The Reverend Mr. Williams is minister of the Old Stone Church, Rockton, Illinois.
The philosophy of individual responsibility is probably as old as civilization. Certainly it is older than Jesus, or Socrates, both of whom emphasized the doctrine. The conviction that the individual must hold himself responsible for what he does, or does not do, unquestionably ranges back to the beginnings of the race when a guilty man first raised the troublesome question, "Am I my brother’s keeper?"
It might not be far wrong to say that this idea marks the radical transition from savagery to law and order. In the animal kingdom, which we presume comparable to human savagery, no beast is accountable for what it does—it being inconceivable for wild creatures to charge themselves or one another with right or wrong.
They kill, ravage, plunder—being savage; and the beast most "red in tooth and claw" is most respected because most feared.
Likewise, when human beings run in wolf pack—as they still do sometimes—the habits of savagery govern. Witness the unspeakable atrocities committed in modern wars and by the Communists in their struggle for power—not to mention organized mob activity in our own "highly civilized" society. The individual then loses his identity, being submerged in authority and held accountable chiefly if and when he violates the interests of that authority. In this respect, totalitarian states can be described as little more than aggrandized wolf packs in which the individual, unless he be in a position of power, is denied the human rights of responsibility, initiative, and independence. But when individuals assert their inalienable rights of selfhood, the wolf pack is broken and civilization is born. If this is true, then it appears a tragic fact that in huge areas of the world today real civilization either has not yet been born or has already died. In any case, individual responsibility is the necessary hammer pounding the hot iron of human destiny on the cold and unyielding anvil of time.
Courage Required To Face Conscienceless Mob
The practice of individual responsibility, which projects itself across the face of social or governmental solidarity, is a lofty objective, achieved only by the development of individual ideals and convictions. Hence our use of the word miracle. Individual responsibility is a common emphasis in the teachings of philosophy and religion, yet it is something of a miracle in practice. Indeed, the practice has been exceedingly rare—at the same time outstandingly influential wherever and whenever there have been those who dared exercise individual responsibility. Socrates practiced it, and the Athenians killed him for it. Jesus practiced it, and was nailed to a Roman cross. Whoever dares to conduct himself at any time contrary to accepted practice, in opposition to the established order, is likely to be considered an enemy to the state-of-things-as-they-are, and is usually dealt with accordingly. The actual practice of individual responsibility is, in truth, quite a miracle.
Responsibility never lies more heavily on the shoulders of those who love freedom than when their freedom is dribbling away from them, like life-blood flowing from deep wounds, and when—because of the hurt and the loss of vitality—they are rendered most helpless and weak. When the tide of the time is running heavily in the opposite direction and while the storms of adversity are still raging, the person who would assume responsibility is tempted to seclude himself in his own half-shelter of despair, saying, "What’s the use?" When we seem overwhelmed by the socialistic trend, we are apt to condone our own departure from the truth we know, because we are bound—or defend ourselves by saying we are bound—by the prevailing wishes of the people. Those of us who aspire to leadership—particularly in political affairs—may know the folly involved in many government policies and popular demands, but contend that our hands are tied because we are the servants of the people; to be accepted by the people, we have to give them, or promise to give them, what they want. We may whisper, "We’re not to blame if it’s bad!" This admission of moral decay has been, all too often, the key to election in some of our most important political campaigns.
At the same time public leaders take this attitude, a creeping paralysis of public indifference throws a dam of authoritative regulation across the rights of man, stopping the stream of freedom and impounding a huge backwater of abuse and falsehood that grows ever wider and deeper. Such a dam may hold, growing stronger and higher, for unnamed numbers of years, gradually drowning the highlands of human rights and driving men out of their God-given inheritance by the smothering flood of statism. Such obstruction when it breaks, as it must and will in inevitable human upheaval, may be quite as destructive in its ruin as in its building.
Even though we see the danger forming and honestly fear the consequences, there is the persistent temptation to hide behind any convenient hedge because the truth, if clearly proclaimed and practiced, might involve sacrifice in revenue, property, or position. Farmers, laborers, businessmen—practically all of us—are unwilling to abide by the strict economic justice of the market place if it involves financial loss. The mass demand is for continued special advantage for "me and mine," making the practice of individual responsibility increasingly rare and difficult.
The Right To Choose
Individual responsibility presupposes the right of choice, for if one has no choice he cannot be responsible. At this point we recognize grave danger, for choice is the option to go right or left, to be good or bad. Making an individual responsible shoulders him with the weighty obligation of deciding what he himself should do. Freedom of choice does not guarantee that each will choose wisely or well.
The road to freedom is paved with disappointment, suffering, wounds of battle, desperate struggle, and ceaseless search for truth. No one ever traveled far on that road who did not color it with his own blood, yet was driven on by the desperate fear of certain damnation for all mankind if freedom were not attained. Freedom comes out of bondage—just as being comes out of nonbeing—by Divine creation. And this freedom is the basic meaning of the ego. Self-consciousness is itself a monumental advent of freedom over material existence. A thing has no possible freedom to escape the bondage of "thingdom." A rock has no choice but to be a rock. In all the order of Nature only man can determine for himself. God has planted Himself in man to that magnificent proportion that man can by will and behavior change himself and his environment—within limits. Consciousness is the most precious of all freedoms, and is probably the most Divine.
This philosophy, I firmly believe, explains the claim—upon which our nation was founded—that human freedom is a God-given right. Such right is more than an inheritance or a gift. It is an endowment. It is a fundamental quality which makes man "Man" rather than thing. Any system of government or of society which fails to honor this fact and be governed by it is doomed to ultimate failure, for human beings passionately resist being made into mere things. People instinctively struggle for the freedom which their God-given consciousness dictates. The struggle for freedom is forever the struggle of creation against chaos, of existence against oblivion, of life against matter which is itself dead, of liberty against slavery.
The Desire To Be Popular
It may not be easy, however, to translate this wider view into our immediate circumstances. The desire to succeed, to be accepted and accredited, is universal among men of all races. To achieve such desirable ends, the individual is inclined to avoid opposition or offense to others—especially those who are in authority. Hence, if aman is to be popular, he concludes that he must dance to the people’s music, however distasteful it may be. Similarly, if an industry is to succeed, it must manufacture the things the populace will buy. In this mad scramble of politics and industry the question whether it is for genuine human welfare is often regarded as merely secondary. Under such a system people relinquish selfhood, becoming mere potentials in a world where things predominate and are alone considered important.
No longer is it a matter of a man standing alone on his wide acres, making up his own mind, then hoeing his own private row as he pleases. Rather, it is more a matter of masses of humanity crowded together, depending upon one another yet each fearing the other, affected jointly by almost every act. Additional complications arise from the interdependence of management and labor, private interests and government regulations, the conflicts of business and persons, falsehood made attractive by a grain of truth, confusion, frustration, loss of faith in old ideals, and lack of courage to hold old forts. From this vexatious dilemma a large segment of the world has accepted regimentation and totalitarian dictatorship as the only satisfactory or promising solution. We in
America have experimented mildly with that solution, with some tendency to go still further; but we cannot dispel the deep conviction that the rights of the state should never be permitted to supersede the rights of men.
Faith and Integrity
In the light of all this—confused light as it surely is—it appears that individual responsibility is not the product of public attitude but of personal faith. It is the rare achievement of a man standing alone in his own naked integrity regardless of cost, regardless of misunderstanding, regardless of possible persecution.
I am convinced that the only hope for the survival of freedom is the widespread practice of individual responsibility, no matter how difficult it may be. For altogether too long a time we have regarded freedom as private privilege to indulge, debasing liberty into license in our habits if not in our thinking. It may take a crusade of revival proportions to cure the sick national soul, but somehow we must learn again that when the yoke of bondage is taken from man’s neck the cross of responsibility is placed on his shoulders.
In the absence of individual concern, falsehood takes root and grows to produce a slow poisonwhich paralyzes awareness to danger while insuring certain destruction. It is the responsibility of the individual to proclaim the truth that liberates, to eradicate falsehood wherever it appears, that the social body be cured. For society cannot cure itself any more than government can reform itself. Such cure comes, if it comes at all, from clear-thinking, far-seeing, fearless individuals who dare to call poison "Poison!" and who are not afraid to prescribe the painful medicine of self-improvement to cure it.
If one man, and another, and another, fails in his duty to obey the truth, then it is forever impossible for society to follow truth. Social merit is impossible without individual merit. And there is no way for the individual to substitute the virtues or the errors of society for his own. He alone is responsible—to himself first, then to society. If there is no one else in all the world who will stand with him in that responsibility, he is not for that reason excused. Individual responsibility requires a man to be a man no matter if all the rest are parasites.
In this technical age of emphasis on the importance of material relations and dependence upon money and goods, the worth of the person becomes more and more crucial. We must understand clearly that our future welfare does not rest so much in better machines or in more frightful armaments as it does in better men. Character will always be worth more than plant, tools of war, or money. Somewhere at the heart of every institution and clearly framed by every great idea is the enlarged picture of a man. The men who rise above the flat prairie of conformity to the rugged mountaintop of personal integrity, creativity, and responsibility are those who guarantee that the future will be worth living. The organization, be it union or state, does not create but only tries to keep what has been created. If there is any such thing as social responsibility or vision, it is reflected from individuals. It is also true that if persons are not healed of their own maladies the whole ensemble is exposed.
An old proverb reminds us, "If you are wise, you are wise for yourself; if you scoff, you alone will bear it." Each must suffer the consequences or reap the rewards of his own acts. Yet how often do we blame society for the conditions under which we suffer, willing to accuse anyone but ourselves when the rewards we covet remain out of reach.
There are no proxies, however. Manifestly, no one else can eat your food for you or grow for you.
No one else can think for you. When anyone tells you what to think—and you oblige—you are his mental bondman with no feet of your own to stand on. Yet it is always easier to conform than to reform. It is always easier to let others carry the difficult burdens of liberty than to become a crusader for conscience’s sake. Whenever we are satisfied to say, in effect, "Make things easy for me. Spend my money for me. Tell me what I am to think and what I must do. Take care of me, please, from the cradle to the grave"—when we advocate such "social progress"—we are pleading for standardized opinion, agreeing to the death of freedom, and admitting that selfhood is in the advanced stages of decay.
It is nothing new, certainly, that we are facing a crisis. Every generation must plow new fields. Men are forever standing at the crossroads in the unending journey which is history. Every day is judgment day. Every age witnesses new problems rising upon old problems—like today’s sunshine and rain coming after yesterday’s successes and failures. It is a ceaseless modulation of growth, adaptions, and increasing knowledge, teaching all who will be taught that we ourselves, and no one else, will make this world a heaven or a hell.