Menu
Home > Books > Chapter 5

Chapter 5
Living Things Begin Small

Is it necessary for untold millions to suffer and die in order that grand social theorists like Marx and Machiavelli be proved wrong? In the last chapter we asked the simple, even obvious, question: Will it work? A corollary to that question is: Has it been tried? And a third one is no less obvious: Was it first tried on a small, manageable scale? Communism certainly was not.

In reading social theories, one cannot fail to be struck by the general deficiency of their formulators’ understanding of human nature. Even Plato paid too little attention to individual human beings with their special characteristics, interests, and ambitions, but treated them all as stereotypes and imagined their destinies could be determined by a supposedly “wise” government. Shall this one be told, “Be an artist”? and that one, “Be a farmer”? Shall this one be ordered, “Be wise!” and that other, “Be foolish!”? People simply are what they are; they cannot be designed according to the demands of any mere theory.

To develop insight into humanity as a whole, one must begin by studying the individual. Indeed, the first person to study is one’s own self. To lump all human beings together like flakes in a snowball is to deny them individuality and deprive them of humanity. Most of the major developments in history have been initiated by individuals who had the courage to think for themselves. Even group developments have required the unifying influence of a leader. As Emerson put it, “An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man.”

Like life and all living things, everything worthwhile begins small. The Christian religion was started by one person: Jesus Christ. Since then, Christianity’s greatest influence has been on the conscience of individuals, not on amorphous masses of people. Only someone whose conscience is sincerely committed to a concept can embrace it sensitively and with understanding. In religion, mass conversions are a travesty; they cannot be anything but superficial. In society, mass movements bring chaos more often than clarity. The most unfortunate event with major consequences in Christian history was quite possibly when Emperor Constantine, in the early fourth century, decreed Christianity to be the new state religion. Calm focus, not diffusion, is the key to all meaningful developments. Without a focus, clarity can never be achieved.

Meaningful development resembles the expanding rings in a tree trunk. The growth of life begins always at its center. By contrast, a work of sculpture, though it may resemble a living creature, is only a chiseled piece of stone. Nylon threads differ from plant fiber in one important respect: There is no hole passing down their center, through which the life-force can pass.

Pygmalion, in Greek legend, sculpted a statue of a woman so beautiful that he fell in love with it, and prayed that she be given life. His prayer was granted, and the statue became the woman, Galatea.(1) Art alone has not that power to bestow life. To make a work of art even seem alive, “grace” is essential — that is to say in this case, sensitive perceptivity. For the artist can only approach his work from outside, although great artists are sometimes able to project some of their own essence into their creations and thereby produce a suggestion, at least, of Pygmalion’s miracle. Lesser artists can only imitate appearances.

The communities proposed as utopias are mere artifices. They might have been carved in stone, for they are lifeless projections of intellectual theories. As in a badly written novel, whose characters speak and behave as the plot dictates rather than as their own natures indicate, the characters in most utopian dreams are not self-animated. In real life, those communities would be doomed to failure. Plato’s experiment in Syracuse was a flop. No community could succeed in which every decision had to be referred back to some intellectualized “blueprint” instead of reflecting the natures of the people involved.

No human being can be forced to think and behave contrary to his own nature. A basic condition for cooperative intentional communities is respect for the individuals involved. The secret of developing such communities, on the other hand, is not to let the members “do their own thing.” That would result in general confusion. The secret is to coordinate them with sensitive regard for their individuality. No one can be forced to embrace an idea. Many, however, can be inspired at least in the direction of that idea, especially if the one guiding them views them as dear to him rather than as outside the circle of his sympathy.

The leader of a community must also, of course, live what he preaches. It is not enough for him to justify himself with theoretical abstractions. One such abstraction often encountered nowadays is “people power.” Almost always, the leader who proclaims, “Power to the people!” wants only to silence opposition to his ideas. He thrives on hurling denunciations. His diatribes are not easily contradicted, for people who depend on common sense prefer to speak softly, and as a result their voices cannot be heard easily above the pandemonium.

Communism tries with slogans to appeal to “people power.” Under that oppressive system, however, the “people” themselves are — as Joseph Stalin stated — mere “statistics.” “People power” is, in fact, “ego power” in the mouth of a demagogue.

Democracy is a different story, for in a democracy people do count for something, and everything is at least supposed to be done for the common good.

One of the “magician’s tricks” Karl Marx performed was to create the illusion that the true opposition is between communism and capitalism. It is not. Every enterprise requires capital, whether it is funded by business investors or by government. Communism merely seizes people’s capital and pretends, in the name of “the people,” to manage their affairs. Since politicians are not inclined by either necessity or nature to be experts on profit and loss, they usually manage such affairs badly, and rarely to anyone’s advantage but their own. Meanwhile, the real contrast between communism and other social systems has always been between absolute rule by a few (oligarchy) for their own selfish good, and rule by and for the sake of the many (democracy).

To expect anything great and lasting to be brought about by mass initiative remains, nevertheless, a delusion. In mass movements, emotions rule. And emotions, of their very nature, rise and fall ceaselessly, like the ocean waves. Often, after reaching a peak, they crash and cause widespread destruction. Such were the mobs of the French Revolution, which destroyed indiscriminately but raised nothing in place of what they had overthrown. It took Napoleon, finally, to give the French Revolution a more positive (though still a destructive) focus.

“Citizens!” “Comrades!” “Friends, Romans, countrymen!”: What do such words really mean? Nothing! They are supposedly uttered in affirmation of solidarity, but in fact they are intended only as promotional gimmicks to capture the imagination of the emotionally immature. Cassius, in Shakespeare’s play “Julius Caesar,” addressed the Romans with the last of those phrases, then contradicted that sentiment only moments later. Often, indeed, when people begin with flattery they end with criticism.

Mass movements are, of their very nature, emotional. The intellect, if not prodded by some emotion, lacks motive power. It can analyze, but it is an armchair traveler. The feeling quality is what gives impetus to thought. If the feelings are emotional, however, they tend in the long run to be disruptive even if they were engendered by positive intentions.

On the other hand, inspired feeling is a very different thing. It soars like a sea gull above emotion’s ceaselessly heaving waves. Inspired feeling is winged by calmness, and calmness, united to balanced reason, is what it takes to achieve constructive results. Calm inspiration is the secret of every great work, whether in the arts, in philosophy, in science, or in politics.

Mass emotion finds its epitome in the lynch mob howling for vengeance. As individuals, the members of those crowds might never consider violence. Mass emotion, however, once awakened, can exert a hypnotic influence. A mob’s only hope for wise guidance is if someone uninvolved emotionally can flow deliberately with the tide, then steer the excitement gradually toward a more positive end.

An example of this technique is the account of a French mob that once stormed a jail, convinced that a certain inmate there was guilty of some heinous crime. Loudly they demanded the summary execution of “justice” — which to them meant the prisoner’s immediate execution. The policeman in charge, a man of stolid good sense, stood before them on the steps of the jail and shouted above their cries:

“Well done, citizens! You have demonstrated the will of the people. I congratulate you for your courage! Justice shall be done, I promise you. Return to your homes, proud of being French, with a Frenchman’s dedication to truth and honor! Again I say it, Thank You! Thank you! . . . and, our great Republic thanks you also!” Cheering lustily, the mob disbanded. As matters turned out, the prisoner was eventually acquitted of all wrongdoing.

The best thing that mob emotion can produce may be the shout, “Somebody ought to do something!” The worst is wanton rampage and ruin. Midway between devastation and good sense are the harmless, though bizarre, manias that sometimes seize masses of people, like the one during the Middle Ages that sent crowds running about the countryside in packs, howling like wolves.

The problem with swallowing the emetic of “people power” is that, the greater an emotion, the more difficult it is to return it to calmness. People, when excited, cannot be easily swayed except to further excitement. Angry rhetoric stirs them — but reason? rarely! They enjoy music only if it shrieks at them with a pounding beat and inflames their feelings. Soothing music, capable of healing body and mind, is dismissed by them as “not where it’s at, man!” I recall the frenetic restlessness of a young woman who worked in a radio station where “heavy metal” music was played constantly. She was related to a friend of mine, and in that capacity had joined me and a few others for dinner at a London restaurant. This child of our times described the violent attitudes expressed by some of the musicians who visited their studio. Intrigued, I asked her what she thought of Mozart. “Mozart!” she cried with exaggerated scorn. “He’s dead!” (Was she by comparison, I wondered, so very much alive?) Many of the lyrics she’d been describing reveled in the self-consciously macabre.

It isn’t that people are sheep. Few of those one meets are stupid. It is, indeed, gratifying to sound them out and find how often they make good suggestions, whether supportive or corrective to an idea. It’s only that few people will initiate new ideas. Most of them, moreover, are unskilled at verbalizing their thoughts. The best way to draw them out on any intricate subject is on a one-on-one basis. In groups, the best solution is to offer them a plan, rather than throw out the general invitation, “Would someone like to suggest something?” True originality — the ability to initiate an idea — -is a trait not many possess. The ability to improve on suggestions, however, is fairly common, and even this ability can lead to creative solutions.

I say these things not theoretically, but from years of experience, during which time my work has been with intelligent people, not with dullards. Even those with minds unaccustomed to thinking deeply may have a latent gift of insight that can be encouraged, once their interest has been awakened. The important thing, after awakening that interest, is to listen to them. If they oppose an idea emotionally, however, it may be wise simply to drop it for a time. Hostility can muddy the clearest stream, but once people’s feelings have had time to settle, their very opposition may, in time, actually assist clarity.

This is practical, as opposed to theoretical, democracy. Theoretical democracy vaunts the populist dogma, “The people know best.” In fact, “the people” seldom know best. When they actually do know, it is usually because a proposal has been put to them simply, briefly, and clearly.

Essentially, people tend to be problem-conscious, not solution-conscious. Their preoccupation with problems crowds other possibilities out of their minds. A good leader must be solution-oriented. He must focus on what will work, not on what could prevent it from working. A further, and fascinating, fact is that solution-consciousness actually attracts right answers to itself, whereas problem-consciousness prevents answers from even arising in the mind.

Whether an issue involves a small group of people or a whole nation, democracy without leadership simply doesn’t work — unless, indeed, the issues being considered are relatively trivial, and their solutions, more or less obvious. Consensus succeeds well enough in situations where no commitment of energy is required. A good leader, however, when facing a serious decision, never imposes his will on others. Instead, he listens to them — especially to those who keep to the point instead of rambling on to no purpose. If he’s a captain on the battlefield he may, of course, have no choice but to demand of others that they risk their lives. In such cases, he must demonstrate the willingness also to risk his own. He should try, moreover, to emphasize the higher good they are all serving. And he should take pains to offset any demand he makes of the men under him by making equally uncompromising demands of himself.

Solution-consciousness requires focused energy. If a vote is required, the leader should phrase the resolution in such a way as to invite, not to command, agreement. If a significant faction disagree, he should invite everyone to think about the matter further — in private, if possible, rather than in emotion-charged “forums.” If, on the other hand, a decision is required urgently, he must be guided calmly from within and accept responsibility for whatever decision is reached, even if it has not been to his personal liking.

At a certain point, the time has passed for further deliberation. Energy must then be directed toward implementing the decision, whatever it may be. If further debate is allowed, the “Hamlet complex” sets in, and result in endless delays and indecision.

The most important consideration in the decision-making process is to realize that truth cannot be voted into existence. Truth simply is. To find it, calm insight is the prime necessity, not likes, dislikes, and mere opinions. It usually takes one person, first, to perceive a solution. If more than one perceives it, all the better. If a thousand people perceive it, wonderful! What usually happens, however, is that the majority only endorse what is put before them convincingly.

“What shall we do?” is the worst question a leader can put at the outset of a meeting, unless he already knows what needs to be done. To leave the question open is like inviting everyone to huddle together and invent a spacecraft. Inspiration must always come from within. To “brainstorm” an idea is useful primarily as a means of banishing problem-consciousness. Inspiration, however, comes from inside, and brings certainty as to the right path to follow. Often, armed with this certainty, one finds himself brushing aside almost impatiently the long list of brainstormed ideas.

If a community is to succeed, it must begin with one sincere, person backed by a few others dedicated to the same concepts. Thereafter, ideas must be offered almost in the form of informal invitations to those who are compatible with them. Communities must begin small, and draw into their circle only those who respond voluntarily. To try to impose a system on reluctant millions would be a guarantee for disaster. Millions would only distort the best attempts, and would cause them in the end to become mere reflections of the desires of a few individuals.

Communism, which has been imposed on whole nations, has not worked. The people of East Germany, after their reunification with the western part of what had been one nation, encountered great difficulty in reviving the creative initiative they’d shown decades earlier. So accustomed were they to living with guarantees of security — the state’s alternative to personal freedom — that they dreaded independence even though their very integrity called them to embrace it.

Society today is in a state of flux. There is confusion everywhere: in people’s moral, artistic, and philosophic values, in their religious ideas, and in their political concepts. Surely there have been times in history when small societies, at least, were inspired by high principles, and when greed and envy were not so pronounced as they are today. Earthly perfection may not be realizable, but is it wildly unrealistic to hope for something at least better? There is a great need at present for improvement. I don’t speak only of technological improvement-this, everyone expects; I speak of the quality of human life and the refinement of human consciousness. If there is hope that even little steps can be taken in this direction, the only way I can imagine is by encouraging the creation of small communities. Nothing can be achieved by thousands fanatically dedicated to creating the one, the only, the best society. An effective way to achieve this “consummation,” as Shakespeare might have put it, can only be for small groups to band together and seek a sane and harmonious way of life by forming small communities.

Because of the sheer complexity of human nature, I suggest that people not waste time and energy in dreaming of perfecting the world. Perhaps I’ve grown cynical, having witnessed the failure of so many grandiose schemes for social reform, but I still see no reason to doubt the possibility of bringing about at least an improvement — in the lives of a few people first, then gradually of more of them as others are inspired by visible, working examples. It seems reasonable, moreover, to expect much from such examples, in time. For the present, however, we must hold small, not great, expectations. My hope for this book is that it may inspire a few, not all, to set little examples of better ways of living. My reference, moreover, is not to only one kind of community, but to a variety of them, each an expression of noble aspirations and high ideals.

A network of small, autonomous communities may inspire people everywhere to conduct their lives with common sense, and with a larger sense of world community. Such a possibility, surely, is not unrealistic. I believe it to be feasible.

Next

Chapter 6: Adam Smith and the Principle of Laissez Faire

  1. This name may be apocryphal. For the modern playgoer, the name Eliza Doolittle naturally springs to mind!
    Back to text