Ethics of Democracy

Part 1. The Democratic Optimist

Chapter 4, Destruction for Construction

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 4, Destruction for Construction

"BE constructive, not destructive." This is another familiar slogan of the spurious optimist - something like his plea for "affirmation, not negation." And, as with that, this idea of construction in preference to destruction does express a vital truth ; for it is not destruction but construction, towards which all useful effort is directed. Yet the idea may be, and commonly is, so stupidly apprehended as to turn the words into a sirens' song.

In properly rejecting destructiveness as an end, we are in danger of improperly rejecting it as a means to an end. There are kinds of destruction which are first steps toward solid construction. Before we can construct the good, we must destroy the bad it is to replace. False knowledge must be unlearned before true knowledge can be acquired. Bad morals must be weeded out before good morals can be cultivated. We must cease to do evil before we can learn to do well. Iconoclasm is an essential prerequisite to lasting progress. With reference, for instance, to false religions, atheism may well be the beginning of true religious experience. When a man who has blindly followed pagan leaders in religion is restored to spiritual sight, he is apt at first to think himself an agnostic, a materialist, an atheist. Spiritual truth dazzles him, after his long belief in spiritual falsities ; and, like the blind man whom Jesus restored to sight at Bethsaida, he sees men as trees walking - sees spiritual truths distorted and thinks them mystical hallucinations. But may not this period of undiscriminating skepticism be as a passage from paganistic piety to genuine religion? May it not be only a phase of the process of ceasing to do evil in order to learn to do well? - a necessary part of that task of destroying the false which must always precede any solid construction of the true ? It is folly to denounce destructiveness indiscriminately and to urge a "constructive policy," when the site for good construction is occupied by "shacks." Before the good structure can rise, the "shacks" must be torn down.

Foundations are the primary concern in all construction. This is self-evident, and would hardly need to be mentioned but for the spurious optimists who are so prone to ignore it. The man who built his house upon the sand was probably one of them. He wanted to be constructive without being destructive. But the destructive pessimist who hewed away at the rock until he had destroyed enough of it to make him a foundation there, proved in the end, when the rains descended and the winds blew and the floods came, to have been the more constructive optimist of the two.

The principle here illustrated with reference to individual character applies also to the social edifice. Mankind cannot build new social structures without tearing down old ones. They cannot adopt the exclusively constructive plan of the county commissioners in a State that need not be named, who "resolved, first, that we build a new court house; resolved, second, that we build the new court house out of the materials of the old one ; and, resolved, third, that we use the old court house until the new one is finished." It is no less true of mankind than of individual men, that we must destroy before we can construct, that we must tear down before we can build up, that we must put aside evil before we can learn to do well.

But evil cannot be put aside, either by individuals or society, until it has been faced, recognized, acknowledged and intelligently condemned. Disinclination to do this is temptation. The individual doesn't like to face his own wickedness and call it by its right name. He is tempted not to. Public opinion doesn't like to acknowledge social wickedness and call that by its right name. It is tempted not to. But of all temptations this is the one that both individuals and society need most to resist. Neither the individual nor society can progress without putting aside evil, and evil cannot be put aside until it is acknowledged. But resistance to the temptation to deny or ignore or boast of it, to the temptation to feel that as individuals we ourselves are good (no matter how wicked our neighbors may be) and that society as a whole is at its best resistance to this temptation may easily be mistaken for destructive pessimism. Call it so if you will, but make no mistake about its tremendous import, nevertheless, in the divine economy. In the individual conscience the destructive pessimist that awakens and stimulates a conviction of individual sin is remorse. In the social conscience analogous awakenings and stimulation are caused by so-called pessimists, by the men who "find fault" with and "rail" at and fight against the social evils that exist, without seeming to offer anything in their place, and who sometimes bring exalted defenders of those evils to the bar of the social conscience with an ominous, "Thou art the man!"

Out of the pessimism which faces, recognizes, acknowledges and condemns existing political, industrial and social evils, springs the optimism which is genuine, that optimism which actually makes for human progress, instead of the spurious and frivolous kind which does nothing but applaud - and does that ex post facto. Society, even like the individual, must repent in order to be saved. Social repentance is too often mistaken by the unrepentant for atheistic pessimism; but if it may be called pessimism at all, it is the pessimism of the optimist. In reality it is not pessimism. It is a quality of genuine optimism without which there could be no progress. So long as any vestige of tyranny remains in human government, social repentance must be a fundamental principle in the ethics of democracy. Without realizing the necessity for acknowledging, condemning and destroying social institutions that are morally wrong, no one can be a democratic optimist.

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