The Democratic Issue


By WILBUR S. HOWELL, Associate Professor of Public Speaking, Princeton University

Delivered before a meeting of the Eastern Public Speaking Conference, New York City, April 10, 1942

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VII, pp. 437-439.

THE great debate between Daniel Webster and Robert Hayne in the year 1830 was an episode in the historic struggle between liberty and authority. A later episode was our Civil War, the paradoxical issues of which reflected the antagonisms between a social authority that asserted the right of the individual negro to his freedom, and an individualism that maintained the right of society to enforce and perpetuate slavery. In 1859, the year of Brown's raid at Harper's Ferry, John Stuart Mill published in England his essay, On Liberty, in which he supported the individual's right to be free in all matters except those where individual action could be shown to constitute harm to others. Well over two hundred years before the American Civil War, John Milton had cried in the Areopagitica, "Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties." Behind Milton lay the Reformation, the Inquisition, the struggle between Christianity and pagan learning. Urging the Commons of England to imitate "the old and elegant humanity of Greece" rather than "the barbaric pride of a Hunnish and Norwegian stateliness," Milton modeled his defence of freedom of the press upon a speech of the Greek orator Isocrates, and put beneath his title a quotation from The Suppliants of Euripides, where Theseus, in answer to the messenger who spoke in "barbaric pride" of the despotism of Thebes, defended "the old and elegant humanity" of Athenian democracy.

It would be untrue to say that the gradual victory of centralized authority over state sovereignty symbolizes in American history the renunciation of the principle of individualism. It would be more nearly true for future historians to say of us, that we were a curiously gifted people, more Greek than Roman in the fact that we attached great value to the individual, yet more Roman than Greek in our capacity to organize ourselves into a great political entity. We seem partially to have solved the contradictions between social regulation, with its tendency to crush all manifestations of personality, and individualism, with its tendency to divide society into as many separate atoms as there are persons in the state. In Daniel Webster's words, we have achieved "Liberty and Union"; Liberty, in the sense that we have preserved a respect for variations in personality; and Union, in the sense that we can forget our differences in spheres where political unity is required.

What American history records as the struggle to affect a reconciliation between extreme individualism and extreme centralization has become in the field of American education a struggle to provide two sorts of education at once. Weteachers seek to make our students into individuals, and, at the same time, we seek to fit them to co-operate with others. We know perfectly well that if we succeed in making a young man or woman into a complete individualist, conscious of his uniqueness, discriminating in his judgment, unbending in his support of a righteous but unpopular cause, uninfluenced by the careless thinking and narrow prejudices of the average run of men, we may also have created a man or woman who is arrogant towards inferiority, self-centered in his conception of justice, undemocratic in his political loyalties. These abuses of individualism divide an individual from his kind, an educated class from the public, and encourage rulers to seek and enforce special privileges for themselves. We know, too, that if we succeed in making a young man or woman into a complete collectivist, we may have developed in him a ruthless contempt for the dignity and worth of the individual. Such an attitude, we believe, would not breed the self-reliance, the independence, and the courage which give fiber and permanence to the spirit of the individual, and to the morale of the democratic society. Confronted as we are by the excesses of the principle of individualism, and by the stark abuses of the principle of co-operation, we yet continue with our business as educators, striving always to produce the student whose sense of his own personality will temper, and be tempered by, his recognition of his obligations to his fellows.

Athenian democracy, which symbolized for Milton "the old and elegant humanity of Greece," was at length engulfed beneath the tide of a Macedonian stateliness. Demosthenes, like a Greek Churchill, fulminated that appeasement would destroy Athens; but the appeasers thought they could do business with Philip. Thus Athenian individualism was submerged, because it lacked the social unity which alone could have saved it. About three centuries later, the Roman republic, warned repeatedly by Cicero that its liberties were endangered, fell victim to its own gift for organization, forgetting that organization passes into tyranny when a sense of the worth of the individual disappears from the consciousness of statesmen. Unfortunately, we do not possess towards our own time that perspective which would give us the power to perceive how far our own weaknesses parallel those of ancient Greece and Rome. But we can, in a measure, gain perspective upon ourselves, by looking, not at our present situation, but at the recent situation of men like ourselves, who, under our eyes, have lost the fight for liberty under the law.

Let us look at the intellectual class in Germany under the Weimar republic, and let us look at them through the eyes of Hitler. This class was composed of men much like ourselves, and Hitler's diagnosis of their weaknesses mayteach us our own. In Mein Kampf, Hitler pictures the bourgeois intellectuals, occupied with theoretical discussion in the well-edited bourgeois press, while liberal institutions collapsed around them. One of these intellectuals, says Hitler, wrote a criticism during the war upon the speeches of Lloyd George, then minister of munitions in the British cabinet, and "came to the intelligent finding that these speeches were intellectually and scientifically inferior, and for the rest hackneyed and obvious products."1 Hitler continues:

Later, I personally obtained some of these speeches in the form of a small booklet and I had to laugh loudly at the fact that a normal German knight of the pen had no understanding for these psychological masterpieces of influencing the soul of the masses. This man judged these speeches exclusively according to the impression that they left on his own conceit while the great English demagogue had directed them exclusively at exercising the greatest possible influence on the mass of his listeners and in the widest sense on the entire lower English people. . . . Nevertheless, the average sparrow brain of a German scribbler, scientifically of course most educated, achieves the feat of evaluating the mentality of the English minister according to the impression that a speech, aiming at mass influence, leaves in his soul that is entirely calcified by knowledge. . . .2

As for himself, remarks Hitler, "I have to measure the speech of a statesman to his people not by the impression that it leaves with a university professor, but according to the effect that it exercises on the people."3

These quotations from Mein Kampf occur in a chapter devoted mainly to the thesis that a speech at a mass meeting is superior to any other kind of persuasive medium. The power to recognize the superiority of the speech over the editorial, and the will to influence great masses of people by the spoken word, symbolize for Hitler the superiority of the forces at work to destroy the liberal democratic world. Time and again in the course of his two bleak volumes, he indicates that the weakness of the academic intellectual in Germany was a compound of snobbish contempt for the popular agitator, of intellectual scorn of speeches as a means of communication, and of ill-concealed distaste for the masses, with whom political power ultimately rests. While the Marxists strove to win the support of the masses, the intellectual resided in his ivory tower, and did nothing but show syllogistically how the appeals of the Marxists were founded upon misconceptions of economics or of history. With these same weapons, the intellectual combated the Nazi movement, when Hitler copied the Marxists and sought to control the masses. To Hitler, this state of mind was an expression of the bankruptcy of the ruling classes under the Weimar republic, was indeed the nucleus of the incompetence of the democratic state. His own instinct, as revealed in an earlier chapter, was to recognize the power of the speech, and the importance of the attitude of the people. "Every movement with great aim," he contends, "has anxiously to watch that

it may not lose connection with the great masses."4 By what means shall these connections be established? His answer is clear:

The great masses of a nation will always and only succumb to the force of the spoken word. But ail great movements are movements of the people, are volcanic eruptions of human passions and spiritual sensations, stirred either by the cruel Goddess of Misery or by the torch of the word thrown into the masses, and are not the lemonade-like outpourings of aestheticising literati and drawing, room heroes. Only a storm of burning passion can turn people's destinies, but only he who harbors passion in himself can arouse passion.5

Hitler's diagnosis of the ills of his country under the liberal republic suggests that the core of the malady was a democratic individualism which had lost rapport with the people, and had denied itself the right to exercise its feelings in its own behalf. Perhaps the German university, which produced great individualists, did not, at the same time, encourage these individualists, as a ruling class, to perceive their social obligations, and to cultivate, with honesty and devotion, the arts of cooperation, the arts of persuasion and democratic leadership.

At any rate, Hitlerism succeeded, and Hitlerism is now synonymous with the starkest abuses of collectivism. Hitlers movement may have succeeded because it succeeded in gaining the support of the masses. But let no one suppose that the Nazi mind respects the dignity and value of the common run of men. Over and over in Mein Kampf, Hitler expresses his own profound contempt for the masses. Only the man who has risen from the people can, when he hates them at all, hate them as bitterly as Hitler does. His hatred reveals itself most completely in his basic conception of the folk-state as a society in which the leader assumes absolute authority over those below him, while those below accept absolute responsibility to the leader.6 His state frees the "entire leadership—especially the highest, that means the political leadership—from the parliamentary principle of the decision by majority, that means decision by the masses. . . ."7 If we ask why Hitler hates the masses, our answer could be found by saying simply that he is incapable of seeing them as individuals. He talks of them as a distant, faceless, impersonal mob. Thus he proclaims "the inertia of the masses;"8 he advises the leader to reckon with "the stupidity of his fellow citizens,"9 and with the "people's superficiality;"10 he declares that "the mass of people is lazy in itself."11 Organization, he says, "has to start from the principle that for humanity blessing has never lain in the masses."12 The gigantic mass demonstration, he remarks, has the advantage of branding "the small, impoverished man with the proud conviction that although being a little worm, he was nevertheless a member of a great dragon under whose flaming breath one day the much-hated bourgeois world would go up in fire and flames. . . . "13 "The great masses' receptive ability," he dogmatizes, "is only very limited, their understanding is small, but their forgetfulness is great."14 Elsewhere he asserts:

Like a woman, whose psychic feeling is influenced less by abstract reasoning than by an undefinable, sentimental longing for complementary strength, who will submit to the strong man rather than dominate the weakling, thus the masses love the ruler rather than the suppliant, and inwardly they are far more satisfied by a doctrine which tolerates no rival than by the grant of liberal freedom. . . . They neither realize the impudence with which they are spiritually terrorized, nor the outrageous curtailment of their human liberties, for in no way does the delusion of this doctrine dawn on them. Thus they see only theinconsiderate force, the brutality and the aim of its manifestations to which they finally always submit.15 Observations such as these lead Hitler to conclude that "by propaganda, with permanent and clever application, even heaven can be palmed off on a people as hell, and, the other way round, the most wretched life as paradise. . . .16 How strangely this falls upon the conscience of Americans, who remember Lincoln's words: "If you once forfeit the confidence of your fellow-citizens, you can never regain their respect and esteem. It is true that you may fool all the people some of the time; you can even fool some of the people all the time; but you can't fool all of the people all the time."17

Having looked at Germany through the eyes of Hitler, we may evaluate in an enlarged perspective the dual character of the American system. For one thing, we can now see, more clearly than ever, that our education has been rightly designed to prevent the assumption by our educated class of an attitude of arrogance towards the public, and towards the arts of politics and persuasion. In other words, we can see that our education is planned, as German education was not, to prevent an individualism assimilated to its own abuses. And, on the other hand, we can see that our kind of collectivism never reaches the extremity where all sense of the individual is lost, and the electorate becomes, as in totalitarian Germany, a mass of faceless men.

Here we might close the argument, were it not for our realization that the adjustment between individual self-expression and social conformity is always delicate and insecure. The battle to preserve our liberties is still the battle to deepen our feeling of obligation to our neighbors, and this battle can easily be won upon either of these fronts at the cost of defeat upon the other. Our chief dangers are within ourselves. We as individuals tend ever to resent our neighbor's individuality. We as society tend ever to dislike our neighbors' interference in what we consider to be our own affairs. We see these antagonisms in our political life, and in our educational system. Since we teachers are most familiar with the way in which educational institutions reflect the conflict between liberty and authority, we can take special notice of the involuntary contributions that we as a classmake to the abuses of individualism. It strikes us now and then, for example, that students of the pure sciences emerge from their studies with a contempt for the applied sciences. This attitude presupposes that an individual's interest in these subjects is higher and better than society's interest in them, when it ought to be obvious that both interests are equal in the scale of goodness. Students of poetry, of imaginative literature, may gain, as we know, a certain contempt for what can be called rhetorical, that is, didactic and persuasive, literature. Encouraged by recent tendencies in criticism, these students have acquiesced in giving the poet an aesthetic which defines the responsibility of the critic to poetry, but frees the poet from any responsibility to the critic, or to society as a whole. What does this aesthetic mean, if it does not abandon the distinction between liberty and license? Meanwhile, literary students express distaste for the speaker, and treat speeches, and other branches of argument and exposition, as peasants in the economy of the artistic world. It is right, of course, to have contempt for some speakers and for some speeches. I have a personal dislike for all defenders of totalitarianism, who submerge their personality to the point where they become mechanical megaphones, droning the canned doctrine of the master-mind. But I think that Demosthenes, Cicero, Burke, Webster, Lincoln, Churchill, and Franklin Roosevelt are speakers worthy of comparison with the poets and philosophers of their time, and are speakers whose work is an expression of their strong individuality, and of their own generation's interest in the problem of good and evil. In fact, the speakers whom I have mentioned are all individualists, yet with a keen sense of obligation to their kind. Virtue, when given to the works of man, is always of the same essence, and will yet be virtue, whether we see it in the church or in the market place.

We ourselves, as teachers of public speaking in a democracy, have an important function. To us, a speech, as an artistic creation, must bear the marks of individuality, and must therefore mean something in the development of a human being. At the same time, the speech must bear signs of the speaker's responsibility to his audience, and must therefore mean something in the development of a social being. As long as our subject is represented in the curriculum, we can make it the means of freeing a man or woman from the arrogance of extreme individualism, and from the blind error which postulates mere obedience in the populace, and complete infallibility in the leader.

1 Hitler, Mein Kampf (New York: Reynal and Hitchcock), 1939, p. 712.

2 Mein Kampf, pp. 712-13.

3 Ibid., p. 713.

4 Mein Kampf, p. 137.

5 ibid., pp. 136-7.

6 Mein Kampf, p. 670.

7 Mein Kampf, p. 669.

8 Ibid., pp. 102, 239.

9 Ibid., p. 102.

10 Ibid., p. 681.

11 Ibid. p. 705.

12 Ibid., p. 665.

13 Ibid., p. 708.

14 Mein Kampf, p. 234.

15 Ibid., p. 56.

16 Ibid., p. 379.

17 A. K. McClure, Lincoln's Yarns and Stories, Chicago and Philadelphia, (undated), p. 124.