Scudder on Tolstoy

There was a relation in Tolstoy’s mind. His healthy existence in the quiet of the fields held the clue as he believed to the conquest of the tenement-house evils. Let all who prey upon the labor of others — the privileged, the leisure, the capital-owning classes — follow his example: purify their lives, refrain from luxury, and share in physical toil. Two results, he believed, would follow. First, the crushing labor involved in the production of luxuries would be eliminated and a large amount of other labor would be lifted from the shoulders of the poor; next, and perhaps even more important, among those self-subjected to this Spartan discipline, would be born and developed by degrees a deep, ingrained distaste for the possession of any property at all. A free communism, voluntary, Christian, gentle, to be reached through no organized movement for social reconstruction, but as an ultimate result form the moralizing of individual conduct, will spread among all right-minded people; by holy contagion, men will become more and more right-minded; and the end, of which the old prophet never despaired, will be a world released and redeemed.

No thinking person, if religiously disposed, can dismiss this conception lightly. It will remain to the end operative in the inmost fibres of his social being. Again and again we shall have to recur to it: for there is some reason to suspect in it if not the logical culmination of the social seeking of the century, at least the most complete personal answer to the trouble of the social conscience. Yet the deep sadness that invaded us as we brooded over it was not wholly due to personal recoil from a call that we had not the courage to follow. It sprang rather from our thought of ultimate reactions, and the wider our outlook the keener it grew. Tolstoy does not shrink from the repudiation of art and science: he treats modern ideas of progress with scorn: the life of the peasant is to him the model of excellence, and his honor for poverty has in mind not the factory-worker, but the agricultural laborer alone. But over the suicide of civilization most of us pause hesitant. The Gospels themselves seem to us richer, wider, than in the Tolstoyan version. Despite our dissatisfactions and our revulsions, some reverence for the world as it is, and as it is becoming, is ingrained within us. We cannot believe that to abandon life will ever avail either to moralize or to save it. (46-47)

Vida Dutton Scudder | Socialism and Character

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That Faint Strange Hope

The Voice of the Church murmured in suave consoling accents that the poor we have always with us, while the Voice of Respectable Society added in light crescendo the reassuring assertion that human nature would never be changed, and that men would always require the fear of starvation for an incentive. Refuted by that faint strange hope that would not down, abhorred in the depths of our being, yet echoed by our dreary fears, the cold voices numbed our endeavors. The dark modern spectacle of poverty and waste rose before us unaltered in the main by all those compassionate activities which not only in our generation but throughout the Christian ages had shed upon it a faint phosphorescent shining. (20-21)

Vida Dutton Scudder | Socialism and Character

Peace on Earth

If personal peace were the end of conduct, our story might end here. But it is only begun. For such peace can satisfy no one born anew in the spirit of democracy. Only a fulfillment of the angelic prophecy, “Peace on Earth,” can meet our need.

Here we touch one of the widest differences separating the idealism of the modern western world from that of the Orient or of mediaeval Catholicism. The way of sacrifice has always been known to the initiate as the only way of life. But that sacrifice has been subtly interwoven with egotism, to be recognized no less in the Buddhist, winning by deeds of charity the “merit” to speed him on his journey to Nirvana, than in the Catholic ascetic, “earning Heaven,” though it were the pure heaven of union with his crucified Lord, through self-mortification and mercy. Who would deny that fine impulses of love and pity blended in both cases with the individualist motive of exalted self-realization? To console the afflicted, to rescue the perishing, to minister to the sick, has ever brought holy delight and satisfied deep needs of affection. Yet these tender ministries have been habitually exerted as ends in themselves, destined to find ultimate value less in the bodily good of him who received them than in the spiritual salvation of him who gave.

Certainly there were included in no larger scheme of general social rehabilitation. Nor could they be so; for a personal and self-centered point of view was imposed by the limitations of the contemporary outlook. The larger tides of human destiny formerly either ebbed and flowed unnoted, or were considered to be independent of human control. In such days, the anguished compassion which has always filled noble hearts at the spectacle of mortal misery could be assuaged only be devotion to the individual leper, the special case of need. That suffering as a whole was an evil to be attacked, that our aim should be less to serve than to abolish it, would have been an attitude inconceivable to the mediaeval mind.

Times have changed. A sense of power, troubling, imperious, has descended upon us. We do not yet know very well what to do with it, but we cannot escape it. Belief in the divine possibilities of men quickens our expectant wills. (13-14)

Vida Dutton Scudder | Socialism and Character