The Friendless Majority

IN these days any one with a pity for outcasts cannot fail to sympathize with the friendless majority. Emerson with his epochal ‘Self-Reliance,’ Renan with his victorious‘Caliban,’ Ibsen with his scornful ‘Enemy of the People,’ have made abuse of the majority a favorite — almost a popular — recreation, and able speakers to-day find no difficulty in proving the unworthiness of the larger human aggregates to the satisfaction of from two thirds to nine tenths of the responsive audience. Personally, I always disliked the majority, as long as the crowd was on its side, but I find that it tends to grow interesting, almost sympathetic, in the hour of its rejection and abandonment. I still like to hear our nobler youth urged to rebel against the despotism of social usage or political inertia, but, as philosopher, I suspect that, in the great cyclic process of man versus men, the verdict is sometimes given a little too hastily and absolutely for the plaintiff. When Mrs. Grundy herself is sent to Coventry, human nature cannot repress a smile, but society at large is a bigger thing than Mrs. Grundy, and the right of mankind to be heard in its own defense may be conceded by the most spleenful of individualists.

I wonder if the censors of the majority—commonly indebted to its homes, its schools, its churches, for the training of that intelligence and conscience with which they rake its institutions fore and aft — have ever stopped to imagine the consequences of the relaxing on all sides of that respect for the opinions of mankind which — let us frankly confess — so often obstructs and retards the progress of particular reforms. Genius would be liberated? Yes; if we are willing to compliment the majority to the extent of admitting its capacity to bridle even genius. But, conceding this capacity, let us remember that the fools would be liberated by the same act, and the proportion of geniuses to fools in this inequitable planet is not of a kind to confirm hope in the optimistic reformer. Open the doors of your penitentiary, and you may possibly release a Giordano Bruno or John Brown of Ossawatomie (though the likelihood of such result is inappreciable), and you will very certainly cast out into the world some hundreds of forgers, embezzlers, and assassins.

If you wish to ignore that particular embodiment of social opinion which is called law and has clubs and gallows and electricity on its side, the case is quite as clear where the application of the social influence is merely psychological. Release a given social assemblage from adherence to the manners of the day, and, for one person in whom an original thought or generous act is set free, there will be fifty in whom the same license will unbind an act of greed, an ineptitude, a frivolity, or an impertinence.

These things are interferences with progress, obstructions to true life, and when we reflect that the normal effect of social disfavor is not to prevent but simply to defer the accomplishment of great reforms, it requires some courage to assert that the postponement of the good is too high a price to pay for the suppression of the evil.

Society need not follow the counsel of imbeciles. Granted: but the time lost in convincing them of the hopelessness of their projects is time that can be ill spared from tillage and shoemaking and leechcraft. You may be proof against the importunities of the sly agent, but if you had to walk to your threshold fifty times a day even for the purpose of shutting the door in his face, the consumption of your time would hurt your business. Nuisances are plentiful, in spite of all restraints; most of us would like to be ‘cranks’ if the social penalties were removed; and the one thing that keeps the breed from multiplying to ten times its present strength is the odium inseparable from the name.

The truth is that imitation, with the docility which is its source, secures to the dullards and the weaklings a virtual participation in the good sense and right, feeling of the wiser few. Men are kept orderly, clean, and decent through the strength of this obsequiousness to social opinion which the prophets of individualism are in such haste to deplore. The social code no doubt always involves much inadequacy, much stupidity, some hypocrisy, and some wickedness; but, taken by and large, the average of its prescriptions has probably been higher in every age than the average of undirected and unfettered individual impulse. Many of the things embodied in that wide-ranging, multifarious thing called the sense of the community are undoubtedly right, since they were once the distinctions of heroic minorities or the discoveries of fearless individuals.

It is the poor scourged majority indeed that supports the right of free speech, in the strength of which its ungrateful assailants address themselves to the task of its flagellation. While reformers are hot in affirmations of its stupidity, the purblind thing almost justifies their censures by the absurd magnanimity with which it protects their lives, defends their property, counts their votes, or transports their diatribes against itself with unerring precision in its hospitable mail-bags. The majority learns slowly, it is true, and the minority feels in its presence the same impatience which the bright lad in the district school exhibits when the sturdy bumpkin at his side spells out his words with stolid persistence from the tattered reading-book. But the bumpkin has an excellent, memory, and may be pardoned for a little honest bewilderment when his teachers change their mind.

Men fail to see the value of consolidation in a race, a nation, or a party. The Germans love music as a people, the French literature, the English liberty, in the same way; the nationality, the solidarity, of the support accorded to the chosen ideal reinforces its grip upon every individual. The love of music, of literature, of liberty, is fortified in each instance by that muchdecried but mighty force, the love of agreement. Even reformers are glad to touch men on what we may call their corporate or federal side. The abolitionist, the single-tax man, appeals to common justice, to common humanity; he invokes not merely the voice of the individual conscience, but the immemorial concurrence of men in high principles, in the support of which their wish to stand well with one another is inextricably bound up with their personal loyalty to right and justice.

What is the first act of a revolting minority? To organize; that is, to profit by men’s wish to stand together; the very principle which, incarnate in the unsympathetic majority, is for the moment defeating their own project. Indeed, the closeness of the tie which unites the members of small sects is commonly the force that nerves them to endure their segregation from the people at large. It is a curious fact that, to persuade men to rebel, the first step is, necessarily, to render them docile. Men are opportunist even in their vilifications of majorities. What recognition has the reformer for the individualism that opposes his measure? What censures has he for the gregariousness which rallies ultimately to its support? The propagandists view the mental independence of their fellows in the same light in which the United States viewed the independence of Texas,—as the needful preliminary to annexation.

The solidarity of mankind lightens the task of the reformer by simplifying the argument of his opponents. Here are fifty million people, possibly, committed to the repression of socialism: but among all the fifty millions there are not more than half a dozen reasons and two or three feelings. It is clear that the paucity of objections greatly simplifies the intellectual problem of the socialist agitator. If there were fifty million reasons — the mind shudders at the possibility.

There have been periods in history such as the Stephen Marcel régime in France, the period of the Long Parliament in England, and the reign of Joseph II in Austria, when the bonds of precedent were relaxed and the facility and fecundity of reform were unexampled. What was the issue of this accelerated progress? The reforms disappeared with the celerity of a gamester’s winnings. In these matters, you have to choose between the nail, hard to drive but practically irremovable, and the pin, yielding itself equally to insertion or displacement. The abolition of chattel slavery is fixed with adamantine permanence to-day by that very tenacity and solidarity of mankind which offered such stubborn resistance to its triumph. Cannot the opposition to the industrial slavery of the present hour well afford to undergo a similar probation in the foresight of an equal guarantee? Is not England, obtuse and obstinate but unshakable, better in these respects than France, responsive and plastic but unsure? Because removal from one dwelling-house to another is sometimes necessary and always troublesome, shall society live in a wagon? Do not be too impatient, O panting reformer, of the stupidity that postpones the victory of your plans; to-morrow it will be defending your conquest more effectually than your own wisdom!

There is another consideration which should temper the complaints which the meliorists direct against the inertia of society. In a social organism where all the parts were centrifugal, individuality would have no significance, no eminence, no prestige. The heretic should not cry out too savagely against that orthodoxy which supplies him with a vocation. The leaven is more active than the dough, but it cannot decently complain of the dough, which provides both an occasion for its use and an advertisement of its power, without which indeed it would be nothing but an ineffectual and acrid ferment. If it objects that the dough is too tardy and backward in yielding to its solicitations, might not that good creature reply with some plausibility that this delay was the most caustic of comments on the effectiveness of the yeast? The kindlings are slow to ignite: may it not be the phosphorus instead of the shavings that is wet?

What is the inertness of the majority but a louder summons and more insistent challenge to the energy and constancy of the prophets of the truth? In an age of narrowing adventure and multiplying securities, would we remove, even if we could, any of those social rigors and asperities which constitute almost our sole remaining warrant that heroism shall not perish from the earth? Would we consent to obliterate at one stroke the long anguish and infamy of the anti-slavery conflict in the United States, if the act of effaccment embraced in its sweep the memory of Garrison and Phillips, of Lovejoy and John Brown, of the Gettysburg Address, the ‘Laus Deo,’ and the ‘Commemoration Ode’? Better obloquy with its attendant and compensatory glories than the listless neutrality which effaces both.

I am not fond of the companionship of majorities: they are massive, they are phlegmatic; in social intercourse they fail to shine. For personal delectation give me a rebel, — a species which I like well enough to feel kindly disposed toward the social conditions which insure his emergence and affirm his usefulness. I am angry with rebels only when they want to rebuild the universe on a plan which leaves no room in the edifice for their own accommodation. Look at the summary of the desiderata: namely, the virtual certainty of the ultimate success of any high cause, a virtual guarantee of permanence to that success, a degree of difficulty and delay which insures the elimination of those spurious reforms which fail to command the perseverance and fortitude of their adherents, and, lastly, a standing appeal to those capacities for heroism that lie dormant in mankind. What more could we ask, and what else do we have?