The Rare Moment
JULY 01, 1974 by LEONARD E. READ
The rare moment is not the moment when there is something worth looking at, but the moment when we are capable of seeing.
— Joseph Wood Krutch
When is there "something worth looking at"? Any time! There are good things to see at all times, in all places, and by all individuals. It’s a matter of personal choice; and how varied are these value judgments of individuals! For instance, there are many who are more attracted to the labor-saving device known as thievery than to anything else. They think stealing is a procedure "worth looking at."
Pause here for a moment. Some of us think of thievery — whether carried out by individuals or practiced collectively "from each according to ability, to each according to need" — as very low on the scale of values. Why? Simply because our judgments differ from, and are presumed to be at a higher level than, those of the thief. But we must be careful in condemning persons whose value judgments are, in our opinion, lower than our own. For implicit in such an attitude is the claim that we are superior.
After all, who is any of us but an imperfect mortal! If we demand that others see things as we do, we are opening the door to the possibility that we should be forced to look at only what a governing majority of others believe to be worth looking at. And bear in mind that no two of us have the same judgments; indeed, one’s own values change from one day to the next. So, we need the flexibility to cope with constant changes. I would let each decide for himself what’s worth looking at and suffer the penalties of his errors or the blessings of his righteousness.
Man’s ideas as to what’s worth looking at range from pornography to sunsets, from Picasso to Raphael; from the Pyramids to the
Krutch is right. The rare moment is not the moment when there is something worth looking at. What could be more common? Every moment of one’s life affords that opportunity.
Beyond the Flash
The rare moment is when we are capable of seeing — that rare glimpse into the mystery of that which is observed. Most people only look at a flash of lightning; they see nothing of its miraculous nature. While no one knows what it is, there have been a few who see beyond what meets the eye; they have seen enough to generate and harness electricity to our use. This kind of seeing — insight —occurs only in the rarest of moments.
Many of us look at a sunset and are overcome by its beauty. How few of us, even today, perceive that the sun does not set? Many see no more than was seen by the first man on earth. How many, before or since Copernicus, have understood that the setting of the sun is an illusion, rather that the earth is rotating? Rare moments, indeed.
Another example of a rare moment: Ever since man first set foot in Switzerland, that majestic mountain, the Jungfrau, has ranked high among the beauties of nature, truly worth looking at. People by untold thousands have stood at its base looking up in awe. Around the turn of the century an entrepreneur had a vision, a moment of seeing: Why not multiply what’s worth looking at? Make it possible for the thousands to go atop the Jungfrau that they might see the beauty from that vantage point! Some twelve miles of tunnel was bored through the rock, a cog railroad installed, and a wonderful hostelry built within the mountain near the top. Private enterprise! No government subsidy! Just one of those rare moments of seeing which is more in evidence when man is free and self-responsible. Near the top of the list of things thought to be worth looking at is wealth — material affluence. The aggregate of the moments spent in seeking wealth staggers the imagination. But note how rare the moments when individuals are capable of seeing the preconditions for gaining affluence, a society of free and self-responsible individuals with government limited to codifying and inhibiting destructive actions. If government thus performs, people are free to act creatively as they please. And there is no other way to material well being.
Not seeing for themselves, the masses listen to false prophets, persons who promise that we can spend ourselves rich, that prosperity derives from dictatorial control over wages, hours of labor, exchanges, prices, and so on. They hear the promises but cannot foresee the consequences of the methods to be used. Wrote Ralph Barton Perry: "Ignorance deprives men of freedom because they do not know what alternatives there are." An affluent society cannot prevail unless individuals see that their economic well-being stems from the general practice of the principles of private ownership, the free market, and limited government.
In Search of Power
Perhaps the power to run the lives of others tops the list of things a majority believe to be worth looking at. Rare, indeed, are the moments when these individuals are capable of seeing the futility of their way. Were I the wisest philosopher or politician who ever lived, there is not one of these meddlers who believes I could run his life better than he. But he, unwise, has no doubt about his powers to run your life and mine. Why unwise? The very first step in wisdom is an awareness of how little one knows. Nor do such people see that power corrupts them!
Most of us doubtless have the potential to see ever so much more than we customarily perceive. We rarely see more than we wish to see. As unique individuals, we tend to specialize, to focus on the details from a particular point of view. Such focusing gives us more intimate knowledge of the tree, the trunk, the root, the twig, the leaf, the miracle within the single cell. I have my special interest, you yours, things we see more clearly, while neglecting many other possible vistas. The danger of too narrow a specialization is that we can’t see the forest for the trees.
The "forest" worth looking at which most intrigues me is a viable society, one featured by harmonious relationships, one in which the individual may proceed, unobstructed by others, toward a realization of his creative aptitudes and potentialities. If a person fails to overcome his own obstacles frustrations, superstitions, imperfections, ignorance, no will to strive — that’s his problem. But if the obstacles are put there by others — if the individual is compelled to live as others dictate — that is everyone’s problem. Freedom is everyone’s business!
We Need Freedom Because We Are Interdependent
Why is freedom everyone’s business? It is because my freedom depends on yours and vice versa. There is but faint appreciation of the high degree of specialization in contemporary society, of how dependent each of us is on the others. In short, we are now interdependent beyond recall; there is no turning back. This is to say that we, in our age, are at once social and individualistic beings. And if we fail or refuse to recognize this fact, all will fall together.
Of course, the individualistic side of this coin — being one’s best self — is a problem of the first magnitude. Each of us must wrestle with this personally. Many, I suspect, see this. It is the social side of the coin they fail to see. How can ordinary mortals, such as you and I, fulfill this aspect of life? The formula is simple. Never do unto others that which you would not have them do unto you. If you wouldn’t have others control your life, then never try to control anyone else. If you wouldn’t have others hinder you from producing, freely exchanging, owning the fruits of your own labor, competing, traveling, then don’t inhibit these practices among your fellowmen. This is all one has to do to fulfill his role as a social being. Merely heed the oldest, wisest, and simplest maxim ever written!
Finally, is there a prescription for removing our blindfolds? Is there a mode of conduct or discipline which would open up new vistas, permitting you and me to see more than we now do? I am just beginning to see that the answer is integrity.
For years, I have been defining integrity as the accurate reflection in word and deed of whatever one’s highest conscience dictates as right. This may not in fact be right but it is as close to righteousness as one can get. My definition stands; but I see now that my preachments — words — have been better arranged than my practice — deeds. It is my practice of integrity that must be improved.
To illustrate this failing on my part: I have written that each of us should await discovery, that if there is anything in our garden worth looking at, it will be detected by others.’ Do I heed this?
Only with the greatest difficulty! Impatience tends to govern me, more or less. I can hardly wait till others find out how good I think I am at this or that. This nagging urge is a common trait and accounts, in no small measure, for the urge to reform that plagues humanity. Out of such a garden grows nothing but weeds. When I cannot believe and abide by my own admonitions, am I to expect better of others! Seeing and doing must become one and the same. To see the right without doing it is to live without integrity.
How Integrity Helps
Why is it that integrity removes the blindfolds, improves seeing? Some of the reasons are apparent.
I repeat, while one’s accurate reflections in word and deed may not in fact be truth, they are as close to truth as one can get. Even though we err, our devotion to integrity leads toward that which is right; this is the only road to truth.
Those truth seekers who practice integrity themselves are drawn to integrity in others. This virtue has a magnetic quality. Are not the persons to whom you listen those who manifest integrity?
When others are being drawn toward your honest reflections, your light tends to brighten. Their attention is an encouragement, a stimulant, to put your best foot forward. In a word, integrity works its attractions back and forth among us; and the rare moment becomes a more common experience. Wrote Charles Simmons:
Integrity is the first step to true greatness. Men love to praise [it], but are slow to practice it. To maintain it in high places costs self-denial; in all places it is liable to opposition; but its end is glorious, and the universe will yet do it homage.
1 See the chapter, "Await Discovery," in Having My Way (Irvington-on-Hudson, N. Y.: Foundation for Economic Education, Inc., 1974) pp. 40-44.