Individualism, Christian and American


By DR. ROLAND H. BAINTON, Professor of Ecclesiastical History, Yale University Divinity School

Baccalaureate Address delivered at the 82nd Annual Commencement Ceremonies of The Pennsylvania State College, State College, Pa., May 10, 1942

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VIII, pp. 590-592.

INDIVIDUALISM, Christian and American, is our theme. Individualism is a Christian ideal and nowhere does one find it better stated than in Paul's letter to the Ephesians, where he speaks of the individual Christian callings of the apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers, each developing his own personality into the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, and all together maintaining the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace. Individualism is also an American ideal, peculiarly American. Emerson in his conversations with Alcott is said to have pronounced with a tone of especial reverence the word "alone," and if Alcott did the same for the word "together," he was still thinking of the togetherness of individuals. The individualism of private responsibility for moral conduct was stridently expressed by Lowell in the Biglow Papers:

"Ef you take a sword an' dror it,
An' go stick a feller thru,
Guv'ment aint to answer for it,
God'll send the bill to you."

The frontier accentuated the ideal. The favorite American was the fur-capped woodsman making his way alone into the wilderness, or if he came into society, boot-licking to no one. Individual identity, individual conscience, individual actionhave been our creed and are still our faith, despite the attacks from without and from within. Nevertheless at certain points individualism is already declining even among ourselves. We do well to inquire how far the ideal is still valid and still possible.

The minute we try so to do we discover that individualism is not an individual idea but is itself complex. There is the individualism of unrestricted competition—let every man make all he can; the individualism of personal liberty-let every one do as he likes; the individualism of variety-let each be as different as possible from the other; the individualism of self-development—let each bring out his personality to the full; and the individualism of conscience— every man must do that which appears right in his own eyes.

The first of these individualisms applies chiefly in the economic realm. Here competition is unrestricted. Each is free to make all he can. Let him alone, which being translated into French is laissez faire. The doctrine was defended on the ground that it would benefit individuals and society alike. The sum of individual self-interests would add up to the common good, but the actual outworking of laissez faire was an era of throat-slitting. The Goulds, the Vanderbilts, the Rockefellers, the Carnegies, the Harrimans, and theHills knifed each other over copper and steel, railroads and waterways, and the little fellows disappeared entirely. The salmon swallowed shoals of minnows and ended up glowering at each other in the midst of spheres of influence and economic balance of power.

Nevertheless the public did benefit by the process. The squeezing out of all the little oil men of Pennsylvania, whose tragic plight Ida Tarbell depicted in her attack on Standard Oil, eliminated waste and made possible a more efficient service for the consuming public. But this is not to say that economic individualism was beneficial. It is only to say that unrestricted individualism destroyed itself and led to a form of collectivism. The process is now being completed by government. Among the four freedoms we hear of freedom to talk and freedom to pray, but not of freedom to buy and freedom to sell, freedom to sow and freedom to reap. This type of individualism appears to be gone for good. Whether the other types can survive without it is for our generation to discover. We need first to ask, how far they should survive.

The next type of individualism is that of personal liberty. Let every man do as he likes. It is the individualism of Rupert Brooke's Pup:

"All his life he'd been good, as far as he could, And the poor little beast had done all that he should. But this morning he swore by Odin and Thor And the canine Valhalla—he'd stand it no more!"

He cut loose and fought all the he-dogs and winked at the she-dogs, feigned the rabies and bit the babies, mangled the errand boys, followed the cats up the trees and ate 'em. We have all had days of wishing so to conduct ourselves and there is something to be said for being let alone to do as one likes. A visitor to this country from Germany a few years ago was asked to name the most striking difference between the cultures of the two lands. The reply was that the most striking difference lay in the fact that 80,000 people could assemble in the Yale Bowl and disperse with no more than half a dozen policemen anywhere in evidence. That is something. We appreciate policemen at traffic intersections, but we do not want them regulating our incomings and our outgoings beyond the point of absolute necessity.

Freedom to do as one likes is an American educational ideal. We provide wide electives for students and grant teachers great latitude as to the content and the method of instruction. Carl Becker relates that when he was asked to join the history faculty at Cornell he was invited to join the history faculty at Cornell and that was all. He was not asked to teach any particular course, nor in any particular manner. As to all that, he might do as he pleased. Such freedom was a trifle disconcerting. He suspected that there must be a "catch" somewhere and he went to an older colleague for counsel. Would it be well to give this course or that course, to teach in this way or in that way? The older man told him that in the past this course had been given and that course had been given. This manner of teaching had been employed and that manner. There was much to be said for doing one thing and much to be said for doing another. Becker was forced to do as he pleased, but the "catch" did appear by and by. He was expected to do something. One is reminded of the gibe of Lord Northcliffe who said, "America is the 'land of the free and the home of the brave' where each one does as he likes, and if he does not you make him." America expects every one to like something and to like it hard. We give unhampered freedom for the sake of creative activity, but the emphasis is not on the word "unhampered" but on the word "creative." Freedom is given not to be squandered but to be used.

In another sense individualism connotes variety. The individual is an individual because different from every other individual. This meaning the Apostle Paul recognizes as valid when he speaks of some as qualified to be apostles, some to be prophets, evangelists, and the rest. Nevertheless variety as such has not been an ideal for very long in European history. The Middle Ages certainly did not vaunt variety for its own sake. Neither did the Protestant Reformation. Variety in religion was regarded as monstrous even by those who did so much to cause it. One of the Protestant reformers said that to tolerate varieties of religion is simply to let each man go to hell in his own way. Not until a number of religious sects were actually established and impossible to exterminate in the England of the 17th century was diversity defended as good in itself.

By the end of the 19th century difference came to be esteemed as mere difference, and men gloried in flouting the conventional. Gilbert Chesterton had a riotous good time being a Roman Catholic in England. This is not to insinuate that he had no better reason for embracing the faith, but certainly he enjoyed being a Catholic in England more than he would have done in Italy, France, or Spain where so many other people were Catholics too. In England he had rollicking fun puncturing the pious prejudices of Puritan Protestants. Diversity has come to be an educational ideal. We deliberately invite men of differing views for an interchange. We pride ourselves if on our faculties we can combine idealists and realists in philosophy, isolationists and interventionists in politics.

All this is wholesome, but it is not wholesome because diversity is good merely as diversity. What matters is not diversity but truth. Truth is itself so rich and human capacity to grasp its complexity is so limited, that one man sees one aspect and another another, and the chances of reaching the fullness of truth are better where the interchange of insights is uncensored. But mere diversity has no value. The fool is different, the crank is different, the lunatic is different. The eccentric is different, but he is different because he is off center. That is what eccentric means. The saint also is different. The genius likewise is different. They are significantly different, productively different, because they are more nearly on center than the rest of mankind with reference to the norm of truth and reality. That is what matters, and that is the only thing that matters. The apostles, the prophets, and the evangelists can perform effectively their separate roles only if each is serving the unity of the spirit.

The fourth type of individualism is that which consists in developing one's own personality. This has nothing to do necessarily with being different. It is developing whatever one has within, whether different or the same. Let him who has it in him to be an apostle be an apostle, without considering whether that will make him like or unlike his fellows. Let the boy who has it in him to be an engineer have the chance to become an engineer, the nurse, a nurse, the doctor, a doctor, and so for the musician, dietitian, chemist or poet. This is a valid ideal. It is again an ideal of American education. We provide students with counselors to aid them in discovering potential capacities and we offer a diversified curriculum that each may have an opportunity to grow into himself.

But this ideal is not unqualified. Nature qualifies it to begin with, for the simple reason that life is not long enough for the fruition of all one's capacities. Most college men and women have more than one latent ability. Those who are musically gifted might become composers, singers, instrumentalists on the piano, violin, or flute. The artist could work in many media. And some persons there are who haveequal capacity to be architects, engineers, mathematicians, or philosophers. But nature permits the perfection of not more than one talent. The rest can never be better than avocations. For that reason youth is an age of renunciations. You can never attain the fullness of your own stature in all directions. Self-development can be achieved only at the price of self-curtailment.

There is another limitation which is imposed not so much by nature as by obligation. Circumstances may arisen—we hope they will not—calling for renunciation not merely of all capacities save one but of that one also in the interest of discharging some social obligation. A father dies leaving a widow with a large family of children in straitened circumstances. The oldest for years assumes the load, doing routine and even distasteful tasks until the others are set upon their feet and until in the meantime the opportunity for self-realization has slipped away. There are even circumstances in which life itself has to be sacrificed for the sake of an ideal. Such circumstances in a perfect society would never arise and the great task of our age is to make some strides toward the achievement of a world in which unequal loads will not be cast upon the eldest or the ablest of a bereaved family, and where the sacrifice of life and opportunity will not be asked of the choicest of our youth. But if such tragic demands do face men, some there are who reject them with indifference or defiance. Some accept with resentment and are inwardly crushed, and some shoulder the loads in one way or another and surmount the hurt, learning the secret of the grain of wheat, which if it continue as an individual grain "abideth alone", but if it cease to be as a grain, then "beareth much fruit." And this is the deepest meaning of the growing into the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.

There is one final individualism and it is the most crucial, and that is the individualism of moral accountability, the individualism of conscience. It is a note deeply grounded in the Christian tradition. "Judge ye whether we should obey you or obey God," was the response of the Apostles to the Jerusalem authorities. With this same word Niemoeller has resisted the tyranny of Hitler. Here is the point at which the individual comes most sharply into conflict with society and a very grave problem is raised for both; for theindividual as to how far he is justified in transgressing the dictates of a government acting for society, and for the government as to how far it should go in constraining the conscience of its citizens.

To the individual this word may be said. He must not disobey lightly. He must not refuse in the name of some whim but only through allegiance to a universal world order of truth and righteousness with which he believes his own state to be at variance. He will be asked of course how he knows this to be so. The state does not admit that it is violating universal truth and righteousness. The government may claim on the contrary to be defending these very principles. How then does the individual know? Is his conscience infallible? It is not, and yet it is the best he has. Though the light shed by conscience is relative, yet its claim is absolute, since there is nothing higher for a man than truth and right as he sees them.

But what, then, is the state to do when the corporate conscience of its citizens believes it to be acting in accord with universal right, and some few decline obedience? How are they to be treated? The answer is that the state may find itself bound to curtail them in some measure, but the constraint should be restrained. Nothing is more harmful to the well-being of the state itself than to extinguish the integrity of its citizens. A wise government will remember that the objector of today may be the prime minister or the president of tomorrow, and all the better a prime minister or president because of loyalty to conviction.

In our imperfect world clashes cannot be avoided. The more conscientious, the more high minded are the rulers and citizens, the more acute may they become. Therein lies the tragedy. But they can be mitigated by mutual respect and even the severest controversies can be conducted both without sacrifice of conviction and without rending the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.

Here then are the types of individualism. Unrestricted competition is already largely gone. Personal liberty, variety, the development of personality, loyalty to conscience, these remain and these are valid, provided they are rooted in truth and grounded on the core of reality. The true individual is he who has grown into the measure of the fullness of the stature of Christ.