A Stoic America


By DR. WILL DURANT, Author of "The Story of Philosophy" and other books

Delivered at the Annual Dinner of the National Association of Manufacturers and 45th Congress of American Industry,December 13, 1940

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VII, pp. 238-240.


THE function of the philosopher is to view the phenomena of life and the events of his time in a large perspective; to seek their secret causes and basic currents; to make his report as clearly as he can, and with the modesty that becomes an ignorant fragment presuming to interpret the inexplicable whole; and, when crisis comes, to accept with obedience and loyalty the decisions of those chosen and practical leaders who stand on the firing line of policy and action.

The basic current of our time is a retreat from liberty to discipline. The basic problem of our time is to restore discipline without destroying liberty.

Since the basic need of society is order, and order is not spontaneous, the normal condition of mankind is one of authority and discipline. Authority and discipline are in most ages based upon military power, feudal land-ownership,supernatural belief, and the power of the father over his wife and his children. These are the ages of faith and stability, of imagination and religious art. Such were all the world before Pericles, all Europe between Constantine and Columbus, all America between Columbus and Washington.

Liberty comes when the power of the army and the feudal baron is overthrown by the wealth of a rising business class whose expanding activity requires freedom of enterprise and trade, and breaks down traditions and barriers. These periods in which the productive classes are dominant are the ages of "reason" and "progress", of science and philosophy. Such were the ages of Pericles and Euripides in Athens, of Lucretius and Cicero in Rome.

In modern times liberty has been widened and quickened beyond any historical precedent by five major steps in theemancipation and growth of the business class. First, the military revolution—the invention of gunpowder, musket and cannon—which gave new power to the infantry against the sabre and castle of the feudal lord. Second, the intellectual revolution—the development of printing, the spread of boob and enlightenment from the upper to the middle classes. Third, the commercial revolution: the opening of the Near East to Mediterranean trade in 1453, which financed the Italian Renaissance; and the opening of the Americas and the Far East to European trade after 1492, which financed the Renaissance successively in Spain, Portugal, England, the Netherlands, and France. Fourth, the Reformation, which broke down all religious authority. Fifth, the Industrial Revolution—the development of power-driven machinery, enormously enlarging and enriching the business class, and finally enabling it to overthrow the landed aristocracy in England, the United States, France, Germany, Italy, and Japan.


It was from these sources that liberty spread into every sphere of modern life. The business classes made freedom the pervading principle of Western civilization because they had found it to be the first requirement of progressive industry. In each field liberty was born of industrial freedom and industrial needs; and in every field it brought a fertilizing stimulus that made the last one hundred years the richest in human experience.

In government the rise of the business class created democracy, as the only political system that, within a moderate framework of order, would provide the liberty indispensable to a rapidly developing economy. In law the business class demanded, defended, and extended those rights of habeas corpus and trial by jury which are the last stand of personal liberty. It was the needs of modern industry, communication, and commerce that spread literacy into every rank, and built a hundred thousand schools. It was the needs of manufacturers and merchants that created the vast extension of advertising which has made possible the American press and radio of today, giving us the miracle of the world's news and thought brought to us for a pittance, and the world's music brought to us for almost nothing at all. It was the needs of industry, communication, and transport that stimulated and financed pure science and its practical applications; and it was this growth of science that emancipated philosophy from the leading strings of mythology. It was industry that gave the individual his own pay envelope, and freed him from parental tyranny. It was industry that emptied the home of it's ancient drudgery, and liberated woman for a larger and more stimulating life. Marriage was turned from a fatality into an experiment, motherhood from an endless chain into an incident and an accident; every profession opened its doors to a charming and ageless womanhood. No other people had been so free since Nero's Rome.


These are magnificent achievements, constituting one of the most brilliant epochs in history; every lover of liberty must contemplate them with admiration and gratitude. But the challenge of our time is to inquire why it is that this house of freedom is falling about our heads; why in the very flower of this generous emancipation of the human soul, there has appeared the seed of weakness and decay, threatening the suicide of all liberal civilization. Freedom is a trial as well as a gift; it is a test that only intelligence can pass. Every virtue may become a vice through excess, and nothing fails like excess.

In many aspects of our life liberty has run an upward and downward course from stimulus to chaos, from creation to destruction. It has led to so dangerous a discord in historythat both labor and capital have flirted with the vampire of dictatorship. In politics freedom has led to such corruption, incompetence, and waste that even lovers of democracy have at times doubted its ability to meet the issues of our complex life, or the challenges of a competing and regimented world. In science, freedom has multiplied and enlarged weapons as well as tools, and threatens to destroy in a decade what it created in a century. Freedom of thought has undermined religious belief, and therefore the religious supports of our fragile morality. Freedom of youth has sapped parental authority, and has almost ended the value of the family as an institution for forming responsible souls. Freedom in education has destroyed discipline in the schools, and has made for a shallow intellectualism and a dangerous flabbiness of character. Freedom in sex has separated love from parentage, has multiplied extra-marital relations, has smiled upon a hundred perversions, and has tolerated a moral chaos reminiscent of Rome's decay. It has broken countless marriages with divorce, and has brought our birth rate within sight of our death rate and biological stagnation.

Freedom in general has weakened the influence of society over the individual, has laughed at patriotism as a collective prejudice, has atomized our citizenship into irresponsible individuals, and has opened the road to every racial division amongst us, to every hyphen in our hearts. It has coarsened our manners, our music, our dances, our literature, and our art, leading at times to an unschooled originality hardly distinguishable from insanity, except that in most cases it is the purchaser and not the creator who is insane. Freedom has produced in our larger cities a half-promiscuous night life by which the most influential part of our urban population is softened with epicureanism and an enervating indulgence at a time when all the forces arrayed against us are strengthened with stoicism and discipline.


These excesses of freedom are challenging the life of freedom itself. They have in other countries led to a fascism that offers, as a solution to the problems of freedom, the domination of all life by martial law, the subjection of industry, government, religion, morals, marriage, education, literature, and art to a vast military and police power wielded by one man—a return to the Middle Ages with all their tyranny and obscurantism, and none of their beauty, their poetry, and their romance.

Must we, to defend ourselves against the fascist powers, adopt the fascist philosophy and build over ourselves a fascist state? Or is it possible to re-create order, character, and national vitality within the framework of democracy?

Democracy is not a failure. It is here and there corrupt, here and there incompetent, and everywhere extravagant; all in all, and because of its freedom, it is the most stimulating, the most friendly, the happiest society that has yet appeared among mankind.

Liberty is not a failure; it may yet prove so superior in inventiveness to the chained minds of chained states as to wrest from them that last battle which cancels every defeat, and resettles every settlement. Liberty will be a failure only when events shall have shown that a free people cannot discipline itself into health and strength. Democracy and discipline, liberty and order, are no more irreconcilable than invention and convention, variation and heredity; possibly like these they are two sides of one complex reality. For more than a century the British have proved that liberty can live with order, even in the same soul. Can we rival them, and profit by their example, and their mistakes?

Our first need is a simple principle to guide and inspire us. Perhaps it should be self-preservation through self-discipline. The world is armed in body and soul; we must provethat freedom too can arm itself, in body and soul. Greece, from which comes our clearest ray of light in these dark days, was right, twenty-four centuries ago, in picturing the goddess of wisdom, Athene Promachos, as armed with sword and helmet and shield, ready at any moment to defend her liberty.

No civilization is conquered except from within; no nation can be saved except by itself. Freedom will save itself not by controlling the world, but by controlling itself.


How can we make in America a self-disciplined freedom? I wish to think of the problem in larger terms than the immediate task. Therefore I recommend for your consideration ten proposals that will require not a year but a decade for their fulfillment.

First, a healthier birth rate: through state bonuses for each child born to parents who have passed a test of freedom from serious and transmissible defect of body or mind; through the prohibition of parentage in those who cannot pass these tests; through a higher and longer income-tax exemption for children in school or college; through a rise in salary to any governmental employee for any legitimate child born to him; and, if this should prove successful, through the application of this principle by corporations to their salaried employees.

Second, a healthier population through a nation-wide program of slum-clearance and low-cost housing; national defense requires a vigorous and home-owning, home-loving people.

Third, the restoration of parental authority. Libertarian education was a mistake, a ridiculous assumption of wisdom in infants.

Fourth, a sterner education, at home and in school, training the body in health and strength, the character in courage and self-control, returning to the Roman conception of virtue as virtus, the qualities of a man; the mind in clarity and concentration; and the hands in some manual trade.

Fifth, a re-invigorated morality through earlier marriages, made possible by dowries; uniform and more rigorous divorce laws; the education of girls for wifehood and motherhood; and a saner evaluation of women by men in terms not exclusively of sexual charm.

Sixth, the extension of libel laws to protect racial and religious groups. We are a hundred ethnic and religious varieties in America, and we can survive only by mutual tolerance and cooperation; any move to divide us is an aid to our enemies, and treason to America.

Seventh, a paid and permanent Industrial Council, appointed by the National Association of Manufacturers and the U. S. Chamber of Commerce in collaboration with labor, to devise and propose to Congress ways and means of putting every man in America to useful work; reducing the strain and loss of strikes, perhaps by applying to all industrial disputes the principles of the Railway Labor Board; enabling every worker to earn enough to raise a family of healthy children; and waging patient but relentless war upon poverty as America's Public Enemy No. 1.

Eighth, a United States Civil Academy, and in every major university a School of Government, training men and women in public administration.

Ninth, a National Board of Audit, and in each state a State Board of Audit, empowered to examine at any time the conduct and accounts of any government official, and to prosecute the guilty wherever found.

Tenth, a National Advisory Council, composed of men and women chosen from and by every industry, business, profession, and basic science, to consider the long-term problems of American life, and periodically to submit its conclusions and recommendations to Congress and the people.


At first this will be an unpopular program; but in time the nation will accept it with willing heart; even youth, which has never respected us for our soft indulgence of it, will relish difficult assignments and an invigorating discipline falling upon rich and poor alike.

Only with such a tightening of our spiritual belts can we face the hard choice of 1941, and play any effective part in the unprecedented five-fold drama of our age—the conflict between individualism and communism, between Christianity and a militaristic paganism, between democracy and dictatorship, between the Germanic and the Anglo-Saxon world, between suiciding Europe and the resurrected East.

America is still sound, healthy, courageous, inventive, vibrant; our economic system has created five times more wealth, and has distributed it more widely, than any other system in history; and our democracy, with all its faults, has come through a world war and a world depression with all its colors flying, and all our civil liberties intact. We have realized a generous measure of America's purpose, a miraculous measure for one century.

But America is not yet what we prayed that it might be. There is still injustice amongst us, incompetence, venality, here and there destitution in American homes, and hopelessness in the hearts of men.

Do not be content with what you have done; use your skill, your energy, and your magnificent organization to forge for America a new industrial, moral, biological, economic statesmanship; win the world for democracy by realizing still more completely the dream that always sings in the heart of America—of a nation rich but happy, powerful but just, self-disciplined and therefore free.