The Discipline of Free Men


By EDMUND EZRA DAY, President of Cornell University

The Phi Kappa Phi Address before the American Association for the Advancement of Science at the Annual Meeting inPhiladelphia on December 30, 1940

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VII, pp. 283-286

IT is as fellow citizens of the world's greatest democracy that I address you today. I take it that you and I are agreed that this country of ours should remain free. The present world situation being what it is, this insistence upon freedom raises far-reaching questions of national defense. Part of these questions have to do with our ownarmed forces, at home and abroad, and with our possible aid to Britain; part relate to matters of a very different sort: they concern the temper of the American people. It is because I am convinced of the surpassing importance of this phase of the defense program that I speak to you today of the discipline of free men.

It is high time for America to face squarely the problems of individual and social discipline in a democracy. The fate of nations is in large measure a matter of the disciplines they develop. This is true in periods of peace; it becomes strikingly true in times of international conflict. Right now, America is confronted by hostile nations which have effected discipline both formidable and threatening. These enemy powers of Europe and Asia view the democratic way of life as soft and spineless. They sneer at our lack of national solidarity. They charge us with being disillusioned and disorganized, sickly if not crippled, weak and vulnerable. They assert that our very ideals of freedom and loyalty are incompatible. They threaten us with the conquest which they have already visited upon other democratic peoples. What is the answer to make to these charges and threats from abroad? What is the nature of the social discipline with which we may expect to oppose successfully the aggressive disciplines of the new dictatorships?

If we are to deal clearly and constructively with these problems of individual and social discipline, we must first get an adequate conception of what discipline is. Unfortunately the term has come to have a variety of meanings. Not infrequently it refers to some form of chastisement through which obedience is compelled. Basically, however, discipline means a course of instruction suited to a particular type of learner. It suggests a program of training and experience for discipleship. This in turn implies a set of restraints under which near and present interests are put aside in furtherance of some more remote and higher goal. What is called for is a curbing of the impulse of the moment, a postponement of immediate gratifications, a denial of instinctive urges, an avoidance of dissipation and self-indulgence; in short, a consistently constructive reaction to experience and training in the service of more commanding interests. Discipline is, as we shall use the term, this ordering of life to some larger and more impelling purpose. Specifically, in what we shall have to say, it is the ordering of our individual lives for the preservation and promotion of a free society. Such a discipline in America at this time is a matter, not of idealistic ethics, but of inescapable politics. Adequate individual and social discipline is an indispensable condition of the national unity without which we cannot survive. Undisciplined, America has no chance at all of remaining free and democratic in the world of today.

Before we go further, let us dispose once and for all of the mistaken notion that freedom and discipline are in opposition to one another. Sound discipline is never solely or even primarily repressive; it is designed to strengthen the powers and thereby to enlarge the opportunities of the learner. To take a simple example: the lad who, through sustained effort and arduous practice, has mastered the art of swimming does not thereafter face a more restricted life. On the contrary, as a result of the discipline he has undergone, he has gained access to large new areas of enjoyment and possible usefulness. In general, discipline is the channel through which new activities are made available. Far from being opposites, freedom and discipline are alternating phases of human growth and development. Certainly discipline is the only sure way to the larger freedom of which mankind is in search.

Discipline involves individual restraint; of that there can be no question. How is this restraint to be induced? In general, two types of influence may be brought to bear: first, the fear of punishment; second, the hope of rewards. It is the former of these types which has come to usurp at times the very term discipline. The child is disciplined when shut up in a closet by its parents or kept after school by its teacher. It is the fear of these unpleasant experiences whichis expected to produce the desired restraint in the child. Much of our traditional morality rests upon fear of later consequences, either in this life or in the life hereafter. A great deal of our present moral confusion derives from the weakening of these fears and the absence, for the time being, of any effective substitute influences of a more positive sort. In building an adequate and enduring discipline, reliance must be placed increasingly upon rewards rather than upon punishments, even if both types of inducement remain operative. In the long run, restraints must be seen positively in the light of the greater satisfactions to which they give access. Moreover, they must be strengthened through knowledge, insight, conscience, approbation, achievement, habituation.

The present world conflict is a struggle of fundamentally opposed social disciplines. On the one hand is the discipline of the dictatorships. It is a forced, regimented, authoritarian discipline. It is harsh, callous, ruthless, utterly demanding. The command put to the people is direct and unmistakable. In Mussolini's words, it is "Believe, obey, fight." In such a regime, the will of the state is supreme; it brooks no opposition, no questioning, no review—overt or hidden—of its performance. Its rule is unlimited; its discipline absolute.

The initiation of any such discipline, certainly among a people who have previously enjoyed a measure of freedom, can be accomplished only through physical violence. The factor of overpowering fear has to be brought into play. Revolution, assassination, torture, terrorism are the means by which the new discipline is introduced. These are supplemented later with systematic persecution, continuous espionage, party purges, the concentration camp. As the system becomes more firmly established, the positive factors which make for complete regimentation are utilized. All the modernized instruments of propaganda are employed to control and manipulate the entire thinking and feeling of the people. Dislikes, prejudices, wants, ambitions—all the conceivable interests, dispositions and sentiments of all classes of society—are grist for the propaganda mill. The party is extolled, its leader deified. The schools, the press, the cinema, the radio, pageantry, work and recreational activity, all are exploited to a single end—the establishment of an absolute national unity, unquestioning and subservient.

In striking contrast is the other form of social discipline: the discipline of the free or democratic society. Its foundations lie deep in human hope and aspiration. It builds not in fear of suffering and misfortune, but in the promise of greater happiness and freedom. The values toward which it endeavors to direct the larger powers which flow from social discipline are the values which reside in a broad and expanding humanitarianism. It finds no place for treachery and cynicism. It knows and respects the record of the agelong struggle through which men and women—a host of them Americans—have gained such freedom as we have. It believes in peace. It has a great and enduring faith in mankind. It is a discipline that is responsible and self-imposed. It is the discipline of free men. It is the discipline of the democratic peoples of the world now and in all time to come.

The discipline of free men is a discipline of body and mind and spirit. Discipline of the body among free men is designed to assure bodily health and a larger capacity for, and enjoyment in, activities requiring physical skill and exertion. We are all possessed of certain imperious appetites and desires. We are prone to indulge these appetites and desires to excess. We all have to learn the lesson of temperance—an essential part of the program of adequate discipline in a society in which private indulgences are supposedly private affairs. A large measure of muscular coordination and control, achieved in youth, adds greatly to the opportunities for healthful recreation in adult life. Too many of us now lack agility, are without grace of body movement, have little capacity for physical endurance. In general, it may be said that free societies have neglected the discipline of the body. The Greeks knew better. In this country we have commonly left physical culture and athletic skill to the professional and the expert while, as spectators in the stands, we have grown indolent and soft. In recent years the popularization of motorized transportation has accentuated the deterioration of our muscular mechanisms. As a people, we need to reverse these trends through a national program of effective physical education. Among free men the body should be trained to be a faithful and efficient servant of the mind and spirit. This requires knowledge of the principles of hygiene, sustained effort and practice, all the habituation along sound lines that can be achieved: in short, it requires a rigorous bodily discipline. Men who have achieved their full freedom will have successfully established this discipline of the body.

Discipline of the mind is one of the most important phases of the discipline of free men; for in matters of thought the free society differs fundamentally from the regimented. Democracies have faith in the human intellect. They believe that the pursuit of truth should be completely untrammelled. But they know full well how difficult truth-finding is, and hence how important it is to cultivate among all the people certain intellectual virtues.

The fundamental element in the discipline of the mind of the free man is a love of truth. The free man is aware of the extent to which dogma, prejudice and self-interest block the path of reason in ordinary thinking. Consequently he is constantly on guard against error and half-truths. He abhors name-calling as a form of argument. He knows that reason does not appeal to passion, least of all to hatred. The free man cultivates a measure of incredulity, and avoids a blind acceptance of tradition and authority. He is prepared to suspend judgment until the available evidence is in and fully weighed. He seeks constantly to be unbiased, objective, fair-minded, intellectually honest; to think freely, critically, clearly. He is humble enough to admit the possibility of his own error and hence is tolerant of the honest thinking of others who disagree with him. He has an inquiring mind, an appetite for new truth. He respects knowledge and, as opportunity offers, acquires it; but he realizes that the possession of knowledge gives no guarantees that commendable habits of thought have been acquired. He knows that these habits of thought presuppose sustained effort and repeated use of certain intellectual tools—a difficult discipline of the mind. But free men realize that the wide attainment of this discipline is an indispensable condition for the maintenance and preservation of a free society. The discipline of mind required of free men may be an ideal clearly beyond our present reach; it remains a goal toward which, by every conceivable means, we must endeavor to progress.

The discipline of spirit which characterizes free men is a compound of many elements. They are needed in varying proportions in different times and different places. Certain of the principal elements are very much needed in America in these difficult days.

Courage is one such element. Our times are troubled and confused. A sense of insecurity and of impending misfortune, if not disaster, is widespread. Men's spirits are low. Times such as these call for stamina, tenacity of purpose, sheer fortitude. It is not so much courage to take bodily risks or to withstand physical suffering that is needed as itis courage to push on when misfortune comes or when difficulties seem insurmountable and goals unattainable. Worthwhile living always has required this sort of pluck. Life after all is a never-ending struggle between doubt and decision, between fear and faith. To it has to be brought a readiness for adventure. Without spirit and hope, without confidence and zest, life sinks to a level that yields no lasting satisfaction. Men to be free must be valiant.

Honesty is equally an indispensable element in the discipline of free men. No free society can even hold together without it. Resort to treachery may bring certain quick returns; in the long run, it spells disaster. Free men are forthright, dependable, trustworthy. They honor their pledges; their word is as good as their bond. Free men are upright.

Free men are industrious. They have learned at first hand the satisfactions of honest purposeful endeavor. They accept the obligations to work and to work faithfully. They deplore the current inadequacy of opportunities for remunerative work, and view involuntary unemployment with deepest concern. Believing in production, they do not willingly resort to destruction or waste. They respect excellence of performance on whatever job it may appear. They have learned through discipline that there are profoundly important satisfactions in work well done. They look upon indolence and sloth as inexcusable weaknesses. They are men given to action.

Free men are men of good will. They know that hatred of men rather than of evil is a devastating passion in human affairs. Free men avoid malice and envy as they would poison. They are devoted to justice, sensitive to human needs and aspirations, considerate of their fellow men. They are never arrogant. They know how to cooperate unselfishly. They make their direct contributions to the common good: they are essentially of generous disposition. They eschew any resort to force, whatever its form. They are for a peaceful world-order. They believe genuinely in humanity, in the brotherhood of man.

Finally, free men possess a continuing sense of inner power. At the very core of life there is something profoundly personal for each one of us. Deep within there is a phase of experience which we do not share with any other human being—we do not because we can not. It is like a hidden edifice which we have perforce fashioned just for ourselves. It may be a castle, or a simple cottage; sometimes, unhappily, just a shack. Therein is the domicile of our personal integrity. Therein we sit down with the Great Spirit when he comes. Therein is neither pride nor vainglory, only humility and prayer. Free men have learned to walk humbly with their God. They are fundamentally reverent. In a discipline of body and mind and spirit they have found the real meaning or salvation.

This many-sided discipline of free men is not to he thought of as an idealistic code lying completely beyond the reach of ordinary men. It is the way of life which must be widely achieved if democratic peoples are to stay free and independent. The important thing is to see clearly the nature of the daily ordering of individual living which is essential to the free society, and then to devise the necessary programs of action which will produce the requisite individual and social disciplines. In part this is a matter of mass education and of moral leadership for those who will accept the discipline of free men once it is wisely and adequately offered. In part it is a matter of dealing effectively with the persistently undisciplined.

Every society, whatever the form of its discipline, must find ways of dealing with its undisciplined members. Societies operating under authoritarian regimes have relatively simple ways of handling the recalcitrant, these ways consistinglargely of apprehension and removal. No system of civil rights and guaranteed justice complicates the process. In democratic societies, effective handling of the undisciplined is a much more difficult matter. In the first place it is more difficult to decide who are the undisciplined; in the second place, it is more difficult to handle them properly after their identities have been established.

The most obvious undisciplined members of any society are the criminals. Everyone recognizes them because as a class they are openly defiant. Always, too, there are the revolutionists, sometimes avowed and sometimes masquerading. These violate, and would, if they could, destroy, the discipline under which the free society is endeavoring to operate. Other less obvious undisciplined groups are similarly failing to meet the requirements of a truly free society. There are, for example, the fanatics who are doing open violence to the discipline of the mind which is demanded of free men. There are, also, the unrelenting egotists who fail miserably to exhibit the social conscience and humane sensitivity which among free men characterize the discipline of the spirit. Then, too, there are the lazy and the dishonest, in both high and low places. All these corrupt the ideals and purposes of democracy.

Organizing for the attainment of a more effective social discipline is one of the most pressing problems now confronting the American people. In part it is a matter of formal education. Our schools and colleges must be made tocontribute more than they do to the necessary disciplines of our democratic way of life. In part it is a matter of adult education through all the available media of communication. Every citizen should come to know and be led to practice the disciplines which must prevail if America is to remain free. In part it is a matter of moral leadership, America craves the leadership of those who understand and in high office exemplify the democratic way of life. As a people we must be led to see first things first. We must moderate our materialism and love of money. We mutt abandon our worship of personal power. We must re-define success in terms of service to one's fellow men. We must put the full force of public approbation and social prestige behind the contributions which fortify a just and progressive free society. We must improve our organization for dealing promptly and justly and at the same time effectively with the undisciplined. We must increase opportunities for purposeful activity. We must give meaning to life even for the most humble and inexperienced. We must strive with all the devotion we can muster to achieve the discipline of free men. This is no mere pious moralizing or wishful thinking: it is necessary action and hence practical politics, if America along with the rest of the world is not to fall back into another Dark Age. In the discipline of free men lies the only hope of mankind, and on that same discipline depends now and for generations to come the very existence of the free America for which our fathers fought and died.