In Defense of Apathy

We hear much these days of the virtue of "involvement?’ Honored are the "activists" who so boldly and humanely watch out for their fellow man. "Community-minded?’ "civic awareness," and "socially conscious?’ are true-blue banners, the merit badges of the 100 per cent Twentieth Century solid citizen.

The cry for involvement is most frequently raised on the campus. Second-semester freshmen, in frantic search for the passionate days of relevance and revolution of such recent memory, ask: Where is the involvement? Where is the community action? Where are the people who really care?

Wake up people! Get involved! Whip that Apathy! Make a better world! Organize your Community! Change your Nation! Reform the World!

On the contrary!

Maligned and persecuted, apathy—in the social sense of the word—is possibly the noblest of civic virtues. The ability to mind your own business, to let others do their thing, and to concentrate your efforts on your own life, are the discerning characteristics of a well-adjusted and competent human being.

When contemporary critics look about, they are terrified to witness the college student living his life privately, concentrating on his course of study and more worried about the job that lies ahead than about the political shenanigans that so absorb the press. What is so apathetic—in a broader sense of the word—about caring for your own life and respecting the other fellow to run his? Is this the "apathy" that shocks and bedevils the "activists" of our age?

Indeed it is. For the prevailing sentiments of "enlightened Americana" operate on entirely different premises than the rational predilections of honest and civilized men. Those premises build from the frightening cliche: "We are our brother’s keeper." Getting "involved" does not simply entail involvement per se: What the vogue definition reflects specifically is involvement in the affairs of others—of the school, community, society. The hip activism is little more than an excuse for running the lives of others, hence the pathological attachment with politics.

The concept of people being content to attend to their own self-interests has predictably little appeal to the "activist" mentality. Private people, pursuing personal goals and enjoyments, offer a staunch defense against the pervasive moralizing of the meddling intruders. The approach of the latter is entirely paternalistic and operates under the assumption that since we are our brother’s keeper, there must be somebody who cares enough to do the keeping. Somehow, that entity is always the, state, which makes it a difficult family relationship to break off.

Undoubtedly, Henry David Thoreau was on the right path when he said: "If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, L should run for my life." Your life is your own, yours to succeed or to fail with, yours to live as you decide. Your obligation is to yourself: to the only person whose life does in fact depend on you. It will, in reality, be your actions that make your life what it is. Why feel guilty about making the best you can of your own efforts—and why not allow others the same chance? Let "Mind Your Own Business" be the political slogan of free men in a free land.

Do not take lightly the social noninvolvement of today’s college students. They are busy—with their own business. If that business should be foreign to your own aspirations, appreciate the diversity among individuals and welcome the opportunity to express it. And above all else, keep a healthy distance from the champion of mindless social involvement. In all probability, there is a sound reason behind his decision to forget his own life and to attempt to rule everyone else’s.

1 Samuel Smiles, Character (New York: Harper and Brothers, l872), p. 97.

2 Herbert Welch, comp., Selections from the Writings of -John Wesley (New York: Methodist Book Concern, 1918), pp. 308-09.

Further Reading


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