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,
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
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.