Communities and Social Responsibility
Part of what might be called, tongue in cheek, the “American mystique” is the lone cowboy — with Gary Cooper come to mind — into town with easy nonchalance, indifferent to the hostility and fear all around him.
I saw an interesting example of this attitude during a television interview many years ago. The guest was one of those laconic, “do your own thing” people. He was, however, a guest, and had accepted the invitation of his own free will. He had therefore some, at least, of a guest’s obligations. The host, intrigued by the man’s aloofness, managed nevertheless to treat him with courtesy.
Halfway through the interview, the visitor rose from his seat, draped his jacket casually over one shoulder, and left the room without so much as a backward glance. The camera followed him all the way to the door. This indifference to other people’s opinions has lingered in my mind as a statement of individuality that seemed very American, impressive in its own way, but also insulting and insensitive. Was his behavior an example of Emersonian “self-reliance”? Did it demonstrate personal integrity? It struck me, rather, as a deliberate pose, behind which pride hid its sneering face.
So far in this book I have emphasized the need for personal integrity, for being motivated from within, and for understanding one’s self before trying to figure out what it is that makes other people “tick.” It is important, however, to recognize the difference between personal integrity and arrogance. A person may raise himself above others in aloof pride, misguidedly believing that he and they have nothing in common. In fact, however, all human beings share at least their humanity, which should be a strong bond. Human differences are superficial.
One of the main objections people make to someone’s going off and doing something different is that, to them, it shows a lack of social responsibility. Actually, what they object to is only the novelty of the action. We’ve all no doubt heard the saying, “They laughed at Fulton.” Robert Fulton invented the first ship made of metal. His detractors laughed because, as everyone knows, metal is heavier than water; “common sense” told them the ship would sink. People scoffed, again, at Orville and Wilbur Wright’s heavier-than-air flying machine. In this case, too, success silenced the critics. Today’s “folk wisdom” declares that every attempt so far to create intentional communities has failed. Communities in future, therefore, will be doomed to failure also. Perhaps after a few new communities have proved successful, the critics will again be silenced. The comment everywhere, in time, may be, “Why, of course! I’m thinking of living in such a community myself.” Meanwhile, the important thing is not to deserve the wet sponge. In other words, do as Robert Fulton and the Wright brothers did: rely on practicality and common sense, and don’t try to soar on butterfly wings of airy theory. Be guided by reasoned thought and a frank willingness to submit ideas to trial and error. Don’t be a vague idealist, as others have been in the past who deluded themselves that a quasi-visionary spirit automatically puts one in touch with “higher powers.”
Beyond the tendency to view novelty as bizarre, many people are inclined to consider eccentricity itself socially irresponsible — perhaps even anti-social. Why so? If society is not to stagnate in a still pond of closed tradition, numerous small experiments are needed nowadays. Would it be anti-social in a lemming to hold back while the others plunged off a cliff to a watery grave? Surely it is wise at least occasionally to step back a little from the stampede and re-think one’s priorities. Today, the need for clarity is urgent. There have been too many unsettling developments in man’s perception of reality. Scientific discoveries threaten to overwhelm the trust tradition has given us in human values. Rapidly expanding vistas of reality have made moral adjustment a serious challenge.
We are accustomed to consider alternatives as a choice between mutually exclusive opposites: the “either/or” alternatives of Aristotelian logic. Georg Hegel, the German philosopher, refined this method of reasoning to its ultimate degree with his statement, “All that is real is rational, and all that is rational is real.” Hegel developed what he termed the “dialectical” method for arriving at truth: thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. Two opposites (thesis and antithesis), when contrasted, produce a synthesis: the new truth. His philosophy left no room for subtler-than-rational — is to say, intuitive —
Hegel was trying to establish spiritual absolutes by hemming them in with logic. Possibly he derived his dialectic from the ancient Indian concept of dwaita (duality), for India’s scriptures were already beginning to appear in European translation in his day. In those teachings, the cosmos consists of vibrations which, at the end of manifested creation, subside into the oneness of absolute spirit. If indeed Hegel based his system on those writings, it must be added that he botched the job. For the concept of dwaita implies — , necessitates — The Indian absolute is not a “synthesis” of fluctuations. It is simply the cessation of movement altogether. Hegel’s “thesis” and “antithesis,” being rationally defined, are — the vibrations of dwaita— and immutable. His “synthesis,” too, suggests only a resolution of two antithetical positions into a new one, equally fixed.
The illustration often given to explain Hegelian logic is the birth of the American republic. First there was eighteenth-century England (thesis); then there was the American Revolution (antithesis); these opposites were followed by the appearance of the new America (synthesis). The example is not convincing, however. America after the Revolution represented in numerous ways no mere reaction to England and its system of government, but an entirely new development. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams — main architects of the new nation — learned scholars, extensive readers, and deep thinkers. They incorporated into their political schema a prolonged study of ancient philosophies and civilizations. What emerged from their study, moreover, was no mere synthesis of other people’s ideas, and certainly was not limited to the differences between England and America. Indeed, those Founding Fathers drew from many streams of thought — many “theses” and “antitheses,” if you will. At this point, however, Hegel’s dialectic breaks down altogether, for many of those ideational streams were in no way antithetical to one another, but were mutually supportive. What emerged in the minds of those first Americans was no mere synthesis, but something vital and not anticipated in any of those ancient writings.
Marx, Engels, and Lenin, unfortunately, found Hegel’s rational dialectic attractive, and made it the basis of their own philosophy — “purged,” as Karl Marx put it, of its mystifying preoccupation with “absolutes.” Hegel’s thinking permitted ongoing creativity, but Marx and his fellow communists, having (as they claimed) “cleansed” the system, gave it the new name, “dialectical materialism.” To their way of thinking, the application of Hegelian “synthesis” to communism resolved for all time the struggle between moneyed capital and the starving proletariat, and brought the evolution of social history to a full stop in their vision of communism as the “glorious and ineluctable destiny” of society. Communists today, armed with their pretentious dialectic, scoff at any idea that is not in keeping with their own version of the nature of reality. Such a fantasy of wishful thinking could put even lemmings to shame, if those creatures were capable of thinking about such matters!
Soviet writers — we are told by Lewis S. Feuer(1)—“ have derided the genetics of Gregor Mendel, the finite universe of Albert Einstein, the physical principle of indeterminacy, and Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis as ‘idealistic’ and ‘undialectical.’”
It is precisely this suggestion of rational finalities that constitutes the great weakness in Hegel’s dialectic. How can a rational synthesis become, in its turn, a springboard for further invention? The very purpose of “synthesis,” like a compromise between two opposite factions in parliament, is to halt further debate.
It may be helpful, in fact, to consider a different concept altogether from Hegel’s: not “dialectical,” but discursive. I give it this name because it invites ongoing, even friendly, dialogue. The terms I propose for discursive reasoning are: action, reaction, and interaction.
Hegel’s dialectic, in contrast to discursiveness, offers rigidly fixed definitions. In normal life, however, it isn’t so much our definitions as our behavior that determines rights and wrongs. What, we ask ourselves, is the result of a course of action? Drunkenness may seem pleasurable for a time — the drunkard, at least. But to indulge in it too freely brings ruin upon oneself. Drunkenness is not a thesis in any case, but a direction of energy and movement. Interaction, then, suggests back and forth movement — the ripples on a pond after a heavy object has been dropped into it. Moving outward in all directions, the ripples hit the bank, return, then crisscross back and forth repeatedly. In that interacting motion there is no finality — , indeed, it be an eventual cessation of movement altogether. Instead, there is a possibility of continually interesting patterns. In human interaction, similarly, there is a possibility of continuous communication, of ever-fresh discoveries arising from sources that may even be unrelated, rather than a simple synthesis between two antithetical ideas.
To Hegel’s way of thinking, any new proposal rates as “antithetic” to old concepts, suggesting conflict rather than harmonious development. To do anything new and different is, according to his view, to set oneself against what has been or is being done already. Why should this be so? If one thinks in terms of action and reaction, instead of thesis and antithesis, and if the result is interaction, one sees also the possibility for cooperation, not conflict. A new concept, in other words, need not exclude previous concepts. Small intentional communities, in this context, need in no way be thought of as antithetical to the society we already know. They may simply represent realistic new patterns of social interaction.
In this view, personal integrity need in no way represent the polarization of one group against another, or of new groups against older and long-established ones. It needn’t be like the contempt displayed by that “do-your-own-thing” guest I watched on television years ago. Indeed, such flaunted “integrity” will have only limited, if any, effectiveness owing to its combative stance.
We all belong to the same species, Homo sapiens. To try to function outside of that parameter would not only be unrealistic: it would be a foolish waste of energy.
Years ago, in India, I visited a community that boasted its intention of becoming fully self-sufficient. Visitors were shown, prominently displayed on a wooden board, a water faucet cast in the community’s own foundry. I couldn’t help smiling. What, I thought, was the point of making a faucet that could be bought for a fraction of the cost at any hardware store? That the community should aspire to be self-sustaining was reasonable, but to aspire in this way would seem sensible only if the members found themselves stranded, like the Swiss Family Robinson, on a desert island. (And even those doughty pioneers had access to many of the products of their time, rescued from the wreckage of their ship.)
In another community I visited, all of the group’s creative energy was directed toward attaining self-sufficiency through business. Could such an intense focus on profit, I asked myself, justify their existence as a community in the first place? Their true purpose, which had been stated decades earlier by their late founder, wasn’t profit: It was independence. No doubt it was praiseworthy on their part to want financial independence, but if that independence had to be defined in terms of mere profit something infinitely more precious was being lost. The community’s leaders in their present generation were businessmen, primarily. Yet even so, their most saleable “item” was their concept of inner freedom. Might not the promotion of that concept have been a source of income for them also? Otherwise, what inspiration could their members find in merely making shoes for profit — for profit? (This was, as it happened, their means of sustenance.)
The communitarian concept proposed in this book is dynamic. It is by no means a static process of “thesis” and “antithesis,” resulting in “synthesis.” It offers alternatives to a vast number of modern ills: to society’s emphasis on unnecessary consumerism; to fragmented rather than focused human energy; to the frenzy of “keeping up with the Joneses”; and to the rudeness one so often encounters in big-city life. On the other hand, it also offers an alternative to the culturally suffocating life in small villages, where petty gossip, shallowness, lack of contact with the greater world, and lack of charity toward one another have a dulling effect on the mind.
My father worked for several years in New York City — , the epitome of the Big City. One day he told us he’d asked a subway attendant that morning whether such-and-such a train went to Long Island. The man looked him up and down, then demanded sneeringly, “You can read, can’t you?” That said, he turned away indifferently, vouchsafing no further answer.
People who praise social responsibility mean nothing more, usually, than a lemming-like plunge into the sea of big-city life. A line from a poem I wrote while we were living outside New York City stated, “Men never more than glance at things for fear of missing one.” This, to me, describes, even more now than it did then, what passes for “life” in modern times. It is America. It is the big city. It is New York. It is also Anywhere On Earth that people live and struggle in too-close proximity to one another.
Several years ago, in a barbershop in Rome, Italy, I was subjected to the distraction of a television set chattering away to “entertain” the customers — , perhaps, to amuse the barber himself. No scene, I noticed, was held longer than two seconds. Why, I wondered, would anyone want to submit himself to such a constant barrage of restlessness?
Does it show concern for others to jostle and be jostled in return? I remember getting off the train from the suburbs at Grand Central Station in New York and, every time, telling myself firmly, “Today, I’m going to walk slowly.” It was impossible. From the moment I emerged onto the street I found myself being swept along by the “madding crowd.” Had I sauntered as I’d intended, I’d have been bowled over from behind, from in front, from the side. Some people may find those dashing throngs exhilarating. I never have.
Would a person be abdicating his social responsibilities if he shook the dust of such confusion off his feet? Would he be wrong if he tried to do something different with his own life? If so, why? What does it add to “fling roses, roses riotously with the throng,” as the poet Ernest Dowson put it? Oh, I know: The “correct” answer is, It isn’t the rushing; it’s participating in the great mechanism of modern commerce: All shoulders to the wheel; all working for the common goal: prosperity.
Again I ask: Why?
Frankly, I don’t find the supposedly correct argument at all convincing. I see the modern drive for prosperity as a stampede, a disease: this compulsion to produce constantly more and more unnecessary “necessities.” Does it show a sense of responsibility to plunder this suffering planet merely to satisfy man’s insatiable greed? Does it show responsibility to keep feeding man’s mounting dissatisfaction? Is this the way to husband the legacy Nature has bestowed on us so generously? I see no altruism in this feeding frenzy. Rather, I see only Adam Smith’s principle of self-interest at work, warped to its worst consequences: contractive selfishness, not self-expansion. To pretend otherwise is humbug. If one really had his heart set on being socially responsible, he would proceed serenely through life instead of puffing to keep the balloon of greed inflated until it bursts with excessive debt.
Why “jive” with the gnats on a sunbeam? “Well,” some may protest, “there are always the poor. If you really want to serve, why not go help in a soup kitchen?” This, certainly, would show some sense of responsibility, but is it the best, or the most needed, way of helping? To help people to walk whose legs are paralyzed, in the hope that a few may recover sufficiently to return to a so-called “normal” existence, rushing in frenzy with the crowd? There seems something very wrong with this picture!
How many people get sucked into the social whirlpool not because they want to join in, but simply because they’ve never given the matter serious thought. They hurry anxiously down bustling streets, commute anxiously to work through stop-and-go traffic, anxiously collect their weekly paycheck, struggle anxiously through crowded traffic to get home — to what? Bills, debts, worries over what the neighbors think, and tensions in the family. And after that — what? Someday, perhaps — people tell themselves — ‘ll find happiness. What do they suppose happiness is? a mere thing? Everything is a mirror life holds up before us. Nothing will give us happiness if we are not already happy in ourselves! Self-styled moralists will protest, “But, we’re all helping the economy!” Is that the “deeper” reason people go to Las Vegas and gamble?
“This above all,” Polonius counseled Laertes in Hamlet, “to thine own self be true, and it shall follow as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.” How often are those words quoted, but, alas, how rarely lived! If “charity begins at home” (another shop-worn saying), does not social responsibility begin at home also? If, for example, I have no inner peace, what peace will I be able to share with others? Joining “peace marches” won’t do it: gaudy placards and angry slogans. Some peace, I must say! And if I lack self-understanding, would it not be presumptuous of me to pretend to understand others? Life rushes on, and what is it that awaits us at the finish line? Death — then what: oblivion?
We think to increase our understanding by amassing more and more information, till our brains are near to bursting. For most people, life is like a cocktail party: They hurry from one person to another, from one group to another, enthusing with affected eagerness, “Hi, Joe! Oh, hiya, Jane!” hoping only that they got the names right.
Understanding of others comes with self-understanding. Since even that, however, requires some human interaction, it is better to interact with others meaningfully than superficially. At a cocktail party it would be better to pause and talk a few minutes with Joe or with Jane; to become a little serious in your conversation; to ask what they think about things both of you consider important. Communication requires more than chatter: It requires calm feeling. Not emotion, mind you: The waves of emotional reaction only distort clarity.
For such communication, people need time also to be by themselves. Why do most cars on modern freeways hold only the driver? The highway planners persist in trying to persuade people to travel in groups as a means of reducing congestion. They even reserve fast lanes for cars containing more than one person. Even so, the preference is to travel alone. Why so? The answer has to be that the ride to and from work is the only time one has away from all the noise at work, at home, on busy streets, in crowded restaurants. It gives one the only chance he gets in the day to listen to recordings of good music or instructive talks. (Even so, how many from sheer force of habit switch on their radios and listen to voices babbling excitedly, or to the nerve-jangling beat of a kind of “music” from which even plants recoil!)
People sometimes declare, “To love people, you’ve got to be with them!” Does running in a race make one more loving toward his competitors? To be with them calmly, however, not competitively: This is something the modern business atmosphere provides all too little for its workers.
I noticed while traveling in India years ago that the cloth merchants in a small city had their shops all clustered in the same section. One might think that having so many shops selling the same items right next door to one another would have been counterproductive. The system seemed to work for them, however. I noticed no spirit of competition, no hostility. The merchants appeared relaxed and friendly toward one another. The system appeared to work well. Why? Well for one thing, everyone in the city knew where to go to buy cloth. For another thing, although the buyers moved from shop to shop, the merchants seemed to view one another as colleagues, not as competitors. Perhaps the fact that they had always worked side by side lessened for them the temptation to belittle one another’s goods: They wouldn’t have wanted to endanger lifelong friendships for the sake of a fleeting bargain. Indeed, I got the impression that many of them were friends. (After all, why shouldn’t they be? They worked in the same line of business, and quite possibly lived in the same neighborhoods.)
What made their relaxed attitude possible was that they saw no point in “thinking big.” They made their profits. Beyond that, they probably thought it would poison their peace of mind to vie with one another for mere profit, especially if their greater success might result in putting a colleague out of business. I’m perfectly certain that if some hustling American were to approach them with breathless suggestions for how to “win, win, win!” they’d consider him quite mad. Their values were more human than mercenary.
Let us consider again William Baker and Joe Crumpet, our two friends from the last chapter. Both men are bakers. Both men naturally want people to shop with them. If competition between them were to make them enemies, one of them might drive the other out of business. In this case, Joe Crumpet would probably win, but would he still be smiling? Would he still be friendly to his customers? Wouldn’t he be aware, rather, of Baker’s bitterness, now directed at him? And in this knowledge, wouldn’t he feel uneasy? What is money, if its price is peace of mind and the loss of finer feelings?
What if Baker and Crumpet were, instead, to view each other as colleagues? What if they even kept shop next door to one another? Would not Baker be more inclined to try, at least, to be more cheerful — only because he’d observe that Crumpet’s good cheer was drawing more customers? Perhaps Crumpet, for his part, would discover some secret reason for Baker’s gloom, and would try out of sympathy to help him develop a lighter outlook on life. Perhaps both their businesses would thrive in consequence of the friendly atmosphere surrounding them.
In a small intentional community, where people are bonded by shared ideals, is it not far more likely that an easy spirit of cooperation will develop, as opposed to one of bitter competition? There is no reason why the members shouldn’t grow increasingly aware that life has much more to offer than the usual so-called “bottom line” of monetary profit. Rather, a new “bottom line” may develop in which high values are accepted as essential to true success. For success means far more than a bloated income, an impressive stock portfolio, and a bursting bank balance. Above all these, true success means friendship, peace of mind, and happiness. There is no reason why others outside the community shouldn’t become friendly, too, at least in their dealings with the members. For to give friendship is to attract friendship.
“Social responsibility” is a concept to furrow the brow. Grimly, the “responsible” citizen sets out to “do his duty by his fellowman.” He may worry, in addition, about the starving Chinese. He may sorrow for those who died in a recent earthquake in Japan. He cares, you see. Indeed, it is good to care, though it is better to care usefully.
When I was a child, there were times when I couldn’t finish my meals. My mother pleaded, “Think of all the starving people in China.” I urged, “Then please send them what I can’t eat!” Compassion is greater than pity. Obviously it is good to be compassionate, but one is more likely to be so if he is inwardly serene than if he bears the burden of worrying about the “starving Chinese,” in addition to his immediate concern over how to make both ends meet, and how to pay the bills this month, after all those purchases he charged to his credit cards.
Self-interest will no doubt be as much a factor in small-community life as it is in cities everywhere. In the communities I’m describing, however, the natural tendency will be not to enclose what one has, protectively, but rather to open the gates and greet everyone in a spirit of friendship. Being surrounded by friends rather than by mere neighbors inclines one to see even the stranger as a potential friend.
What, by contrast, is the usual “community” spirit in the modern city? Here is a true story:
A couple, after living two years in an apartment, were on the point of moving out of it. Their suitcases had been placed on the mat outside their front door. A couple from upstairs, seeing their bags, exclaimed, “You’ve just arrived! Welcome! You’ll find us all one big, happy family in this building. Do visit us any time you like.” There followed the usual cocktail party smiles, and then it was Ho! for other contacts — as superficial, one suspects, as this one.
John Donne declared in a well-known poem: “No man is an island.” The sentiment is unambiguous, though a too-literal reading might cause one to puzzle a bit. For if man isn’t an island, what is he? a peninsula? a continent? a country surrounded by other countries? No island is really isolated, moreover, for beneath the water’s surface is the same, one earth. No man is isolated, however, from other members of the human race. In this perception, Donne stated a great truth. All of us are part of the great web of life. The very atoms of our bodies have resided in countless other bodies — even, astronomers postulate, in former universes.
The narrow self-interest that Adam Smith promoted as the human norm is a contradiction of life’s natural impulse. Self-interest of that kind contracts upon the ego and makes one increasingly insular in thought and feeling. Man’s true wealth is his happiness. Even with a view to promoting others’ well-being, one’s first duty is to find happiness, himself. Those riches will spread naturally from one contented person to many others, but it will never spread from someone who merely trudges along on life’s treadmill, determined to add his hard-earned mite to the Gross National Product. The best thing anyone can do for society as a whole is to focus on improving his own life, and — whatever degree he can — help others to improve their lives also. As far as specific contributions to the general well-being are concerned, the best a person can bring as his offering to life’s banquet table is his own favorite dish. A farmer can produce the best food of which he is capable. A painter can contribute the best paintings he knows how to execute. If the painter, following the advice of others, leaves off painting to become a banker, he may prove a miserable failure.
We owe according to the kind and quantity of debts we’ve incurred. Obviously, we do have a certain debt to society. We owe it for the education we’ve received; the language we speak; the learning we’ve had by which we can express ourselves intelligently; the opportunity to be gainfully employed; the quality of food and shelter available to us; the fact that we’ve clothes to wear; our taste in clothing; and many of our ideas on countless subjects. To repay those debts with lifelong servitude, however, would be to return misery for happiness! This, surely, would be no just recompense. That we’ve received an education doesn’t mean we must all, to show gratitude, become school teachers. That we’ve learned to express ourselves intelligibly doesn’t mean we should all become writers. That we can find gainful employment doesn’t mean we should accept any old job. That good food is available to us in the markets doesn’t mean we should work to produce it. Nor should we become builders out of gratitude for having houses to live in. We owe something to the good taste of others, though I’m by no means sure that stylishness is a guarantee of good taste.
Each of us has some special gift to offer in return for what the world has given him. It may be manual labor or it may be artistic skill: no matter. If we take Adam Smith’s dictum seriously, then self-interest is not only what we seek for ourselves, but what we enjoy and find fulfillment in doing.
Vincent Van Gogh is said to have earned the equivalent of only fifteen dollars from his paintings during his lifetime. His more solvent contemporaries must have thought him a failure. But what did those staid burghers leave to the world compared to the joy he continues to bring to millions by his art? Van Gogh lived to see little appreciation for his work, but there must have been joy in his heart anyway, considering that he produced a body of art that has, since then, given joy to so many people. An artist’s real reward is not applause, but his own creativity.
Nature doesn’t ask us to give back in kind. We must give back in spirit. We must give because, in our own fulfillment, we complete life’s plan for us and for mankind. Our gratitude should be impersonal: not so much to Tim Wilson, let us say, who taught us mathematics at school, as to learning itself, and to wisdom.
Self-interest has many ramifications. We are taught to view it in terms of personal gain, but even so there are many kinds of gain, not the least of which is sharing with others any happiness we have. Self-interest can also mean whatever each one finds personally interesting. Our debt to society is best paid in terms of the interest we ourselves take in what we do. To do a thing well, we must also bring to it a high and focused energy — one can do only if he loves what he is doing.
Don’t let anyone tell you what you must do. And don’t expect ever to find perfection in mere things. People are still, after all, human beings. Gossip may still be a problem even in the best community, though in those I’m describing gossip is usually an expression of concern for others, not of malicious prying. The antipathies and hurts that sometimes arise between neighbors in ordinary communities are likely at least to have less force, and may soon disappear. For when people live in close proximity to one another for idealistic reasons, and not only for their mutual economic advantage, they are inclined to soften their hurts and antipathies and to tell themselves, “Maybe it’s I who am at fault. And if not, maybe there’s still something I can do to improve matters between us.”
Most suffering comes from holding false expectations. If we don’t expect utopia, perhaps a little reflection will convince us that what we stand to gain by living in a community of true friends is far and away better than anything we ever had while stampeding with the herd.
Professor of Philosophy, University of Vermont, quoted in Encyclopedia Americana, Vol. 8, p. 59 (1967).
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