Ethics of Democracy

Part 1. The Democratic Optimist
Chapter 2, Affirmative Negations

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!"
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 2, Affirmative Negations and Negative Affirmations

OPTIMISM of the happy-go-lucky sort has but one test to distinguish good from bad. It clings to the affirmative; it abhors the negative. "I believe," said the optimistic sponsor for one of the many new religious movements, while explaining that his movement aimed to promote the affirmative instead of the negative principle of life - "I believe," he said, "that by laying stress on the affirmative, the world will be improved"; and then he added, by way of exhortation: "The heart lays stress on the affirmative when it loves, and on the negative when it hates."

In its essence, that is good doctrine. But your spurious optimist makes its truth his falsehood. For he ignores the spirit of the doctrine, which makes for life, and clings to its letter, which kills. His error is not in the principle he proclaims. The principle is true. It is in his application of the principle. For he handily settles the question of which of two opposing things is affirmative, by adopting the one that happens, though by the merest accident, to be affirmative in form. The temptation must be great to such a man to strike from the decalogue all the prohibitory commandments as pessimistic negations.

In substance, affirmation is indeed life and negation death. We should therefore prefer the affirmative to the negative - that which is engendered by love to that which is engendered by hate. But before doing so, let us be sure that the subject of our choice is substance regardless of form and not form regardless of substance. Affirmative negations, which are affirmative in form but negate the substance, must be distinguished from negative affirmations, which are negative in form but affirm the substance.

An impressive example of the negative affirmation is to be found in the political history of the United States. The Republican party at its birth was in form a party of negation. It held but two leading doctrines, and both were what at a more recent time would have been slangily called "anties" - "anti-slavery" and "anti-polygamy." Yet, essentially, the Republican party was not a party of negation. Though it held the negative side of the issues of that day, it was nevertheless then the party of life and progress. Its negation of the false was equivalent to an affirmation of the true. Anti-slavery and anti-polygamy, though in form negative, were in substance affirmative. Anti-wrong is always pro-right.

A very common example of word juggling for the purpose of giving negations the appearance of affirmations, and thereby misleading spurious optimists, may often be observed in the proceedings of deliberative bodies. It is a common trick of parliamentary tactics. Whenever the tricky tactician's side of a question happens to be in negative form, he moves an amendment which embodies essentially the same proposition in affirmative form. For illustration: It is moved that ten dollars be appropriated to such-and-such a purpose. If this presents a proposition to which the tactician is opposed, he moves an amendment to the effect that the purpose named be excluded from all appropriations. He does this because he knows that the spurious optimists, and they usually hold the balance of power in assemblies, will vote "aye" as naturally as leaves wither in the Fall. So, with an inexperienced opposition, together with an unfair or unsophisticated chairman, he may succeed in this design, and win on an "aye" vote the identical point that he would lose on a "nay" vote. A little intelligent reflection upon this common parliamentary trick should suggest to spurious optimists that more wholesome affirmation may be concealed in negative forms than they had suspected.

By some such word juggling all the opposition to falsity and evil that has given life to the world could be condemned as pessimistic negation. Error could always be transformed into truth if mere verbal affirmation were truth. Suppose one should assert that there is a personal devil superior to God; or that the earth is larger than the sun or that dogs are men; or that theft is righteous. Would denial be negation? Obviously not. What here purport to be affirmations are such only in form. They affirm falsehood, not truth, and are therefore negations of substance. To deny them is, consequently, not negation. In spite of its negative form, it is in substance affirmation.

This is true of the whole brood of negations in affirmative form that embryonic tyranny has hatched for the deception and undoing of mankind. Whenever power goes wrong, the evil it does assumes affirmative forms. The forms of righteousness in such cases must consequently of necessity be negative. Before condemning any negation, then, which consists in opposing public policies, it is of transcendent importance that those policies, even though affirmative in form, be thoroughly dissected to see if they may not nevertheless be negative in substance.

Opposition to wrong things is not negation but affirmation. It is not pessimism but optimism.

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