Part 1 | Part 2
To me, “Thou shalt not steal” is a principle not because some sage of antiquity said so but because, in my own experience, it has been revealed as a principle which must be adhered to if we are not to perish from the face of the earth.
To the ones who have not been graced with this revelation; to the ones who hold that they should gratify their personal charitable feelings, not with their own goods, but by using the police force to take goods from others; to those who would indulge in legal thievery and honestly think the practice right and honorable to those, I say, “Thou shalt not steal” is no principle at all. It is only the principle of someone else.
A principle, then, is what one holds to be a fact of life, of nature, or, as some of us would put it, of God. If this is correct, it follows that a principle is a matter of personal individual judgment. Judgment is fallible. Therefore, there are wrong principles as well as right principles. Aristotle said there were a million ways to be wrong, only one way to be right. That suggests the measure of fallibility among us.
Now then, if principle is a matter of personal judgment, and judgment is conceded to be fallible, on what is right principle dependent?
The discovery and adoption of right principle are dependent on the evolution of judgment through logic, reason, observation and honesty. When judgments deteriorate we have what history refers to as the “Dark Ages.” When judgments evolve or improve, reference is made to “The Renaissance.” The question that grows out of this reasoning is, how does judgment evolve? My answer is, by revelation.
For instance, I am convinced that no person is capable of rising above his best judgment. To live in strict accordance with one’s best judgment is to live as perfectly as one can, as humble or as mediocre as that may be. The one hope for personal betterment lies in raising the level of one’s judgment; judgment is a limiting factor.
If the evolution of judgment rests on revelation how is revelation to be achieved? I can think of no answer superior to that suggested by Goethe:
“Nature understands no jesting; she is always true, always serious, always severe; she is always right, and the errors and faults are always those of man. The man incapable of appreciating her she despises; and only to the apt, the pure, and the true, does she resign herself, and reveal her secrets.”
The sole way to revelation, to ultimate truth, to nature, as Goethe puts it, or to God, as I put it, lies through one’s own person. It is my faith that the individual is God’s manifestation so far as any given individual is concerned. My way to God is through my own person. He will reveal Himself to me, I will be His manifestation, only to the extent that I am “apt, pure and true.”
But the revelation of truth and of principles does not come automatically, without effort, like “manna from Heaven.” Revelation is the product of a diligent application of an individual’s mental resources. Truth must be sought, and its revelation is most likely in an active mind.
It is rather easy to observe that to some, very little, if anything, is ever revealed. To others there come revelations far beyond anything I now possess or have any right seriously to expect. Anyway, with this as a faith, based, as it is, on such revelation as is mine, God is as intimate to me as my own person. He exists for each of us only insofar as we achieve our own conception of His likeness.
This is why I believe, so fervently, in the sanctity and dignity of the individual. This is why I subscribe to the philosophy that each person has inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. For me to deny this philosophy by violating the life, liberty or property of another, by inflicting my ways on other persons, is for me to assert myself as a god over God, to interfere with another person’s relationship with God. For me to use compulsion in any manner whatsoever to cast others in my image is for me to rebuke God in his several manifestations.
If one accepts the individual in this light, a rule of conduct emerges with crystal clarity: reflect in word and in deed, always and accurately, that which one’s best judgment dictates. This is you in such godliness as you possess. To do less, to deviate one iota, is to sin against yourself, that is, against your Maker as He has manifested Himself in you. To do less is not to compromise. To do less is to surrender!
Certainly, there is nothing new about the efficacy of accurately reflecting one’s best judgment. This principle of conduct has been known throughout the ages. Now and then it has been expressed beautifully and simply. Shakespeare enunciated this principle when he had Polonius say these words:
“This above all: To thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.”
Edmond Rostand meant nothing different when he wrote this line for Cyrano: “Never to make a line I have not heard in my own heart.”
American folklore counseled intellectual integrity with: “Honesty is the best policy.”
The Bible announces the penalty of surrender; what it means to abandon principle. It says: “The wages of sin is death.”
Whether the wages of sin be mere physical death or the death of man’s spirit his character, his integrity, his self-respect one needs to make no further inquiry to verify this Biblical pronouncement. Abundant testimony has been provided all of us in our lifetime. Nor is the end in sight. All the world is filled with examples of warped judgments and principles abandoned: men ruling over man; the glamour of popularity rather than the strictness of judgment directing policy; expediency substituting for such truth as is known; businessmen employing experts to help them seem right, often at the expense of rightness itself; labor leaders justifying any action that gratifies their lust for power; political leaders asserting that the end justifies the means; clergymen preaching expropriation of property without consent in the name of “common good”; teachers advocating collectivism and denying the sanctity and the dignity of the individual; politicians building platforms from public-opinion polls; farmers and miners joining other plunderbundists in demands for other people’s property; arrogance replacing humility; in short, we are sinking into a new dark age, an age darkened by persons who have abandoned intellectual integrity; who through ignorance or design, have adopted bad ideas and principles.
If we were suddenly to become aware of foreign vandals invading our shores, vandals that would kill our children, rape our women and pilfer our industry, every last man of us would rise in arms that we might sweep them from our land.
Yes, these bad ideas, these ideas based on the abandonment of absolute integrity, are the most depraved and dangerous vandals known to man. Is the Bible right that “the wages of sin is death”? I give you the last two wars, wars born of unreason and lies. And the present so-called peace! I give you the Russia of 1929-1932 where millions died of starvation and, in other years, where other millions died in this and other ways. I give you almost any place in the world today.
Perhaps the reason that so many fear stating accurately what they believe is that they are not aware that it is safe to do so.
Does it take courage to be honest, that is, does one have to be brave to state accurately one’s highest opinion? Indeed, not. A part of revealed truth is: It is not dangerous to be honest. One who possesses this revelation is to that extent intelligent. Being honest, not surrendering principle, rests only upon intelligence, not at all upon courage. Relying, erroneously, on courage, many persons become blusterous with their opinions; they get cantankerous when they are honest. But, in this case, the villain is their cantankerousness, not their honesty.
Finally, some may contend that due to the great variety of judgments differences and antagonisms would still remain even if everyone were a model of intellectual integrity. This is true. But differences lend themselves to a change toward the truth in an atmosphere of honesty. Under these circumstances they can be endured. For after all, life, in a physical sense, is and for ages to come, will be a compromise. But if principle is abandoned, even compromise will not be possible. Nothing but chaos!
Honesty each person true to himself at his best is the condition from which revelation springs; from which knowledge expands; from which intelligence grows; and from which judgments improve.
Honesty and intelligence are godlike and are, therefore, primary virtues. Anyone is capable of being true to himself. That is the one equality we were all born with. Its abandonment is the greatest sin of all.
If there be no falseness there will then be as much intelligence as we are capable of. How nearer God can we get?
Part 1 | Part 2
This essay is from Volume I of Essays on Liberty , published by FEE in 1952. Copyright 1952 The Foundation for Economic Education. Reprinted by permission.