Skip to main content

Syndicated Philosophies

ISSUE:  Winter 1926

That this is an age of industrialism and materialism; of canned food and tinned music; of organized cheering and vicarious “popular” sports in which you and I participate by sitting still for two hours and a half is a commonplace. We all know it. We all submit to it more or less patiently.

There is a sinister aspect of the matter which no one who puts his trust in the intelligence of the average man can view without grave disquiet. We are being starved intellectually and stultified emotionally by being fed day by day the cheap, shallow, saccharine output of certain self-constituted prophets, saviors and reformers.

Fifteen or twenty years ago when the fake nostrum and the patent medicine threatened to cure or kill us, Collier’s Weekly led the fight to purge the columns of our newspapers of their merits and potencies. It is time to give attention to the syndicated philosophies and moralizings which are carried to all corners of the country in the guise of the wisdom of life.

There is no surer way of causing starvation than to give food that has no nourishment in it. To contend that a man dying from a diet of nicely boxed sawdust must like it because he eats it, or that if he had the choice he would not select other food, is to commit one of the familiar fallacies of argumentation. Whether the American people have a perverted or debased appetite for devitalized mental food is at least open to debate. Perhaps it has. It is well known that children, left to themselves will ignore most of the essential vegetables and concentrate upon chocolates and lollipops. And it is to this very weakness in human nature, for sucking lollipops throughout life, that the vendors of oversweet philosophies cater.

It may be that this phenomenon of a press filled with professors of culture, instructors of etiquette, counsellors in the ways of success, guides in morals, and purveyors of health and vigor is only a phase of our natural development and that age will bring immunity as it does to certain diseases of childhood. Indeed, it may be the cyclic manifestation of a mania like roller skating which time will cure. It may be a display of man’s inherent craving for mental inactivity, deliverance from the realities of life, and appeasement of the sense of responsibility. Whatever it is, it must be admitted that a considerable portion of the literature of this country to-day constitutes a huge ether-cone which is being held before our intellectual nostrils. Breathing the noxious fumes with which it is saturated, not only stupefies us but it prevents us from getting the vapours that are essential to our full development, that promote our well being, that facilitate and condition human progress.

To-day everything is machine made save man. Standardization is our sin, stereotypy our infirmity. We dress like our neighbours; we copy our superiors’ morals and our inferiors’ speech; we get our political convictions from mail-order houses; our ethical orientation from half-wit subliminalists and hard-shelled fundamentalists and our intellectual pabulum from joy-writers and movie-mobs. We season this mass with cross-word puzzles and jazz, and spice it with radio disseminations of cheap music and vulgar sentiments ; we take no pleasure in gathering or preparing our intellectual food, and we insist that it be in tabloid form so we may bolt it. The result is we are of a nation of literary dyspeptics, displaying the effects of insanitation and threatened with sterility. We have only ourselves to blame, but before we can hope to be cured we must rid ourselves of our literary dope-doctors. The only way to do it is by teaching the public patiently and persistently, that they are being poisoned and then counsel them to an appropriate dietary.

In placing an estimate upon the activities of these journalists, essayists, feature writers, physical culturists and such like, it must be borne in mind that the sincerity of their own purpose is no criterion of the results they produce. Very little effective work can be done without belief in it on the part of the one who does it. Yet one may be permitted to expect a certain amount of guile in some cases, of fake and insincerity in others. Whatever variety of prophet he may be or call himself, he has learned to gild his wares so that they not only look like real gold, but the gilt does not come off on first handling. Moreover, from perspicacity and experience, he has come to know the strength and amount of the stuff which his public can sniff, and from which it can get spurious stimulation and specious satisfaction. He has observed our vanities, studied our infirmities, catalogued our limitations and instead of helping us to shed, cure or counteract them, he caters to them. He trades on our vanities, he coues our infirmities and encourages us to believe that our limitations are virtues. Like Milton’s Belial, his tongue drops manna and he makes the worse appear the better reason. He is like the reincarnation of the sophist of old, a mercenary adventurer who spreads popular opinions and calls them wisdom. The sophist, said Plato, is a man who has learnt by experience to understand the temper and wants of some huge and dangerous wild beast, and has found out when it is safe to approach it, what sounds irritate and soothe it, what its various cries mean and who, having acquired this knowledge, calls it wisdom, systematizes it into an art and proceeds to teach it. What pleases the beast he calls right, and what displeases it he calls wrong; though he is utterly ignorant which of its desires and wants are, in fact, right and good, and which are the reverse. The sophist makes wisdom consist in understanding the temper and fancies of the multitude. He deals, it is true, with ethical and political questions, but in the most superficial way.

There are countless such persons writing for the newspapers and magazines to-day. It is not a personal prejudice that makes me propose to take one of them in particular, examine his writings, draw conclusions from my labour, and apply them to one of our problems: how to ride in the progress-wagon, and still find time to read worth-while literature, assimilate it and utilize it for our intellectual-growth and cultural display. It is rather that Dr. Frank Crane is the leader of this group of writers, that he is the most conspicuously successful in his chosen field, and that he may serve better than any other as a screen on which to display the thoughts and reflections engendered by such writing. I have not read all the 1500 articles of the “Crane Classics.” I treated them the way the French custom officials treat the trunks of those leaving the country. They pick every twentieth trunk for inspection. I read every fifth article.

Dr. Crane’s experience as a Methodist and Congregational Minister taught him the temper and wants of what he calls the “great, silent, unvocal majority: plain everyday United States Folks.” When he was 48 years old, he decided to abandon church work and to devote the remainder of his days to the sheep everybody shears. He would be their shepherd, their Moses. He was not avaricious: his salary was good. He was practically settled for life and his children were grown and educated. But he was tired of the House, and the Open Road appeared to him like two outstretched arms inviting him to an embrace. He decided to take it.

He had a disregard for money that reminds one vividly of Don Quixote, and like the immortal lantern-jawed Man-chian he thirsted for adventure. “My position was too secure; unless one is a bit uncertain where his daily bread is coming from, he lacks the atmosphere of hazard necessary if one is to keep young.” Many stand ready to pay almost any price to keep young, but the most venturesome and brave will think that the figure mentioned is too high. Those who dread the future and are apprehensive of what it has in store for them because it is not assured will be further disheartened to know that their concern is an indication that youth and its lures are forever lost to them.

When Senor Quixada yielded to the oddest fancy that ever entered a madman’s brain: to turn knight-errant, and roam throughout the world, armed cap-a-pie, and mounted on his steed in quest of adventures, he sold many acres of his land to provide the equipment. The Ex-Minister borrowed $1600, and went by water to Chicago.

No analysis of the work of the clerical journalist could be just or correct, did not the person who made it have constantly in mind that Dr. Crane took on his new work in the spirit of the true missionary. He had dedicated himself to mankind and he reflected: “Jesus was not in the Temple; He was by the roadside. He went down to where humanity was and talked there.” Thus the journalistic debut of “the man with a million friends” whose proud boast is that he preaches every day to 25,000,000 persons was made in Chicago, following in the footsteps of his Master.

He realized that preaching was his most powerful weapon, but “the best place to preach is in the columns of the daily paper.” It was difficult to convince editors, but finally one yielded on being told “Human nature is the same as it has always been, and people have always liked to be preached to. Nobody has offered the right kind. Mine is the right kind.” No one can say he was not right. The American public has lapped it up as avidly as a hungry kitten laps milk and the preacher has amassed a fortune far beyond his most avaricious dream.

The preachings of the past fifteen years destined for immortality have been gathered within the confines of twelve volumes. They are offered to the public with the assurance that the author’s “genius consists in his ability to give us in the clearest epigrammatic language the best thoughts of ages, presented in such fashion that they can be read with profit by a school boy or a University Professor.”

Examination of these works convinces me that the author has no genius; that he writes neither epigrammatically nor grammatically; that his philosophy is sophistic, his preaching platitudinous, his sentiment puerile; that he caters to deforming possessions of his readers—their vanity, unction and insularity—and that he cannot be read profitably by intelligent persons, save with their tongues in their cheeks and with resentment in their hearts.

Not only has Dr. Crane no genius—the ability to do something new—but his talent is even questionable—the ability to do well what others have done before. He has industry, assurance, and he has made a special study of the thoughts and trends of human parasites. He owes his success to these possessions, amalgamated with the ignorance and prejudice of his readers and their determination to keep up with the band wagon leading the procession of automobiles, aeroplanes, radios, movies, tabloid news- and picture-papers. He assures them they are clever, enlightened, generous, the salt of the earth; the light of the world who are neither properly appreciated nor adequately exploited.

His self-imposed mission is to do both and to steer them in their new exaltation. His “stuff” appeals most to women of a certain type, the type he writes for. “The astral person who looks over my shoulder when I write is always female. My thoughts being masculine, I seek the feminine mind.” He feels as one with the people and with the world of the middle-class, and he heard, like Socrates, an inner voice which whispered: “Put your light on a candlestick and not under a bushel that it may give light to all that are in the land.” Manner is as important as matter; therefore, he has developed a technique: short sentences, brief paragraphs, homely words and pithy ejaculations. They are not always impregnated with truth: “Every human being can live on a little less than he does live on.” Many members of the wealthy syndicator’s profession would hate to try it and I have known many men and women who would commit suicide by further curtailing their expenditures.

It is difficult constantly to keep up verisimilitude, consistency and sense in such writing in series. “After all, everybody is alike. All men have the same or similar hopes and fears; the same emotions are instinctively in the Chinese and the Anab; the Japanese and the Europeans, that are found in ourselves. We are all born of a woman and sooner or later must lie down in a grave.”

If there is anything that is established beyond doubt it is that in nature there is no equality; no two things, no two persons, are equal, which is what I suppose the Reverend Doctor means by “alike.”

I know very little about the emotions of the Chinese and the Japs, but what little I know about the Irish and the Arab justifies me in denying the allegation. However, I admit the sentence is cryptic. If it means that emotions are instinctive whether one is born in Hong Kong or in Ho-boken, I must withdraw the défi.

This successful merchant of his wares says that part of his success is due to his determination to present only one idea, one point he calls it, at a time; the idea came from the living-room, the bed-room and kitchen of the human heart. “I tried to tell the housewife how her work-basket is related to the spheres and to her everlasting soul; to show the cook the divine relation of dishwashing to life; to make the business man see the River of God running through his office; to reveal to the shop girls that her tears and laughter are as real as those of the duchess and famous actress.” I can see how a housewife’s work-basket is related to her mortal body, but how it is related to the spheres, whatever they may be, or to her everlasting soul, is beyond me.

It will occur to many, as it does to me, to ask “Is it upon experience or intuition, reading or verbal communication, inspiration or assumption that his revelations to shop girls are based?” Shall it profit one to disparage the emotions of duchesses and famous actresses, now that they both seem to be disappearing.

The divine is satisfied with the quality, quantity and appearance of his articles. “It is not so much the ‘sermon* people want, as it is the essay. The essay can be made as interesting as the short-story. I did it because I believed it. I believed it because I did it.” He found the “old-fashioned essay a conglomeration of many ideas,” and far too long, so he abbreviated it, took one point and sharpened it, and drove it home. He was so successful that many of them contain no more words than the best of Bacon, or even Epictetus and Thomas a Kempis.

It is this prophet’s oracularity and finality which he calls “driving the point home” that meek persons must find annoying. “Laziness, drunkenness, sensuality and overeating are diseases that come on later in life. Those who indulge in them are happy only by fevered spells. Between these they are consumed with restlessness, doubt, ennui and despair.” I spent about the same number of years combatting these “diseases” as the Minister spent in his profession, so I may claim some familiarity with them. I had them in the same horror as he had Satan and sin; even now I hold no brief for them, but I am bound to say that I never knew a lazybones, drunkard, sensualist or gourmand who was consumed between indulgences with restlessness, doubt, ennui and despair. In truth I never knew anyone who would admit he ate too much, and I have made more enemies by telling people they overate than I have by criticising their literary creations. How can one know what these deadly sins do to one, unless one is afflicted, or lives in intimacy with those who are. Surely Darnel Webster was burdened with one, Goethe contended with another and John Fiske with the last, and to say that they were happy only by fevered spells is to speak beyond the facts of history. Furthermore, it is my opinion that the majority of sluggards, drunkards and sensualists have one quality in common with poets: they are born, not made. And the poet who does not begin to sing before maturity rarely sings at all.

The wholesale literary producer is no more accurate when he shifts from theology to medicine. “The muscles demand something to do? When we refuse, they breed poison in us. They curse us with gout, rheumatism and biliousness.” It is when we use them or rather overuse them that they breed poison in us. The three disorders named have no more relationship to muscle inactivity than they have to Catholicism or radicalism. Facts are useful but not essential to the author; his determination is to be “solid” with just plain Folks.

In an essay entitled “We are The Sheep” he is the spokesman of the great silent unvocal majority who have all the virtues we would like to have and none of the vices that we know we have. They, the “bourgeois,” have few wants and they are readily satisfied: they are peaceful, honest, indulgent, provident, temperate, law-abiding, God-fearing men and women. They make up the vast multitude that walk when the street-car men strike, freeze when the janitors strike, pay fifty dollars for a thirty-dollar suit when the tailors strike, eat flapjacks when the bakers strike, cook their own bacon and eggs when the cook strikes, and enjoy a little peace of mind and a chance to talk when the theatre orchestra strikes. The bourgeoisie is not an exclusive corporation, anyone can enter. The necessary qualification for membership is, you must hold bourgeois opinions: that prohibition and woman suffrage are blessings; that Wall Street and Big Business have been maligned; that the rich are not necessarily criminal nor the poor nonentities. Even after you have read the virtues of this great class, you may think you don’t wish to enroll. Well, Abraham Lincoln and William Shakespeare were members and so were J. J. Hill, James Whitcomb Riley, and John Wanamaker; if that does not overcome your aversion to joining you may see the matter in a different light when you hear that Big Chief Mel. Stone, Henry Ford and Walt Mason are members, “also the typewriter and telephone girls, the clerk in the shoe store and the milkman, the doctor, lawyer, preacher and the ex-saloon keeper.”

It is an old game this currying favour and courting popularity by praise and flattery. D’Annunzio did it successfully in Fiume, and the Bastille would never have been taken had not the leaders of the French Revolution told the “people” the power latent in their noble breasts.

Dr. Crane says that his sincerest, truest self comes out on the platform, in the pulpit, or writing for publication. “Men are best known in their public utterances. It is in our private life that we are pretending. Our acquaintances never know our real natures, our business associates have no idea what manner of men we really are, even our friends rarely guess the inner truth about us.” Mr. Frank Harris will likely not agree that one knows Carlyle a hundred times more intimately through his books than he could have known him through personal contact, and I am certain that Sir James Crichton Browne, physician and friend of Carlyle, had a far more comprehensive knowledge of his character, virtues and infirmities than I have. Be that as it may, the author in question is willing to be estimated by his utterances and one cannot blame him for this since they are a credit to him.

Broadminded, tolerant, sympathetic, understanding, slow to condemn and quick to pardon, with lenses for the myopic, trumpets for the deaf, staffs for the halting, interpreters for the mute, and sedatives for the suffering, the Min* ister entered upon the self-imposed world pastorate. It is not easy to write a sermon every day without repeating oneself, and it is difficult to praise the same persons and things day after day with different words. He tells us of our virtues, but a suspicion crosses our mind that he knows our weaknesses too. He knows we want to be happy, successful and rich, but most of all happy. Carlyle’s idea of happiness suits his fancy, so he serves it often: “Happiness is as the value of a common fraction of which the Denominator stands for the Things-You-Think-You-Ought-To-Have, and the numerator for the Things-You-Actually-Have.” To be happy, we are advised to divide the denominator, and keep it in proportion to the numerator.

Prudence and wisdom are the things of least value in life. “Act at once; you may be wrong:” but it is of no moment; you probably would have been wrong anyway. Carefulness is also a handicap; the sails of the boat of life are its only worth-while possessions; ballast made of prudence, wisdom, care and hesitation is encumberance. “Let the boneheads be careful. Let the dull and prudent and timid soul make ballast,” advice upon which Mr. Carlo Ponzi obviously acted.

“The rules of life are not hard to learn, because it has been played so many years, and by so many serious-minded people.” What difference does it make how many have “played” at life before one takes up the game? Has any one ever been known to profit by the experience of others? We insist on finding out for ourselves. Besides, no rules of life have been written that can be learned by posterity, and no one would believe them if they had been written. Every man thinks his case is different from the case of the more experienced. He will continue to burn his fingers and learn from experience. It is childish to expect anyone to be taught by the troubles of others.

Some of the reformer’s discoveries are startling, such as: “Resourcefulness simply means to know how to fail suecessfully.” i have known many resourceful persons—more Jews than Christians. “Money is not everything, and there are occasions when we should scorn it.” The only moment I can think of when it should be scorned is when you are in articvlos mortis, and even then you should not indulge yourself too freely unless you are a celibate. “About seven-eighths of the common or garden misery of men and women is caused by money.” It would be interesting to know how to distinguish between “common or garden misery” and the variety I encountered in a third of a century’s intimacy with the poor. There was misery galore, and most of it appeared to flow from want of money.

It is refreshing to follow a man who is always sure of his statements: “Dickens is the greatest novelist that ever lived.” “Emerson was the greatest and most original mind America has produced.” “No matter what critics may say of him, Longfellow is the most widely read poet of our people.” “Gibbon is the one incomparable historian.”

The writer’s memory is not so trustworthy as it once was and consistency has lost some of its sparkle. In “Crustacean and Vertebrate,” he urges us to use our vitality to go ahead in the world, to use our “punch” to put forth our ideals of justice, of truth and of helpfulness and to make positive assertions. In “Mule Power,” he glorifies stub-borness, the man who can stand still and refuse to push or to be pushed. “Mule-power is ideal. Imitate it and balk.” In one essay we learn that we should be content if we could convince ourselves that we make very little difference in a world which has never suffered long by the disappearance of any one of its creatures. In another, we read: “It is I, I, in whom are concentrated the intentions of the universe; the universe meant for me to live, to love, to do, and to triumph. I am I, I am not a little exclusive I. Nor men, nor events, nor death, not the machinations of the devil, can dismay me. Removed from this earth, dead, I shall expect new planets as footholds for my forces.” There are persons who believe that America is the greatest country of the world, but it is a bit strong to say that it has all other nations of the earth “beat to a frazzle.” Everyone admits it is a good place to do business and big business at that and our patriot is as strong for business as he is for his country. “Business is a worthier, fitter and nobler thing for a human being” than literature, artistry or profession. “The world will be a deal better off when every person over twenty-one is in Business; that is, doing work and getting paid for it.” Lenin was of the same opinion, and mentioning his name reminds me that I found frequently in the “Classics” sentiments that the “Deliverer” of Russia would have approved such as “The person who does not earn money, whether a common hobo and loafer or endowed idler, is a nuisance and an enemy to the social order.” That is one of the planks of the Bolshevik platform.

The versatile sociologist can write the solution of any problem, that is, a soluble problem, if he is granted four hundred words. How shall he solve the labour question? Easy enough—get business so adjusted that it is a pleasure. We are all hedonists of the last analysis: “To turn Labor into Craft, to make railroading fun, to make conditions of work so agreeable in factory and mine that to toil there is man’s game, to make trade an adventure, that is the world’s want.” Imagine a world of people all anxious to go down to a mine, or build a railroad for the fun of it!

He would also have peace and love between workers and employers: “The most crying need in government to-day is some kind of court where disputes between employer and employed can be settled by law, justice and reason, and not by assault.” This would be an ideal world, were it not that law, justice and reason have a way of sticking to the winner’s side, whereas the loser calls it unlawful, unjust and unreasonable, and it does not seem quite easy to conceive ‘of a group of factory workers, only too glad to renounce their claim against their employer because the “court” has told them they were wrong.

Some day, when every one else is in business, a human bookworm given to playing hooky will resurrect one of these essays. His eye will light on the phrase “I don’t know whether they are good literature or not.” Then he will meditate and mumble: “I know something the sagacious author did not know. I know they are not literature.”

After a fortnight given over largely to the “Classics” I turned in fatigue and in sorrow to an essayist who has often refreshed and solaced me. The first sentence I encountered was: “The principal use of reading to me (Montaigne) is that it keeps my reason awake and employs my judgment.” Reading syndicated essays puts my reason to sleep and thrusts idleness upon my judgment. If their twenty-five million readers do not realize that it is doing the same to them, it is because their reasons have been opiated, their judgments chloroformed.

The generation now at its zenith has witnessed a change of world conduct the like of which has never been. Man neither works nor plays as did his ancestors and likely he never will again. Science has brought about this change. It has annihilated distance and forced the ether of the earth to yield some of its secrets. It has added years to man’s span of life and practically it has purged him of pain. Kindness is rapidly supplanting cruelty and selfishness; a God of Mercy and of Love reigns instead of a God of Vengeance and of Hate. This world is a pleasant place to live in. Should we succeed in ridding ourselves of war, disease, and human parasites it would be paradise.

Much of the inanity, boredom and wastefulness of human existence comes from the excess of material prosperity over knowledge and appreciation. Hundreds of thousands of people would not squander the few hours they possess this side of eternity on the vapidities of modern life if they had not fallen behind intellectually. That in its essence is the problem that faces civilization to-day: Is it to be downed by a material prosperity which outstrips human wisdom or will the great mass of people grow enough in their knowledge of values to be able to pick the real from the spurious?

The desire for real, mental and spiritual nourishment is one of the most conspicuous characteristics of our day. It will not be satisfied by such sawdust wisdom as the dozen and one package philosophies that are sold over the counter of our daily press. It will need all the honesty, all the courage, all the resourcefulness the human race has, to solve the problem that confronts us to-day, but there is a treasure of distilled wisdom to be drawn from the great literature of the past. Plutarch, Socrates, Homer, St. Augustine, Horace, Dante, Shakespeare, Montaigne, Bacon, St. Francis, Moliere, Goethe, Keats, Dostoevsky, Hawthorne, Emerson, Whitman, hold for everyone of us a wealth that shall never be fully explored or exhausted.

If there is a moral obligation on the individual to know the best, what shall we say of the obligation that rests upon magazines and newspapers to provide a food that is above the level of poison or starvation rations? And what shall be said of publishers who purvey for profits only cheap philosophies on which the human spirit wastes and dies?

It is time for a new social conscience and a new sense of responsibility in regard to the great press that serves the multitude.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading