All Commentary
Wednesday, May 1, 1974

The Blessings of Diversity

Were all alike, instead of free, T’would mean the end of me and thee.

There is an old wheeze that goes something like this: “The whole world is queer but thee and me, and sometimes I think thee a trifle peculiar.” The line affixes a bit of humor to a lamentable fact: most people are addicted to conformity. The truth? Were all like thee or me, all would perish. So, let’s make the case for diversity.

The first part of the case is easy. Were everyone alike, would we be all men — or all women? There wouldn’t even be an Adam and Eve situation, only an uninhabited Eden! Suppose all of us were identical in food preference to those who eat nothing but fish. The fish supply would diminish to the point that all would starve —or die fishing. A moment’s reflection reveals the nonsense of belike-me-ness as related to the strictly physical aspects of our lives — even were all identical to thee or me.

It is when we move from functions of the body to those of the mind that the case for diversity most needs to be examined. People, by and large, seem instinctively to resist the idea of diversity in thinking. Why do not others think and believe as you or I do? Had a person of my convictions lived in Athens twenty-three centuries ago, his disagreement with Plato’s concept of a philosopher-king surely would have disturbed the great thinker, even as you and I tend to be disturbed by those who do not see eye to eye with us.

The philosopher-king idea assumes an overlord — absolute rulership — someone who will direct what millions of citizens shall do and how they shall behave. Thinking for self is precluded; the king will do that for us.

Until recent times, kingship —czar, der Fuhrer, the Mikado, a ruler by whatever label — was generally accepted as the only alternative to societal chaos. There had to be a ruler — despite the miserable record — or society would collapse.

Why the failures? Plato’s implication is that power hitherto had not been united to wisdom in one man. Obviously, kingship is not to be trusted to power-crazed shallowpates. Plato’s solution? Let only philosophers be kings! Then all of a nation’s citizens would be blessed, being the beneficiaries of the king’s wisdom.

Which Philosopher Should Have Control?

Now, just who is it that qualifies as a philosopher? How designated? There are two ways. First is self-designation. Though not aspiring to kingship, Plato no doubt thought of himself as a philosopher. Look around at our contemporaries. Observe the countless thousands, none of whom doubts his own wisdom; each in his judgment the perfect philosopher. And fit for kingship!

The second way to be labeled a philosopher is by popular designation. Reflect on those thus acclaimed, ranging from Confucius, Socrates, Plato, Maimonides, Machiavelli, Marx, Berdyaev, to several of our time. Go over the list — some 400 — read of their ideas and find one competent to rule our lives.1 Not one remotely qualifies. No such individual ever existed or ever will. And the genuine philosopher, at least of our time, would shun rule, even if it were offered!

Granted, each of these philosophers was in search of truth. Their findings? No two the same! One came upon an idea here, another there; now and then a bit of truth, occasionally an out-and-out error, such as Plato’s philosopher-king or Marx’s “from each according to ability, to each according to need.” The worst that could befall mankind would be to give any one philosopher the power to impose his limited vision on everyone else — including other philosophers. Each of us should strive to live by such wisdom as he can glean, while working to expand his vision. But there is no short cut to the attainment of this objective.

When one first reflects on the blessings of diversity in thinking, he might want to make an exception: should not the devotees of liberty look askance at anti-freedom thinking? Of what possible help are Marx and Engels and the countless other opponents? My answer: They are an absolute necessity to the furtherance of our ideal, to the attainment of our aspirations. Bluntly, there is no way to go uphill expect as there be hills to climb. In other words, we have no chance of moving toward or perfecting the freedom way of life short of obstacles to overcome — now and forever! It is in the discernment of error that truth comes to light. The art of becoming is composed of acts of overcoming.

Let us suppose that no one today knows any more about the freedom philosophy than I knew some forty years ago. Heaven forbid! What jolted me awake? Not someone agreeing with me; it was the system of wage, price and exchange controls — the National Industrial Recovery Act. This was not exactly the philosopher-king, but almost as bad: the politician-bureaucrat. Knowing that to be wrong, I had to explore, look for, try to discover what is right. The wrong gave me a toehold, as we say; it served as a stimulant, a springboard. But for NIRA or some similar wrong, I might well have remained ideologically disinterested. So, was not the NIRA a blessing of diversity?

Nearly everyone can recall similar experiences, his thought processes stimulated by one or two wrongs. But how easy it is to believe that a few leaps upward in learning suffice. A momentary awakening and then falling to sleep again! Worse than falling asleep, however, is to harbor the illusion of journey’s end, the thought that one’s job is done.

During the past four decades, since shocked into awareness by NIRA, I have reacted to every anti-freedom notion that has come to my attention. This has been my “magnificent obsession.” The reward? In all modesty, I am far better informed about such matters than I was some forty years ago. Yet, the road looms ahead, and I have much further to go.

To highlight the danger of stagnation, let it be assumed that I understand far more than I now do — that I have become better than anyone else! Arrival? Indeed not; whatever the stage, it is only the beginning. However far one travels from his beginning in ignorance, it is but a start toward the infinite unknown.

Hold the fantasy for a moment: that I have become better than all others. Then assume that the thoughts of everyone were identical to mine. A better world? No! Such would spell the end of human evolution or emergence —mankind in a state of stagnation. To seek Truth is to pursue the Infinite. The more one advances, the further into the distance stretches the road ahead. The more one knows, the more he knows there is to know.

Human freedom is an aspiration, never to be perfectly achieved but, at best, only to be more closely approximated. Have no fear of diverse ideas. Welcome them! They are blessings, perhaps in disguise, but steppingstones, nonetheless.


1 See The Treasury of Philosophy, edited by Dagobert D. Runes (New York: The Philosophical Library, Inc., 1955).  

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