Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889
American PossibilitiesBy Charles Dudley Warner (18291900)
If the human race ever had a chance to come to something fine and noble it is here in America, where development is so free, so little hindered, and where State communities have had opportunity to evolve so freely their peculiar character. Something fine, I say, ought to be expected in the mingling of so many races—great races—differing in fibre and in temperament, some superior outcome in music, painting, sculpture, literature, in a clearer philosophy of life, in a better conception of what man should be. Of course this will not come about—quite the reverse will come about—if the university is not considered as important as the factory, and the ability to appreciate the best piece of literature is not rated so highly as the smartness which can run a ward caucus or make money by adroit means. The Brooklyn bridge impresses one as almost as much a wonder as the Great Pyramid, yet neither is as valuable to the world as the Iliad. Socrates would probably stand in a maze in Chicago to see seven pigs killed in a minute, but doubtless he would put a few questions as to the great progress in civilization which would make this achievement seem small compared with the writing of the Antigone.
It is a hard struggle to keep up the intellectual life when material forces are so strong and human nature so readily believes that self-indulgence is happiness; but it is not a hopeless struggle, for after all it is a matter of individual choosing—it is left to every one to decide whether he will cultivate the intellectual side in his effort to make a place for himself in the world.
I have sometimes fancied that I could invent a rule by which we can secure most easily that which we all desire, namely contentment. It is a clear delusion to suppose we can attain it by endeavoring to get everything within our reach. If we obtain a thousand dollars, we certainly want another thousand; if we get a million, the necessity is just as imperative to get another million; if we add a piece of land to our possessions, we must add another piece; there is no end to the land we want. I suppose a person never, yet, was satisfied with getting. There is absolutely no limit in that direction. Do you say it is the same with knowledge, with self-cultivation, as it is with property? Very true, but one pursuit enlarges the man, the other materializes him. And since contentment is not to be had by getting, suppose we try to attain it from the other side, by limiting our wants and our desires. It is certainly the easier way, even if only happiness is our object. I cannot imagine a man happy with the inordinate hunger of possession. I can imagine him fairly happy, relieved from this strain, with limited desires, in a life that delights in intellectual pursuits, and enjoys, without envy, books, friendship, the love and companionship of good women, nature—which never denies itself to the humblest—and his fair share of a citizen’s responsibilities. Given contentment as the goal, the man, I am sure, would reach it more certainly in this way than if he let his desire of acquisition of material things rule him. And, then, consider what a State of men and women you would have if this spirit predominated, and not the greed of possession.
Is this Utopian talk, even for a scholar’s holiday? It seems to me the most practical kind of talk, unless it is true that the body is more real than the mind, and matter more real than the things of the spirit. There is a great deal of vague talk about progress, about civilization. It is a natural ambition to want to contribute to the one and to advance the other. But I fancy that the most good a man can do for the world is to be good himself, and his greatest contribution to civilization will be to civilize himself. And in saying this I am not making any vague or impossible condition.