What can we do for the world while we live?

Many men and women would wish to serve mankind, but they are perplexed
and their power seems infinitesimal. Despair seizes them; those who
have the strongest passion suffer most from the sense of impotence, and
are most liable to spiritual ruin through lack of hope.

So long as we think only of the immediate future, it seems that what
we can do is not much. It is probably impossible for us to bring the
war to an end. We cannot destroy the excessive power of the State or
of private property. We cannot, here and now, bring new life into
education. In such matters, though we may see the evil, we cannot
quickly cure it by any of the ordinary methods of politics. We must
recognize that the world is ruled in a wrong spirit, and that a change
of spirit will not come from one day to the next. Our expectations
must not be for to-morrow, but for the time when what is thought now by
a few shall have become the common thought of many. If we have courage
and patience, we can think the thoughts and feel the hopes by which,
sooner or later, men will be inspired, and weariness and discouragement
will be turned into energy and ardor. For this reason, the first thing
we have to do is to be clear in our own minds as to the kind of life we
think good and the kind of change that we desire in the world.

The ultimate power of those whose thought is vital is far greater than
it seems to men who suffer from the irrationality of contemporary
politics. Religious toleration was once the solitary speculation of a
few bold philosophers. Democracy, as a theory, arose among a handful of
men in Cromwell’s army; by them, after the Restoration, it was carried
to America, where it came to fruition in the War of Independence. From
America, Lafayette and the other Frenchmen who fought by the side of
Washington brought the theory of democracy to France, where it united
itself with the teaching of Rousseau and inspired the Revolution.
Socialism, whatever we may think of its merits, is a great and growing
power, which is transforming economic and political life; and socialism
owes its origin to a very small number of isolated theorists. The
movement against the subjection of women, which has become irresistible
and is not far from complete triumph, began in the same way with a few
impracticable idealists—Mary Wollstonecraft, Shelley, John Stuart Mill.
The power of thought, in the long run, is greater than any other human
power. Those who have the ability to think and the imagination to think
in accordance with men’s needs, are likely to achieve the good they aim
at sooner or later, though probably not while they are still alive.

But those who wish to gain the world by thought must be content to
lose it as a support in the present. Most men go through life without
much questioning, accepting the beliefs and practices which they find
current, feeling that the world will be their ally if they do not
put themselves in opposition to it. New thought about the world is
incompatible with this comfortable acquiescence; it requires a certain
intellectual detachment, a certain solitary energy, a power of inwardly
dominating the world and the outlook that the world engenders. Without
some willingness to be lonely new thought cannot be achieved. And it
will not be achieved to any purpose if the loneliness is accompanied
by aloofness, so that the wish for union with others dies, or if
intellectual detachment leads to contempt. It is because the state
of mind required is subtle and difficult, because it is hard to be
intellectually detached yet not aloof, that fruitful thought on human
affairs is not common, and that most theorists are either conventional
or sterile. The right kind of thought is rare and difficult, but it is
not impotent. It is not the fear of impotence that need turn us aside
from thought if we have the wish to bring new hope into the world.

In seeking a political theory which is to be useful at any given
moment, what is wanted is not the invention of a Utopia, but the
discovery of the best direction of movement. The direction which is
good at one time may be superficially very different from that which
is good at another time. Useful thought is that which indicates the
right direction for the present time. But in judging what is the right
direction there are two general principles which are always applicable.

1. The growth and vitality of individuals and communities is to be
promoted as far as possible.

2. The growth of one individual or one community is to be as little as
possible at the expense of another.

The second of these principles, as applied by an individual in his
dealings with others, is the principle of _reverence_, that the life
of another has the same importance which we feel in our own life. As
applied impersonally in politics, it is the principle of _liberty_,
or rather it includes the principle of liberty as a part. Liberty in
itself is a negative principle; it tells us not to interfere, but does
not give any basis for construction. It shows that many political and
social institutions are bad and ought to be swept away, but it does not
show what ought to be put in their place. For this reason a further
principle is required, if our political theory is not to be purely

The combination of our two principles is not in practice an easy
matter. Much of the vital energy of the world runs into channels which
are oppressive. The Germans have shown themselves extraordinarily full
of vital energy, but unfortunately in a form which seems incompatible
with the vitality of their neighbors. Europe in general has more vital
energy than Africa, but it has used its energy to drain Africa, through
industrialism, of even such life as the negroes possessed. The vitality
of southeastern Europe is being drained to supply cheap labor for the
enterprise of American millionaires. The vitality of men has been in
the past a hindrance to the development of women, and it is possible
that in the near future women may become a similar hindrance to men.
For such reasons the principle of reverence, though not in itself
sufficient, is of very great importance, and is able to indicate many
of the political changes that the world requires.

In order that both principles may be capable of being satisfied, what
is needed is a unifying or integration, first of our individual lives,
then of the life of the community and of the world, without sacrifice
of individuality. The life of an individual, the life of a community,
and even the life of mankind, ought to be, not a number of separate
fragments but in some sense a whole. When this is the case, the growth
of the individual is fostered, and is not incompatible with the growth
of other individuals. In this way the two principles are brought into

What integrates an individual life is a consistent creative purpose or
unconscious direction. Instinct alone will not suffice to give unity
to the life of a civilized man or woman: there must be some dominant
object, an ambition, a desire for scientific or artistic creation, a
religious principle, or strong and lasting affections. Unity of life is
very difficult for a man or woman who has suffered a certain kind of
defeat, the kind by which what should have been the dominant impulse
is checked and made abortive. Most professions inflict this kind of
defeat upon a man at the very outset. If a man becomes a journalist, he
probably has to write for a newspaper whose politics he dislikes; this
kills his pride in work and his sense of independence. Most medical
men find it very hard to succeed without humbug, by which whatever
scientific conscience they may have had is destroyed. Politicians are
obliged, not only to swallow the party program but to pretend to be
saints, in order to conciliate religious supporters; hardly any man
can enter Parliament without hypocrisy. In no profession is there any
respect for the native pride without which a man cannot remain whole;
the world ruthlessly crushes it out, because it implies independence,
and men desire to enslave others more than they desire to be free
themselves. Inward freedom is infinitely precious, and a society which
will preserve it is immeasurably to be desired.

The principle of growth in a man is not crushed necessarily by
preventing him from doing some definite thing, but it is often crushed
by persuading him to do something else. The things that crush growth
are those that produce a sense of impotence in the directions in which
the vital impulse wishes to be effective. The worst things are those to
which the will assents. Often, chiefly from failure of self-knowledge,
a man’s will is on a lower level than his impulse: his impulse is
towards some kind of creation, while his will is towards a conventional
career, with a sufficient income and the respect of his contemporaries.
The stereotyped illustration is the artist who produces shoddy work
to please the public. But something of the artist’s definiteness of
impulse exists in very many men who are not artists. Because the
impulse is deep and dumb, because what is called common sense is often
against it, because a young man can only follow it if he is willing to
set up his own obscure feelings against the wisdom and prudent maxims
of elders and friends, it happens in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred
that the creative impulse, out of which a free and vigorous life might
have sprung, is checked and thwarted at the very outset: the young man
consents to become a tool, not an independent workman; a mere means
to the fulfilment of others, not the artificer of what his own nature
feels to be good. In the moment when he makes this act of consent
something dies within him. He can never again become a whole man,
never again have the undamaged self-respect, the upright pride, which
might have kept him happy in his soul in spite of all outward troubles
and difficulties—except, indeed, through conversion and a fundamental
change in his way of life.

Outward prohibitions, to which the will gives no assent, are far
less harmful than the subtler inducements which seduce the will. A
serious disappointment in love may cause the most poignant pain, but
to a vigorous man it will not do the same inward damage as is done by
marrying for money. The achievement of this or that special desire is
not what is essential: what is essential is the direction, the _kind_
of effectiveness which is sought. When the fundamental impulse is
opposed by will, it is made to feel helpless: it has no longer enough
hope to be powerful as a motive. Outward compulsion does not do the
same damage unless it produces the same sense of impotence; and it will
not produce the same sense of impotence if the impulse is strong and
courageous. Some thwarting of special desires is unavoidable even in
the best imaginable community, since some men’s desires, unchecked,
lead to the oppression or destruction of others. In a good community
Napoleon could not have been allowed the profession of his choice, but
he might have found happiness as a pioneer in Western America. He could
not have found happiness as a City clerk, and no tolerable organization
of society would compel him to become a City clerk.

The integration of an individual life requires that it should embody
whatever creative impulse a man may possess, and that his education
should have been such as to elicit and fortify this impulse. The
integration of a community requires that the different creative
impulses of different men and women should work together towards some
common life, some common purpose, not necessarily conscious, in which
all the members of the community find a help to their individual
fulfilment. Most of the activities that spring from vital impulses
consist of two parts: one creative, which furthers one’s own life and
that of others with the same kind of impulse or circumstances, and
one possessive, which hinders the life of some group with a different
kind of impulse or circumstances. For this reason, much of what is in
itself most vital may nevertheless work against life, as, for example,
seventeenth-century Puritanism did in England, or as nationalism
does throughout Europe at the present day. Vitality easily leads to
strife or oppression, and so to loss of vitality. War, at its outset,
integrates the life of a nation, but it disintegrates the life of the
world, and in the long run the life of a nation too, when it is as
severe as the present war.

The war has made it clear that it is impossible to produce a secure
integration of the life of a single community while the relations
between civilized countries are governed by aggressiveness and
suspicion. For this reason any really powerful movement of reform
will have to be international. A merely national movement is sure to
fail through fear of danger from without. Those who desire a better
world, or even a radical improvement in their own country, will have
to coöperate with those who have similar desires in other countries,
and to devote much of their energy to overcoming that blind hostility
which the war has intensified. It is not in partial integrations,
such as patriotism alone can produce, that any ultimate hope is to be
found. The problem is, in national and international questions as in
the individual life, to keep what is creative in vital impulses, and at
the same time to turn into other channels the part which is at present

Men’s impulses and desires may be divided into those that are creative
and those that are possessive. Some of our activities are directed to
creating what would not otherwise exist, others are directed towards
acquiring or retaining what exists already. The typical creative
impulse is that of the artist; the typical possessive impulse is
that of property. The best life is that in which creative impulses
play the largest part and possessive impulses the smallest. The best
institutions are those which produce the greatest possible creativeness
and the least possessiveness compatible with self-preservation.
Possessiveness may be defensive or aggressive: in the criminal law it
is defensive, and in criminals it is aggressive. It may perhaps be
admitted that the criminal law is less abominable than the criminal,
and that defensive possessiveness is unavoidable so long as aggressive
possessiveness exists. But not even the most purely defensive forms of
possessiveness are in themselves admirable; indeed, as soon as they are
strong they become hostile to the creative impulses. “Take no thought,
saying, What shall we eat? or What shall we drink, or Wherewithal
shall we be clothed?” Whoever has known a strong creative impulse has
known the value of this precept in its exact and literal sense: it is
preoccupation with possessions, more than anything else, that prevents
men from living freely and nobly. The State and Property are the great
embodiments of possessiveness; it is for this reason that they are
against life, and that they issue in war. Possession means taking or
keeping some good thing which another is prevented from enjoying;
creation means putting into the world a good thing which otherwise
no one would be able to enjoy. Since the material goods of the world
must be divided among the population, and since some men are by nature
brigands, there must be defensive possession, which will be regulated,
in a good community, by some principle of impersonal justice. But all
this is only the preface to a good life or good political institutions,
in which creation will altogether outweigh possession, and distributive
justice will exist as an uninteresting matter of course.

The supreme principle, both in politics and in private life, should
be _to promote all that is creative, and so to diminish the impulses
and desires that center round possession_. The State at present is
very largely an embodiment of possessive impulses: internally, it
protects the rich against the poor; externally, it uses force for the
exploitation of inferior races, and for competition with other States.
Our whole economic system is concerned exclusively with possession; yet
the production of goods is a form of creation, and except in so far as
it is irredeemably mechanical and monotonous, it might afford a vehicle
for creative impulses. A great deal might be achieved towards this
end by forming the producers of a certain kind of commodity into an
autonomous democracy, subject to State control as regards the price of
their commodity but not as to the manner of its production.

Education, marriage, and religion are essentially creative, yet all
three have been vitiated by the intrusion of possessive motives.
Education is usually treated as a means of prolonging the _status quo_
by instilling prejudices, rather than of creating free thought and a
noble outlook by the example of generous feeling and the stimulus of
mental adventure. In marriage, love, which is creative, is kept in
chains by jealousy, which is possessive. Religion, which should set
free the creative vision of the spirit, is usually more concerned
to repress the life of instinct and to combat the subversiveness of
thought. In all these ways the fear that grows out of precarious
possession has replaced the hope inspired by creative force. The wish
to plunder others is recognized, in theory, to be bad; but the fear of
being plundered is little better. Yet these two motives between them
dominate nine-tenths of politics and private life.

The creative impulses in different men are essentially harmonious,
since what one man creates cannot be a hindrance to what another is
wishing to create. It is the possessive impulses that involve conflict.
Although, morally and politically, the creative and possessive impulses
are opposites, yet psychologically either passes easily into the
other, according to the accidents of circumstance and opportunity. The
genesis of impulses and the causes which make them change ought to be
studied; education and social institutions ought to be made such as
to strengthen the impulses which harmonize in different men, and to
weaken those that involve conflict. I have no doubt that what might be
accomplished in this way is almost unlimited.

It is rather through impulse than through will that individual lives
and the life of the community can derive the strength unity of a
single direction. Will is of two kinds, of which one is directed
outward and the other inward. The first, which is directed outward,
is called into play by external obstacles, either the opposition of
others or the technical difficulties of an undertaking. This kind of
will is an expression of strong impulse or desire, whenever instant
success is impossible; it exists in all whose life is vigorous, and
only decays when their vital force is enfeebled. It is necessary to
success in any difficult enterprise, and without it great achievement
is very rare. But the will which is directed inward is only necessary
in so far as there is an inner conflict of impulses or desires; a
perfectly harmonious nature would have no occasion for inward will.
Such perfect harmony is of course a scarcely realizable ideal: in all
men impulses arise which are incompatible with their central purpose,
and which must be checked if their life as a whole is not to be a
failure. But this will happen least with those whose central impulses
are strongest; and it will happen less often in a society which aims
at freedom than in a society like ours, which is full of artificial
incompatibilities created by antiquated institutions and a tyrannous
public opinion. The power to exert inward will when the occasion arises
must always be needed by those who wish their lives to embody some
central purpose, but with better institutions the occasions when inward
will is necessary might be made fewer and less important. This result
is very much to be desired, because when will checks impulses which are
only accidentally harmful, it diverts a force which might be spent on
overcoming outward obstacles, and if the impulses checked are strong
and serious, it actually diminishes the vital force available. A life
full of inhibitions is likely not to remain a very vigorous life but
to become listless and without zest. Impulse tends to die when it is
constantly held in check, and if it does not die, it is apt to work
underground, and issue in some form much worse than that in which it
has been checked. For these reasons the necessity for using inward will
ought to be avoided as much as possible, and consistency of action
ought to spring rather from consistency of impulse than from control of
impulse by will.

The unifying of life ought not to demand the suppression of the casual
desires that make amusement and play; on the contrary, everything ought
to be done to make it easy to combine the main purposes of life with
all kinds of pleasure that are not in their nature harmful. Such things
as habitual drunkenness, drugs, cruel sports, or pleasure in inflicting
pain are essentially harmful, but most of the amusements that civilized
men naturally enjoy are either not harmful at all or only accidentally
harmful through some effect which might be avoided in a better society.
What is needed is, not asceticism or a drab Puritanism, but capacity
for strong impulses and desires directed towards large creative ends.
When such impulses and desires are vigorous, they bring with them, of
themselves, what is needed to make a good life.

But although amusement and adventure ought to have their share, it is
impossible to create a good life if they are what is mainly desired.
Subjectivism, the habit of directing thought and desire to our own
states of mind rather than to something objective, inevitably makes
life fragmentary and unprogressive. The man to whom amusement is the
end of life tends to lose interest gradually in the things out of
which he has been in the habit of obtaining amusement, since he does
not value these things on their own account, but on account of the
feelings which they arouse in him. When they are no longer amusing,
boredom drives him to seek some new stimulus, which fails him in its
turn. Amusement consists in a series of moments without any essential
continuity; a purpose which unifies life is one which requires some
prolonged activity, and is like building a monument rather than a
child’s castle in the sand.

Subjectivism has other forms beside the mere pursuit of amusement.
Many men, when they are in love, are more interested in their own
emotion than in the object of their love; such love does not lead to
any essential union, but leaves fundamental separateness undiminished.
As soon as the emotion grows less vivid the experience has served its
purpose, and there seems no motive for prolonging it. In another way,
the same evil of subjectivism was fostered by Protestant religion and
morality, since they directed attention to sin and the state of the
soul rather than to the outer world and our relations with it. None
of these forms of subjectivism can prevent a man’s life from being
fragmentary and isolated. Only a life which springs out of dominant
impulses directed to objective ends can be a satisfactory whole, or be
intimately united with the lives of others.

The pursuit of pleasure and the pursuit of virtue alike suffer from
subjectivism: Epicureanism and Stoicism are infected with the same
taint. Marcus Aurelius, enacting good laws in order that he might
be virtuous, is not an attractive figure. Subjectivism is a natural
outcome of a life in which there is much more thought than action:
while outer things are being remembered or desired, not actually
experienced, they seem to become mere ideas. What they are in
themselves becomes less interesting to us than the effects which they
produce in our own minds. Such a result tends to be brought about by
increasing civilization, because increasing civilization continually
diminishes the need for vivid action and enhances the opportunities
for thought. But thought will not have this bad result if it is active
thought, directed towards achieving some purpose; it is only passive
thought that leads to subjectivism. What is needed is to keep thought
in intimate union with impulses and desires, making it always itself
an activity with an objective purpose. Otherwise, thought and impulse
become enemies, to the great detriment of both.

In order to make the lives of average men and women less fragmentary
and separate, and to give greater opportunity for carrying out creative
impulses, it is not enough to know the goal we wish to reach, or to
proclaim the excellence of what we desire to achieve. It is necessary
to understand the effect of institutions and beliefs upon the life of
impulse, and to discover ways of improving this effect by a change
in institutions. And when this intellectual work has been done, our
thought will still remain barren unless we can bring it into relation
with some powerful political force. The only powerful political force
from which any help is to be expected in bringing about such changes
as seem needed is Labor. The changes required are very largely such
as Labor may be expected to welcome, especially during the time of
hardship after the war. When the war is over, labor discontent is sure
to be very prevalent throughout Europe, and to constitute a political
force by means of which a great and sweeping reconstruction may be

The civilized world has need of fundamental change if it is to be saved
from decay—change both in its economic structure and in its philosophy
of life. Those of us who feel the need of change must not sit still in
dull despair: we can, if we choose, profoundly influence the future. We
can discover and preach the kind of change that is required—the kind
that preserves what is positive in the vital beliefs of our time, and,
by eliminating what is negative and inessential, produces a synthesis
to which all that is not purely reactionary can give allegiance. As
soon as it has become clear what _kind_ of change is required, it will
be possible to work out its parts in more detail. But until the war is
ended there is little use in detail, since we do not know what kind of
world the war will leave. The only thing that seems indubitable is that
much new thought will be required in the new world produced by the
war. Traditional views will give little help. It is clear that men’s
most important actions are not guided by the sort of motives that are
emphasized in traditional political philosophies. The impulses by which
the war has been produced and sustained come out of a deeper region
than that of most political argument. And the opposition to the war
on the part of those few who have opposed it comes from the same deep
region. A political theory, if it is to hold in times of stress, must
take account of the impulses that underlie explicit thought: it must
appeal to them, and it must discover how to make them fruitful rather
than destructive.

Economic systems have a great influence in promoting or destroying
life. Except slavery, the present industrial system is the most
destructive of life that has ever existed. Machinery and large-scale
production are ineradicable, and must survive in any better system
which is to replace the one under which we live. Industrial federal
democracy is probably the best direction for reform to take.

Philosophies of life, when they are widely believed, also have a
very great influence on the vitality of a community. The most widely
accepted philosophy of life at present is that what matters most to
a man’s happiness is his income. This philosophy, apart from other
demerits, is harmful because it leads men to aim at a result rather
than an activity, an enjoyment of material goods in which men are not
differentiated, rather than a creative impulse which embodies each
man’s individuality. More refined philosophies, such as are instilled
by higher education, are too apt to fix attention on the past rather
than the future, and on correct behavior rather than effective action.
It is not in such philosophies that men will find the energy to bear
lightly the weight of tradition and of ever-accumulating knowledge.

The world has need of a philosophy, or a religion, which will promote
life. But in order to promote life it is necessary to value something
other than mere life. Life devoted only to life is animal without
any real human value, incapable of preserving men permanently from
weariness and the feeling that all is vanity. If life is to be fully
human it must serve some end which seems, in some sense, outside
human life, some end which is impersonal and above mankind, such as
God or truth or beauty. Those who best promote life do not have life
for their purpose. They aim rather at what seems like a gradual
incarnation, a bringing into our human existence of something eternal,
something that appears to imagination to live in a heaven remote from
strife and failure and the devouring jaws of Time. Contact with this
eternal world—even if it be only a world of our imagining—brings a
strength and a fundamental peace which cannot be wholly destroyed
by the struggles and apparent failures of our temporal life. It is
this happy contemplation of what is eternal that Spinoza calls the
intellectual love of God. To those who have once known it, it is the
key of wisdom.

What we have to do practically is different for each one of us,
according to our capacities and opportunities. But if we have the life
of the spirit within us, what we must do and what we must avoid will
become apparent to us.

By contact with what is eternal, by devoting our life to bringing
something of the Divine into this troubled world, we can make our own
lives creative even now, even in the midst of the cruelty and strife
and hatred that surround us on every hand. To make the individual life
creative is far harder in a community based on possession than it would
be in such a community as human effort may be able to build up in the
future. Those who are to begin the regeneration of the world must face
loneliness, opposition, poverty, obloquy. They must be able to live
by truth and love, with a rational unconquerable hope; they must be
honest and wise, fearless, and guided by a consistent purpose. A body
of men and women so inspired will conquer—first the difficulties and
perplexities of their individual lives, then, in time, though perhaps
only in a long time, the outer world. Wisdom and hope are what the
world needs; and though it fights against them, it gives its respect to
them in the end.

When the Goths sacked Rome, St. Augustine wrote the “City of God,”
putting a spiritual hope in place of the material reality that had been
destroyed. Throughout the centuries that followed St. Augustine’s hope
lived and gave life, while Rome sank to a village of hovels. For us,
too, it is necessary to create a new hope, to build up by our thought
a better world than the one which is hurling itself into ruin. Because
the times are bad, more is required of us than would be required in
normal times. Only a supreme fire of thought and spirit can save future
generations from the death that has befallen the generation which we
knew and loved.

It has been my good fortune to come in contact as a teacher with young
men of many different nations—young men in whom hope was alive, in
whom the creative energy existed that would have realized in the world
some part at least of the imagined beauty by which they lived. They
have been swept into the war, some on one side, some on the other.
Some are still fighting, some are maimed for life, some are dead; of
those who survive it is to be feared that many will have lost the life
of the spirit, that hope will have died, that energy will be spent,
and that the years to come will be only a weary journey towards the
grave. Of all this tragedy, not a few of those who teach seem to have
no feeling: with ruthless logic, they prove that these young men have
been sacrificed unavoidably for some coldly abstract end; undisturbed
themselves, they lapse quickly into comfort after any momentary assault
of feeling. In such men the life of the spirit is dead. If it were
living, it would go out to meet the spirit in the young, with a love
as poignant as the love of father or mother. It would be unaware of
the bounds of self; their tragedy would be its own. Something would
cry out: “No, this is not right; this is not good; this is not a holy
cause, in which the brightness of youth is destroyed and dimmed. It
is we, the old, who have sinned; we have sent these young men to the
battlefield for our evil passions, our spiritual death, our failure to
live generously out of the warmth of the heart and out of the living
vision of the spirit. Let us come out of this death, for it is we who
are dead, not the young men who have died through our fear of life.
Their very ghosts have more life than we: they hold us up for ever to
the shame and obloquy of all the ages to come. Out of their ghosts must
come life, and it is we whom they must vivify.”