. Nevertheless, the presence of organized wealth in American politics, as an estate there, must be understood clearly and reckoned with as a fact by the voters. There is just so much power generated by the surrender of the individual rights and liberties of the people to the government, and when organized wealth takes part of that power, the people who should control this government with their votes have that much less government to control.

From the foregoing statements concerning the encroachments of wealth may be formed a general statement of the problem which the aggrandizement of wealth is bringing to the country. There is a point in the accumulation of wealth where a man who has rendered exceptionally great service to society has acquired enough to provide himself and his house with all the comfort, luxury and culture that any sane man can ask civilization to give. This is all he can honorably expect society to give him. For every dollar that he acquires beyond that sum is a dollar which can be used only for the acquisition of other dollars. In the acquisition of other dollars the practices of modern finance not merely allow him, but virtually compel him, to resort to measures which oppress his fellows. The manipulation of stocks and bonds has created a vast semi-public swindling fund upon which the people are compelled to pay dividends and interest, and for which they get absurdly inadequate returns. As civilization lias paid the man above mentioned for his exceptional services to society by yielding him all the goods of civilization that he asks, for his use and his family’s, his surplus money which he does not use—his moneygetting dollars — may legally earn other dollars, but in so far as this earning offends good morals, the earnings are dishonestly earned dollars. Eventually his money-getting dollars are put to buying power to increase the earning capacity of his growing fortune. Their uses are illegitimate, even though they are legal. They threaten the general welfare. And they are immoral, no matter how pious their owner happens to be. Furthermore, no matter if the power which dishonestly earned money buys is a moral influence, respectably bought by a donation to a mission board or to a college, the uses of that money are still illegitimate. Moreover, all money used to extort unfair tribute from the people for fictitious service or fictitious value is tainted money. It should not be possible under a just economic order for a man to acquire so much surplus money that, harnessed with other idle money, it might become a mere money-grinding machine, with no legal restraints that its mechanical power could not cripple, without conscience, without mercy, without gratitude, a great engine of greed, pressing usury from the people.

The problem arising from the aggrandizement of wealth may be briefly stated thus: To find and mark the place in the accumulation of wealth where a man ceases to collect money fairly earned by service to society, and keeps on collecting morally unearned money to use in giving him improper power over society. But to find and to mark that place requires a moral and spiritual growth among the people. Perhaps a thousand or ten thousand men in America might find and mark the dead line now; but until the great mass of the population learn “Thou shalt not steal ” in some other manner than by rote, until they make the commandment as much a part of their lives as they make the commandment against murder, they will not have the moral sense to find the place where a man’s accumulation of wealth must stop, nor the moral fervor to stop it. The pyramid of government may not stand upon its apex now any better than it could ten thousand years ago. Until men cease to wrong one another in small private transactions, they cannot in justice demand as rights the suppression by their government of similar large public transactions. The public rights of the masses are circumscribed by the private wrong upheld by the masses.

And of all the wrongs which society permits men to do to one another under the law, and protects by public sentiment, the most grievous are the wrongs to the poor. All the world knows that it is no crime to cheat a poor man. It is regarded as entirely proper to rent him a leaky roof, to sell him poisoned food, to give him putrid water, to clothe him in shoddy clothes, to sully his children with tainted spectacles on the stage, to trifle with their school funds, to stunt them at their work. The disregard of what may be called the strong classes of population for the weak is none the less barbarous in our civilization because it is everywhere manifest. And its presence — so far as it exists in American civilization — indicates that the strength of the strong is just so far physical, and not spiritual. Until there is a moral growth among the people broad enough and deep enough to undo the wrong which the well-to-do masses do to those struggling up from poverty, the nation will not have the moral vision nor the strength of will to deal with evils that arise from amassing capital and its encroachments. For the oppressions of the middle industrial strata upon the lower keep the minds of the lower masses dark, and the whole public vision is thereby clouded. The purchasable vote of the slums is the mainstay of mammon. The middle class cheats the poor man of everything else, and it is the business of organized wealth to bribe him out of his vote.

But to cheat him of his right to work is the gravest injustice of all, indeed, it is the sum of all the injustice done to the poor man. The right to work may not be inherent in all men in any organization of society. Indeed, it may be shown logically enough that no right is inherent by itself, and that all rights are welded from the iron of necessity by the formation of civilization. But it may not be denied that in modern civilization, where drones are so direct a tax upon the workers, men not merely have a right to work, but the social organization has a right to demand that they work. The mutual interests of the individual and his neighbors in his work lay a duty upon his neighbors to see that he not merely has work, but that he is adequately paid for it. Society recognizes its right to demand that every man shall work, but it hesitates before the sacred rights of property, and does not demand that every man shall be paid equitably for his work. Oneof the problems which civilization must solve is to give the worker a status for his work as sacred and inviolable as the property owner has for his property. To-day the buyer of labor sets the price. The seller takes the price or not; works or is idle, lives or starves, as he pleases. Society organized in government must eventually assert its prerogative as arbiter of the bargain, and proclaim a man’s right to work, and to be paid for his work well enough so that he may grow mentally and morally to a stature sufficiently large and strong to do his duty as a citizen of this republic. The danger to the republic — if there is any danger — is not from the top, but from the bottom of society; and this danger comes because intelligent people are selfishly indolent in their attitude toward the poor. They permit the republic to be cheated of its right to be governed by an honest conscience : they permit the debauching of that conscience by an industrial system that, bends the worker to so poor a price for his work that in masses too great for public safety workers are kept ignorant, uncivilized, and incompetent, for citizenship. We have schools; we have churches ; we have great free libraries. The fountains that would cleanse the public morals and nourish the public conscience are on every hand. But those who most of all need these healthful public baths in righteousness are hurried by them to work for wages so low that, after paying for mere subsistence, the average unskilled laboring man has no surplus with which to enjoy civilization and grow with its culture. If the present organization of society continues, it will be because the moral sense of those of the majority on the fat side of the bread line demands that the Golden Rule shall apply to them in their relations to those on the lean side of the bread line. The first expression of that duty of the majority will be to see that, economically, wages shall not be set as the result of a bargain between the man who has work to sell and him who would buy it for the least possible money, but that wages shall be set by the arbitrament of society, and that in that arbitrament shall be considered, not merely property right, but the right of the government to have the best conscience of a wellfed, well-read, God-fearing man at the ballot box. It is better for this government, and for the perpetuity of modern civilization, that the moral sense and moral fervor of the people should grow, than that an ironclad scale of profits should accrue upon every investment. And investments should be planned by captains of industry with society’s interests in view, as well as those of the stockholders on the company’s books. For the government is the company’s partner. It gives capital more than police protection, and the government should have its returns in wages large enough to make the workers in every store, in every office, and in every shop, good citizens. The people have a right to ask this in the name of the high law of self-preservation, and government has a right to ask it in the name of the law of growth. For when the unskilled and uneducated laboring men become men of trained moral intelligence and definite moral purpose, as they will become when their shortened hours of work give them opportunities to change their environment for a few hours daily, for the better, they will then contribute to the voting strength of America the weight necessary to solve the problems coming out of the encroachment of capital, and solve them fairly to capital and fairly to the country. But if those problems are turned over to an electorate in which there is an ignorant and deludable minority for demagogues to sway, the problems will only be complicated. Jealousy and greed matched upon opposite sides of this controversy will quarrel, but they will not get the truth out of their quarrel. And, what is more important, greed will win. In the ancient contest greed has always won — over jealousy.

But in the contest that is approaching, greed will face a righteous people. The struggle will be between a spiritual force and material avarice. The American people during recent years have been growing in mental and moral vision, and in spiritual force. The millions of books and newspapers and magazines that have been circulating in the land are now bringing forth their fruit. The party system is less rigid than it has ever been. The politics of the nation are on a higher plane than they have ever been before. The people are ceasing to envy riches, and are beginning to ask rich men embarrassing questions. In America the strong man is not necessarily the man of wealth, nor is he the political boss. More and more is the strong man becoming the man of ideals, the man of culture, the man who appeals to the spiritual side of the people. And when counsel for Cræsus contend that to surrender this or that material advantage to those unable to wrest that material advantage from him will but depose one Crœsus to elevate another, reply may be made that even though this life is still a contest ending in the survival of the fittest, the fittest hereafter shall not always be the man with the most brute strength in a bargain, but rather the man who can trade most honorably as well as most profitably. The fittest in commerce even to-day need not be the industrial tiger with the longest claw and sharpest tooth, but the gentleman with the largest heart and wisest head.

Evolution is passing from the wits of men to their hearts. The strong men of to-day who are leading men from the woods of yesterday to the pastures of to-morrow are leaders who gather and hold their clansmen by reason of some moral force, some ethical idea.

This nation has made many inventions that in the making we enthusiastically thought were the ends of government. We have liberty of the press, liberty of speech, liberty of conscience, and much liberty of individual action. We have popular suffrage, and more industrial freedom than any other nation. We have free schools, and there is no appreciable tax or restriction even upon the highest learning. We have developed the idea of liberty as the Greeks developed the love of beauty. But the principle of liberty and the love of beauty are desirable ends only as they lead to the establishment of a just and righteous relation between men. We with our powerful engines of government, even as the Greeks with their ideals of beauty, are face to face with a world-old problem — that will not be satisfied with principles of liberty any more than it was with graceful edifices. It is the problem which the man makes who has not his honest share in this world’s goods, when he stands as the accuser before the man who has more than his honest share. The man who has is strong; the man who has not is weak. And the test of our life today, of our engines of government, will be found in the way they lead the strong man to a righteous appreciation of his duty toward the weak. In all philosophy there is but one sure voice to guide, but one system that will work, but one scheme that is practical. The wisdom of the ancients was cold. It lacked a passionate moral purpose. Without that any civilization will rot at the core. Without it the folk-morals of our people will degenerate and the public morals will be sapless and dead. In all the philosophies of life, in all the systems of government, in all the schemes of industry which have flourished on this planet, only that is vital which has had in it some obedience to “the first and great commandment, ” and to the second which “is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

We are building our pyramid of civilization, and are proud of it, as the ancients were of theirs. But it must rest upon its base, or fall; and it s base must be the practical Christian living of the people in their daily lives. Governments and problems and crises and battles and changing dynasties and passing systems of doing the world’s work are but bubbles and eddies in the onward flowing current of human life going toward its inevitable goal. And all we know of life is that Christ’s teaching tallies with some great force that is moving the current, and that he who follows that teaching moves with the current, and not against it. This inspires the faith that the government that follows “the law and the prophets” shall live.