REVIEWS AND CRITIQUE
"Altruism says, love your enemies, and bless them that despitefully use you; while Egoism says, permit no wrong done unto you or yours to pass unredressed if you can help it."—Ragnar Redbeard.
I am a very ignorant flippant, feather-headed person, no doubt, and very idle. Most people suppose so, I fear, and as most people, of course, are bound to be right, there is an end of the matter—in the opinion of most people, at any rate. This doctrine might be disputed, perhaps, but I would rather let it go, on the present occasion, than seem desirous to defend myself against the popular verdict. Of course, the popular verdict is often wrong, as it was in France last week, and as it his been and will be, somewhere, every week. But the popular verdict must be accepted, and no wise person would dispute it. A wise person may, and indeed must, very often despise that verdict, and unwise ones may, of course, dispute it if they choose, and if they wish to rouse the hot indignation of the populace and the cold suspicion of their friends; but that is all they will succeed in doing.
Not being a very wise person, I have often actively disputed the justice of the popular verdict, and so can speak with authority. I don't do it now, being content simply to laugh at a public opinion—and to be considered only a flippant, feather-headed person in consequence. Had I only been more staid, dignified, and—stupid, I might have been a Board of Guardians by now, or even a vice-president of a branch of the Independent Labour party, instead of which, as the magistrate said, I go about laughing disgracefully.
I can't help it, you know, and ought not to be blamed for what I can't alter; but, of course, I am blamed all the same. For instance, I attended the annual meeting of the Halifax Labour party last week and laughed most of the time. There was nothing to laugh at of course, except the intense solemnity displayed over very trivial matters. Indeed, so much time was spent in discussing whether the Press should be allowed to be represented all the time, or only part of the time; in reading a report that everybody had a copy of; and in electing two vice-presidents, that no time was loft for the serious business of the meeting.
The reporters were allowed to remain part of the time; but you can, on my authority, honestly lay your hand upon your heart, and declare that nothing occurred after they went, that might not have been reported without any worse effect than the boredom of the pressmen.
There is little doubt I behaved frivolously during the long and exhaustive weeding out of the chaff from the grain in the vice-presidential election. But consider my provocation. Here was a Socialist body, with serious business to do, wasting a full half-hour in choosing two persons to occupy merely ornamental offices! Could anything be more absurd? The position was made still more absurd to my eyes, as I was one of the candidates, without my knowledge or consent, and the chairman would not allow me to withdraw!
It is sometimes urged against Socialists that they want to reduce all men to a dead level of equality and to do away with all titles of honor and distinction. And here was a Socialist body conferring mere honorary titles on two opponents of class distinction, and doing it with a solemn unconsciousness of their own inconsistency that was funny enough to draw a smile from a mummy.
Well, well, I can't help it; but though it be written down and well understood that I am a flippant, feather-headed person, let it at least be remembered that I am anxious to learn, and not only desirous of having opinions of my own, but in having good logical grounds for those opinions to rest on; which brings me by a rather roundabout process to the questions I wished to consider.
Someone has sent me a copy of a new magazine calledThe Eagle and the Serpent, which is the journal of egoistic philosophy. This little paper urges that Altruism is folly and that Egoism is the only philosophy that can emancipate the people. I haven't been able to discover what the Eagle means by Altruism, nor does it seem to give any clear definition of Egoism. This is unfortunate because I don't know exactly what Altruism means, and on consulting my dictionary discover that word has been omitted. It is a capital dictionary but gives so much space to the words nobody ever uses that there isn't room for the few a body wants. It tells me what an Anaglyph is, which I didn't want to know, but doesn't contain a word beginning with "Altr" at all.
On looking through the Eagle, I find, on the authority of one Mr. "Redbeard," that "Altruism says, love your enemies, and bless them that despitefully use you; while Egoism says, permit no wrong done unto you or yours to pass unredressed if you can help it." After mature consideration—for a flippant person—I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that I am both an Altruist and an Egoist, though whether I am the former because I am the latter, or the latter because I am the former; or in plain words, whether I love my neighbor, including my enemies, because I love myself, or the reverse, I am not at present quite certain. This fearful state of mind is, I fear, owing as much to the Eagle's haziness as to my own stupidity. But let us consider a little the aphorism of Redbeard.
In the first place, I wonder what he weans by loving your enemies. Let's try that dictionary again. Ah! An enemy, I see, is one "who hates, injures, or dislikes." And love is to be pleased with, to desire, to be fond of." If, then, an Altruist is one who loves his enemies, and an Egoist one who loves himself, it is evident a man might be both, without knowing he was either. You see, a man's bad habits are clearly his enemies, and many a selfish man loves his bad habits. So that a selfish glutton who overeats himself, is an Egoist because he loves himself, and an Altruist because he loves his enemies, even better than himself.
Then how is a man to know who are his enemies, and how, as a good Egoist, ought he to treat his enemies—when he has discovered who they are? I am inclined to think very few people have any enemies worth mentioning. Is a person who cheats you in business or supersedes you with the object of your affections an enemy? That would depend on whether he injured you out of mere cruelty, or simply for his own advantage. In the first place, he would be an enemy, in the second only an Egoist—which is what the Eagle says we all ought to be; and surely the Eagle doesn't want us all to hate each other.
Then as Mr.Redbeardobjects to us blessing those who despitefully use us, would he have us curse them, and if so what good does he suppose that would do either to us or them? And as one anxious to learn, I should like to know whether we are to curse those who despitefully use us, even when they do it with a view to our improvement? A stern parent sometimes despitefully uses his errant child, and the child will profit by the lesson. Should he curse his parents? Yes, it does seem a little confusing, doesn't it: but that is because the Eagle and Mr. Redbeard wish to draw arbitrary distinctions where there is very little difference. It would be difficult to divide the black horses from the white ones if the stud was a piebald one. If men would only be honest men or rogues, brave men or cowards, wise men or foolish, Altruists or Egoists, you might easily separate and label them. Unfortunately, they are a curious and changeable compound of all kinds of vices and virtues, who seldom know what they are themselves, and never know what anybody else is.
Then, again, you can't separate one person's interests from all others, nor can you punish him without punishing others and quite innocent persons. So that when it comes to following the advice of Mr. Redbeard, and permitting "no wrong done to you or yours to pass unredressed if you can help it," you may actually do more wrong than you are putting right—which hardly seems a performance to boast about. Besides, it is not clear to me how the worst injuries are to be redressed by any sort of ingenuity, Egoistic or otherwise.
Suppose, for instance, your neighbor who keeps chickens, shoots your favorite cat; how are you to redress that injury? You might poison his dog certainly, but that wouldn't bring your cat to life again, and it doesn't seem to me that you can redress one wrong by committing another. You might insist on his providing you with another cat in the place of the one killed, and in the case of a cat that wrong would be as much redressed as a wrong ever can be.
But suppose, instead of some favorite cat, the victim was your favorite mother-in-law; how then? Suppose by recklessly monkeying with a steam saw he cut off your mother-in-law's leg? How are you going to redress that injury, I want to be told. You may violently assault him, or claim damages, but neither course will put the poor lady's leg on, and so cannot redress the injury. In fact, you may be as determined an Egoist as Mr. Redbeard says he is; but Egoism will have no power to make another leg grow.
On the other hand, if your neighbor happened to be one of the Altruists Egoism despises, who thought of the welfare of others, instead of considering only his own, he would not have recklessly flourished a steam saw for his own amusement at a dangerous risk to the safety of other people.
Nonsense, do you say? Well, perhaps it is; but I don't see how you can hold me responsible. The Eagle and the Serpent bristle with inconsistencies of the most complicated order, as it seems to me, and I should like the editor to explain them a little for the benefit of one who wants to learn. Indeed, I could go on for hours, only I fear to weary my readers, and so will content myself with asking one more question. I want to know whether there is any radical difference between an Altruist and an Egoist, by which a careless, feather-brained person like me may tell one from the other.
I suppose, if I see a person who really spends most of his time and energy in striving to increase the health, happiness, and prosperity of other people, I may say that man is an Altruist, because he thinks of others more than of himself; while an Egoist thinks first of his own happiness.
That seems all right so far, but suppose on inquiry I find my Altruist is one of those men who are never so happy as when he is trying to make other people so; a man to whom the cruelty, wrong, and suffering inflicted on the weak and unprotected is a positive pain, which makes enjoyment impossible to him. If my Altruist turns out to be a man of that kind, a man whose greatest pleasure is in doing good to others, he must clearly be an Egoist of the most pronounced type, because he is strenuously working for his own enjoyment; and all my conclusions are tangled up again.
I think I won't bother any more now, for the Eagle and the Serpent has got so much mixed up in my head that I can't tell for certain whether the wings belong to the serpent or the scales are on the eagle; so that I don't know where I are.
I feel inclined to come to some conclusions which I think are pretty safe. They are these. Don't be too ready with your labels, as they are more likely to be misleading than helpful. Don't be too ready to suppose that your own particular "ism" is the one panacea for all the ills of human nature, and that all the other "isms" are quack remedies, and of no value. Don't be too ready with your reverence or admiration; be very careful who, and what you love, and never hate anything if you can help it. You will find most men are more prone to love their real enemies than their true friends.
Personally, I don't love my friends well enough to be blind to their failings, and I never hate anybody, nor even dislike anyone sufficiently to make me oblivious of their good qualities. And, as I said before, I have come to the conclusion that I am both an Altruist and an Egoist, probably also something of a Buddist, as well as several other "ists," though I decline to be labeled as any of them. Also, I am of opinion that if you want a good working theory that will stand the wear and tear of work and argument, you might do much worse than make it your rule to do to others as you would wish to be done by, which is a doctrine that the wise and the foolish, the ignorant and the learned, the civilized and the savage, the Christian and the Heathen, can all alike understand and rally round.
Clarion Saturday 05 March 1898