All Commentary
Tuesday, May 10, 2016

How to Find Joy in an Unfree World

A writer from the Gilded Age past shows the way forward

“What are you complaining about all the time?” people sometimes ask me. “I’m just about as free as I want to be.”

Here’s the problem. How can we really know what we’re missing if we’ve never had it before? The less free we are, the less we know what freedom feels like and how it shapes who we are. The more dependent on government we become, the less we crave independence. This is why it is important to find literature that takes us out of our present moment and introduces us to different ways of thinking.

We have to imagine a different ideal.

This is why I’m nuts for a book that came out right at the end of the Gilded Age, and just before we got the permanent income tax and the Fed, as well as World War I. It is the last look at the mindset of what should be called the real “greatest generation.”

A Neglected Journalist

The author of The Joys of Living is Orison Swett Marden (1850-1924). Here you can download an epub his book on this link. 

I first bumped into his writing when researching the entrepreneurs of the Gilded Age. He turns out to be the great psychologist and sociologist of the generation that built the modern age in America. He was a physician, a hotel owner, and a fantastic thinker and writer. He was the editor of Success magazine, a hugely influential publication during the age when Americans adored their inventors and entrepreneurs.

It’s a world and a time I admire because it was built by the unleashing of the capitalist spirit in the second half of the 19th century. It was the height of the age of laissez faire. Slavery was gone. Women gained authentic rights. Upward social mobility was a common expectation. Lives lengthened. Infant mortality fell dramatically.

In one generation, creative and motivated people could move from poor immigrant to wealthy benefactor of museums. The rich of yesterday became the middle class of today, even as tomorrow would mint the newly rich, and the process continued without end, each advance touching everyone throughout society.

There were new products, new services, and new forms of communication and transportation, and each seemed to point to a future of peace and prosperity. Such inventions were celebrated in great public spectacles called World’s Fairs.

It was a time when incomes were not taxed — a major factor in why it could be accumulated to become powerful investment capital. Most schooling was private or community based. There was no professional licensure. There were no passports. There was not a single regulatory bureaucracy in Washington. There was no welfare state. No one had yet experienced a world war.

The Unleashing of the Mind

Orison Swett Marden was the public intellectual who made sense of it all. He was a serious journalist, a great thinker, and a wonderful writer. His outlook embodies the ebullient optimism of the Gilded Age. He studied the phenomenon of progress and tried to discern its causes. He located them in the hearts and minds of the men and women who made the difference. He devoted his life to chronicling their lives and the lives of those they touched with their creativity and generosity.

“The greatest conqueror of age is a cheerful, hopeful, loving spirit.”The point was not to celebrate privilege, but rather to see the possibilities available to every person. Marden himself was like many of the first-generation rich of this period. He came from poverty. He faced family hardship. He worked his way out of difficulty to find promise and reward. He saw how the sacrifices made in youth turn to a bounty in middle age. There was cause and effect that operated in the universe. Hard work, dedication, determination, and dreams could remake one’s world and the whole world.

The greatest discovery of the time was not a technology, but a philosophy. It was the philosophy that the individual human mind was the most productive resource on the planet, more powerful than all the natural resources or man-made machinery. It was the human mind that was the real source of progress and prosperity.

Previous generations believed they were trapped by fate, by class, by social position, or by forces more powerful than they. This generation saw the truth that nothing could contain an idea whose time had come, so long as there were great men and women around who believed in it and acted upon it. This is why so many notable men of his time cited Marden as their inspiration: Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone and J.P. Morgan.

A Guide To Life

Marden’s recipe is made of three parts: seeing, emulating, and acting. To his mind, there are no circumstances that we face that would make doing this impossible. The source of joy is around us, but we have to seek it, see it, embrace it, and expand upon it.

As for daily discouragements and obstacles, they are unavoidable features of life. They exist in all times and places. You can never get rid of the enemies of your personal progress but you can make the most of things as they are. In the course of this, we all make blunders, mistakes, and have plenty of reason to criticize ourselves. But this is the most unproductive activity. You can’t accomplish anything for the future if your gaze is always in the past.

Marden writes: “Nothing is more foolish, nothing more wicked, than to drag the skeletons of the past, the hideous images, the foolish deeds, the unfortunate experiences of yesterday into today’s work to mar and spoil it.”

The right attitude of the entrepreneur is to think of the past as dead and tomorrow as not yet born. The only time that really belongs to us is the here and now, the passing moment. If we dedicate ourselves to make the best out of the present, one decision and action at a time, we can make a great future for ourselves. The art of living is the art of living in the today.

Designed to Inspire

It is unapologetically designed to inspire, and it does this as few books I’ve ever read. It really amounts to spelling out a life philosophy, one that is deeply practical and actionable in every way, every day. Indeed, this might be the most inspiring book you will ever read — not because it solves all mysteries concerning who we are, how we got here, or what we should seek as the very purpose of life.

He stays away from these larger questions, because it’s the smaller questions that are more interesting and effective. What he deals with more directly concerns what we might call a more mundane aspect of philosophy: how we should approach each day in order to get the most out of life.

As such, this is a philosophy of how to live an excellent life, no matter what our calling is. Capitalist, monk, mother, teacher, worker, banker, mechanic, musician, preacher, writer — whatever we do can be done with a sense of joy, a spirit of awe, and an ambition to drive forward the engines of progress.

In some ways, this book is a relic in the best sense of that term. I don’t even believe it could be written today. We lack the social template that could produce such a work. The spirit is not in the air that could allow us to extract such thoughts. People today are too vexed, too burdened, too distracted to see these things. But Marden did see them. And just because we are too often blind to the reality that he illuminates in these pages doesn’t mean that it is not our reality too.

Note that nowhere does he talk of storming Washington, agitating for our rulers to overthrow themselves or sending institutions into upheaval, much less agitating for societal transformation and uplift. He speaks only to the individual. He tells you what you can do in your time, right where you are, to bring happiness to your life. Social and political change is an effect. It comes only after we change ourselves.

His values: work, creativity, seeking out joy, feeling happiness, letting go of the past, living in the present, never regretting mistakes, never feeling fear, always being loyal, spreading good cheer, looking past obstacles, being kind to others, staying out of debt, keep life balanced between the need for money and the need for beauty, and never losing one’s ideals. This is the essence of the Marden world view.

Freedom and the Mind

“No one can be really happy or successful unless he is master of his moods.”It’s the perfect time to draw attention to this work more than one hundred years after its publication. It’s amazing to me that it had ever been lost. I’m sure that it will make a difference in your life. You might use its wisdom to make a difference in the world around you. Indeed, this is an example of the kind of book that could completely change the world. Why? Because Marden understands freedom and the individual mind, and their power, once combined, to make a gigantic difference now and in the future.

My whole experience suggests that personal inspiration is the ingredient lacking in the current generation of people who have come to love liberty. They have access to texts, knowledge, and theory as never before in human history. What they lack is a method for using what they know and the personal drive to do so.

People are too quick to blame outside forces for failure without realizing that outside forces conspiring against progress are part of the structure of all environments in all times and places. This book provides that missing element, that key to brush away despair and unlock the inner drive to make a difference.

Prepare to use your highlighter tool. It will be used as never before. Then join me in finding the joys of life and working to make life more joyful for others.

Some Choice Passages 

“The golden opportunity you are seeking is in yourself. It is not in your environment; it is not in luck or chance, or the help of others; it is in yourself alone.”

“The trouble with many people who lack imagination is that they have no utopia, no vision, and life is a hard, monotonous grind. Everyone should have a utopia and should live in it much of the time — a place where everything is ideal, and where everybody and everything is what they ought to be.”

“Man was made for growth — to realize poise of mind, peace, satisfaction. It is the object, the explanation, of his being. To have an ambition to grow larger and broader every day, to push the horizon of one’s ignorance a little further away, to become a little richer in knowledge, a little wiser, and more of a man — that is an ambition worthwhile.”

“Books make it possible for every person born into the world to begin where the previous generation left off.”

“Debt is one of the greatest sources of unhappiness, especially with young married people.

“One of man’s greatest passions is that of achievement, the passion for doing things, the ambition to accomplish.”

“No one can be really happy or successful unless he is master of his moods.”

“Do not flatter yourself that you can be really happy unless you are useful. Happiness and usefulness were born twins. To separate them is fatal.”

“Nothing else more effectually retards age than keeping in mind the bright, cheerful, optimistic, hopeful, buoyant picture of youth, in all its splendor, magnificence; the picture of the glories which belong to youth — youthful dreams, ideals, hopes, and all the qualities peculiar to young life.”

“The greatest conqueror of age is a cheerful, hopeful, loving spirit.”