'To Counsel the Doubtful'


IN the Colony Records of Plymouth it is set down that a certain John Williams lived unhappily with his wife — a circumstance which was as conceivable in that austere community as in less godly towns. But the Puritan magistrate who, in the year 1666, undertook to settle this connubial quarrel, had no respect for that compelling word, incompatibility. The afflicted couple were admonished ‘to apply themselves to such waies as might make for the recovery of peace and love betwixt them. And for that end the Court requested Isacke Bucke to bee officious therein.’

It is the delight and the despair of readers, especially of readers inclined to the intimacies of history, that they are so often told the beginnings of things, and left to conjecture the end. How did Isacke Bucke set about his difficult and delicate commission, and how did the contentious pair relish his officiousness? The Puritans were tolerably accustomed to proffering advice. It was part of their social code, as well as a civil and religious duty. They had a happy belief in the efficacy of expostulation. In 1635 it was proposed that the magistrates of Boston should ‘in tenderness and love admonish one another.’ And many lively words must have come of it.

Roman Catholics who studied their catechism when they were children will always remember that the first of the ‘ Spiritual Works of Mercy ’ is ‘ To counsel the doubtful.’ Taken in conjunction with the thirteen other works, it presents a compendium of holiness. Taken by itself, apart from less popular rulings, such as ‘ To forgive offenses,’ and ‘To bear wrongs patiently,’ it is apt to be a trifle overbearing. Catholic theology has defined the difference between a precept and a counsel — when the Church speaks. A precept is binding, and obedience to it is an obligation. A counsel is suggestive, and obedience to it is a matter of volition. The same distinction holds good in civil and social life. A law must be obeyed; but it is in no despite of our counselors, moral or political, that we reserve the right of choice.

Three hundred years ago, Robert Burton, who was reflective rather than mandatory, commented upon the reluctance of heretics to be converted from their errors. It seemed to him — a learned and detached onlooker — that one man’s word, however well spoken, had no effect upon another man’s views; and he marveled unconcernedly that this should be the case. The tolerance or the indifference of our day has disinclined most of us to meddle with our neighbor’s beliefs. We are concerned about his tastes, his work, his politics, because at these points his life touches ours; but we have a decent regard for his spiritual freedom, and for the secret responsibility it entails.

There are, indeed, devout Christian communities which expend their time, money, and energy in extinguishing in the breasts of other Christians the faith which has sufficed and supported them. The methods of these propagandists are more genial than were those of the Inquisition; but their temerity is no less, and their animating principle is the same. They proffer their competing set of dogmas with absolute assurance, forgetting that man does not live by fractions of theology, but by the correspondence of his nature with spiritual influences moulded through the centuries to meet his needs. To counsel the doubtful is a Christian duty; but to create the doubts we counsel is nowhere recommended. It savors too closely of omniscience.

The counsels offered by age to youth are less expansive and less untrammeled than are the counsels offered by youth to age. Experience dulls the courageous and imaginative didacticism that is so heartening, because so sanguine, in the young. We have been told, both in England and in the United States, that youth is now somewhat displeased with age, as having made a mess of the world it was trying to run; and that the shrill defiance which meets criticism indicates this justifiable resentment. It is not an easy matter to run a world at the best of times, and Germany’s unfortunate ambition to control the running has put the job beyond man’s power of immediate adjustment. The social lapses that have been so loudly lamented by British and American censors are the least serious symptoms of the general disintegration — the crumbling away of a cornice when the foundations are insecure.

It is interesting, however, to note the opposing methods employed by carping age to correct the excesses of youth. When a Western state disapproves of the behavior of its young people, it turns to the courts for relief. It asks and obtains laws regulating the length of a skirt, or the momentum of a dance. When a New England state disapproves of the behavior of its young people, it writes articles, or circulates and signs a remonstrance. Sometimes it confides its grievance to a Federation of Women’s Clubs, hoping that the augustness of this assembly will overawe the spirit of revolt. I may add that when Canada (Province of Quebec) disapproves of the behavior of its young people, it appeals to the Church, which acts with commendable promptness and semi-occasional success.

All these torrents of disapproval have steeped society in an ebb-tide of rejected counsels. It would seem that none of us are conducting ourselves as properly as we should, and that few of us are satisfactory to our neighbors. In the rapid shifting of responsibility, we find ourselves accused when we thought we were accusers. We say that a girl’s dress fails to cover a proper percentage of her body, and are told that it is the consequence of our inability to preserve peace. We pay a predatory grocer the price he asks for his goods, and are told that it is our fault he asks it. If we plead that hunger-striking — the only alternative — is incompatible with hard work, we are offered a varied assortment of substitutes for food.

There is nothing in which personal tastes are more assertive or less persuasive than in the devices of economy. Sooner or later they resolve themselves into the query of the famous and frugal Frenchman: ‘Why should I pay twelve francs for an umbrella when I can buy a bock for six sous?’


The most hopeful symptom of our times (so fraught with sullenness and peril) is the violent hostility developed a few years ago between rival schools of verse. There have always been individual critics as sensitive to contrary points of view as are the men who organize raids on Carnegie Hall whenever they disagree with a speaker. Swinburne was a notable example of this tyranny of opinion. It was not enough for him to love Dickens and to hate Byron, thus neatly balancing his loss and gain. He was impelled by the terms of his nature ardently to proclaim his love and his hate, and intemperately to denounce those who loved and hated otherwise. That so keen and caustic a commentator as Mr. Chesterton should have been annoyed because he could not turn back the tide of popular enthusiasm which surged and broke at Rudyard Kipling’s feet was natural enough. He confided to the British public that ‘Recessional’ was the work of a ‘ solemn cad ’; and the British public — quite as if he had not spoken—took the poem to its heart, wept over it, prayed over it, and dilated generally with emotions which it is good for a public to feel. The looker-on was reminded a little of Horace Walpole fretfully explaining to Paris that a Salisbury Court printer could not possibly know anything about the habits of the English aristocracy; and of Paris replying to this ultimatum by reading Clarissa Harlowe with all its might and main, and shedding torrents of tears over the printer’s matchless heroine.

But the asperity of a solitary critic is far less impelling than the asperity of a whole school of writers and of their opponents. Just when the ways of the world seemed darkest, and its nations most distraught, the literati effected a welcome diversion by quarreling over rules of prosody. The lovers of rhyme were not content to read rhyme and to write it; the lovers of polyphonic prose were not content to read polyphonic prose and to write it; but both factions found their true joy in vivaciously criticizing and counseling their antagonists. Miss Amy Lowell was right when she said, with her customary insight and decision, that the beliefs and protests and hates of poets all go to prove the deathless vigor of the art. Unenlightened outsiders took up the quarrel with pleasure, finding relief in a dispute that threatened death and disaster to no one.

Few contentions are so innocent of ill-doing. The neighbors whom we counsel most assiduously are the nations of the world and their governments, which might well be doubtful, seeing that they stumble at every step; but which perhaps stand more in need of smooth roads than of direction. It is true that M. Stephane Lauzanne, editor of Le Matin, assured us last autumn that France did not seek American gold, or ships, or guns, or soldiers— ‘only counsels.’ This sounded quite in our line, until the Frenchman, with that fatal tendency to the concrete which is typical of the Gallic mind, proceeded to explain his meaning: ‘We ask of the country of Edison and of the Wrights that it will present us with a system for a league of nations that will work. If there were nothing needed but eloquence, the statesmen of old Europe would have been sufficient.’

Why did not M. Lauzanne ask for the moon while he was about it? What does he suppose we Americans have been striving for since 1789 but systems that will work? Mr. Henry Adams, commenting upon the disastrous failure of Grant’s administration, says just this thing: ‘The world’ (the American world) ‘cared little for decency. What it wanted, it did not know. Probably a system that would work, and men who could work it. But it found neither.’

And still the search goes on. A system of taxation that will work. A system of wage-adjustment that will work. A system of prohibition that will work. A system of public education that will work. These are the bright phantoms we pursue; and now a Paris editor casually adds a system for a working league of nations. ‘If France is in the right, let America give us her moral support. If France is in the wrong, let America show us the road to follow.’


To presume agreement where none exists is the most dangerous form of self-deception. When newspapers and orators tell us that to the United States has come ‘the moral leadership of the world,’ we must understand them to imply that foreign nations, with whom we have little in common, are of our way of thinking — provided always that they know what we think, and that we know ourselves. For the wide divergence of national aspirations they make scant allowance; for misunderstanding and ill-will they make no allowance at all. For several months before last November’s elections, the spokesmen of both parties assured us with equal fervor that our country was destined to be the bulwark of the world’s peace. Their prescriptions for peace differed radically in detail, but all agreed that ours was to be the administering hand. And all implied that Europe (and, if need be, Asia and Africa) was ready for our restoratives. ‘Want America to teach Turkey,’ was the headline of a leading newspaper, which, in the autumn of 1920, deplored the general unteachableness of the Turk.

Perhaps the careless crudeness of headlines deceives a large class of hurried readers who rely too implicitly upon them. When the Conference at Versailles was plodding through its task, a New York paper announced in large type: ‘Italy dissatisfied with territory assigned her by Colonel House.’ It had a mirth-provoking sound; but, after all, the absurdity was in no way attributable to Colonel House; and, in the matter of dissatisfaction, not even a headline could go beyond the facts. What has ever impelled the Tribuna and the Avanti to express amicable agreement, save their mutual determination to repudiate the intervention of the United States ?

When Mr. Wilson risked speaking directly to the Italian people, he paved the way for misunderstanding. To a government, words are words. It deals with them itself, and it makes allowance for the difficulty of translating them into action. ‘Words are the daughters of earth. Deeds are the sons of Heaven.’ But a proletariat is apt, not merely to attach significance to words, but to read an intensive meaning into them. We have not done badly by Italy. We spent a great deal of money upon her cold and hungry children. She is sending us shiploads of immigrants. Her resentment at our counsel seemed to us unwise and ungrateful, seeing that we must naturally know what is best for her. We cannot accept ill-will with the unconcern of Great Britain, which has been used to it, and has survived it, for centuries. We feel that we deserve well of the world, because we are immaculately free from coveting what we do not need.

If we aspire to moral leadership, we must go a step beyond this disinterestedness. We must forget our gold reserve, and disassociate from our counsels all lurking consciousness of strength and wealth. Foreign nations frankly recognize our numerical and financial superiority, and are prepared to pay it deference; but this deference is not in accord with a consistently ethical platform. Europe needs ‘vision,’ and Europe needs practical help. We may have both to offer; but we cannot make the giving of one depend upon the acceptance of the other. It is reasonable and right that we should be concerned about the ten billions owing to us; and while decency and self-interest conspire to make us a liberal creditor, the existence of the debt clogs our relations with our debtors. It gives us a reason — if not a right — to advise in practical matters; but it cannot promote us to the ranks of spiritual ascendency. ‘America shall in truth show the way’ must mean the way to goodness and wisdom; not the way to getting back our money.

And yet one wonders now and then whether, if there had been four years of glorious and desolating war on this Western continent, and the United States had emerged triumphant, but spent, broken, and bankrupt, we should be so sure of our mission to regenerate. Would Congress blithely advise a powerful Great Britain, with her fighting power intact, and the gold reserve locked up in London, to put her house in order? We have always been singularly sensitive to foreign criticism, and quick to resent intrusion. No people in the world could less desire to be shown the way to righteousness. The sixty-six members of the Yale Faculty who sent a remonstrance to the Senate and the House of Representatives, protesting against our interference in the relations of Great Britain and Ireland, based their protest upon our unalterable determination to preserve inviolate our independence, and to manage our own affairs. They felt, and said, that we should be scrupulous to observe in our own case the propriety we exacted of others.


The ingenious device of appointing an American committee, which in its turn appointed an American commission to sit as a court of appeal, and receive evidence touching the policies of Great Britain and Ireland, is a new move in international relations. The informality of the measure makes it an interesting experiment. Governors of Wyoming and North Dakota, mayors of Milwaukee and Anaconda, clergymen and college professors, ladies and gentlemen of unimpeachable respectability from all over the country responded to Mr. Villard’s call, and placed their diplomacy at his disposal. Pains have been taken to convince the public that the object of the committee is to avert ‘the greatest calamity which could befall the civilized world’ — a war between Great Britain and the United States; and that its members are above all things anxious to avoid ‘the charge of improper interference in the concerns of another nation.’ Evidently they do not feel that summoning Ireland and England to appear as plaintiff and defendant before their self-constituted tribunal is in the nature of an interference. ‘I meddle with no man’s conscience,’said Cromwell broadmindedly, when he closed the Catholic churches, and forbade the celebration of Mass.

A popular movement of this order, and one that addresses itself distinctly to a large and aggressive body of American voters, must have some logical issue in view. Behind a wealth of words (its cable to the Archbishop of Canterbury, October twentieth, was in the nature of an essay) there must be a clearly defined purpose, which should be universally understood. Ulster and Catholic Ireland — like Mr. and Mrs. John Williams of Plymouth — are living unhappily together. Their quarrels have become disgracefully violent. England cannot keep the peace. A committee of Americans has been appointed by Mr. Villard to play the part of Isacke Bucke and ‘bee officious’ in reuniting the inharmonious pair. To effect this reconciliation, it invites both parties, and, in a general way, the British government, to travel three thousand miles, and have the case tried in Washington. The immediate purpose of such an unusual and expensive proceeding is plainly stated. ‘The Commission desires to present an actual picture of the crisis to the American people, so that, with this background, constructive suggestions may arise as to a way out.’

This is the broadest bid for counsel ever made to an agitated public. Constructive suggestions have not been lacking at any stage of the controversy. The trouble is that there are two ways out, and that each party wants its own. There is no member of this committee so innocent as not to know that the logical outcome of their movement is war. While they are chasing ‘nimble and retiring truth,’ errors and distortions fill the public mind. And what if Great Britain persists in its refusal to be tried in the United States, as we should refuse with all our hearts and souls to be tried in England? Will the case then be suffered to go by default? What if Ulster, like Giles Corey, refuses to plead? Will it then, like Corey, be pressed to death by popular opinion? There is a sinister suggestion in the words, which announce a dangerous programme and deny the responsibility thereof. ‘The Commission will undertake to sift the evidence, and present the facts; then let those who ought take notice.’

There is only one way of taking effective notice, and that is by an appeal to arms. ‘The libation of freedom,’ observes Mr. Jefferson Brick, ‘must sometimes be quaffed in blood.’ That the same Americans who strove their utmost to avert a war with the worldmarauder, Germany, should now strive their utmost to promote a war with Great Britain is a logical sequence of events. The immediate result of such hostility would be the restoration of German power. It’s an ill wind that blows nobody good.

The humor of appointing a private commission in one corner of the world to settle public affairs in another is lost upon Americans, who, having been told that they are to ‘show the way,’ conceive themselves to be showing it. If it had ever occurred to them that there are phenomena upon which they are not all qualified to offer advice, they would perhaps have forborne to send a procession of little girls on the 12th of last October, to counsel the President of the United States. The banners carried by these innocents bore severely worded directions from their mothers as to how Mr. Wilson should conduct himself. The language used was of that reprehensible rudeness common to such counselors; the exhortations themselves appeared to be irrelevant. ‘American women demand that anarchy in the White House be stopped!’ puzzled the onlookers, who wondered what was happening in that sad abode of pain; what women these were who knew so much about it; and why a children’s crusade should have been organized for the control of our foreign relations.

The last query is the easiest answered. Picketing is a survival of the childish instinct in the human heart. It is the play-spirit, about which modern educators talk so glibly, and which we are bidden to cherish and preserve. A society of ‘American Women Pickets’ is out to enjoy itself, and its pleasures are as simple as they are satisfying. To walk the streets (not unobserved), to elude the law that seeks to abate public nuisances, and to counsel the doubtful who are not asking for instruction — what better game could be played, either by children, or by Peter Pans valiantly refusing to mature? The women who picketed the British Embassy in Washington, the British Consulate in New York, and the dock where British ships were unloading American imports, were merely offering to strangers the same attention that had been shown to Mr. Wilson as President, and to Mr. Harding as candidate for the presidency. Even the tomb at Mount Vernon has been surrounded by pickets, bearing banners with the inscription, ‘Washington, Thou Art Truly Dead!’ To which the mighty shade, who in his day had heard all too often the sound and fury of undigested counsels, and who, because he would not hearken, had been assailed as ‘a Nero, a defaulter, and a pickpocket,’ might well have answered from the safety and dignity of the tomb, ‘Deo gratias!’

When a private citizen calls at the White House, to ‘frankly advise’ a modification of the German peacetreaty; when a private citizen writes to the American Bar Association, to ‘ frankly advise ’ this distinguished body of men to forbid any allusion to public affairs in their speaker’s address to them on the 25th of last August; when a private citizeness writes to the Secretary of War, to ‘frankly advise’ that he should treat the slacker of to-day as he would treat the hero of to-morrow, we begin to realize how far the individual American is prepared to dry-nurse the nation. Every land has its torch-bearers, but nowhere else do they all profess to carry the sacred fire. It is difficult to admonish Frenchmen. The mental ease that is essential to their intercourse debars an academic attitude. We can hardly conceive a delegation of little French girls sent to tell M. Millerand what their mothers think of him. Even England shows herself at times impatient of her monitors. ‘Mr. Norman Angell is very cross with the war,’ observed a British reviewer dryly. ‘Europe is behaving in her old mad way without having previously consulted him.’

‘Causes are the proper subject of history,’ says Mr. Brownell, ‘and characteristics are the proper subject of criticism.’ It may be that much of our criticism is beside the mark, because we disregard the weight of history. Our fresh enthusiasm for small nations is dependent upon their docility, and upon their respect for boundary lines which the big nations have painstakingly defined. That a boundary which has been fought over for centuries should be more provocative of dispute than a claim staked off in Montana does not occur to an American who has little interest in events that antedate the Declaration of Independence. A world run by public opinion invites comment, and comment paves the way for propaganda. Countries, small, weak, and incredibly old, whose sons are untaught and unfed, appear to be eager for supplies, and insensible to moral leadership. We recognize these characteristics, and resent or deplore them according to our dispositions; but for an explanation of the causes — which might prove enlightening — we must go further back than Americans care to travel.

‘I seldom consult others, and am seldom attended to; and I know no concern, either public or private, that has been mended or bettered by my advice.’ So wrote Montaigne placidly in the great days of disputation, when men counseled the doubtful with sword and gun, reasoning in platoons, and correcting theological errors with the all-powerful argument of arms. Few men were then guilty of tolerance, and fewer still understood with Montaigne and Burton the irreclaimable obstinacy of convictions. There reigned a profound confidence in intellectual and physical coercion. It was the opinion of John Donne, poet and pietist, that Satan was deeply indebted to the counsels of Saint Ignatius Loyola, which is a higher claim for the intelligence of that great churchman than Catholics have ever advanced. Milton, whose ardent and compelling mind could not conceive of tolerance, failed to comprehend that Puritanism was out of accord with the main currents of English thought and temper. He not only assumed that his enemies were in the wrong, says Sir Leslie Stephen, ‘but he often seemed to expect that they would grant so obvious an assertion.’

This sounds modern. It even sounds American. We are so confident that we are showing the way, we have been told so repeatedly that what we show is the way, that we cannot understand the reluctance of our neighbors to follow it. There is a curious game played by educators, which consists in sending ques-tionnaires to some hundreds, or some thousands, of school-children, and tabulating their replies for the enlightenment of the general public. The precise purport of this game has never been defined; but its popularity impels us to envy the leisure that educators seem to enjoy. A few years ago twelve hundred and fourteen little Californians were asked if they made collections of any kind, and if so, what did they collect? The answers were such as might have been expected, with one exception. A small and innocently ironic boy wrote that he collected ‘bits of advice.’ His hoard was the only one that piqued curiosity; but, as in the case of Isacke Bucke and the quarrelsome couple of Plymouth, we are left to our own conjectures.

The fourth ‘ Spiritual Work of Mercy ’ is ‘To comfort the sorrowful.’ How gentle and persuasive it sounds after its somewhat contentious predecessors; how sure its appeal; how gracious and reanimating its principle! The sorrowful are, after all, far in excess of the doubtful; they do not have to be assailed; their sad faces are turned toward us, their sad hearts beat responsively to ours. The eddying drifts of counsel are loud with disputation; but the great tides of human emotion ebb and flow in obedience to forces that work in silence.

The innocent moon, that nothing does but shine,
Moves all the laboring surges of the world.