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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


By George Frederic Parsons (1840–1893)

[The Growth of Materialism.—The Atlantic Monthly. 1887.]

IT is one of the most significant facts of the material civilization that its supreme code—that, namely, upon which what it terms “business” is based—should declare the union of friendship with the sacred cult of money to be inadmissible. In the counting-house, the factory, the exchange, there must be no entangling alliances. There, in the arcana of “business,” all pretences, save those which conduce to material advantage, are to be put aside. Popular philosophy takes the form of proverbs and sententious sayings, which, if not always polite and delicate, are generally terse and to the point. This popular sentiment long ago expressed, in its crude way, the prevailing idea of the way the world wags, in the rough but expressive words, “Every man for himself, and the Devil take the hindmost.” It is upon this principle that we usually conduct business in this progressive and hurried age. It may, perhaps, be thought somewhat curious that the habitual putting off of friendship, as Mohammedans put off their slippers on entering the mosque, in proceeding to business, should not have given rise to some suspicion of the nature of the cult that requires such a surrender. It is, however, but the last step in a threefold descent. The first is from the religion we profess to the religion we practise: the second is from the family code to the social code: the third is from the latter to the ethics of “business.” Perhaps the graduation of the descent helps to conceal it from most of us. Perhaps the dazzling effulgence which breaks from the shrine of Mammon blinds his worshippers to the nature of the approaches by which they reach his feet. Such, however, is the fact. The principle of business is selfishness in its most open and undisguised form; selfishness ministering to its own rapacity by a hundred base and shameful tricks and chicaneries; selfishness assisting itself with deceit and fraud, with overreaching and misrepresentation; selfishness pluming itself upon superior intelligence when it effects a roguery by playing upon the trustfulness of another; selfishness hardily sneering at integrity and scoffing at honor as an outworn imbecility. There is really nothing too base to be perpetrated in the name of business. It knows no conscience: witness the despatch of ship-loads of rum to poison uncivilized races. It knows no patriotism: witness the eagerness with which in all wars traders have supplied their country’s enemies with arms and munitions; and witness, in our own time, the manner in which rebellious Indian tribes have been repeatedly furnished by American citizens with arms wherewith to fight American soldiers. When the North was in death-grapple with the South, it supplied our men in the field with shoes that could not be worn, with shoddy clothing, with fraud in every shape an army contract could cover. In times of peace it calls in adulteration to its aid, and poisons whatever can be sophisticated. The spirit of the age is shown forth in the invention of oleomargarine, or sham butter, and especially in the arguments used to defend and justify the product. The haste to be rich, indeed, debases everything and demoralizes every one. There is no great line of modern development which is not branded by the rank dishonesty this lust produces. It flourishes rankly in governmental affairs. Wherever the sense of responsibility is weakened by the absence of personal headship and ownership, fraud has entered freely. The land system of the country is honeycombed with it. The history of the distribution of the public lands is a history of continued and gigantic robberies. There has never been an issue of land-scrip to any class, soldiers, Indians, or civilians, or to States for educational purposes, which has not been made the machinery for effecting these knaveries. Government timber has been stolen as generally as government land. Railroad enterprises, too, have frequently been made the cover for extraordinary rapacity and dishonesty in the same directions. All this is known far and wide, but it signifies nothing. It is in no sense a figure of speech that any man may become rich by positive stealing: that the truth concerning his manner of obtaining his money may be generally known; and that not only will he not lose caste by his immoral methods, but a large number of people will admire him for his “smartness,” which, being interpreted, perhaps means successful roguery….

A chief danger of the situation consists in the fact that all the most potent evils of materialism tend to feed and fatten upon their own substance, and to perpetuate themselves after the manner of certain low organisms in the physical world. It would not, for instance, require more than one or two generations of undisciplined self-seekers to establish a breed of egoists more self-centred, more void of sympathy, than any form of advanced civilization has yet known, and the influence of such men and women upon any society can be easily perceived. Toleration of fraud and mendacity, for a comparatively brief period, would produce equally marked consequences. Nor is the effect less in minor phenomena. In a country where the ballot is the ultimate expression of popular will, it is only necessary greatly to stimulate the rapacity of the masses to bring about, in due course, legislation involving confiscation of the possessions of the rich. In the Greek republics this kind of social war frequently occurred, and naturally, when matters reached that extremity, the only law capable of enforcement was that of force majeure; so sometimes the poor overcame the rich, and sometimes the rich overcame the poor, and whichever side was victor practised hideous cruelties upon the vanquished. The history of the Paris Commune proves that the lowest depths of savagery are not beyond the possible descent of civilized societies, and we cannot therefore solace ourselves with the flattering assurance that like causes would not produce like effects among us. The decline in the sense of duty tends to similar consequences. When responsibility decays, regard for the rights of others is sure to be weakened. Communities which tolerate the practice of abuses upon themselves are apt to manifest loose morality in general. Good citizenship implies self-respect and full recognition of the neighbor’s rights, together with equally clear perception of one’s own and one’s fellow’s obligations. Those who are careless of what is due to themselves will be not less apathetic concerning what is due to the commonwealth. But incivism is the fruit of unsocial selfishness. Whoever refuses to do his duty as a citizen does so because he is absorbed in his personal occupations, and, as a rule, is thus absorbed by the greed of gain. As all force is masterful, selfish and greedy men exercise a strong influence on the community, and their concentration of purpose usually secures their ends. But let the masses also acquire this energy of acquisitiveness, and apply it through the ballot, and the strong purpose of the selfish minority must be borne down by the pressure of the much greater though similar force. What redemption there could be for a community or a nation so circumstanced it is difficult to see. All reversion tends to spread. Savagery superimposed upon civilization can only be met by savagery.