The Disciplines of Democracy


By HARRY WOODBURN CHASE, Chancellor of New York University Commencement

Address delivered at Lehigh University, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, June 10, 1940

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VI, pp. 568-570.

IT is a very difficult thing to speak today to a graduating class. The world has become a place of tragedy, of uncertain issues, of an obscure and hidden future. We know not what any week, any day, any hour, may bring forth. We have seen things reappear which we had thought were gone forever from human history, and we cannot prophesy the kind of world in which you must find your place.

Surely, in all this time of stress, there is no one of you to whom there has not come home afresh a sense of the significance and value of those institutions which make up the democratic way of life, our own way of life. We see them, as it were, in sharp outline, set as they now are against the blackness, the cruelty, the utter lack of morality of that new barbarism which would destroy them. We are told that we must be prepared to pay a price for our freedom.

Now I want simply to make the point this morning that the defense of democracy is not merely a matter of dollars and cents, of tanks and airplanes and anti-aircraft guns. It is a matter of the spirit as well. I want to remind you, as educated men and women, as potential leaders of thought and action, that every freedom which an individual or a nation achieves must somehow be paid for. It does not come into existence, nor is it maintained, for nothing. It has its price. We are today so much concerned about the rights offreedom that we sometimes forget this very simple fact. I merely want to bring you back to it in these few brief moments.

It was clear enough in the minds of those who founded this nation. They wanted liberty, but they were willing to pay for it, to pay, in their own words with their "lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor." If these words seem to you and me to echo with a sort of eighteenth century grandiloquence, let us simply rephrase the sincere declaration of purpose that runs through them, and say that they were willing to give what it took.

Now there is a way of life that we have come to identify with the word democracy. It changes in many ways from generation to generation. It is always an ideal, never something fully achieved. We do not believe in it for the reason alone that sprang from the Declaration of Independence, or the Constitution, or even that certain of its fundamentals are embodied in Magna Charta. These, important as they are, are simply embodiments of trends and currents that were at work in the minds of men, at first vaguely, then more and more clear in their implication, as, in the words of a poet more widely known in my younger days than now, as "freedom broadened down from precedent to precedent." This way of life has been defined and implemented at the cost ofinconceivable human sacrifice. Our existence as a nation has swept forward for most of its course, under such favored conditions, that we have perhaps thought too little of this fact.

But now world events force us to think of it. Not only the rise of the totalitarian states, but our own grievous social and economic problems, have made us realize afresh in our own generation that we cannot simply assume democracy, we must, if we believe in it, be prepared to accept responsibility as individuals for making it work as a way of life.

And this, in this modern and complex age, is not so simple. The early New Englander held his town meeting, and not only did the whole citizenship share in it face to face, but they all understood. Problems were simple, and local, and concrete. Men knew where responsibility lay, and they knew if it broke down. But this vast industrial civilization of ours is a very different matter. No one can comprehend its ramifications. Much of it is made up of impersonal and abstract relationships. Men are bewildered by it. They try to escape from it. There is a sense in which the totalitarian state itself is an escape from the modern world back to some of the simpler and more primitive ways of thinking in which mankind was once enmeshed. The totalitarian state says, in essence: "It is not possible to live freely in the new world. We must abolish some of the terms of the equation. Abolish liberty to gain efficiency. Set up the State in its old central position. Surround ourselves with walls against our neighbors, walls that restrict the free flow of commerce, that make us self-contained. Make obedience and conformity the supreme virtues. The worth and dignity of the individual, on the one hand, and the whole structure of international morality and law, on the other, must go, if we are to save ourselves."

Thus say the totalitarians. But such a surrender we are not prepared to make. We still desire to live. in modern civilization as free men and women. Now this we cannot do merely by shouting about freedom and liberty, or by joining in campaigns of hatred that set class against class and nation against nation. Some of those who regard themselves as defenders of democracy seem to act on the primitive idea that to keep evil spirits away it is only necessary to perform incantations and make loud noises. Words like freedom and democracy are too often used to stop people from thinking. They can be alleged in defense or in denial of almost anything that happens to square with our own personal prejudices and desires. One gets tired of name-calling and slogans. Such phrases as "education for democracy," for example, or "education for citizenship" can mean almost anything, reactionary or radical, that their proponents want them to mean. They can be simply attempts to preserve intact the existing social order, or they can be calls to any sort of desired social reform. What does it mean to educate for democracy? It simply means, I suppose, to educate people—as intelligently as we can, working in the spirit of the university ideals of regard for truth, in the conviction that enough people so educated will turn out to be thoughtful and well-disposed so that democracy will be safe in their hands. We cannot educate for democracy by inventing a curriculum or by devising a formula. We do try to produce the best sort of individual we can, who will be capable of living by the ways of free people.

Now it is stupid not to realize that words like freedom and democracy have to be redefined, re-examined, constantly. Our society today is something that Thomas Jefferson never dreamed of. Freedom is not simply a convenient abstraction: it is something that varies with the type of social and economic order we live in and with the particular sort of conduct we are discussing. How much freedom does one haveto drive an automobile? It is abridged by age, by physical condition, by examinations, by speed laws and traffic signals. Here is a sphere of behavior within which one accepts without protest a high degree of regulation in the interests of common safety. This is not an especially controversial case. But take one which is. Take, for example, the question of relations between employer and employee. How much freedom can there be, and just where should control come in? One can say, as those who believe in democracy must always say: "the maximum of freedom and the minimum of control necessary to make the relationship work out best on both sides." But where, in this particular field, is that point of advantage? That, after all, is to be found, not by calling names, but by due insistence on both sides not only on rights, but on responsibilities.

Education is not wholly free. Educational institutions pride themselves with reason on our freedom, and yet they must conform to standards agreed on by professional groups, by regional associations, and by all sorts of external authorities. It would be foolish, in the name of insistence on freedom, to insist on producing doctors who would not be licensed, lawyers who would not be admitted to practice, teachers who could not meet regulations set up by State and local requirements to teach.

I do not suppose that I need to pile up further illustrations. It is clear enough that in our complex society of today one accepts many curbs on freedom that were once unthought of. Contrast, if you please, the life of the pioneer with that of the metropolitan citizen of today. There is almost no aspect of daily life in which the dweller in the city has not surrendered something for the common good.

Now some of you may think that I have been saying enough about abridgments of freedom to put me on the side of the totalitarians. Not at all. No sort of human society has ever existed in which individuals lived in absolute freedom. There have always been, and always will be, codes to which the individuals must conform, or be penalized if he does not. The essential point is that in a democracy, society must recognize that the individual has rights which are guaranteed, and the individual must recognize that he has responsibilities which are not to be evaded. The exact detail of these rights and these responsibilities vary from time to time, and from group to group. There is always a conflict between freedom in any sphere and control in any sphere, but democracy believes, it must believe if it is to survive, that in any sphere control must be kept at the minimum that will work in the common interest.

Thus, in a democracy, the emphasis must be on freedom, not on control. Yet democracy must work, and work under conditions that are complex and bewildering. I said at the beginning that freedom, whether of the individual or of the group, had to be paid for. Now how must we pay for it? Surely by the voluntary acceptance of responsibility on our own part. There can be no other way. That is the crucial point on which our future may well turn. I know well enough the temptations to an attitude of defeatism. The armed forces of the totalitarian states offer nothing like the permanent menace to democracy as does the abdication on the part of the citizens of their own responsibility for its future.

We must accept the disciplines of democracy as well as its freedoms. And those disciplines must come from ourselves, they must be reflections of our own attitudes. Discipline from without flourishes when discipline from within grows weak. Democracy in its essence cannot be imposed on any people. It can only be accepted by the voluntary acts of individuals themselves. And, in proportion as they cease to accept, to work for its way of life, it ceases to be a reality,in substance, whatever of the outer form may be preserved.

Today you have received your degree from your Alma Mater. I charge you as you go out into your various walks of life to carry with you always the fact that we can be free only if we keep ourselves worthy of freedom, if we accept the discipline and the responsibility that it entails.