The Social Law of Service

Richard T. Ely

[Reprinted from Chapter IV, 1918, pp.77-81]

Richard Theodore Ely may truly be said to need no introduction to a Wisconsin, or even an American, circle of readers. His name has long been inseparably connected with the University of Wisconsin and with all forward movements in the state, looking toward larger rights and greater happiness for all the people.

Mr. Ely was born in 1854 at Ripley, New York, and received his collegiate training at Columbia and Heidelberg. He was professor of political economy at Johns Hopkins from 1881 to 1892, since which time he has been at Wisconsin.

He was founder of the American Economic Association, and later its secretary and president. He is the author of many learned works, which have taken the form both of texts and contributions to learned magazines. But he has a fine literary touch, a feeling for vivid and forceful expression, and a clearness and sincerity of utterance that have been felt by every student who has sat under his instruction. The state and the nation are distinctly better because of the teaching of Professor Ely.

We all crave happiness. Happiness is an end of life which is worthy of effort, but it is an end which must be subordinated to another end if it is to be pursued successfully; and this other end is service. But service means sacrifice; apparently the opposite of happiness. We reach this paradox then: Happiness is a worthy end of our efforts; but if we place it before ourselves as the direct and immediate end to be striven for, we cannot reach it. It will elude us. It will be to us like the water all about Tantalus, the cold flood welling ever to his chin, yet always retreating from his fiery lips; like the fruit over his head which the winds whirled skyward through the air:

 The old man fain to cool his burning tongue,
 Clutched with his fingers at the branches fair."

Individual lives repeat the race-history. If you would attain to happiness seek something else. Poets, philosophers, and prophets, all tell us this, for to all it comes as the result of the deepest insight and the ripest experience. But all go further. You must cast aside the thought of happiness as a chief aim. You may not keep it concealed in a corner of your mind and heart as after all the main thing, but a thing to be reached in a round-about-way. You cannot successfully juggle with yourself. You must in very truth renounce yourself to find yourself, and give up yourself to save yourself.

To the author's mind there are few more interesting, more instructive, and withal pathetic life histories than that of John Stuart Mill, penned by himself. It is the story of a rarely gifted noble nature, purposely brought up outside of the pale of Christianity and taught to look upon all religions as so many forms of superstition, yet gradually approaching the light as the years passed by. Mill tells us that in his early life his object was to be a reformer of the world, and that his conception of his own happiness was entirely identified with this object. He thought he had the certainty of a happy life, because he had placed his happiness in something durable and distant; in a goal toward which approach could always be made although it could never be reached. But Mill found that even so noble a pursuit could not give permanent happiness when happiness was the end sought. He reached a period when existence seemed almost an intolerable burden; a burden which he himself said was well described by Coleridge's lines on "Dejection:"

"A grief without a pang, void, dark, and drear,
        A drowsy, stifled, unimpassioned grief,
        Which finds no natural outlet or relief,
 In word, or sigh, or tear."

When a moderate happiness returned he discovered that, "Those only are happy who have their mind fixed on some object other than their own happiness; as, the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else they find happiness by the way."

We have in these words of Mill a partial statement, at least, of the great ethical law of indirectness. We reach ethical ends only indirectly. Resolving to be good will in itself never make us good.

But shall we heap paradox on paradox? We have already found that while the craving for happiness is natural and the desire for happiness is legitimate, we shall lose it if we seek it. We have discovered that the secret of life is renunciation. We must sacrifice our life to receive it in fullness. "Surely, then, self-sacrifice is an end," we may be told. By no means. Self-sacrifice in itself is no virtue and may not be made an end in itself. Self-sacrifice pursued as an end leads to a gloomy asceticism which would have us refuse the joy of life as something bad and hateful to the Giver of all good things. Self-sacrifice bears its fruit of peace and happiness and life only when it is pursued indirectly.

Have we not seen this in those who have found the secret of life? Have we not noticed how those whose life is wholly given to others--perhaps in some far-away land, deprived of almost everything which we hold dear--speak of their privileges? Have we never heard a noble woman, wholly given to good works in a dreary slum of a great city, and who in the opinion of a host of admiring friends is almost ready for canonization, resent the thought that her life was one of self-sacrifice? Undoubtedly. And there is one word that gives the key to these paradoxes. What is it? We know what it is: Love--love, the secret of the universe. Sacrifice is not an end in itself, but sacrifice is the condition of service. The law of society is service. This is the supreme law of society from which no one can escape with impunity. Ethical teachers now approach unanimity in the assertion that the criterion of right conduct is social well-being. The welfare of society is the test of conduct in the individual. It would be interesting to take four great writers--a theologian, a jurist, a professor of natural science, and a student of society--and to discover their entire and complete harmony in the view that the purpose of the rules of right individual conduct is the welfare of society.