By Leonard E. Read
n Heav’n’s disposing pow’r events unite,
Nor aught can happen wrong to him who acts aright.
The appropriate method for advancing the freedom way of life is, unquestionably, to live and explain the right way—emphasize the positive—rather than to denounce the countless ways of being wrong. However, there is an important subordinate aspect to explanation and denunciation. It has to do with praise and criticism, a matter worthy of some reflection.
Those who praise everything, whether the matter be good or bad, as well as those who criticize everybody and everything, act without discrimination. They would not qualify for Brooke’s blessing: “Nor aught can happen wrong to him who acts aright.”
Praise and criticism may be constructive or destructive, not only to the perpetrator but also to those toward whom the words are directed. Harm may be done to one or both parties, or—on the other hand—genuine good. The following is an attempt to sort the chaff from the wheat, the ignoble from the noble.
Individuals addicted to praising indiscriminately may realize an ignoble ambition. They may gain some favors from politicans and others they praise. At the very least they may be praised in return—an intoxicant that inflates their egos—flattery! The fumes of it invade the brain and make them selfish, proud and vain!
And what about those who are the objects of undeserved praise? Unless fortified with a rare discrimination, they will believe the folderol. They will overrate themselves. What a great man am I! Or, as has been said, “It takes a great deal of grace to be able to bear praise.” The gracious way to accept praise is to welcome it as a refreshing breeze passing by-gone with the wind! Admittedly difficult, but it is to act aright!
Does this mean that we should avoid all praise? Of course not! Praise has an important role to play. It should pertain, not to persons, but rather to economic, intellectual, moral and spiritual achievements. Examples:
- Praise the freedom way of life and all contributions to its better understanding.
- Praise all good thoughts, spoken or written.
- Praise is a debt we owe to virtue.
- Pay tribute to our great mentors of the past by praising their noble works.
“Nor aught can happen wrong to him who acts aright,”relates no less to criticism than to praise—perhaps more so. Criticism, for the most part, is of the “thou fool” variety. It is vicious and inflicts its depravity on the perpetrators as much as on those at whom it is aimed.
From the Sermon on the Mount, we read, “… whosoever shall say, thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire,” which I take to mean destruction of the self as contrasted with intellectual and spiritual unfoldment or growth in consciousness.
It is absurd to regard others as fools who do not think as I do, believe what I believe, act in my way. For if such were the case—all like me—all would perish. Who is harmed most by this mannerism, others—the “fools”—or I—the fooled? The ignoble I!
I have intimate acquaintances—quite a few of them—who receive more invitations to lecture on the freedom philosophy than they can possibly accommodate. Ever so many in this and other lands seek their counsel. And they know that only those who are seeking can learn. Yet, many of these freedom mentors desert the correct method. Why? They become so exasperated with what’s going on that they forsake their reason and yield to their emotions. They call their opponents fools or demagogues or some other derogatory name—criticism at its worst.
Criticism of the “thou fool” variety does far more than offend those at whom it is directed. It causes them to dislike or hate not only the name-callers but the freedom philosophy as well. It hardens them in their socialistic ways and toughens rather than weakens their stand—overcoming made far more difficult.
Now reflect on the name-callers and what this kind of criticism does to them. Not only must we not call them “fools” but, equally as important, we should not even think of them as such. This comes close to being an unattainable discipline but it is one for which we should strive. What happens to us when we think of others in this manner? It results in an overassessment of self: We have all the answers, they have none.
While I believe that collectivist answers are utterly false and that ours are in the direction of truth, I am unaware of anyone who has more than scratched the surface when it comes to understanding and making the case in clarity for the freedom way of life. This being the case, a profound humility should feature our lives—an acknowledgment that we know next to nothing!
It is ever so much easier to preach than to practice what is right. Over the years, I have come to see the error of name-calling, but I still find myself thinking unpleasantly of those whose politico-economic viewpoint is the opposite of mine. It is a habit difficult to overcome.
Is this to suggest that we devotees of freedom should cease all criticizing? Of course not! Criticism, used aright, should never be directed at persons; criticize the fallacies of socialism by showing the virtues of freedom. Strict adherence to this tactic has an all-too-seldom discovered blessing not only to self but to the freedom philosophy, freedom of speech being an integral part thereof. Impersonal but proper! This lesson was taught to me 45 years ago.
Back in the early days of the New Deal—the NIRA-the Blue Eagle, so-called—was invoked, a set of strangling controls endorsed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the NAM and most business leaders. On the staff of the Chamber at that time, I learned that one distinguished business leader—unknown to me personally—was severely criticizing this socialistic monstrosity we were sponsoring. “Thinking” that we were right, I called to set him straight. Following my nonsense, he employed a tactic which he rarely used. A very severe critic of all socialistic programs then on the rampage, he emphasized the positive, explaining the freedom philosophy in terms as clear as I have ever heard. That hour’s explanation was the birth of my turn about.
What is criticism’s most useful purpose? According to Samuel Johnson, “Criticism, as it was first instituted by Aristotle, was meant as a standard of judging well.”
Were we to follow Aristotle’s counsel, we would, first and foremost, look critically at our own thoughts, ideas, impulses. Is our understanding of the private ownership, free market, limited government way of life grounded in basic principles or is it merely superficial or imitative?
In the advancement of understanding, are our methods attractive or distractive? Have both praise and criticism been relegated to their appropriate roles?
And, finally, has that all-too-common practice of “reaching others” been replaced by the attempt to get so proficient that others will reach for the freedom-oriented self?
If the answers to these questions are not affirmative, then there is homework to be done. Whether others do it or not is none of my business. What is my business? My homework! Interestingly, the more I do the more I find there is to do! And what might have begun as drudgery becomes increasingly joyous.