Reform: Institutions and Individuals


The eager and often inconsiderate appeals of reformers and revolutionists are indispensable, to counterbalance the inertness and fossilism making so large a part of human institutions. The latter will always take care of themselves—the danger being that they rapidly tend to ossify us. The former is to be treated with indulgence, and even, with respect.
What is any nation, after all—and what is a human being—but a struggle between conflicting, paradoxical, opposing elements—and they themselves and their most violent contests, important parts of the one identity, and of its development?

There are to be sure plenty of reforms and panaceas offered—
Not the irregular and revolutionary efforts that would pull down rather than build up, but that progress that would wisely use the debris of the past to fertilize the soil for the coming seasons, the healthy and life-giving progress which comes from a clearer and broader view of human rights.
Like some of the sciences, though
it cannot be said that we have either got it, or see its resultant and absolute structure, we are working—thousands of good men are faithfully working—towards that resultant and absolute structure.

Great are the reformers—with their lapses and screams, the reformers have one great advantage: They are sincere, and speak with the convictions of their own experience.
Is reform needed? is it through you?
The greater the reform needed, the greater the personality you need to accomplish it.

I hear it was charged against me that I sought to destroy institutions,
But really I am neither for nor against institutions,

What indeed have I in common with them? or what with the destruction of them?
I have not appeared with violent hands to pull up by the roots anything that has grown,
Evil propels me and reform of evil propels me; I stand indifferent.
(Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself,
I am large, I contain multitudes.)

The criminal that stood in the box, the judge that sat and sentenced him, the fluent lawyers, the jury, the audience,
Committers of crimes,
Committers of many beautiful virtues—
I swear they are averaged now, one is no better than the other,
The night and sleep have liken’d them and restored them.

I sit and look out upon all the sorrows of the world, and upon all oppression and shame,
I see in low life the mother misused by her children, dying, neglected, gaunt, desperate,
I see the wife misused by her husband, I see the treacherous seducer of young women,
I see the workings of battle, pestilence, tyranny, I see martyrs and prisoners,
I observe the slights and degradations cast by arrogant persons upon laborers, the poor, and upon negroes, and the like;
All these—all the meanness and agony without end—I sitting look out upon,
I mind them or the show or resonance of them,
See, hear, and am silent,
(But always keep up living interest in public questions—
This is the city and I am one of the citizens,
Whatever interests the rest interests me—politics, wars, markets, newspapers.)

I hope I shall not myself fall into the error of prescribing a specific for indispensable evils.
Shallow people, possessed with zeal for any particular cause, make it a great merit to run to and fro after special prohibitions that will fix the case. The true friends of the many excellent reforms that mark the present age, are not necessarily those who complacently put themselves forward and seek to carry the good through by penalties and stoppages and arrests and fines. Compulsion is a temporary support, causing much bad blood and certain reaction.

The true friends of elevation and reform are the friends of the fullest rational liberty. For there is this vital and antiseptic power in liberty, that it tends forever to strengthen what is good and erase what is bad.

Your mighty political improvements—good enough as far as they go—are still but partial reforms,
The true revolutions are of the interior life,
For so long as the spirit is not changed, any change of appearance is of no avail;
You cannot legislate men into morality.

Were you looking to be held together by lawyers? or by an agreement on a paper? or by arms?
To hold men together by paper and seal or by compulsion is no account,
Nay, nor the world, nor any living thing, will so cohere,
We want a living principle.
That only holds men together which aggregates all in a living principle as nature has, as the hold of the limbs of the body or the fibres of plants, under which nothing can go wrong.

We want no reforms, no institutions, no parties—
Do you suppose the laws might be reformed and rectified?
That which really balances and conserves the social and political world is not so much legislation, police, treaties, and dread of punishment, as the latent eternal intuitional sense, in humanity, of fairness, manliness, decorum, etc.
Leap over and dive under, for the time, all the reforms and propositions that worry these days, and go to making of powerful men and women,
With these all reforms, all good, will come—
Without these all reforms, all good, all outside effects, were useless and helpless.

NEXT: The Ultimate Goal of Government