Read IN THE HANDS OF A RECEIVER of Humanly Speaking, free online book, by Samuel McChord Crothers, on ReadCentral.com.

It sometimes happens that a business man who is in reality solvent becomes temporarily embarrassed. His assets are greater than his liabilities, but they are not quick enough to meet the situation. The liabilities have become mutinous and bear down upon him in a threatening mob. If he had time to deal with them one by one, all would be well; but he cannot on the instant mobilize his forces.

Under such circumstances the law allows him to surrender, not to the mob, but to a friendly power which shall protect the interests of all concerned. He goes into the hands of a receiver, who will straighten out his affairs for him. I can imagine the relief which would come to one who could thus get rid, for a while, of his harassing responsibilities, and let some one else do the worrying.

In these days some of the best people I know are in this predicament in regard to their moral and social affairs. These friends of mine have this peculiarity, that they are anxious to do their duty. Now, in all generations, there have been persons who did their duty, according to their lights. But in these days it happens that a new set of lights has been turned on suddenly, and we all see more duties than we had bargained for. In the glare we see an army of creditors, each with an overdue bill in hand. Each demands immediate payment, and shakes his head when we suggest that he call again next week. We realize that our moral cash in hand is not sufficient for the crisis. If all our obligations must be met at once, there will be a panic in which most of our securities will be sacrificed.

We are accustomed to grumble over the increase in the cost of living. But the enhancement of price in the necessities of physical life is nothing compared to the increase in the cost of the higher life.

There are those now living who can remember when almost any one could have the satisfaction of being considered a good citizen and neighbor. All one had to do was to attend to one’s own affairs and keep within the law. He would then be respected by all, and would deserve the most eulogistic epitaph when he came to die. By working for private profit he could have the satisfaction of knowing that all sorts of public benefits came as by-products of his activity.

But now all such satisfactions are denied. To be a good citizen you must put your mind on the job, and it is no easy one. You must be up and doing. And when you are doing one good thing there will be keen-eyed critics who will ask why you have not been doing other things which are much more important; and they will sternly demand of you, “What do you mean by such criminal negligence?”

What we call the awakening of the social conscience marks an important step in progress, But, like all progress, it involves hardship to individuals. For the higher moral classes, the saints and the reformers, it is the occasion of wholehearted rejoicing. It is just what they have, all the while, been trying to bring about. But I confess to a sympathy for the middle class, morally considered, the plain people, who feel the pinch. They have invested their little all in the old-fashioned securities, and when these are depreciated they feel that there is nothing to keep the wolf from the door. After reading a few searching articles in the magazines they feel that, so far from being excellent citizens, they are little better than enemies of society. I am not pleading for the predatory rich, but only for the well-meaning persons in moderately comfortable circumstances, whose predatoriness has been suddenly revealed to them.

Many of the most conscientious persons go about with an habitually apologetic manner. They are rapidly acquiring the evasive air of the conscious criminal. It is only a very hardened philanthropist, or an unsophisticated beginner in good works, who can look a sociologist in the eye. Most persons, when they do one thing, begin to apologize for not doing something else. They are like a one-track railroad that has been congested with traffic. They are not sure which train has the right of way, and which should go on the siding. Progress is a series of rear-end collisions.

There is little opportunity for self-satisfaction. The old-fashioned private virtues which used to be exhibited with such innocent pride as family heirlooms are now scrutinized with suspicion. They are subjected to rigid tests to determine their value as public utilities.

Perhaps I may best illustrate the need of some receivership by drawing attention to the case of my friend the Reverend Augustus Bagster.

Bagster is not by nature a spiritual genius; he is only a modern man who is sincerely desirous of doing what is expected of him. I do not think that he is capable of inventing a duty, but he is morally impressionable, and recognizes one when it is pointed out to him. A generation ago such a man would have lived a useful and untroubled life in a round of parish duties. He would have been placidly contented with himself and his achievements. But when he came to a city pulpit he heard the Call of the Modern. The multitudinous life around him must be translated into immediate action. His conscience was not merely awakened: it soon reached a state of persistent insomnia.

When he told me that he had preached a sermon on the text, “Let him that stole steal no more,” I was interested. But shortly after, he told me that he could not let go of that text. It was a live wire. He had expanded the sermon into a course on the different kinds of stealing. He found few things that did not come under the category of Theft. Spiritual goods as well as material might be stolen. If a person possessed a cheerful disposition, you should ask, “How did he get it?”

“It seems to me,” I said, “that a cheerful disposition is one of the things where possession is nine tenths of the law. I don’t like to think of such spiritual wealth as ill-gotten.”

“I am sorry,” said Bagster, “to see that your sympathies are with the privileged classes.”

Several weeks ago I received a letter which revealed his state of mind:

“I believe that you are acquainted with the Editor of the ’Atlantic Monthly.’ I suppose he means well, but persons in his situation are likely to cater to mere literature. I hope that I am not uncharitable, but I have a suspicion that our poets yield sometimes to the desire to please. They are perhaps unconscious of the subtle temptation. They are not sufficiently direct and specific in their charges. I have been reading Walt Whitman’s ‘Song of Joys.’ The subject does not attract me, but I like the way in which it is treated. There is no beating around the bush. The poet is perfectly fearless, and will not let any guilty man escape.

“’O the farmer’s joys!
Ohioans, Illinoisans, Wisconsonese, Kanadians,
Iowans, Kansans, Oregonese joys.’

“That is the way one should write if he expects to get results. He should point to each individual and say, ‘Thou art the man.’

“I am no poet, though I am painfully conscious that I ought to be one, but I have written what I call, ‘The Song of Obligations.’ I think it may arouse the public. In such matters we ought to unite as good citizens. You might perhaps drop a postal card, just to show where you stand.”

The Song of obligations

“O the citizen’s obligations. The obligation of every American citizen to see that every other American citizen does his duty, and to be quick about it. The janitor’s duties, the Board of Health’s duties, the milkman’s duties, resting upon each one of us individually with the accumulated weight of every cubic foot of vitiated air, and multiplied by the number of bacteria in every cubic centimeter of milk. The motorman’s duties, and the duty of every spry citizen not to allow himself to be run over by the motorman. The obligation of teachers in the public schools to supply their pupils with all the aptitudes and graces formerly supposed to be the result of heredity and environment. The duty of each teacher to consult daily a card catalogue of duties, beginning with Apperception and Adenoids and going on to Vaccination, Ventilation, and the various vivacious variations on the three R’s. The obligation resting upon the well-to-do citizen not to leave for his country place, but to remain in the city in order to give the force of his example, in his own ward, to a safe and sane Fourth of July. The obligation resting upon every citizen to write to his Congressman. The obligation to speak to one’s neighbor who may think he is living a moral life, and who yet has never written to his Congressman. The obligation to attend hearings at the State House. The obligation to protest against the habit of employees at the State House of professing ignorance of the location of the committee-room where the hearings are to be held; also to protest against the habit of postponing the hearings after one has at great personal inconvenience come to the State House in order to protest. The duty of doing your Christmas shopping early enough in July to allow the shop-girls to enjoy their summer vacation. The duty of knowing what you are talking about, and of talking about all the things you ought to know about. The obligation of feeling that it is a joy and a privilege to live in a country where eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, and where even if you have the price you don’t get all the liberty you pay for.”

I was a little troubled over this effusion, as it seemed to indicate that Bagster had reached the limit of elasticity. A few days later I received a letter asking me to call upon him. I found him in a state of uncertainty over his own condition.

“I want you,” he said, “to listen to the report my stenographer has handed me, of an address which I gave day before yesterday. I have been doing some of my most faithful work recently, going from one meeting to another and helping in every good cause. But at this meeting I had a rare sensation of freedom of utterance. I had the sense of liberation from the trammels of time and space. It was a realization of moral ubiquity. All the audiences I had been addressing seemed to flow together into one audience, and all the good causes into one good cause. Incidentally I seemed to have solved the Social Question. But now that I have the stenographic report I am not so certain.”

“Read it,” I said.

He began to read, but the confidence of his pulpit tone, which was one of the secrets of his power, would now and then desert him, and he would look up to me as if waiting for an encouraging “Amen.”

“Your secretary, when she called me up by telephone, explained to me the object of your meeting. It is an object with which I deeply sympathize. It is Rest. You stand for the idea of poise and tranquillity of spirit. You would have a place for tranquil meditation. The thought I would bring to you this afternoon is this: We are here not to be doing, but to be.

“But of course the thought at once occurs to us, How can we be considering the high cost of the necessaries of life? It will be seen at once that the question is at bottom an economic one. You must have a living wage, and how can there be a living wage unless we admit the principle of collective bargaining. It is because I believe in the principle of collective bargaining that I have come here to-night to say to you working-men that I believe this strike is justifiable.

“I must leave to other speakers many interesting aspects of this subject, and confine myself to the aspect which the committee asked me to consider more in detail, namely, Juvenile Delinquency in its relation to Foreign Immigration. The relation is a real one. Statistics prove that among immigrants the proportion of the juvenile element is greater than among the native-born. This increase in juvenility gives opportunity for juvenile delinquency from which many of our American communities might otherwise be free. But is the remedy to be found in the restriction of immigration? My opinion is that the remedy is to be found only in education.

“It is our interest in education that has brought us together on this bright June morning. Your teacher tells me that this is the largest class that has ever graduated from this High School, You may well be proud. Make your education practical. Learn to concentrate, that is the secret of success. There are those who will tell you to concentrate on a single point. I would go even further. Concentrate on every point.

“I admit, as the gentleman who has preceded me has pointed out, that concentration in cities is a great evil. It is an evil that should be counteracted. As I was saying last evening to the Colonial Dames, Washington, if he had done nothing else, would be remembered to-day as the founder of the Order of the Cincinnati. The figure of Cincinnatus at the plough appeals powerfully to American manhood. Many a time in after years Cincinnatus wished that he had never left that plough. Often amid the din of battle he heard the voice saying to him, ‘Back to the Land!’

“It was the same voice I seemed to hear when I received the letter of your secretary asking me to address this grange. As I left the smoke of the city behind me and looked up at your granite hills, I said, ’Here is where they make men!’ As I have been partaking of the bountiful repast prepared by the ladies of the grange, your chairman has been telling me something about this community. It is a grand community to live in. Here are no swollen fortunes; here industry, frugality, and temperance reign. These are the qualities which have given New England its great place in the councils of the nation. I know there are those who say that it is the tariff that has given it that place; but they do not know New England. There are those at this table who can remember the time when eighty-two ruddy-cheeked boys and girls trooped merrily to the little red schoolhouse under the hill. In the light of such facts as these, who can be a pessimist?

“But I must not dwell upon the past; the Boy Scouts of America prepare for the future. I am reminded that I am not at this moment addressing the Boy Scouts of America, they come to-morrow at the same hour, but the principle is the same. Even as the Boy Scouts of America look only at the future, so do you. We must not linger fondly on the days when cows grazed on Boston Common. The purpose of this society is to save Boston Common. That the Common has been saved many times before is true; but is that any reason why we should falter now? ’New occasions teach new duties.’ Let us not be satisfied with a supetficial view. While fresh loam is being scattered on the surface, commercial interests and the suburban greed to get home quick are striking at the vitals of the Common. Citizens of Boston, awake!

“Your pastor had expected to be with you this evening, but he has at the last moment discovered that he has two other engagements, each of them of long standing. He has therefore asked me to take his place in this interesting course of lectures on Church History. The subject of the lecture for the evening is and if I am mistaken some one will please correct me Ulphilas, or Christianity among the Goths. I cannot treat this subject from that wealth of historical information possessed by your pastor; but I can at least speak from the heart. I feel that it is well for us to turn aside from the questions of the day, for the quiet consideration of such a character as Ulphilas.

“Ulphilas seems to me to be one of those characters we ought all to know more about. I shall not weary you by discussing the theology of Ulphilas or the details of his career. It would seem more fitting that these things should be left for another occasion. I shall proceed at once to the main lesson of his life. As briefly as possible let me state the historical situation that confronted him. It is immaterial for us to inquire where the Goths were at that time, or what they were doing. It is sufficient for us to know that the Goths at that time were pagans, mere heathen. Under those circumstances what did Ulphilas do? He went to the Goths. That one act reveals his character. If in the remaining moments of this lecture I can enforce the lesson for us of that one act, I shall feel that my coming here has not been in vain.

“But some one who has followed my argument thus far may say, ’All that you have said is true, lamentably true; but what has it to do with the Advancement of Woman?’ I answer, it is the Advancement of Woman.”

“How do you make that out?” I asked.

Bagster looked vaguely troubled. “There is no such thing as an isolated moral phenomenon,” he said, as if he were repeating something from a former sermon; “when you attempt to remedy one evil you find it related to a whole moral series. But perhaps I did not make the connection plain. My address doesn’t seem to be as closely reasoned as it did when I was delivering it. Does it seem to you to be cogent?”

“Cogent is not precisely the word I would use. But it seems earnest.”

“Thank you,” said Bagster. “I always try to be earnest. It’s hard to be earnest about so many things. I am always afraid that I may not give to all an equal emphasis.”

“And now that you have stopped for a moment,” I suggested, “perhaps you would be willing to skip to the last page. When I read a story I am always anxious to get to the end. I should like to know how your address comes out, if it does come out.”

Bagster turned over a dozen pages and read in a more animated manner.

“Your chairman has the reputation of making the meetings over which he presides brisk and crisp. He has given me just a minute and a half in which to tell what the country expects of this Federation of Young People. I shall not take all the time. I ask you to remember two letters E and N. What does the country expect this Federation to do? E everything. When does the country expect you to do it? N now. Remember these two letters E and N. Young people, I thank you for your attention.

“The hour is late. You, my young brother, have listened to a charge in which your urgent duties have been fearlessly declared to you. When you have performed these duties, others will be presented to you. And now, in token of our confidence in you, I give you the right hand of fellowship.

“And do you know,” said Bagster, “that when I reached to give him the right hand of fellowship, he wasn’t there.”

We sat in silence for some time. At last he asked, hesitatingly, “What do you think of it? In your judgment is it organic or functional?”

“I do not think it is organic. I am afraid that your conscience has been over-functioning of late, and needs a rest. I know a nook in the woods of New Hampshire, under the shadow of Mount Chocorua, where you might go for six months while your affairs are in the hands of a receiver. I can’t say that you would find everything satisfactory, even there. The mountain is not what it used to be. It is decadent, geologically speaking, and it suffered a good deal during the last glacial period. But you can’t do much about it in six months. You might take it just as it is, some things have to be taken that way.

“You will start to-morrow morning and begin your life of temporary irresponsibility. You will have to give up your problems for six months, but you may rest assured that they will keep. You will go by Portsmouth, where you will have ten minutes for lunch. Take that occasion for a leisurely meal. A card will be handed to you assuring you that ’The bell will ring one minute before the departure of the train. You can’t get left.’ Hold that thought: you can’t get left; the railroad authorities say so.”

“Did you ever try it,” asked Bagster.

“Once,” I answered.

“And did you get left?”

“Portsmouth,” I said, “is a beautiful old town. I had always wanted to see it. You can see a good deal of Portsmouth in an afternoon.”

The predicament in which my friend Bagster finds himself is a very common one. It is no longer true that the good die young; they become prematurely middle-aged. In these days conscience doth make neurasthenics of us all. Now it will not do to flout conscience, and by shutting our eyes to the urgencies and complexities of life purchase for ourselves a selfish calm. Neither do we like the idea of neurasthenia.

My notion is that the twentieth-century man is morally solvent, though he is temporarily embarrassed. He will find himself if he is given sufficient time. In the mean time it is well for him to consider the nature of his embarrassment. He has discovered that the world is “so full of a number of things,” and he is disappointed that he is not as “happy as kings” that is, as kings in the fairy books. Perhaps “sure enough” kings are not as happy as the fairy-book royalties, and perhaps the modern man is only experiencing the anxieties that belong to his new sovereignty over the world.

There are tribes which become confused when they try to keep in mind more than three or four numbers. It is the same kind of confusion which comes when we try to look out for more than Number One. We mean well, but we have not the facilities for doing it easily. In fact, we are not so civilized as we sometimes think.

For example, we have never carried out to its full extent the most important invention that mankind has ever made money. Money is a device for simplifying life by providing a means of measuring our desires, and gratifying a number of them without confusion.

Money is a measure, not of commodities, but of states of mind. The man in the street expresses a profound philosophy when he says, “I feel like thirty cents.” That is all that “thirty cents” means. It is a certain amount of feeling.

You see an article marked “$1.50.” You pass by unmoved. The next day you see it on the bargain counter marked “98 cents,” and you say, “Come to my arms,” and carry it home. You did not feel like a dollar and a half toward it, but you did feel exactly like ninety-eight cents.

It is because of this wonderful measure of value that we are able to deal with a multitude of diverse articles without mental confusion.

I am asked to stop at the department store and discover in that vast aggregation of goods a skein of silk of a specified shade, and having found it bring it safely home. Now, I am not fitted for such an adventure. Left to my own devices I should be helpless.

But the way is made easy for me. The floorwalker meets me graciously, and without chiding me for not buying the things I do not want, directs me to the one thing which would gratify my modest desire. I find myself in a little place devoted to silk thread, and with no other articles to molest me or make me afraid. The world of commodities is simplified to fit my understanding. I feel all the gratitude of the shorn lamb for the tempered wind.

At the silken shrine stands a Minerva who imparts her wisdom and guides my choice. The silk thread she tells me is equivalent to five cents. Now, I have not five cents, but only a five-dollar bill. She does not act on the principle of taking all that the traffic will bear. She sends the five-dollar bill through space, and in a minute or two she gives me the skein and four dollars and ninety-five cents, and I go out of the store a free man. I have no misgivings and no remorse because I did not buy all the things I might have bought. No one reproached me because I did not buy a four-hundred-dollar pianola. Thanks to the great invention, the transaction was complete in itself. Five cents represented one choice, and I had in my pocket ninety-nine choices which I might reserve for other occasions.

But there are some things which, as we say, money cannot buy. In all these things of the higher life we have no recognized medium of exchange. We are still in the stage of primitive barter. We must bring all our moral goods with us, and every transaction involves endless dickering. If we express an appreciation for one good thing, we are at once reproached by all the traffickers in similar articles for not taking over bodily their whole stock in trade.

For example, you have a desire for culture. You haven’t the means to indulge in very much, but you would like a little. You are immediately beset by all the eager Matthew Arnolds who have heard of your desire, and they insist that you should at once devote yourself to the knowledge of the best that has been known and said in the world. All this is very fine, but you don’t see how you can afford it. Isn’t there a little of a cheaper quality that they could show you? Perhaps the second best would serve your purpose. At once you are covered with reproaches for your philistinism.

You had been living a rather prosaic life and would like to brighten it up with a little poetry. What you would really like would be a modest James Whitcomb Riley’s worth of poetry. But the moment you express the desire the University Extension lecturer insists that what you should take is a course of lectures on Dante. No wonder that you conclude that a person in your circumstances will have to go without any poetry at all.

It is the same way with efforts at social righteousness. You find it difficult to engage in one transaction without being involved in others that you are not ready for. You are interested in a social reform that involves collective action. At once you are told that it is socialistic. You do not feel that it is any worse for that, and you are quite willing to go on. But at once your socialistic friends present you with the whole programme of their party. It is all or nothing. When it is presented in that way you are likely to become discouraged and fall back on nothing.

Now, if we had a circulating medium you would express the exact state of your desires somewhat in this way: “Here is my moral dollar. I think I will take a quarter’s worth of Socialism, and twelve and a half cents’ worth of old-time Republicanism, and twelve and a half cents of genuine Jeffersonian democracy, if there is any left, and a quarter’s worth of miscellaneous insurgency. Let me see, I have a quarter left. Perhaps I may drop in to-morrow and see if you have anything more that I want.”

The sad state of my good friend Bagster arises from the fact that he can’t do one good thing without being confused by a dozen other things which are equally good. He feels that he is a miserable sinner because his moral dollar is not enough to pay the national debt.

But though we have not yet been able adequately to extend the notion of money to the affairs of the higher life, there have been those who have worked on the problem.

That was what Socrates had in mind. The Sophists talked eloquently about the Good, the True, and the Beautiful; but they dealt in these things in the bulk. They had no way of dividing them into sizable pieces for everyday use. Socrates set up in Athens as a broker in ideas. He dealt on the curb. He measured one thing in terms of another, and tried to supply a sufficient amount of change for those who were not ashamed to engage in retail trade.

Socrates draws the attention of Phaedrus to the fact that when we talk of iron and silver the same objects are present to our minds, “but when any one speaks of justice and goodness, there is every sort of disagreement, and we are at odds with one another and with ourselves.”

What we need to do he says is to have an idea that is big enough to include all the particular actions or facts. Then, in order to do business, we must be able to divide this so that it may serve our convenience. This is what Socrates called Philosophy.

“I am a great lover,” he said, “of the processes of division and generalization; they help me to speak and think. And if I find any man who is able to see unity and plurality in nature, him I follow, and walk in his steps as if he were a god.”

Even in the Forest of Arden life was not so simple as at first it seemed. The shepherd’s life which “in respect of itself was a good life” was in other respects quite otherwise. Its unity seemed to break up into a confusing plurality. Honest Touchstone, in trying to reconcile the different points of view, blurted out the test question, “Hast any philosophy in thee, Shepherd?” After Bagster has communed with Chocorua for six months, I shall put that question to him.