Our Lost Individuality
THOUGH we, the people of the United States, boast of our individuality, we are regarded to-day by those who cater to our wants as an absorbent mass, rather than as discriminating units. Great agencies of supply give us a range of selection, it is true. But each differentiation is the standard choice of so large a number that it becomes a class by itself. Take, for example, those commodities and needs concerning which our personal taste is naturally selective, and we see that they are supplied, — but to a million or so others as well.
In foods, we are shipped train-loads of ready-to-eat, sometimes predigested, breakfast foods, biscuits, meats, soups, and desserts. In clothes, all of us who are not museum freaks are offered readyto-wear, uniformly designed suits, shirts, underwear, collars, hosiery, and shoes. In medicines, ready-to-alleviate dopes cure all diseases, and produce a host of rural centenarians. In travel, we are urged to join ready-to-start excursions and parties to every quarter of the habitable globe. In music, the ready-to-grind phonographs and pianolas have given the art of the few to the mob. In education, the ready-to-fit curriculums of our great colleges, business and correspondence schools are adapted to every youth in the land who is not an idiot. In dwellings, the ready-for-anybody flat is making a whirlwind obliteration of the American home.
All, all is ready prepared. But these are only an indication. Everywhere we seem to be credited with an appetite for uniformities in bulk. In the industrial sphere, the urgency of making standard articles for the multitude has forced the hurried and ill-favored growth of vast corporations, “ trusts ” and “ monopolies.” In the dramatic, the combines, supplying the whole country with its run of melodramas, farces, comedies, and vaudeville performances, plead the generality of our taste. In the journalistic, we have the bright and shallow magazines boasting a million subscribers; also a daily press, even the best type of which gratifies the great average of us with a conventional line of exaggerations, fabrications, and vulgar sensationalisms. In the religious, the material and moral needs of the masses have given rise to forms of organized “ practical Christianity,” in which the orthodox, heterodox, and atheistic may join.
Indeed, the disease of democracy is upon us. We are a mass. Our appetite is for uniformities. It is clear that the “ much-too-many,” that canny coinage of the half-lunatic Nietzsche for the demos, dominates. But to what extent, and to what effect on individual character ? What influence to-day has the mere number of us on each of us ?
Of course, the attitude toward us of those who supply our real or fancied necessities is not conclusive. For them, we may be only a grand total, yet in our souls be lofty, alone, and sui generis. But the condition or position thus assigned to us by our servitors, whom our numbers have made so mighty, is important. Its summary alone is more than fanciful, because those servitors touch us at so many points; indeed, reflect us to a considerable depth. A course of study followed by a hundred thousand young men is no arbitrary schedule; it is not an isolated régime peculiar to our academies; it is a gauge of our national culture, and the demands of our life even to our frontiers. Sameness in our food, clothing, medicine, and musical performance, for illustration, need not be, but it may be, a sign of enslavement in more senses than one.
We are wearily familiar with the tale of how railways, corporations, combines, trusts, and syndicates have in our West possessed themselves of immense areas of mining, timber, oil, grazing, and agricultural lands, to the extinguishment of the opportunity of the individual settler. By their control of judiciaries and establishment of “ third houses ” in legislatures, they have at various times rendered him a political nullity. Finally, by regulating his production and market, they have brought him to his knees crying for mercy.
Thus in our West, as in our East, a new kind of individuality has arisen: not of the man, which was once the boast of the plainsman and the mountaineer, but of the soulless entity created by the legislature. For example, in Colorado the commercial individualities have been the “ American Smelting and Refining Company,” “ Boston Smelting Company,” “ Victor Coal and Coke Company,” “ Colorado Fuel and Iron Company,” just as the " Standard Oil Company ” and the “ United States Steel Corporation ” have been in the country at large. These are the real American individualities. Their chiefs, the leaders in our financial life, are celebrated, not so much on their own account as because of their connection with these mighty organizations.
Americans have not been quick to complain of this curtailment of their individual opportunity. All were after the almighty dollar. They were not disposed to lament that some successful rival had beaten them at their own game. Therefore, they have suffered long, and seen the evil grow. Westerners, who have prided themselves on their personal independence, have been the first to rebel. But their revolts came only after they felt that such abuses as those inflicted upon them by the railroad and oil companies, in discriminating and excessive rates, and the general coercions of the mining, fuel, and smelting monopolies, were unbearable. The Granger movement, the Farmers’ Alliance, the Populistic, Socialistic, and Social-Democratic uprisings, have testified to their indignation at the flagrant denial by these their overlords, their superiors in individuality, of their right freely to extract, raise, move, and sell their products.
Those socialistic agitations toward paternalistic government were epochal struggles. Americans, traditionally the freest among us, were realizing that their vaunted Western independence and individuality were being slowly crushed out of them. When they, at various times, called for the government ownership of all lands not occupied by actual settlers; the reclamation of tracts held by corporations; the public ownership of transportation facilities, telegraphs, telephones, parcels’ post, and other utilities in the nature of monopolies; the establishment of postal savings banks; the declaration of fiat paper money to be full legal tender; the loan of government funds on farm products in federal warehouses; the refining of oil by the state, — they were unconsciously in full retreat from their stronghold. Thereby they admitted that their boasted personal initiative was come to a sorry state. First, the corporations and capitalists had taken it away from them. Then, instead of seeking to reclaim it, they were willing to surrender its power to the authorities at Washington, or at best to those of their own state. Their common plea in “ hard times ” — “ I can’t pay until the government gives me relief ” —showed the completeness of their capitulation.
The intermixture of two motives has made us preeminently a materialistic people: our eagerness to make money and the urgency of developing the unparalleled resources of our mighty empire. But though physical work and practical problems absorbed our fathers in the early and middle portions of our national history, they did not prevent the development of unique types of character. Or perhaps it would be correct to say that the conditions were such as to permit the people at large to be typified by unique representatives. Threatening questions of government, involving reforms, nourished a burning patriotism which everywhere lifted the minds of people above their drudgery. Society had not coalesced to put its stamp on all. Commerce, industry, and agriculture were free and honorable. Avenues to livelihood were open to the humblest. Men wrought independently, thought independently. Benjamin Franklin, John Jacob Astor, Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, Abraham Lincoln, Horace Greeley, Peter Cooper, George William Childs, were sample individualities representing thousands of men of lesser mould.
To-day we have inherited the American spirit of work and wealth. The world credits us with ideals and genius which are commercial. But we find our republic of opportunity divided into monarchies, oligarchies, and plutocracies. Wall Street has in some respects far overreached Washington. We have been endowed with characteristic impulses and longings, but, behold, the only fields in which they can mature to fruitage are preëmpted. Individual opportunity has been supplanted by corporate opportunity. It is the fault of our mass. To supply the demands of the tremendous aggregate of us requires the investment of vast capital. Modest expenditure is a mere wading in the shallows near shore. It also necessitates specialized education far beyond the reach of most of us. Untrained native talent has nothing of its prestige of fifty years ago.
In proportion as the acquisition of wealth becomes difficult, that process absorbs our time and faculties. The mass of us have money-getting as our real, if not our acknowledged, aim. But we are glad to fit into the vast system where we can. We no longer boast of fortunes to be had for the mere exertion of turning the soil of the prairies, felling the trees of the forest, or delving for minerals in the mountains. Instead, we are willing to spend time and money in technical preparation, that we may become simply cogs in one of the wheels of the complicated existing machine. We are subordinate to successive chiefs. Or, if we become chiefs, we are still subordinate to the plans of boards of directors, and to the universal corporate and commercial plan which rules in the business world.
Even if we rebel against this overpowering system, the effect is to lose ourselves in the mass to do it. Labor unions make man a numeral. The very psychological impress on us of organizing to overthrow the despotism is that of our separate insignificance.
Individuality, in the sense of a man’s distinct personality, in the material domain is becoming an increasingly rare phenomenon. We are forced to a common standard. Even those of us who have not material objectives cannot be nonconformers. For the few are powerless to escape the brand of eighty millions. We are socialized into an average. This brand of the multitude is a mental trademark. There can be little deviation from its grading. Granted a people of utilitarian aims, who must conform to established financial, commercial, and industrial systems of completely dominating power, and it is clear that their intellectual type must be persistent, The more intent they become on wealth, the more materialor uniform-minded they grow. The dead level of intellectuality widens.
Our effort in competing for success over the same long, difficult, foreordained courses gives us all a similar mental cast. Prosperous times, with their elation, “ hard times,” with their despair, equally engrave the mark of tribe. Extinguishment of individuality is the tendency of our business system as surely as it is that of the German army system. In our world of affairs, intellectual individuality, if such it may be called, is shown in the degree, not the differentiation, of our mental powers. The best fitted win distinction, but they are only large specimens of the same mental species.
Yet our Rockefellers, Carnegies, and Morgans are unlike the eminent merchants and financiers of fifty years ago. The latter were examples of our free, successful men of affairs. The former are generals in the hard-drilled army of this commercially militant country, which has been largely of their own mustering and training. What representative quality the latter may have possessed was due to personal achievement, and was, therefore, accidental and individual. But the former have been feverishly active these many years to create in us their own mental form and comeliness.
Each of us is under tutelage to the mass of us. Every moment we are acted on by suggestions from the demos. One cannot escape the thought of all. What John Stuart Mill and Frederic Harrison say, about society now having the better of the individual, is especially applicable to the United States. Americans tend toward the cities. One third of us live in them. There we are packed; there a thousand means conform us to the multitude. Our proximity, our universal communication, make us common. Numerous clubs, societies, coöperative charities, tend to merge our individualities. Social settlements, those necessary and admirable activities of “ practical Christianity,” are typical of a material people too busy for meditation and spirituality, and are the very apotheosis of the nonindividual. A general type of social converse is current, not reflective of high culture, but of a low average. Our mass is increasing daily, hourly. The more we are weighted by it, the more subject to it we become, the more our capacity for individuality diminishes.
Intellectually, the rural regions are ruled by our centres of population. An idea taken up by a metropolis runs its course to our farthest national bounds. That we so often make a craze of such an idea shows our imitative quality. We copy because we are too busy to originate. Thus golfing and automobiling, catchy songs and slang phrases, styles of architecture and bridge-whist, picture postcards and frenzied finance, Christian Science and anti-graft, Teddy bears, and cheap magazines, are sweeping over us at present. From dense centres of the East, they, as all our fads and styles, take their imitative way westward. But they may, on a turn of the popular tide, be abandoned, just as bicycling, ping-pong, jig-saw puzzles, child-discipline, and orthodox theology have been left behind.
But how is it in the higher realms of thought ? Ah, there also the mentality of the mass crushes us. Though students in the classical courses in the colleges of the United States still outnumber those in technical courses, education is turning from cultural to utilitarian ends. German authorities have noted this in the selective courses peculiar to our institutions, and assert that it promotes only superficiality, not scholarly individuality, in our undergraduates. Curricula are readjusted to vast numbers of students whose ambitions and abilities are similar. These students have all the traits of their shrewd, calculating parents. Their schooling they desire to be a practical, technical training for a livelihood in a material calling.
But even those students who pursue purely academic, courses are beaten into an intellectual sameness. Coming from the democracy of our public schools, they enter the democracy of our colleges. Against this leveling influence the American home to-day does little to individualize the youth of the land. Parents are too preoccupied with material affairs; their conversation and their actions show it. They have neither the leisure nor the culture of Lyman Beecher, Bronson Alcott, John Gladstone, the elder Robert Browning, or the elder William Pitt, to develop and refine the separate characters of children. Students in their advanced schooling are still trained in battalions, and still are subject to our spirit of mobhurry. The high-pressure requirements of each department tend to exhaust what nascent individuality a youth may possess. With scores of companions, he is everlastingly hustling about, making “ majors ” and clearing up “ hours.” His energies are so spent on the general task assigned each day to his crowded class that he really cannot find himself. Naturally, when he gets his diploma he is uncertain whither his talents lead.
Probably he has specialized on sociology and economics, sciences of the multitude, because they deal with the teeming life about him, and are popular with his fellow students. From the nervous tension of his studies his sane diversions are few. Athletics, the most powerful leveler in our college life, has absorbed him, not as an exercise, but as a mob craze. Its rivalries and feverish materialism make it the analogue in our university world of the hot competition in the postgraduate world of trade. Is it remarkable that our fresh graduates seem cast in the same mould ? They wear the same suits, hats, shoes; act the same; smoke the same pipes; think and talk the same athletic trivialities, and seem equally void of vital interest in cultural subjects. Very different, as President Nicholas Murray Butler has remarked, from the graduates of his day, whose minds inclined toward high themes. One is tempted to sigh for the old loose college régimes and easy schedules which allowed Burke, Goldsmith, Wordsworth, Stevenson, to loaf through their courses, each with his individual genius undimmed.
Lecky was right. Our literature has suffered because of our equality, our haste, and our apotheosis of the average judgment. Everywhere things are adjusted to minds intent on material objects. The hurry of the omnipresent common mentality, on its mission of developing and extending the business of the nation, will not permit of the isolated culture necessary to great verse or prose. Our poets cannot flee the multitude, as Wordsworth did. To-day the inspired aloofness of men like Emerson, Hawthorne, Whitman, and Thoreau, would be a miracle. Coöperation, organization, a leveling union, is the rule. Our means of communication are too complete. In the remotest wilderness a hundred suggestions may remind us that we are still working bees which belong to the hive. In his Maxims and Reflections, Goethe complained of the newspapers of his day, “ They publish abroad everything that every one does, or is busy with, or is meditating, — no one can rejoice or be sorry but as a pastime for others.” What would have been his despair at the commonizing bombardment of our hourly press ? If our character cannot escape the deadly level, our literature cannot.
Our science, as well as our letters, has felt the blighting animus of our mass. It is not because “ we have not yet emerged from the backwoods ” that we are today so wholly eclipsed by Europeans in this field of research. Nor is it because democracies in general are unfavorable to this branch of knowledge. Democratic France, perhaps, leads the world in it. But it is because the animus of our democracy is utterly alien to pure science. So charged has been the atmosphere of this country with the immanence of practical, physical problems, that we have been unable to see the use of theorizing, investigation, or experimentation, unless it promised return in dollars and cents. Such labor as that of Berthelot, who never took out a patent; of Pasteur; of the Curies, in its patient preliminary stages, we are too impatient to comprehend. We certainly do little in honors, emoluments, or equipment, to encourage it.
That doctrine of the supremacy of the individual, well taught by Nietzsche, in Thus Spake Zarathrustra; by Ibsen, in The Doll’s House; by Hauptmann, in Lonely Lives; by Sudermann, in Magda ; by Bernard Shaw, in Man and Superman, seems to have made headway in this country. Apparently we often act with their royal disdain of mob-wisdom, of the supreme sanctity of matrimony, formal piety, precise social respectability, the duty of preferring others to ourselves. Certainly our Puritanic ideals of duty and morality are toppling. Notions concerning self-sacrifice, Sabbath and religious observance, obedience and reverence in children, common honesty in trade, are relaxing. Adulterations in food, deceptions in merchandise, graft, over-capitalization, the artificial raising of prices, the crushing of competition, frequent divorces and domestic scandals, point to a general lowering of the tone of our business and private morality.
Such instances, of course, show nothing more than that the old ideals are losing something of their force. They do not necessarily point to an enlightened emancipation of the individual will. But, as a denial of the unexceptional and universal rule of conventional ideals is the burden of the great modern playwrights, it is interesting to know how far our present state goes toward moral liberty.
It is one thing to supplant old ideals of “ duty ” and “ morality,” because they are outworn, with a more enlightened principle of conduct which shall obviate unnecessary self-immolation and suffering. It is another supinely to fall away from those ideals. By doing the first, I say, “ The universal rules, laid by the church upon Christian civilization in the dark ages, while it was growing out of barbarism, have in particular instances proved unjust, and they should not, at this late day, be blindly followed by me, a free, cultivated individual, capable of judging my own case.” By doing the second, I do not imply individuality, but merely lapse into moral anarchy. In the one case, my emancipation is justified by its enlightenment, in the other, condemned by its lawlessness.
Acts which to-day have the aspect of moral individuality, I can see only as acts of protest and moral chaos. We have felt the irksomeness and frequent injustice of straight-laced piety, morality, and custom. Thereupon we cast them behind us. But when, for example, we leave the home for the divorce court, or the church for the Sunday golf game, it is a retreat, not an advance. Like selfwilled, pleasure-loving children, we have petulantly thrown aside something we were taught to cherish. We have merely forsaken a principle or an ideal, and have nothing positive in its place. And it is the sight of a multitude of others breaking bounds that makes it the easier. We have backslided as a mass. Acts which appear to indicate the moral freedom of the individual will are really the sheepcaperings of the flock when the bars are down. Our individuality has lost rather than gained.
After what has been said, it is enough to allude to the spiritual test of individuality. Without soul, man is common; with it, he is distinct. In art, it gives him temperament; in faith, insight into the divine. Our universally diffused commercialism and the uncertainty of our religious tenets, caused by the overthrow of the “ orthodox ” Scriptural cosmogony by Darwin, are clear as working against his spiritual development. Both oppose the religious enlargement of the soul; the former discourages its æsthetic cultivation as well.
Individuality in the United States, judging from the lack of its products, is more hard-pressed than in the countries of Europe. There the creations of distinctive genius flourish. In art, letters, science, music, the drama, the so-called despotisms of the Old World show a greater liberty to man as a unit than does our Republic. Social caste and military conscription certainly are still oppressive on the Continent, and many causes there restrain the growth of full, free personality. But against the established gradations of population under dynasties we, in this land of equality, have the incalculable tyranny of our commercialism. Over the water, certain classes are coerced into uniformity; others, as the scholarly, the artistic, the literary, are comparatively free. Here, where the law knows no distinction between man and man, we are all to-day under that invisible master-monarchy which holds us, body, mind, and soul.
Full individuality, freedom in the material, mental, moral, and spiritual realms, — how few Americans have possessed it! Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, are the conspicuous ones. To-day we occasionally see, here and there, little groups struggling for it. Concord and Brook Farm ideas seem to lure them. But the cloudlike hosts of materialism envelop them. The Press quickly brays forth its ridicule, and they end by being resolved to earth again. Their combination for individuality is dissolved, and each mixes with the elements of the multitude. Thereafter they are merely “ queer ” to their separate neighborhoods.
“ The average judgment ” — what sway it bears over us! Deference to the views of others is the principle of our institutions and actions. Each man wishes to be a “ good fellow; ” that is, so to act as to meet the approval of the greatest number of other “ fellows.” He averages himself with the rest by everlastingly exchanging ideas and articles, of the appreciable sort, with his fellow beings. Small wonder that the wholesalers of our food, clothing, medicines, and musical machines know that their products will sweep the land. An article once favored must run its course, like a fad. We buy it because others do; we deceive ourselves into approval of it in imitation of a like self-deception on the part of our acquaintances. Yet we call ourselves the most individual people on earth! As a whole, we have lost the inclination and capacity for separate selfhood.