Ethics of Democracy

Part 1. The Democratic Optimist

Chap. 1, Spurious Optimism

Cease to do evil; learn to do well.

- Isaiah, Ch. 1., vs. 16-17.

What youth-hope for spirit when striving is old?
What warmth-hope for heart with a hearthstone a-cold?
What joy-hope for birth while a birth-right is sold?

- E. J. Salisbury, in The Public, February 3, 1900.

See how the passing age toils on its way
Down Time's long thoroughfare. Erect by day,
In painful show of pride, by night it creeps
Toward Babylon along the sombre steeps
That bound Oblivion. Huge, weary, old,
The passing, dying age, grown rich, grows cold.

But once this age was lithe, once strong and young,
Once leaped its heart, once rang the song it sung,
Once Freedom was its queen, and from her throne
Men heard the wonder-words: "Ye are your own 1"
Then eager Hope looked forth to halcyon days
Of earth all beautiful and life all praise.

But now the watchers stand, and now they peer,
And those of fainter heart grow sick with fear
To see the old, weak age draw near the line
Where reckoning History waits to whisper: "Mine!"
But down from other heights a gladder cry,
Swift-winged of joy "A dawning age!" sweeps by.

And Hope shall find an endless halcyon day,
And Freedom, crowned again, shall reign for aye,
While Music sings the mother-song of earth
To men made men again, where highest worth
Leads on to Love; when once again is blown
The clarion-call of Truth: "Ye are your own!"

- E. J. Salisbury, in The Public, December 2, 1899.

For though the laws of Justice seem to sleep,
They never sleep; but like the ocean's flood
They creep up to the water mark of God,
And when they ebb there is but silent slime.

- C. E. S. Wood, in The Public, April 26, 1902.

"They have turned earth upside down,"
Says the foe;
"They have come to bring our town
Wreck and woe."
To this never-ending cry
Boldly here we make reply:
Yea and no.

Upside down the world has lain
Many a year;
We to turn it back again
Now appear.
Will ye, nill ye, we will do
What at last no man shall rue;
Have no fear.

- Stephen T. Byington

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The Ethics of Democracy

by Louis F. Post

Part 1, The Democratic Optimist
Chapter 1, Spurious Optimism

THERE is no allusion here to the schools of philosophy known respectively as "optimistic" and "pessimistic." The reference is altogether to those colloquial habits of speech which stigmatize fault-finders indiscriminately as pessimists, and commend mere applause-makers as optimists. While pessimism as a philosophy has been correctly characterized as a species of atheism, that characterization is certainly not true of all fault-finding; and when fault-finding is called pessimism and then indiscriminately denounced as atheism, which is quite a usual thing, the characterization is so unjust as to warrant the retort in kind that the optimism which consists in applause-making is devil worship. Indeed, what but devil worship can it be to make applause for wrong-doing?

Optimism, as too commonly understood and boastfully inculcated, is a spurious thing. So far from being a living protest against atheism, as genuine optimism is, it is nothing better than a manifestation of mental and spiritual indolence. "Things have always come out right, and they always will!" laughs the spurious optimist. And then he turns his back upon the task his Lord proffers him. He thinks of God as a miracle-worker, who makes the world progress as He originally created it, by omnipotent fiat, and wants no human co-operation but only human applause.

Of this type of optimist was the lazy farmer who said, one beautiful spring day, while standing upon his front stoop and looking out over a fallow field: If God wants a crop of corn in that field, He will grow one; if He doesn't, He won't; whatever is to be will be, and where's the use of my tearing up the smooth hard ground with a plow? Nay, I have faith in the goodness of God. I will go to the circus and enjoy myself, while He makes a corn crop for me if He wants me to have one."

It did not occur to this happy-go-lucky optimist that God is rational and works in human affairs through human channels and by means of human implements. He did not realize that although God gives the increase, some Paul must plant and some Apollos water. Instead of resting his faith upon a rational God, as he in his pagan ignorance supposed, he was resting it upon an irrational and impossible miracle-working fetich. But our lazy farmer truly types the spurious optimist in whose philosophy of life everything is for the best and will come out all right in the end. This species of optimist seems to imagine that God in His goodness will bring the increase, no matter whether a Paul plants and an Apollos waters or not. Too lazy mentally to think, too lazy spiritually to desire to act, they hail contentment as a virtue, and denounce as a pessimist whoever disturbs their indolent serenity.

Think for a moment of the attitude of these spurious optimists. It is not for them to consider indications of social stagnation or decadence, nor to work for social improvement. Leave all that to God! To doubt the certainty of progress is to doubt Him. Are we as a nation breaking away from our democratic moorings and drifting as the republic of Rome did, into a whirlpool of imperialism? "Never fear! God will take care of us. Don't blaspheme Him by urging that the prow of the ship of state be turned in another direction. He will do that Himself if it is for the best. Let us enjoy the exciting voyage. Don't be a pessimist!" Are our institutions making classes of very rich and very poor, of luxurious idlers and impoverished workers? "Impossible. God is too good to allow that, and He is too wise and powerful to need advice or help from us. Let us laugh at these idle fears and enjoy the unparalleled progress we are making. Don't be a pessimist!"

That is not genuine optimism. It is only the pathetic optimism of the child in a boat, gliding swifter and swifter down Niagara River on toward the brink of the thundering cataract, that claps its hands in baby glee at the flowers along the banks as they rush by, until the boat topples on the very edge of the abyss. It is too late then for genuine optimism.

Optimists of that spurious sort, who are really the most dangerous of pessimists, never tire of cheerfully assuring everybody that "the world moves onward and upward in spite of grumblers and fault-finders." They seldom reflect that it is those they call grumblers and fault-finders, the people who "rail," as they would put it, at community evils - the anti-monarchy Sam Adamses and Patrick Henrys, the anti-slavery Garrisons and Beechers, the antimonopoly agitators of our own time - who compel the world to move onward and upward. Yet evils must be rejected if progress is to be made. No community any more than an individual soul ever learned to do well without first ceasing to do evil. It is contrary to the natural order. "Cease to do evil; learn to do well," expresses the universal sequence of human progress. And as no imperfect individual would ever cease to do evil if the grumblings and fault-findings of his conscience did not spur him to it, so no community evils would ever be put aside if it were not for the grumblers and fault-finders who disturb the social calm by demanding that society cease to do evil in order that it may learn to do well.

What happy-go-lucky optimists have ever contributed to the onward and upward movement of the world? None. They seem to suppose that the world moves on and up, not in consequence of impulses from so-called "pessimists" who agonize for it, dying daily upon ten thousand crosses for the remission of its sins, but through some divinely miraculous influence if they belong to a church, or some atheistically evolutionary process if their affiliations are "scientific."

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