Character and Opinion in the United States


George Santayana

(excerpts - expanded version)

    Perhaps I should add that I have not been in the United
States since January 1912.  My observations stretched, with
some intervals, through the forty years preceding that date.                                          [footnote from first page of Preface]

                   ...  It is possible to be a
master in false philosophy--easier, in fact,
than to be a master in the truth, because
a false philosophy can be made as simple
and consistent as one pleases...                                                                p. 8

One of the peculiarities of recent speculation,
especially in America, is that ideas are
abandoned in virtue of a mere change of
feeling, without any new evidence or new
arguments.  We do not nowadays refute
our predecessors, we pleasantly bid them
good-bye.  Even if all our principles are
unwittingly traditional we do not like to
bow openly to authority...                                                                        p. 9

... All this liberalism, however, never touched
the centre of traditional orthodoxy, and those
who, for all their modernness, felt that they
inherited the faith of their fathers and were
true to it were fundamentally right.  There
was still an orthodoxy among American high-
brows at the end of the nineteenth century,                                               p. 16

dissent from which was felt to be scandalous;
it consisted in holding that the universe exists
and is governed for the sake of man or of the
human spirit. This persuasion, arrogant as
it might seem, is at bottom an expression of
impotence rather than of pride.  The soul is
originally vegetative;  it feels the weal and
woe of what occurs within the body. With
locomotion and the instinct to hunt and to
flee, animals begin to notice external things
also; but the chief point noticed about them
is whether they are good or bad, friendly
or hostile, far or near.  The station of the
animal and his interests thus become the
measure of all things for him, in so far as he
knows them; and this aspect of them is, by
a primitive fatality, the heart of them to
him.  It is only reason that can discount
these childish perspectives, neutralise the
bias of each by collating it with the others,
and masterfully conceive the field in which
their common objects are deployed, dis-
covering also the principle of foreshortening
or projection which produces each perspec-
tive in turn.  But reason is a later comer
into this world, and weak; against its suasion
stands the mighty resistance of habit and of                                              p. 17

moral presumption. It is in their interest,
and to rehabilitate the warm vegetative
autonomy of the primitive soul, that orthodox
religion and philosophy labour in the western
world--for the mind of India cannot be
charged with this folly. Although inwardly
these systems have not now a good conscience
and do not feel very secure (for they are
retrograde and sin against the light), yet out-
wardly they are solemn and venerable; and
they have incorporated a great deal of moral
wisdom with their egotism or humanism--
more than the Indians with their respect for
the infinite.  In deifying human interests
they have naturally studied and expressed
them justly, whereas those who perceive the
relativity of human goods are tempted to
scorn them--which is itself unreasonable--
and to sacrifice them all to the single passion
of worship or of despair. Hardly anybody,
except possibly the Greeks at their best, has
realised the sweetness and glory of being a
rational animal.
   The Jews, as we know, had come to think
that it was the creator of the world, the God
of the universe, who had taken them for
his chosen people.  Christians in turn had                                                 p. 18

asserted that it was God in person who,
having become a man, had founded their
church. According to this Hebraic tradition,
the dignity of man did not lie in being a
mind (which he undoubtedly is) but in being
a creature materially highly favoured, with
a longer life and a brighter destiny than other
creatures in the world.  It is remarkable how
deep, in the Hebraic religions, is this interest
in material existence; so deep that we are
surprised when we discover that, according
to the insight of other races, this interest is
the essence of irreligion. Some detachment
from existence and from hopes of material
splendour has indeed filtered into Chris-
tianity through Platonism.  Socrates and
his disciples admired this world, but they
did not particularly covet it, or wish to live
long in it, or expect to improve it;  what
they cared for was an idea or a good which
they found expressed in it, something outside
it and timeless, in which the contemplative
intellect might be literally absorbed.  This
philosophy was no less humanistic than that
of the Jews, though in a less material fashion:
if it did not read the universe in terms of
thrift, it read it in terms of art....                                                                p. 19

... Philosophers are very severe towards other
philosophers because they expect too much.
Even under the most favourable circum-
stances no mortal can be asked to seize the
truth in its wholeness or at its centre.  As
the senses open to us only partial perspec-
tives, taken from one point of view, and
report the facts in symbols which, far from
being adequate to the full nature of what
surrounds us, resemble the coloured signals
of danger or of free way which a railway
engine-driver peers at in the night, so our
speculation, which is a sort of panoramic
sense, approaches things peripherally and
expresses them humanly.  But how doubly
dyed in this subjectivity must our thought be
when an orthodoxy dominant for ages has
twisted the universe into the service of moral
interests, and when even the heretics are
entangled in a scepticism so partial and
arbitrary that it substitutes psychology,
the most derivative and dubious of sciences,
for the direct intelligent reading of experi-
ence! But this strain of subjectivity is not
in all respects an evil; it is a warm purple
dye. When a way of thinking is deeply
rooted in the soil, and embodies the instincts                                            p. 32

or even the characteristic errors of a people,
it has a value quite independent of its truth;
it constitutes a phase of human life and
can powerfully affect the intellectual drama
in which it figures.   It is a value of this
sort that attaches to modern philosophy in
general, and very particularly to the Ameri-
can thinkers I am about to discuss.  There
would be a sort of irrelevance and unfair-
ness in measuring them by the standards of
pure science or even of a classic sagacity,
and reproaching them for not having reached
perfect consistency or fundamental clearness.
Men of intense feeling--and others will
hardly count--are not mirrors but lights.
If pure truth happened to be what they
passionately desired, they would seek it
single-mindedly, and in matters within their
competence they would probably find it;
but the desire for pure truth, like any
other, must wait to be satisfied until its
organ is ripe and the conditions are favour-
able.  The nineteenth century was not a
time and America was not a place where such
an achievement could be expected...                                                        p. 33

... Teaching is a delightful paternal art, and
especially teaching intelligent and warm-
hearted youngsters, as most; American col-
legians are; but it is an art like acting, where
the performance, often rehearsed, must be
adapted to an audience hearing it only once.
The speaker must make concessions to their
impatience, their taste, their capacity, their
prejudices, their ultimate good;  he must
neither bore nor perplex nor demoralise them.
His thoughts must be such as can flow daily,
and be set down in notes; they must come
when the bell rings and stop appropriately
when the bell rings a second time. The best
that is in him, as Mephistopheles says in
Faust, he dare not tell them;  and as the
substance of this possession is spiritual, to
withhold is often to lose it.  For it is not
merely a matter of fearing not to be under-                                               p. 42

stood, or giving offence; in the presence of
a hundred youthful upturned faces a man
cannot, without diffidence, speak in his own
person, of his own thoughts;  he needs
support, in order to exert influence with a
good conscience; unless he feels that he is
the vehicle of a massive tradition, he will
become bitter, or flippant, or aggressive; if
he is to teach with good grace and modesty
and authority, it must not be he that speaks,
but science or humanity that is speaking in
   Now the state of Harvard College, and of
American education generally, at the time to
which I refer, had this remarkable effect on
the philosophers there: it made their sense
of social responsibility acute, because they
were consciously teaching and guiding the
community, as if they had been clergy-
men; and it made no less acute their moral
loneliness, isolation, and forced self-reliance,
because they were like clergymen without a
church, and not only had no common philo-
sophic doctrine to transmit, but were ex-
pected not to have one.  They were invited
to be at once genuine philosophers and
popular professors; and the degree to which                                            p. 43

some of them managed to unite these con-
traries is remarkable, especially if we con-
sider the character of the academic public
they had to serve and to please. While the
sentiments of most Americans in politics and
morals, if a little vague, are very conservative,
their democratic instincts, and the force of
circumstances, have produced a system of
education which anticipates all that the most
extreme revolution could bring about; and
while no one dreams of forcibly suppressing
private property, religion, or the family,
American education ignores these things, and
proceeds as much as possible as if they did
not exist.  The child passes very young into
a free school, established and managed by
the municipal authorities ; the teachers, even
for the older boys, are chiefly unmarried
women, sensitive, faithful, and feeble; their
influence helps to establish that separation
which is so characteristic of America between
things intellectual, which remain wrapped in
a feminine veil and, as it were, under glass,
and the rough business and passions of life.
The lessons are ambitious in range, but are
made as easy, as interesting, and as optional
as possible; the stress is divided between                                                 p. 44

what the child likes now and what he is going
to need in his trade or profession.  The young
people are sympathetically encouraged to
instruct themselves and to educate one
another.  They romp and make fun like
young monkeys, they flirt and have their
private "brain-storms " like little supermen
and superwomen.  They are tremendously
in earnest about their college intrigues and
intercollegiate athletic wars.  They are fond,
often compassionately fond, of their parents,
and home is all the more sacred to them in
that they are seldom there.  They enjoy a
surprising independence in habits, friendships,
and opinions. Brothers and sisters often
choose different religions. The street, the
school, the young people's club, the magazine,
the popular novel, furnish their mental
pabulum.  The force of example and of
passing custom is all the more irresistible in
this absence of authority and tradition; for
this sort of independence rather diminishes
the power of being original, by supplying a
slenderer basis and a thinner soil from which
originality might spring. Uniformity is estab-
lished spontaneously without discipline, as
in the popular speech and ethics of every                                                 p. 45

nation.  Against this tendency to uniformity
the efforts of a cultivated minority to main-
tain a certain distinction and infuse it into
their lives and minds are not very successful.
They have secondary schools for their boys
in which the teachers are men, and even
boarding-schools in the country, more or less
Gothic in aspect and English in regimen;
there are other semi-foreign institutions and
circles, Catholic or Jewish, in which religion
is the dominant consideration.  There is also
the society of the very rich, with cosmo-
politan leanings and a vivacious interest in
artistic undertakings and personalities.  But
all these distinctions, important as they may
seem to those who cultivate them, are a mere
shimmer and ripple on the surface of American
life; and for an observer who sees things in
perspective they almost disappear.  By a
merciful dispensation of nature, the pupils
of these choice establishments, the moment
they plunge into business or politics, acquire
the protective colouring of their environment
and become indistinguishable from the generic
American.  Their native disposition was after
all the national one, their attempted special
education was perfunctory, and the influence                                            p. 46

of their public activities and surroundings is
overwhelming. American life is a powerful
solvent.  As it stamps the immigrant, almost
before he can speak English, with an un-
mistakable muscular tension, cheery self-
confidence and habitual challenge in the voice
and eyes, so it seems to neutralise every in-
tellectual element, however tough and alien it
may be, and to fuse it in the native good-will,
complacency, thoughtlessness, and optimism.
Consider, for instance, the American
Catholics, of whom there are nominally many
millions, and who often seem to retain their
ancestral faith sincerely and affectionately.
This faith took shape during the decline of
the Roman empire; it is full of large dis-
illusions about this world and minute illusions
about the other. It is ancient, metaphysical,
poetic, elaborate, ascetic, autocratic, and
intolerant.  It confronts the boastful natural
man, such as the American is, with a thou-
sand denials and menaces. Everything in
American life is at the antipodes to such
system.  Yet the American Catholic is
entirely at peace. His tone in everything,
even in religion, is cheerfully American...                                                  p. 47 

... Not only had the mind of the nation been
originally somewhat chilled and impoverished
by Protestantism, by migration to a new
world, by absorption in material tasks, but
what fine sensibility lingered in an older
generation was not easily transmitted to the
young. The young had their own ways,
which on principle were to be fostered and
respected; and one of their instincts was to
associate only with those of their own age and
calibre.  The young were simply young, and
the old simply old, as among peasants.
Teachers and pupils seemed animals of
different species, useful and well-disposed
towards each other, like a cow and a milkmaid;
periodic contributions could pass between                                               p. 52

them, but not conversation. This circum-
stance shows how much American intelligence
is absorbed in what is not intellectual.   Their
tasks and their pleasures divide people of
different ages; what can unite them is ideas,
impersonal interests, liberal arts.  Without
these  they  cannot  forget  their  mutual
    Certainly those four college years, judged
by any external standard, were trivial and
wasted; but Americans, although so practical
in their adult masculine undertakings, are
slow to take umbrage at the elaborate play-
fulness of their wives and children.  With
the touching humility of strength, they seem
to say to themselves, " Let the dear creatures
have their fling, and be happy: what else
are we old  fellows slaving for?"  And
certainly the joy of life is the crown of it;
but have American ladies and collegians
achieved the joy of life?   Is that the
summit ?
    William James had a theory that if some
scientific widower, with a child about to learn
to walk, could be persuaded to allow the
child's feet to be blistered, it would turn out,
when the blisters were healed, that the child                                             p. 53

would walk as well as if he had practised and
had many a fall; because the machinery
necessary for walking would have matured in
him automatically, just as the machinery for
breathing does in the womb.  The case of
the old-fashioned American college may serve
to support this theory.  It blistered young
men's heads for four years and prevented
them from practising anything useful; yet
at the end they were found able to do most
things as well, or twice as well, as their con-
temporaries who had been all that time
apprenticed and chained to a desk.  Man-
hood and sagacity ripen of themselves; it
suffices not to repress or distort them.  The
college liberated the young man from the
pursuit of money, from hypocrisy, from the
control of women.  He could grow for a time
according to his nature, and if this growth
was not guided by much superior wisdom or
deep study, it was not warped by any serious
perversion; and if the intellectual world did
not permanently entice him, are we so sure
that in philosophy, for instance, it had any-
thing to offer that was very solid in itself,
or humanly very important? At least he
learned that such things existed, and gathered                                          p. 54

a shrewd notion of what they could do for a
man, and what they might make of him...                                                 p. 55

                    ... in philosophy, as in letters
generally, polite America has continued the
common tradition of Christendom, in paths
closely parallel to those followed in England;
and that modern speculation, which is so very
sensitive to changed times, is quite indifferent
to distinctions of place.
    Perhaps;  but I say advisedly polite
America, for without this qualification what
I have been suggesting would hardly be true.
Polite America carried over its household
gods from puritan England in a spirit of con-
secration, and it has always wished to remain
in communion with whatever its conscience
might value in the rest of the world. Yet
it has been cut off by distance and by revolu-
tionary prejudice against things ancient or
foreign; and it has been disconcerted at the
same time by the insensible shifting of the
ground under its feet: it has suffered from
in-breeding and anaemia.  On the other hand,
a crude but vital America has sprung up
from the soil, undermining, feeding, and
transforming the America of tradition.
This young America was originally com-
posed of all the prodigals, truants, and ad-
venturous spirits that the colonial families                                                 p. 140

produced: it was fed continually by the
younger generation, born in a spacious, half-
empty world, tending to forget the old
straitened morality and to replace it by
another, quite jovially human.  This truly
native America was reinforced by the miscel-
lany of Europe arriving later, not in the hope
of founding a godly commonwealth, but only
of prospering in an untrammelled one.  The
horde of immigrants eagerly accepts the
external arrangements and social spirit of
American life, but never hears of its original
austere principles, or relegates them to the
same willing oblivion as it does the constraints
which it has just escaped--Jewish, Irish,
German, Italian, or whatever they may be.
We should be seriously deceived if we over-
looked for a moment the curious and complex
relation between these two Americas...                                                    p. 141

                ... social contagion or pressure--
something immensely strong in democracies.
The luckless American who is born a con-
servative, or who is drawn to poetic subtlety,
pious retreats, or gay passions, nevertheless
has the categorical excellence of work, growth,
enterprise, reform, and prosperity dinned
into his ears:  every door is open in this
direction and shut in the other; so that he
either folds up his heart and withers in a
corner-in remote places you sometimes find
such a solitary gaunt idealist-or else he flies
to Oxford or Florence or Montmartre to save
his soul--or perhaps not to save it.
    The optimism of the pioneer is not limited
to his view of himself and his own future:
it starts  from  that;  but  feeling  assured,
safe, and cheery within, he looks with smil-
ing and most kindly eyes on everything
and everybody about him. Individualism,
roughness, and self-trust are supposed to go
with selfishness and a cold heart; but I
suspect that is a prejudice.  It is rather
dependence, insecurity, and mutual jostling
that poison our placid gregarious brother-
hood; and fanciful passionate demands
upon people's affections, when they are dis-                                            p. 170

appointed, as they soon must be, breed ill-
will and a final meanness.  The milk of
human kindness is less apt to turn sour if
the vessel that holds it stands steady, cool,
and separate, and is not too often uncorked.
In his affections the American is seldom
passionate, often deep, and always kindly.
If it were given me to look into the depths
of a man's heart, and I did not find goodwill
at the bottom, I should say without any
hesitation, You are not an American.  But
as the American is an individualist his good-
will is not officious.  His instinct is to think
well of everybody, and to wish everybody
well, but in a spirit of rough comradeship,
expecting every man to stand on his own
legs and to be helpful in his turn.  When he
has given his neighbour a chance he thinks
he has done enough for him; but he feels it
is an absolute duty to do that.  It will take
some hammering to drive a coddling socialism
into America.
   As self-trust may pass into self-sufficiency,
so optimism, kindness, and goodwill may
grow into a habit of doting on everything.
To the good American many subjects are
sacred: sex is sacred, women are sacred,                                                 p. 171

children are sacred, business is sacred,
America is sacred...                                                                                 p. 172

.. insight on the part of revolutionists
touching the past and the present infects
in an important particular their idealism
about the future; it renders their dreams
of the future unrealisable. For in human
beings--this may not be true of other
animals, more perfectly preformed--experi-
ence is necessary to pertinent and concrete
thinking; even our primitive instincts are
blind until they stumble upon some occasion
that solicits them; and they can be much
transformed or deranged by their first partial
satisfactions.  Therefore a man who does
not idealise his experience, but idealises a
priori, is incapable of true prophecy; when
he dreams he raves, and the more he criticises
the less he helps.  American idealism, on
the contrary, is nothing if not helpful,
nothing if not pertinent to practicable trans-
formations; and when the American frets,
it is because whatever is useless and imperti-
nent, be it idealism or inertia, irritates him;
for it frustrates the good results which he
sees might so easily have been obtained.
  The American is wonderfully alive; and
his vitality, not having often found a suit-
able outlet, makes him appear agitated on                                                p. 178

the surface; he is always letting off an
unnecessarily loud blast of incidental steam.
   Yet his vitality is not superficial; it is
inwardly prompted, and as sensitive and
quick as a magnetic needle.  He is in-
quisitive, and ready with an answer to any
question that he may put to himself of his
own accord; but if you try to pour instruc-
tion into him, on matters that do not touch
his own spontaneous life, he shows the
most extraordinary powers of resistance and
oblivescence; so that he often is remarkably
expert in some directions and surprisingly
obtuse in others. He seems to bear lightly
the sorrowful burden of human knowledge.
In a word, he is young.
   What sense is there in this feeling, which
we all have, that the American is young?
His country is blessed with as many elderly
people as any other, and his descent from
Adam, or from the Darwinian rival of Adam,
cannot be shorter than that of his European
cousins.  Nor  are  his  ideas  always very
fresh.  Trite and rigid bits of morality and
religion,  with  much  seemly  and  antique
political lore, remain axiomatic in him, as in
the mind of a child; he may carry all this                                                   p. 179

about with an unquestioning familiarity
which does not comport understanding.  To
keep traditional sentiments in this way
insulated and uncriticised is itself a sign of
youth.  A good young man is naturally
conservative and loyal on all those subjects
which his experience has not brought to a
test; advanced opinions on politics, mar-
riage, or literature are comparatively rare
in America; they are left for the ladies to
discuss, and usually to condemn, while the
men get on with their work. In spite of
what is old-fashioned in his more general
ideas, the American is unmistakably young;
and this, I should say, for two reasons: one,
that he is chiefly occupied with his immediate
environment, and the other, that his re-
actions upon it are inwardly prompted,
spontaneous, and full of vivacity and self-
trust. His views are not yet lengthened;
his will is not yet broken or transformed.
The present moment, however, in this, as
in other things, may mark a great change in
him ; he is perhaps now reaching his majority,
and all I say may hardly apply to-day, and
may not apply at all to-morrow. I speak
of him as I have known him; and whatever                                               p. 180

moral strength may accrue to him later, I
am not sorry to have known him in his
youth.  The charm of youth, even when it
is a little boisterous, lies in nearness to the
impulses of nature, in a quicker and more
obvious obedience to that pure, seminal
principle which, having formed the body
and its organs, always directs their move-
ments, unless it is forced by vice or neces-
sity to make them crooked, or to suspend
them.  Even under the inevitable crust of
age the soul remains young, and, wherever
it is able to break through, sprouts into
something green and tender. We are all as
young at heart as the most youthful Ameri-
can, but the seed in his case has fallen upon
virgin soil, where it may spring up more
bravely and with less respect for the giants
of the wood. Peoples seem older when their
perennial natural youth is encumbered with
more possessions and prepossessions, and
they are mindful of the many things they
have lost or missed.  The American is not
mindful of them.
    In America there is a tacit optimistic as-
sumption about existence, to the effect that
the more existence the better...                                                                p. 181

                                             ... Where in-                                              p. 195

viduality is so free, co-operation, when it is
justified, can be all the more quick and hearty.
Everywhere co-operation is taken for granted,
as something that no one would be so mean
or so short-sighted as to refuse. Together
with the will to work and to prosper, it is of
the essence of Americanism, and is accepted
as such by all the unkempt polyglot peoples
that turn to the new world with the pathetic
but manly purpose of beginning life on a new
principle.  Every political body, every public
meeting, every club, or college, or athletic
team, is full of it.  Out it comes whenever
there is an accident in the street or a division
in a church, or a great unexpected emergency
like the late war.  The general instinct is to
run and help, to assume direction, to pull
through somehow by mutual adaptation, and
by seizing on the readiest practical measures
and working compromises. Each man joins
in and gives a helping hand, without a pre-
conceived plan or a prior motive. Even the
leader, when he is a natural leader and not a
professional, has nothing up his sleeve to force
on the rest, in their obvious good-will and
mental blankness. All meet in a genuine
spirit of consultation, eager to persuade but                                              p. 196

ready to be persuaded, with a cheery con-
fidence in their average ability, when a point
comes up and is clearly put before them, to
decide it for the time being, and to move on.
It is implicitly agreed, in every case, that
disputed questions shall be put to a vote,
and that the minority will loyally acquiesce
in the decision of the majority and build
henceforth upon it, without a thought of ever
retracting it.
  Such a way of proceeding seems in America
a matter of course, because it is bred in the
bone, or imposed by that permeating social
contagion which is so irresistible in a natural
democracy. But if we consider human nature
at large and the practice of most nations, we
shall see that it is a very rare, wonderful, and
unstable convention.  It implies a rather
unimaginative optimistic assumption that
at bottom all men's interests are similar and
compatible, and a rather heroic public spirit
--such that no special interest, in so far as
it has to be overruled, shall rebel and try
to maintain itself absolutely. In America
hitherto these conditions happen to have
been actually fulfilled in an unusual measure.
Interests have been very similar--to exploit                                              p. 197

business opportunities and organise public
services useful to all; and these similar
interests have been also compatible and
harmonious. A neighbour, even a com-
petitor, where the field is so large and so
little pre-empted, has more often proved a
resource than a danger.  The rich have
helped the public more than they have fleeced
it, and they have been emulated more than
hated or served by the enterprising poor.
To abolish millionaires would have been to
dash one's own hopes.  The most opposite
systems of religion and education could look
smilingly upon one another's prosperity,
because the country could afford these super-
ficial luxuries, having a constitutional religion
and education of its own, which everybody
drank in unconsciously and which assured
the moral cohesion of the people.  Impulses
of reason and kindness, which are potential
in all men, under such circumstances can
become effective; people can help one another
with no great sacrifice to themselves, and
minorities can dismiss their special plans
without sorrow, and cheerfully follow the
crowd down another road.  It was because
life in America was naturally more co-                                                     p. 198

operative and more plastic than in England
that the spirit of English liberty, which
demands co-operation and plasticity, could
appear there more boldly and universally
than it ever did at home.
    English liberty is a method, not a goal.
It is related to the value of human life very
much as the police are related to public
morals or commerce to wealth; and it is no
accident that the Anglo-Saxon race excels in
commerce and in the commercial as dis-
tinguished from the artistic side of industry,
and that having policed itself successfully
it is beginning to police the world at large.
It is all an eminence in temper, good-will,
reliability, accommodation.  Probably some
other races, such as the Jews and Arabs,
make individually better merchants, more
shrewd, patient, and loving of their art.
Englishmen and Americans often seem to
miss or force opportunities, to play for quick
returns, or to settle down into ponderous
corporations;  for successful men they are
not particularly observant,  constant,  or
economical.   But the superiority of the
Oriental is confined to his private craft; he
has not the spirit of partnership.  In English                                              p. 199

civilisation the individual is neutralised; it
does not matter so much even in high places
if he is rather stupid or rather cheap; public
spirit sustains him, and he becomes its instru-
ment all the more readily, perhaps, for not
being very distinguished or clear-headed in
himself.  The community prospers; comfort
and science, good manners and generous
feelings are diffused among the people, with-
out the aid of that foresight and cunning
direction which sometimes give a temporary
advantage to a rival system like the German.
In the end, adaptation to the world at large,
where so much is hidden and unintelligible,
is only possible piecemeal, by groping with a
genuine indetermination in one's aims.  Its
very looseness gives the English method its
lien on the future.  To dominate the world
co-operation is better than policy, and em-
piricism safer than inspiration.  Anglo-Saxon
imperialism is unintended;  military con-
quests are incidental to it and often not
maintained; it subsists by a mechanical
equilibrium of habits and interests, in which
every colony, province, or protectorate has
a different status.  It has a commercial and
missionary quality, and is essentially an                                                    p. 200

invitation to pull together--an invitation
which many nations may be incapable of
accepting or even of understanding, or which
they may deeply scorn, because it involves a
surrender of absolute liberty on their part;
but whether accepted or rejected, it is an
offer of co-operation, a project for a limited
partnership, not a complete plan of life to be
imposed on anybody.
    It is a wise instinct, in dealing with
foreigners or with material things (which
are foreigners to the mind), to limit oneself
in this way to establishing external relations,
partial mutual adjustments, with a great
residuum of independence and reserve; if
you attempt more you will achieve less;
your interpretations will become chimerical
and your regimen odious.  So deep-seated
is this prudent instinct in the English nature
that it appears even at home; most of the
concrete things which English genius has
produced are expedients. Its spiritual
treasures are hardly possessions, except as
character is a possession;  they are rather
a standard of life, a promise, an insurance.
English poetry and fiction form an exception...                                         p. 201

                                                ... English-
men and Americans love debate; they love
sitting round a table as if in consultation,
even when the chairman has pulled the
wires and settled everything beforehand, and
when each of the participants listens only to
his own remarks and votes according to his
party.  They love committees and commis-
sions; they love public dinners with after-
dinner speeches, those stammering com-
pounds of facetiousness, platitude, and busi-
ness.  How distressing such speeches usually
are, and how helplessly prolonged, does not
escape anybody;  yet every one demands
them notwithstanding, because in pumping
them up or sitting through them he feels he
is leading the political life.  A public man
must show himself in public, even if not
to advantage.  The moral expressiveness of
such institutions also helps to redeem their
clumsy procedure; they would not be use-
ful, nor work at all as they should, if people
did not smack their lips over them and feel
a profound pleasure in carrying them out.
Without the English spirit, without the
faculty of making themselves believe in
public what they never feel in private, with-                                             p. 204

out the habit of clubbing together and facing
facts, and feeling duty in a cautious, con-
sultative, experimental way, English liberties
forfeit their practical value; as we see when
they are extended to a volatile histrionic
people like the Irish, or when a jury in
France, instead of pronouncing simply on
matters of fact and the credibility of wit-
nesses, rushes in the heat of its patriotism
to carry out, by its verdict, some political
    The practice of English liberty presupposes
two things: that all concerned are funda-
mentally unanimous, and that each has a
plastic nature, which he is willing to modify.
If fundamental unanimity is lacking and all
are not making in the same general direction,
there can be no honest co-operation, no
satisfying compromise.  Every concession,
under such circumstances, would be a
temporary one, to be retracted at the first
favourable moment; it would amount to
a mutilation of one's essential nature, a
partial surrender of life, liberty, and happi-
ness, tolerable for a time, perhaps, as the
lesser of two evils, but involving a perpetual
sullen opposition and hatred.  To put things                                             p. 205

to a vote, and to accept unreservedly the
decision of the majority, are points essential
to the English system; but they would be
absurd if fundamental agreement were not
presupposed.  Every decision that the
majority could conceivably arrive at must
leave it still possible for the minority to
live and prosper, even if not exactly in the
way they wished. Were this not the case, a
decision by vote would be as alien a fatality
to any minority as the decree of a foreign
tyrant, and at every election the right of
rebellion would come into play.  In a hearty
and sound democracy all questions at issue
must be minor matters; fundamentals must
have been silently agreed upon and taken
for granted when the democracy arose.  To
leave a decision to the majority is like leaving
it to chance--a fatal procedure unless one is
willing to have it either way.  You must be
able to risk losing the toss; and if you do
you will acquiesce all the more readily in the
result, because, unless the winners cheated
at the game, they had no more influence
on it than yourself--namely none, or very
little.  You acquiesce in democracy on the
same conditions and for the same reasons,                                               p. 206

and perhaps a little more cheerfully, because
there is an infinitesimally better chance of
winning on the average; but even then the
enormity of the risk involved would be
intolerable if anything of vital importance
was at stake. It is therefore actually re-
quired that juries, whose decisions may really
be of moment, should be unanimous; and
parliaments and elections are never more
satisfactory than when a wave of national
feeling runs  through  them and  there  is
no longer any minority nor any need of
   Free government works well in proportion
as government is superfluous.  That  most
parliamentary measures should be trivial or
technical, and really devised and debated
only in government offices, and that govern-
ment in America should so long have been
carried on in the shade, by persons of no
name or dignity, is no anomaly.  On the
contrary, like the good fortune of those who
never hear of the police, it is all a sign that
co-operative liberty is working well and
rendering overt government unnecessary.
Sometimes kinship and opportunity carry
a whole nation before the wind; but this                                                   p. 207

happy unison belongs rather to the dawn of
national life, when similar tasks absorb all
individual energies.  If it is to be maintained
after lines of moral cleavage appear, and is
to be compatible with variety and distinction
of character, all further developments must
be democratically controlled and must re-
main, as it were, in a state of fusion. Variety
and distinction must not become arbitrary
and irresponsible. They must take direc-
tions that will not mar the general harmony,
and no interest must be carried so far as to
lose sight of the rest.  Science and art, in
such a vital democracy, should remain popu-
lar, helpful, bracing; religion should be
broadly national and in the spirit of the
times.  The variety and distinction allowed
must be only variety and distinction of
service.  If they ever became a real distinc-
tion and variety of life, if they arrogated to
themselves an absolute liberty, they would
shatter the unity of the democratic spirit
and destroy its moral authority.
    The levelling tendency of English liberty
(inevitable if plastic natures are to co-operate
and to make permanent concessions to one
another's instincts) comes out more clearly                                              p. 208

in America than in England itself.  In
England there are still castles and rural
retreats, there are still social islands within
the Island, where special classes may nurse
particular allegiances.  America is all one
prairie, swept by a universal tornado.
Although it has always thought itself in an
eminent sense the land of freedom, even
when it was covered with slaves, there is no
country in which people live under more
overpowering compulsions.  The prohibi-
tions, although important and growing, are
not yet, perhaps, so many or so blatant as
in some other countries; but prohibitions
are less galling than compulsions.  What
can be forbidden specifically-bigamy, for
instance, or heresy--may be avoided by a
prudent man without renouncing the whole
movement of life and mind which, if carried
beyond a certain point, would end in those
trespasses against convention.  He can in-
dulge in hypothesis or gallantry without
falling foul of the positive law, which indeed
may even stimulate his interest and ingenuity
by suggesting some indirect means of satis-
faction.  On the other hand, what is exacted
cuts deeper; it creates habits which overlay                                             p. 209

nature, and every faculty is atrophied that
does not conform with them.  If, for in-
stance, I am compelled to be in an office
(and up to business, too) from early morning
to late afternoon, with long journeys in
thundering and sweltering trains before and
after and a flying shot at a quick lunch
between, I am caught and held both in soul
and body; and except for the freedom to
work and to rise by that work--which may
be very interesting in itself--I am not
suffered to exist morally at all.  My evenings
will be drowsy, my Sundays tedious, and
after a few days' holiday I shall be wishing
to get back to business. Here is as narrow
a path left open to freedom as is left open
in a monastic establishment, where bell and
book keep your attention fixed at all hours
upon the hard work of salvation--an infinite
vista, certainly, if your soul was not made
to look another way.  Those, too, who may
escape this crushing routine--the invalids,
the ladies, the fops--are none the less pre-
vented by it from doing anything else with
success or with a good conscience;  the
bubbles also must swim with the stream.
Even what is best in American life is com-                                               p. 210

pulsory--the idealism, the zeal, the beautiful
happy unison of its great moments. You
must wave, you must cheer, you must push
with the irresistible crowd; otherwise you
will feel like a traitor, a soulless outcast, a
deserted ship high and dry on the shore.
In America there is but one way of being
saved, though it is not peculiar to any of
the official religions, which themselves must
silently conform to the national orthodoxy,
or else become impotent and merely orna-
mental.  This national faith and morality
are vague in idea, but inexorable in spirit;
they are the gospel of work and the belief
in progress.  By them, in a country where
all men are free, every man finds that what
most matters has been settled for him
   Nevertheless, American life is free as a
whole, because it is mobile, because every
atom that swims in it has a momentum of
its own which is felt and respected through-
out the mass, like the weight of an atom
in the solar system, even if the deflection
it  may  cause  is  infinitesimal.   In  temper
America is docile and not at all tyrannical;
it has not predetermined its career, and its                                               p. 211

merciless momentum is a passive resultant.
Like some Mississippi or Niagara, it rolls
its myriad drops gently onward, being
but the suction and pressure which they
exercise on one another.  Any tremulous
thought or playful experiment anywhere
may be a first symptom of great changes,
and may seem to precipitate the cataract
in a new direction.  Any snowflake in a
boy's sky may become the centre for his
boule de neige, his prodigious fortune; but
the monster will melt as easily as it grew,
and leaves nobody poorer for having existed.
In America there is duty everywhere, but
everywhere also there is light.  I do not
mean superior understanding or even moder-
ately wide knowledge, but openness to light,
an evident joy in seeing things clearly and
doing them briskly, which would amount to
a veritable triumph of art and reason if the
affairs in which it came into play were
central and important.  The American may
give an exorbitant value to subsidiary things,
but his error comes of haste in praising
what he possesses, and trusting the first
praises he hears. He can detect sharp
practices, because he is capable of them,                                                p. 212

but vanity or wickedness in the ultimate
aims of a man, including himself, he cannot
detect, because he is ingenuous in that
sphere.  He thinks life splendid and blame-
less, without stopping to consider how far
folly and malice may be inherent in it.  He
feels that he himself has nothing to dread,
nothing to hide or apologise for; and if he
is arrogant in his ignorance, there is often
a twinkle in his eye when he is most boast-
ful.  Perhaps he suspects that he is making
a fool of himself, and he challenges the
world to prove it; and his innocence is
quickly gone when he is once convinced that
it exists.  Accordingly the American ortho-
doxy, though imperious, is not unyielding.
It has a keener sense for destiny than for
policy.  It is confident of a happy and
triumphant future, which it would be shame-
ful in any man to refuse to work for and to
share; but it cannot prefigure what that
bright future is to be. While it  works
feverishly in outward matters, inwardly it
only watches and waits; and it feels tenderly
towards the unexpressed impulses in its
bosom, like a mother towards her unborn
young.                                                                                                   p. 213

Prepared for the web by Thomas Pollock AKA Spartacus, Editor of  The Men's Tribune.