"NEED MORE CLEAR PERSONAL THOUGHT" - PRES. LOWELL
President, in Giving Baccalaureate Sermon, Points Out That "In The Multitude of the Wise is the Welfare of the World."
President Lowell's Baccalaureate Sermon to the class of 1921, given in Appleton Chapel at 4 P. M. on Sunday was taken from the following texts:
Isaiah V: 21, 22
Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter! Woe unto them that are wise in their own eyes and prudent in their own sight!
Wisdom VII: 24
The multitude of the wise is the welfare of the world.
The first of these texts is a denunciation: the second is a promise. The statements, however, are only two different aspects of a single truth. No one thinks that he is himself putting darkness for light, evil for good, or bitter for sweet; but every one is sure that some other people are doing so, and, at the present time, that many people are doing it in a very exaggerated and dangerous way. Great numbers of good men and women are seriously alarmed today at ideas that are being propagated and they think that by shutting their own ears and the mouths of others the danger can be escaped. They remind one of the people in Kingsley's Water Babies, who walked backwards saying "Don't tell us!" But surely the way to overcome a wrong opinion is not to silence it, but to show its falsity.
The world is in confusion,--the natural result of the turmoil of thought, the ebullition of feeling that accompany and follow a great war. Men's minds are like the sea after a storm, where, although the wind has gone down, the billows still roll and break, irresistible in their huge mass, and threatening to founder even the ship that has ridden out the gale. Conditions have not yet returned to a normal state; nor has the world adjusted itself to them. In such a state of bewilderment, of misunderstandings, of cross purposes, what is needed? The answer is clear thinking.
Must Think Profoundly
Of course every one believes that he thinks clearly himself. So did the little Scotch girl, who said "Grandmother, all the world is daft but thee and me, and I think thee a little queer sometimes." No one really thinks clearly unless he has thought long and profoundly; unless he comprehends the point of view of those who do not agree with him; unless he has found out the limitations of his own principles; for all theories, principles, maxims, and rules of human conduct can be carried ad absurdum. They all have their proper limits, because at some point they come into conflict with other principles not less true and not less limited. A doctor, for example, is sent for by a patient whose life may depend on how soon medical attendance arrives. The doctor's obvious duty is to go as quickly as possible. He goes in his auto at the utmost speed, and in doing so runs over and kills a child. Clearly we must revise the statement of the doctor's duty. He must go as quickly as is consistent with due care not to run over someone else.
Within a few days I have been reading Professor Hart's selection of Lincoln's speeches and letters. In running through them one is impressed by the careful limitation he constantly places upon the principles that he believed most intensely. He thought slavery morally wrong, but while unflinchingly opposed to its extension to the territories he would not countenance attacks upon it in the State because he was of opinion that there it was protected by the Constitution. The principle that slavery being wrong should be opposed was limited by another principle that the Constitution and laws should be upheld; and he never advocated abolition by force until he felt justified in doing so on the ground that it was a proper military measure in carrying out his constitutional duty to preserve the union. In reading his writings one sees that this was not the result of political foresight, but of integrity and clearness of thought. One principle did not blind him to another, for he perceived both and therefore the limitations each imposed upon the other.
Let us take the principle of patriotism, the desire to promote by all possible means the prosperity of the country, the nation, the people to which one belongs. Few men are ready to deny the validity, the importance, the invaluable moral obligration of that principle. Even in the groups of men which, before the war, proclaimed the superior obligation of class solidarity, or so-called internationalism, there were few men who failed, when the war came, to take the part of the nation to which they recognized that they belonged. There had been an expectation that the socialists in Germany would refuse to support their Government and thus prevent war; but when the war came, that did not happen. In some cases, as in Alsace-Lorraine for example, the people, or many of them, did not consider that they belonged to the country that held sway over them; but that is another question, the question to what nation patriotism is due.
Are there any limitations to the principle of patriotism? Is dishonesty, for example, is the breaking of solemn treaties, is ruthless inhumanity to a weaker neighbor, justified by a belief that it will conduce to the prosperity of one's own people? Is a nation morally right in seizing anything it can obtain by force or fraud, or has it a duty to deal fairly with others, and respect their rights? Would Cain have acted properly if, instead of being a single individual, he had been fifty millions to Abel's twenty-five millions and had called himself a nation? Is a nation under any more obligation to abstain from acts against other nations which, if committed by a private individual, would make him an object of general abhorrence, and perhaps bring him to the gallows? Is abstaining from such things the limit of its moral obligation, or does it have any positive duties to others? In short, does the Golden Rule have any application among nations?
Beware of Unsound Opinions
Treitschke proclaimed the doctrine that there can be no moral obligation superior to the national interest, and many Germans adopted his ideas in whole or in part. I think it may be argued that if this conception of the State, or something akin to it, had not been prevalent in Germany it would not have been possible for any men, however close to the source of authority, to have led Germany into the war. It may at least be urged that it was this attitude of mind which furnished the backing for the attempt to take advantage by war of the situation in Europe, for invading Belgium in violation of the Treaty, and for the wanton destruction of the means of recuperation in France. If it be true that the Great War was a natural result of the principle that there is no moral obligation superior to the national interest, then the blame for the ghastly suffering endured, and for all that has been suffered since and will be for years to come, lies not only with those who taught that doctrine and those who acted upon it, but also with those multitudes of great and small who accepted it and by so doing swelled the tide of popular opinion that made the war possible. Observe, I am not expressing an opinion on any of these questions. In this place it would hardly be proper for me to do so. I am merely seeking to insist upon the responsibility of every man for his opinions by pointing out how his personal opinions go into the great scales in which the destinies of mankind are balanced.
If it be true that the war came because the people of Germany in their opinions put evil for good, darkness for light and bitter for sweet, then we can only say of the calamities that have come upon their country as Lincoln said of the woes of the Civil War, "True and just are thy judgements altogether." We can add with him. "Let us judge not that we be not judged"; or rather let us beware that by harboring in our minds unsound opinions we fall not into like condemnation.
In this matter of patriotism it is the solemn duty of every man to think clearly what, if any, are its moral limitations, and what duties and responsibilities it involves. It is his duty to try to discover when and where and how other moral obligations limit those that he owes to his country, and how far his country is limited in its moral freedom of action by the duties that it owes to other portions of mankind. Future wars, future calamities, future miseries incalculable, or, on the other hand, future prosperity, future intellectual and spiritual advance, may depend upon solving these questions aright; and by the solution of these questions I mean their solution by the balance of the opinions of all individual men.
The same thing applies in other relations of life of a public or semi-public nature. We hear much of the rights of property and of labor. Is the owner of property justified in managing it to augment his own profits, regardless of the general welfare; and is the laborer justified in curtailing production if it be to the detriment of the community at large; and if not, what are the proper limitations? Again, it is not my object here to express or imply answers to such questions, but to point out that they require answers; because the tranquility and welfare of our country depends upon their being answered aright, and no man, whatever his position in life, can wholly free himself from the responsibility for the opinions he holds about them. As a people we are highly sensitive to public opinion, and that is made up of personal opinions held by each and all of us. We cannot, like the subjects of a despot, say that it is for the ruler, and not for us, to inquire and decide.
Need Clear Personal Thought
Most people, and perhaps in a peculiar degree the American people, tend in the busy life of the world to save themselves from strenuous thought by taking refuge in the opinions of their associates, of the men in like occupations, of the party or group to which they belong. This saves some of them, indeed, from eccentricity, and from irrational extremes; but it does not absolve men from responsibility for the correctness of their opinions, or save the nation from the consequences of their errors. The fact that others make the same mistake is no excuse. Yet people who go with the prevailing current of opinion seldom feel any responsibility, still less contrition, when that current leads to wrongdoing or disaster. Corporate or co-operative selfishness is today a greater danger than personal selfishness, because it is more insidious, and wears the garb of something more noble than a mere personal aim. Although men are by nature gregarious creatures, they should not,--like sheep,--move under the simple impulse of the mass. Man has the ability to think for himself, to weigh reasons, to forecast in some degree the future, and to reflect upon the consequences of his acts. In times like these it is of vital import that his responsibility for his individual opinions should be relentlessly asserted.
Clamor of a crowd is often mistaken for opinion. The art of producing the semblance of a public opinion by a general shout has progressed greatly within a generation. It is easy to provoke such a shout for a catchword which embodies a principle good in itself, without a perception on the part of the crowd that it has its limit, and that they are in effect being urged beyond that limit. Group psychology has been studied until we are familiar with its principles and its use. Professor Dicey remarked, in criticising the historical method of studying human problems, that when the cause of an abuse has been explained the abuse itself is half condoned. Let us not suppose that because psychology of crowds is a fact its results are therefore right; or that, because organization and machinery furnish a powerful weapon for propagating ideas on the part of those who believe in them, the ideas themselves are therefore correct. The weapon may be used for an unjust or unwise movement as well as for one that is just and wise.
As I have said in this place before, we are told in the Bible that the Holy Spirit will convince the world of sin, of righteousness and of judgement, by which is meant one's own sin, and the righteousness and judgment of God; but we are too prone to think of someone else's sin, of one's own righteousness, and of judgement by popular vote.
What we need now is not more organization or more machinery, but more thought; personal thought, clear, far reaching and profound, as unbiased and illumined, and, not least, as widespread among our people as possible, for in the multitude of the wise is the welfare of the world; and where shall we look for this multitude if not among those upon whom has been lavished the best educational opportunities that our country can produce--the graduates of our colleges.