I have been moving about lately through different parts of our country, sitting down to dinner in many homes, and I have everywhere found the family eating bread made of Indian meal, rye, barley, or oatmeal. When I have asked, “Are you especially fond of this sort of food?” I have pretty generally received the answer, “Why, no! We all like wheat bread better. But we are not eating it now, for other nations need it.”
That is altruism, one of the most fundamental, familiar, and mysterious of all the virtues. This course of lectures will be devoted to elucidating it. To a recognition of it the Western mind has risen slowly. The Greeks attached little importance to it; for though philanthropy, regard for man as man, is a Greek word, it is not a Greek idea. Plato does not include it among his four virtues nor anywhere lay stress on its practice. In Aristotle’s Ethics, it is true, there are magnificent chapters on friendship, and friendship plays a great part in the teaching of the Epicureans and Stoics. But all alike speak of attachment to another person chiefly as a means of strength for oneself. The thought of whole-hearted giving without correspondent personal gain would have puzzled a Greek.
When we turn to the other branch of our civilization and examine what we have derived from the Hebrews, we find a nearer approach to modern ideas. Commonly enough the Hebrews speak of mercy and grace, and pair these off against justice and truth. Apparently when these terms are applied to God’s dealings with us, the second pair indicates his exact return for what we have done for him; but the first pair points to something over and above, a surplusage of generosity, lying outside the field of equal pay. God is conceived as altruistic and we are summoned to imitate him in this. Jesus develops the thought to such a degree that love becomes the centre of his teaching. We are told that without it all other excellence is worthless. We must love as God loves, letting our sun shine on the evil and on the good. Indeed, we must love even our enemies.
While modern nations have allowed such precepts to stand as counsels of perfection and have been ready to see in occasional acts an embodiment of them, parallel with them they have always recognized a contrary and more powerful tendency, namely, the disposition to seek one’s own. This they have believed to be essential for carrying on the daily affairs of life. At the same time altruistic conduct has ever been thought “superior,” “higher”; egoistic, as containing nothing to call forth admiration.
When men, however, began to think seriously about ethics it became impossible to allow two such springs of action to remain in permanent discord. Attempts were made to bring them into harmony by showing that the one is only a disguised form of the other. Hobbes, for example (1588–1679), the first in his great book, Leviathan, to stir the English mind to ethical reflection, maintains that altruism is strictly impossible. Each of us seeks self-preservation and acts through a passion for power. This necessarily brings us into conflict with our neighbors and makes of society a strife of each with all. Such universal war is soon seen to bring damage to every one and social compacts arise, compromises, under which I concede to others the right of acting in certain ways on condition of their allowing my action in certain others. While this involves large sacrifice of one’s own desires for the sake of other people, it is endured because it pays, pays egoistically. We gain by it the largest scope for action our crowded world permits. But there is nothing disinterested about it. Genuine altruism is nowhere operative. A man cannot escape from himself and feel another’s pleasure as his own. As well might I profess to feel your toothache more keenly than my own as to declare myself more interested in your welfare than in that of myself. Fundamentally, each of us must be egoistic; but we can be successfully so only by taking others into the account.