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The ‘Natural City’ in the Republic: Is Plato Really a Libertarian?

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img-thingLATO believed that the ideal political situation would be a State with citizens neatly divided into Worker, Soldier, and Guardian classes living and working in harmony under the leadership of a philosopher-king, right? Actually there are good grounds to question whether this is what Plato really means in the Republic.

Rather, Plato’s remarks in Republic 2.369b et seq. might be taken as his true view of the ideal political arrangement. There, before he mentions any other kind of government, he proposes a system that we might today call a natural law stateless society (or anarchy — but in the sense of having no government institutions, not social chaos). That is, Plato first proposes that if people were content with simple pleasures, they could live happily, in harmony with each other and with nature, and social affairs could be conducted without institutional government.

In words that call to mind Hesiod’s myth of the Golden Age (Works and Days 109–142), Socrates here says of such a society, “They and their children will feast, drinking of the wine which they have made, wearing garlands on their heads, and hymning the praises of the gods, in happy converse with one another.” (Rep. 2.372b) He calls this first city the “true and healthy” State.

He elaborates that governments become necessary only when people go beyond necessities and insist on luxuries: delicacies, courtesans, elaborate meals, fancy clothes, and the like (Rep. 2.373a).

His interlocutor, Glaucon, insists that people will not accept such a simple way of life, which he deprecates as a “city of pigs.” Only then does Socrates agree to consider for the remainder of their conversation various forms of the “luxurious State,” which he also calls the fevered or inflamed State (2.372e).

All the famous provisions of the ideal City-State in the Republic — the tripartite division of citizens into Worker, Soldier, and Guardian classes, for example — apply to this second-best State or second city.

Which, then, does Plato recommend? Should we strive for the first, naturalistic city? Or the more luxurious but complex City-State that occupies most of the discussion? Perhaps a clue is found in Socrates’ response to Glaucon’s objection. He never contradicts his original suggestion that the natural city is best. He merely agrees that there is no harm in discussing the luxurious State, because then “we shall be more likely to see how justice and injustice originate.”

Then why, you may ask, does Plato spend so much time in the Republic talking about things like the three classes of citizens, training and education of the Guardians, philosopher-kings, etc.

Possibly because all this pertains to Plato’s use of the Republic as an allegorical analysis of the human psyche, based on the principle of the city-soul analogy. In other words, this later discussion is primarily a psychological allegory — which is the main level at which the Republic is meant to be understood. However — and this is merely a possibility — perhaps Plato could not resist the opportunity to express his true political views briefly, and in an ironic and somewhat cryptic way. Certainly the pacifist themes at the end of these remarks (2.373d-e) would make sense for someone who, as Plato did, grew up during the Peloponnesian War — which was not only pointless to begin with, but resulted in humiliating defeat for Athens, a devastating plague, and massive social upheaval.

But even so, we should also be prepared to interpret this as psychological allegory. Understood in that way, the second city may represent a well-governed soul in search of its lost homeland and its desired state of repose. But once the homeland is reached, happiness is maintained without such strong conscious attention to self-government. That is, one may reach a condition that is the psychic equivalent of Engels’ notion of the withering away of the state (i.e., a perfect utopian society).  It might be objected that such a perfect condition is simply impossible — either for an individual or for society — because of imperfections in the nature of each.  However in the case of an individual we could allow that such a state may potentially be experienced temporarily (as with a Maslowean peak experience), and, if so, may still be quite valuable for personality integrity and growth.  Those familiar with Zen Buddhism might see a possible connection with this mental condition and the 10th image of the Oxherding Pictures (10. ‘Both Vanished’).

Read what Plato wrote and decide for yourself what he means. The passage below is from Benjamin Jowett’s elegant translation of the Republic (1892; italics added). The full citation is: Jowett, Benjamin (ed., tr.). The Dialogues of Plato in Five Volumes. 3rd edition. Vol. 3 – Republic, Timaeus. Oxford, 1892. <>

… Socrates. Let us then consider, first of all, what will be their way of life, now that we have thus established them. Will they not produce corn, and wine, and clothes, and shoes, and build houses for themselves? And when they are housed, they will work, in summer, commonly, stripped and barefoot, but in winter substantially clothed and

shod. They will feed on barley-meal and flour of wheat, baking and kneading them, making noble cakes and loaves; these they will serve up on a mat of reeds or on clean leaves, themselves reclining the while upon beds strewn with yew or myrtle And they and their children will feast, drinking of the wine which they have made, wearing garlands on their heads, and hymning the praises of the gods, in happy converse with one another. And they will take care that their families do not exceed their means;

having an eye to poverty or war.

But, said Glaucon, interposing, you have not given them a relish to their meal.

True, I replied, I had forgotten; of course they must have a relish — salt, and olives, and cheese, and they will boil roots and herbs such as country people prepare; for a dessert we shall give them figs, and peas, and beans;

and they will roast myrtle-berries and acorns at the fire, drinking in moderation. And with such a diet they may be expected to live in peace and health to a good old age, and bequeath a similar life to their children after them.

Yes, Socrates, he said, and if you were providing for a city of pigs, how else would you feed the beasts?

But what would you have, Glaucon? I replied.

Why, he said, you should give them the ordinary conveniences of life. People who are to be comfortable are accustomed to lie on sofas,

and dine off tables, and they should have sauces and sweets in the modern style.

Yes, I said, now I understand: the question which you would have me consider is, not only how a State, but how a luxurious State is created; and possibly there is no harm in this for in such a State we shall be more likely to see how justice and injustice originate. In my opinion the true and healthy constitution of the State is the one which I have described. But if you wish also to see a State at fever-heat, I have no objection.

For I suspect that many will not be satisfied with the simpler way of life. They will be for adding sofas, and tables, and other furniture; also dainties, and perfumes, and incense, and courtesans, and cakes, all these not of one sort only, but in every variety; we must go beyond the necessaries of which I was at first speaking, such as houses, and clothes, and shoes: the arts of the painter and the embroiderer will have to be set in motion, and gold and ivory and all sorts of materials must be procured.

True, he said.

Then we must enlarge our borders; for the original healthy State is no longer sufficient. Now will the city have to fill and swell with a multitude of callings which are not required by any natural want; such as the whole tribe of hunters and actors, of whom one large class have to do with forms and colours; another will be the votaries of music—poets and their attendant train of rhapsodists, players, dancers, contractors; also

makers of divers kinds of articles, including women’s dresses. And we shall want more servants. Will not tutors be also in request, and nurses wet and dry, tirewomen and barbers, as well as confectioners and cooks; and swineherds, too, who were not needed and therefore had no place in the former edition of our State, but are needed now? They must not be forgotten: and there will be animals of many other kinds, if people eat them.


And living in this way we shall have much greater need of physicians than before?

Much greater.

And the country which was enough to support the original inhabitants will be too small now, and not enough?

Quite true.

Then a slice of our neighbours’ land will be wanted by us for pasture and tillage, and they will want a slice of ours, if, like ourselves, they exceed the limit of necessity,

and give themselves up to the unlimited accumulation of wealth?

That, Socrates, will be inevitable.

And so we shall go to war, Glaucon. Shall we not?

Most certainly, he replied.

Then, without determining as yet whether war does good or harm, thus much we may affirm, that now we have discovered war to be derived from causes which are also the causes of almost all the evils in States, private as well as public.


And our State must once more enlarge;

and this time the enlargement will be nothing short of a whole army, which will have to go out and fight with the invaders for all that we have, as well as for the things and persons whom we were describing above.

greek key divider

Further Reading

Annas, Julia. The Inner City: Ethics Without Politics in the Republic. In: Julia Annas, Platonic Ethics, Old and New, Ithaca, 1999, pp. 72–95 (Ch. 4).

Guthrie, William K. C. A History of Greek Philosophy. Vol. 4, Plato: The Man and His Dialogues: Earlier Period. Cambridge, 1986. (See pp. 445–449 for an excellent treatment of the topic.)

Uebersax, John S. The Monomyth of Fall and Salvation. 2014.

Uebersax, John S. Psychological Correspondences in Plato’s Republic. 2014.



The Prisoners’ Dilemma and Third-Party Voting

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Prisoners Dilemma - Ohdaira & Terano

[ Related: Responding to the ‘Voting for Jill Stein Merely Elects Trump’ Fallacy  ]

Does game theory explain why Americans don’t vote for third-party candidates?

Previous posts here have considered the tactics by which the Republican and Democratic parties collude to maintain a two-party hegemony in America  politics.  Lately it’s occurred to me that this problem can be understood as a special case of what game theorists call the prisoner’s dilemma (Rapoport, 1965).  Prisoner’s dilemma (PD), as we shall see, is a classic example of how two decision-making agents, both seemingly seeking to maximize self-interest, systematically make  harmful or suboptimal choices.  In the present case, the issue is that even though American voters would be better off voting for third-party candidates, there are structural reasons why they do not do so.  Looking at this problem in terms of PD can help identify the structural issues at work and suggest possible routes out of our present political impasse.

A few other people (e.g., John Sallet, and EvilRedScandi) have looked at  PD as a way to understand current political dynamics, but their concerns are somewhat different than the present one, which is how Republican and Democrat voters today are jointly in a prisoners’ dilemma.

First we’ll describe the basic PD paradigm.  Then we’ll show how this applies to reluctance to vote for third-party candidates.  Last and perhaps most importantly we’ll consider practical steps for reform that the model suggests.

Prisoner’s Dilemma

PD is a game theory paradigm that demonstrates how two decision-makers paradoxically fail to maximize either individual or joint interests.  Specifically, though their best strategy would be cooperation, they systematically choose non-cooperation.  The basic model can be understood with the following example:

Early one Saturday you and a college friend go hunting for ‘magic mushrooms’ in Farmer Brown’s cow pasture.  Farmer Brown sees you and calls police Chief Wiggum, who arrives promptly, arrests you and your friend, and hauls you both to the police station. There Wiggum places you in a room by yourself and proposes the following deal (he also tells you he will propose an identical deal to your friend).  The terms are as follows.  He asks you to sign a confession admitting that you and your friend were gathering the mushrooms with the intent of selling them (i.e., drug-dealing).  Then:

  1. If you confess, and your friend doesn’t confess, he will go to jail for 10 years, and you will get a 90-day sentence.
  2. Conversely, if your friend confesses and you don’t, he will get a 90-day sentence,  and you will get a 10-year sentence.
  3. If you confess and your friend also confesses, you’ll both be given 5-year sentences.
  4. If neither of you confess, Wiggum explains that he can still charge you and your friend with trespassing and put you both in jail for 30 days.

We can represent the dilemma with reference to a payoff matrix that considers each possible combination of choices and their consequences. You and your friend must each choose between cooperation with each other (not confessing), or defecting (confessing).  The days and years indicate the amount of jail time associated with each case.

Table 1. Classic Prisoner’s Dilemma

 Friend doesn’t confess
 Friend confesses
 You don’t confess
 you: 30 days
friend: 30 days
 you: 10 yrs.
friend: 90 days
 You  confess
 you: 90 days
friend: 10 yrs.
 you: 5 yrs.
friend: 5 yrs.


The best strategy here is clearly 4 — for neither of you to confess.   This is optimal both from the standpoint of selfish and altruistic motivation.  The paradox is that people in this situation predictably end up in scenario 3 (confess/confess). So  both of you go to jail for 5 years, when you both could have gotten off with 30-day sentences.

The pernicious aspect of PD is that this happens almost inevitably. Why? It has to do with what game theorists call the principle of dominance.  Relative to Table 1 that means that whatever your friend’s choice  is – that is, whether you’re looking at column 2 or column 3 of the table – your self-interest is maximized by defecting; thus, the strategy of defection is said to dominate that of cooperation.  And similarly for your friend.  Therefore, paradoxically, if maximizing self-interest is the only consideration, both of you will  defect, and neither will  maximize self-interest.

A detail is that although we’ve explained the dilemma in terms of various punishments, the crafty allocation of positive incentives, alone or in combination with negative incentives, can have the same effect. So, for example, Chief Wiggum can sweeten the deal with a bribe.  He could offer to give you or your friend say $100 if the one defects and the other doesn’t.

An important extension of the model is iterative PD, where two agents are presented with the dilemma multiple times.  Many researchers have studied iterative PD experimentally, e.g., seating two volunteers at computer terminals and repeatedly asking them to cooperate or defect, awarding payoffs (e.g., M&Ms, poker chips, money) each round.  A variety of player strategies are seen.  Sometimes players converge on cooperation, sometimes not. One not uncommon outcome is a tit-for-tat dynamic, in which players cooperate for a while, but if one defects, the other player retaliates by defecting in the next round, and this may go back and forth many times.  In any case, the iterative PD corresponds to our national elections, which occur at regular two or four-year intervals.

Third-Party Voting

Let’s now see how this applies to third-party voting. Our initial premise is that, while one might suppose that the Republican and Democratic parties are competitors, they’re really a duopoly.  Both serve the same ruling powers. They thus represent a single agent, which we might call Wall Street, the System, the Establishment, etc.  Whatever we call it, it corresponds to the role of the interrogator in our PD.

The role of you and your friend correspond to a given Republican and a given Democrat voter, or perhaps groups or Republican and Democrat voters.

The essence of the third-party voting PD is that it is in the best interests of both Republican and Democrat voters, individually and jointly, to replace or radically reform the present two-party duopoly.  Unless or until the two big parties nominate better candidates, the logical solution is for large numbers of citizens to vote for third-party candidates.  The paradox is that voters are not doing this, but are choosing to keep the aversive two-party system in power.

This happens, we propose, because of how the ruling powers structure perceived payoffs, both by their selection of candidates and by party platforms.

Here PD makes an unexpected prediction. Common sense might suggest that to win office, a party should nominate candidates who (1) appeal to its own voters, but also (2) are either somewhat attractive, but in any case not terribly offensive to voters in the opposite party. That way some voters in the opposite camp might switch votes, or perhaps may feel it’s not important to vote at all.  In either case, the party’s chances of winning are improved.

However if we grant that the Republican and Democrat parties are controlled by Wall Street and colluding with each other, PD implies that they will follow an opposite strategy, namely to nominate candidates who are frightening or even detested by voters of the opposite party. In such a fear- or anger-driven campaign, fewer voters will break ranks, believing that the opposite party must be prevented from winning at all costs.  All votes will be cast for the two big parties – precisely as Wall Street wants.

To further encourage voters not to break ranks, each party also offers positive incentives in the form of platforms and campaign promises:  for example universal health care or gay marriage by the Democratic party, or tougher immigration laws and Second Amendment protection but the Republican party.  But, again, PD would predict that parties would be especially keen to offer incentives that are hated by voters of the opposite party.

Table 2 presents the PD that Republican and Democrat voters faced in the 2008 presidential election.   (Cooperation here means voting for a third-party candidate, and defection means voting for the nominee of ones own party.)

Table 2. 2008 Presidential Election as Prisoners’ Dilemma

 Dem. voter cooperates  Dem. voter defects
 Rep. voter cooperates  Election a toss-up,
Two-party hegemony rejected
 Obama/Biden win,
 Rep. voter defects  McCain/Palin win,
More guns
 Election a toss-up,
Two-party hegemony affirmed


If we suppose that both main parties represent Wall Street and are ultimately inimical to the interests of the public, the best strategy for Republican and Democrat voters is to vote for some third-party candidate.  That won’t change the power structure immediately, but over the course of two or three elections sufficient momentum may build to make a third-party candidate competitive.   If nothing else, this may force the two big parties to become more responsive to citizens.

However what is happening instead is that voters are afraid to do this.  So, to consider the 2012 presidential election, despite the disillusionment of many Democrats with Obama, and the unattractiveness of Mitt Romney to many Republicans, the combined votes received by all third-party candidates amounted to less than 2% of the total.

Practical Implications

Viewing third-party voting as a PD suggests specific strategies for extricating American voters from their current predicament.  Several, but not all, of these strategies relate to improving the perception of payoffs so that cooperation, i.e., voting for third-party candidates, is more appealing. Specific strategies include the following:

Accurately perceive costs of non-cooperation. The ultimate problem is that Democrat and Republican voters are not accurately considering the costs of maintaining the two-party hegemony and the benefits of electing third-party candidates.  If the true costs and benefits were salient in our minds, we would more eagerly vote against the abusive and arrogant Republican-Democratic party establishment.

Our social problems today are many and serious:  the economy is moribund, rates of unemployment and foreclosures intolerable, college tuitions insanely high, the environment is being destroyed, civil liberties disappearing; the country is engaged in perpetual war, and a spirit of divisiveness and antagonism dominate.

Less often considered, but perhaps even more important are the ‘opportunity costs’, i.e., besides these negative things, what positive things are we missing out on because of our dysfunctional and aversive government?  Objectively considered, America has sufficient natural and human resources to construct a veritable utopia;  we could eliminate poverty, grant free higher education and health-care for all;  we have enough land to let everyone live in their own houses on their own property in environmentally friendly and attractive communities.  Indeed, the blessings of nature generally, and in our country particularly, are so great that it seems we must make a concerted effort to avoid constructing such a prosperous and congenial society.  We need a clearer vision of how good life could be were we only to stop punishing ourselves with the present inimical political system.

How can we gain this vision? Surely we still have individuals with the imagination and skills to lead. We must develop and empower these natural leaders and intellectuals.  One obvious means of doing this is to reform our higher education system, which, by now neglecting liberal studies and humanities in favor of teaching technical and money-making skills, is discouraging the emergence of a more utopian vision of society.

We can also promote voter cooperation by applying more skepticism and critical thinking to the promises of Republican and Democrat candidates.  For example, a Democrat candidate may well promise universal health care, which sounds very attractive at face value, but ought to raise many obvious questions about its feasibility or unintended side-effects.  Would government-run health-care produce an unwieldy and inefficient bureaucracy?  Would the government give too much power to pharmaceutical companies?  Are there cheaper and better alternatives, such as a greater emphasis on preventive medicine and healthy living?  Subjected to greater scrutiny, the promises of the two parties can be seen as empty, or in any case far less attractive than the kind of society we could obtain by having a government based on citizens’, not corporations’ interests.

Long-term perspective. Clearly another way to acquire more a accurate perception of the payoff structure, so as to better see the benefits of cooperation by voting for third-party candidates, is to adopt a long-term perspective.  A bias favoring immediate wishes over long-term welfare is, of course, a fundamental problem of human nature.  But the problem is especially great in politics, where demagogues and news media specialize in appealing to voters’ short-term interests.   In any given election, the short term benefits promised by Republican and Democrat candidates may seem attractive to their respective constituencies, but over the course of 10 or 20 years alternations of policy and failure to pursue any consistent course is disastrous.

Collectivize utilities.  By collectivizing utilities I mean for individual citizens to recognize their own best interests and those of their fellow Americans are intimately connected.  We are a highly interdependent society.  Ultimately, social injustice or unfair distribution of wealth harms everyone.  If one segment of the population is oppressed or excluded, or their views ignored, then at the very least their contribution to society will be lessened, and this hurts everyone.  Moreover, eventually an oppressed or underserved group will gather sufficient energy to redress the wrong by political action.  Whatever is at the basis of the ideological split between Republicans and Democrats, the current political dynamics operate as a negative feedback system: as one group gains successive victories, opposing pressure builds until a reversal occurs.  Thus victories are often short-lived, policies flip-flop, and no sustained course is pursued.

Consider higher-order utilities. The utility calculus of voters is such that typically only material values – jobs, benefits, taxes, etc. – are considered.  Americans have bought lock, stock and barrel the political lie that “it’s the economy, stupid”, i.e., that all success and value of our society is measured by the GNP.  This does not reflect the true value structure of human beings.  We are not merely material creatures, but moral and spiritual beings as well.  It is an undeniable fact that people feel good and experience more happiness and satisfaction when they practice generosity, altruism, benevolence, charity, and justice.  Add to this that no amount of material benefits can outweigh the disadvantages of citizens being constantly at each others’ throats.   In an authentic utility calculus, higher-order utilities have to be considered; and if they are, the payoff much more clearly favors cooperation among voters and rejection of the two-party hegemony.

Third-party platforms and rhetoric.  Third parties must confront Americans with the price being paid for two-party totalitarianism and emphasize that a better future is obtainable.

Voter pacts. Beyond changing perceptions of payoffs, there are active steps that people in a prisoners’ dilemma can do to win the game.  Perhaps the most obvious is for the two players to anticipate the dilemma and form a pact beforehand.  For example, with regards to Table 1, you and your friend could agree beforehand, “If we’re caught, we both promise to assert our innocence.”  This solution is enhanced by establishing or improving trust, affection, and bonds of unity between the two players.

In theory, individual Republican and Democrat voters could pair up with a member of the opposite party and agree to vote for third-party candidates. A website might be set up for this purpose.  While this is sensible and ethical, I believe that at least certain forms of voting pacts have been ruled illegal, and one website dedicated to this was forced to close.   Nevertheless this principle could doubtless be applied in ways that are unambiguously legal, or at least such that contrary prohibitions would be unenforceable.

Bargains could also be made at the level of institutional endorsements.  For example, two newspapers, one liberal and one conservative, could make a pact to endorse third-party candidates.

Opting out. Finally, citizens might opt out of the dilemma in various ways.  I would personally not advocate failure to vote as a means for this, although some suggest it.  Protests, demonstrations, or even strikes might be used to pressure the Republican and Democratic parties to reform their platforms and supply better candidates.  Another possibility is to hold alternative elections run by the citizens themselves with candidates of their own choosing.  Such elections would have no legal status, but they would have symbolic value, would permit realistic debates about policy, and encourage trust and camaraderie amongst citizens.

These are only representative suggestions.  How feasible or effective any of them would be remains to be seen.  The main point here has been to suggest that PD is an appropriate paradigm for looking at the current two-party stranglehold on American society and understanding how to encourage third-party voting.   I would like to encourage others, including social scientists, to consider this topic more, as I believe the model is apt and probably contains more theoretical and practical implications than have been considered here.


Writing this article helped me to see the more fundamental problem: American society generally is an n-way prisoners’ dilemma. When people view society as merely a ‘dog-eat-dog’ competition, they ‘rationally’ choose to maximize self(ish)-interest. But selfishness only pays off when other people act unselfishly.  When everybody acts selfishly, everyone loses; thinking you’ll win by acting selfishly is an illusion.

Each person is better off when everybody cooperates. This is more than an ethical maxim, it’s demonstrated by game theory.

This problem (whether to vote for a third-party candidate, or a less preferred candidate that is more likely to win) is an instance of a more general class of social dilemmas. As such it is not only related to the prisoners’ dilemma but also the tragedy of the commons. Several other forms of insincere voting that constitute social dilemmas. For all such dilemmas, the long-term optimal strategy is cooperation, viz. for each agent to choose so as to maximize long-term collective, not immediate personal utility.

Further Reading

Rapoport, Anatol. Prisoner’s Dilemma: A Study in Conflict and Cooperation. University of Michigan, 1965.

Uebersax, John. The Lions and the Tigers (A Political Parties Fable).

Uebersax, John. Third-Party Voting and Kant’s Categorical Imperative.

Uebersax, John. Voting as Constructive Idealism: Why Principles Do Matter More than Expediency.

Uebersax, John. Why Vote Third-Party?

Theodore Parker – ‘Only a Hand-Rail of Difference Between the Two Parties’

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This continues a series of posts intended to demonstrate the ideological relevance of New England Transcendentalism to the Occupy Movement and to direct readers to this invaluable resource.

Theodore Parker (1810–1860) was one of the greatest orators among the New England Transcendentalists. In the excerpt below, Parker explains that, in the perennial struggle between Idealism and materialism, the US has become dominated by the latter.  The two great political parties – the one of the rich and the other of the poor – are alike in that their values and policies are dominated by desire for wealth. It is all too painfully clear how closely the Whigs and Democrats of his era correspond to the Republican and Democratic parties of ours.

Source: Theodore Parker. The Nebraska Question. Boston: Mussey, 1854.

* * * *

From 1620 to 1788 there was a rapid development of ideas. But since that time the outward pressure has been withdrawn. The nation is no longer called to protest against a foreign foe; no despot forces us to fall back on the great principles of human nature, and declare great universal truths. Even the Anglo-Saxon people are always metaphysical in revolution. We have ceased to be such, and have become material. We have let the programme of political principles and purposes slip out of the nations consciousness, and have betaken ourselves, body and soul to the creation of riches. Wealth is the great object of American desire. Covetousness is the American passion. This is so — nationally in the political affairs of the country; ecclesiastically, socially, domestically, individually. Our national character, political institutions, geographic situation,— all favor the accumulation of riches.

No country was ever so rich before, nor got rich so fast; in none had wealth ever such power, or was so esteemed. It is counted as the end of life, not as the material basis to higher forms thereof. It has no conventional check in the institutions of the land, and only two natural checks in the heart of the people. One is the talent and genius — intellectual, moral, affectional, and religious—that is born in rare men; and the other is the desire, the caprice, the opinion, of the great majority of men, who oppose {p. 329} their collective human will against the material glitter of mere accumulated money. But money can buy intellectual talent and intellectual genius; at least it can buy American talent and American genius. Money, and the men of cultivated minds whom it buys, can deceive the people, so that the majority shall follow the dollar wherever it rolls. The clink of the dollar, — that is the reveille, the morning drum-beat, for the American people. In America, money is inaugurated as a power to control all other powers. It has itself become an “Institution” — master of all the rest.

Three of those bad institutions … whereof our fathers brought the traditions from the old world, have mainly perished. The mediaeval Theocracy has gone out from the Protestant Church; Monarchy has wholly faded from the consciousness of the people; Aristocracy, sitting unmovable on her cradle, has had her heart pierced through and through by the gigantic spear of American Industry horsed on a steam-engine. Money has taken the place of all three. It has got inaugurated into the Church, — it is a Church of commerce; in the State — it is a State of commerce; in the Community not less, — it is a society of commerce; and money wields the triple power of those three old masters, Theocracy, Monarchy, Aristocracy. It is the Almighty Dollar.

In the American Church, money is God. The {p. 330} peculiar sins of money, and of the rich, they are never preached against; it is a Church of commerce, wealth its heaven and the millionaire its saint; its ministers should be ordained, not “by the imposition of hands,” but of bank-bills — of small denomination. In the American State, money is the Constitution: officers ought to be sworn on the federal currency; they should make the sign of the dollar, ($) as their official symbolic cross; it is a State of commerce. In the community, money is Nobility; it is transmissible social power; it is Aristocracy, it makes a man who has got it a vulgar “gentleman;” it is a Society of commerce….

{p. 331} Money having taken the place of these three institutions, it must be politically represented in the nation by a party; for a party is the provisional organization of a tendency. So there is a party organized about the Dollar as its central nucleus and idea. The dollar is the germinal dot of the Whig party; its motive is pecuniary; its motto should be, to state it in Latin, pecunia pecuniata, money moneyed, money made. It sneers at the poor; at the many; has a contempt for the people. It legislates against the poor, and for the rich; that is, for men pecuniarily strong; the few who are born with the desire, the talent, and the conventional position to become rich. “Take care of the rich, and they will take care of the poor,” is its secret maxim. [Note 1] Every thing must yield to money: that is to have universal right of way. Down with Mankind! the Dollar is coming! The great domestic object of Government, said the greatest Expounder of this party, “is the protection of property;” —that is to say, the protection of money {p. 332} moneyed, money got. With this party there is no Absolute Right, no Absolute Wrong. Instead thereof, there is Expediency and Inexpediency. There is no law higher than the power to wield money just as you will. Accordingly a millionaire is reckoned by this party as the highest production of society. He is the Whig ideal; he alone has attained “the measure of the stature of a perfect man.”

…But man is man, can a dollar stop him? For ever? The instinct of development is as inextinguishable in man as the instinct of perpetuation in blackbirds and thrushes, who build their procreant nests under all administrations, theocratic or democratic. So there is another party which represents the Majority of the people; that majority who have not money which is coveted, only the covetous desire thereof…. This is the Democratic party. It loves money as well as the Whig party, but has got less of it….

{p. 333} To the Whig party belong the rich, the educated, the decorous; the established, — those who look back, and count the money got. To the other party belong the young, the poor, the bold, the adventurous, everybody that is in want, everybody that is in debt everybody who complains. The audacious are its rulers [Note 2]; — often men destitute of lofty character, of great ideas, of Justice, of Love, of Religion — bold, smart, saucy men. This party sneers at the rich, and hates them; of course it envies them, and lusts for their gold.

The Democratic party appeals to the brute will of the majority, right or wrong; it knows no Higher Law. Its statesmanship is the power to enact into permanent institutions the transient will of the majority: that is the ultimate standard. Popular and unpopular, take the place of right and wrong—vox populi, vox Dei [Note 3]; the vote settles what is true, what right. It regards money made and hoarded as the foe of human progress, and so is hostile to the millionaire. The Whig calls on his lord, “Money, help us!” To get money, the Democrat can do all things through the majority strengthening him….

{p. 334} … The Whig party worships money: it is the body of the Whig God; there is no Higher Law above it. The Democratic party worships the opinion of the majority: it is the voice of the Democrat’s God: there is no Higher Law. To the Whig party, — no matter how the money is got, by smuggling opium or selling slaves, — it is pecunia pecuniata, — money moneyed. To the Democratic party it is of no consequence what the majority wishes, or whom it chooses … If the majority wants to violate the Constitution of America and the Declaration of Independence, or the Constitution of the Universe and the Declaration of God, why! the cry is — “there is no higher law!” {p. 335} “the greatest good of the greatest number!” — What shall become of the greatest good of the smaller number?

There is, therefore, no vital difference between the Whig party and the Democratic party; no difference in moral principle. The Whig inaugurates the Money got; the Democrat inaugurates the Desire to get the money. That is all the odds. So in the times that try the passions, which are the souls of these parties, the Democrat and the Whig meet on the same …  platform. One is not higher and the other lower; they are just alike. There is only a hand rail between the two, which breaks down if you lean on it, and the parties mix.  In common times, it becomes plain that a Democrat is but a Whig on time; a Whig is a Democrat arrived at maturity; his time has come. A Democrat is a young Whig who will legislate for money as soon as he has got it; the Whig is an old Democrat who once hurrahed for the majority — “Down with money! that is a despot! and up with the desire for it!”

{p. 336} I once knew a crafty family which had two sons; both men of ability, and of remarkable unity of “principle.” The family invested one in each party, and as it had a head on either side of the political penny thrown into the air, the family was sure to win. A New England Family, wise in its generation! [Note 4]

Now, I do not mean to say that all Democrats or all Whigs are of this way of thinking. Quite the contrary. There is not a Whig or Democrat who would confess it. The majority, so far as they have convictions, are very different from this; but the Whig would say in his convention, that I told the truth of the Democratic party; the Democrat, in his convention, would say, I told, the truth of the Whigs. These ideas, — they reside in the two parties [Note 5], … as chemistry in the water, as in the drop the gravitation which brings it to the ground: not a conviction, but a fact. Each of these parties has great good to accomplish. Both seem indispensable. Money must be looked after. It is a valuable thing; the human race could not do without property. It is the ladder whereby we scale the heavens of manhood. But property alone is good for nothing. The will of the majority must be respected.  I honor the ideas of the Democratic {p. 337} party, and of the Whig party, so far as they are just. But man is not made merely for money; the majority are the standard of power, not of Right. There is a law of God which directs the chink of every dollar; it cannot roll except by the laws of the Eternal Father of Earth and Heaven. What if the majority enact iniquity into a statute! Can millions make Wrong right? Justice is the greatest good of all.

With little geographical check or interference from other nations, we are going on solving our problem of “manifest destiny.” Since the establishment of Independence, America has made a rapid development. Her population has increased with unexampled rapidity; her territory has enlarged to receive her ever greatening family; riches have been multiplied faster even than their possessors. But some of the least lovely qualities of the Anglo-Saxon tribe have become dreadfully apparent. We have exterminated the Indians; we keep no treaties made with the red men; they keep all. The national materialism and indifference to great universal principles of Right shows itself clearer and clearer. Submission to Money or the Majority is the one idea that pervades the nation….

{p. 338} … There is a contradiction in the consciousness of the nation. In our industrial civilization, under the stimulus of love of wealth, and its consequent social and political power, we have made such a rapid advance in population and riches as no nation ever made. The lower powers of the understanding have also had a great development. We can plan, organize, and administer material means for material ends, as no nation has ever done. But it is not to be supposed that any people could pass all at once from the military civilization, with its fourfold despotism, to an industrial civilization with democracy in its Church, State, Community, and Family. How slowly we learn; with what mistakes do we come to the true Idea [Note 6], and how painfully enact it into a deed!


1. E.g., the so-called trickle-down theory of ‘Reaganomics’.

2. Cf. Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope (2006).

3. Latin for ‘the voice of the people is the voice of God.’

4.  A prime tactic of special interests today.

5. Today we might express this by saying that, although many elected officials have principles and are decent men and women, the structural forces of the political system inevitably result in compromise of these principles and their sacrifice to the party agenda.

6. i.e., the ‘great principles of human nature’ (p. 328), or the Platonic Ideals of Truth, Beauty, Justice, etc.


The Two Meanings of Zeitgeist

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The word zeitgeist has lately come to be identified with a movement and ideology associated with a rejection of corporatism and globalization, and a return to a more sustainable way of life.  ‘Zeitgeist’ is a compound of two German words, zeit, which means time, and geist, which means spirit.  In its more common sense today, and the sense associated with the modern movement, it means a spirit of the times, i.e., a prevailing mind-set, attitude or set of values.  Thus, we might say that in the Reagan era (1980-88), the zeitgeist was one of entrepeneurism and economic growth; and in the 60’s, it was associated with “peace, love, and Woodstock.”

Another, older meaning of zeitgeist, less common today, is that of a literal Spirit of Time.  That is, a metaphysical entity —  a Spirit, Angel, Genius, or God’s Providence — is thought of as having a plan for human history, and directing the course of human events.

A minor point, but one not entirely insignificant, is that word in the former sense is a common noun, which would ordinarily be written uncapitalized, i.e., zeitgeist.  In the latter sense, however, the word is a proper noun, and is written Zeitgeist or Zeit-Geist.

It is fairly evident that when people today talk about the Zeitgeist Movement, they are using ‘zeitgeist’ in the former, i.e., non-metaphysical sense.  My point here is that I think people should question this, and give more consideration to the relevance of the latter meaning of the word in this context.


For several related reasons.  We are all agreed that the problem here is corporatism and globalization, how these have infected every aspect of modern life, corrupted our governments, dehumanized us, produced perpetual war, and are ruining the environment.  But this much granted, a ideological fork in the road is encountered.  On the one hand, we can construe the problem exclusively in terms of materialist-deterministic philosophy; on the other, we can allow that there are or may be spiritual and metaphysical principles at work that affect our existence.

The simple truth is that the overwhelming majority of human beings on the planet do believe in a God or Supreme Being, and do hope for an afterlife — so to this extent, at least, they believe in metaphysics.  Any God worthy of the name would be benevolent, all-wise, and all powerful.  Thus God, almost by definition, would be concerned with human affairs, have a plan for the ultimate success of the race, and would assist us.  God’s power, wisdom and assistance, when directed to the course of history, either directly or through some mediating agency, would fulfill the definition of a Zeit-Geist.

Now as I write this and call to mind those individuals whom I know directly or see on the internet who are associated with the Zeitgeist Movement, in nearly every case I envision someone radically opposed to the points stated in the preceding paragraph.  That is, the Zeitgeist Movement, as it is ideologically represented — say, for example, in the writings of Noam Chomsky — is at the very least a-religious, and, quite frankly, gives one the distinct impression of being anti-religious.  I’d make a friendly wager, in fact, that subjected to some objective empirical test — say performing an automated content analysis of articles in the Zeitgeist Movement literature, this impression of atheism would find more support than not.

If so, I would invite people associated with or interested in the Zeitgeist Movement and its aims to open their minds somewhat.  The problem here is that via our education system and mass media, our culture has had an atheistic-materialistic world-view shoved down its collective throat.  And by whom?  By the corporate establishment.  Noam Chomsky is correct in some ways, but when it comes to religion and philosophy, he has neither expertise nor credibility.  On this issue he operates merely at the level of prejudice and emotion.  He has risen, in addressing matters metaphysical, to his level of incompetence (see Peter principle).  He is to this extent another mouthpiece of the corporate establishment.

Every malicious power structure supplies its own token resistance.  To disguise its real Achilles heel, it invents a nominal opposition that gives the outward appearance of a challenge, but which is ultimately ineffectual.  Noam Chomsky and like-minded ‘Zeitgeist atheists’, however genuine their intentions may be, ultimately serve the materialist system by supplying this nominal opposition and monopolizing the podium.

The most dangerous and serious effect of corporatism and globalization is to destroy mankind’s collective awareness of our divinity.  Chomsky and crew support this vast and destructive delusion.

We are either machines in a value-less, Darwinistic universe.  Or we have something spiritual in our makeup.  If the former is true, then ultimately nothing matters, and the best solution is a bottle of sleeping pills and a liter of wine.  Moreover, the mere fact that we see corporatism and globalization as unjust, as wrong — not just inconvenient, not just a dangerous adversary — but wrong, demonstrates that we have a genuine moral sense.  We evaluate right and wrong by standards that have no real legitimacy in a merely Darwinian universe.  In Darwin’s jungle, if the big monkey oppresses you, you can say he is stronger, but not wrong.  The naturalness with which we make such moral judgements of right and wrong, in an absolute sense, and our utter conviction of their truth, shows that we are something more than just intelligent machines.

Finally, and most importantly, if there is a God, if there is Providence, that has a major bearing on strategy.  If there is a Zeit-Geist, a Spirit of Providence, then we stand the best chance of succeeding not by trying to invent a revolution from scratch, but by aligning ourselves with the Zeit-Geist. We should look to see how the Zeit-Geist is already at work today, how it has planted seeds in the past and given us examples for us to follow when the time for change is ready.

This is one reason I look closely at the American Transcendentalist movement of the 19th century. If there is a benevolent Spirit of History presiding over the human race, we would see it working in other historical periods to resist the same oppression of humanity we see today.  It would prepare us for the great and decisive struggle gradually.  It would work patiently and cumulatively, like a wise gardener.  It would have inspired minds in previous generations.  We are wise to look for where the thread of progress last left off, and continue from there.

The ideological literature of the Zeitgeist Movement is atheistic.  But the members of the movement are privately believers.  This disconnect must end for the movement to succeed, so that it harnesses the abilities of the entire individual.


Written by John Uebersax

March 28, 2013 at 10:38 pm

Fiat Lucrum: Berkeley Faculty vs. California Citizens on Online Courses

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Let There Be Loot!

Fiat Lucrum

California State Senator Darrell Steinberg is co-sponsoring SB 520, titled “California Virtual Campus.” The Senate Bill would potentially enable California students to receive credit at public universities and colleges (UCs, CSUs, and CCCs) for courses taken online from any source.  This would presumably stimulate competition, lower course costs, and make higher education available to more Californians.

Predictably, there is resistance from faculty associations.  The Berkeley Faculty Association, for example, is circulating a petition to oppose SB 520.  The petition states that SB 520 “will lower academic standards (particularly in key skills such as writing, math, and basic analysis), augment the educational divide along socio-economic lines, and diminish the ability for underrepresented minorities to excel in higher education.”

This, of course, is all nonsense.  Nearer the truth is that the Berkeley Faculty Association wants to protect faculty jobs. It is sad indeed when they place their own job security ahead of sensible efforts to make higher education affordable and accessible to more Californians.

That said, anything the State Government touches will be tainted by money.  No doubt many private online universities (e.g., Univer$ity of Phoenix) will jump at the new chance to make money.  Whether online universities are actively lobbying State Senators is anybody’s guess (but what do you think?).

What we ought to do is to simply eliminate expensive and needless accreditation requirements for undergraduate colleges, whether brick-and-mortar or virtual.  Consumers and market competition would then assure the highest quality courses for the lowest price.  We should similarly eliminate four-year degrees, which are meaningless.  People should take classes for the purpose of learning, not to get a degree.  If undergraduate education were completely de-regulated, everybody – minorities included – would follow their natural inclinations to educate themselves, and select high-quality vendors.  A world-class college lecture series would cost no more than to rent a Blu-Ray movie.


Transcendentalist Writings for the Occupy Movement

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New England Transcendentalism - Ralph Waldo Emerson

New England Transcendentalism – Ralph Waldo Emerson

THE New England Transcendentalist movement was the first systematic reaction in America against greedy capitalism and the excesses of Wall Street. Nothing written since gets more directly to the heart of the problem: the dehmanizing effects of crass materialism and of a society driven by a narrow emphasis on financial profit. Today, even though we see the problems with greedy capitalism, we labor under the weight of an education which that very system provided. But their minds were clearer and their education better. We therefore do well to look back to these pioneers for ideas and ideology.

In addition to the links below, here’s a followup post with a selection of relevant quotes by Henry David Thoreau from his essay, Life Without Principle.

Transcendentalist Works




James Freeman Clarke — Self-Culture by Reading and Books

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“Knowledge of books, and a habit of careful reading, is a most important means of intellectual development.”

One of the many hidden gems in New England Transcendentalist literature. This insightful essay by James Freeman Clarke (1810–1888) is as valuable today as ever. (Source: James Freeman Clarke, Self-Culture Physical, Intellectual, Moral And Spiritual. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1908 [orig. ed. 1880]; ch. 15, pp. 307—324.)*


Culture By Reading And Books


THE subject of this chapter is “Reading as a Means of Culture.”

The “Publisher’s Circular” gives the statistics of the books issued each year from the press in England. The annual number of titles, one year with another, is about five thousand. About two-thirds of these are new books; the others are reprints. Last year there were 737 theological books, 529 educational works, 522 juvenile books, and 854 works of fiction. I have not at hand the statistics of books for the United States, but it must compare favorably with that of England, as a larger proportion of our population are able to read than in that country. The number of copies of newspapers printed and circulated every year in the United States is enormous, — I was about to say frightful. The annual circulation is fifteen hundred millions of copies, which would give about forty copies every year to every man, woman, and child in the United States.

These statistics show how much time is occupied by the people in reading. And it is a valuable education, so far as it goes. Poor as much is that is printed, it is better than the common talk. The average newspaper is higher than the average conversation. The newspaper does not swear, does not use coarse and gross language; it is often weak, but does not talk pure nonsense. It is trying to say something, and it has to seem to be aiming at something honest, true, and generous. The newspapers give a vast amount of information in regard to the affairs of mankind. The nation which reads newspapers is able to sympathize with the people of other countries; men’s hearts are enlarged, and they are helped to love their fellow-men. Without newspapers, we should never have felt sympathy with Greece in her revolution, with Poland in its misfortunes, with Italy in its independence and unity, with France in her great disasters and subsequent recovery. Without the newspapers, we should not have sent food to starving Ireland in its years of famine, for we should, as a people, have known nothing about it. The newspapers create a common feeling and a common opinion through the whole land, and a sympathy with the people of other lands. So they help the cause of humanity and of social progress.

But with all this good done by reading newspapers, there is one particular evil. It produces that state of mind which the Book of Acts ascribed to the Athenians: “The Athenians and strangers at Athens passed all their time,” so we are told in the Acts, “in seeing and hearing some new thing.” What they wanted was not the new, but the novel. They wished for novel sensations, perpetual change.   Therefore, neither St. Paul – nor Socrates four centuries earlier – had much success teaching the Athenians anything really new.  There was no depth in that soil.

Now, today the newspaper creates and feeds the appetite for news. When we read it, it is not to find what is true, what is important, what we must consider and reflect upon, what we must carry away and remember, but what is new. When any very curious or important event occurs, the newspaper, in narrating it, often gives, as its only comment and reflection, this phrase, “What next?” That is often the motto of the newspaper and the newspaper reader, “What next?” The only reflection and moral derived from learning a great fact is simply this, “Now let us hear of another.” The whole world rushes to the newspaper every morning to find out what has happened since yesterday; and the moment it finds what has happened, it cares no more about it. We think no more of yesterday’s newspaper than of yesterday’s dinner. We forget both as soon as possible. This is a mental dissipation which takes away mental earnestness, and destroys all hearty interest in truth. It also weakens the memory. The memory, like all other powers, is strengthened by exercise. We cultivate our memory by remembering. But if we read, not intending to remember what we read, but expecting to forget it, then we cultivate the habit of forgetting. I think that the effect of reading newspapers, in the way we read them, must be to weaken steadily and permanently, the memory of the nation. Every generation will be born with a worse memory than that which preceded it. The proper way to cure this evil would be to select every day from the newspaper certain important facts to be carried in the mind, considered and thought about. These would be fixed in the memory. They should be made the subject of conversation with friends or in the family, and this would improve the memory, instead of destroying it.

In short, in reading, and in all that we read, our mind should be active, and not passive. Milton says:—

                                 “Who reads
Incessantly, and to his reading brings not
A spirit and genius equal or superior,
Uncertain and unsettled still remains,
Deep versed in books and shallow in himself.”

And Lord Bacon tells us that “reading makes a full man, conference (or conversation) a ready man, and writing an exact man;” and that we should read, not to contradict and confute, nor to believe and take for granted, nor to find talk and discourse, but to weigh and consider. Montaigne, who had a passion for books, who never travelled without them, and called them the best viaticum for this journey of life, said that the principal use of reading, to him, was, that it roused his reason. It employed his judgment, not his memory. “Read much, not many things,” is good advice. There was an old saying, “He is a man of one book.” If one reads but one book, he may read that one book so well as to be a very hard man to encounter. But he is a happy person who enjoys his books, and to whom the day does not seem long enough for reading. For books are friends who never quarrel, never complain, are never false; who come from far ages and old lands to talk with us when we wish to hear them, and are silent when we are weary. Good books take us away from our small troubles and petty vexations into a serene atmosphere of thought, nobleness, truth. They are solace in sorrow, and companions in joy.

Knowledge of books, and a habit of careful reading, is a most important means of intellectual development. It gives mental breadth, poise, and authority. The man of great practical abilities, but unacquainted with the history or theory of a subject, is liable to make serious mistakes. He cannot be trusted. If he is conscious himself of his ignorance, he is timid; if not conscious, he is rash. It would be impossible for our members of Congress to commit so many blunders if they should pass an examination in political economy before taking their seats. To read two or three good books on any subject is equivalent to hearing it discussed by an assembly of wise, able, and impartial experts, who tell you all that can be known about it. You see the whole field, understand all that can be said on one side or the other, know what has been the result in practice of either course. The experience of the whole world, and of all past history, comes to your aid.

The moral influence also of good books is very great. They purify the taste, elevate the character, make low pleasures unattractive, and carry the soul up into a region of noble aims and generous purposes. All first-class books are eminently moral; and all immoral books are, so far, poor books. Homer, Shakspeare, Plato, Dante, are pure in their spirit, and elevate the character. No one can make a thorough study of such books as these without being a better man. Milton says, and says truly, that “our sage and serious poet, Spenser, is, I dare be known to think, a better teacher of temperance than John Duns Scotus or Thomas Aquinas.” Who can read the biography of Benjamin Franklin without learning to admire such a life of perpetual study, unfailing industry, large patriotism, temperance, good-humor, and general good-will? When we read the story of Washington we become sure that disinterested public service is a real thing. The charming allegory of the “Pilgrim’s Progress” teaches, in pictures too vivid to be ever forgotten, of the temptations and dangers we must encounter in any serious effort to save our soul.

Religious books are usually considered dull and uninteresting; but that they need not be so appears from the example of this book of Bunyan’s, and from the popularity of religious books far inferior in their quality. In fact, religious books stand at the summit of literature. First come the Sacred Scriptures of the race, —the books of books,—and, before all others, the Christian and Hebrew Bible, read by countless millions. Then come the Scriptures of the Hindus, the Persians, the Chinese, the Buddhists, also circulated by millions of copies during numerous centuries. Next come religious books of the second class, as the works of Homer, Hesiod, Aeschylus, Pindar; the great poems of Dante and Milton; and, after these, the lives of saints, the liturgies and hymns of the ages, the manuals of devotion, “The Imitation of Christ,” “Taylor’s Holy Living,” the works of Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Swedenborg, Channing. The vast circulation of such works testifies that there is nothing so interesting to the human heart as religion.

But “let him that readeth understand.” It used to be thought a great credit to a boy to “love his book,” to be fond of reading. But all depends on what we read and how we read. One may have a morbid love of reading. The habit of reading may become an evil. I have known persons who had acquired such a love for novel-reading that it was a real disease. They swallowed novel after novel as a rum-drinker swallows his glass of spirits. They lived on that excitement. They were passive recipients of these stories, and the more they read the weaker grew their minds. The result of this sort of reading is mental imbecility. Better, instead of it, to walk in the fields, to dig potatoes, or to talk with the first man you meet.

I do not mean to say that novel-reading is necessarily bad. It was formerly thought wrong to read novels at all; or, at least, wrong to read anything but the regular moral romance: the writings of Miss Edgeworth, Miss Burney, and the like. But novels in which the moral is too prominent are usually not so influential as those in which it comes, as in life, out of the incidents themselves. “The Vicar of Wakefield” has not any moral which compels your attention. “Don Quixote” has no obtrusive moral. But who can read the first and not sympathize with the good man, who, with all his ignorance of the world and its ways, commands our respect by his honorable purposes and his loyalty to truth and right. So, while we read “Don Quixote,” we smile at the folly of the good knight with the surface of our mind, and love and honor him in the depths of our heart, for the magnanimity and nobleness of his character. We smile at him, but respect him. Such books make us feel how much better is inward purity and uprightness than any mere knowledge of the world or outward success. That is their moral, and it is a great one. But it is nowhere stated in so many words.

The great merit of Walter Scott’s novels is their generous and pure sentiment. There is a strain of generosity, manliness, truth, which runs through them all. They nowhere take for granted meanness; they always take for granted justice and honor. Now this is the real, though subtle, influence which comes from novels, poems, plays. This indirect influence, this taking for granted, is the most influential of all. Some books take for granted that man is selfish and mean. Others take for granted that he is noble and true. Some assume that all men are led by selfishness, and all women by vanity. Such books are deeply immoral, no matter what good maxims are tacked to them. For our standard of right and wrong is usually that of the public opinion just around us, and the books we read create a part of that public opinion. Such works as those of Dickens have gone into public opinion, and have been the guides of the public conscience. They have made us all feel the duty of caring for such poor orphans as Smike; they have made us love the lowly; they have infused an aroma of generous feeling into the public mind. Catholics have their confessors, and those priests whom they call their directors, to whom they go to tell them what they ought to do. Such writers as Scott and Dickens are the directors of the public conscience. Well when they direct it aright.

Novels are good or bad, like other books. To ask whether we ought to read novels is like asking whether we ought to go into society. Choose your associates; choose your books. Do not read anything and everything because it is printed. Meanness, cynicism, cruelty, falsehood, get themselves printed. It is necessary that each one should examine for himself the character of what he reads, and find what effect it has on him.

Let him that readeth understand. “Weigh and consider.”

I return to the maxim to which I referred above, non multa, sed multum. Read much, but do not read many things. Select the great teachers of the race, the great masters, and read them. Read Bacon, Milton, Shakspeare, Dante, Homer, Herodotus, Thucydides, Schiller, Goethe, Lessing. Do not read about these authors in magazines, but read the authors themselves. He who has once carefully read Bacon’s “Advancement of Learning,” or Milton’s “Areopagitica,” or the “Phaedo” of Plato, has taken a step forward in thought and life. We read many criticisms on books; it were better to read the books themselves. Who, in visiting Niagara, instead of looking at the majestic cataract itself, would wish to see it reflected in a mirror in a camera obscura? Drink at the fountain, not from the stream. Read Pope, rather than Dr. Johnson’s account of him. Read Milton before you read Macaulay’s article on Milton. Read Goethe, and then Carlyle’s essay on Goethe. Literature tends too much to diluted and second-hand reading. Instead of great books, we read the reviews of books, then articles on the reviews, then criticisms on those articles, then essays on those criticisms.

It is an epoch in one’s life to read a great book for the first time. It is like going to Mont Blanc or to Niagara without the journey or the expense. When I was a boy I lived in the country, and had constructed for myself a reading-room amid the massive limbs of an old chestnut-tree. There I retired, and spent long mornings in reading the plays of Shakspeare, the “Paradise Lost,” the songs of Burns, the poems of Wordsworth or of Walter Scott. I immersed myself in them. The hours passed by, the sun sank lower toward his setting, the shadows moved on; entranced in my book, I read and noticed nothing. To read a good book thus is an event in one’s life.

I once spent a long day in reading the Book of Job in the translation of Noyes. I had never read it before from the beginning to the end. It was a day much to be remembered. I beg of you to take such books as these when you have time enough, and read them through; else you cannot know how great they are. Such books are not meant to be read as serials, or to be issued in monthly numbers. To read Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” take a long summer’s day. Go into the country, and sit in the woods alone. Read on and on, and give the whole day to it. Only so can you realize the majesty of that muse,—

“Sailing with supreme dominion
Through the azure depths of air,”

— the genius which paints in turn the sublime horrors of hell, the tender beauty of paradise,—

“The spirits and Intelligences fair
And angels waiting on the Almighty’s chair.”

In reading a book, you will notice that besides the thoughts, besides the visible moral, it has a soul, a leaven of character. The words of a book may be very moral, but the tone immoral. The words may be religious, but the tone sceptical. For the religion may be a mere smooth, cold crust over a deep running tendency to doubt; the morality may be exhortation to correct conduct coming out of a spirit which does not believe in right or wrong. That book, to me, is not moral which is stuffed with moral maxims, or in which good people end by getting rich and prosperous; but that which makes goodness seem both beautiful and possible; which makes it seem worth while to live, that we may live generously and nobly. That book to me is religious, not which exhorts us solemnly to become pious under penalty of going to hell if we are not, but in which love to God and man seem natural, easy, and beautiful.

A book may be religious without being Christian. The religious feeling which pours itself out in expressions of awe, reverence, fear, remorse, trust, is nearly the same in all lands, all times, and all religions. Something of it is to be found in Buddhism, in Mohammedanism, among the Hindus and the Chinese. But Christianity adds the element of faith in God as a living friend, close to us. The spirit of Christianity is the spirit of Jesus. When a book has not the spirit of Christ, it is none of his, though it may be full of religious notions, and may be popular enough to reach a hundred editions. The book which has in it the spirit of Christ is an apostle of Christianity, though it be a novel by Dickens, or a poem by Tennyson.

Biography, history, and travels give us more information than any other kind of works. They should be read together. One illustrates the other. And I think these are the books to read in classes. The best way of learning history is to have a class, in which a certain period of history shall be the subject of the lesson, and each member of the class read in a different book about that period. Then, when they come together, each has something to tell to the others, and something to learn from them. And, in like manner, it is well to form classes to read other works and pursue other studies, for so the stimulus of society and co-operation aids the solitary study which accompanies it.

I will close these remarks with a few rules to assist in reading to advantage.

1. Read what interests you. Interesting books are those which do us good. Unless a book interests us, we cannot fix our attention to it. Unless we attend to it, we do not understand it, or take it in. Then, we are wasting our time on a merely mechanical process, and are deceiving ourselves with a show devoid of substance.

The best books are the most interesting. Those which are clearest, most intelligible, best expressed, the logic of which is the most convincing; which are deepest, broadest, loftiest. Therefore, read the books on subjects which interest you, by the best writers on those subjects. And these are also interesting to that degree that, having once read them, you will never forget them.

The most interesting books, as regards their subjects, are well-written biographies and well-written books of travels. The one shows us human nature, the other the world and life. Therefore the undying charm of such works as “Plutarch’s Lives,” Xenophon’sMemorabilia of Socrates,” Johnson’s “Lives of the Poets,” the biographical essays by Macaulay and Carlyle, and the like.

This rule of reading what is interesting is so important, that it is a good appendix to the rule to stop reading when we find we cannot fix our attention and are reading mechanically. For to read without attention is to form a habit of inattention. To read without interest, will tend to a loss of interest in all reading. To go through the mechanical form of reading when our mind is not in it, weakens the mental powers, and does not strengthen them.

Therefore, select the best and most interesting books to read.

2. Read actively, not passively.  A person may be deeply interested in a sensational story, but it is often a purely passive interest. He does not think about what he is reading. The result is a momentary excitement, and after it is over he has received injury rather than good from it. He is less fit to think or to act than he was before.

We should always, in reading, exercise memory, judgment, and the faculties of comparison and reason. We should repeat in our own words the substance of what we read, take notes of it, converse about it, fix it in our memory, discuss it with others, and compare it with other books on the same subjects. This takes time; but it is far better to read a few books carefully and thoroughly, than many books superficially. Good books should be read again and again, and thought about, talked about, considered and re-considered. So, at last, what we read becomes our own.

3. Therefore, read with some system and method. Arrange circumstances so as to keep yourself up to your work. One method is for two persons to read the same book, and to meet together to talk about it. I read a large part of Goethe and Schiller and some other writers in this way, in company with Margaret Fuller, spending two or three evenings every week at her house, talking with her about what we had been reading. An extension of this method is to form a class to read on certain subjects; for example, a new book, a period of history, a country and people, a system of philosophy, a science, and then to meet and discuss together this common subject. Such a class might be formed in connection with every book-club. Where this cannot be done, a person might, at least, have a note-book, and write down the heads of what he reads, and his own thoughts about it. To these notes he would afterward refer with pleasure and advantage.

If a person, in the course of some years, should read in this way such writers as Shakspeare, Milton, Bacon, Locke, Gibbon, Wordsworth, and our best American writers, he would, by this method alone, acquire a good education and a large intellectual development. Any one important book read in this way would enlarge amazingly the sphere of one’s knowledge. I knew a gentleman who read thus “Carlyle’s History of the French Revolution;” looking up every event, person, and place referred to, and taking notes of all, and thus he became thoroughly versed in the whole history of modern Europe.

Let us be thankful for books. I sympathize with Charles Lamb, who said that he wished to ask a “grace before reading” more than a “grace before dinner.” Let us thank God for books. When I consider what some books have done for the world, and what they are doing, how they keep up our hope, awaken new courage and faith, soothe pain, give an ideal life to those whose homes are cold and hard, bind together distant ages and foreign lands, create new worlds of beauty, bring down truth from heaven, —I give eternal blessings for this gift, and pray that we may all use it aright, and abuse it never. Thank God for books, —

“Those stately arks, that from the deep
Garner the life for worlds to be;
And, with their glorious burden, sweep
Adown dark Time’s untravelled sea.”

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* I have made made minor edits to the text for the benefit of modern readers — webmaster.