Reform only yourself, for in doing that you have done everything.
For the past 28 years we have conducted several hundred Seminars here at FEE and around this and other nations. In each of these, I always do the concluding lecture on methodology. Assuming the participants favor the private ownership, free market, limited government way of life, what are the appropriate steps for such an achievement?
Recently, a participant came to me afterward, making a confession, admittedly unusual: “That’s the best lecture I have ever heard. It hurts, but it’s true!” What was it that hurt? It was my unorthodox contention that ours is a learning rather than a selling or a reforming-of-others problem. My proposed remedy was contrary to what he had been doing. He had, until then, been devoting his energies to the reforming of others rather than to the reform of self—as have countless thousands who despise socialism, that is, the planned economy and the welfare state. He believed, for the first time, that he had been wasting his energies, doubtless doing more harm than good. Is it too harsh a judgment to claim that he had been a victim of vanity?
Vanity? As related to the freedom philosophy, it is an over-assessment of one’s own understanding. It is the fiction that all would be quite satisfactory were others as well versed as the would-be reformer. Wrote Adam Smith, “Vanity is the foundation of the most ridiculous and contemptible vices—the vices of affectation and common lying.” True, most are innocent affectations, but innocent or intentional does not alter their damage. The sad fact is that none of us has more than scratched the surface in understanding and explaining how freedom works its wonders.
In order that a blessed humility may replace a devilish vanity, let’s have a brief look at the source of our actions: the brain.
“The human brain, like the rest of the nervous system, contains its full quota of nerve cells at birth—trillions of them! Many of these are present in the embryonic, neuro-blastic form. The primitive neuroblast (undeveloped cell) is not functionally alive. It must develop into a neuron and this development proceeds well into middle life and still further in the more gifted and mentally active individuals.
“The normal human brain always contains a greater source of neuroblasts than can possibly develop into neurons during the span of life, and the potentialities of the human cortex are never fully realized. There is a surplus and, depending upon physical factors, education, environment and conscious effort, more or less of the initial store of neuroblasts will develop into mature, functioning neurons.
“The development of the more plastic and newer tissue of the brain depends to a large extent upon the conscious efforts made by the individual. There is every reason to assume that development of cortical functions is promoted by mental activity and that continued mental activity is an important factor in the retention of cortical plasticity into late life.
“Goethe, Voltaire, Kant [and others] are among the numerous examples of men whose creative mental activities extended into the years associated with physical decline.
“There also seem sufficient grounds for the assumption that habitual disuse of these highest centers results in atrophy or at least brings about a certain mental decline, and examples bearing out this contention are only too numerous.”1
If the above be a realistic analysis, and I believe it is, then the genesis of all human action relates to the stagnation or development of the human cortex. To have but the dimmest idea of how the neuroblasts are or are not converted into functioning neurons will give us brilliant instructions as to what we should and should not do. At the very least, we will be able to grasp the vice of vanity and the virtue of humility and what’s required to abandon the former and move toward the latter. Also, we will be moved to relegate reform exclusively to the reform of self. Leave others to their own reform!
Victims of vanity! For an instructive example, reflect on the “teachers” in the U.S.A. The vast majority of them are devoted to reforming pupils, rarely doubting their own wisdom. How would they perform were they to become aware of their own shortcomings? A few ideas that support the learning thesis:
The highest function of the teacher consists not so much in imparting knowledge as in stimulating the pupil in its love and pursuit. To know how to suggest is the art of teaching.
The teacher who is attempting to teach without inspiring the pupil with a desire to learn is hammering on cold iron.
The best teacher is the one who suggests rather than dogmatizes, and inspires his listener with the wish to teach himself.
To waken interest and kindle enthusiasm is the sure way to teach easily and successfully.
A tutor should not be continually thundering instruction into the ears of his pupil, as if he were pouring it through a funnel, but induce him to think, to distinguish, and to find out things for himself; sometimes opening the way, at other times leaving it for him to open; and so accommodate the precepts to the capacity of his pupil.
It would be a great advantage to some school-masters if they would steal two hours a day from their pupils, and give their own minds the benefit of the robbery.
These reflections on “teachers” apply equally to those persons in other occupations—business, religion, or whatever—who dogmatize or, better yet, try to “bring others up to their level” of understanding. This tactic has at least two flaws: (1) trying to insinuate one’s notions into the consciousness of others revolts them, and (2) the level projected is far below what’s desirable. We cannot reform others!
Who then can you or I reform? Only the first person singular, the one seen in the mirror, the sole individual on earth over whom one has any creative control! Converting one’s own neuroblasts into functioning neurons is a challenging and an interesting possibility. But that I can do this to another’s brain is obviously impossible!
I should never have as an aim or ambition the bringing of another to my level of understanding. That would put the initiative for the other’s improvement—the development of his neurons—in my hands rather than in his.
The neurons of a person’s brain are developed, if at all, by conscious effort on the part of that person. When someone, in his vanity, proposes to develop your neurons, we may properly refer to the process as “brainwashing.”
Brainwashing presupposes brainwashers and the brainwashed—the pied pipers and their following. The former exist by the millions and only because many more millions wish it that way. The latter want their thinking done for them, and this the pied pipers eloquently promise to do.
Neither those who promise to lead nor those who promise to follow exert conscious effort to realize their cortical potentialities; they’re not even aware of the mental activity that could be theirs. As a consequence, the “habitual disuse of these highest centers results in atrophy or at least brings about a certain mental decline.” These, then, are the victims of vanity—the “leaders” and the led!
“Continual mental activity,” we are told, “is an important factor in the retention of cortical plasticity into late life.” Of the very few—an infinitesimal minority—who experience this development, does it follow that they understand and believe in the freedom philosophy? Rarely! Mrs. Eulenburg-Wiener, as quoted above, mentioned Goethe, Voltaire, and Kant, believers in liberty. However, she included several Fabian socialists. Had she grasped the freedom thesis herself? Anyway, hers was a brilliant explanation of what accounts for the more gifted individuals among us.
Should we be distressed by the fact that only a very few among gifted individuals grasp the blessings of freedom? Of course not! Merely acknowledge the countless specializations for which you and I have not the slightest competency or even desire. To understand freedom, even partially, is as rare a talent as graces the minds of human beings. This, as with any other specialization, is to be expected—in tune with reality.
What then is the appropriate role of the few among us who are believers? It is to give intensive, conscious effort to our own improvement, to converting our neuroblasts into functioning neurons. Concentrate on cortical growth, and this alone, which energizes the magnetism that draws others to seek one’s tutorship. Keep in mind that only seekers are learners. Our role is to have a freedom enlightenment sufficient to induce seeking.
Finally, share with others. Forget about “reforming” them! The more we share, the more we learn. This is in the interest of self and freedom!