Truth in operation

Daily Reading for November 24 • James Otis Sargent Huntington, Priest and Monk, 1935 (transferred)

Right is founded upon Truth; it is the Truth gone into operation. Now the Truth that underlies our actions towards others is the relations we hold with others. What we can all do at once is to awake to a consciousness of these relations and begin to correspond to them in our dealings with the cook and the waiting-maid, the clerk and the cash-girl, the railway conductor and the telegraph-boy, the factory-operative, the dressmaker, the newspaper reporter, as well as the beggar and the charity “case.”. . . When we have learned to value the friendship of the woman who washes our clothes, and the man who carts off our rubbish, we shall find it easier to understand our neighbors, whether poor or rich. . . .

Tolstoi says, “The present position which we, the educated and well-to-do classes, occupy is that of the Old Man of the Sea riding on the poor man’s back, only, unlike the Old Man of the Sea, we are sorry for the poor man, very sorry. And we will do almost anything for the poor man’s relief; we will not only supply him with food sufficient for him to keep on his legs, but we will provide him with cooling draughts concocted on strictly scientific principles; we will teach and instruct him and point out to him the beauties of the landscape; we will discourse sweet music to him and give him lots of good advice. Yes, we will do almost anything for the poor man, anything but get off his back.”

The words are sharp, but are they any more searching than those of Henry Thoreau, from whom I just quoted? “If I devote myself,” he says, “to other pursuit and contemplation” (than the simple common labor of every-day life), “I must first see, at least, that I do not pursue them sitting upon another man’s shoulders. I must get off him first, that he may pursue his contemplation too.”

Only let us remember that we are so involved with others in our political and economic life that we cannot free ourselves from the shame of this injustice, however we may see and detect it; we can only do our best to bring home the horror of it to other individuals, until the whole community is stung with the sense of its own misery, and, like Samson, breaks the bands that bind it down. That will not be a war of classes, but a struggle of the whole people to be free. And if we are to stir others to enlist in this campaign against the monopoly of the very earth and air and light, we must make all we do to meet the immediate wants of the needy or the suffering contribute to the propaganda of reform. We must still feed the hungry and clothe the naked, but we shall try to show them, if we can, whence hunger and nakedness proceed; we may open orphanages and shelters, but they will be training-schools for the new age; we may go down into the slums, but we shall remember the words of the dying Pestalozzi, “I lived like a beggar, that beggars might learn to live like men,” and feel that our best mission is to show the poor how to make slums impossible.

In closing, it seems best to provide against possible misunderstanding by saying that in speaking of morality I have not meant merely a system of ethics or a code of manners. I have set forward morality as at once deeper and loftier than philanthropy, as furnishing philanthropy with its only foundation and its indispensable guide, because I believe that in order to bless the world we must first of all do the will of God. That aim covers the whole field of duty, for the service of God demands the whole man. I do not for a moment dream that we shall find a ground on which to resist legalized wrong, and the despotism of vested interests, until we have discovered that behind laws there is a changeless and righteous Law, and that even if the “highest crime be written in the highest law of the land,” it may yet be known and branded as a crime, because there is in the souls of even plain and ordinary men the witness to an eternal Right.

From “Philanthropy and Morality” by James Otis Sargent Huntington, in Philanthropy and Social Progress: Seven Essays by Miss Jane Addams, Robert A. Woods, Father J. O. S. Huntington, Professor Franklin H. Giddings, and Bernard Bosanquet, delivered before the School of Applied Ethics at Plymouth, Massachusetts during the session of 1892 (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1893).

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