All Commentary
Thursday, February 1, 1962

Our Legacy


Mr. Rossit does public relations work in Seattle, Washington.

The end may not be in sight, but man has traveled far on the road to civilization. It was only a few centuries ago when all men every­where were still quite primitive. Horses or oxen pulled plows, and ships moved with the force of the wind against their sails, or by hu­man muscle-power. When men traveled, they were moved by horses—or they walked. Commu­nication was slow, often by direct personal contact, and there was little of it. Hunger was common, and also disease, with famine and plague present to a horrifying ex­tent. Clothing was expensive and inefficient. Homes offered little more than shelter from the ele­ments, and often not much of that. Governments were cruel and tyran­nical. Very few political systems showed concern about the freedom of the individual or the rights of man. Human slavery was practiced openly in many places.

Today, the picture is greatly changed. Machinery does much of our work. Planes, trains, cars, and ships travel fast and are comfort­able. Transportation is cheap and convenient. Communication is rap­id, often instantaneous. There is still hunger and disease in the world, but less than there used to be. Clothing is cheap and good—and some artificial fibers seem to last forever. Homes are (or can be) clean, sanitary, comfortable, and durable. If human slavery has not been abolished everywhere, at least it is regarded with such dis­repute that individuals and gov­ernments deny its existence. Vari­ous institutions of freedom have been established in many places in the world, and the natural rights of individuals are lauded and often respected.

Man has progressed far in the recent millennia. From a semi-ani­mal, living in caves, he has emerged to dominate the face of the earth, and even to ponder seriously the attractions of outer space.

To whom are we indebted for this great legacy of civilization? To whom should we be grateful?

A Few Notable individuals Account for All Progress

During the many centuries in­volved, billions of people were born, lived out their lives, and died—without contributing toward this progress. How then did it happen? And to whom, specifically, are we indebted? Are the heroes too nu­merous to mention? Is the number of people responsible for progress unlimited? On the contrary, all progress may be attributed to a small number of men, so few as to constitute a “negligible” percent­age of the total population in whichever age they lived. Never the result of mob action, progress has come always from individual human beings. One person some­where gets a new idea, conceives of a new thing, and all the rest of us benefit from it. All of us owe a tremendous debt to this one indi­vidual, for it is he who makes prog­ress possible. Mobs may roar, com­mittees worry, delegations confer, but in the last analysis, an individ­ual human brain must conceive an idea before it can become effective. Often the brain is that of a genius, such as Socrates, Archimedes, Da Vinci, Newton, Jefferson, Goethe, Edison. Or, it may be a brain of only average intelligence. But al­ways, a lone individual creates anew concept or defines a new re­lationship.

Sometimes an entire nation or cultural group seems to have been gifted, intelligent, and intensely creative. For example, Greece in its “golden age” abounded with poets, philosophers, architects, mathematicians, and statesmen. Civilization spurted then. Another explosion of scientific and other knowledge came to Europe after the renaissance, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The re­sulting creativity in all directions, political, cultural, and philosophi­cal, still continues today.

Although we may be tempted to attribute such advances to the na­tion, or to the group or culture, it was always individuals who were responsible. Greece had a golden age only because there happened to be at one time and in one place a larger than average percentage of gifted individuals who were free to contribute. It was not the Greek states but individual Gre­cians who were great, and who stamped the mark of greatness on their era. Similarly, greatness came to Europe in the last three centuries because a large number of great men, Europeans, happened to be living in the same area at the same time, and were free to con­tribute. These giants of history stand out as individuals, and it is because of them that advances came in the countries where they lived—and in the world.

Da Vinci, Kepler, Pascal, New­ton, Leibnitz, Voltaire, Schiller, and the many others whose names we remember, formed but a small percentage of the total population of their time. While the individual geniuses of Greece left their marks on the world, thousands of other Greeks lived and died without leav­ing a ripple. The great and lonely titans of Europe blazed new intel­lectual trails, while millions of other Europeans contributed noth­ing. Newton envisioned a majestic and orderly relationship between the sweeping motion of the planets and the sun. To most of the mil­lions of people then living not only in Europe but in the Congo, China, India, South America, and other places, the concepts of Newton‘s mind would have been unintellig­ible gibberish and nonsense. In­deed, there are today millions of people to whom it still is gibberish. Others, in their snide, twentieth-century, half-understanding, are capable of pointing out that New­ton has been replaced by Einstein, but know not how or why or to what extent these great intellects differed in their views of the uni­verse.

That All May Benefit

The great masses of humanity have benefited from the creative contributions of these rare indi­viduals, but often the authorities and masses have opposed, ridi­culed, or persecuted their benefac­tors. Roman mobs cheered when a gentle Christian, preaching “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you,” was torn apart by a savage lion. Archimedes was killed by a soldier possessing per­haps but a fraction of the intelli­gence of his victim. Copernicus and Galileo were not free to publish their findings. Church-approved torture forced Galileo to recant publicly after he dared to suggest that the earth revolved around the sun. Indeed, we find church history at its worst whenever the church has been powerful enough, through civil governments, to suppress freedom of thought. In our own age, a teacher was tried and found guilty of crime when he taught Darwin‘s theory of evolution in a public school.

In the Soviet Union, under a sys­tem of rigid “thought control,” ar­tists have been convicted for paint­ing the “wrong” kind of paintings, writers for having written unen­thusiastic poetry, and composers have apologized in public for hav­ing written the “wrong” kind of music. The fact that Shostakovich composes at all is a tribute to the restless, imaginative, uncontain­able spirit within him, as an indi­vidual—a taunting rebuff to the massive, dead hand of Soviet cen­sorship pressing down on him.

Here, we come to the heart of the matter. Creative men have always been creative, whether the authori­ties have been harsh, repressive, and restrictive, or lenient and en­couraging. As Deems Taylor said of Wagner, when a man has this restless spirit which scratches, claws, and struggles furiously within him for expression and for release, then creation must result. How much more is available to all when we let this one man be free to create!

Any age, any system, even the most repressive, will produce a few men who are creative. But when we allow men to be free, we help to bring about those phenomena known as golden ages. A small handful of free Greeks were able to leave their mark upon the ages. We have already witnessed a veri­table outburst of creative energy in the United States. We may now be on the threshold of an Ameri­can Golden Age.

The Alternatives

But now the people of the U.S.A. seem torn between two opposing alternatives. They want personal freedom which permits the release of creative energy, and they want a bogus type of security which in­volves feathering one’s own nest at the expense of others. The sec­and alternative, which hinges on governmental authoritarianism, denies freedom and discourages creative action. If millions of Americans choose freedom, then not only will they enjoy having it, but one of these millions, some one individual, will reward us with a new artistic creation, a revolution­ary invention, or a new and pro­found mathematical or philosophi­cal concept, something yet un­dreamed of. In freedom, we could march forward to greater heights of civilization, perhaps to a new golden age.

The most beautiful music has not yet been written. The most per­fect painting has not yet been painted. The biggest bridges, tall­est buildings, and longest tunnels have not yet been built. Gravita­tional engineering, which will en­able us to float effortlessly in the air instead of using brute rocket force or screaming jet engines, is now hardly more than a science-fiction dream. All these things and many more will be ours after some one individual conceives of them. Let us not curtail his freedom to do so. Let us not stand in his way.

If we extend enough freedom to enough people, and thus release even a slightly higher percentage of active creative genius, our gold­en age will be assured. Creative people don’t need encouragement and subsidy. They just need to be left unmolested. Our debt for our civilized legacy is not to the state, not to the authorities, not to the masses of ordinary people, but to those few, very few men, some living today, who have made or will make their contribution. If we ex­tend freedom to ten million people and one of these makes a great cre­ative contribution, it will all have been worth-while.

 

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A Wolf Story

Editor’s Note: The foregoing editorial came to us from George Rehm of Napierville, Illi­nois,who read it in The Montana Citizen (Helena), which had credited the Nicholas Turkey News.

Whether wolves really are as stupid as peo­ple is quite beside the point of the story.

Some years ago while in Alaska we were told a wolf story. Eski­mos imbed razor-sharp knives clasp down in the ice and apply a little seal blood. The wolves are attracted by the blood and lick the knives, cutting their tongues. They are delighted by the seem­ingly inexhaustible supply of nourishing blood, and stand there licking until they drop in their tracks from loss of blood, then freeze to death in the snow.

This is a clever trick, but we are in no position to jeer at the stupidity of the wolves. We Amer­icans have been falling for a simi­lar trick for a good many years. The variation in our case is that in Washington and in our state capitols are many politicians. Many of them are poor men, a few well-to-do, but none of these pro­poses to give the public any of his personal estate.

Instead, they propose to give us federal support. They will empty the federal treasury at our feet. Now, we should know that there is nothing in the federal treasury but what we have sent there by way of the collector. These taxes are our blood, and we cannot be nourished any more than those wolves can thrive on their own blood. But we have bought this kind of government. Today, the Kentucky farmer is taxed to sub­sidize the electric bills of a plumb­er in Tennessee. The Tennessee plumber is taxed to subsidize the Kentucky farmer. We are trying through the federal process to nourish ourselves with our own blood.