Mr. Peterson is a noted author, columnist, and editorial writer for The Daily Oklahoman. The Reverend Mr. Whitehouse is minister of the Mayflower Community Church in Oklahoma City. Their article first appeared in The Rotarian, February 1956.
Three hundred years ago there was a fork in the road. One branch led out in the way of freedom. The other was the way of force.
Very few people at that time were able to identify the difference, for information was too incomplete. So do not infer that the people of 1651 chose up sides and proceeded to travel, one faction to the right and the other to the left. The momentous decision was not so simple at that time. Probably not one person in 10,000 was even dimly aware of that fork.
It is only now, looking backward from the perspective of three centuries, that we can realize how momentous was the divide.
The doctrine of force, as such, in 1651, was seen in a comparatively crude manner. Men set themselves up as political or economic tyrants and there was little to disguise the fact of such tyranny. Today the doctrine of force is infinitely more dangerous than ever, for it is not crude, easily discerned. It is often cunningly disguised underscores of seductive signboards and labels. These signboards and labels, in and of themselves, are so numerous as to add to the confusion. Seldom in all the saga of history has there been a more crucial necessity for man to know where he is and where he is going.
To do this, man must, at all costs, be clear in his readings of the signposts of the times. But signposts often become obscured, blurred, even turned around by impish mischief-makers. How, then, can modern man find his footing?
The year 1651 marks the crucial setting in the road. It was then that the thinking world first encountered a sharp clash of opinion over the critical question: should human welfare depend upon a responsible society or the responsible individual?
Upon the answer to that question hangs the destiny of man —the life of the free soul.
The great issues do not burst suddenly upon the world. Restless waves continually pass over the deeps of conscience, troubling us to take new appraisals of our patterns of human relations. There have been profound teachings by Moses, Jesus Christ, Confucius, Plato, Rousseau. The Beatitudes of Jesus, with their obvious laying of burdens on the individual, were epochal. It is only when there is a sharp clash between two contrasting philosophies, however, that we can discern the parting of the ways.
Follow briefly each branch of the road from that fork of 1651.
In that year a young Englishman, Thomas Hobbes, wrote a book significantly titled Leviathan.
Not long afterward, and in a great measure a response to Leviathan, another Englishman, a philosopher named John Locke, joined issue and thereby floodlighted the fork in the road.
True it is that long before 1651, hints had been dropped to the effect that the way ahead would be subjected to a fork, somewhat in the manner in which it happened. However, it remained for Hobbes and Locke dimly to foresee and academically to declare the basic issue which today divides the world, and countries and states within that world. No one could have fully foreseen that today the planet would be divided into two gigantic armed camps, both equipped with weapons of fantastic power beyond all human comprehension, or that the seemingly insignificant little fork would be the beginning of a cataclysmic world division.
The Way of Force
First consider the way of force.
While Hobbes seemed to pay some lip service to the principle of individual worth, he did not understand its implications. His favorite illustration was that of the beehive. Here he contended that the ideal State would be achieved by formal contracts or covenants, and would consist of a government, taking this power, once given, and using it without any further reference to those who had given it. So the State would be as ruthless as the amoral law of the hive. In short, the State would play the role of the Divine, so inevitably the individual, as such, would disappear.
Hegel, a German philosopher, lived in the years 1770-1831. Taking up Hobbes’ theme of the omnipotent State, he played the idea to its political limits, not alone vesting it with the attributes of the Divine, but declaring that the State was the Divine idea on earth. Hegel believed and declared that the individual should have no power except that which might be derived from the State. The soul of man was nonexistent in this philosophy of political power.
Rousseau, a predecessor, had held that man is born good and is corrupted only by a bad society —a theory that is persuasively described as "unscientific" by Dr. Leonard Carmichael, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Rousseau’s followers believed that a golden age could occur merely by making violent changes in forms of government, without any hard struggle against evil by human individuals as such.
Following eagerly, next along the roadway of ruthless force, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in the middle of the nineteenth century, became the inheritors of the Hobbes-Hegel theme. These in growing minds concocted the theoretical "rule of the proletariat." This vague entity was obviously not composed of individuals as such, but of an imaginary amorphous mass of impersonal authority. How utterly unrealistic such a system is may be grasped when we see that power, in such a climate, invariably gravitates to a single individual, irresistibly pulled there by a vacuum which an impersonal mass is unable to fill. So this system paraphrases the celebrated formula of Louis XIV by saying, "I am the people." Obviously, the people have no part except to accept whatever they are given — follow wherever they are led. To realize this fatal fact all one needs to do is to look at the record of all so-called "proletarian" dictatorships.
Moving into the economic sphere on this Hobbes-Hegel-Marx line, one can readily see the stress, whether conscious or otherwise, given by John Maynard Keynes, placed upon unlimited state spending and deficit financing. This theory exemplifies the totalitarian line, since its underlying thesis means that the State must be the source and sustenance of all human welfare. In America nationalized industry, dollar socialism, and creeping paternalism concurrently characterized the services and thought of those who were captivated by Keynes and blinded to the fatal flaws in his thesis. Again were seen the seductive blandishments of cunningly worded signboards. All of this, and more, has been alien to the American way.
The Way of Freedom
Now let us turn again to the fork in the road, as of 1651, exploring the other line — that of freedom.
After reading Hobbes’ treatise on government, John Locke shook his head. He differed vigorously.
Locke, in his writings, held to the principle that freedom is the natural state of man — not only freedom from undue state interference, but freedom to assert man’s unique talents — his very soul, which cannot be anything but individual.
Recognizing, as did Hobbes, the need of the State to regulate in certain spheres, for the good of the whole, he nevertheless drew the limits of such power. Here the break with Hobbes was crucial. Locke asserted that there are certain areas beyond the touch and reach of the State. Among those listed were the right to enslave, destroy, or impoverish man. Furthermore, after so limiting the State, he declared that those entrusted with the framing of the laws should not be invested with their enforcement. Here was one of the sources of the American three-part government, eventually legislative, judicial, and executive.
While the schism between Hobbes and Locke did not create any notable desire to read the road signs of the time anew, it did significantly lead to other cleavages on both angles of the fork until today, the cleavage is global. Politicians may preach appeasement, and there may be watered-down variations of the two main themes, but the basic division is eternal, unchangeable.
Applied in America
The greatest and most significant development after Locke was the American Dream, which had been stimulated in part by the pioneering of Thomas Hooker of Connecticut and the leaders of the Virginia Colony who developed the three-part government which became the pattern for the United States.
Outstanding spokesman was Thomas Jefferson whose distrust of the all-powerful and all-pervasive paternalistic State was unalterable. His speeches and writings abound in expressions of his trust in the soul of the individual man and his enormous solicitude for the freedom of that soul. Within obviously reasonable limits, he held that the nation that is least governed is best governed, and the best agency for good is the voluntary benevolence of the individual.
Adam Smith carried the Locke theme into the realm of economics, starting with the key thought that the individual is the clue to all human relationships. Smith stressed the great powers of human ingenuity and genius.
The Declaration of Independence, of course, was the climax of the nascent American Dream. Its doctrine of separation from political overlordship was important, but now we see that its assertion of the essential individuality of the soul of man was even more significant. Here is another vantage point from which we can see one meaning of an event, long past, better than ‘the contemporaries of that event.
Society or the Individual
The Beatitudes of Jesus concisely laid down the ideal social order, in which the responsibility of the individual was the complete theme and not a word was said about political kingdoms. The bee attitudes, in contrast, are concerned solely with what the hive State can do for and by means of the enslaved individual.
Shall we have a responsible society or responsible individuals?
In the former method, voluntary cooperation is first neglected, then rejected, and the State inevitably becomes what Hobbes declared —a mortal God. Compulsion replaces and then stifles voluntarism.
In the latter method responsible individuals, the varying talents inherent in each, are allowed to contribute richly to the whole. Here the Christian principle of voluntarism is allowed to play in an atmosphere of freedom and the initiative which is essential to all brotherly effort.
We Still Must Choose
The divergence of 1651, for a long time, may have seemed to be an innocuous academic diversion. Now, with all its accumulated implementations, it is seen to be world splitting and cataclysmic. At present the schism is defined by the words "communism" and "capitalism." But even if these words had never been invented, the irrepressible conflict would have manifested itself along the broad lines of separation.
The clue is the soul of man. Carry out the line from Hobbes to Marx, thence to modern ruthless dictatorships, and we see how well the way of force was camouflaged until it developed a Frankenstein monster that is difficult to stop when once set in motion.
The choice of 1651 is still with us. The battle is for the soul of man.