To Find the Way Out


Mr. Henderson (1861-1941), teacher and lecturer, also wrote a number of books on education and morals.

Seed time and harvest have followed in their appointed season, and Mother Earth has been as steady going as any conservative could wish. She has been a good neighbor. In the country we count it neighborly to mind your own business and to lend a hand when it is asked for. Mother Earth, for some quite unknown reason, sends weeds and boll weevil and some other pests, requiring the police power of suppression; but she never plays the sorry trick of sending you crops that you have not asked for and do not want. She is not in the least paternalistic, and not only allows but requires that you shall choose your own crops.

These homely facts are not at all novel, but they seem worth reciting because they bear such eloquent and unimpeachable testimony to the fact that whatever else it may be, the present world trouble is fundamentally man-made, and as such is both curable and preventable. If, then, we can discover the way into the trouble, we shall surely be able to find the way out.

The whole cause of the present world trouble is the growing tendency to substitute mass action, directed from without, for wholesome individual action, necessarily directed from within. The way out of the trouble is the rehabilitation of individual effort, and the minimizing of mass action. That, it seems to me, is the whole matter in a nutshell.

The world is full of problems, but most of them are man-made, and essentially unimportant. They do not belong to the eternal verities; many of them are petty side issues and not even en route to the great achievement. There is only one major problem in the whole world, and that is the salvation of the individual soul.

Our own personal problem is quite the same as that of every other sane, red-blooded, earnest man or woman in the whole wide world. It is to make ourselves as big and fine and useful, and human as we possibly can and, were we so fortunate as to have wellborn sons and daughters, to help them to be bigger and finer and more useful and more human than we are. It is a much less spectacular job than the artificial problems of government, dynasty, empire, ecclesiasticism, trade unionism, socialism, communism, commercial supremacy, dictatorship, and all the other aggressive mass movements; but it is the one real and important problem whose solution will bring peace and tranquility and worth to a world now very much distraught.

I am surrounded by a multitude of men and women pathetically eager to save the world, but strangely unwilling to submit to the austere self-discipline of saving themselves. They forget that a fountain cannot rise above its source.

As soon as you begin to organize men into masses, and to treat them as masses, with motive and compulsion applied from the outside, you are letting yourself in for any amount of very grave trouble. The social machinery looms larger than the purpose for which it was created. The one supreme purpose—individual human advancement—is quite ignored, and man loses his quality and distinction. Many years ago, Emerson remarked that “men are so prone to mistake the means for the end that even natural history has its pedants who mistake classification for knowledge.” That, in our opinion, is precisely what has happened to the sorely-troubled world of today. It has fastened its attention upon the machinery of life, has ignored the one supreme human purpose for which all machinery exists, and now, in the resulting chaos, is amazed to find that the machinery fails to function.

Let us be still more specific and say that the supreme purpose in any rational life is the unfolding and perfecting of the human spirit. That purpose is the basis and goal of all true government, true religion, true education, true science, true art. Everything that furthers this supreme purpose is progress; everything that retards or defeats it is unqualified disaster. And the one method by which this human distinction may be gained is disinterestedness, a love of excellence quite without regard to the loaves and fishes. This quality cannot be manifested by any group, however large and vociferous, unless it is first achieved by the component units. It is an individual virtue, the fruit of individual effort, and may not be evoked by the pressure of either statute or arms.

In the orgy of blood and violence through which Europe has been passing, and through which certain unhappy portions are still passing, it may safely be said that the perfecting of the human spirit was and is the very last thing considered. The oldest and richest empires in Europe are starving and bankrupt. They cry despairingly for outside help. But no League of Nations, no special form of government, no social theory, no nationalistic frenzy, no eleemosynary enterprise on our part, can bring prosperity out of such deep, fundamental chaos. We can help these stricken people temporarily, by tiding them over to the next harvest; but it is a mistaken philanthropy to do this twice, for no permanent remedy can come from the outside. It must come from within, and must take the form of that spiritual redemption which results from wholesome, unimpeded self-activity.

No man can save another man. Neither can the State save a man; nor the Church; nor social theory; nor labor organization; nor vocational bloc; nor charity society. Every man must save his own soul; if necessary with fear and trembling, but at any rate through his own work. It is an austere business, but that is precisely the task asked of us all—the redemption of individual human souls through individual effort, and the consequent inescapable redemption of society.

The present world disaster is the direct and inevitable result of excessive and malevolent mass action. An individual sometimes runs amuck, but the number is never great enough at any one time to constitute a social menace; and it is the primal though too much neglected duty of the State to see that he does not do it a second time. But a single ruler, or a group of men, or even a small clique in an otherwise respectable group, if given the power of compelling mass action, can make a whole nation run amuck and can create the havoc of a world war. Obsessed by the idea that force is a legitimate means, and that world dominion is a legitimate end, mass action is capable of unparalleled evil.

It requires no intricate analysis of our profound world trouble to discover the way in. It is by the tyranny of mass action, the imposing of an alien will upon others. The way out of the trouble is a simple reversal of the way in. It is to cut down just so far as possible, to cut to the very bone, all mass action involving compulsion; that is, to minimize to the utmost the function of the State, and in every legitimate way to encourage and stimulate all wholesome, self-directed individual effort.

We ask of the State and Society only one thing—a fair field and no favors. This does not mean the raw anarchism of the tramp and hoodlum, for such anarchism would have no government whatever; but it does unequivocally mean a strict limiting of the functions of government, a strict cutting out of all paternalistic activities, and the unfaltering insistence that government shall really perform its basic and fundamental duty, the protection of the individual citizen from violence and interference.

It is our own mature, leisurely conviction that that form of government is most truly American, is most truly the best, which most completely protects its citizens from violence and injustice of every sort, both at home and abroad, while taking the least possible part in their daily individual lives and imposing the smallest burden of taxation consistent with such protection. It is a man’s own job to feed himself, to amuse himself, to look after his own family—in the end, to save his own soul. When the State attempts these tasks, it not only does them very badly and expensively, but it does them by neglecting its own proper job. Worst of all, the paternalistic State robs the individual of that character and self-development which would have been his as the result of sturdy, manly self-activity. It is a great moral disservice to do for either children or adults the things that they ought self-reliantly to do for themselves. In both cases the result is weakness.

The revolutionary doctrine that by creating through force a certain form of paternalistic government and a given type of society you can act effectively upon the individual, and in the end produce quite admirable persons, finds no support either in theory or practice. It ignores the fundamental fact that education is essentially an inner process, an affair of the spirit. All our social experience goes to prove that in family life, in school, in church, in the world generally, even in our reformatories and penal institutions, there is but one redemptive agent, and that is genuine self-activity.

We all know the vital difference between those two verbs, to teach and to learn. You may teach away until you are really quite blue in the face, and little good come of it. But once let a boy want to know, and he will learn faster than the most clever master can teach him. The State that substitutes State-directed activity for self-directed activity is a wretchedly poor schoolmaster, and can produce nothing admirable either in the way of individual character or collective achievement. Excellence is not evoked in any such fashion.

The great war bears tragic witness to the complete failure of mass action. It is quite futile to urge that it was not mass action itself, but the abuse of mass action that got us into our present grave trouble. For as a matter of fact mass action always shows this marked tendency to abuse through the imposition of your will upon mine, or of mine upon yours—and the childish argument that the imposition was for the supposed good of the victim does not at all save the case.

We do not know of any human institution to which power may safely be entrusted. We delegate a certain protective authority to the State, but as we love liberty we surround every such delegation with urgent safeguards. Even such ideal institutions as the Church and the School and the Family have shown an astonishing capacity for tyranny, and it has been necessary to curtail their power by strict laws. On all sides experience shows the exercise of power leading in the end to the abuse of power. And not only is this abuse a matter of world-wide and all-time experience, but it seems to us unavoidable; for there are few forms of mass action which can go very far without grossly violating individual rights. “The greatest good of the greatest number” is not a moral argument, and in the end realizes the greatest good of nobody. To be morally sound and acceptable, the action must be right from beginning to end, and that includes both the goal and the method.

There is such abundant good in our daily lives, and such bubbling happiness, especially for those of us who live in the country, that most of us suffer the minor injustices of the hour without too noisy grumbling. The trouble is that these injustices tend to grow in both number and dimension, and to engender a certain callousness to injustice which robs us of spiritual insight and healthy-minded-ness. The tragedy of perverted mass action is not alone the material violence, but even more the spiritual confusion which leads to crooked thinking. Many of these encroachments upon personal liberty are undoubtedly well meant, but the demoralizing effect is just as reprehensible as if they were badly meant. And it may never be safely forgotten that these insidious encroachments facilitate additional encroachments.

There is but one defensible social ideal, and that is a world in which every individual is free to work out the inner impulses of the Spirit, without aggression on his part or interference on the part of others. A State which accomplished this simple, primal duty, the protection of all its citizens, would accomplish something greater than has yet been historically recorded, and something which no State, preoccupied with illegitimate and paternalistic activities, is ever likely to accomplish.

But one must not confuse mass action with cooperation, for the two have nothing in common. Cooperation is not mass action; it is confederated individual action in which the impulse is voluntary and the direction is from within. Mass action, on the contrary, is a group activity in which the compulsion and purpose are imposed from without. Its agents are not free and their activity is not moral. Many publicists have confounded mass action and cooperation. Impressed by the immense value of cooperation, and failing to see its inner and spiritual nature, they have sought through legislation to make it compulsory. But in such an enterprise, failure is inevitable. To be cooperation at all, it must be voluntary. Apply legal compulsion to cooperation, and the thing ceases to be; it becomes mere mass action, always inefficient, always materialistic, always tending to grave abuse.

However much you may want to, you cannot save society en masse. Salvation, as we can hardly repeat too often, is strictly an individual adventure. The one way to save society is to save individual men and women. When they are sound and forceful and enlightened, the society which they collectively form will inevitably be of the right sort. []

Condensed from an article, “Hands Off” in The North American Review, December 1924.


I could not omit to urge on every man to remember that self-government politically can only be successful if it is accompanied by self-government personally; that there must be govern-men,t somewhere; and that, if indeed the people are to be the sovereign,s, they must exercise their sovereignty over themselves individually, as well as over themselves in the aggregate—regulating their own lives, resisting their own temptations, subduing their own passions, and voluntarily imposing upon themselves some measure of that restraint and discipline which, under other systems, is supplied from armories of arbitrary


Robert C. Winthrop, American Statesman (1809-1894)


July 1956

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December 2014

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