All Commentary
Saturday, July 1, 1972

Off the Beaten Track

I have long been intrigued by the seeming paradox that the more one knows the more he knows he does not know. This is another way of saying that every gain in knowledge increasingly exposes one to the infinite unknown.1

Another aspect of this intriguing paradox: as a person grows in knowledge he is exposed to a new set of friends — and almost certainly faces a dwindling number of old friends. There are many ways to lose friends, of course, but what I am suggesting is that a dwindling audience is not necessarily a sign of failure; on the contrary, it may signify personal progress. This is the point I would like to explore.

Ortega presents us with the reality of this problem: 

So far as ideas are concerned, meditation on any theme, if positive and honest, inevitably separates him who does the meditating from the opinion prevailing around him, from that which… can be called “public” or “popular” opinion. Every intellectual effort sets us apart from the commonplace, and leads us by hidden and difficult paths to secluded spots where we find ourselves amid unaccustomed thoughts. These are the results of meditation.²

Why dwell on this? A simple reason: if you are on the right track and gaining in knowledge but fail to read these signs aright, you may throw in the sponge simply because listeners are few; you may call it quits just before the dawn. In a word, I hope to present an antidote for discouragement, a way of viewing matters that will help to “keep the chin up.” Not only yours, but my own! In the area of our concern, it is easy to mistake success for failure.

Why? Simply because success is often equated with a growing number of adherents, failure with a declining number, as if the quality of ideas and the quantity of better thinkers go hand in hand. We tend to expect that any improvement in ideas will automatically attract a wider audience; whereas, quite the opposite might happen.

Popularity Contests — Not the Path to Truth

My thinking in this matter has been stimulated in part by a slight drop in FEE’s mailing list over recent months, while at the same time we are told by others that our publications and seminars are better than ever before — and that we must do something to “reach more people.”

Were numbers here and now the sole measure of success, then the recipe would be (1) a point of view consistent with “public” or “popular” opinion; and, (2) charismatic personalities. Examples can be found in the political realm: engaging and energetic copycats of the current consensus putting themselves in the vanguard.

Were ours just a numbers game, then we would attractively proclaim “free enterprise” and loudly decry “socialism.” And let it go at that! For there are millions paying lip service to freedom and proclaiming opposition to socialism who are anxious to ally themselves with those of similar leanings — so long as the specific aspects of these opposed ways of life are left unexamined. But never, for heaven’s sake, go beyond the generalities and attempt a detailed study of these ideologies! To do so assures alienation, a marked dwindling of old friends, perhaps a few new ones.

Our meditations at FEE over the past quarter century have been positive and honest. Even our detractors concede that we have so operated, and with consistency. In the beginning our position was more or less a generalization: in favor of freedom and opposed to socialism and other variants of authoritarianism. But the more we meditated, the more did some commonly accepted practices of “free enterprisers” and “anti-socialists” show up as bearing the seeds of socialism behind the labels. Further, we have never held the results of these meditations to ourselves for fear of giving offense, that is, we have not bowed to expediency.

For instance, some 20 years ago we published The Tariff Idea, a critique of protectionism, the case for freedom in transactions. The criticisms we received were severe, and several large corporate supporters dropped FEE then and thereafter. Over the years all of our books and each of nearly 3,000 essays have, in one way or another, affronted the mores, gone counter to the current trends and accepted opinions. This is to say, we have upheld the basic principles of voluntary exchange, private ownership, limited government while, at the same time, challenging those flaws of coercive or governmental intervention parading under the name of free enterprise. Such unaccustomed thoughts are not popular!

To Find a Better Way

This is why the serious freedom devotees may not rely on numbers — popular acclaim — as an objective. For the prime requirement of such an objective is to stay on the beaten track, to go along with commonly accepted notions. But must we not abandon the beaten track if we would find a better one? To “go along” is to go without prospect of improvement. To play the numbers game is to accept the fallacies that ought to be exposed and displaced.

The soundness of a philosophy cannot be gauged by numbers of followers. In this respect, the philosophy of freedom is similar to religion. True, we can count the financial supporters of the several religions and the church attendees, but these numbers reveal absolutely nothing as to the depth or profundity of religious convictions. Religious faith, so-called, is founded on diverse forces, ranging all the way from fear and superstition to cosmic consciousness. We must note, however, that all of the significant religions have been inspired by some one whose purity of thought — meditations, if you will — provided that rich spiritual insight which made possible the awakening of others.

High Mortality of New Ideas

Continuing the analogy, be it noted that each religion was, initially, an affront to “public” and “popular” opinion, a complete break with the mores. Each was born in an environment more or less hostile to its precepts. These initiators of high ethical, moral, and spiritual ideas have, in every instance, presented thoughts unfamiliar to most people at the time.

It is only when we make progress in learning what the ideal is, while standing foursquare therewith in our proclaimed positions, that we aid the cause of freedom. True, we will never fully comprehend the ideal, let alone realize it, but we can everlastingly strive for this purity in thought. Be certain of this: the nearer we come to knowing and upholding the ideal, the greater is the probability that the good society may emerge. Why? Because men can establish the good society only upon what is right and true. Upon that alone, and nothing else!

Fungus may be spawned by a muck heap; but the good society is the emergence and flowering of the best there is in thoughtful meditation. The best flows always from one — the one who comes nearest to being the perfect exemplar. Viewed in this manner, the so-called problems of society break down to a level a person might comprehend. One’s duty is not to fall in step with present imperfections but, rather, to strive for his own perfection. Upon whom, then, does the solution depend? Upon the world’s most important person: YOU!


1 See “The Wisdom in Knowing I Know Not,” Notes from FEE, March, 1971. Copy on request.

² What Is Philosophy? by Ortega y Gasset (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1960) p. 15.



The Personal Practice of Freedom

Freedom rests, and always will, on individual responsibility, individual integrity, individual effort, individual courage, and individual religious faith. It does not rest in Washington. It rests with you and me.

Two things you and I can do, and two only. First, we can practice what we profess. Second, we can each preach, from our own personal pulpit, the principles we practice, whether that pulpit looks out upon a continent, a country town, or a single cottage.

As we thus prove our faith by our works — as we accept with diligence and devotion the responsibility for areas within our reach — as we inspire those about us and send them in turn to inspire others — we shall find that we are making an ever-increasing contribution to the accomplishment of our century’s most challenging job.

Over and above all else we shall find — you and I, individually —that ours have become unconquerable souls.


  • Leonard E. Read (1898-1983) was the founder of FEE, and the author of 29 works, including the classic parable “I, Pencil.”